A Trauma-Informed Reading of Parshat Devarim: Advice to Activists on Building Resiliency

Commentary on Parshat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22)

I was fired from my first rabbinic position for no other reason than the fact that I was being harassed and asked for it to stop. Just a few weeks later, during an interview for a new job, I could not contain my tears at moments. After the interviewing rabbi heard my pain and offered comfort, he gave me good guidance. He could not hire me, he said, not because I wasn’t qualified but because I wasn’t ready. I needed to do my own healing work before I could help in the healing of others. I needed to rebuild my resiliency so that I could once again meet the challenges of our helping profession. 

My experience of trauma inhibited me from being able to be present in that interview and in much of my life. After time in therapy and prayer, walking in parks, and being with friends, I was able to build up my strength and resiliency so that I could do the sacred work of serving God and the Jewish people.

When I read the story of the children of Israel in this week’s Torah portion with a trauma-informed perspective, I understand why one generation was not ready to achieve its dreams and one generation could move into battle and on to the Promised Land. 

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The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ speech to the Israelites as they stand on the border of the land of Israel. Moses retells the story of their journey from slavery to freedom through the challenges and triumphs of the desert. In fact, Moses uses the same language when he tells the Children of Israel to leave Sinai and head toward the border of Canaan as he does 38 years later when he tells them it is time to head toward the Promised Land. Twice God tells them they have wandered long enough and must change directions. The same commands. Very different outcomes. 

In chapter one, Moses relates God’s command back when Israel was at Sinai: “Rav lachem shevet bahar hazeh/ You have stayed long enough at this mountain. P’nu u’s’u lachem … Start out and make your way to the hill country…” Two years after leaving Egypt, the Israelites were unable to follow God’s commands. Struck with fear upon the report of the reconnaissance team they had sent to Canaan they said, “It is because the Lord hates us that God brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to wipe us out.”(Deut.1:27)

How is it that the Children of Israel could summarize their experience of God’s redemption from Egypt, God’s revelation at Sinai and God’s deliverance to the border of the Promised Land as God’s hatred of Israel and desire to destroy Israel?! The ultimate blessings that God conferred on Israel were experienced as traumatic situations that left Israel feeling alone, abandoned, despised, and threatened. How were they so blind to God’s love? Why couldn’t they experience the blessings of their experience? 

Commenting on this verse, Rashi, citing the midrash Sifre, explains that “God loved you but you hated Him. As a common proverb says: What is in your own mind about your friend, [you imagine] is in his mind about you.’” As much as Moses told them not to be afraid and that everything would be ok because God was with them, they couldn’t comprehend this. They were stuck in the past, fearful of every threat, imagined or real, and unable to accurately understand the situation before them.

This is the impact of trauma on our minds. The trauma of slavery had profoundly impacted the Israelites’ capacity to access hope in the face of threat. Remember that Moses never lived as a slave. Where Moses saw promise, the Israelites saw danger. Their traumatic memories were active and ever-present in their minds, making them not yet ready to enter into the next battle. The decades of travel through the desert became a therapeutic holding space to build up Israel’s resiliency and capacity to be in a committed relationship with God. 

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A generation later Israel stood at Kadesh Barnea again, and we read the same command to set their course toward the promised land. “Rav lachem. Sov et hahar hazeh, p’nu lachem tzafona/You have been skirting this hill country long enough; now turn north.”(Deuteronomy 2:3) 

This time Moses has a wealth of experiences upon which he can draw to remind Israel of their strengths and experience overcoming obstacles. They can remember the experience of God’s love and recall the blessings of the divine-human partnership. “Indeed, the Lord your God has blessed you in all your undertakings. God has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness; the Lord your God has been with you these past 40 years; you have lacked nothing.” (Deuteronomy 2:7)

This time the Israelites are able to hear God’s commands and Moses’ reassurances. This time they are standing in Kadesh Barnea firmly grounded in the present’s opportunities. The past provides the resources to give them strength in times of adversity and faith in God’s presence and benevolence.  

While God’s judgement of the Exodus generation and its sentence to wander in the desert until a new generation was prepared may seem harsh and unreasonable, Israel’s experience of post-traumatic growth can point us in the direction of healing, resiliency, and hope. 

As we experience so many threats to democracy and fear for our neighbors’ welfare and our children’s future, are there not many times that challenge our capacity to maintain hope and resiliency? These are the times when we must stop and ground ourselves in the present, recount our blessings, witness the beauty in the world, savor the joy. We all carry historical trauma, so we must be careful to pick up resources along our way that promote well-being and resiliency.

The road ahead will always hold potholes and detours. The challenge is to utilize the rest stops and our vast spiritual toolkit. Only then will we fulfill our own divinely-mandated journeys and find our way to the promised land.

Rabbi Francine Roston is the spiritual leader and co-founder of the independent, synagogue-without-walls Glacier Jewish Community/B’nai Shalom in northwest Montana. She is working towards certification as a teacher of the Community Resiliency Model® helping people understand the biology of traumatic stress reactions and teaching them well-being skills to develop resiliency.

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