Overcoming Trauma and Trauma Response
Parasha Beshalach, Exodus 13:17—-17:16
by Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Lewi
This week’s parasha continues the incredible saga of the great emancipation of the Hebrews from Egyptian captivity. Last week we studied Parashat Bo, which underscored the three remaining plagues that compelled Pharaoh to acquiesce to the ever-increasing call for freedom. Many of our most esteemed rabbinic scholars have noted the shift in the language used by the Creator at the start of the parasha to give Moses his directive. In most cases, the Torah indicates that the Creator told Moses to “lech” or go to Pharaoh. However, in Parashat Bo, Moses is commanded to “bo” or “come” unto Pharaoh. As we are taught by the sages, there is nothing superfluous in the Torah. Every letter, word, cantillation mark and grammatical symbol is replete with intrinsic depth and meaning that must be fully examined and unearthed.
It can be understood that the command for Moshe to “come in unto Pharoah” was to provide an intimate look into the mind of Pharoah and to view the destruction left in the wake of the plagues through Pharoah’s eyes. From this vantage point, Moshe would see that the duration of each plague had systematically destroyed everything that made Egypt great. The Egyptians were reeling from the results of polluted water, physical afflictions, and massive death among cattle, livestock, and people. The economy had tanked and brought the activity of the marketplace to a rapid cessation. The land had become polluted, vile, and an abhorrence to look upon. The psychological damage made by these unsanitary conditions was extensive and debilitating. The glory of Egypt had withered as word of what happened to their land spread. Recognition of Pharoah and his magician’s inability to prevent these assaults had caused a great schism among the populace, some screaming let them go and others still trying to hold onto the slaves. Pharoah’s honor had decreased as Moshe’s public esteem grew among Pharaoh’s own courtiers. His only remaining ploy was a combination of subterfuge, false humility, and broken promises.
Although the Torah provides us with an in-depth look into the psychology of Pharoah, there is very little spoken about the mental and emotional state of the Hebrews during the plagues. In the early chapters of Parashat Shemot, we learn that they could not hear Moses’s message of G-D’s redemption, because of “shortness of breath” brought on by their bondage. It is reasonable to think that centuries of harsh oppression, loss of personal agency, and denial of human dignity would have left an indelible impression on them. What impact could this traumatic ordeal have on them? How would it manifest in the years and generations that would follow the exodus?
‘And it came to pass, when Pharoah had let the people go, that G’D led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was near; for G-D said: Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt (Shemot/Exodus 13:17). In his commentary on this verse, the 12th century commentator, Ibn Ezra quotes Bamidbar/Numbers 14:4, “G-D thus led them via a distant way so that they would not witness any war and say, Let us make a captain, and let us return to Egypt.”
This verse teaches a lesson that is central to understanding the hardships encountered after the exodus from Egypt. It should serve as a prism through which we view their experiences. It affirms that G-D had assessed the people and noted the fragility of their resolve. They were under divine providence. He considered the effect of their trauma history and its impact on their self-efficacy, and developed a strategy that would protect them from premature exposure to traumatic triggers, while simultaneously accomplish the ultimate end of the Egyptians. It’s much like a medical intervention for a baby born prematurely, or with a compromised or underdeveloped immune system. The child is secured in a hub and protected from environmental dangers that it physically cannot resist or withstand until its immunity is strengthened. Although the emancipated Hebrews failed to see it, they were always under divine guidance. Every obstacle and challenge after their physical liberation was set up by G-D to address their trauma and pattern of trauma response.
Within recent years, there have been significant strides toward understanding the effects of trauma. Seminal research has revealed that an external traumatic event can severely impact the survivor, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Often the consequences of a traumatic event may not fully manifest itself immediately. Some survivors make a drastic shift and others undergo more subtle changes in their self-confidence and way of responding to distressing situations. In her article entitled “Common Reactions After Trauma,” Dr. Sonya Norman describes how hypervigilance, avoidance and anxiousness are symptoms of trauma. However, the most pronounced symptoms are fear of being in imminent danger, loss of hope for the future, and an inability to accurately assess a situation. Within time, this trauma response mechanism becomes cemented into some people’s way of responding to triggering situations.
