How to digest trauma without letting it swallow us
By: Paula Levin
They say when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade – but what do you do with maror? Lemons are the small stresses and setbacks; the minor inconveniences, the bad luck, bad days, and bad moods that are part of ordinary, daily living. Maror is much more. It’s pain and suffering, loss and tragedy – the traumatic and catastrophic events that go far deeper, are far more bitter, and are much harder to swallow. What do we do with the maror? There are two common responses to trauma. Some of us repress, avoid, and deny it, burying it deep in our subconscious where it nevertheless impacts our lives. Some of us constantly analyse it, relive it, talk about it excessively until it defines our lives. The Seder invites us to find another response. Its ancient rituals offer some deep and practical insights into digesting and healing from trauma.
The very first seder was actually in Egypt. It was the night before the Exodus and Moshe instructed the people to eat roasted lamb together with matzos and maror (bitter herbs). The medieval commentator Rashi explains that G-d commanded them to eat maror to remember that the Egyptians embittered their lives. In a beautiful essay, Rabbi YY Jacobson points out the absurdity! “Remember? They were still there!” The traumas of Egypt were not ancient history, like they are today. These were people who were still living alongside the very Nile in which their baby boys were drowned. They still bore the bruises and scars from torture and backbreaking labour. What good could eating bitter herbs do? Indeed, how could all the bitter herbs on the planet compare to the real suffering they had endured?
Rabbi YY explains that the mitzvah to eat the maror is what allowed the Jews to become free. We can neither ignore the trauma, nor allow ourselves to be defined by it. Instead, we are told to make some space for it in order to digest it. The mitzvah of maror, according to Rabbi YY, tells us “to designate a time and space to eat it, to look at it, to deal with it, to choke over it, to cry for it, to feel the pain. But do not let it become the focus of your entire life and swallow up your future and destiny. The Jews leaving Egypt, by eating maror, objectified their pain, meaning they transformed it into an important reality that they could look at, feel, study, and learn from. But it did not become their entire reality.”
So how do we define trauma? Dr Aliza Bilman, a psychologist who works with patients suffering from trauma distinguishes between Trauma and trauma. “Trauma with a big T is one specific major event, which people typically consider traumatic. These experiences can have devastating emotional consequences for those affected. In addition to the big Ts, many people suffer from trauma with a small t, difficult experiences that leave their mark and have a cumulative effect that is then carried into relationships, work, and pretty much all aspects of life.” Sometimes, we may be unaware of how we are still affected by trauma, but it comes out in the way we react to and treat others and even in our physical health.
Psychologist Dr Maya Roth says that approximately 80% of individuals experience a traumatic event at some point in their lifetime. Maya works at St. Joseph’s Operational Stress Injury Clinic in Toronto and treats members and Veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces and Royal Canadian Mounted Police who are suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other operational stress injuries. “I feel that a lot of people talk colloquially about experiencing trauma or having PTSD but there is a vast difference between experiencing stress and an experience where you felt like your life was in harm’s way, you witnessed a colleague being blown up by an IED. These events cannot be unseen and often haunt the individuals long after the trauma. The goal of treatment needs to be transparent. There is no cure because the traumatic experience and its memory cannot be erased,” says Maya.
Maya explains that in the case of PTSD, the trauma becomes the source of ongoing distress. “The toll of the trauma memory is associated with severe symptoms like unwanted intrusions of memories, images, thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks, which leads the individual to avoid engaging with the trauma memory in his mind and day to day life to minimise these intrusions.” Maya says that around 8-12 percent of people experiencing trauma will develop PTSD – a diagnosis that affects every aspect of life and functioning. “Thankfully, evidence-based trauma focused psychotherapies, such as Prolonged Exposure, Cognitive Processing Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy, are incredibly effective and produce enduring benefits,” she says. It’s important to note that most people experience PTSD symptoms immediately following a traumatic event, but these symptoms typically decrease naturally over time. “Treatment focuses on managing symptoms and cultivating a more adaptive meaning of what transpired and the individual role within and following it,” she explains. A deeper look at the Seder can light the way to finding meaning in our suffering, empowering us to go beyond what has happened, to looking at how we might respond.
