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relational adaptability

relational adaptability

Written by  rav carl kinbar

art-bigbangThe middah of adaptability is fundamental to existence; it is characteristic of God Himself.

For centuries, the Sages puzzled over the question of how anything besides God can exist. Is God not present everywhere in all His power? Where is the “space” for a material creation in such a universe? Also, how can human beings have their own thoughts when God is everywhere and pervasively present even within His mind?

Rabbi Isaac Luria proposed that man’s existence and independence became possible when God “contracted”  (tzimtzum) in order to allow for the creation of the material universe and all that would exist within it. This also allowed human beings the “space” to exist, to think, and to act — in other words, it enabled free will rather than a will that is controlled or constrained by God's very existence.

I prefer to express this thought with the language of restraint rather than contraction. God limited his power so that the material creation could exist and restrained his middah of judgment so that humans would not be destroyed upon the first sin. Within that space of God’s self-limitation, humans can choose to draw near to God or distance themselves.

Professor Mordechai Rotenberg of the Rotenberg Center for Jewish Psychology applies the concept of tzimtzum to his therapeutic practice. According to Rotenberg, tzimtzum (or self-limitation) applies to all interpersonal relationships, which are based on either an “I and Thou” pattern or an “I or thou” pattern.” In the “I or thou” pattern, there are hostile relations between the “I” and the “you”. They are constantly contending for the same space at the expense of the other. In the “I and thou” pattern, "I" and the "other" act in co-existence. They demonstrate the middah of adaptability when “I” evacuates space for “thou” and “thou” is willing to expand into the evacuated space.

When one person chooses to limit himself so that the other can thrive, the other can feel free to expand into the vacated space. Thus the process of self-limitation and self-expansion exist in a dynamic process that is expressed differently in different relationships, different situations, and different times of life.

The middah of adaptability expresses itself in both self-limitation and self-expansion. It does not require that we limit ourselves when this is not appropriate for a healthy relationship; neither does it require us to expand simply because the other person limits himself. Instead, it requires individuals to work together in their relationships, both expressing the middah of adaptability.

When a relationship is not characterized by adaptability, it may be appropriate for us to act on our own. In this case, self-limitation gives the other space to choose cooperation.  However, healthy relationships are usually not created when an individual limits herself fully as a human being in order to give the other space to dominate. Even so, the most radical demonstration of the middah of adaptability came when the One who existed in the form of God took the initiative to empty himself and took on human form, the form of a servant. We usually think about this as an act of humility — and it is — but it is more fundamentality an act of adaptability: the God who limits Himself so that humans can exist and make choices without compulsion, asked His Son to limit himself still further in order to adapt himself to the human condition.

For more information about the Rotenberg approach to therapy, check out their website at  http://www.jewishpsychology.org.

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