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What happens when someone is traumatized?

Long ago, when I was still in graduate school. one of my professors used a metaphor that has stayed with me to this day.

Imagine, she said, a pool of water.

It’s still and quiet.

The water is clear.

Then someone throws a large stone into the middle of the pool.

A large plop noise starts a rippling out of waves and stirring up the water and silt.

Depending on the size of the rock and the size of the pool, the ripples eventually peter out and the water returns to it’s former state of stillness.

Now to be sure, people are not pools of water.

We are infinitely more complex, what with our social connections, our moral ideals, our bodies, our feelings, and all that makes us human.

In a sense, and like that pool of water, a traumatic event disrupts our selves and our lives and ripples out, disturbing everything about ourselves.

But there are many many differences between us and a pool of water

For one thing, the pool of water will return to it’s former state.

The water will calm down and the disturbed silt will clear.

In a few minutes the water will appear as it did before: pristine and still.

For us though there is no going back. We are people and we are constantly adding new chapters to our unfolding lives.

While the water will appear as though nothing happened to it, we will carry the wounds of trauma forward and they will seep into every nick and cranny of who we are.

While there is no way to turn back the clock, there is still hope.

Recovery from trauma allows us to take back control of our lives and to live them in the light of our deepest dreams.

Why is sexual abuse like murder?

We commonly speak of sexual abuse as murder.

Some perhaps go even further: they say that sexual abuse is WORSE than murder.

That’s because in the case of physical murder the victim, now dead, no longer suffers the ignominy of the crime committed against them.

In the case of sexual abuse, the victim goes on living but with all of the psychological and social damage hobbling them.

The parallel of murder and sexual abuse is drawn from the Bible.

In the discussion of sexual violence in Deuteronomy 22 we find these verses:

25 But if a man finds the betrothed girl in the field, and the man overpowers her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die.
26 Whereas to the girl, you shall do nothing the girl did not commit a sin deserving of death, for just as a man rises up against his fellow and murders him, so is this case.
27 Because he found her in the field. The betrothed girl had cried out, but there was no one to save her.

This parallel is compelling.

Speaking for myself, it makes me wonder about life and what it means to be alive.

And by extension it makes me think about what is destroyed when a woman or man is sexually violated.

Look at it like this:

If you were to ask anyone what is it to be alive they would probably say that it means to have a heart beat, to show signs of physical life.

In all honesty, I wouldn’t say that they are wrong.

But the Bible is placing in murder and sexual violation in one category.

Pretty shocking, no?

It would seem that the commonality between the two is that there is denial of self determination.

To be robbed of agency is to die.

It would seem then that to be alive is to be able freely determine where one wishes to go and what one wishes to do.

To be able to chart the direction of one’s life.

Having worked with victims of sexual abuse over the past thirty years this kind of murder is real.

These victims are caught in a web of shame, powerlessness, fear, and confusion that denies them the ability to live joyfully and powerfully in their own lives.

Their hearts may still beat out a normal sinus rhythm but their spirits, like a corpse, are dead and buried.

But that is what makes their resurrection so much more amazing and miraculous.

This week we read of the splitting of the Red Sea and the Manna that fell from Heaven.

Pretty heady, wild stuff.

Just so that we can look at ourselves in the twin mirrors of rationality and magic, let’s remind ourselves of some important words:

A miracle is a noticed moment that blasts apart our ideas of what is and what can be.

Science is the endeavor to figure out what lies before us based on what is already known.

Or more accurately, assumed to be known.

As one who loves science and the scientific method, all I can have is humility before the Cosmos.

That’s because in between the lines of what I know, is that which I have no idea of.

Is it possible that a gigantic body of water split open just at the right time?

Is it possible that Manna, that magical sustenance that fell from the Heaven each day of the journey through the desert?

Sure! Why not?

What are kinot?

As of this moment, come this Saturday night many of us will be sitting on the floors of synagogues reciting kinot. Someone long ago translated kinot as elegies for the tragedies that have shaped and punctuated the unfolding of Jewish history. While the word elegy seems about right as translations go i think it obscures the deeper meaning of kinot.

Kinot (or kina in singular) is a word repeated throughout the book of Jeremiah. That’s Jeremiah the prophet (not the frog) who tried and tried valiantly to get us to clean up our act only to watch us spectacularly blow it.

It’s a unique word for a prophetic vision or speech especially when so many other words are available to describe what Jeremiah had to say. So it’s introduction begs the question of what does it mean? What idea does it introduce?

