DIVREI TORAH

Sticks and Stones Won’t Break My Bones as Badly as Thoughts Hurt Me

You know the children’s ditty: “sticks and stones will break my bones but name will never hurt me.”

You also know that this ditty isn’t true. And that’s because names - in the depression, anger and other negative thoughts that they evoke - hurt us emotionally.

But did you know that names - and the negative thoughts they evoke - also hurt us physically?

That’s documented in many studies.

This includes a study noting: “patients who experienced periods of severe anger were 850% more likely to have a heart attack in the 48 hours following that anger.”[1] This also includes a study noting: “for heart disease, emotional stress is a major risk factor, equal in importance to other recognized risk factors like hypertension and cigarette smoking. Stress is also an important risk factor in high blood pressure, ulcers, colitis, asthma, and many other diseases. Most standard medical textbooks attribute anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of all disease to stress-related origins.”[2]

All this may explain the fight that we read about in our parsha: “Yaakov was left alone. And an angel fought with him ….[the angel] dislocated Yaakov’s hip at its socket……and Yaakov limped on that hip.”[3]

This fight is seen through a number of different prisms.

The Ramban uses a literal prism. He assumes that Yaakov’s altercation with the angel was an actual, physical fight.[4]

It’s the literal prism through which the Ramban see many other Torah incidents.

That includes the Torah’s stories about magicians and magic.

The Ramban assumes that those magicians had real powers. And that their magical acts were actual physical occurrences – that magic really happened.[5]

Magic, then, is a real, damaging power. And that’s why it’s banned, according to the Ramban.[6]

The Ramban views the story of Bilam’s talking donkey[7] through the same prism. That, too, is seen by the Ramban as an actual physical occurrence where the donkey actually spoke.[8]

The Rambam, on the other hand, is more given to reading such incidents non-literally. And he’s especially given to non-literalism when literal readings - like saying that a donkey actually spoke - necessitate miraculous suspensions of Hashem’s perfect natural laws.

That’s why the Rambam claims that magic is no more than sleight of hand and optical illusions – that magical powers don’t exist.[9]

This also explains why the Rambam says that Bilam’s donkey didn’t actually speak. What occurred, instead, was that Bilam prophetically envisioned an image of a talking donkey.[10] [11]

The Rambam sees Yaakov’s fight with the angel through the same prism. He sees the story as a prophetic envisioning of a fight – not as an actual physical fight.[12]

Yaakov, though, was still physically damaged by his encounter with the angel – even though this encounter was “only” a vision. It’s the verse we just saw: “[the angel] dislocated Yaakov’s hip at its socket……and Yaakov limped on that hip,” the fact that there was a dislocation and a limp indicates that there was real physical damage.

If that damages wasn’t caused by a physical interaction - because there was no physical interaction - then it must have been caused by this vision from Hashem.

Which is eminently logical because a vision from Hashem can do anything.

Because Hashem can do anything.

Study the following Abarbanel, though, and you’ll see that this isn’t just about a vision from Hashem.

“Thoughts are powerful enough to change reality ….because you will see that a person dreams that he is falling from a high place and there will be tremendous movement among his organs, that it will cause him to wake up …Yaakov’s vision about his hip dislodging may have caused him to limp when he awoke.”[13]

Yes, thoughts can even damage us physically. And not just when those thoughts result from divine visions.

As we saw, angry thoughts cause heart attacks. Angst causes physical breakdowns. And visions of a fight – certainly divine visions – can cause a limp.

Let’s remember that.

That will help us avoid creating such thoughts in other people’s minds.

By making off-the-cuff thoughtless comments.

By using harsh or condescending tones of voice.

Through subtle inferences that we don’t believe in other people.

By projecting certitudes that disenfranchises other people’s points of view.

And with auras of domination, invalidation or humiliation that weaken others.

The hurts that create those feelings in others can be so intangible that no one realizes that they’re happening.

But, intangible as these hurts are, they can break bones and hearts.

They’re just names and words and thoughts.

But they can break us as horribly as the worst sticks and stones.

Let’s bear that in mind and live accordingly.

[1] European Heart Journal: Acute Cardiovascular Care, March 2014

[2] Dr. Mark J. Doolittle, Stanford University, Surviving Cancer

[3] Bireishis 32:25-26

[4] loc. cit..

[5] Ramban, Shemos 11:7

[6] Sefer ha-Chinuch 62

[7] Bamidbar 22:28-30

[8] Ramban, Bireishis 32:25-26

[9] Rambam, Avoda Zara 11:15

[10] Moreh Nevuchim 2:43

[11] The fact that these “miracle” stories - visiting angels, Yaakov’s
fight with the angel and Bilam’s taking donkey - are recorded matter-of-factly without noting that anything miraculous occurred abets the view of those who view these events as non-miraculous visions.

[12] Moreh Nevuchim 2:43

[13] Ralbag in the Abarbanel, Bireishis 32

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