Overcoming Impulses

What piece of our humanity gets us in the most trouble? There are probably lots of answers to that question – but this morning I would like to suggest that it is our lack of impulse control that gets us into trouble.

What piece of our humanity gets us in the most trouble? There are probably lots of answers to that question – but this morning I would like to suggest that it is our lack of impulse control that gets us into trouble. Driven by the needs of the moment, we act before we think, and the next thing you know – we’re doing something we really regret.

I believe that is a piece of the story of Esau, a piece of Esau that comes out in us more often than we realize. Think of the scene from this morning’s portion. Esau is famished after a day spent outside hunting. He comes in the house and smells the delicious soup that Jacob has made and his hunger overtakes him. He convinces himself, “What good is a birthright to a starving man?” So he gives it over to his brother in exchange for a bowl of soup. It wasn’t a smart move – is so very human. We too at certain moments say and do things that we look back on and wonder, “Why did I do that?!”

Think about all the stories in the Torah that involve this topic:

The great leader Moses got so fed up with the whining and complaining of the Israelites that in a moment of anger, he impulsively lost his temper and disobeyed God’s instructions to talk to the rock to bring water. He struck it. As a result, Moses lost the privilege to enter the promised land.

King David was strolling along his rooftop one sultry night when he caught sight of a beautiful woman bathing. Feeling a little lonely, David allowed his feelings to sway him and gives into his impulse – asking the woman to spend the night. He commits adultery and ultimately murder in trying to cover it up. This great leader was forever tarnished by a moment of impulse.

What makes the Esau’s, Moses’ and David’s stories so real is that they describe us so well!  We too have moments where our emotions seem beyond our own control. We too, act before we think. We too, have said things in anger or even in passing that have lasting impact. We too, have justified wrongdoing because of our immediate desires.

Ultimately, one of the most important challenges of our humanity is finding the ability to control and channel our deepest drives – to overcome that which drives Esau to such a poor decision in this morning’s portion.

Take a look in your prayerbook on page 268. In Pirkei Avot, the sayings of the Rabbis, Ben Zoma taught, “Aizeh hu gibor – Who is powerful?” You could also translate it as, “Who is a hero?” He answers, “One who conquers his own impulse.” It uses the word “power” to describe the difficult behavior of not acting according to our impulse – restraining ourselves now in order to benefit later – because it is a difficult thing to do!

How do we overcome impulse? How do we find the power to say “No” and to resist temptation? It must be said that some people can’t. Due to their wiring, or mental illness or a particular trauma, they lack the capacity to control their impulses and need medical intervention and compassionate responses.

But most of us can control our impulses. It begins with awareness that a piece of our humanity is that sometimes we do act before we think. When we realize how powerful the urge is – than the practice of slowing down, of thinking through consequence and morality becomes a piece of how we act. One of the most difficult challenges I will ever give you is to look deeply in yourself and ask where impulses lead you astray. When you’re aware of where your particular issues lie – you can begin the really hard work of seeking to understand and change. Be very aware of those moments,so you can plan and think through alternatives.

As we go even deeper into this topic, we find in our sacred story that the true response to our human impulse to act without thinking comes from internalizing an ethic of seeing the world from another person’s point of view. Impulsivity is counteracted by connection and empathy.

Let’s look a little more deeply at the character of Isaac in this morning’s Torah portion. Isaac is often an overlooked character in the Torah – that poor kid traumatized by his father Abraham who bound him on the altar. When you look a little more closely – you see that Isaac is in fact a remarkable man. Open your book to p. 146 – the beginning of the portion – you read that Rebecca was infertile in verse 20. Look at the order of the verse – he prays for her because she was barren – not because she asked him to – but her was tuned into her needs. He wasn’t acting on rash impulse – he was acting out of deep awareness of another person’s needs. The response is even more powerful when you contrast the story to other moments of male response to female infertility in the Bible. When Rachel brings her pain to Jacob in a couple chapters, he essentially says, “What do you want from me?” In the Haftarah on Rosh Hashana, Elkanah says to Hannah, “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” Not so sympathetic! Isaac prays for her before she shares her pain, because he knows it will pain her. When you’re tuned into another person in such a deep way that negative impulse doesn’t occur in the same way.

Because he was tuned into another person’s pain, Isaac is prepared for moments when impulse might mislead him. When confronted with Philistine agression (p. 150 -151) – they stop up the wells out of envy of his wealth – he doesn’t respond with agression and revenge, he leaves – knowings that the impulse for vengeance or even justice won’t result in a good end.

Finally in the haunting scene where Jacob and Rebecca deceive him to receive the blessing he intends for Esau, he overcomes his initial inability to find a blessing. (p. 158 – verse 38). His empathy and ability to see another person’s point of view help him find the words of blessing – even if his son isn’t able to appreciate them at that moment.

To grow as a human requires us to look honestly at our weaknesses and our stumbling blocks. Esau is driven by his impulse – hunger, vengence. The next line after receiving his father’s blessing is the desire for revenge and a pledge to kill his brother. But somehow a piece of his father has sunken in – and when he encounters Jacob years later, he submerges the impulse for revenge and they embrace.

We too can overcome those impulses that lead us astray. We can learn to channel our impulses by stopping and thinking. We can cultivate hearts that are willing to see other peole’s needs and place their feelings as being as important to us as our own. We cultivate our own ability to listen, to forgive, not to judge harshly and to hear words that are not spoken. There is greatness in being able to do that, the greatness that we are all capable of. May those stories become our stories. Shabbat Shalom.