Destruction and Grieving: Confronting Trauma and Returning to the Authentic Self

Photo 13-04-2016, 21 31 09

A Time for Grieving

The period of the Jewish calendar that we find ourselves in now is a time of sadness. Observant Jews engage in various mourning practices to mark this time. On the 17th of the Jewish month of Tammuz, and then on the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av, we fast and mourn.

When I was new to Jewish spiritual practice, I found this cultivated sadness to be somewhat of an unnecessary downer. “Is it not the case,” I thought to myself, “that everything comes from the Divine? That surely means that we can be positive about everything?” “Isn’t the purpose of religion to help us be happy?” I thought naively.

As the years passed and the cycle of the Jewish calendar rolled by me, I came to appreciate its distinct seasons. There are times of unbridled joy, times of renewal, times of reflection and anticipation, times of celebration and, yes, times of sadness.

The “Three Weeks” leading up to the 9th day of Av marks a series of calamities culminating in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people from their ancestral homeland. This in fact happened twice, and both the first and second temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on the 9th day of Av. As I have written elsewhere, during this time we mourn for the loss of the temple, but we are mourning not only the physical loss, but the spiritual loss of the intimate connection the temple facilitated between ourselves and the Divine Reality.

The National Trauma of Exile

The destruction of the temple was a trauma event in our national history. It began the period of time that we describe as exile. As a nation we were physically exiled from our land. However, our tradition maintains that it was not just our physical forms that went into exile. The Gemara describes the dimension of G-d’s presence called the Shechina also going into exile (Megilla 29a). The Shechina can be understood as referring to that aspect of the Divine that allows us to manifest our truest selves in our actions. Rebbe Nachman, one of the Hassidic sages, also writes that the significance and grace of the Jewish people also was also lost (Likutei Moharan 1)

With humility, I propose that these sources are hinting to a national trauma experience. When the temple was destroyed and the Jewish nation went into exile. Our mental processes became skewed and distorted. As a result, our actions no longer manifested the Divine Reality. Consequently, throughout this long exile, we have found that even despite our best intentions and efforts to the contrary, our actions as a nation simply do not reflect the highest potential of the Jewish people. As Rebbe Nachman says, our grace and the significance as the Jewish nation has been lost.

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Pia Mellody, a counsellor and one of the leading thinkers in the treatment of codependence, describes trauma as having the effect of preventing moderation of experience and expression.

She explains how trauma distorts our perception so that our reactions are either too strong or not enough. The traumatised person either explodes in overreaction to minor issues, or is deadened and apathetic to major concerns. I cannot think of a better way of characterising some of the current trends in our Jewish national life. In some areas we find the strength and intensity of our response to be frighteningly overstated and dramatic. In other areas, our community fails to act and speak out where it is needed.

Pia Mellody also writes that one of the central aspects of the damage done by trauma is the erosion of boundaries. I think it is not an accident that we begin the period of mourning that leads up to 9th of Av with the fast of the 17th day of Tammuz. On this day, we remember that the walls of Jerusalem were breached. We commemorate the boundary violation that preceded the trauma event of the temple’s destruction.

The Trauma of the Individual

The Arizal, one of the great masters of the Kabbalah from the 16th century writes that the world is a large person, and the person is a small world. We therefore find that the trauma of exile is not just played out on a national level. Many of us experience it on an individual level.

Many of us were not brought up in homes that nurtured our deepest selves and helped us develop our natural connection to Divine Reality. Many of us grew up in homes that distorted our perception and left us ill-equipped for the realities of adult life. Just like the story of Tisha B’Av, these trauma experiences began with the violation of our boundaries and ended with the destruction of our authentic selves and the severance of our connection to the Divine Reality.

Many of us carry around tremendous pain. Having lost touch with our authentic selves, survivors of trauma often do not fully mature. We also experience immoderate reactions to the world around us, reactions that shock us with their intensity and have more to do with stories that we have learned about ourselves and the world in childhood than they do with anything that is happening now. Having had our boundaries violated, we now find it difficult, if not impossible to establish boundaries with others. We either act without boundaries, or put up boundaries that are so impenetrable that they do not allow us to relate to those around us. Still more of us have developed various coping mechanisms and adaptations that worked for us in our dysfunctional homes but now present a liability to mature relationality.

