Entries by Rabbi Elazar Bloom, LMFT

The Jewish Calendar and the Collective Nervous System

A Trauma Treatment Perspective on the Jewish Calendar             

Kabalah posits that we experience reality on 3 planes: space, time and soul. It therefore follows that internal human states and processes (soul) will be mirrored in the yearly calendar (time).

The major 7 day holiday of Sukot is situated at the exact opposite end of the Jewish calendar from the other 7 day major Jewish holiday – Passover.

Where is God from the Spring through the early fall? Similarly, where is God from the early fall through the Spring? On each side of these 2 holidays there is a six month gap. What happens during this time? Looking at this experience through an attachment lens, this is a more challenging period. It is a time ridden with the threat of isolation and disconnection. Yes, there is the weekly Shabbat, essential to Jewish survival on the weekly dimension of existence, but, as the seasons change and the months turn into a year, we crave longer periods of intimacy with the divine.

An insight into this unique pattern of time can possibly be informed by Dr. Steven Porges’ Polyvagal theory; an increasingly popular approach that is used in the treatment of trauma. This theory describes the ongoing shift within our autonomic nervous system from safe, social connection (“parasympathetic ventral vagal state”) to aroused “fight or flight” (“sympathetic”) to complete protective shutdown (“parasympathetic dorsal vagal state”) as we seek survival as individuals in a fragmented and often hostile environment.

If we look at the Jewish calendar through this lens we see that the poles of the Jewish year – Passover on one end and Sukot on the other – are collective, national times of parasympathetic “ventral vagal” connection with God. During this time, we know God and God knows us and the deep embrace of each of these time periods reminds us that we can trust that we are in good hands; never alone in this human experience.

But, what happens in the intervening 6 months? During this lonelier time we enter the more activated mode of the sympathetic nervous system. At the extreme this system is utilized to fight or flee from danger, but it is also the source of just enough stress and energy to “do something”, contribute, and create change. This mode is necessary for action but if it extends for too long, it can overwhelm the system and lead to burn out. Further, without an exit, traumatic symptoms begin emerge.

According to Polyvagal theory, the health of our nervous system is dependent on the ability to flexibly move back and forth between the connected, safe, socially engaged stated of the parasympathetic nervous system to the motivationally activated state of the sympathetic nervous system, and back again. Similarly, just as we are about to “burn out” and become flooded with too much needing to “do”, the Jewish calendar comes to our rescue and gives us Sukot on one end and Passover on the other.

On the Passover end is the intimate reassurance that God can be trusted to reach out to us, redeem us from the oppression of exile and provide for our national needs on both a physical (think – manna from heaven) and spiritual (think – Torah) level. On the Sukot end is our reaching out to God, leaving the safety and comfort of our homes and material trappings for flimsy huts and proclaiming that He alone is our true source of security in this world.

At each end of the calendar, these 7 day biblically mandated periods of rest, rejuvenation and divine connection take us out of the activated state of our collective sympathetic nervous system and into the ventral vagal relationship safety of the parasympathetic nervous system.

As it is within (soul), God provides us with a similarly tailored experience in time. The goal, to keep us in the “sweet spot” of our individual and collective nervous system, moving fluidly back and forth between the states of “being” and “doing”.

 

 

Sinners, Speak Up!

This time of the Jewish year, there is a lot of talk about asking God for forgiveness. Some of us show up for that experience but most don’t. I have this strange sense that for those that don’t, it’s not that they couldn’t care less. They care, a lot. The problem is that they have given up on God caring. Pain and then distance has crept into the relationship and we have no idea why we are being treated this way. We cry in silence. We hurt and ask what it all means. The answers don’t come quickly or easily. We are left alone, wondering.

 

How I wish that these people, loving and sensitive enough to truly feel the pain and perhaps the resentment that it has bred, would speak up.  If need be, from that place of anger or resentment, and if possible, from that raw place of pain and shame. Because if they would, a real conversation could happen. And this conversation has to happen, otherwise we are each alone, in our pain, silent roommates with God. Our lives running off in parallel lines. So, sinners, and that means you…..and me, please speak up. Take the risk to trust that your feelings and even your cold indifference, are true, authentic signals of a longing from deep within your soul.  And then maybe take another risk, and share, trusting that there is nothing your Beloved wants to hear more.

In the Field, for You. (Re’eh)

This Shabbat we welcome the Jewish month of Elul. Elul is the last month of the Jewish year and a time of preparation for the upcoming High Holidays. The Chassidic masters describe Elul as a time when “the King is in the field”; God figuratively leaves His inner chamber, His palace, His royal city and comes to be together with each of us, where we are – “in the field”.

