by Yitzchok Kahn LMSW, CASAC-TNEFESH International Publications and Information
When it comes to the topic of balance, therapists often talk about the concept of the dialectic. Popularized by Marsha Linehan, originator of Dialectic Behavioral Therapy or DBT, the dialectic is the ability to hold opposite ideas at one time. In DBT therapy, a person can be doing their best and can have the ability to do better. A person can be angry at someone and still love them. Life can be confusing and people can experience ambivalence. We often receive the gifts of life that bring joy but forget them when life brings disappointments. Being able to think dialectically, where opposites do not negate each other, but can coexist, can save a person much distress and provide significant peace of mind.
The dialectic is generally attributed to ancient Greek philosophy but can actually be found in Judaism. When therapist and clients work together to develop dialectic thinking, they can be comfortable knowing that being comfortable with opposites is something found in Yidishkeit.
We can see the concept of the dialectic when we look at the midos, the attributes of the avos. Avraham Avinu represented the mida of chesed, kindness, while Yitzchok represented gvura, strength, two opposite midos. Yet, Yaakov was able to blend these midos into a harmony known as tiferes. From the time of the Avos we have been able to integrate opposite concepts into our beings. Serving Hashem dialectically did not stop with the Avos. In fact, the second chapter of Tehillim (Psalms) calls upon us to “rejoice while trembling” when serving Hashem. As Jews, we strive to serve Hashem from both ahava and yirah, love and fear. Rav Hutner explains that love and fear, ahava and yirah are opposite emotions. When one loves someone, they feel an attraction but when one fears another, they retreat. However, when serving Hashem, a Jew is able to experience this dialectic.
Rabbeinu Yona in Shaarei Teshuva (The Gates of Repentance) also speaks of the need to incorporate opposite emotions into one’s avodas Hashem. Mourning and joy, yagon and simcha, are opposite emotions, yet Rabbeinu Yona explains that one should experience both when doing teshuva. In fact, Rabbeinu Yona speaks of doing acts of mourning as part of the teshuva process and cites as an example, crying over one’s sins. It has been explained that Rabbeinu Yona highlights crying as an example of teshuva because crying is the only action one can do that encompasses both mourning and joy simultaneously. One can cry tears of sadness and tears of joy. Doing so at the same time is a truly dialectical approach toward teshuva.
The Baalei Musar also speak of one’s ability to experience opposite emotions at the same time. The halacha (law) is that one who loses a relative and thereby receives an inheritance recites both a bracha (blessing) of dayan emes and hatov vehameitiv. Dayan emes is a bracha recited out of sadness, accepting the Divine decree that comes with loss, while hatov vahameitiv is a bracha recited out of happiness, expressing thanks to Hashem for the goodness He bestows. Evidently, say the baalei musar, one can experience opposite emotions simultaneously (heard from Harav Dovid Cohen shlita). People experiencing complicated grief often focus solely on their loss. A healthy mourning experience is made up of a process where one is able to both experience feelings of grief and reengagement with the world as one heals. People do not walk away from grief. Rather they are able to feel grief and enjoyment as they heal. Like these two brachos recited, people in a state of healthy mourning experience this dialectic.
Additional examples of this concept abound. In Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers), Hillel recognizes the dialectic that exists between one’s individuality and one’s need for others when he tells us that "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being only for myself, what am I?” Also, two thousand years before Linehan said that “clients are doing the best that they can and they can do better” Rabbi Tarfon, lehavdil elef havdalas, similarly told us that “it is not our duty to finish the work but we are not free to neglect it”.
As we see from these examples, the ability to feel contradictory emotions is rooted in the Torah. Life is complex and we can all live dialectically. And if we fail at our first attempt that is ok. After all, we can live dialectically and still need to try harder. Both are ok.
Yitzchok Kahn, LMSW, CASAC-T is a full time therapist at Interborough Flatbush in Brooklyn, NY. and an Associate Instructor at Cazenovia College’s CASAC program. He learned in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, Mir Yerushalaim, and Lakewood BMG and earned his MSW from Rutgers University.