Part 2 of a 3-part series on teshuvah and healing
Rav Ish-Shalom’s challenge was to take me in some unexpected directions…
Rav Kook sees Teshuvah as an entire spectrum of healing—with physical healing at one end and spiritual healing at the other. Surely healing from trauma should also fit into this spectrum. And indeed the path toward Teshuvah laid out by the Rambam in Hiklhot Teshuvah has much in common with trauma therapy. Both trauma and wrong-doing result in an injury to our sense of self. And in both cases, the road to recovery leads through mourning.
There is a book called The Silence, by Ruth Wajnryb, about the attempts of children of survivors to break through their parents’ silence. I had picked it up at a used book store years ago, hoping it would offer some explanation of my inability to speak of what I remember.
It has often struck me that after someone dies—I mean a normal death, of old age, in peaceful circumstances—the close family needs to tell and retell and retell the circumstances of the death, and this is what they do as people come to offer consolation. The same story gets told, many, many times. Perhaps this is what grief needs to do to enable the bereaved to reach acceptance. If the bereaved in normal circumstances need this, would not the need be just so much greater when the deaths occur in abnormal and horrific circumstances? Wouldn’t it take many more tellings, not fewer, to reconcile oneself to the reality? What happens when there is no re-telling? Where does grief untold go?
This is the role of shivah: to allow us to come to terms, accept, and know that others acknowledge the significance of a person’s life and death. The paradox is that those most in need of this release are often those who have no access to it.
Retelling a traumatic memory allows the same sort of closure on the event as does sitting shivah. The telling and retelling allows one to come to terms, to go through all the stages of denial and anger, and eventually to relegate the event to the past.
Mourning is a process: We sit shivah, we retell again and again, we bring out the photographs, we process our loss….
And we say Kaddish. The Kaddish has become so bound up with the need to come to terms with loss, that we forget its role as a simple affirmation of trust. But of course, this is how it came to be said by mourners in the first place. After all, when is our trust in the rightness of things so severely undermined as when we face irreparable loss? For the same reason, the burial service includes the acceptance of judgment.
In fact, this theme runs through most Jewish customs of mourning; the end goal is gradual acceptance—acceptance that the same power that brings us the good in life brings us suffering as well, and that this is as it should be. These are things that have to be felt, not thought. On the intellectual level, there are no answers, but on that deeper level, there are no questions.
In Teshuvah, we go through some of the same stages as in mourning. We acknowledge the mistake—it was the wrong thing to do. We experience (but really experience) regret—I understand the full import of it and how great a mess I have made of things; reach a point where all of the regret, despair, grief, and longing to make right can find expression. We become someone else, someone who even if brought to exactly the same circumstances, would not make the same mistake again.
And, like one in mourning for a part of ourselves—for the missed opportunity—we retell. We express the inner turmoil; we make it concrete and real, and at the same time reach closure with it. This is the last stage of teshuvah—the viddui. By telling, we acknowledge our mistakes and their consequences, our wrong-turns and blind alleys, and by speaking them aloud, we take possession of them. But more, we bring them from the private space of our regret into the public space of communal existence, allowing them to enter the memory of our community.
It takes courage to do this, but it is also supremely healing.
And so I have answered the first part of Rav Ish-Shalom’s challenge: To find the connection between re-telling a traumatic event and Teshuvah. Like the gradual normalization of traumatic memory, teshuvah brings us back to the place of our failure, and allows us to re-experience it in the telling, and to know that we are heard.
What remained was to find the connection between these things and the practice of bringing a disturbing dream to Birkhat Hakohanim. And lastly, I would have to tackle the third challenge and relate all this to the Jewish people’s so-called “‘return to history”. These two issues are combined in the next essay, “We Were Like Dreamers”.