Exposure therapy that’s safe and sound

Rachel Sharansky Danziger tells of a time when her father, Natan Sharansky, overcame a frightful threat.  The KGB sought to intimidate him by using a particularly ominous word to predict his demise – death by firing squad (Rastryel in Russian).  He flinched the first times he heard the word.  But back in his cell, he repeated the word again and again.  It became less jarring.  His use of what can be likened to ‘exposure therapy’ worked.  Indeed it worked so well that eventually he turned it on his captors.  He’d begin visits with them by quipping, ‘So shall we chat about Rastryel today?’

Our sages value exposure in storytelling.  Last week’s Seder reminded us to tell of the Exodus when the Matzah and Marror are present.  What about now, when they are absent?  Perhaps it’s time to expose ourselves to something new.

If you’re feeling unsettled by the prospect of sustaining current conditions for months to come, then it’s a good time to make things more interesting.  If you’re growing weary, consider enlarging your life by discovering somebody else’s.

One thing is certain. Different people are experiencing the demands of this pandemic very differently.

  • Hourly workers whose urgent wages require ongoing brushes with potentially infected settings.
  • The loneliest who don’t have any family.
  • Medical professionals whose days are riddled with risk and whose nights are spent distanced from family.
  • Small business owners who tremble over their future.
  • Laptop professionals who are going stir-crazy.
  • Grieving mourners who are starving for a hug.
  • And then there are the forgotten, those whom we don’t even realize we don’t know.

Consider making a point of activating new interest in the life of someone unfamiliar.  The less familiar the better.  Of course we need to reach those whom we know and love.  Reawakening dormant friendships is nice too.  But with Passover behind us, one way to make each day count as we number the Omer is by activating new interest in the lives of those who are utterly unfamiliar.

This week’s portion of Torah thrives on making distinctions.  Distinctions set boundaries applying to offerings and diets. Moses summarizes an essential aim of altar sanctity “And to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the ritually clean and unclean. And to activate learning…” (Lev. 10:10-11).  Boundaries remain essential to preserve order in the realm of religious ritual.  But in the realm of a more balanced psychological wellness, crossing boundaries to the less familiar can be important.

As we set aside the Seder’s tastes for another year, its texts can still serve us. The rabbis prod us to ‘Go forth by learning’ (t’zai u-l’mad).  And if it feels a bit intimidating to venture into unfamiliar circumstances, may we recall that the Haggadah passage that champions ‘exposure education’ begins with the word ‘yachol’ – meaning ‘you can do this’.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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