February 16th, 2023

Each one of us, at some point in our lives – and perhaps it is rather more often than we care to admit! – will encounter objectionable impulses or urges. We might have the desire to shout and express our frustration when someone jumps ahead of us at the checkout line in a store. Or we may experience the temptation to engage with an attractive individual, even though we are already in a committed relationship. Or we might want to be rude or aggressive to someone who tries our patience, or to say hateful or hurtful things to people we don’t like.

Our response to these emotions and triggers when they occur determine whether our behavior is socially acceptable or not. Responding to impulses inappropriately inevitably leads to unfitting behavior, while pretending that these impulses don’t exist isn’t helpful either.

The originator of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), suggested that this glitch in the human condition is best addressed in the form of “sublimation.” We all employ sublimation to manage unwanted impulses in a socially acceptable manner, by converting our negative impulses into behaviors that are less harmful and, in some cases, beneficial.

Imagine experiencing intense anger, which then leads to an outburst that harms your relationships or your reputation. Rather than succumbing to this impulse, sublimation can direct this negative energy towards a physical activity. Instead of expressing your anger via an ugly outburst, you release your emotions through productive and useful activities, which helps alleviate your negative feelings and leaves you with a positive outcome.

For example, you may throw all your negative frustrations into a frenzy of cleaning, redirecting your anger into a useful, energy-expending exercise. The result: your relationship is left intact, and you come out of the experience with a clean house.

Or suppose someone feels intense anger towards their boss after receiving a reprimand at work. Instead of reacting impulsively by quitting, or saying something they will later regret, the person opts to take a long walk home rather than using public transport. By the time he or she gets home – guess what! – their anger has significantly subsided, and they have a more composed outlook regarding the situation. Besides for which, they have done something beneficial for their health.

It sounds simple, but the problem is that the sublimation techniques we use are often buried deep in our subconscious. We don’t even know we’re doing it. Whatever we do to sublimate has become an unconscious defense mechanism. And without on-the-spot self-awareness in the required moment, the opportunity for constructive use of sublimation may be lost.

Modern psychology proposes therapy as a useful tool to consciously and mindfully channel negative impulses into positive actions so that we can produce positive outcomes in a wide variety of life situations. Becoming cognizant of one’s impulses and desires can be enormously beneficial in guiding them towards healthier outlets, and a professional therapist can help someone discover their repressed inclinations and facilitate their appropriate expression.

While it is undoubtedly true that modern science has developed sophisticated definitions and complex terminology to describe and chart this important part of the human experience – in reality, the Jewish faith got there first.

One of the most fundamental aspects of Judaism is the existence and observance of Shabbat, a daylong break from the activities of ordinary weekdays. The Torah regularly repeats its instructions regarding Shabbat, although each time the duty to observe Shabbat is mentioned, it is always noticeably different. And in Parshat Mishpatim, the Shabbat directive has a slightly peculiar anomaly (Ex. 23:10) שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲשֶׂה מַעֲשֶׂיךָ וּבַיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי תִּשְׁבֹּת לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ שׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרֶךָ — “six days you shall do your activities, but on the seventh day you should desist, in order that your ox and your donkey may rest.”

It is hard to reconcile this reasoning as the primary motive for God’s directive for Shabbat observance. After all, most people don’t own oxen or donkeys, and even for those who do – it is hardly reasonable to think that their Shabbat is all about giving their animals a break.

The late Rabbi Abraham Twerski (1930-2021), both a distinguished rabbi and a highly-regarded psychiatrist, therefore proposes a totally different reading for this verse – one that identifies Shabbat as much more than a “day of rest.”

The great luminaries of the mussar movement, who created the guidelines for Jewish ethical standards, correlate the ox with unbridled strength and energy, while the donkey is seen as a symbol of obstinacy and indolence.

All human beings possess certain character traits that are more pronounced than others. Some people are more ox than donkey, while others are more donkey than ox. But whatever your particular trait, it can always be channeled towards something positive – or alternatively, if left unchecked, it can result in self-destruction.

Judaism subscribes to the idea that even the most negative aspects of human behavior can be directed towards the positive, but it is best to be aware of these aspects of our character so that we can channel them in the right direction, before they get the better of us.

The trouble is, who has time for introspection and reflection? The activities of our daily lives are simply too absorbing. And so, God gave us Shabbat: “six days you shall do your activities, but on the seventh day you should desist.” Shabbat allows us the time to think about who we are and how we might find ways to best channel our “ox” and our “donkey.”

Rather than talking about animals in the barn, the Torah is teaching us that Shabbat is an opportunity for self-improvement – a quiet moment of respite from the hubbub to consciously sublimate, so that all aspects of who we are, whether we are ox or donkey, can feed into the best possible version of ourselves.

Because, as it turns out, Shabbat is not just a “day of rest”; it is a day we have been gifted each week as an opportunity to engage in personal growth.

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