There exists a common misconception that therapy makes you feel better. Well, you might say, isn’t that the point of therapy? And yet, it is a misconception because, while it is, of course, the goal that people feel better and function better over time, as with most worthwhile things, personal growth - and certainly change - is almost impossible to achieve without effort, without struggle, without growing pains.
This concept can best be illustrated by briefly exploring two different therapeutic modalities, which are beautifully illustrated in the first verse of this week’s Torah portion.
The gold-standard treatment for most anxiety disorders, including phobias like fear of flying, is called exposure therapy. Exposure therapy helps people to face their fears, and to tolerate the anxiety that comes along with that, until it decreases on its own over time, or until they see that, in fact, they can survive the encounter without any terrible or feared outcome occurring. Exposure therapy is about leaving one’s comfort zone.
In this week’s Parsha, God tells Avraham (12:1), “Lech Lecha,” go for yourself, “me’artzecha,” from your homeland, “mimoladitecha,” from your birthplace, “u’mi’beit avicha,” and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. Rashi notes that the word “lecha,” – “for yourself,” seems superfluous – God could have just said “Go, to the land that I will show you!” Rashi explains that God was telling Avraham “this will be for your benefit. While it may be difficult to leave the place you’ve lived for the majority of your life, to leave behind all you’ve known, know that this discomfort is temporary, and for your ultimate gain.”
When we are faced with a difficult and daunting task, something that stretches us, makes us uncomfortable, asks of us to leave behind the familiar and the “safe,” we must remind ourselves to what end we are doing so. When one engages in exposure therapy, whether formally with the guidance of a therapist, or informally by doing something for one’s growth that is difficult or scary for him or her to do, it is critical to bear in mind the growth, achievement, or goal on the other side of the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of fear. As Dr. Steve Kurtz, a well-known child psychologist, put it, we must “get comfortable being uncomfortable” in order to progress and live meaningful lives - and always, we must remember to what end we embrace that discomfort. God knew that for Avraham to grow, to become who he ultimately is meant to become, he must go outside his comfort zone.
There is something more puzzling in this verse, however. The Shem MiShmuel explains that God says Leave your homeland - yet at the end of Parshas Noach, we read about how Avraham left his homeland with his father, with the intention of traveling to Eretz Canaan! Furthermore, is it not enough to tell Avraham to leave his homeland, or simply, to leave and go where God shows him? Why does the verse have to specify that Avraham leave his homeland, and his birthplace, (which, by the way, were one and the same), and his father’s house? The Shem MiShmuel explains that since Avraham had already left his homeland and birthplace, God adds “leave your father’s house” because Avraham was technically still camped in Charan, where he and his father had traveled from Ur Kasdim, and he had not made it further to Canaan.
When we analyze it just a bit more closely, however, something far deeper and fundamentally important is being relayed in this verse.
This verse, and this Parsha, marks the beginning of Avraham’s journey toward becoming the “Av Hamon Goyim,” the father of many nations, and the father of the Jewish people, most importantly. Avraham is on the cusp of something so great, so unfathomably historic and phenomenal, and yet, he must undergo a critical transformation before that journey can begin. Before the event sets out, God explains, Lech Lecha – Lecha can be translated as both for yourself and to yourself. God is saying, Avraham, you must go, for your benefit, and you must get to know yourself, just as yourself. Go Me’artzecha, leave the traditions and beliefs and values of your homeland, mi’moladitecha, from your birthplace, that to which you have attached yourself until now, and finally, leave mi’beit avicha, from your father’s house.
God is giving Avraham the recipe for true inner growth: we must explore who we are independent of the external influences around us and separate from the bubbles within which we have kept ourselves safe and secure until now.
Another gold-standard treatment for anxiety and depression is cognitive therapy. Traditional cognitive therapy, founded by Aaron T. Beck, focuses on helping people identify the beliefs they have about themselves, the world, and others, and to recognize how those beliefs, often ingrained in them from a young age, reinforced by parents, or community, or society, may in many ways be distorted. And yet, those beliefs dictate how a person views themselves, the world, and others.
One of my patients carried the belief that she must always be achieving perfect grades, and that not to do so means she is lazy. This belief led to negative thoughts about herself, her abilities, her character, her worthiness, whenever she struggled academically. Ultimately, she felt constantly stressed and anxious about school work, which made her want to avoid it, which in turn made her more anxious, and all of this led to feeling depressed and worthless much of the time. The trouble was that this belief partially stemmed from her mother’s value of hard work and education; letting go of the belief that she held about herself meant letting go, to some degree, of her mother’s values. This was highly uncomfortable for her, and yet it was so crucially necessary for a serious shift to occur, so she could begin to have more realistic thoughts and beliefs about herself, her abilities, and her worthiness - and, ultimately, through that discomfort, to feel better.
God’s message to Avraham and to us is that we must be willing to be uncomfortable in order to grow. While doing so, we must always bear in mind the ultimate goal in order to stay motivated within that discomfort. And, while our homes, families, communities, friends, and places of education are so much a part of who we are, and it is perfectly acceptable to retain shared values from these places, people, and experiences, it is also crucial to take the time to step back - to abandon the notion that these values are a given, that they are most definitely the only truth, and to evaluate who we are independent of these anchors. When we step outside the bubble, when we stand alone in the world, on the precipice of fear, at the edge of our comfort zone, that is where our true growth, and ultimate benefit, begin.