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Seventy Faces of Torah Telling Stories of Trauma for Healing and Compassion

By Rabbi Adam Lavitt

Adam-LavittOn the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, a group in Japan launched a project in which storytellers are training to retell the experiences of survivors. My grandfather participated in a similar project 20 years ago, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which sought to collect testimony from survivors before the experience of the Holocaust was lost to the world. My family’s participation in this project instilled in me the belief that these stories, though painful, should be actively remembered and repeated.

In the biblical text, Moses must become a storyteller. In this week’s parashah, Ki Tetzei, he stands at the edge of the desert and faces the Israelite people, who gaze over his shoulder toward the promised land. We might imagine him trying to take in his surroundings, overwhelmed by the haunting silence of dor hamidbar (the generation that was lost in the wilderness behind them), unsure if he has the strength to break that silence, and if so, what he will say.

Millennia later, we too grapple with how to make sense of and articulate the painful experiences our ancestors lived through. Until recently, neuroscientists believed that if they could erase an individual’s traumatic memories, they would cure her PTSD. But they came to observe that, under acute stress, our genes can actually recode themselves — allowing traumatic events to get not just stored in our bodies but seemingly passed onto the next generation, affecting the way that generation responds to its own stressors.

When Moses faces the Israelites, he knows that — despite the safety and power the Israelites will find in the land they are about to settle — they must be reminded of and remember the specifics of their ancestors’ trauma, or they will unwittingly confuse that trauma with their own experience.

Moses breaks the silence:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — how … he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when Adonai your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you … you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-18)

When Moses says “remember” and “do not forget,” this seems to be redundant. But Ramban, the 13th-century commentator, argues that each phrase has its own significance, referring to two different expressions of memory. “Remember” is an act that happens ba-lev, in the heart; “do not forget” happens ba-peh, in the mouth.

While it is crucial to acknowledge the emotional impact of our collective, ancestral memory ba-lev, we also need to articulate and place these feelings in a larger context ba-peh. Moses wants to prevent the Israelites from projecting Amalek, the archetypal force of destruction, onto every future challenge they confront; he demands that they understand their collective history so it can appropriately (not unconsciously or reflexively) shape their future actions.

It is no surprise that we read this passage twice a year (on Shabbat this week, and during Purim), in a kind of ritualized remembering and retelling. Neuroscientist Dr. Rachel Yehuda argues that this ritual models healthy engagement with ancestral, collective trauma: “You set aside a certain part of your life to remember and acknowledge, but it doesn’t own you.” Amalek must not monopolize our past, or determine our future. To heal, we must put our history back into context — carrying it in the spirit of reflection, aware of where we come from.

As other mechanisms for communal healing, the Jewish community observes Yom haShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, as well as traditional fast days that commemorate various events in the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and other collective historical calamities. At these fixed times, we recall our past in its specificity, and recognize the dangers and challenges we face today as both similar to and different from the ones our ancestors faced. If a collective memorial observance is done well, rather than reacting to our own environmental stressors as if we are fighting for our lives as in events long past, we are free to respond consciously and constructively to the challenges we encounter in their current specificity.

Despite these rituals, it is too easy to feel as if we’re fighting for our lives even when contemporary events do not warrant it. We lose sight of our ancestor’s struggles as theirs, and react as if we are victims of our parents’ circumstances. Rather than acting from the traumas we inherit, we must speak of the pain of our parents and our grandparents, grieve it, and move back into the realities of our own lives.

Steven Spielberg has collected a total of 52,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors. In 2014, he reflected, “One of the greatest mitzvahs has been that survivors unwilling to speak to their children and grandchildren about what happened to them allowed not just their loved ones but the entire world to know their story. [This] testimony is a tremendous tool of healing and understanding.”

In 2009, after a mosque was burned down in a Palestinian village, most likely by Jewish residents of the West Bank, the (then) Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, paid a visit to the village elders and offered his condolences, support, and empathy.

“We, the people of Israel,” Rabbi Metzger told them, “have a trauma from 70 years ago when the greatest destruction we have ever known, the Holocaust, started with the burning of synagogues on Kristallnacht.” His recapitulation of the Holocaust narrative under these circumstances served not to surface feelings of Jewish vulnerability, but to acknowledge another community under attack — very possibly by Jewish hands.

Like the survivors of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, like my grandfather — perhaps, even, like the Israelites who witnessed Amalek “cutting down” their brothers and grandmothers — we must tell our own stories. And when we recall and repeat such stories, we must also understand whose stories they are. We remember ba-lev, and we retell ba-peh.

As we recite the stories of our ancestral traumas, we recognize their power to not just communicate our fears, but also stimulate our hopes. In recognizing our own triggers, we can help the next generation understand theirs. We may even gain the capacity to act from a place of compassion — not just for ourselves, but for others.

Rabbi Adam Lavitt is a spiritual leader, educator, and writer living in Philadelphia, where he serves as the campus rabbi at Swarthmore College. He was ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, where he also received a Master’s in Jewish Education, and a Certificate in Pastoral Care.  He has been a Liturgist in Residence at the National Havurah Institute, and a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow.

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