The Torah states that because Jews are children of G-d (Deuteronomy 14, 1), we are forbidden to excessively mourn the loss of a parent by doing such things as cutting one’s self or tearing out the hair on one’s head and making a bald spot.
The commentary of Chizkuni (13th century) 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, for idolators, self-mutilation at such times is 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 for 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.
It can be challenging to relate to G-d in a REAL way. 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.
The difficulty of perceiving G-d as a Reality is discussed in other classical Torah texts as well. Mesilat Yesharim (Chapter 24) writes that it is relatively easy to fear sinning against G-d. This is because people instinctively avoid anything that might possibly lead to personal suffering – such as G-d’s Heavenly punishments for violating His commandments. However, it is much harder to feel a genuine emotion of awe due to the fact that one is always in G-d’s Presence.
The words of the Chizkuni now take on new meaning. 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 far more Capable of providing practical assistance in times of need. The Torah calls upon us to invoke G-d in this very pragmatic manner during moments of grief.
This points to the existence of inner wellsprings of sanctity and holiness that resides within every Jewish soul. Evidently, all Jews 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 them serenity and composure.
There is another eye-opening insight into the words of this text. Chizkuni 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 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, inflicting painful cuts confer, for certain people, immediate feelings of relief from 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 While this may not be 100% academically provable, it seems likely that the same cause and effect plays itself out in other less dramatic instances as well.
For example, there are people who seem uninterested in caring for their physical health, i.e., they smoke, eat unhealthy foods, or use drugs. Very often, such people seem unhappy. 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 very often 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 their unhealthy habits. For example, 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.
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 on the Chizkuni, this would treat the core origin of ongoing self-destructive behavior rather than its symptoms. This methodology might then become a new “miracle cure.”
(Source: Rabbi Berish Ganz)