By Leila Levinson
I never had much use for the Torah.
I called it “An Anthology of Trauma.” Like keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath, it seemed to be an anachronistic aspect of Judaism I could safely ignore. For me, as for so many baby boomer Jews, being Jewish has been a cultural identity, rather than a religious one.
I came by this attitude honestly. I never saw my father pray, touch a mezuzah, say a blessing, or even refer to God. Yet when I once asked, as a small child, if I could have a Christmas tree, he yelled, “We are Jews!”
After his death I learned that during WWII, as an army doctor, he had been among the liberators of Mitttelbau Dora Concentration Camp and suffered a mental breakdown after weeks of treating survivors. To understand his experience, I traveled around the country to interview other veteran liberators. All but one of the thirty-six Jewish veterans I spoke with lost their faith after witnessing Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Mittelbau-Dora.
“What kind of God could I believe in?” they asked, earnestly.
And yet, their determination to raise Jewish children became fierce.
Witnessing the camps traumatized the GIs, a trauma that still, almost sixty-six years later, holds them in an unyielding grip. The Holocaust’s net ensnared countless people–witnesses as well as survivors, Americans as well as Europeans. As intimate as Jews are with trauma, what do we know about healing?
For all its depictions of trauma–from Adam and Eve being evicted into the wilderland to the flood to Abraham binding Isaac to sacrifice him, the Torah has always seemed silent about healing from trauma. Silence has been the operative word: silence followed Abraham and Isaac home from Mt. Moriah, the sacrifice never to be spoken of again. In the next parsha (passage), Sarah is dead, no doubt from shock and grief. Isaac remains all but unknown, a weak man whose scheming son, Jacob, tricks his father into giving him the blessing that rightfully should have been for Esau.
Like his forefathers, my father responded to his trauma with silence. He avoided and turned away. And expected me to do the same. When I was five, I was separated from my mother in a police station, as she tried clutched me, as she wailed, “Don’t let them take you. If you leave, I’ll never see you again.” I never did see her again, and my father refused to speak of her, to explain what had happened, to allow any expression of grief. A kind, compassionate man at work, at home my father was distant, melancholy, and silent.
All the veterans I interviewed showed a terror of looking back, as if they had absorbed all too well the example of Lot’s wife who turns to salt when she looked back at Sodom where God was destroying her family. I understand the terror.
But we must find a way to let go of it, because terror keeps the trauma alive, spreading like an infection to our families. Researchers tell us that a parent’s unresolved trauma greatly increases their child’s chance of becoming traumatized. Trauma interferes with a person’s ability to take in information and react to it. My father could not see how sick my mother had become; that her disappearance traumatized me, that I needed help.
Healing from my trauma has been a long journey in which my Jewish heritage seemed to offer little help. And then, last year, I began reading the Torah again.
I cracked it open like a camper trailer, the metaphor I heard a rabbi use to describe the Torah. “Closed, it is something we drag along that uses up gas and slows us down. But if we explore what is not said–the space between the lines–we will find that the sides pop out to reveal a table and bed, creating a home with which we can journey out into the world.”
This past Shabbat, in the parsha where Jacob wrestles with the angel, I found the space I needed to crack open. What role did Isaac’s trauma play in his sons’ histories? Did Jacob know he could easily trick his father, as Isaac had never seen his sons clearly, his trauma blurring his sight? Had Jacob taken advantage of his father’s traumatized condition?
Twenty years later, when Jacob must pass through Esau’s land, he becomes fearful and divides his family so half will survive an attack. That night he wrestles with a man who Jacob would not release and who leaves Jacob with a limp.
Jacob decides to call the place “Penial” (penim means face) “for I have seen an angel of God face to face, and my life has been preserved.” English translations don’t reveal that the story repeats the word “face” six times. When Jacob, now named Israel by the angel, meets Esau, he says, “To see your face is to see the face of God.” Could there be a more beautiful way to greet someone? To see someone’s face is to see them, and in seeing someone, we see their divinity.
“Face” is a verb as well as a noun. When we face something, we not only see it, we come to terms with it. We encounter it. We stop avoiding. The sentence that describes Jacob’s wrestle relies on pronouns that make it impossible to know to who is doing the holding, who the striking–Jacob or the man who will not name himself?
Jacob is wrestling with himself, with his past and that of his father. He is the receptacle and consequence of a traumatic history that until now, no one has faced. As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, it is not what happens to us that has consequence but how we respond to it. By facing his history, Jacob becomes transformed, a new person, “Israel” meaning “one who has wrestled with God.”
Jacob’s wrestle tells us that if we are to heal from trauma and open a door to a new ending, instead of turning to only medications or the distractions of our material world, we must face our traumatic memories. The struggle will be painful, we will emerge hobbled, but we will also emerge with a new ending possible–for ourselves and for our children.
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Leila Levinson is the founder of veteranschildren.com, and the author of the forthcoming book Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma (January 31, 2011).