Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Redefining Trauma: Learning from Parashat Noah

          There are some great songs that I simply cannot listen to. Why?  Because there have been times in my life when a song has been playing during a traumatic fight, breakup, or failure, and it hurts to listen to that song for years to come.  It is really a shame because on an objective level I know that the music is compelling and the words are moving, but it is just ruined for me.   After leaving Israel after living there for years, it was spiritually painful for me to hear Hebrew because it reminded me of how profoundly difficult it was to leave.  As a result, I refused to listen to Hebrew music for nearly a year.  Some events in our lives possess emotionally evocative markers-- places, times, smells, and sounds -- and those markers can be ruined by the painful moments we associate with them.
          According to Bereshit Rabbah (42:5), the flood that took over the earth in the time of Noah lasted for forty days.   The rabbis were well aware of how evocative the term "40 days" was in a Biblical context.  How can it be that 40 days describes both the flood and the time it took for Moses to receive the Torah?  While as moderns, we may be able to dismiss the identical time periods to coincidence, the rabbis could not do the same.  What can we learn from this parallelism?
        In the Yalkut Shimoni, we learn that though the time periods may have appeared the same, they may have been different.  In Parashat Noach (7:4-5), the Yalkut Shimoni records a dispute between two rabbis.  Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai argued that when Bereshit Rabbah claimed that the flood was 40 days, it meant that it lasted for 40 days and 40 nights.  However, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai says his colleague's assumption was wrong.  As a concept, the period of 40 days was so ruined by the flood, that God made a point to keep Moses for 40 days and 40 nights.  The blessed event of revelation needed to be distinguished from the cursed event of the flood.  These two messages from God may appear at first to come in the same form, but in fact were delivered in two distinct ways.
       The number 40 is extremely significant in the Bible and Jewish tradition.  After the flood, we could have dispensed with the number 40 altogether as a damaged number that brings back only the worst memories of God's anger and disappointment.  However, Shimoni bar Yochai teaches us something very important about reclaiming painful places and times in our lives.  We cannot dispose of them, but we cannot use them time and time again without change.  Rather, we can return to those painful markers -- the places where an accident occurred, the song that accompanied the fight, the scent of someone we once loved -- and change them in small, but significant ways.  When we make the conscious decision to revisit and revise painful memories, we gain the ability to reclaim so much in this world.  Often we are quick to dispense with people, places, songs, and times because they bring us to recall trauma.  However, if we can make small, intentional, and healing changes to those places, we can enjoy so much more of what the world has to offer and feel greater power in repairing that which is broken.

Shabbat Shalom.