The Brain Game

Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Victor Frankl

2 brainsThe Emotional Brain

I knew I was being targeted, manipulated and controlled – yet I didn’t care. When I turned over the cover of the latest edition of the Wine Spectator and saw “the car,” I “knew” I had to have it. I put the word “knew” in quotes because the part of my brain that made that decision was not the rational thinking and knowing neocortex part of my brain, but my unconscious, emotional brain, which responds to its desires. Just as the advertisers hoped I would, my unconscious brain did the emotional math and put two and two together. Wine connoisseurs drive this car. I think of myself as a wine connoisseur; ergo, I should buy this car.

I wasn’t buying a car as much as I was buying my idea of what this car represented. The subsequent half-hearted on-line research for info about the car (the auto manufacturer’s website) was my feeble attempt to think I was enlisting the rational part of my brain so I could justify a purely emotional decision. Crashworthy – smashworthy – who cares. Anything short of it’s being rated the worst death trap on wheels, and I was filling out that loan application at the car dealership.

When it’s Personal

Kinda sounds a little like some form of slavery to me. And so even though I know we left the slavery of Egypt a few thousand years ago, the question is, whether Egypt has fully left me? Even though a part of me knew I was being used for commercial gain, I just wanted what I wanted (or thought I wanted), and I put the critical thinking part of me on hold. Being a free human being, however, is to be mindful, present, conscious – and to think critically. Just as are not supposed to be slaves to Pharaoh, neither are we supposed to be slaves to habit, emotions, and unconscious reactions. God doesn’t want us to do things blindly in a knee-jerk way without enlisting the support of our rational faculties. Neither does God want us not to do something, however – where we refrain from acting – in the same mindless manner. After all, in our daily morning blessings, we thank God for not making us a slave. Therefore, our mental enslavements are a superfluous and voluntary add-on.

The Torah portion, “Acharei-Mot,” means “after the death” and it refers to the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who had entered into the Holy of Holies without any authority to do so, and brought with them “strange fire,” described as an incense mixture of their choosing. While this action was born of a genuine desire to connect with and to serve God, their actions were met with instant death. The commentaries explain that while their motivation was to cleave to God, their behavior ignored the requirements and directives that God had given them. They acted emotionally, not rationally, and their behavior literally consumed them, resulting in their deaths.  

God then instructed Moses to tell his brother, Aaron, not to come unbidden into the Holy of Holies lest he were to die – as did his sons. The question arises – why did God deem it necessary to couple the instruction to Aaron with the death of his sons? Would it not have sufficed to have said  – “Don’t do this thing.”

One of the classic commentators, Rashi, compares this to a doctor telling a sick person what to do and what to avoid. Face it, how many of us take our doctor’s advice seriously? How many of us change our lifestyle and habits even after we weigh in, get our elevated cholesterol levels, and tell the truth about our lack of sleep and exercise? On the other hand, if we have a family member who died young from heart disease, or if the doctor tells us that unless we avoid doing certain things we will die – just as so and so died – it makes it real, more powerful. Therefore, we are much more likely to take the doctor’s advice to heart. Whether we are acting – or refraining from acting – God wants us to use our cognitive functions, as well as our emotional desires, in a harmonious way for our benefit. For Aaron, considering what was at stake, God wanted the warning to make a deep impression, by appealing to both his rational and emotional brain.  

Leaving the Egypt Within

Leaving Egypt was not just a physical change in geography. Transitioning from a slave mentality to a free-willed human being that could embody holiness was the real journey, and it’s the journey of a lifetime. The message here is not to be enslaved by emotions, desires, and unconscious habitual behaviors. On the other hand, we are not to be detached from our feelings and live in a purely cerebral world. It’s a fallacy to think that is even possible, and futile to pit these aspects of us as adversaries. Rather, they are an inseparable part of the human condition. The trick, however, is to be conscious, so that these support and enrich each other.                                                                                             

In the last few Torah portions, we learned about the mind/body/soul connection, where improper negative speech, borne of improper thoughts and emotions, manifests as physical ailments on the body. In this Torah portion, we need to understand how emotions drive thoughts and thoughts drive emotions. Be not a slave to either, but integrate them so that you can be in the driver’s seat.