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The Keys to Life

Spiritual Wellness - Rule B: Preventing Emotional Stress

How can you prevent harmful and unnecessary emotional stress? Rabbi Zamir Cohen focuses on the damage caused by visual media.

Spiritual Wellness - Rule B: Preventing Emotional Stress

As part of man’s challenges during the course of his life, he may occasionally encounter stressful situations that he must deal with. Therefore, the soul was designed with the ability to withstand these tensions without collapsing – but only to a certain extent. Indeed, the pressures and tensions that a person experiences at different times in his life, do not exceed more than he can tolerate – as G-d does not bring challenges upon man unless he can withstand them. In the words of our sages:[1] “G-d does not come in a storm with his creatures”; He does not expect us to do something that we are not capable of doing. However, since man has the power to choose between good and evil, to observe the mitzvoth or violate them, to improve his health or damage it, he carries the consequences of his choices. In the same vein, it is also up to man to choose to protect his soul from unnecessary stresses, as he will ultimately be affected by the outcome of his decisions.

A person who chooses to fill his mind with stressful content commonly seen in suspense thrillers and horror movies, lessens his ability to withstand these tensions, and worse, lives with a false and misguided sense that the world is a scary place and far more corrupt than it actually is. The material that he has exposed himself to has created a perception in his mind of a world of violence, trouble, fear, and terror. Therefore, when he experiences extreme stress in his life that results from some traumatic event, all the harsh images stored in his brain surface from his subconscious mind and converge into a massive imaginary threat which leads to a mental breakdown.

The following Torah commandment is based on this idea:[2]

“And you shall not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray” - meaning, ‘which you follow and deviate after’. This is a very pragmatic verse – simply put, it suggests that man follows his eyes and his heart. Unless he works on himself or makes an effort to resist it, this will be his natural tendency and inclination. The powerful nature of curiosity, which makes the heart and eyes ‘tour’ like a tourist searching for attractions, along with the person’s intense desire, which urges him to apply everything he’s captured through his senses, makes the person stumble and sin. It starts out as an urge and ends with suffering.

Here are the words of the Sefer Hachinuch regarding this precious mitzvah:[3]

The substance of this injunction is that we were restricted not to devote our thoughts to entertain views that are opposed to the system of thought on which the Torah is constructed, since it is possible, as a result, to arrive at heresy. Rather, if a whim arises in one’s heart to entertain those evil views, let him cut short his thinking about them and change course to ponder on the true, good ways of the Torah. So too, [is it part of the precept] that a man should not chase after the sight of his eyes, which includes not pursuing the cravings of this world, for their end is evil, with enough disgrace and wrath. In this respect our sages of blessed memory said:[4] ‘And you shall not go about after your heart’[5] - this means heresy; ‘And after your own eyes’ – this means immorality, as it is stated:[6] ‘And Samson said to his father: Get her for me, for she is right good in my eyes.’

The root purpose of this precept is evident: for by it a man will be guarded from sinning to the Lord all his days. This precept is truly a great foundation of the religion, since evil thoughts are the ‘fathers’ of defilement and uncleanness, and the [resulting] actions are their ‘children’; and if a man should die before begetting any progeny, there will be no remembrance (no trace) of children. Consequently, this restriction is a root from which all good things can sprout.

Then know, my son, and pray, let it be a special adage in your mouth, what the Sages of blessed memory said:[7] ‘A transgression brings a transgression in its wake, and a mitzvah brings a mitzvah in its wake’, for if you set your mind to fulfill your evil craving once, it will pull many other times after it.  But if you succeed in being mighty in the land to overcome your inclination, and shut your eyes from looking on evil but once, it will seem easy to you to do so many times. For desire draws the flesh as wine draws its drinkers, since the spirit of guzzlers is never satisfied with wine, so that they [ever] desire it with a great craving; and as they habituate their spirit to it, their craving grows stronger. Yet if they were only to drink a cup of water [instead], the burning conflagration of desire for wine would cool, and life would be sweet to them.

So is this matter: As any man becomes accustomed to desires and persists in them, his evil inclination will overpower him day by day. But if he refrains from them, he will be happy with his lot constantly, all day, and he will see that ‘God made man upright, but they have sought out many devices’[8] to no avail whatever.

A person who strays after his eyes and heart in the areas associated with his modesty and holiness, will ultimately harm his pure soul by staining it with forbidden images. He will also become desensitized and irresponsive to the pleasurable stimuli in his life. His curiosity will tempt him to watch the negative images displayed on television, the internet, and the movies – and if he does, he will ultimately injure his soul by staining it with the filth of evil and other negative urges. In addition, his ability to overcome stresses and tensions that he encounters throughout his life will be compromised.

Damage Caused by Visual Media

Many studies have proven the harmful effects of visual media – namely, movies and television. They’ve been found to impair the mental and physical health of children and adults alike, and no one disputes that these days. Some of the negative influences that were found include: All forms of violence, a lowered self esteem, reduced IQ level, a weakened learning ability, compulsive addiction to negative images, boundless permissiveness, alcoholism, and obesity. In 1993, the American Psychiatric Association and other professional organizations joined the call to pay closer attention to media content and viewing habits, as there is no doubt that "violent images on television pose as a threat to the health and welfare of the developing child and youth, and the stability of their families.”[9]


Notes and Sources

[1] Shmot Rabbah 34a

[2] Bamidbar 15:39

[3] Sefer Hachinuch – mitzvah 387

[4] Sifri – Bamidbar 15:39:70

[5] Bamidbar 15:39

[6] Judges 14:3

[7] Avot 4:5

[8] Kohelet 7:29

[9] APA Board of Trustees approved 12/93.

Adapted from "The Keys to Life" by Rabbi Zamir Cohen