Mental Health in The Parsha: The Blessing of an Inflamed Nerve

Yaakov vs. Angel

In this week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach), as Yaakov is leaving Lavan’s home and heading back to his birthplace, he gets into an epic scuffle with an angel. This fight inflicts Yaakov with a case of sciatica, and as a result, all future generations are required to remove the sciatic nerve from meat prior to consumption. The Chizkuni, a 16th-century commentator, gives two explanations for this practice. Firstly, it is an eternal reminder that Yaakov got injured only after his family left him alone in a potentially dangerous situation. Whenever we remove the sciatic nerve we are to recall this mistake and internalize the necessity of escorting our guests and family to protect them from harm. Alternatively, it is to commemorate the miracle of Yaakov fighting with an angel and escaping with only the minor injury of an inflamed nerve.

The combination of the Chizkuni’s two approaches after a troubling experience has been found to not only reduce the risk of long-term trauma or negative feelings but to actually increase the chances of growing from it and coming away with positive life changes.

Growing from the Experience

The first approach is to take lessons from a negative event and change future actions based on that experience. In Yaakov’s case, that was to create a mental reminder to escort our family and guests and not allow them to be left alone in a perilous situation. Pausing to examine the internal and external forces contributing to a difficult period in our lives increases our chances of avoiding similar pitfalls or catastrophes in the future. The airline industry is a prime example of how this strategy could lead to major changes over time. After each accident or near-miss, they conduct a critical analysis and examine all the factors that played a role. Over time, this approach has allowed aviation to evolve from one of the most dangerous forms of travel to the safest. Each error and failure is viewed as an opportunity for improvement. 

Focusing on the Positive

The second and equally valuable approach we learn from Yaakov’s fight with the angel is to appreciate how the situation turned out better than it could have. One fascinating result of having a positive interpretation is increased chances for future fortuitous situations. Dr. Richard Wiseman, renowned author and Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, has devoted his career to studying factors that lead to improved fortune. One crucial element he has found is that people who can find the positive in any situation are more apt to encounter and notice “lucky” situations. In an interesting study, he presented a scenario of a person being shot in the arm during a bank robbery. The study participants were asked if the person was lucky or unlucky. Those who insisted the individual was lucky focused on the fact that he wasn’t shot in the head. This group was more likely to objectively get lucky breaks with career and life opportunities. After tragic events, these individuals found a greater connection with faith, family, and friends along with a renewed sense of purpose in life.

Focusing on what didn’t go wrong and framing events in a positive way is a skill that can be practiced and developed. One way to hone this skill is built into the practice of Judaism. When a near-death event occurs, we traditionally proclaim thanks in front of the synagogue or host a meal of thanksgiving. There is no restriction on expressing thanks for any number of events in our life which could have very easily had a worse outcome. This is often difficult in the midst of a difficult situation, but it is worth looking back on our lives and contemplating events that at the time were extremely painful, but may have led to beneficial outcomes. The more we engage in noticing all we have to be thankful for, the more good fortune will come our way, and the better we will bounce back from trying circumstances. 

Let’s avoid the temptation to just ride out painful experiences. Instead, recall the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve and use that example to examine our own tribulations for improvement opportunities while at the same time working to focus on the positive aspects. Engaging in these practices will lead to richer and more satisfying lives.

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Ariel Mintz, MD
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