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frankel writes, “Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”
Haggadah – tell the story
At the Seder, we describe the experience of slavery, sparing no detail. In this way, we take fragmented moments and vignettes, and we turn them into a cohesive, chronologically complete story. We start right at the beginning, before we as a family had even gone down to Egypt. Retelling the story is crucial. Before we talk about it, the traumatic memory has been indelibly imprinted in our brain’s limbic system. It does not live in the past, where it belongs. Instead, it colours our present emotions and behaviours which are driven by the fight, flight, or freeze responses. Our actions are more reactions than choices! Everything we experience is filtered through the traumatic memory. It is only when engaging our prefrontal cortex that we can use our wise, thinking, rational mind to look at all pieces of the puzzle, to reframe what has happened and to discover nuances and perspectives we missed in our reactive thinking at the time of the event. Only in this headspace do we really have free will!
Aliza uses an extensively researched therapy called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) while asking a client about the traumatic memory. “I ask what image represents the worst part of this experience, what self-referencing negative belief is associated with this experience, what they would prefer to believe about themselves in relation to this experience, what emotions are associated with it, and where they feel this trauma in the body. Examples of negative thoughts may include, “I’m in danger, I’m a failure, I’m unlovable, I’m worthless.” Once the memory has been set up, Aliza uses bilateral stimulation of the brain which taxes the memory, lessening its emotional charge. As the client’s brain is becoming desensitised to the memory of the trauma, the client processes the event until it is no longer emotionally charged. Then, she helps the client install a preferred positive belief about the event until it resonates emotionally – feeling completely true. Finally, Aliza helps the client clear the body of related body sensations associated with the trauma. This process addresses the disconnect between what we sometimes know intellectually but don’t feel emotionally. “The goal is for the traumatic memory to feel less emotionally charged and vivid, and more like looking at a photograph and to deal with harmful beliefs that continue to cause pain.” When we are able to go back to the memory – and sometimes we may need professional help with this – we have the power to find new, more adaptive (helpful) interpretations of what happened, and integrate these new thoughts into our being, rewiring the neural pathways of our brain. As Victor Frankl famously said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space, in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” We remain free to choose a different response, even long after our original reaction.
At the Seder, we rewrite the memory of victimisation by Pharoah and the Egyptians and replace it with a new narrative. Egypt becomes a furnace in which our people’s iron strength was forged. We choose to “zoom out” and widen our lens, as we look at the trauma within the broader context of Jewish history and purpose, focusing on the gifts within this very traumatic experience. Our nation’s experience in Egypt, in multiple exiles and indeed in the Holocaust may now sensitise us to the experience of the stranger – the other. We may feel more compassion for the suffering of other persecuted peoples and individuals and be inspired to offer help or advocate for justice. As we remember, we notice the great (and small) miracles along the way where G-d’s providence, love, and care were present even during our darkest moments. So many choices begin to open up for us as we retell our story, again and again, year after year.
Tell someone who cares
The Haggadah, of course, is told in the presence of family and loved ones and it cannot be overemphasised how important it is to have loving support as we tell our story. This gives us the courage to look at what’s inside us. Dr Bessel Van der Kolk is author of The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the healing of Trauma. He recently spoke to survivors of trauma on a webinar hosted by Rabbi YY Jacobson. In it he says we need family and community to keep us in check. “Traumatised people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.” Bessel explains that neuroscience shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.” But support makes all the difference. When no one listens, we feel enraged. Compassion from the outside can help us feel compassion for the wounded part of ourselves. He believes it doesn’t really matter which modality we choose to treat the trauma. What matters is our pain being seen, heard, and held by someone we trust, someone with whom we feel safe. “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
Mah Nishtana and the four sons
Children also experience trauma, and often this comes out as headaches or stomach problems. An important part of the Seder is the four questions and the four sons, and this is pointing to how crucial it is to listen to our children’s questions – to make them the focal point. Bessel advises not to react to their behaviour, but to ask them what is going on inside that is making them turn to self-destructive behaviours like drugs or cutting. Mental health is more than getting a diagnosis or a label – it’s looking deeply into the child’s experience.
