The Israelites' harried flight from Egypt provides the perfect opportunity to reflect on the human capacity to cope with trauma.
The new secular year has begun. Once again, we Jews are on the move. We’re moving through the book of Exodus. Parshah Beshalach opens as God leads the Israelites out of Egypt by a circuitous route, concerned that the traumatized people “may have a change of heart if they see war.” Yet Pharaoh is the one who has a change of heart.
After he agrees to release his Hebrew slaves, he orders his charioteers to prevent our departure from Egypt. The portion continues with the dramatic escape through the Red Sea, the songs of Moses and Miriam and the people, and the initial challenges of the wilderness journey.
How can we, who have been born into freedom, truly understand our ancestors’ experience of liberation and their varied responses to their release? When they see Pharaoh’s forces pursuing them, they turn upon Moses: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” Then, after they make their way through the walls of water that then crash down on their pursuers, they say, “If only we had died” in the land of Egypt. Death, not life, is the preoccupation of these survivors of torture. After years of servitude in a culture focused on death, our ancestors could not imagine how to turn to life.
Even in our comfortable lives, many among us have experienced great pain. As we look back over 2013, some of us have tasted the bitterness that was our ancestors’ daily fare: the weariness of endless labor, the exhaustion of caring for others, the heartbreak of watching, powerlessly, while our beloveds bent and broke under burdens that are too much to bear.
How do individuals — and communities — survive trauma? What enables human resilience? The Haggadah keeps ever fresh the memory of Yetziat Mitzrayim, our Exodus from Egypt; each year, by retelling stories and singing songs of freedom, we rekindle the hope of release for all who are enslaved.
In the award-winning film, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, Lisa Jackson, an American filmmaker, traveled to war-torn Africa to interview both perpetrators and survivors of one of the most brutal and devastating forms of war. Jackson, herself a rape survivor, documents how some women and girls, all of whom have been banished from their homes and their families because of the crimes perpetrated against them, find support in a community of survivors by sharing their stories, caring for one another’s children, replacing fear with kindness. With the help of courageous medical professionals, counselors and social workers, some of these women, like our ancestors, find a way to reclaim their dignity, to move from darkness to light, from silence to song. Their journey, like that of our ancestors, is arduous and long. I saw my ancestors’ determination in these survivors’ eyes, and heard, in their songs, our songs of hope.
The songs of Moses and Miriam carry our people through the waters of the sea and to what poet Shira Rubenstein calls “the other shore.” They are an essential part of Israel’s healing and recovery, moving from the death-obsessed culture of Egypt to molding and supporting a people who celebrate life. May we, like the women of the Congo, find strength in one another, in continuing to share our stories, and in the healing power of song.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected]