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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dr Saul Haimoff

Lean In to Your Anxieties (Yayigash 5780)

(This article was originally published in the OU mental health newsletter

There are times in our lives when we are forced to make a difficult choice. We often know deep down inside what the right answer is, but it is usually fear or anxiety that gets in the way with following through. For instance, we may believe that another person is taking advantage of us or using intimidation tactics to get their way – but we feel powerless to respond. Our friends and mentors may advise us to “be strong”, “face your fears” or “stand up for yourself” – but our natural instincts are to avoid confrontation and run away. 

There are many poignant examples of brave individuals from the Torah who were faced with great dilemmas, and who chose to approach them head on, rather than brush them aside. Perhaps this is best exemplified by Yehudah, who demonstrates leadership qualities in several Torah narratives by choosing to engage in difficult conversations.

This week’s parsha begins with the famous words “וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה” – “And Yehuda approached (VaYigash) him”. Just to recap – Yosef, whom the brothers don’t recognize, had been tormenting them by accusing them of various crimes, playing ‘mind games’ with them, and framing Binyamin for stealing his goblet. Yehuda appears to have had enough of being a passive bystander in this tortuous game and decides to stand up to Yosef. 

The Torah highlights this monumental moment by using the word “וַיִּגַּשׁ”, because its shoresh  is “gash,”  which is the word used whenever someone courageously faces danger. As the Torah commentator, Hakesav Vehakabalah, writes (Bereishis 18:23):

ההקרבה למלך וגדול או למקום סכנה נקראה הגשה.

The root word “gash” is used when someone approaches a king or superior, or dangerous situation.

Interestingly, sometimes the word gash is used to mean the exact opposite, when paired with the Hebrew word “hallah” as in “ויאמרו גש הלאה” – “And they said — go close (gash) to over there” (Bereishis 19:9). Rashi explains this confusing phraseology in his comments as follows: 

קרב להלאה, כלומר, התקרב לצדדין והתרחק ממנו וכן כל הלאה שבמקרא לשון רחוק.

Which means to go to close to the sides, for the word “hallah” means to distance oneself.

Lashon Hakodesh has a beautiful way of perfectly describing the essence of a word’s meaning. The word gash does not simply imply physical proximity, but rather a psychological willingness to draw closer to someone, or something. Conversely, the word hallah is not distancing oneself physically, but when paired with the word gash ironically implies the opposite of approaching – mainly, avoiding. 

Taken all together, this dual-nature of the Hebrew word couple is reminiscent of the approach-avoidance conflict, an important psychological concept. Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist from the early 1900’s, coined the term: approach avoidance conflict. Lewin, like so many other famous psychologists, was born to a Jewish family and even received an Orthodox education. He explained that often times in life we face a situation that presents positive and negative outcomes, simultaneously, and we become hesitant about how to proceed. 

When someone is faced with an opportunity that has both positive and negative ramifications (e.g., a new job offer, partnership, or serious relationship), they often feel stressed about making a decision. The excitement and potential gain of approaching the situation tend to be more dominant initially, creating positive feelings, but as it becomes closer to a reality (e.g., the day of the wedding), negative feelings increase and avoidance is stronger.

However, research shows that the best approach (pun intended) is to face your fears, do something even if it makes you nervous, and overcome your anxiety. In fact, avoiding the situation not only makes it worse, but even serves to strengthen your original fear or anxiety! For instance, a child who is scared of dogs is likely to avoid dogs whenever he/she sees one. Not only does this create problems in the moment (especially for the parents), it actually reinforces the child’s belief that dogs are scary and should be avoided. It is almost impossible for the fear to go away without approaching it head on. This is why the gold standard psychotherapy treatment for treating phobias and other anxiety related problems (e.g. social anxiety) is exposure therapy, also known as gradual desensitization. 

This is not only true for psychological fears – but for uncomfortable situations as well. There is a popular expression nowadays to ‘lean in’ to difficult conversations. We live in a social climate now with political polarity and people are all too comfortable associating with like-minded community members. While this pattern helps to make us feel safer and more secure with our beliefs, avoiding real, thought-provoking dialogue with others across the spectrum only serves to drive us further apart. 

As Yehuda teaches us in this parsha, when we lean in, gash, and approach difficult conversations with a confident but respectful demeanor, we open the doors to connecting with one another, which ultimately leads to unity and redemption! 

This article is based on the newly released book: Handbook of Torah and Mental Health, co-authored by David Rosmarin and Rabbi Saul Haimoff. It is published by Mosaica Press and distrubed by Feldheim. The Handbook of Torah and Mental Health is the first book of its kind to collect and catalog over 50 Torah sources from Tanach, Chazal, Rishonim, Achronim, Chasidus and Modern Jewish Thinkers and connect them to mental health diagnoses, treatments and concepts based on scientific studies. 

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