Head or Heart? A Study of Dealing with Conflict

By Aidel Cohen, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2018 / Finalists

MyLife Essay Contest 2018

One of the most wonderful things about Torah is its timeless relevance. Not only does Torah guide us in our physical and spiritual lives, it helps us in our emotional lives as well. Chassidus in particular has a great capacity to help us in our emotional lives. One concept that Chassidus clarifies for us is the conflict between serving Hashem with our Seichel, our brain and logical reasoning, and our Middos, our heart and feelings.

This essay will explore how we can live the healthiest lives possible by merging these conflicting concepts. I will be outlining the approach of Chassidus on the subject based on a Sicha (Discourse) from the Rebbe. A parallel will be drawn to the psychological methodology of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a technique that recognizes conflicting entities and seeks to merge them without compromising either viewpoint. We will see how Chassidus ultimately shows us the fullest way to merge opposite viewpoints.

King Shlomo (Solomon) says, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Nothing is dealt with today that has not been seen before. Going by this logic, we can look back at our ancestors in the Torah for information on the conflict between Seichel and Middos. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson explores part of one of our most famous stories, the slavery in Egypt, for the answer.

In the end of Parshas Shemos, our slavery was already harsh. But after Moshe first requested Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go, he retaliated with another decree: “On that day, Pharaoh ordered the taskmasters…you shall no longer give straw…to manufacture the bricks…let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the quota of bricks…do not reduce it! For they are lazy” (Exodus 5:6-8).

Moshe (Moses), pained at his brothers’ burden, questioned G-d, “Lama harei-osa la-am hazeh? Why have You done evil to this people?” (Exodus 5:22). The Rebbe takes note of Moshe’s reaction; this was a strange thing for Moshe of all people to say. Why?

Let us look at some background about Moshe. Moshe is known as the ultimate Jewish leader. He was an exceedingly wise man and an exceptional prophet, “And there never arose another prophet in [the nation] Israel like Moshe that knew Hashem face to face” (Deutoronomy 34:10). No other leader ever had such direct contact with G-d. Moshe of all people should have known Hashem’s ways and not questioned His will.

As the Rebbe quotes in this sicha, it is known about Moshe that “all of him was good; already when he was born he was solely good”. As it says regarding his birth, “The woman conceived and gave birth to a son. She saw that he was good…” (Exodus 2:2). Why would a person of goodness through and through challenge G-d about doing something bad? It does not seem to add up. Besides this, says the Rebbe, previous Jewish leaders never took this approach. Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), our forefathers, were known for their pure Emunah, faith, and their Middos-based service of Hashem. Hashem reminds Moshe of this in His answer, “I am Hashem. I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov as Kel Shakai…” (Exodus 6:2-3). G-d was reminding Moshe, says the Rebbe, “That Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov passed great trials and even then they did not ask questions” (Likutei Sichos Volume 3 Vaeira Chapter 1). So how could Moshe react to this suffering in Egypt by challenging Hashem, “Why have You done evil to this people”?

The Rebbe answers that Moshe was greater than the forefathers and also exemplified a different service of G-d. Chassidus often talks about the Ten Sefiros, the ten character traits by which Hashem relates to us and we relate to Him and each other. One way to divide the ten is by whether they are rational and part of the Seichel or emotional and part of the Middos. The first three, Chachma, Bina and Daas (flash of insight, development of understanding and practical knowledge) make up the Seichel or rational intellect of a person. The remaining seven, called the Middos, make up the emotional side of a person: Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferes, Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malchus (Lovingkindness, Discipline, Harmony, Determination, Humility, Connection and Royalty).

Our forefathers served Hashem through the emotional Middos which stem from the heart. Avraham literally went through fire for Hashem when he was condemned to be burned for spreading monotheism. Yitzchak was ready to be sacrificed by his father for Hashem. Yaakov loved G-d so much that when he reunited with his son Yosef after a twenty-two year separation, he made sure to finish praying Shema before he embraced his son.

Conversely, Moshe served G-d through the Seichel, or intellect, which stems from the brain. This is why he was the right person to deliver the Torah, which is understood with the brain. Asking why Hashem would plague the Jews so harshly was not a denial of his Emunah. The nature of Seichel is to question. He was asking to understand (Likutei Sichos Volume 3 Vaeira Chapter 4).

The Rebbe reminds us that “All Torah stories are a lesson for every person”. This would indicate that we need to take example from both the forefathers’ Middos and Moshe’s Seichel (Likutei Sichos Volume 3 Vaeira Chapter 1). The Rebbe is telling us that a mixed approach is correct. Unquestioning faith and feelings are not the whole answer; neither is having only an intellectual understanding of Hashem. Blending the two approaches produces the best service of G-d.

To more clearly understand the concept of merging opposites, we can look at the psychological concept of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, DBT. Developed in the 1980s by Marcia Linehan, DBT is a therapy technique originally meant for Borderline Personality Disorder but has been discovered to be relevant for anyone. The term “Dialectic” means “weighing and integrating contradictory facts or ideas with a view to resolving apparent contradictions” (behavioraltech.org). Here is a hypothetical example of how this might occur in a DBT discussion.

Client: “When I was a kid, my parents did not let me express my feelings. They criticized me when I let my feelings show and told me to ‘get over it’. Now, as an adult, I have a lot of trouble telling my spouse when something bothers me. I am worried that I will be put down.”

