How can the Torah command us to feel or not feel certain emotions?
Many of us are under the impression that emotions just happen to us without our input. Something or someone pushes our emotional buttons, which triggers a neural circuit in our brain and causes a physiological reaction, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. My coworker makes me angry, my spouse makes me happy, traffic makes me anxious, and my neighbor makes me envious.
Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and psychologist, labels this perspective the “classical view” of emotions. It has roots in ancient philosophy and advocates in modern psychology. Based on decades of research, however, she argues that this view is utterly incorrect.
In her bestselling book, How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Barrett describes her theory of constructed emotion, contending that our emotions are constructed and created by us. We are the architects of our emotions through our own interpretations of events, which can be based on past experiences and our social and cultural environments.
This theory can be both empowering and (interpreted as) anxiety-provoking, as it makes each of us responsible for our own emotions.
Writing in the 12th century, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra addresses emotional responsibility as it relates to the 10th commandment – namely, the prohibition to be envious of a friend. Many people, Ibn Ezra writes, believe we can’t control our emotions, and therefore the Torah can’t command us in matters of the mind.
The Torah, however, does in fact command us to regulate our emotions, which means it is within our power to do so. Ibn Ezra provides a parable whose relatability may have diminished in the modern era, but whose message still resonates. He argues that a pauper does not desire a princess since he knows it’s impossible for him to ever court her. He likens such a desire to wanting to have wings and fly. Since the goal is impossible, such a thought does not lead to a desirous emotion.
There are certain religious perspectives, beliefs, and interpretations that we are expected to construct that will help prevent us from being envious of our friends, Ibn Ezra writes. If we firmly believe that G-d provides us with everything we need, and we work on being content with our own lot, we won’t feel envious. While these may not be easy beliefs to inculcate, since they are within our control to work on, we are held responsible for the emotions we experience.
Building upon Ibn Ezra’s idea that we can construct and control our emotions, later commentaries provide alternative strategies for how to do so in the context of envy. Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik in his commentary Beit Halevi notes that if one has a strong desire or temptation and is then startled, the temptation is drowned out due to the fear. Thus, one should make sure to develop awe of G-d, which will preempt any temptation. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg suggests that a heart filled with love and passion for G-d won’t have room for envious feelings of others.
While these strategies may seem awfully lofty, they position our emotions within our own ability and control. While it may not be easy and may take time and effort, we can work hard on constructing our worldview in such a way that we take responsibility for our own emotions. By doing so, we can live more empowered, spiritual, and emotionally-healthy lives.