Friday, October 29, 2010

Paging Dr. Freud: Halloween Edition


Well...It's Halloween weekend.  Millions of kids (and adults like you?) are getting ready to don costumes, put on masks, and set out on the annual quest of trick-or-treating.

Besides the candy, I think that Halloween is so amazing because of its escapism.  It's one of the few times during the year when we get to mask ourselves...we get to hide/forget who we really are, and instead pretend to be someone or something else.  For a few hours - thanks to the magic of a costume - we get to put our baggage aside.  Gone are the issues with our spouses or parents, and our siblings and children.  Goodbye real and authentic and complicated selves.  Hello Superman, Lady Gaga, and Disney Princess.

I would say - however - that this is part of the trick of Halloween.  We might think that we can make our real selves disappear.  But there's a part of ourselves - maybe the most inner and central part of our personalities that we carry with us wherever we go.  Our unconscious - which helps to define who we are as people - is not something that can be hidden away, or covered by a costume, even for Halloween (or Purim for that matter).  Our unconscious is something that is constantly demanding to be acknowledged and examined.  It is something to be reckoned with, for if we don't - we might be unconsciously influenced by it, to make choices that we might not otherwise have made.

Freud understood this well, and devoted his life's work to writing about it.  But the amazing thing, to me, is that the unconscious is alive and well as a notion in the Torah and its accompanying commentaries too!  And we need look no further than this week's Torah portion - Parshat Chayei Sarah - for proof of it.

One of the highlights of this week's portion is the news that Abraham's servant has found a wife for Isaac.  Rebekah is introduced to Isaac, and the next thing we know: "Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah.  He married Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her" (Gen. 24:67).

Why would the Torah go out of its way to mention "the tent of his mother Sarah"?  Sarah dies at the very beginning of this week's Torah portion.  But what does her tent have to do with Isaac's later marriage?

Well....according to Rashi, the pre-eminent Torah commentator of the Middle Ages, it isn't just that Isaac is still grieving Sarah.  It's that Isaac had unresolved feelings of love/infatuation for his (now deceased) mother.  Rashi actually writes in his commentary that when Rebekah enters Sarah's tent - she becomes Sarah (in Isaac's eyes).  The second part of his comment is more politically correct: Rashi says that what he means is that Rebekah had spiritual 'powers' just like Sarah did.  But the meaning of the first part of his comment is provocative: Rashi suggests that Isaac fell in love with Rebekah because she was (on some level) Sarah.

Isaac's unconscious must have been in overdrive at the moment.  Standing in the tent with Rebekah - his eyes are blinded.  (Incidentally, the Midrash notes that Isaac was blinded during the Akedah in Genesis 22.)  He only sees what his unconscious shows him (her resemblance to his mother) and not who she actually is.

I would argue that this is bad news...As it happens, Isaac and Rebekah wind up having a totally dysfunctional marriage later in the Torah, culminating in the irresponsible way in which they raised their twin sons Jacob and Esau.  One can only wonder if that dysfunction stems from the complicated way that Isaac and Rebekah's relationship began in this week's Torah portion: with him marrying her in order to meet a psychological need that had been left unhealthily festering inside himself for who knows how long.

What about with us?  What are the hidden conflicts or losses in our own unconscious? How do they impact the choices that we make in our lives – not just in our choice of partners, but in the way we interact with others?

Halloween may be one of those days on the calendar when we have permission to ignore all of these questions. When it is perfectly acceptable to put on a costume and pretend to be someone else – unfettered by the complex relationships that typically weigh us down.

This week’s Torah portion, on the other hand, reminds us that our unconscious cannot, and should not, remain unexamined. Rather than don a costume, the story of Rebekah and Isaac’s marriage is a reminder to us about the importance of being self-reflective and self-aware. The more we understand about who we are – on a deep inner level – the healthier our relationships will be.

So – when Halloween is over – let’s all take off the masks that we usually wear in order to avoid having to face the messiest parts of our lives. And instead, let’s be courageous enough to take a small risk, by reaching out to a therapist, a rabbi, or a friend. To begin a conversation about our parents, and our siblings, and about all of the other people and factors that make us who we are.   And once we’ve begun to do that, then maybe we can assert a little more control over our unconscious as to who we are destined to be.

Shabbat Shalom (and Happy Halloween!)

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