The Seder Plate
Just as maror is but one part of the seder plate, so too, bitterness is but one part of the exodus story. We must not let it become the whole story. What about the egg, the symbol of our resilience and endurance? What about the matzah, our bread of faith? What about the four cups of wine – all the good and beautiful in our lives? Racheli Fraenkl’s 16-year-old son Naftali was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists in 2014. Speaking in South Africa not long after this horror, this remarkable mother said that her indescribable and excruciating loss was like a bucket of black paint, and that it was her choice not to pour it over everything else in her life – particularly her other children. The mitzva of maror tells us to create a sacred space in our heart and our seder plate for the “maror”. And the Seder shows us that there is much more to our story than the pain.
The maror is sandwiched by cups of wine before and after. This highlights the redemption, the good, the joyful that exists alongside the pain. The four cups of wine represent four expressions of redemption used by the Torah – this points to the power of noticing the good in all its detail. We drink wine and sing Dayenu, stopping to absorb the gratitude available to us in the present moment when we notice where we are now, and how far G-d has brought us. We become aware of how wonderful it is right now, leaning like royalty, living without oppression.
Says Rabbi YY, “We do not ignore pain or take it lightly. We do not delegitimise human feelings. We do not say ‘get over it’. When we eat the maror, this is our focus. We honour our feelings and experiences. And when we do that, we can say: that was the maror. And now it’s time for the matzah and the wine.”
It may take everything we have, but there comes a time that we have to move forward. The laws of mourning reflect this truth. One begins with the intense shiva period, followed by the somewhat lighter shloshim, and 11 months of daily kaddish. But after the first yahrzeit, the mourning must end. The loss has happened, the person is in a better place – of that we are assured. Now is the time to accept reality and give up on the need to change the past. In her book The Choice, Edith Eger talks about forgiving Hitler. Many people misunderstand this point, thinking she’s advocating for letting him off the hook for his unspeakable evil. But what is clear is that she reached a point in her life where she had to utterly give up the ‘hope’ that things could be anything other than what they were. As long as we are fighting with reality, with what has already, irrevocably happened, we cannot move forward. Acceptance is the hardest part of all. But it is within our reach – with time, with resolve, and with support.
Matzah – bread of faith
Last year on 23 Adar, my uncle was killed in a motorbike accident. Less than a month later on Erev Pesach, I received a WhatsApp with a profound teaching from Rabbi Elimelech Biderman. He writes, “We are taught in the laws of Pesach that one does not lean while eating maror. This is because leaning while eating symbolises freedom and royalty while maror symbolises servitude and oppression. However, when one eats korech – [the Hillel sandwich] – matzah and maror together, we are obligated to lean. What is the difference? It is said over in the name of the Tiferes Shlomo: We know that matzah symbolises emunah. In the Zohar it’s called “bread of faith”. When one wraps his maror – his pain and suffering in matzah – in emunah, and believes that everything comes from Hashem and is for the good, this will nullify all the bitterness of the “maror”. Then one can lean while eating in the manner of freedom and royalty.”
More than every other weapon we use to tackle trauma, faith is the strongest. It’s important to realise that faith may not at first be a feeling. Faith takes time and effort to become a conscious, nurturing wellspring that quenches our thirst for answers. It takes continuous learning about G-d, for this intellectual information to filter down into our emotional responses. It also takes humility to acknowledge the limits of reason, to admit that our minds cannot understand why traumatic things happen when everything is from G-d and everything is good. As I write this article, on my uncle’s yahrzeit, I hope and pray that we are all filled with the kind of faith that prevents the bitter traumas of our lives from embittering us, for the faith to endure this bitter exile, and for the faith that brings the ultimate redemption of Moshiach, speedily in our days.