You are Loved
December 23, 1888 is one of the most famous moments in art history. It was on that day that a distraught Vincent Van Gogh “stepped into the bathroom and stared at his maniacal, menacing, hyena-wild reflection, rubbed his stubbled neck, lifted the razor and, grabbing his left ear, sliced it off in a silent scream, locking eyes with his reflection in the mirror.” Why did he do it? What led such a creative artist to become so destructive? Or, as fellow impressionist artist Claude Monet questioned, “How could a man who has loved flowers and light so much and has rendered them so well, how could he have managed to be so unhappy?”
Theories abound. One suggests that Van Gogh had gotten into a heated argument with his roommate, artist Paul Gauguin, who claimed in his memoirs that Van Gogh had threatened him with a razor before turning the instrument on himself.
Another speculation is earlier that day, Van Gogh received news of his brother Theo’s engagement, and was deeply concerned it would affect Theo’s financial support, which was crucial to the artist. Others suggest that he was simply an alcoholic and was suffering from the delusional and hallucinatory effects of either alcohol binging or alcohol withdrawal.
Van Gogh is one of the most famous cases where tormented geniuses or sensitive artists have punished and mutilated themselves physically. There is even a modern syndrome coined “Van Gogh syndrome,” also known as Nonsuicidal Self-Injury (NSSI). In many instances the individual feels that this is the only way to cope with unbearable pain or stress. Other times, the individual feels they deserve to be punished for some misdeed or failure.
The mitzvah against self-mutilation
The syndrome is not new, and was around in the times of the Torah’s writing. It forms the basis of a mitzvah in our parsha, which prohibits self-mutilation during moments of distress (14:1-2):
.בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ וְלֹא־תָשִׂימוּ קָרְחָה בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם לָמֵת
.כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּבְךָ בָּחַר יְקֹוָק לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה
You are children to Hashem your Lord. Do not disfigure yourselves, nor may you place a cut between your eyes over the dead.
For you are a holy nation to Hashem your Lord, and Hashem has chosen you to be His chosen nation from all the nations that are on the face of the earth.
If we look at the language carefully, we discover that the Torah seems to be providing two reasons for prohibiting self-mutilation, one at the beginning of the first verse, and one in the second verse: (1) You are Hashem’s children, and (2) You are Hashem’s holy and chosen people. What’s the difference between the two, and how do they serve as reasons for this prohibition?
A child’s view
Sfornu and Ibn Ezra comment on the first reason, that we should look at ourselves as Hashem’s children in quite a literal sense. Firstly, when we were young children, often times our parents would do things that we didn’t understand. Their actions may have appeared cruel or unfair, but as we got older we realized that their actions were reasonable and correct. This is how we are supposed to look upon tragic events. We may not understand why these events happened nor why they are for the best, but if we view ourselves as Hashem’s children, not yet capable of understanding our Parent’s actions, we can more easily reconcile ourselves and endure the pain of the tragedy.
Secondly, no matter what loss a person goes through, if they still have their parent, this is in itself a comfort. No matter how sad and empty the individual may feel, they may take comfort in knowing that their Father in Heaven is still there with them, supporting them and embracing them at every juncture, just as a father or mother holds their crying child in their arms to offer comfort.
This first reason for prohibiting self-mutilation is therefore directed at the truly distraught individual. Hashem is saying: Don’t do anything to harm yourself in order to drown out your pain or to punish yourself. First of all, you don’t yet understand how your own miserable state, even if brought by your own actions, is part of a larger plan that will work out in the end. Secondly, I am here with you to help endure your suffering. I still love you no matter what, no matter how much you think you may have failed, and I will always be here for you.
The second reason given in the Torah for prohibiting self-mutilation is completely different. Instead of Hashem offering consolation and reassurance, this second text charges us collectively as the Jewish people with a national duty. “You are a holy, chosen nation!” Your behavior sends a message to the entire world. If you mourn excessively to the point of self-flagellation, you are suggesting that God is not just and that life is wretched and miserable.
This runs counter to your duty to be a “light unto the nations.” No matter what happens to you, no matter how much you are punished, persecuted and hounded, you must always hold your head high and let the world know that you are proud to be alive as a Jew.
Even if you are crying bitter tears inside, never let the world see your unbearable pain, but rather suffer with dignity and moderation. Let the world hear the words, “Baruch Dayan HaEmet,” – “Blessed be Hashem, the true Judge!” Even when it’s hard for you to believe those words, it is nonetheless your duty to proclaim them so as to sanctify Hashem’s name throughout the world.
The needs of the many
The Talmud (TB Yevamos 14a) teaches, based on reading the words “לֹא תִתְגּדְדוּ” as deriving from the word “אגודות”, separate groups, that every Jewish community must try its best to create uniform practices for the entire community so that it does not appear that everyone is doing something different. What does this have to do with self-mutilation?
It reveals that when it comes to human suffering, sometimes a Jew has to put aside his or her personal pain in order to project a national image of positivity, just like sometimes an individual has to put aside his or her personal religious preference in order to conform to the greater good of the community’s minhag. Both interpretations speak to placing the community’s priorities before the individual’s.)
Everyone, without fail, experiences pain in life. Many of us have good and healthy coping mechanisms to deal with these painful and stressful situations. We have learned to laugh at our challenges, to decompress through physical exercise, education, music, and socialization. Others do not cope as well. In an effort to drown out the pain some over-indulge in various substances and activities that are self-destructive or hurtful to others.
You are never alone
To fulfill the directive to emulate God in everything we do, we must acknowledge the pain of others. Just seeing the other and reminding them that they are not alone can do wonders. You never know how much of a difference it makes in a person’s life just knowing that you are available to them when they need someone to lean on.
The month of Elul is upon us. This is the time to realign ourselves with what we know to be good and virtuous. Let’s try and remember the opening words of this mitzvah: “בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם” – “You are Hashem’s son or daughter!” You deserve the best, and Hashem loves you no matter what. Don’t despair, and don’t punish yourself any longer. Arise and love yourself the way Hashem loves you.
As bad as things may be, realize that life is such a gift. Had Van Gogh realized how appreciated he’d become for his contribution to art, he probably would never have harmed himself on that terrible December night. You may not be appreciated today for who you are, and you may not even feel terribly good about yourself. But never forget that Hashem loves you as His child, and will always be with you. You are loved, and you are never alone. May we all move forward together with confidence and optimism to greet the Redeemer, bb”a.