There are so many words being written this week. I, like many of you, have been updating my newsfeed, refreshing Facebook, and reading the latest blogposts, not just for the latest news about the conflict unfolding and escalating in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza but also in search of wise words. Words that will help this all make sense, words that will ease my troubled soul, words that will offer a possibility for justice and peace, words that will name the trauma, and words that will help show us a way out. And despite there being so many words already flying around in the news and social media landscape, none of them seem adequate and I worry that nobody is listening. Rather, we are just adding to the perpetual incessant cacophony of noise explaining why someone or some side is wrong, and some side and someone is right. And I worry that the more we yell, the more traumatized we become.
Psychologist Bessel A. van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”
It has been over a year of living through one long trauma, with the added layering of big and small personal and world traumas. This year has made it harder for our brains to organize our thoughts, which in turn makes it harder for us to talk, and more importantly to listen and communicate with each other as human beings.
Take a moment right now. Are you holding your breath? Is your jaw tight? Are your shoulders tense? How many times today have you refreshed a news or social media app to stay alert about what has happened in regards to any one of the number of traumas unfolding in the world or to your family? How many times today have you read words online and immediately begun a rebuttal in your head? Had you fully taken in the words you were reading in their fullness and context? As Bessel A. van der Kolk says “Trauma changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”
This morning I found myself finally feeling some sense of groundedness listening to different kinds of words. I listened to the 5th graders chant the ancient words of the Torah for the first time with trope. I listened to the words of their divrei Torah about ספר במדבר Sefer Bamidbar, the book we begin reading this week in our weekly Torah reading cycle.
במדבר/BaMidbar means “In the wilderness.” It talks about the literal wilderness the Israelites wandered through as they journeyed from being an enslaved people to being a free people.
במדבר/BaMidbar can also refer to being in a metaphorical wilderness. We’ve been living in a wilderness for well over a year, and just as we feel we are reaching a promised land, free from the plague that has terrorized us, a new trauma has sent us back into the wilderness. It feels like we are living in an endless wilderness of repetitive traumas.
במדבר Bamidbar is also a place of words as it contains the word מדבר medaber, to speak, and דבר davar, word. It is in this place of wilderness and words that the tradition says the Torah was given. One midrash says that when the Torah was given all that was actually uttered was the first letter of the first word of the 10 commandments, the silent letter aleph. It was a moment of witnessing, of listening, of speaking without sound. Holiness was created, a covenant was formed, a peoplehood committed to laws, ethics, values and community was established.
So on this Shavuot, which begins Sunday night and celebrates the giving of the Torah, when there is so much trauma, there are so many words, may we all listen to them in their fullness and in the loud silence of the aleph, because when we are all yelling, who is listening?
Talking and listening with your children https://forward.com/opinion/469510/what-do-my-children-understand-about-israeli-palestinian-violence/