Sign In Forgot Password

Kol Nidrei 5782: Trauma

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

A couple of weeks ago, a rabbinic colleague of mine offered a suggestion to rabbis across the globe: What if on Kol Nidrei, as we stood before our congregations to deliver our sermons, we simply cried for ten minutes?

I gave it serious consideration.

As I contemplate our world, our country, our state, our community, I just want to weep. COVID alone is a cause for tears – Delta (and if you think Delta is bad, don’t read about Lambda or Mu and/or pray they do not spread seriously in this country), masks, anti-maskers, immune-suppressed, immunocompromised, unvaccinated children, third shots, boosters, anti-vaxxers, governors banning schools from requiring masks; parents and schools suing governors to allow masks, and on and on.

We add to COVID the political and cultural divisions which many of us innocently thought would go away if we elected a new president; the Taliban, suicide bombers, and refugees from Afghanistan; Haitians dying because of another earthquake coupled with horrific corruption; recent bombs threatening the lives of Israelis and a new government that refuses to work toward Palestinian independence; global warming, fires, floods, and hurricanes; racism, antisemitism, conspiracy theories; and limits on a pregnant woman’s right to control her body. I could list more, but you get the point – and more importantly, you have made the point yourself.

We are traumatized, on edge, distrusting, angry, sad, tired, depressed (clinically or otherwise), not sleeping, suffering from non-COVID illnesses or COVID itself, overeating, undereating, drinking, and contemplating self-harm; we’ve been triggered, pushed, and pulled. We feel over­whelmed, scared, numb, kicked, broken, and defeated.

Our therapists are helping a bit or not helping, or we don’t talk to them enough, or we can’t find one taking new clients, or we can’t afford one, or we just don’t feel comfortable talking to someone that way.

Maybe we need to all cry for ten minutes.

And then when we dry our tears, we must lift up our heads and our feet, and move. The movements don’t have to be quick or take us far, but we must move. Because we cannot live in a constant state of trauma. Trauma takes a massive toll on our health – it damages the immune system, disrupts our circadian rhythms, impairs our digestive health, and makes us seriously fatigued. When we are traumatized, our bodies over produce energy to combat the stressors. We go into survival mode, and simply put, we are depleted.

“Move, you say?” Perhaps you are thinking. “I can’t think and I’m barely breathing, never mind move.”

Yes, you can. Let’s look to our most traumatized biblical ancestor, Isaac. Isaac is born to very old parents – Abraham and Sarah were 99 and 90 at the time of his birth, and he was their everything. Their lives were completely bound up in his. Isaac is teased by his older brother Ishmael to the point that Sarah orders and God confirms that Abraham throw out from the home Ishmael and his mother, sending them into the wilderness with virtually nothing. How much guilt did Isaac live with from that incident?

Then, Abraham takes Isaac up a mountain, binds him to an altar, and lifts a knife, seemingly ready to kill him – you can clean it up and say Abraham seemed ready to offer him up as a sacrifice, but it doesn’t change the trauma for Isaac – bound, tied, knife over his body, his father eager to perform for God.

But God intervenes, orders Abraham to put down the knife and untie the boy. Boy? The Midrash says he’s 37 years old – just in case you thought childhood trauma ended in childhood. It doesn’t.

But let’s look at the rest of Isaac’s life. The first thing he does is move himself. He goes down the mountain, alone, and settles far from his father. In other words, he stops engaging with one of the causes of his trauma. You can, too. Get off of social media, stop debating those whose position on masking or vaccines is the opposite of yours, find out how to help the people of Haiti, or seriously reduce your carbon footprint. One great antidote to trauma is to engage positively with others.

Isaac eventually marries. He’s the only Torah patriarch or prophet who is in a monogamous relationship. He’s the only one about whom we are told that he loves, in a romantic sense, and is comforted by, his spouse. He fathers two children, and while one might suggest that he wasn’t the best dad – and Lord knows he didn’t have that role model – he does what he needs to do to keep peace in his family and ensure the survival of this little Israelite clan. If Isaac figured it out, so can we.

During our daily Elul discussion group last month, we spoke frequently about the need to be present for others – of simply showing up. We concluded day after day and participant after participant that the way out of the abyss, the way to counter the trauma, the way to move toward healing is by engaging with others. Our acts of tzedek, g’milut chasadim, and shalom – of justice, loving kindness, and peace – bring good to others and by extension, to ourselves.

