Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Ha'azinu: "Trauma and Teshuvah"
My graduate training in psychology taught me a great deal. But there were major topics that were simply not part of our curriculum. Interestingly, these topics eventually proved essential for me in the performance of my professional duties, both in the field of psychotherapy and in the rabbinate. I must point out that I attended graduate school over 40 years ago and thankfully the curricula these days are significantly improved.
Topics which were missing for me included the following: death, grief and mourning, substance abuse including alcoholism, and domestic violence. Obviously, I could have used tutelage in these areas later in my career.
Another topic which was unheard of back in the late 1960s was the now well-known condition "post traumatic stress disorder". The symptoms of people's reactions to trauma are now widely known, and even the treatments which help those who have experienced trauma are familiar to those who keep up with the popular media.
However, when I was in school, trauma was not part of our everyday vocabulary, even for us clinicians in training.
Nowadays, we use the word trauma to refer to events which occur to people and affect them profoundly, physically and emotionally. We reserve the term for those events which disrupt a person's life and which leave permanent psychological scars, which can include nightmares and episodes of anxiety persisting even many years after the original traumatic event.
What brings trauma to my mind at this particular time of year? The answer to this question lies in the fact that we are now in the period of time beginning with Rosh Hashanah and concluding with Yom Kippur. These ten days are known as the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, "Ten Days of Teshuvah". Teshuvah is generally translated as "repentance", although I personally prefer the more literal translation of teshuva as "return". "The Ten Days of Return to God".
During the course of the past year each and every one of us, and all of us collectively, have experienced trauma. For some of us the trauma was severe: loss of a loved one, serious illness, sexual assault, or other unspeakable tragedies. For the Jewish people as a whole, we have witnessed the trauma of war in Israel, whether or not the political leadership of Israel technically calls it a war. Since the cease-fire, which hopefully will endure and indeed become transformed into a genuine peace, we added on the trauma of increased anti-Semitism in many parts of the world.
But each of us has known spiritual trauma as well. As I see it, spiritual trauma is one very plausible definition of "sin". If, for example, I told a lie during the course of this past year; and I would argue, which one of us can deny having told at least one, if not several, lies over the past 12 months? That lie, however well-intentioned and whatever excuses can be made for it, caused, in religious terms, a trauma to our soul. It left its mark in terms of the guilt and regret we feel, and, if we are not totally callous, it left us deeply ashamed.
If we are truthful to ourselves, and if there is any time of the year when we must be truthful it is now, we can call to mind other sins which we have committed.
Some were sins of omission, such as neglecting to express proper sentiments to parents and friends; conveniently forgetting to fulfill certain pledges or pay certain debts; failure to do various religious rituals when we found them too cumbersome or when we were just feeling inconvenienced to attend synagogue or Torah study sessions. But we can surely also recall sins of omission that we performed: insulting others, spreading malicious gossip, betraying confidences, petty theft, or taking advantage of our position to denigrate others. Not to mention breaches of religious ritual such as taking God's name in vain or partaking of forbidden foods.
If we are courageous enough to view our faults as spiritual traumas we can then utilize to great advantage the lessons that psychologists have learned about other types of trauma. For example, here is how Judith Lewis Herman, one of the pioneers in the scientific study of trauma and its treatment describes the "central dialectic of psychological trauma" in the introduction to her seminal work Trauma and Recovery:
"The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness… atrocities, however, refuse to be buried… the conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma…"
How familiar is this "dialectic" to all of us when we consider the moral or religious "atrocities" of which we have been guilty? Even King David in Psalms -- and King David is held up by our sages as being the model for Teshuvah – is conflicted about whether or not he should keep his sins concealed from the eyes of others thus eventually suppressing them from his own consciousness, or grapple openly with his failures.
There are even helpful clues provided by those who are expert in the treatment of psychological trauma for those of us who are experiencing spiritual trauma during these ten special days. Here is what Judith Lewis Herman has to say about the process of "reconnection" for the person who has suffered mental trauma:
"This simple statement – 'I know I have myself' – stands as the emblem of recovery... Her task now is to become the person she wants to be… the re-creation of an ideal self involves the active exercise of imagination and fantasy…"
How useful are these words to the person who sincerely wants to "repent" from his or her sins. Repentance is a process which demands that we "know ourselves,” define or redefine our "ideal selves,” and actively exercise our imagination in developing strategies and schemes to undo whatever spiritual harm we have caused, and to become better people in the process.
Judith Lewis Herman has more to say about recovery from trauma that is astonishingly relevant to those of us who would recover from our spiritual traumas during this time of year. For example, she speaks of the needs to "regain some capacity for appropriate trust... to reconnect with others… to find a mission in life…" All of these needs apply to those who would take Teshuvah seriously.
Finally, she reminds us of an important truth, again one which King David anticipated: "Resolution of the trauma is never final; recovery is never complete." Teshuva is not a quick and easy process, which once done, is over and done with.
Quite the contrary. Whatever one accomplishes with his introspection and serious self-examination during these "Ten Days of Return" is only the beginning of what must be a lifelong process of vigilant self-monitoring and constant re-dedication. What we have right now is the opportunity to begin that process.
Let us begin, and in the process, let us put the "curses of the past year" behind us and advance into a new year, and a new life, of only blessings. Shana Tova.