Research into the brain has uncovered such processes as neural pathways and is just beginning to reveal the extent to which the Hasidic teaching “wherever your mind is, so you are” is true. For survivors of trauma, when they experience immoderate reactions based in trauma responses or when they engage in old coping mechanisms that are now out of place and out of context, they are not doing so because they remember their trauma. They are doing so because in a very real way, they are reliving their trauma in the present moment.

A simple and not-too-personal example of this in my own life is my relationship to having a clean house. Because of my trauma history, I have a difficult time esteeming myself and have relied a lot on the esteem of others to assure me that I have value. Part of getting this esteem from others has been keeping my living spaces “impressively” clean. This means that when my house gets messy, or my husband doesn’t clean to the standard that I think will impress others, I often have a reaction that is based in my trauma. I react as though it is my self worth that is at stake, not my floors. In those moments, I am not an articulate and powerful adult woman. I am a small child, convinced that I need the love of others to stay alive and that I will only be able to win their love by impressing them with my clean house.

If there was nothing else to justify the mourning of Tisha B’Av, the damage done to this child that lives on inside me, would be enough.

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Baseless Hatred and Trauma Responses

I believe that these trauma responses are the key to understanding the idea of “baseless hatred,” which the Talmud cites as the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple (Yoma 9b).

Whilst the First Temple was destroyed for blatant wrongdoing and crimes like murder and adultery, the destruction of the Second Temple was destroyed because of the much more subtle wrong of “baseless hatred.” In explaining what this means, the Talmud goes into great detail over what seems like little more than a guy being mean to a guest after a case of mistaken identity at a party (Gittin 55b).

Whilst the idea of completely baseless hatred probably doesn’t mean much to anyone who has chosen to be on a spiritual path, I think many of us can recognise in our behaviours the immoderation of trauma responses. We see ourselves over-reacting, acting out of context and responding in ways that don’t reveal our higher selves. We act from the part of us that is reliving the trauma.

Grieving Our Way Out of Trauma

The time of mourning surrounding the 9th of Av gives us the opportunity to confront these emotional responses and call them out for being baseless. That does not mean that they are bad or unwarranted, just that they emerge from our trauma histories, and not from our present situation.

As various writers on trauma have noted, I am thinking in particular of Pete Walker, Pia Mellody and Terry Real, the way out of trauma is grieving. When we honestly acknowledge the damage that was done to us, stop pretending and relying on coping mechanisms we allow ourselves to recognise the pain we have felt and what we have lost. When we experience all of this with honest tears of self-compassion and sadness for our own experience, we can begin to move from trauma to renewal.

Through acknowledging our loss, on both an individual and national level, and beginning to recognise where our actions are baseless and generated by trauma and not reaction to the present, we can start to reconnect with our true selves.

Rav Gerzi, my Rebbe and teacher, says that Tisha B’Av is the beginning of the work of the Jewish New Year, the time of personal and global renewal. I believe that what we can learn from this statement is that the way to our renewal and rebirth as authentic selves comes from the walking the path of grieving. It comes from recognising what we have lost due to our trauma history, grieving for it and acknowledging it. Then we can begin to walk the path towards our renewal.

This task needs to happen on a national level and on an individual level. For those of us who have survived trauma, we must face it and do the difficult work of acknowledgement and grieving. And as a nation, we must begin to acknowledge the pain, trauma and distortion of self that has come from millennia in exile. We must acknowledge where our responses are immoderate and either too intense or not strong enough. We must recognise where we are acting from our national coping mechanisms and not from a sensible and moderate response to the present moment. We must begin to grieve for what we have lost and seek to reconnect with our authentic national identity.

This path of grief and acknowledgement, followed by the hard work of developing healthy boundaries and reconnecting with the authentic self is the path to redemption. I believe that this is why the Talmud states that the redeemer will be born on on the 9th of Av (Eicha Rabba 1:51).

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This is a creative piece based on Torah sources. There are many truths in Torah. This is not the only way of understanding these sources. If this does not resonate with you, I encourage you to continue to engage with the sources in your own way and walk your own path. Every soul has the potential to connect to these sources in a unique way. 

If you resonated with what I have written about trauma and believe you might have a trauma history, please look into it further. I recommend the following books: I Don’t Want to Talk About It by Terrence Real, The Intimacy Factor by Pia Mellody and The Tao of Fully Feeling by Pete Walker. However, nothing is a replacement for a good therapist.

All Photos are copyright Robyn Lang. Please do not reuse without the photographer’s permission.

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