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Surviving Trauma: Different models

There is so much we can learn, at this moment, from Yitzchak's household that we read in this week's parsha. Yitzchaks household lives in the shadow of trauma. Up on a mountain with his protector, his beloved father, a knife lingering over his neck, Yitzchak never really returns. How does this affect those around him? What does it mean to be a ‘survivor’? For the victim, for his children, for his spouse? The question that haunts the family of Yitzhak is “למה זה אנוכי” – literally translated as “why am I being/existing”? or “what is the purpose of my existence”. This phrase is asked by Rivka and echoed also by Eisav. It is the question that pervades Yitzchak’s narratives and dialogues. In other words, much of what we learn about Yitzchak’s household is a response to an existential crisis- to questions of value and purpose.

Eisav’s response, like many in modern society today, is hedonistic and impulsive and empty of any future prospects – הנה אנוכי הולך למות ולמה זה לי בכרה?” - Behold I am going to die what use is this birth-right to me?”(25:31).

Yitzchak’s response is saturated with complexity- a survival instinct as well as a stoic disposition that nurtured virtue and self-control. Following his father’s journey, re-digging his father wells, he was faithful to what his father started but he was also conflicted, traumatised and searching for peace.

What of Rivka? She too asks ‘למה זה אנוכי’ (25:22), she too feels the angst allied to existence. Her response I believe is one that has impactful message for us today, after 7/10. She finds purpose. Seeking out God after she feels a strange but compelling inner struggle, He responds with a telling message: Two sons will be born to her and the ‘older will be subservient to the younger’. Grammatically it is unclear which of the two boys will be subservient to whom – the commentaries affirm the elusiveness of the prophecy. The ambiguity is to my mind its essence; Gods message provides Rivka was an answer, but not the answer we expect. In a moment of total existential chaos and uncertainty, Rivka turns to God, searching for order and harmony. Rather than offering an answer, God responds by bestowing on her agency that invites her to become an interpreter of her own reality and thus invites purpose into her life. In other words, she must watch these boys carefully, she must use her own sense of perception and judgment to determine how to act in order for the prophecy to come true. Redemption through Divine fiat can initially be comforting but in the end it stultifies - passivity in the long run, fosters angst and despair. Rivka faces her existential crisis by reclaiming agency and purpose. Part of the Jewish legacy is the notion of covenant – that we work with God to redeem not only the world, but our own small taste of existence. This is what God teaches Rivka this week. It is the Divine response to the question of existence.

Yitzchak, being the victim of trauma, also has what to teach us. Elie Wiesel asks "why was the most tragic of our ancestors names Isaac, a name which evokes and signifies laughter? Here is why. As the first survivor. He had to teach us the future survivors of Jewish history, that it is possible to suffer and despair an entire lifetime and still not give up the art of laughter." Yitzchak life was no laughing matter. He clearly suffers, he clearly questions his own worth and existence. He flees confrontation, (not wanting to argue with the shepherds of Gerar, he moves from place to place re-digging wells), and lacks resolve. Only once does he take initiative – when he names one of the wells ‘rechovot’ – widening “because now God has widened the space for us and made us fruitful in the land”. Living with trauma means life is tainted with stains of suffering. The ability to move out from that narrow place and intuit divinity and blessing is indeed redemptive. His ability to move from the narrow straits of pain and trauma to the wider spaces of life and love is the journey of heroes. Rabbi Sacks zt’l expresses it beautifully when he says:

“Perhaps the name – given to him by God Himself before Isaac was born – means what the Psalm means when it says, “Those who sow in tears will reap with joy” (Ps. 126:5). Faith means the courage to persist through all the setbacks, all the grief, never giving up, never accepting defeat. For in the end, despite the opposition, the envy and the hate, lies the broad spaces, Reĥovot, and the laughter Yitzchak: the serenity of the destination after the storms along the way.”

May we all have the courage to follow in the path of Yitzchak and Rivka, today more than ever.

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