Sunday, October 14, 2012

Noah's trauma and ours / Parshat Noach

The poet Rivka Miriam wrote:

Noah installed wheels on his ark
dragging it after him
in case the flood suddenly returned.
Grapevines, noticing fins on his temples
and shiny scales at the opening of his shirt,
turned into raisins, dried out their juices
to ease his fear of their drowning wetness.
Noah installed wheels on his ark
and when the children hung from its side-poles for a ride
Noah lovingly offered them brittle clods of Ararat.

(translated by Linda Stern Zisquit)

Rivka Miriam was born in Jerusalem in 1952. Her life, her soul, her work were all profoundly affected by her parents’ experiences in the Holocaust. Rivka Miriam remembers, ““I was a year old and my father would hold me in his arms and throw me up and down and I laughed and laughed and laughed. Each time he threw me up he’d yell in Yiddish ‘Rivkela Rivkela where’s Savta?’ ‘Killed.’ ‘Rivkela Rivkela where’s Miriam?’ ‘Killed.’ ‘Rivkela Rivkela where’s Chaim?’ ‘Killed.’ He’d say all the names and I’d laugh and laugh. I was a year old, I feel I absorbed it from the start." Her parents’ trauma was, in many ways, Rivka Miriam’s trauma, as well.

Rivka Miriam’s parents were survivors, but so was Rivka Miriam. And so is Noah. And to a lesser degree (hopefully!), so are we.

Life outside the Garden, as Noah learns, can be brutally hard, and filled with evil and suffering. No one gets through without being wounded; no one gets through without scars. Some wounds are caused by identifiable and nameable events -- an enormous crater dug into the soul by a horrifying experience. Some wounds are dug a teaspoon at a time over the course of years through neglect, degradation, dismissal, or insufficient love.

There is a tendency in us to try to forget the bad and recall the good. My father, when he spoke of his childhood in Brooklyn, spoke glowingly of stickball and how the Staten Island Ferry cost only a nickel. It was only when I was in college that the reality of his childhood was revealed to me; it was far from idyllic.

Noah is overcome by the trauma he has witnessed and experienced. He drinks himself into a stupor he hopes will envelope him in forgetfulness. He has one insensitive son who ridicule him, but thankfully two son who covers him up, applying the healing balm of love and respect.

Trauma leaves a mark, but not the same mark on everyone. Some become stronger; some weaker. Some become braver; some grew more timid. Some pursue righteousness; others give in to evil instincts. Our identities are shaped by events -- either acute and traumatic, or chronic and painful. Why are some made stronger, kinder, and more generous, while others become cruel or reclusive or volatile?

Would that all of us were able to carve out happy and productive lives, not permitting past scars to control the present. My father z”l was one such person. He was a generous and loving soul. For others of us, it’s far more difficult. Some of us are unaware that our sensitivities, proclivities, way of seeing the world, manner of being in relationships, and self-image were molded by wounds as much as by positive, happy, and fulfilling experiences.

It is worthwhile to know: Why do I choose the wrong people for friends? Why can’t I get close to people? Why do I react to the slightest criticism with anger? Why do I devalue my accomplishments? Why am I scared of new situations and new people? Why are my emotional reactions out of proportion to the words and events that provoke them? Why do I need to control everything and everyone? Why do I avoid change? Why do I always seek change?

If knowledge is power, self-knowledge is of inestimable power. I think my father had self-knowledge; I think he consciously chose to give his children a different childhood than he had, and deliberately chose to focus on the positives in his life. He used his understanding of himself to grow, not as an excuse.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “We grow accustomed to the dark.” She describes the process of emerging from the dark into the light -- it could be the light of self-knowledge:

We grow accustomed to the Dark --
When light is put away --
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye --…

The Bravest -- grope a little --
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead --
But as they learn to see --

Either the Darkness alters --
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight --
And Life steps almost straight.

It takes courage, Dickinson reminds us, to enter the light. She also reminds us that wounds may be revealed, but even with lots of Vitamin E cream, a bit of the scar remains: “And Life steps almost straight.”

The Psalmist found God even in the deep darkness (Psalm 23:4):

Though I walk through the valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me.

However we pursue self-knowledge, we can feel safer in God’s presence. If we can evoke the sense of God’s nearness, we are not alone or without support. 

God is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him with sincerity. (Psalm 145:18)

It’s a lovely coincidence that this is verse 18 of Psalm 145. Eighteen is the numerical value of chai (“life”). By seeking God’s presence and support, and drawing strength and courage from God, we can “learn to see” and step out of the darkness into a fuller “almost straight” life. That’s what happened to the shepherd of Psalm 23. He made it out of the valley of deepest darkness and back into the light of life. That’s what happened to Noah:

Noah installed wheels on his ark
and when the children hung from its side-poles for a ride
Noah lovingly offered them brittle clods of Ararat.

That can happen for us too.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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