I was not at my best when I met with Rav Ish-Shalom to resume our leisurely stroll through Hilkhot Teshuvah. The day before, I had taken a bad fall from a horse, and that at a dead run. I had broken my tail bone, which is as painful as it is embarrassing, and wrenched my left knee so badly that I couldn’t put weight on that leg.
Not much chance of the injury going unnoticed.
“You’re limping,” said Rav Ish-Shalom. “What happened?”
The usual gamut of misplaced feelings—the terrible associations with being “unfit”…
“I did something stupid,” I said. “I took a fall from a horse I was working with. Not her fault.”
As we sat down, I explained what had happened. I had been riding with two young Arab men from Kalansua, one of them riding a young stallion even less experienced than my filly, Gidget. A short gallop in a narrow lane had led to a train wreck.
Rav Ish-Shalom was able to relate the matter to a halakhic ruling—a responsum of Rabbenu Asher, who ruled that failure to keep proper stopping distance on horseback was grounds for liability in case of accident. The ruling could be extended to automobile traffic today.
“So you got back on the horse?”
“Of course!” I said. “Not only for my own sake but also for Gidget’s. Such an incident can be frightening for a young horse. So you get back on and you re-create the situation, but this time in a more controlled fashion, so that she’ll learn that it doesn’t have to end badly. You redo it in a safer way, in order to learn not to be afraid.”
“If only your ears would hear what your mouth is saying!” said Rav Ish-Shalom.
I was puzzled.
“’Redo it in a safer way, in order to learn not to be afraid.’” So one might need to redo life itself in order to learn not to be afraid… To learn that it doesn’t have to end badly…”
I was a bit stunned by the inference; I hadn’t thought about it that way before. One of those ideas whose brilliance is hidden in plain sight! But surely, this is part of what this journey of t’shuvah is all about.
Perhaps this is what we do in dreams; we relive over and over again in an attempt to change the ending. But too often we simply dream the reality over and over. I was once told by a trauma therapist that when the recurrent nightmares lose their reality and an element of the surreal creeps in, that is a sign that healing is happening; this is a hallmark of “normal” dreams.
And of course, Rav Ish-Shalom was right; this is one of the cornerstones of healing our pasts—relive in safer circumstances in order to learn not to be afraid. One of the most common therapies for PTSD is to tell and retell what one experienced, but in a protected and safe environment. Why? Because traumatic memories are un-indexed in time. Like nightmares, they need to be “normalised”. They need to somehow be brought into the realm of normal memory.
Apparently, the way our bodies function during a crisis causes the traumatic experience to be stored differently from the way in which more routine memories are stored. Anything experienced while in fight-or-flight mode is stored with no “time index,” and this causes them to be expressed as flashbacks or intrusive memory. Flashbacks are symptoms of a memory that has not been properly integrated in the stream of normal happenings. Here is an explanation of how this happens:
Within the Limbic System of the brain are two related areas that are central in memory storage: the hippocampus and the amygdala. […] It is believed that the amygdala stores highly charged emotional memories, such as terror and horror and it has been shown that the amygdala becomes very active when there is a traumatic threat. The hippocampus, on the other hand, stores memory of time and space—puts our memories into their proper perspective and place in our life’s time line. During traumatic threat, it has been shown, the hippocampus becomes suppressed. Its usual function of placing a memory into the past is not active. The traumatic event is prevented from becoming a memory in the past, causing it to seem to float in time, often invading the present. It is this mechanism that is behind the aforementioned PTSD symptom of “flashback”—episodes of reliving the trauma.
– Babette Rothschild. (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Identification and Diagnosis. Soziale Arbeit Schweiz (The Swiss Journal of Social Work), February 1998. )
The very fact that these memories are “floating,” unanchored in time, causes us to see the experience as happening here and now, which means that the trauma may be reinforced, not lessened, over time. From this it would appear that the way to soothe this particular symptom—and probably others as well—would be to try to build a narrative index for the traumatic memories, and somehow fit them into the chronological stream of normal memory. If we can put it in a time sequence, it loses its power over us. We don’t relive it so intensely.
This also ties in with something that Rav Ish-Shalom told me. Those who has been saved from death would traditionally bring a thank offering to the Temple, where they would tell the circumstances of their close call with as many people as possible. Someone saved from death is in danger of developing PTSD. By talking it out in a group setting, especially a setting that encouraged gratitude, the event is “normalized”.
If we can retell in safer surroundings, the next time the memory is called up it will have at least a partial association to that retelling. Rather than feeling “this is happening now”, we can recall the retelling and say “I remembered this last week when I told it to Rav Ish-Shalom while sitting at his dining table.” Each retelling adds another “time stamp” to the memory.
Perhaps memory remains un-indexed in time because it has a survival function. Some things are so important that they need to have the immediacy of traumatic memory. “Every one should see himself as if he had come out of slavery in Egypt…”
“Unindexed in time?” said Rav Ish-Shalom. “So I have a challenge for you.”
As usual, that got my attention. He continued, “There is a discussion in Massechet Brachot about dreams—what do certain images mean, how to relate to seemingly predictive dreams, and also, what to do about disturbing dreams.”
He paused and gave me an appraising look. “Incidentally, one of the rabbis says that only good people have bad dreams.”
“Well, we’ve just proved him wrong then, haven’t we?” I said.
“Or, alternatively, maybe he’s proved you wrong!” Rav Ish-Shalom smiled. “Something for you to think about.
“But one of the opinions brought in that discussion is that one who has a disturbing dream should ‘take the dream’ to hear Birkhat HaKohanim. Apparently, the idea is to think of the dream during the blessing.
“So, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to relate the healing power of re-telling a traumatic event to three others ideas: The first is teshuvah; the second is the notion of bringing a disturbing dream to Birkhat Hakohanim; and the third is the Jewish people’s so-called “‘return to history”.
I thought about it. “Well, they all have to do with ways in which we interact: with God, with mankind, with ourselves. They are about relationships—”
Rav Ish-Shalom held up a hand to stop me. “I don’t want an answer now; take your time and see what you can come up with.”
Needless to say, I accepted the challenge.
The next two posts explore some common threads in healing, teshuvah and redemption:
Part 1. Teshuvah as Mourning
In a nutshell, the common thread seems to me to be telling in order to bring an event into conscious awareness and thus into the stream of time. It is not for nothing that the Torah depicts the world as created with words—in speech we bring what was mere thought out into the world, and so make actual what was only potential. But how we do that, and what we chose to make actual…that is the true key to who we are and who we aspire to be.