Thursday, July 09, 2020

On Shavuot, we celebrate receiving the Torah, a book of laws, a narrative of events of Jewish history and a living guide for our lives. As we approach the holiday this year, I find myself reflecting on a particular aspect of Shavuot that teaches us about the healing process. Shavuot is the culmination of a counting and recounting process, after an event, Passover, has taken place. We take the time to not only tell the story but to account for the events that lead up to and follow the event. It is through this exacting and measuring in the present that we are able to not only narrate our past, but reclaim it as a living thing that influences and becomes a part of our present lives. The Shavuot holiday follows Passover and the counting of the Omer, a narrative of the journey from slavery to freedom followed by a period of mourning. What does this sequence reveal to us? How can we understand the meaning of not only the events but this sequence of events? Consider the words “Shavuot,” which translates as “weeks” and “Sefira” which translates as “counting.” Both words are in a language of quantification. Why are we so strongly emphasizing the counting, the quantification, of our history, of our past and present?

To answer this question, I want to shift gears for a moment back to my lens and experience as a psychotherapist. In therapy, we utilize and emphasize narrative for a number of reasons, one of which is the treatment and healing of trauma. We support a person in the disclosure of extremely painful narratives to help them both release and integrate events that have happened to them. There is an almost paradoxical nature to this where the same disclosure of events is both excruciating and liberating.

Part of the reason this is so is because of the matrix of time in which this all takes place. We are taking a past event that has happened and will never “un-happen,” bringing it up and giving it space to exist in the present. We have the opportunity to include, integrate and heal a past event not by repressing or locking it up, but by giving it voice, life and relevance in the present. This only happens because we can both separate from the event as well as integrate its impact utilizing time as a construct. Time allows us to distinguish between the unsafety of the past and the safety of the present. It also allows us to realize that our past is a living part of our present that has made us who we are. This same principle can of course be applied to the narrative and formation of a people, and on Shavuot, of the Jewish people. In order to receive the Torah, we must first recount a very painful and traumatic history, one of slavery and intense grief and mourning. Only then can we truly stand in a present moment of choice and intention of receiving this living guide for our lives, the Torah. We would not be able to participate in any type of present, living Torah if we were not conscious of our past traumas and how they have made us who we are today, woven into and stitched into the very fiber of our being.

How does this time matrix facilitate this process of healing and integration? Why is it that we heal at a moment or in several moments in time? Time provides a limitation in the sense that things happen and do not unhappen, we age older and not younger. Time is also something that we can quantify in time measurements. It also allows space for synthesis in the sense that we have consciousness and memory and can recall a past event in our present, hopefully wiser, eyes and with wider vision. This is what creates the medium for narrative and story, both the containment and the fluidity and flow between past and present.

Stories, counting and sequencing all exist because of the way time was created and constructed. This Torah was given in time, following a sequence of events and a narrative in our history. It is meant to remind us of this, gives us commandments we must fulfill in a particular time and place. It is also meant to be a medium of transcendence and liberation of a spiritual nature that brings us into contact with a spiritual unity. This is something that transcends our construct of time and boundaries, where the self can be realized as part of a greater whole, the whole of a people in communion with God. This reality as part of a whole both liberates us from our personal narratives, while still including those narratives. We are our personal stories and also something far beyond those stories. We understand we are what we have experienced, seen and narrated, and we also understand that we extend beyond the limits of our personal experiences and lenses. This happens as we realize we are a self, a part of a people and a part of humanity that is all part of a universe, a creation of and through God.

When a person reaches a certain point of healing from trauma, there is a quality of acceptance that allows a person to both include what has happened but also live in a present that is no longer dictated by or prisoner to that past event. This is a point where past and present are related but no longer restricted by a particular, singular sequence. When a person can recognize a trigger that reminds him of his trauma but that trigger no longer automatically brings the person back to the event in the same manner it did when the trauma was still raw. They remember what happened; they also see and remember they are in a different time and can be present with that same trigger in a different way. They are forever changed through their experiences and trauma but no longer frozen in those wounds. The wounds can breathe and inform the person without being the only voice in the room.

Buried in the Hebrew word for opportunity, “hizdamnut,” is the word “zman,” which means “time.” We see here that there is a relationship between opportunity and time. We find time within opportunity, but not opportunity within time. This is a very liberating idea. How many of us beat ourselves up over a perceived missed opportunity, where we made a choice that resulted in us not capturing and utilizing a moment in time to its fullest possibility? The truth is that we don’t seize time in that way. Rather, time finds itself in the world and in this thing we call opportunity. To understand this, perhaps we can look at opportunity as something that surrounds us, prepared to receive us as we grow and evolve and relate to the world, people and our surroundings in a different way. Time is within opportunity in this way. By being in the world, more fully present, we are in an ebb and flow where opportunity is pervasive because time is pervasive, keeps moving, flowing and, in a way, carrying us.

Also in the word “hizdamnut,” we find the letter “dalet,” directly in the middle of the word “zman.” Kabbalistically, the letter dalet has two sides. It can mean “delet,” door, or “dalut,” poverty or scarcity. How can the same letter hold two such drastically different qualities? It is because they are qualities that are related, are of the same thing but at different ends of the spectrum or different sides of the same coin. We can relate the dalet to time in this case, thinking of how there can be a fluid relationship between us and time, time and us, or we can have a more antagonistic battle with time, missing it, thinking we lose it or it loses or misses us somehow. The dalet serves to remind us we can have an open-door or closed-door policy. The closed door is the repression, locking or burying something in the past as if it does not and cannot relate to the present. The open door is the inclusion and integration of the past, through narration and acceptance, that can only be done in the present. An open door is the direct contrast to the closed door, but both the open and closed are founded on the presence of the door in the first place. Regardless of how we relate to the pathway, embracing and opening it or shutting it, we can’t ignore the fact that the door exists. There is always an opportunity to bridge time, relating not only our past to present, but present to past as we reflect and narrate our wounds and histories. May this Shavuot serve as a holiday for both personal and collective liberation.

By Aliza Scharf-Bendov, LCSW

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