The word kina derives of root letters, koof nun. Those two letters make up a lot of basic words in Hebrew. Two examples jump up: My Hebrew speaking friends know that if they wish to buy something at the store they must take those two letters, make a verb form out of them which sounds like koneh. Those of us who spend time in the company of nature know that a bird lays her eggs in a nest made up of koof noon, spelling the word ‘kan’.

This brings me to the sneaking suspicion that kinah, koneh, and kan emerge from one root which for us English speakers would best be described as ‘deep association’* (The fancy word is nesting). And when we speak of kinah we are speaking of a poem of deep association. Deep association to the point of wallowing in our past, in our missed opportunities, in the losses and in the catastrophes of our people.

But like so much else in Hebrew the pain also contains the comfort. The wallowing of kinah can give way to renewal of kniah, a deepened, perhaps even the deepest of the deep, connection with Divinity, Holiness, and Beauty, when peace and kindness will reign.

Soon. In our days.

*By ‘deep’ I’m speaking to the implications of the association. When i purchase something, koneh, it is mine. As in ‘mine! mine! mine!!!!’ If you take it from me then you will go to jail.

That’s a pretty deep association.

Sex, Heroism, And What Every Son (And Daughter) Wants To Hear

Everyone wants to be the hero. 

Not just a hero; 

The hero. 

We look at the horrors of the world and there isn’t one of us who doesn’t wish for a second for super-human abilities to rescue, to save, to right the wrongs and make everything ok. 

There’s nothing wrong with that impulse.

After all, heroism is an expression of our Godly nature.

The thing is though there are other factors to be considered. We cannot fly or through bolts of fire. That’s why Superman, Thor, and Wonder Woman (how could I leave her out?!) are heroes only in our imagination. 

But don’t worry; real heroism is still attainable for us. It isn’t flashy and it’s certainly much more subtle. Human heroism is in the moments of decision when the hero makes the tiniest of choices to do the hardest things possible: to act with grandeur in spite of lethargy and impulse. Working with the depressed and the addicted, I’m fortunate to spend my days in the company of such heroes; people who fight mighty battles that no one ever knows of.

While the rough outlines are innate to us, human heroism needs grooming. We need people to cheer us, to celebrate with us, to say ‘keep up the good work’, etc. There are, of course, some of us whose heroics will be unknown and unacknowledged except by those us who realize that we stand today on the shoulders of the anonymous heroes who came before us. But all of us need a pat on the back and the respect of those whose opinions matter to us.

Chief among those bequeathers of respect are our parents. I’ve listened to the storied and the famous, who’ve received award and recognition from world wide authorities, bemoan (and often cry) that they wish their mom and dad could see them, that they could say, ‘Wow! That’s an impressive achievement. I’m humbled. I could have never done that.’ 

Because there’s nothing like a pat on the back from mom or dad.

That to me is the lesson Jacob’s blessing and testimony of Joseph. In the middle of the beautiful Biblical poetry is a cryptic expression, ‘his bow was firmly established’ (Genesis 49:24). The Talmud comes to the rescue with a sensational interpolation: ‘But his bow was strongly established’ as referring to Joseph’s overcoming his temptation with his master’s wife. He calls it a bow because semen shoots like an arrow.’

Here’s a father, a Biblical patriarch no less, not only complementing his son but extolling a virtue that the vast majority of us would rather make believe doesn’t exist: his son’s sexual chastity.

Wow!

That totally rocks.

Jacob was saying to Joseph, ‘Joe, you’re a hero. You could have given into the seductions of Mrs. Potiphar (and who better portrays her than the great Joan Collins in Donnie Osmond’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat?) and no one would have known. But you kept it together; you stayed faithful to the mission. I’m humbled. You’re my hero.’

While I’d probably be mortified if my dad mentioned my sexuality, I know now that Jacob was really on to something. If we want real societal holiness (as opposed to repression which is the really-bad-for-you-margarine-imposter for holiness) then we need to celebrate chastity and menchlichkeit. We need to inculcate in our children and in ourselves that sexual temptation is an opportunity to manifest our heroic side. We need to tell them again and again that the moments of temptation are their moments to shine. The world may not give them medals or put them on the cover of magazines, but they are our heroes.

 

Because every one of us wants to be a  hero. 

