This morning I saw a rabbi who was visibly shaken up by the recent attack on the synagogue in Poway. He reflected on the painful reality of recent events and shared that we need to “plan that it’s going to happen again and hope that it won’t.” That dialectic between hopefulness and hopelessness is a universal struggle. But it feels, recently, that the world is increasingly unsafe and that the pervasiveness of trauma threatens our ability to hold onto the hopefulness.
We celebrated the holiday of Passover two weeks ago and, for me, this year’s Seder provided a moment of personal gratitude and hopefulness. I sat at the Seder feeling a deep sense of relief and appreciation as I reflected on being surrounded by my family and being cancer-free. Two months earlier I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had undergone significant surgery to remove it.
I have often wondered why it is mandated to tell and retell the story of the exodus over and over again. Every year we tell the same story, we engage the children at the table teaching them to ask the same famous four questions. What is the significance of this story and what is the relevance of retelling it over and over again from one generation to the next?
As a child psychologist I am well aware of our tendency to try and distance ourselves from trauma and painful experiences. Understandably, who wants to feel painful feelings and re-live uncomfortable difficult experiences? A ten year-old child who had gone through a traumatic event in his life said it well. When we were talking about his trauma I said, “You probably want to send those painful feelings to the North Pole”, to which he responded, “No, Dr. Kahane, you got it wrong. That isn’t far enough away. I want to send them to another galaxy!” I think we all feel this way sometimes as it is hard to talk about hard things. Avoidance is normal but it causes a boomerang effect. In the moment it feels much better to simply “flee” to avoid painful topics but in the long run avoidance leads to heightened pain, further difficulty and prevents healing. As a result of the short-term cost of exposing ourselves to emotional pain we often stay stuck in our comfort zone (which isn’t really comfortable) and, unbeknownst to us, arrested in the development of our emotional intelligence.
Three days after I was diagnosed I had a consultation with a prominent breast surgeon. Shortly into our meeting as some difficult topics came up I found myself welling up with tears. The surgeon looked up at me and said, “You got this appointment with me way too quickly after you were diagnosed. You clearly haven’t dealt with this yet!” This was true. I was shaken up and, understandably, I hadn’t digested my diagnosis yet. But why was she being so insensitive? Upon reflecting on her poor bedside manner I recognized that she was made to feel uncomfortable by my tears and although she was a technically competent and accomplished surgeon she simply did not have the emotional tools or endurance to deal with my upset. Obviously it was not my intention to make her feel uncomfortable. But it was her discomfort and her need to distance herself from me and my tears that prompted her remark.
Fortunately I went on to find other awesome surgeons who were technically skilled and emotionally more present and supportive. In addition, I was also very lucky to be surrounded by loving family and friends. I also felt blessed to be connected with some wonderful women – breast cancer survivors – who openly shared their stories with me. I have come to realize that these women, many of whom I hardly knew prior to being diagnosed, were critical in helping me get through the past two months. Hearing their stories helped me figure out my best treatment plan and prepared me emotionally for it. In addition, their sharing and their narratives connected me to a breast cancer community of other women who went through what I was going through and reassured me that I could get beyond this very difficult period. After texting a ‘thank you’ to one woman who spent over an hour sharing her story with me she responded: “I’ve thought a lot about the degree of trauma since you asked and I can better answer that question now. It was helpful for me to rethink the aftermath of my cancer diagnosis, treatment and its impact. For that, I thank you!” I was so moved by her response as I felt deeply indebted and grateful to her for taking the time to talk to me, and yet here she was thanking me.
As I thought about this sharing of narratives and the last three months of my personal ordeal and journey towards the freedom of being cancer-free I reflected on our Jewish heritage and the Seder. The order of the Seder and the defined narrative that we are mandated to tell each year links us as a Jewish nation. We share and re-experience with our family and friends all the symbols of the Seder and this powerful story of going from the trauma of enslavement towards our freedom. By telling and retelling our national narrative with our family and friends each year we are being given an opportunity to expose ourselves to the hardship and pain of our ancestors. We are asked to feel empathy for them as we are told to put ourselves in their shoes and feel their pain and suffering that night of Passover as if it was happening to us and we were there with them. For this reason the Seder places an emphasis on experiential, sensory learning: we eat bitter herbs to taste the bitterness of enslavement; we dip the Karpas into the salt water to taste the tears of pain; we use Charoset as a tangible symbol of the bricks and mortar used in order to build Pharoah’s pyramids. We even eat the Matzah – the bread of the poor – to evoke in us a sense of abject poverty.