This is a most beautiful analogy to share with our children, who are naturally and innocently attuned to its message: Hashem wants to be close to us, as we are, in our dirty ‘work clothes’. We don’t have to be perfect; we don’t even have to strive for perfection. We prepare for the new year by showing up and recognizing how Hashem deeply desires a relationship with each of us and therefore comes closer. It is up to us only to recognize it and respond.

Keep It Simple (Va’etchanan)

In this week’s portion Moshe reviews the experience of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Often translated as the “10 commandments” the aseret hadibrot, given then, are more accurately translated as the “10 Principles”. In fact, there are a total of 613 commandments that we are potentially bound to by the Torah. Yet, G-d chose 10 principles to focus on at the moment of revelation. In fact, the later prophets and sages pared the guiding principles down further to 3 and even 1!

When educating our children as to what constitutes our family values,  we should keep it simple. We should not need to make up a rule for every situation that arises. Rather, the values and principles that govern all members of the family should be absolutely, glaringly clear so that the child can then learn to apply these principles to the small everyday decisions that he makes. This gives him the ability to eventually integrate and incorporate the family value structure on his own, even when you are not around to guide him.

3 Steps to do this:

  1. Clearly articulate your core family values (try and keep it to 3).
  2. Communicate them and use opportunities to illustrate them whenever possible.
  3. Hold everyone (including yourself) responsible to them equally and consistently.

Marriage on The Moon

“Tu B’Av” is the greatest Jewish holiday most Jews have never heard of. It’s the day that our tradition openly addresses the longing for of a loving, intimate relationship.

Like other holidays (Sukot, Passover), it coincides with a full moon. Unlike, those other holidays, the full moon of Tu B’Av follows just a few days after the saddest and most painful day of the Jewish calendar – Tisha B’Av.

Therefore it’s light offers a unique glow; one that emerges from the pit of darkness and whispers: “Pain is difficult but it is not the end, it is only a step, part of a divine, deepening, transformative process which we call growth.

No wonder our tradition connects this day to the power and commitment of marriage. Pain and disconnection do happen, but only for the sake of the light and love they can lead to.

The Longing of Tisha B’Av Afternoon

As we move into the afternoon hours of this sad day our strength grows. With space to breathe, we consider the Eternal longing for intimacy and closeness and with that thought we reconnect with our own.
 
We begin to acknowledge our own loneliness and desire for closeness with God, our spouse, our parents, our children, our siblings, our neighbor.
 
We ask – “What’s holding me back?”
 
And the answer is always rooted in the past and the future.
I was once innocent and open but I was hurt and I am scared it will happen again. So protecting ourselves with the walls of loneliness makes sense.
 
And yet there is a part of us that wants to risk again. That knows that while pain is never pleasant, it’s not the problem. The problem is fear. Our fear of acknowledging the pain and the shame it seems to point at.
 
So, with the comfort and joy of knowing that we (and I truly mean All of us) are longing for the same thing, we commit to bravely risk, to trust, that despite the resentments of the past and the anxieties of the future we will we turn to, not away.

The Genesis of Couples Therapy

The Torah uses very few words to say an awful lot. It’s view on marriage is famously condensed into one brief verse:

עַל־כֵּן֙ יַֽעֲזָב־אִ֔ישׁ אֶת־אָבִ֖יו וְאֶת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְדָבַ֣ק בְּאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהָי֖וּ לְבָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד׃

“Therefore, a man should leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, so that they become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)

That’s it. And yet, it is in these words that I believe several effective couples therapy models find their origin. For example, a major (if not the) major tenet of Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT)  is that our subconscious seeks a marriage partner that will help us heal childhood wounds.  To illustrate: If a man grew up in a home where he was criticized by one (or both) of his primary caretakers, his subconscious will seek someone who is critical and judgmental with the secret hope that by putting himself in that same environment, he will be able to heal the pain he experienced as a child. In fact, the subconscious uses some clever tricks to make the match happen, because if he marries someone supportive and accepting he won’t have that essential opportunity.

So, according to this theory, we all grow up and eventually become independent of our families of origin but that does not mean that the work of childhood is over: “A man should leave his father and mother…” and there is more! He should then “cling to his wife”! His wife, his new family, is the opportunity to deal with unfinished business – at least that’s what his subconscious tells him.

But what about the rest of the verse -“so that they will become one flesh” – how does that follow? If anything, it seems that marrying someone that is likely to raise core, childhood issues will not pave the way to “becoming one flesh”, but rather, to the pain of separation and divorce?!

If you wish to continue to explore this question further, click here.

