Yael Shahar

Teshuvah and Israel’s Return to History

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to show the connections between  teshuvah, the healing power of re-telling a traumatic event, and the Jewish people’s so-called ‘return to history’.

When my teacher, Rav Ish-Shalom issued this challenge, I had no idea that it would lead me through Parashat Ki Tavo straight into Parashat Nitzavim. But so it unfolded. The journey of teshuvah may begin with the self, but it doesn’t end there; ultimately, the teshuvah of a single individual mirrors that of Klal Yisrael.

Giving a voice to hidden pain

I had already addressed the first part of the challenge—the connection between teshuvah and “the talking cure” for trauma. In both trauma and teshuvah, expressing the things that haunt us allows us to bring them into full conscious awareness, to reach closure, much the way sitting shiva allows closure in mourning.

In the case of teshuvah, the closure reaches its full expression in the viddui. The spoken confession of one’s mistakes completes the transformation—from unconscious transgression, through conscious awareness, and then out into the public space of Klal Yisrael.

Silence and unvoiced being

But traumas, like disturbing dreams, resist being told. One of the symptoms of PTSD in my case is silence, and I have learned that this is not unusual. I remember, but can’t speak of any of it. I can write some of it, though even that is very hard, and often has to be paid for with a week of nightmares. The block against speaking is like a physical barrier, and any attempt to get over it leaves me shaking and terrified, and utterly silent.

Traumatic memories are fundamentally unspeakable, and this is part of what keeps them unindexed in time.

Brain research confirms the strange relationship between words and the neurological underpinnings of emotional trauma. In the brains of patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, memory of the event is accompanied by pronounced activation of the visual cortex and limbic system, which governs emotions and their manifestations in the body. The brain’s speech-production center is deactivated. It is as though an image of the trauma were permanently stamped on the brain. And because of the deactivation of the speech center, the memory seems incompatible with words. Indeed, “There are no words to describe what I’ve experienced” is something patients often say.
But deliberately turning these images into words can alter the way the experience is encoded in the brain. Verbalizing the trauma can shift the brain’s balance and help lessen the impact of uncontrolled emotions.
Words that Heal.

It would seem that putting something into words—bringing forth into consciousness what is otherwise wordless and inarticulate—is also related to bringing something into the stream of time. Perhaps this is why the Torah pictures the world as being created with words.

Israel’s return to history

By regaining speech, we bring a wordless reality into the realm of time, of history. This is how the idea of the “talking cure” for trauma intersects with Am Yisrael’s “re-entering history”.  It is not just that we are rejoining the “family of nations” by once more gaining sovereignty in our own state. Israel was a nation long before modern nation-states came on the scene.

Nor is it true that we had no influence in history during all these centuries of exile. Our influence is undeniable. Quietly and without any conscious coordination or volition, we have molded and shaped the moral consciousness of nations. Our literature and thought has become part of that of nearly all Western nations, disseminated by new religions that base some of their primary teachings on our Torah. The same is true of the Muslim world, where Islam has adapted many Jewish social norms to local conditions. Whether these nations would admit it or not, whether they are even conscious of it or not, we have become a part of their implicit thought processes. We are part of the subconscious of the world.

A subconscious thought becomes explicit when it is articulated in speech. Things unspoken—and unspeakable—may have tremendous influence on an individual. A nightmare may shape one’s outward thoughts and feelings far beyond what we can ever be aware of. But there is no volition involved. Until we can articulate the nightmare, and bring it into conscious awareness, we have no control over it.

National self-awareness

For nearly two-thousand years, we have shaped the thought of other nations and they in turn have acted out their nightmares upon us. Every subconscious notion of what hell would be like was eventually materialized in actions against the Jews as a nation, not just as individuals. We were the material embodiment of the subconscious and the ‘mind of man’ acted on us accordingly.

Now we have regained the power of speech. We are no longer merely a subconscious thought in the mind of the nations, a fleeting dream, the substance on which to work out nightmares. Now we have become a willed, articulated movement into action. The recreation of the sovereign Jewish state needed the legitimization of the nations in order to be a willed act of the “mind of man”. This may be why the ‘three vows’ had to be interpreted as they were. On the material plane, it’s true that without the consensus—or at least the permission—of the nations, the return would not have had the physical security needed to succeed.

But the “psychology of mankind” gives the event an even deeper significance. The power of our return stems not only from our own will that it happen and our acting on this ancient longing. It is also the fact that for a moment in history, in November 1947, the nations of the world—as representatives of the conscious will of mankind—made a movement toward making us a conscious presence. It was a moment of articulating a subconscious thought and willing it into consciousness. Perhaps the nightmare had finally become so disturbing that the “mind of man” had to try to articulate it. Granted, it was not a particularly wholehearted action, but only a tentative motion.  But even the tiniest impetus toward Teshuvah can bring into being undreamed of consequences. For a moment we were “on the tip of the tongue”—a thought about to be uttered. But the merest hint was enough. The power and emotion welling up behind that inarticulate thought took over. All the inexpressible longing poured forth into action, spilled over into willed, conscious materialization.

The world, as represented by the nations, is now once again conscious of us as a people. Where before we interacted with nation-states as individuals, or at most as isolated communities, we now interact with nation-states as a nation. The interaction is a conscious one, no longer a subconscious one. We have returned to history as we have returned to the consciousness of mankind. We act upon the world in a more explicit, self-aware way, not as individual Jews, but as Am Yisrael—a nation living in its own land.

Here again, the theme of consciousness of the inner reality is the common thread.

The hidden things concern the Eternal our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching. (D’varim 29:28)

The call to Teshuvah is the voice of our age. Many “hear it” below the level of consciousness, and they act on it. Others hear it through circumstances that lead them to change their lives. It speaks to different people in different voices. Some shut it out. Some are angered by the imposition, or put off by the implications of responsibility.

And yet, that voice has called forth our deepest longings into actuality, allowing us to become more than mere letters on a page. We were like dreamers, and though we plowed in sorrow and seeded bitter thorns, we are gathering in a harvest beyond our wildest dreams.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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