Four Mini Thoughts And A Story On Parah Aduma

The rite of Parah Aduma or Red Heifer and the laws spiritual purity are discussed at length in this week’s Torah portion. Click here to read the text. This portion offers a window into the Biblical view of the healer and the one in need of healing. As healers and as individuals in need of healing it makes sense to consider what we can take away from this parsha. Here’s four reflections which seem evident:

1) Being a healer requires sacrifice. Traditionally, we consider the Parah Aduma to be an inexplicable contradiction. The one who is tamay (traditionally translated in English as impure) becomes tahor (traditionally translated in English as pure) through the agency of a priest who then becomes tamay himself. The uninitiated ask how can that be; how can ‘medicine which cures one person make another sick’?. As a healer however I’ve realized that there is no contradiction. Empathy and caring require that I enter into the personal misery of each and every client. And going in there will not leave me unscathed (unless I don’t care or am too afraid to care). My faith, my health, my finances, my joy, and my serenity are constantly on the line in my work. That’s why I often find myself saying that this work is not for the faint of heart.

2) Healers must care for themselves. The priest administering the ashes of the Parah Aduma must immerse himself in a mikvah of water and wait till night fall to become pure again. This is the Torah’s way of telling us healers to rejuvenate our souls. Working with the despairing, the frightened, the addicted, and the confused I must have a ‘place’ where I go to replenish myself.

3) Commitment to healing is a personal choice. Healing begins when the one in need of healing says it does. The Torah tells us that the rites of the Parah Aduma are administered on the third and seventh day. That the Torah leaves out when that set of seven days begin tells us that it’s up to the one in need of healing to decide when his or her process begins, to declare when ‘the first day of the rest of my life is’. By leaving the process up to the individual, the Torah empowers him or her to recast his or her biography as he or she sees fit.

4) Our wounds and shame are part of the journey to healing. The Torah calls the mixture of ashes and water, ‘the waters of sin’ or ‘may chatat’. That’s funny. I would have thought that a better name would be, ‘the waters of purification’. What the Torah is teaching me with these words is even sin, when transformed, is a beloved part of the process of healing.

One event in my career illustrates how the willingness to enter the client’s hell helps. For reasons still unknown to me, a young woman suffering from a terribly unremitting form of anorexia decided that I would be her psychotherapist. I tried to dissuade her as there were far more experienced therapists in our day treatment program. She insisted and figuring that she had been unsuccessfully treated at the best eating disorders clinics in the country, I agreed because I had little to lose. To refuse her would only have meant that she would leave our program and not get treatment anywhere.

So we began.

A rookie to the world of anorexia and eating disorders I pretty much let her set the pace of treatment. Knowing that compulsory treatment had done nothing to help her, my plan was just to let her talk and unfold. As I would come to learn however young people with this kind of anorexia are not big talkers. So I brought up our mutual interests in art (she was an art design student) and pop culture. Every so often I’d throw in a story about my kids and their antics; she seemed to like those a lot.

Of course our therapy was not peaches and cream. The unit nurses and physicians warned me again and again how ill she was; that she could drop dead at any moment. For every meal that she consumed she missed four or five. She worked out for hours and hours. In fact, there were moments when I felt completely hopeless. Without any other ideas (and leery of what my supervisors might suggest) I shared my terror with the client. And then I did something totally off the wall; I put on my kippa  (this was not a kippa-friendly hospital) and I prayed aloud to Hashem for guidance. She sat quietly as I quite plainly spoke with Heaven.

I have no idea what this young woman thought of her therapist. At first I worried that I was making a fool of myself. But she kept coming back and in this business coming back is a big victory. She didn’t drop dead as expected. I do know that until our 18 months of work together (which ended when I made aliya in 2002) this woman had not stayed out of a hospital for more than 6 months since she was 12 years old. But I take no credit for this; God designed us so that when we are willing to enter the hell of the other, possibilities happen. All I did was follow the Manufacturer’s instructions

That’s the lesson of the Parah Aduma.

Elul & The Field Of Dreams

Ancient tradition tells us that the Jewish month of Elul, coming just before Rosh Hashana, is a time of introspection. This tradition connects the introspection of Elul to the special love and mercy through which God relates to us during this month. The name of the month Elul spells an acronym forming the words, ‘I am for Beloved, and He is for me’ (Shir Hashirim 6:3). While His kindness is abundant at any time of the year, during the 30 days of Elul we feel it more urgently and are stirred to turn towards Him. 

The Chasidic master, the Baal HaTanya, expands on the uniqueness of Elul with a unique metaphor. He speaks of a great king, customarily seated in his castle, surrounded by ministers and servants, who once a year ventures out to see his subjects in their fields. Instead of trekking to the castle, the common folk may approach the king as he sees them go about their everyday lives.