But we perform these symbolic enactments as part of a Seder – an organized narration. The Haggadah of Passover takes us on a journey – a very prescribed one – through that ancient national trauma and develops a narrative around it. Actually, the Haggadah develops multiple narratives. There is the simple story of slavery in Egypt followed by God’s redemption and the splitting of the sea. There is also a story with a wider historical lens that takes in the account of the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob and leads to the sojourn of the Israelites in the desert and their settling in the Promised Land and building the Holy Temple. But then there is also the narrative of the Sages themselves telling the narrative of the exodus in Bnei Brak. And finally it is the narrative of gratitude as the Seder ends with acknowledgment of God’s hand in history and the universalistic messages of hopefulness and freedom. In essence the Seder is a narrative-of-narratives. And in this sense it is a template.
The Seder acts not only to tell our national narrative as a Jewish people who were abused and enslaved in Egypt and ultimately freed, but the Seder can also be seen as a template – a tool by which we can process our individual pain and struggle, our personal traumas or micro-traumas. First, the Seder teaches us that we must feel the pain. The Seder allows us the safety of feeling the pain “as if” we were there. But not just to talk about it. It is felt through experience – through the symbols of the Seder – as well as expressed in speech. In effect we are being taught the difference between having sympathy for someone and feeling empathy for them. Sympathy is distant and marked by expressions of pity for the other. Empathy, on the other hand, is about being by the person’s side and feeling with them. But empathy is birthed from being able to feel and acknowledge our own feelings. It is only when we have the skills to understand and to validate our own emotional experiences that we can validate and understand other people’s. This is the first skill that the Seder attempts to inculcate.
Then we are taught to cohere this painful experience in narratives. Narratives help make some sense of the pain we have suffered and the disempowered place we were in. They allow us to master our experience and to share and connect with each other around it. The Seder as narrative-of-narratives teaches this tool as well.
Research shows that there are two primary factors in healing from trauma. One is the importance of developing and cohering a narrative around the trauma and the other is finding agency in this narrative and using it in life to help other people. When these factors are present healing takes place and we develop resilience in our life and we are propelled forward. The Seder also propels us forward towards action. At the very beginning of the evening we are taught to allow our experience as poor slaves – Ha Lachma ‘Anya – to foster a sense of hospitality to those who do not have sufficient food and shelter. And the conclusion of the Seder is “Lishana Haba-ah B’yirushalayim – May we celebrate next year in Jerusalem!”, a prayer of hopefulness that sustained generations of Jews for almost two millennia. It is a mantra that reflects our hopefulness and optimism for a better, more redeemed world.
But internalizing these values takes repetition. Teaching our children to internalize them takes even more. Maybe that is why we keep telling the same story at the Seder.
The narratives of the breast cancer survivors who I connected with were so helpful to me and – I came to realize – to them as well. The desire to connect and share these stories was also part of the healing. The optimism that comes from the sharing of our narratives and the desire to help others is what makes me hopeful for the future of women with breast cancer despite the discouraging number of women who are diagnosed and struggle with it every day.
I would like to express deep gratitude to all the people in my life – my family and friends – who helped support me through my own micro-trauma. And I was very lucky to benefit from many wonderful survivors of breast cancer who took the time to share their personal narrative with me and supported me by my side over the last few months. I hope to be able to help other women by sharing my narrative. For this, too, I feel deep gratitude.
I reflected on these important lessons as we sat at our Seder repeating the same words we had said the year before and will say, with God’s help, for years and generations to come. That dialectic between hopefulness and hopelessness is a universal struggle. Let’s acknowledge the hopefulness.