Therapist: “Try to consider if there is anything positive on this side of the dialectic. Yes, it was a survival skill, but it can have some merit too.”

Client: “I suppose I learned some good self control by keeping quiet. And I learned to value the fact that not all feelings are meant to be expressed in public or put on other people around me.”

Therapist: “So you learned some really valid points. Now, let’s look at the other side of the equation. See if you can come up with the other side of the dialectic.”

Client: “Well…just as not all feelings are meant to be shared, not all feelings are meant to be bottled up.”

Therapist: “Exactly.”

The client has discovered that it is important to recognize the good parts on both sides of the seesaw. Middos dictate that one would express emotions freely but Seichel values limiting the feelings that are shared. The healthiest approach is to blend the two. This is how one of the main dialectics explored in Dialectical Behavior Therapy works. In DBT terms, this is the integration of the Emotional Mind and the Reasonable Mind into the Wise Mind. Wise Mind represents the healthy balance of reason and emotion, of brain and heart (behavioraltech.org).

This idea, in a lower sense, parallels the Chassidic ideal that we have been discussing. But while DBT assists only emotional help, Chassidus tells us how we use the concept of merging opposing viewpoints for spiritual help on top of emotional health. Furthermore, while Dialectical Behavior Therapy is often more applicable for difficult times, Chassidus is for anyone at any time. Studying this concept in terms of psychology will only give us a limited perspective. It is Chassidus that can give us the full, complete picture.

One major conflict between feelings and intellect occurs as we age. As children, we have a strong emotional connection to Judaism, from yomtov foods to Torah heroes. Children feel strongly about right and wrong in a basic way. As adolescents and then adults we enter a state of conflict and begin to feel a disconnect between childlike wonder and intellectual understanding. Things are not as straightforward when we try to understand Hashem as adults. Adults think harder about things, stop taking their beliefs for granted, and often begin having doubts. Then they feel hypocritical, “If my Emunah were better, I would not wonder about this.”

As mentioned before, people like extremes. Many people like to feel that they are one thing or the other, not a complex tapestry with different elements: “I’m a cynic,” “I’m passionate,” “I was always the teacher’s pet,” “I’m a questioner.” When we consider ourselves to be on one side of the equation, it can be hard to enjoy the other side. It might seem strange for an intelligent questioner to enjoy singing the Ma Nishtana at the seder, for example. But we need to understand that humans are complex. Most of us are not one or the other. It might be more accurate to say, “I can be pretty cynical but there are some things with which I am comfortable, that I don’t question.” Or, “I was always the teacher’s pet but there are sides of me that really want to challenge certain things.” To some degree, we all have an excited, accepting “inner child” as well as an intelligent adult brain that prefers to weigh options before getting excited. Accepting both parts of ourselves and learning to experience both is dialectics at its best.

This module of merging brain and heart, and opposite sides in general is the solution I propose for dealing with daily life conflicts. When something negative occurs, stop and think. Is this truly bad? Is there another side to consider for a balanced opinion? Take a non-judgemental stance to your inner conflicts. Here are some examples of how this might occur in daily life:

• Say you’re feeling bad that you are angry about your children’s messes around the house. Acknowledge that children are a bracha and also that you want a neat home. You can value both the bracha of children and neatness. They are not mutually exclusive desires.

• Let’s say you do not like that your teenager wants to spend more time with her friends than she spends helping out at home. Emotionally, you can acknowledge that you like to have her help. Intellectually, you can remember that it is important for teenagers to have friends and develop their social lives. Both are equally valid sides.

• If you feel guilty that you often question why Hashem does things, you can value both Middos and Seichel. Recognize that while unquestioning Emunah is valuable, questioning helps you understand Him better. Both are acceptable, normal parts of the Jewish experience, as the Rebbe said of the Avos and Moshe.

• “Pros to both sides”: Try writing down the positive aspects of both sides of something stressful in order to see the value of each side, e.g.: “I have to work long hours and I am worried I do not spend enough time with my family; both working and family time are important.” Make a list of pros for each: Family – connection, love, comfort; Work – responsibility, satisfaction, goals.

• Your child comes home with an arts-and-crafts project that goes against your intellectual view of how children should do projects (i.e: without the teacher’s help or more freestyle). Allow yourself to have your own opinions and at the same time value your child’s excitement over their work.

• When someone says something you do not agree with, consider that both their opinion is valid and so is yours. And if you don’t think that they have a valid opinion, you can think about how they have a right to express their opinions and you have the right to disagree.

When we learn to merge Seichel and Middos, our emotional and spiritual lives are greatly improved. This topic in Chassidus helps us to open our minds and think more deeply. It will help us become better at seeing both sides of a story and be less quick to be extreme in our conflicts. We will learn to think from a more objective and healthy perspective. All of this will help us to have a healthier relationship with Hashem, the Torah and with other people; it will also help us to accept ourselves and have a healthier sense of self.

In conclusion, the merging of Seichel and Middos teaches us how to serve Hashem and how to approach life’s conflicts feeling as whole and equipped as possible. When we embrace the paradoxes that life is made of, we can better tolerate life and its pain. The practical applications of merging opposing thought processes of intellect and emotion allows us to better understand our struggles and therefore feel better about them. When we integrate a healthy amount of feeling with a healthy amount of intellect, we will be most successful in relating to G-d and riding the waves of life.