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Bava Kamma 39

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the case of an ox owned by a minor or a mentally incompetent person. Like all other oxen, it has the potential to be established as a muchzak – as an ox that is aggressive because it has gored people via three incidents. But since the owner is incompetent, an agent or guardian must be established. The guardian serves in place of the owner and is warned after each of the incidents, in the same way that the owner would have been if he was competent.


What is most fascinating is that if the minor reaches the age of adulthood, or the mentally incompetent person recovers, the clock is reset, and the ox is treated as a regular, placid ox. The newly adult or mentally recovered owner now can treat his ox like any other, and if it does gore, he goes through the process of three warnings as if the original goring never happened.

The Gemara later on daf 40a explains that this is based on the idea that custody changes the status of the ox. What is the reason for this? Nimukei Yosef says, on a practical level, the owner could claim, “If I was competent and available when the ox was originally starting up, I would have known how to manage it, therefore it is only fair to treat it as a docile ox, now that I am able to take care of this animal.” Meiri gives a psychological explanation: When the ownership changes, the animal’s nature and mazal change as well.

We saw earlier, based on Bava Kamma 37, that according to Gemara Shabbos 151a, an animal does not attack a human unless the human diminishes himself and behaves as a beast. Likewise, we may say that the spiritual standing of the owner affects the behavior of the animal. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 28 and Rashi to Bereishis 6:11) tells us that not only were the humans promiscuous in the generation of the flood, but the animals followed suit, mating indiscriminately, across species.

In the 70’s there were schools of thought that arose which challenged the individual-based pathology that was dominant prior. The original psychology that began with Freud’s work came from a western medical model, focusing on the symptoms, disorder and pathology. There was one person who was unwell, and needed treatment. This way of thinking persists to this day in both psychology and medicine. However, new ways of working with so-called mental illness were simultaneously developed by psychological pioneers, mavericks and risk takers including the famous Salvador Minuchin, Murray Bowen, Carl Whitaker and Virginia Satir. They began to notice that though one person may be identified by the family or system as the patient, he or she may be carrying distress and emotional burdens for an entire family, sometimes spanning generations. The so-called pathology of this individual is more of an unconscious but systemic collaborative effort to stabilize and manage familial conflict and distress. This is known as homeostasis. I will soon give examples and their clinical implications, however first I would like to explain the value of system thinking even in medical matters.

For example, let us assume we have identified a particular disease or virus, and even a treatment protocol. If Plony has this disease and takes this medicine, he should get better. That much is science. Yet this does not explain why Plony got sick in the first place. Was it poor nutrition, stress, depression, or not washing hands? Those system concerns can be as valuable or even more valuable than the technical cure. It is still a mystery to me why our very truthful and accurate media spent two years publishing daily COVID death statistics, but never stressed, educated or discussed the single most important risk factor for COVID mortality, which was being more than 40 lbs overweight. The media foisted a relentless narrative of doom and fear mongering that developmentally delayed a generation of children, and hardly encouraged exercise and weight loss, a simple available but potent prophylactic, amongst others. This was the authentic “safe and highly effective” intervention. (Even the CDC agrees to this:

Returning to psychology and systems thinking, when one member of a family manifests symptoms, it is often in service of maintaining homeostasis for the entire family. Shimon spends all day in his room depressed and refuses to go to school, but he can also be understood as expressing unvoiced cynical attitudes toward life on behalf of his parents. The angrier his father gets, the more it distracts father from his own issues. Or an acting out child who cannot sit still, and has so-called ADHD, may have learned that doing outrageous stuff like writing on the walls, pulls his mother out of her shell and activates her. A depressed mom is much more frightening to a child than an angry mom.

Systems operate in classrooms as well. Consider this anecdote:

Imagine a well-intentioned rebbe who nevertheless drones on and on, and runs his class in such a way that he assumes his students should be automatically interested in his material.

After the first 25 minutes or so, as the rebbe monotonously plods through the shiur, Shloime, the so-called “disciplinary problem,” starts to get restless. He makes funny noises, is told to quiet down. Of course, he can’t fully control himself because he does have some anxiety and focus issues. Of course, there is disciplinary back-and-forth between Shloimie and rebbe. As it escalates, all of this is entertaining to the other relatively well-behaved classmates. They have more self-control and they themselves won’t yet act out. This is especially true because they have come to unconsciously rely on Shloimie in providing much needed distraction and comic relief for the rest of the class.

The rebbe imagines that if only he could throw Shloimie out of the class, everything would go so much better, because after all, Shloimie is the one causing all the trouble. But here is the reality: Shloimie is simply the weakest link in the chain, so he’s the one who snaps first. If he was not in the class, the next weakest child would start to act out. If it takes 25 minutes for Shloimie to become bored and act out, it takes 30 minutes for Yaakov to do so. Looking at it this way, the problem is not the child, he is simply reacting to the problem. The problem is the rebbe (and system) who does not understand the developmental needs of his students and wishes he was a rosh yeshiva giving a pilpul shiur. Even if the other children were respectful and well behaved, the problem doesn’t go away, it just stays submerged. Students may still be suffering, not learning as much as they should, developing hatred and revulsion toward Torah studies, and suffering in silence. In this way, Shloime is not dysfunctional. In fact, he is unconsciously martyring himself to allow for a dysfunctional educational system to operate.

Just as we can see how the ox’s behavior can change based on ownership status, and what feelings are being projected by its possessor, we are all susceptible to the dynamics of our systems, be they family, work, shul or country. Thinking this way allows for broader, more humane, and quicker solutions because it allows for solutions that not only affect the disease but even the causes that operate on a mass level. Although individual therapy is often a needed part of treatment, a good family session is worth many individual sessions because it goes past individual fears, and addresses deeper assigned roles and resistances stemming from the system.


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