This haunting metaphor is laden with mystical illusions. For me however it emphasizes spiritual simplicity and innocence. A field is in contrast to a building. A field is a place of mud and of growth. It is far from the safety and cleanliness of a home. A field is where life is dirty and unkempt. A home is a place of security, a field a place of vulnerability to the elements.

During the year I build a structure around myself to protect my self from the harsh realities of my existence. This mesh of ideas, agendas, and opinions gives me the illusion of identity, control, and false superiority. In Elul I’m invited to shed my shell, to meet my Creator, as is, in a field of vulnerability. We meet sans the armor of arrogance, status, snarkiness, indifference, intelligence, or wealth. He in His infinite and unknowable love; me with my fears, wounds, warts, and my simple, aching desires. The two of us together come to reconnect, to rebuild, to plan an even better coming year.

Far from embarrassing, this meeting in the field is liberating. Schlepping around the armor of everyday life is pretty taxing. I’ve gotta look good and be on my toes lest anyone see that I’m less than the image that I wish to project. The silliness is that we are all playing the same exhausting game. Even worse are the burdens of guilt, shame, and fears which tire me out. Elul gives me a break from all that: I can be myself without the B.S. of self.

The vulnerability of Elul gives us real power. We all love stories of heroes who transcended circumstance to make the save at the last moment. The soldier who carries his injured buddy for miles through an unspeakable battle. Or anyone who overcomes the impossible to change the course of human history even if that change is nothing more remarkable than a spark of kindness in the dark of the everyday.

And we are all those same heroes.

When we shed our armor we can go beyond our selves. We can access our God given super powers. Without the protective armor of self, without the opinions and shame of the past we can extend ourselves to those who need our honesty and love. By revealing our true unsullied innocence we give others permission to come out of their shells.

But best of all when we let go of our fears we are free to meet with God in a field laden with the promise of renewal, love, and a year full of goodness for all.

Shana Tova to all!

The Beauty of The Unanswered Prayer

Standing in shul this morning, I noticed the placard with the name of this week’s Torah portion: VaEtchanan (Deutoronomy 3) which translated comes out as ‘and I beseeched’. This refers to the many, many prayers that Moses offered to God to be allowed to enter the Promised Land with the Children Of Israel.

But what did all that praying get him?

Gornisht. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing.

God unmoved, Moses was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Jordanian mountains.

On first reflection it seems an ironic story to tell us would-be believers. If prayer is supposed to be so great then why tell us a story in which prayer is so useless. Why devote an entire weekly portion of the Torah to unanswered prayer?

With a bit of reflection however an idea came to me: maybe the beauty of prayer has nothing to do with getting what we want. Maybe I had it all wrong: maybe prayer is not about getting what I want. Maybe the answers that we get are the ones that we cannot see with our hands. Maybe the answers to our prayers are the inner changes that come about through the act of prayer.

What are those inner changes?

Here’s one change that I’ve noticed for years: I, for one, find prayer to be a winnowing process which helps me sort through the innumerable distractions and attractions that eat up my mental and spiritual bandwidth. After prayer I’m much more focused and calmer. That effect has little connection with what I’ve prayed for; but there’s no question that the process of prayer brought that inner focus to emerge.

Yet I think that prayer offers much more than meditation and mental exercise. Prayer blows my cover: as much as I fancy myself as king s*&t, I’m nothing more than a broken down beggar trying not to lose what I’ve got. And you’re in the same boat. I don’t care how much money and fame you think that you’ve got. Prayer reminds me that with the (maybe) exception of thought I’m an owner of nothing.

It could be all taken away.

Like that.

Prayer whether answered or unanswered returns me to my humanity. It plucks me out of the delusion of ownership, ushering me into the community of beggars otherwise known as the rest of us.

And it’s nice to have a little company.

As much as I like it when my prayers are answered, coming back to myself is the best answer anyone can get.

And that is answer enough to any prayer.  

Why do we begin every Shemone Esray prayer with Avot?

The Avot prayer is a microcosm of Jewish history. It begins with Abraham and concludes with the promised redemption. This formula underscores that the mutual relationship between God and Man is rooted in the history of the Jewish people. Far from a deity that is cold and detached from the nitty gritty dirtiness of life here on Earth, Jewish belief sees a God present in our history. Through the good times and the bad times, through the tests and tribulations of our ancestors God is as still present now as He was then. And it’s from the recognition of His presence that we can get on with the business of prayer.