There is a story in the Talmud about a famous healer, Rabbi Yochanan, who is one day healed by his friend Rabbi Chanina. The Talmud asks why Yochanan couldn’t heal himself. The response: “A captive cannot release himself from prison.”[1] We need each other.

But when we are stuck in trauma, we tend to isolate and be alone. God recognizes that loneliness as the first human problem when declaring that “It is not good for the human to be alone.”[2] There are some people for whom that aloneness is painful, and they feel it even when they are in a room filled with others. How can that be? It has to do with the origins of loneliness. Loneliness is found in the space between the person you know you are and the people in your life who don’t see you that way. When no one really knows you as you see yourself, conversations swirl around you but don’t include you. You recall childhood rejections and awkward social situations. You are triggered, and your brain reverts to age 6 or 12 or 16.

You can manage the loneliness. Just after Isaac returns from the mountain without his father, his mother dies. According to Rashi, even three years later, he was seen wandering in the fields looking for his wife Rebecca for comfort. He had a companion who understood him and saw him the way he saw himself. She didn’t diminish his brokenness; she affirmed it.

Engage with others, combat loneliness – these are two ways to deal with trauma. A third is to develop or nurture a relationship with God/the Source/the Power/Divinity or whatever else you call the Divine. Maybe God hears your prayers. Or maybe God for you is impersonal, neither knowing nor loving you. Or maybe God “knows the secrets of the heart,” in the words of the psalmist — God sees you in your fullness, without the masks and facades.

No matter what, let yourself be open to the possibility that someone/something exists outside of you, loves you, and doesn’t want you lonely in a room filled with people. Rather, God wants you to understand who you are so that the people around you can come to know you for who you are. This vignette written by John Roedel, called Become! Become! Become!, can serve as an example.

Me: Hey God.

God: Hello.....

Me: I’m falling apart. Can you put me back together?

God: I would rather not.

Me: Why?

God: Because you aren’t a puzzle.

Me: What about all of the pieces of my life that are falling down onto the ground?

God: Let them stay there for a while. They fell off for a reason. Take some time and decide if you need any of those pieces back.

Me: You don’t understand! I’m breaking down!

God: No ­– you don’t understand. You are breaking through. What you are feeling are just growing pains. You are shedding the things and the people in your life that are holding you back. You aren’t falling apart. You are falling into place. Relax. Take some deep breaths and allow those things you don’t need any more to fall off of you. Quit holding onto the pieces that don’t fit you anymore. Let them fall off. Let them go.

Me: Once I start doing that, what will be left of me?

God: Only the very best pieces of you.

Me: I’m scared of changing.

God: I keep telling you – You aren’t changing!! You are becoming!

Me: Becoming who?

God: Becoming who I created you to be! A person of light and love and charity and hope and courage and joy and mercy and grace and compassion. I made you for more than the shallow pieces you have decided to adorn yourself with that you cling to with such greed and fear. Let those things fall off of you. I love you! Don’t change! ... Become! Become! Become who I made you to be. I’m going to keep telling you this until you remember it.

Me: There goes another piece.

God: Yep. Let it be.

Me: So ... I’m not broken?

God: Of course not! – but you are breaking like the dawn. It’s a new day. Become!!!

We do not have to stay forever in a traumatized state. Healing is possible. So is becoming, as John Roedel asserts in this dialogue. We know that it’s hard, really hard to get there. Right now, very little in our world points in that direction.

And even if we are able to find healing, remember that scar tissue remains behind.[3] Scar tissue is thick. It can be ugly. Sometimes it’s painful. Often it needs to be cut through or broken apart. No healing is perfect. But we still must take steps to get out of the state of trauma toward healing and wholeness. Your being at this service and listening to these words is perhaps the first step you will take.

And as you hum a bit of Avinu Malkeinu as the service ends, shut down your computer, and remove your tallit, think about your next possible steps. Can you close your Facebook account or not post to Instagram for a month? Can you show up and just be present for others who are suffering as well? Can you reduce the loneliness gap by authentically presenting yourself, even when it makes you vulnerable? Can you trust that God wants you to transform and let go of this way too long of an episode of trauma? Whatever steps you undertake, you will survive. And you know this because you have survived the past 18 months, which is worthy of blessing and thanksgiving.


[1]B’rachot 5a

[2]Genesis 2:18

[3]Betsy Stone, PhD.

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784