In our reading, we see the Hebrews’ trauma response in full swing. The immediate reaction to the momentary absence of water or bread resulted in despair and murmurings. They often lost hope and erroneously concluded that they were destined for destruction, evidenced by their refrain to Moshe, ‘You brought us out here to die in the wilderness.” The Creator designed a Post Traumatic Recovery plan that would cause the Hebrews to confront their fears while affording them opportunity to learn how to manage their anxiety through increased faith. They witnessed the Egyptians not only drown, but “dead on the seashore.” The Creator performed yet another miracle. The Egyptians and the chariots that were submerged in the water defied the natural course of gravity and landed on the seashore. What it must have been like for the Hebrews to witness the nullification of something that had once paralyzed them with fear?
The heart of the recovery program was the provision of manna. Abounding stipulations regarding the attainment and use of the manna ensured a daily test of faith in G-D’s provision. They could not store the manna away. They could not relieve themselves of the burden of the uncertainty of tomorrow by seeking to take more than the one omer of manna that was designated per person. Any attempt to keep the manna beyond one day would lead to manna being spoiled on the following day. However, on the 6th day they could collect two omers of manner per person and the 2nd omer would miraculously be preserved for the 7th day (Shabbat). G-D was meticulously teaching the Hebrews how to overcome their trauma response and how to maintain optimism amid challenges. Each day the bread miraculously appeared to help increase their faith in tomorrow. The blessing was if they faltered in their faith today, they would have another opportunity to demonstrate their faith moving forward. Bitter water turned sweet, water from a rock, bread from heaven with unfailing consistency, and a hovering pillar of cloud or fire were all purposed with teaching the Hebrews that their fate was not determined by circumstances or environment. They were symbols of G-D’s presence in their most trying times. Hence, the miracles of the water and manna were followed by the admonishment to keep the commandments of G-D. As an overwhelming demonstration of G-D’s love and faithfulness, G-D’s provision of the Hebrew’s needs was not predicated upon their faith and reverence of Him.
The trials and vicissitudes of life are well documented in ancient and modern history. We all will at some point find ourselves grappling with painful and difficult moments. Some life events are so traumatic that they shake us to our very core. We feel the loss of the person we were before the event. We lose confidence in ourselves and hope that things can turn in our favor. We verbally and inwardly question whether G-D is aware of our plight. Our sorrow is exacerbated when the cause of the suffering escapes human reasoning or what we consider to be justified.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), our sages warn us against getting trapped in the cycle of despair and doubt, when understanding of life events eludes us. In their final assessment, they state “it is not in man’s power to understand the suffering of the righteous, nor the tranquility of the wicked” (Chapter 4).
When you feel inundated by the raging waters of life, and problems assail you to the extent that you cannot see your escape route; when redemption feels unlikely, and all options for relief exhausted, it is at this moment that like the Hebrews and the manna, you must return to that, which grounds you. Fight the trauma response of fear and despair. While you can bolster your faith through rehearsing the narratives of deliverance found in the Torah, do not forget to review the chronicles of your own life. Reflect on personal history, the miracles displayed through divine providence, and timing that turned the outcome of an event. Don’t neglect the miracle of the unexpected call of a loved one, while you were at your weakest moment; the financial support that came from an unexpected source; the resolve of heart and mind during a personal crisis that seemingly appears from nowhere, or the answer of peace, to a problem that robbed you of sleep. These things are your manna and pillar of cloud and fire. They assure you that despite the trial, G-D has remained present. We only need to look for G-D in every situation. If we do, I am confident that we would undeniably see G-D’s guidance, influence, and support. As stated in our liturgy, “G-D burdens us with His blessings”
In times of uncertainty, arrest your trauma response, still you your emotions, and press forward with hope and “Stand by, and witness the deliverance which יהוה will work for you…” (Shemot/Exodus 14:13)