The Genesis of Couples Therapy – Part 2

Last post we were left with a question but first a little background. Genesis tells us that the goal of marriage is for a man to leave his mother and father and attach himself to his wife. I proposed that Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT), of which I am a strong proponent, finds its primary theoretical roots in this biblical source. Imago assumes that our subconscious is on a mission to find an intimate partner that will allow us to recreate our childhood experience and heal its wounds.  We leave our parents home only to cleave to our spouse who will offer us a chance to repair our painful childhood experiences.

The question we were left with was: How does this work? If I am correct in connecting Imago with the first mention of marriage in the Torah than the result should be (as the verse continues) that husband and wife become “one flesh”. With the understanding of “one flesh” as creating a relationship where they feel deeply and essentially connected to one another, how might marrying someone that raises the painful issues of childhood lead to this connection? It seems to be more of a recipe for divorce!

This question is actually directly addressed by the Imago theory itself. The gist of it is: Yes, if you enter marriage thinking that you have found love and will live happily ever after, then the subconscious is playing a dirty trick on you.  It is planting minefields that are just waiting to explode into power struggles and marital strife. After all, each partner is basically using the other to meet a very deep need that:

A. Their spouse is unaware of.

B. Their spouse (without conscious effort) is unable to meet.

But if you enter marriage with an awareness that marriage is work.  That together you are creating an environment of safety and devotion to one another, with empathy for who your spouse is and all she has experienced (as a child and beyond) then you are on the way to truly connecting to and even healing one another.

Try and develop an awareness that your spouse was not born under the chupah with you, but rather that she still wants to heal and grow. Further, she chose you and is looking to you to help her with that because you are the one that can.  By creating safety, seeking connection and looking to grow and heal, a couple can truly become one flesh as they were intended to be.

In the next post I hope to discuss the connection between the idea of a Bashert (“Soul Mate”) and the subconscious search for repair. 

Remember When…(Matot-Masei)

After 40 years, the Jewish nation is on the cusp of entering into the Holy Land and God reviews with them the 42 stops of their long and difficult journey through the desert. God seems to want to communicate that despite all that they have been through together, He did not abandon them. Similarly, as they inhabit Israel and enter a more mundane existence, God reassures the nascent nation that He will continue to be intimately by their side.

When our children encounter difficulties or are anxious about an upcoming experience, we can remind them of previous similar experiences and how they were able to get through them. Regardless of what the previous strategy was, we help them see that they have been here before and can work through this too. Using personal history as context helps them draw on their inner resources to do it again, and perhaps this time, even more effectively.

 

Cover Up and…Connect?

“And she lifted her eyes and saw Isaac….she descended from the camel….took the scarf and covered herself.” (Genesis 24:64-65)

To understand the Torah’s approach to any given topic, the place to start is by analyzing the first instance that topic appears. So, Isaac and Rebecca, which is the Torah’s first description of a meeting between husband and wife can help us understand the Torah’s perspective on marriage.

Why do people get married? What are they looking for when they “take the plunge”?

I posit that they are looking for a deep, intimate connection with another human being that only the commitment of marriage can provide. If we accept that, the next question is: “What promotes connection and what cripples it?”

Sight, the visual sensory experience curbs our ability to connect, while listening deeply facilitates it. When you see something, you think: “I’ve got it”! Your eyes have taken a picture and they tell you: “What you see is real. What you see is truth.” The problem is, it’s not. Our visual perception is constantly misleading us to conclusions that are inaccurate. And even if a conclusion is partially accurate, it’s not the whole truth, and a partial truth is really a lie.

Relying primarily upon one’s sight is most damaging when relating to another human being. When you look at a woman, you are not seeing her for who she truly is, but rather as an extension of your visual perception.

Therefore, the more you rely upon your visual sense to determine the nature of the relationship, the less of a relationship it is.  Who are you relating to? An image that you yourself just produced!

Listening on the other hand is a much different experience. In order to really listen, you have to set yourself aside and create space for that input.  To put it in other words: While seeing begins with you and is nothing more than a projection, listening begins with the other and focuses on their reality. Relationships are thus bolstered by deep listening and handicapped by an emphasis on the visual.

When Rebecca noticed her future husband, she got down from the camel and covered herself with a scarf, both acts of modesty. Why? Because marriage, if it is going to accomplish its goal of facilitating deep and meaningful connection between two human beings demands modesty.  Modesty turns down the visual sensory experience and creates a more neutral space where two people can begin to listen to and truly experience one another. They connect.

Modesty is not prudish. Rather, it serves the couple as they create a marriage permeated by deep passionate connection on the emotional and physical level. Modesty creates a shared space that the couple can inhabit safely, listen, be heard, and become one.