Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Passover and Trauma

Every year for the past 2000 Jews all over the world celebrate Passover by gathering for a ceremonial meal. We tell our children the story of how we were slaves in Egypt.  Why would a group of people remember their trauma in this way? Most people would prefer not to remember a past like that. We can see in our own American experience how the memory of slavery can itself be traumatizing,  to have been a slave or have ancestors who were slaves brings for many reactions of shame. It raises uncomfortable questions such as,  Why did our ancestors allow themselves to be enslaved? Why did we not resist or have the courage to die rather than submit to slavery?

The truth is, slavery is what we in the dreamwork call pathology.  And we are all enslaved to pathology, we often lose the battle, every day in fact, and we often live  doing what pathology tells us to do, in the iron grip of our reactions, of guilt, shame, reactive rage, of our lies and delusions.

While the Passover is mandated in the Torah-- the actual instructions are sparse: to eat a meal, to tell the tale to the children so they will know what the Lord did for us in Egypt. The actual Passover ceremony as we know it is of rabbinic origin and specifically is a response to the greatest trauma in Jewish history which was the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70CE, and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people from their homeland. An exile that lasted for two thousand years.

So here is what seems another puzzle: in response to the greatest trauma in Jewish history,  the complete destruction of the Temple, the loss of the sacrificial worship on that holy site, really the sense of a complete withdrawal or absence of the divine-- why would the rabbis create an elaborate ceremony to recall another trauma, that of slavery in Egypt?

The simple answer is that to tell the tale of redemption, how God with "a mighty arm and outstretched hand" freed the Hebrew slaves from Egypt--- it's necessary first to tell of the bitterness and tears of slavery.  And in the ceremonial meal there is a shamanic ritual, in which bitter herbs and salt water are eaten--  to reinforce the teaching-- Jews literally ingest their bitter sad story, taste it with their tongues.

But there is a deeper pattern here that has to do with the pattern of cycling through trauma that we do in the dreamwork. The cyclical nature of  the healing process in which trauma is re-experienced--- tasted again--  in order to once again be released or redeemed,

History repeats itself. Trauma repeats itself again and again.  The deepest understanding of this problem came from Rabbi Isaac Luria (often known as the Ari or Lion), a 16th century kabbalist who lived in S'fad in northern Israel. The Ari explains that  beneath the linear flow of time as we experience it in the horizontal, is a deeper pattern of three phases of reality which he called  the tzimtzum, the shevirat ha kelim, and the tikkun.  Tztimtzum is the experience of absence of God-- the 'withdrawal" or contraction of the divine.  The shevirat ha kelim is the shattering of the vessels-- the sense of utter destruction which appears again and again in history. The Jewish examples of "shattering" include the destruction of the Temple, the Inquisition, the exile from Spain, and the Holocaust. But the truth is, history in general is full of examples of shattering.

So is our personal life: divorce, death, loss of a beloved ,loss of a child, loss of a job or a career-- can all be experienced as utterly shattering moments. Luria's insight is that they are reflections of one eternal moment of shattering that was present from the beginning-- built into creation. and wil be present until the final repair.

            This repair, the tikkun olam, the healing of the world is the third phase of reality, this is the repair of the shattering.  So in the Passover story, the shattering experience is slavery itself, the tzimtzum is the utter hopelessness of having been abandoned by God in the darkness of slavery-- and the tikkun is the redemption of the slaves, and the liberation from Egypt.

            One point Marc Bregman has made about trauma is essential here-- it is what Luria calls the tzimtzum. What makes trauma trauma.. rather than simply pain or suffering-- is this element of utter despair and the feeling of the absence of God in that moment.  For the soul wishes always to be with its beloved, and yet in the very depth of the shattering, the beloved does not seem to be present.  Indeed, as Marc has pointed out, in cases like the inquisition, where torture was used on victims, the purpose of the torture was to get a person to completely separate from any sense of connection to God, and this leaves a permanent mark on the soul. In the same way  in the Exodus tale, the Pharoah deliberately embittered the slavery experience by forcing the Hebrews to make bricks without straw.

The tzimtzum according to the Hasidim was experienced at the personal level as psychological despair. But we can also understand the absence of the divine as producing a trauma reaction-- it is experienced as dissociation in all its many forms: amnesia, numbness, confusion, shock, leaving the body.

This layer of reaction makes it exceedingly difficult to heal the trauma. IT is necessary to pierce this layer in some way in order to re-experience the underlying pain and terror that it covers over.  And here we begin to understand the beauty of what the rabbis were doing-- or trying to do-- with the Seder.  Celebrants were literally  ingesting the story-- taking it in by mouth, chewing it, swallowing it--- in order to get below the layer of trauma reaction to the trauma itself. For without touching down to the pain and terror of the trauma, they could not experience the third phase of healing or redemption (tikkun). In my view the culmination of redemption is the arrival of Elijah who represents the male archetype or animus in our terminology. He is the one who heals the pain between parent and child, adn who brings the promise of ultimate redemption.  Invoking his presence at the seder means imagining an archetypal moment of encounter with a reality that is outside of history. As Elijah enters the room, it is the emergence of the timeless within time, the encounter with the archetypal that is usually experienced only in dreams

So all three phases of reality that Luria describes are in the Seder:  the layer of amnesia or forgetting which is the ordinary state of mind of traumatized people,-- and this represents simultaneously the absence of the divine-- for people who are numb and disconnected really can't feel the presence of God or the connection to God and their souls. So this is the tzimtzum.
Then there's the shattering, which is the experience of the original pain that has been hidden. We are told, that each year we are to experience the Seder as if we too had been slaves in Egypt.  The theater of the Seder is such that the experience is to be that the liberation is happening that very evening. IT is not history any more, it is happening now, once again, both the oppression and the liberation.  And only then can the experience of the tikkun, the liberation occur. And the sign of that is the entry of the archetypal figure, Elijah, who brings the promise of redemption and ultimate healing.

The three fold experience of  absence, shattering and healing,  is explicitly cyclical. At the end of the Seder we say Next Year in Jerusalem.  That is next year perhaps we will finally be redeemed. But the truth is we also suspect and know that the cycle will repeat itself: the amnesia, the memory of pain and the redemption, over and over again, year after year, until.... 

1 comment:

Studio Phototrope said...

Thank you for adding such a powerful layer of understanding to Pesach. On this the second night I am also brought to reflect on the counting of the Omer, a path to redemption built into the coming weeks. I feel that by engaging in the interplay of the Sephirot we can experience the journey of breaking from the cycle of trauma to the revelation of divine connection and covenant at Shavuot.