What does Teshuvah have to do with healing from trauma. Not much at first glance. But as a trauma survivor, I’ve come to see that there are, in fact, some intriguing connections. In fact, these connections take us straight through the lessons of Elul, from Parashat Ki Tavo and into Parashat Nitzavim.
This is the first of three essays that focus on different aspects of Teshuvah. The first opens up a dialog on the similarities between teshuvah and trauma therapy. This discussion is expanded further in the second essay, deals with how teshuvah can be seen as a process of mourning for who we might have been. The third and last of the series makes the leap from individual teshuvah to national teshuvah, as it is laid out in Parashat Nitzavim. Here we go beyond who we might have been to becoming more than we ever thought we could be.
I’ve spent most of my adult life working in security and intelligence: preventing bad things from happening to good people, while actively making sure that bad things did happen to bad people. So immersed was I in don’t-let-it-happen-again mode that even my leisure time was full of the art of percussive persuasion; I was Israel’s large-bore rifle champion five years running during my police sniper days. Long past retirement age, I remained in the reserves as Israel’s oldest female combat soldier
Yep, hard core protectiveness like no mama tiger you’ve ever met. Just don’t let it happen again!
Er…Don’t let what happen again? What was it that I remembered? And why could I not speak of it?
Eventually, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of the symptoms of PTSD is difficulty speaking of the event. I remember, but can’t speak of any of it. I can write some of it, though even that is difficult, and often has to be paid for with a week of nightmares. But I can’t speak it aloud. The block against speaking is like a physical barrier, which leaves me shaking and terrified, and utterly silent.
My teacher, Rav Ish-Shalom, was determined to bring me out of my silence…
I was not at my best when I met with Rav Ish-Shalom to resume our leisurely stroll through Hilkhot Teshuvah. The day before, I had taken a bad fall from a horse at a dead run. I had wrenched my left knee so badly that I couldn’t put weight on that leg.
Not much chance of the injury going unnoticed. “You’re limping,” said Rav Ish-Shalom as he ushered me into his living room. “What happened?”
As we sat down at his dining table, our books open in front of us, I explained that I had gone riding with two youngsters from the stables, one of them on a young stallion even less experienced than my filly, Gidget. A short gallop in a narrow lane had led to a train wreck.
“So you got back on the horse?” asked Rav Ish-Shalom
“Of course!” I said. “Such an incident can be frightening for a young horse. You have to get back on and re-create the situation, but this time in a more controlled fashion, so that she’ll learn that it doesn’t have to end badly. You redo it in a safer way, in order to learn not to be afraid.”
“If only your ears would hear what your mouth is saying!” said Rav Ish-Shalom.
I was puzzled.
“‘Redo it in a safer way, in order to learn not to be afraid,’” my teacher said. “So we may need to return to our failures in order to learn not to be afraid…. To learn that it doesn’t have to end badly…this is what teshuvah is all about!”
And of course, he was right!
But it suddenly occurred to me that there was more to it. Years of PTSD therapy had shown me that reliving a traumatic memory in a safe environment is the key to healing. Traumatic memories are unanchored in time, and thus we relive the trauma again and again in flashbacks and nightmares. Each reliving reinforces the sense of helplessness. The only way to break this cycle is to somehow fit the traumatic memory into the chronological stream of memory. If we can put it in a time sequence, it loses its power over us.
Rav Ish-Shalom, as usual, seemed to be reading my thoughts. “In the days when the Bet HaMikdash still stood (may it rebuilt in our days!), one who had been saved from death would bring a thank offering to the Mikdash. There he or she would talk about the close call with as many people as possible.”
I nodded. Someone saved from death is in danger of developing PTSD. By talking it out in a group setting, especially a setting that encouraged gratitude, the event is “normalized”.
“Makes sense” I said. “The offering allows us to bring our experience back into the stream of time.”
“‘Back into the stream of time….’” My teacher suddenly had the look of an orchestra director when the strings come in exactly on time. “I have a challenge for you,” he said, with a gleam in his eye.
Well, that got my attention! He continued, “There is a discussion in Massechet Brachot about dreams—what do certain images mean, how to relate to seemingly predictive dreams, and what to do about disturbing dreams.”
He paused and gave me an appraising look. “Incidentally, one of our sages says that only good people have bad dreams.”
“Well, we’ve just proved him wrong then, haven’t we?” I said.
“Or, alternatively, maybe he’s proved you wrong!” Rav Ish-Shalom smiled. “Something for you to think about.
“But one of the opinions brought in that discussion is that one who has had a disturbing dream should ‘take the dream’ to hear Birkhat HaKohanim. Apparently, the idea is to think of the dream during the blessing.
“So, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to relate the healing power of re-telling a traumatic event to three others ideas: The first is teshuvah; the second is the notion of bringing a disturbing dream to Birkhat Hakohanim; and the third is the Jewish people’s so-called “‘return to history”.
I thought about it, and started to put my thoughts into words.
Rav Ish-Shalom held up a hand to stop me. “I don’t want an answer now; take your time and see what you come up with.”
Needless to say, I accepted the challenge.
The next two essays explore some common threads in healing, teshuvah, and redemption. In the following essay, essay, Mourning Who We Might Have Been , I pose a response to the first part of Rav Ish-Shalom’s challenge: how to relate the healing power of re-telling a traumatic to teshuvah. In the last essay, I explore the connections between the healing power of teshuvah and Israel’s return to history.
How would you answer Rav Ish-Shalom’s challenge?