Not just a story, but a healing journey
Narrating the tale of the exodus from the Haggadah at the Passover table is at its essence a ritual of storytelling, which psychologists say can be a force for healing, continuity, and sustainability especially during difficult times.
“The motif of sitting around the fire while the leader of the group tells a story to children and adults has deep psychological value,” says psychologist Hanan Bushkin, the owner of the Anxiety and Trauma Clinic.
“Hearing stories allows people to attach themselves to mythical journeys, something we are all hungry for. People have always gravitated towards storytellers. Even if we’ve heard it a million times, we want to hear it again. The predictability of a beginning, middle, and end can give a sense of healing and closure.”
At Pesach, we not only tell the story, we put ourselves in the story, essentially bending time and space. Bushkin says this is a powerful tool.
“By doing this, the story becomes a metaphor for our own lives. As we live out stories of wandering and coming home, we can relate in a very real way to getting through obstacles, the hope of making it to where we want to be, and the resolution that it’s going to be okay. There’s something magical about putting yourself in the role of the characters so that your own individuality resonates with them.
“Human beings are order and pattern-seeking machines,” Bushkin says. “The seder is full of order and structure, with the same pattern repeated year after year. It’s almost like the rhythm of beautiful music that can put you in an hypnotic state. It helps us to transcend the moment and ‘live’ in that space. This is why it’s so engaging year after year, and we want to know what happens next, as if hearing it for the first time.”
Looking at storytelling as a foundation of a nation or family, Bushkin says such “founding narratives” are “are an anchor point to hold onto. There is something very powerful in a ritual that’s so familiar and predictable. It creates a sense of security.”
Thinking about how Jews went to great lengths to have seders while suffering persecution, he says it was “something unwavering that could be held onto. In the same way, wherever we are in the world, at any time in our lives, we can tell the story. This is unifying and comforting, tying us to klal Yisrael. We realise we aren’t alone, even at times like this, under lockdown.”
While Pesach may look different this year, Bushkin emphasises that “our world may be upside down, but our stories are the same. This continuity is very important.”
Professor Joseph (Yossi) Turner, a lecturer in Jewish Thought at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, takes this point even further. “The continuity of Jewish existence is dependent upon the success of Jewish parents in every generation to convey the story of its past to its children. Should it ever happen that the parents no longer have a story to tell; or if the children are no longer interested in hearing the story of their past, the existence of the Jewish people will then come to an end,” he writes.
Bushkin explains that attaching objects or foods to the story, in the way we do with the seder plate, is also a powerful means of transcending the moment and immersing ourselves in the origins of the story. “To hold something like matzah, the same object that was held thousands of years ago when the story played out, is incredible. Tying taste to the story, and using all our senses, almost takes us to another ‘planet’ of experience.”
Clinical psychologist Sarit Swisa says, “The maror, the matzah, the symbols aren’t gimmicks, they give us empathy for what our ancestors endured. It also changes our picture of what liberation is – we leave, but it’s not over. Becoming free isn’t just the act of leaving a confined space, so much more healing needs to happen. By telling the story, we continue the healing.”
“One of things we do in working with trauma,” Swisa says, “is to try to get the person to hold in their mind the image or memory of what happened, while being fully focused on the present. That helps you to heal because it makes you realise that it’s a memory and you won’t forget it, but you have moved on from there. There’s something beautiful about the duality of holding in mind the memory of where we’ve come from, but knowing where we are now.”
Bushkin notes that the vital role children play in the seder is a crucial part of passing the story down from generation to generation. “They aren’t the audience, they are part of the show. In fact, they have a leading role. It’s also wonderful that this is an opportunity for an 85-year-old and a five-year-old to talk about the same story. It transcends age, life experience, and temperament. Having the opportunity to ‘walk the journey’ together is so rare in our modern lives.”
While it has been a traumatic year, Bushkin says Pesach can help us to “transcend the moment” and “reflect on a different reality of hope, identity, and belonging. While the ‘here and now’ might be painful, the story shows we won’t be stuck here forever, and we are all connected to one another,” he says.
Mother nature’s gifts
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “The name of our parsha seems to embody a paradox. It’s called ‘Chayei Sarah’ [The Life of Sarah], but it begins with the death of Sarah. What’s more, it records the death of Abraham. Why is a parsha about death called life? The answer, it seems, is that death and how we face it is a commentary on life and how we live it.”
Abraham knew that everything that happened to him, even the bad things, were part of the journey which G-d had sent him and Sarah on, and he had the faith to walk through the valley of the shadow of death fearing no evil, knowing that G-d was with him.
I see and feel profound meaning in this paradox. Sarah’s social status – and its impact on the future of her family and people – was so great, it only increased after her passing.
Sarah, our mother, our matriarch, the mother of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people), was quite the “modern” woman. She led her life with clear vision and purpose. She had the courage to follow her convictions, no matter how progressive they were at the time. She was a role model for women of her era, as well as becoming a role model for the modern woman of the 21st century.
We can’t forget that we live in a world of duality, of light and dark, hot and cold, male and female. Sarah knew that according to well-established laws, neither side of that duality was more important than the other. In fact, they were really different degrees of the same thing – and in truth, light couldn’t exist without darkness, neither could men exist without women – and vice versa.
We often get so caught up in our own lives that we seldom pay attention to the power of mother nature. Let’s take a simple example of one mistakenly cutting oneself while preparing dinner for the family. The wound bleeds. Perhaps we run some water over it, or apply some pressure, and shortly thereafter, we leave it alone. What does mother nature do? She moves according to well-established laws, laws that are firmly in the direction of healing, and the wound begins to heal on its own. It’s only when we interfere with mother nature that things tend to go wrong. Left to her own devices, we are generally in good hands.
We should do all that we can to uplift those around us to see the same light we see, and then allow mother nature (through the womb of time) to do what she does best. Let’s not be consumed by trying to sweep the darkness out of the dark room. Let’s be like Sarah, and turn our attention to the light, reach out, and switch it on. We must know that we have received a gift from our ancestors, and pass those gifts down, l’dor vador (from generation to generation) through the generations of mothers following Sarah.
Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?
The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.
Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.
This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.
In the brave steps of Abraham
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.
The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.
While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.
Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.
At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.
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