Part 3 of a 3-part series on teshuvah, dreams, and nation-building
Previous essays in this series:
“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’.”
When my teacher, Rav Ish-Shalom issued this challenge, I had no idea that it would lead me through Parashat Ki Tavo straight into Parashat Nitzavim. But so it unfolded. The journey of teshuvah may begin with the self, but it doesn’t end there; ultimately, the teshuvah of a single individual mirrors that of Klal Yisrael.
I had already addressed the first part of the challenge—the connection between teshuvah and “the talking cure” as therapy. In both cases, expressing the things that haunt us allows us to bring them into full conscious awareness, to reach closure, much the way sitting shivah allows closure in mourning. In the case of teshuvah, the closure reaches its full expression in the viddui.
The viddui may be the communal analogy to telling a bad dream. We work things out in dreams even when we are not conscious of the underlying factors. A disturbing dream is a sign that something is trying to move from unconscious to conscious awareness. We give the disquiet inside of us an opportunity to speak.
But why bring the disturbing dream to Birkhat HaCohanim?
There is a tradition that a cohen is not allowed to participate in the blessing unless he is free of personal animosities and is able to radiate unadulterated love toward those he is blessing. Regardless of the personal shortcomings of any particular cohen, the Birkhat HaCohanim is an act of collective transcendence.
The communal space of Birkhat HaCohanim offers us a safe and supportive venue in which to let the mind itself tell us what is bothering us. It is in this safe space that we bring the dream out from the private space of the subconscious into the “public space” of consciousness. The analogy to Teshuvah is clear: we can do Teshuvah only when we are conscious of having made a mistake, that we are off-course. The viddui completes the realization—from unconscious transgression, through conscious awareness, and then out into the public space of Klal Yisrael.
The nightmare warns us that something is not right. Something needs our attention. The dream—and the fact that it disturbs us—is a window into a deeper consciousness.
Silence and unvoiced being
But traumas, like disturbing dreams, resist being told. One of the symptoms of PTSD in my case is silence, and I have learned that this is not at all unusual. Traumatic memories are fundamentally unspeakable, and this is part of what keeps them unindexed in time:
Brain research confirms the strange relationship between words and the neurological underpinnings of emotional trauma. In the brains of patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, memory of the event is accompanied by pronounced activation of the visual cortex and limbic system, which governs emotions and their manifestations in the body. The brain’s speech-production center is deactivated. It is as though an image of the trauma were permanently stamped on the brain. And because of the deactivation of the speech center, the memory seems incompatible with words. Indeed, “There are no words to describe what I’ve experienced” is something patients often say.
But deliberately turning these images into words can alter the way the experience is encoded in the brain. Verbalizing the trauma can shift the brain’s balance and help lessen the impact of uncontrolled emotions.
Words that Heal. http://www.care2.com/greenliving/words-that-heal.html#ixzz1502iQlmY
It would seem that putting something into words—bringing forth into consciousness what is otherwise wordless and inarticulate—is also related to bringing something into the stream of time. It is no coincidence that the Torah pictures the world as being created with words.
Israel’s return to history
By regaining speech, we bring a wordless reality into the realm of time, of history. This is how the idea of the “talking cure” for trauma intersects with Am Yisrael’s “re-entering history”.
It is not just that we are rejoining the “family of nations” by once more gaining sovereignty in our own state. We were a nation long before modern nation-states came on the scene. Nor is it true that we had no influence in history during all these centuries of exile. Our influence is undeniable. Quietly, and without any conscious coordination or volition, we have molded and shaped the moral consciousness of nations. Our literature and thought has become part of that of nearly all Western nations, disseminated by new religions that base some of their primary teachings on our Torah. The same is true of the Muslim world, where Islam has adapted many Jewish social norms to local conditions. Whether these nations would admit it or not, whether they are even conscious of it or not, we have become a part of their implicit thought processes. We are part of the subconscious of the world.
A subconscious thought becomes explicit when it is articulated in speech. Things unspoken—and unspeakable—may have tremendous influence on us. A nightmare may shape our outward thoughts and feelings far beyond what we can ever be aware of. But there is no volition involved. Until we can articulate the nightmare, and bring it into conscious awareness, we have no control over it.
For nearly two-thousand years, we have shaped the thought of other nations, and they in turn have acted out their nightmares upon us. Every subconscious notion of what hell would be like was eventually materialized in actions against the Jews as a nation, not just as individuals. We were the material embodiment of the subconscious and the “mind of man” acted on us accordingly.
Now Am Yisrael has regained the power of speech. We are no longer merely a subconscious thought in the mind of the nations, a fleeting dream, the substance on which to work out nightmares. Now we have become a willed, articulated movement into action. The recreation of the sovereign Jewish state needed the legitimization of the nations in order to be a willed act of the “mind of man”. This may be why the “three vows” had to be interpreted as they were. On the material plane, it’s true that without the consensus—or at least the permission—of the nations, our return would not have had the self-confidence needed to succeed.
But the “psychology of mankind” gives the event an even deeper significance. The power of our return is not only in our own will that it happen and our own acting on our ancient longing. It is also the fact that for a moment in history, in November 1947, the nations of the world—as representatives of the conscious will of mankind—made a movement toward making us a conscious presence. Perhaps the nightmare had finally become so disturbing that the “mind of man” had to try to articulate it.
Granted, it was not a particularly wholehearted action, but only a tentative motion. But even the tiniest impetus toward Teshuvah can bring into being undreamed-of consequences. For a moment we were “on the tip of the tongue”—a thought about to be uttered. But the merest hint was enough. The power and emotion welling up behind that inarticulate thought took over. All the inexpressible longing poured forth into action, spilled over into willed, conscious materialization.
The world, as represented by the nations, is now once again conscious of us as a people. Where before we interacted with nation-states as individuals, or at most, as isolated communities, now we interact with nation-states as a nation. We have returned to history as we have returned to the consciousness of mankind. We act upon the world in a more explicit, self-aware way, not as individual Jews, but as Am Yisrael—a nation living in its own land.
Here again, the theme of Return is the common thread.
The call to Teshuvah is the voice of our age. Many “hear it” below the level of consciousness, and they act on it all unknowing. Others follow it with full understanding of the miracle. It speaks to different people in different voices. Some shut it out. Some are angered by the imposition, or put off by the implications of responsibility. And yet, that voice has called our deepest longings into actuality.
We were like dreamers, and though we plowed in sorrow and seeded bitter thorns, we are now gathering in a harvest beyond our wildest dreams.