On Us Jews, Corona and Resilience
Some of you may have attended a Zoom presentation I did under the auspices of the congregation a couple of weeks ago, focusing on the psychological aspects of coping with Corona-related stress. The main thrust of that presentation was how to deal with the current crisis without letting it become a personal or collective trauma. But when looking at Corona through the lens of the High Holy Days, I would say more: Even if we are traumatized by the worst kinds of stressful events or losses, we can bounce back, or even bounce forward! In psychology, instead of PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) we would call this Post-traumatic Growth. I was reminded of this by a sermon given by Rabbi Lisa Melik of New Jersey, in which she quotes an article I published in Conservative Judaism, on PTSD in our biblical patriarchs. I believe this is relevant to our High Holidays and to our current situation, more than ever.
Every year, in almost every shul, Rabbis discuss why our Sages chose the specific Torah portions they chose for the Holiest Days of the year, when we need to search our souls most deeply and set course for the coming year. Here at Bet Israel, Netanya, we have discussed many details of the stories of Genesis 21 and 22 that we read on Rosh Hashana. But taking a broad view, it emerges that our Sages chose the very first Jewish family dealing with the very worst of its trials, even actual trauma, for us to revisit every year. (Don’t worry, after noting the tough stuff, we will return to see our main message: how to move onward and upward!) Hagar and Ishama’el are cast out. They lose their family, their home and their tribe, and they very nearly die of thirst in the desert. And the family loses them: Abraham no doubt had feelings for his handmaid Hagar, and their son Ishma’el — his first-born son! And then Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac are faced with the ordeal of the Akedah. Abraham is traumatized by God’s demand to sacrifice his only remaining son. Sara is traumatized when she hears they have gone to do so. Isaac is traumatized when bound and placed upon the alter, watching his father raise knife overhead to slaughter him. How can they move on after this traumatic injury to trust and to self-image: trust in God, in husband, in father, in the security of family. Later Jacob is hit with the traumatic loss of Rachel in childbirth, and then with the “death” of his beloved son Joseph. Joseph must deal with his near-murder by his brothers, and then with slavery, the loss of his family and home, and finally with unjust incarceration on trumped-up charges of attempted rape. But our patriarchs dealt with all these traumas, and they carried on! This may well be the main overarching message of our Sages on our High Holy Days.
If we move forward in our history, we find many more instances of personal and collective trauma. On a personal level, look at King David, for example: David’s oldest son, Amnon, rapes David’s daughter, Tamar. Tamar’s brother, Avshalom, kills Amnon in revenge. (The news reaching David in Jerusalem is at first that all of his children have been murdered; can you imagine?!) Later Avshalom is killed, and David mourns bitterly — but he goes on.
As a people, even in our own Land we were subjugated and persecuted numerous times, by Ammonites, Midianites, Moabites, Philistines, Arameans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Edomites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mamluks, and Ottoman Moslems. As you know, our capital, our Temple, and the cities of our land were burned and ransacked repeatedly. After the majority of us were exiled, we were cast out and brutally persecuted virtually everywhere we went. But somehow, we persevered, to survive, and even to thrive, till he we are, today, thousands of years later, against the background of Holocaust, blessed to have regained our independence in a strong and proud state of our own!
In Post-traumatic growth, people go on and even develop in positive directions following trauma. Isn’t this precisely what we have done? David transformed his immense personal grief over Tamar, Amnon and Avshalom into some of the best, heart-rending poetry the world has known, in his Psalms, bringing solace to millions.
BTW, imagine the Babylonians and then the Romans had not destroyed our Temple. We grew from these tragedies by adapting, developing the synagogue and oral law. Imagine us today still going up to Jerusalem three times a year to bring animal sacrifices to the Priests in our Temple: Would this necessarily be our ideal religious practice? Have we not developed a higher level of spiritual life and ethical values, precisely by being deprived of our former sacraments? We adapted and evolved. This is exactly what Darwin meant when he said that species that survive are not necessarily the strongest or most intelligent but those that are best able to adapt to their changing environment.
Rabbi Melik quotes from Talmud Brachot (3a): Rabbi Yossi relates how he entered a ruin in Jerusalem to pray, and found Elijah the prophet waiting for him when he was done. After exchanging greetings, “Elijah asked me: ‘My son, why did you go into this ruin?’ I replied: ‘To pray’. He said to me: ‘You ought to have prayed on the road’. I replied: ‘I feared passers-by might interrupt me’. He said to me: ‘You ought to have said an abbreviated prayer’.”
Thus, Rabbi Yossi learned from Eliyahu HaNavi 3 things:
What is the meaning of “one must not enter a ruin”? Rabbi Harlan Wechsler taught that the deeper meaning of Rabbi Yossi’s teaching is that we should not live in the metaphorical “ruins” of our lives. Don’t wallow in the disasters that have befallen you. Instead, strive to move beyond the “ruins”; continue moving “ba-derech” (on the road) of recovery and healing, rather than dwelling in the “churvah” (ruins).
This Rabbinic source lends clear support for how we are coping with Corona on these High Holy Days. Corona struck us on the road, yet we come together and pray, to do our annual soul-searching, to be inspired by the words and melodies of our liturgy, to go on stronger, seeking constantly to improve in the future. But we do so this year “on the road”, adapting flexibly to the situation. We allow ourselves to say a shorter prayer, and if necessary, we meet via Zoom in order to observe the precept of Pikuach Nefesh, the preeminence of the sanctity of life. Thus, in this very service together we demonstrate some of the principals of Jewish post-traumatic growth, as in millennia past: Flexibility, adaptivity, resilient strength.
May we continue on our road, with the best possible health, and the determination that we will go on no matter what, to grow, develop, and flourish, as individuals, as families, and as a people, forever and ever. L’shana Tova shel Tzmicha, of growth. And of strength: Y’shar ko’ach! And of life: B’Sefer Chaim Tichatevu v’Techatemu.