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. (Deut. 14:1, 2)
There is a Torah prohibition against cutting oneself or tearing out one’s hair when grieving over the loss of a parent or a loved one. This was the practice of some idolatrous nations of antiquity, but Jews are prohibited from doing so. Chizkuni (13th century, France) explains that when a Jew loses a parent, he is not truly orphaned because 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—Jews are a holy people and shouldn’t physically debase themselves.
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, when we muster up the emotional energy, we realize our comfort can come from the feeling of having another even more loving parent Who is Eternal and has a track record of centuries of providing relief in times of need. The Torah calls upon us to invoke G-d in this pragmatic way during moments of grief, but it doesn’t happen magically—we need to seek Him. This points to the existence of an inner source of strength residing in us all.
Chizkuni writes unequivocally that the idolatrous nations’ self-destructive acts in response to grief were actually an effective way to deal with their pain during mourning because causing bodily harm to oneself has the effect of relieving inconsolable sadness. Physical pain is easier to deal with than the emotional trauma of losing a loved one.
It is fascinating that this was written thousands of years ago in the Torah because the idea that cutting oneself to relieve pain (the practice of the ancient idolaters) is analogous to the modern-day theory explaining 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 relief by harming themselves and inflicting painful cuts to understand, for certain people it is an effective immediate relief from feelings of emotional suffering. This reaction is most understandable in light of Chizkuni’s words.
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 oneself 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. Statistics indicate that most alcoholics and addicts will never recover. People who are angry, resentful, and live in fear will sometimes find it easier to ingest substances harmful to their bodies rather than going through the hard work of authentically confronting themselves. When one’s life is not in order, when it’s challenging to have meaningful relationships, or any other of the myriad of symptoms associated with poor emotional—spiritual—health, the person is at risk of unhealthy behavior.
How can one live life in a way that allows him or her to accept life on life’s terms, not simply how we wish things would be? It begins with having peace of mind resulting from understanding your life has meaning. G-d put you here for a purpose and when the going gets tough, instead of giving up and avoiding the issue by damaging yourself, go directly to Him and realize that there’s purpose in what you’re going through. Learn from the loss rather than being defeated by it. In this way, the root source of ongoing self-destructive behavior will be treated rather than its symptoms.