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Rabbi O’s Weekly: Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) Potential Miracle Cure

You are children of the Almighty, your G-d. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people to the Almighty, your G-d …(14:1, 2)
There is a Torah prohibition to against cutting oneself or tearing out one’s hair when grieving over the loss of a parent. This was the practice of some of the idolatrous nations of antiquity but Jews are prohibited from doing so. Chizkuni (13th century, France) explains that when a Jew loses a parent, (s)he is not truly orphaned because (s)he still has a living and enduring Heavenly Father. However, idolaters deem self-mutilation at such times appropriate because, for them, their remaining “parent” is a lifeless idol that cannot be of assistance when help is required. Finally, the Torah adds an additional reason why Jews are enjoined from mourning through self-mutilation. Jews are a holy people and do not have the right to physically debase themselves in this manner.
Relating to G-d in a real (i.e. not just meaningful) way has been a challenge for most of humanity throughout the centuries and we Jews are no exception. To illustrate, a man might act and dress like a deeply religious Jew and frequently proclaim that whatever may befall people is in G-d’s Hands, yet that seemingly devout person might forever hate someone who cheated him out of even a small sum of money. Somehow, the notion that he lost his money because G-d had ordained it was not internalized enough to play out significantly in his practical day to day life. Understanding that G-d exists does not necessarily mean that it will have ramifications in one’s life.

Chizkuni, mentioned above, reminds us that no matter how painful the loss, we are not alone. While mired in the depths of grief over losing a dearly beloved parent, all Jews should be comforted by the feeling of having another even more loving parent Who is Eternal and most capable of providing practical assistance in times of need. The Torah calls upon us to invoke G-d in this very pragmatic way during moments of grief.

This points to the existence of inner wellsprings of sanctity and holiness that reside in each of our souls. Evidently, we are capable of soaring to spiritual heights to connect them to the Almighty on a very concrete and real level; in a way that gives peace of mind and composure.

However, another insight from Chizkuni. He writes unequivocally that the idolatrous nations self-destructive acts in response to grief were in fact proper and advisable. This text is therefore teaching a psychological principle that causing pain to oneself has the effect of relieving inconsolable sadness because having physical pain is easier to deal with than the emotion trauma of losing a loved one.

It is fascinating that this was written thousands of years ago in the Torah because it is analogous to the prevailing theory to explain Deliberate Self Harm, the official term to describe the phenomenon of teenagers who cut themselves during problematic times to relive their emotional pain. Although it might be difficult for people who have never sought self-relief by harming themselves by inflicting painful cuts, for certain people it is an effective immediate relief from feelings of emotional suffering. This reaction is most understandable in light of the Chizkuni‘s words.

What the Torah is actually telling us is that extreme grief can be alleviated by extreme self-harming behavior – cutting one’s self or leaving a visible bald spot on one’s scalp. This principle may be applied to other less dramatic instances as well.

For example, there are people who don’t seem to care for their physical health, i.e., they smoke, eat unhealthy foods, or use drugs. Very often, such people seem unhappy and some might think that the sad results accruing from the unhealthy lifestyle are what leaves these people despondent. Accordingly, if they would take care of themselves and adopt physically wholesome behavior, happiness would surely follow. In many instances, this understanding of the situation is no doubt correct.

However, the idea of Chizkuni indicates that there may be an entirely different psychodynamic at work. These people might have long been suffering from feelings of sadness or depression. What then materialized was an ongoing pattern of self-destructive behavior that unwittingly became a method of relieving the psychic discomfort rising out of the depression. Hence, in such cases, forcing one’s self to embrace a healthy lifestyle might increase rather than decrease a person’s depression and psychic pain. This is because removing that relief mechanism worsens the depression and makes it far more unbearable.

This may help explain why so many people fail to succeed in their attempts to rid themselves of unhealthy habits. Most alcoholics and addicts will never recover. People who are angry, resentful, and live in fear will sometimes find it easier to do destructive things to their bodies rather than going through the hard work of facing themselves in an authentic way.   When one’s life is not in order, when (s)he finds it challenging to have meaningful relationships, or any other of the myriad of symptoms associated with poor emotional (i.e. spiritual) health, (s)he is at risk of unhealthy behavior. A cardiologist once related that even though his heart patients are lectured about adopting a healthier lifestyle, yet, despite the looming threat to their lives, only one in seven of these people actually change themselves. I have had similar conversations with doctors who said virtually the same thing with patients suffering from diabetes.

There are numerous texts throughout the Torah that stress the importance of living with a feeling of Joy and although being immersed in the classical wisdom of the Torah doesn’t seem, to many Jews, like a concrete way to significantly lessen one’s depression and enhance one’s level of contentment, it has been the Jewish antidote for thousands of years. Based onChizkuni, this would treat the root source of ongoing self-destructive behavior rather than its symptoms. This methodology might then become a new “miracle cure.”

(Sources: Devarim 14:1-2; Rashi ibid.; Messilas Yesharim, ch. 24; Rav Berish Ganz)