My wife tells me that as a child, she often caught her grandfather talking to himself. “I’m talking to a very important person,” he would reply.
Self-talk has become a lifeline for me in the turmoil of the last few years. The turns of phrase that anchor my published writings often originate as grounding statements I employ to haul myself back from the brink, or to call my own attention to God’s presence in the world when I have been missing it.
Prayer is self-talk at its most refined, a vocabulary of these phrases woven into a daily drama in three acts if you’re Jewish, five if you’re Muslim, and so on. The dialogue of this drama is purportedly between the worshipper and God, but the Hebrew word for prayer, l’hitpalel, comes from a root meaning “to accuse” or “to interrogate,” as if in a courtroom. Since it is a reflective verb, where the actor is doing the action to themselves, l’hitpalel means, “to accuse or interrogate oneself.” Don’t bother me when I’m praying – I’m prosecuting a very important person.
I once had the privilege to share the podium with Rabbi Shira Stern, a leading Jewish chaplain specializing in trauma response, when we both spoke at a meeting in Pittsburgh. Seated in the darkened theater before the meeting began, I listened as she taught a woman sitting next to us that the quintessential prayer in all of Judaism, indeed the six words that summarize the whole faith, are “Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” She explained to our neighbor that she understands them as, “Listen, you nation of people who wrestle with God, that God is our God, and that God is the only God.”
Shma first appears in the back of the book of Devarim, as Moshe addresses the nation on the cusp of entering the land. In this context, Rabbi Stern’s explanation makes perfect sense:
- As a polemic against those who are shaky in their faith, as Moshe himself turned out to be at many turns in the book of Bamidbar
- As a polemic against those who doubt God’s faith in us, like the spies
- As a polemic against those who doubt God’s uniqueness and are tempted, now or after entering the land, to engage in idolatrous practices just to hedge their bets.
Yesterday, however, I learned a different origin story for Shma from Rabbi Uri Topolosky. He quoted a midrashic tradition on Genesis 46:29 (Rashi, Siftei Chakhamim, and others) that Ya’akov was the originator of Shma, based on the fact that when Ya’akov and Yosef reunite after 22 years of separation, Yosef “falls on Ya’akov’s neck” (presumably, throws his arm around his father and buries his face in Ya’akov’s shoulder) and weeps, but Ya’akov does not return the embrace or the weeping. The reason, despite 22 years of bereavement for a son he believes dead, is that Ya’akov was at that moment reciting the Shma.
Rabbi Uri taught that, in Hasidic tradition, Ya’akov has spent 22 years unable to say Shma. He has been so devastated at the loss of his son that he cannot pray anymore. He is estranged from God and estranged from himself. Perhaps he no longer feels he needs to accuse himself – surely the punishment of losing his son, after first losing that son’s mother, his most beloved wife, is enough? What else could he possibly have done wrong that would deserve more criticism than this?
But more likely, this is a trauma response, not a theological criticism. The loss of Yosef triggers not a loss of faith, but a loss of self. There is complete shutdown. Prayer would open Ya’akov up to emotions he cannot face, reopen wounds he cannot open: doubts as to whether his indulgence of Yosef, or his decision to send Yosef out looking for his brothers in the fields, might have contributed to his demise. He perhaps fears confronting his deceit with Esau and Laban, or his failure to adequately address the bloody revenge his sons Shimon and Levi took on the sons of Shechem. Ya’akov no longer has a safe confident in this world – his wife, mother and son whom he loved are all gone, his brother and his uncle sworn to kill him, and his God and himself are as though strangers to him.
When he finally meets Yosef for the first time, the words of Shma burst from his lips. Perhaps this is because Ya’akov believes he is about to die, as he states in the next verse, and is praying the Shma in preparation. Or perhaps, says a different commentator, he is saying Shma as an act of faith before entering a new land, one of idol worship, so he can reaffirm his allegiance to God even in this place of temptation.
Or perhaps, it is self-talk, Ya’akov declaring to himself for the first time in 22 years, that God, with whom his grandfather Avraham entered into covenant, the only God, cares about him after all. Consider: when Moshe says, “Listen, Israel,” he is addressing a nation of Israel that numbers in the millions. But there is no nation at this point. When Ya’akov says “Yisrael,” there is only one person he could be addressing: himself. Yisrael the man, the one who wrestled with God’s messenger one night in order to earn himself that name in the first place.
“Hey, Yisrael,” he says (“So I says to myself, ‘Self,’ I says…”), “God is our God, God is the only one.” God was here all along, in this narrow place with me for all these years. Just like the first time we met, twenty-some years before that, after my dream of the ladder, I did not know God was here – I could not, in fact, believe God was here, or that God cared about me at all.
Every person who has suffered trauma, and every person who has tried to help heal the wounds left by that trauma, longs to reach this point, where the person who has suffered the trauma can engage in positive self-talk that rings true, and believe that someone cares about them, and enter into a trusting relationship with that person. Unfortunately, few of them benefit from the kind of dramatic reversal that Ya’akov had, literally learning that their trauma never actually happened.
Quite the opposite. Many, if not most, traumatized people suffer precisely because the truth of their trauma that absolutely did happen has been denied by others, or else they have suppressed the memories of what really happened in order to survive. “The abuse never really happened.” “Those people never torched your village.” “Your chronic pain is all in your head, there’s nothing wrong with you.” “Your son’s death in police custody had nothing to do with 400 years of deliberate racial oppression.”
However, we can learn that healing traumatic wounds takes more than platitudes and pills – more, in short, than our current, woefully inadequate system of care can offer in 15-30 minutes every three months. Concrete, dramatic, meaningful steps are necessary before a traumatized person can regain trust in the world, in other individuals and in their own bodies and minds. Inseparable from this is self-talk, affirmations that, “Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be a good day.” It is hard, never-ending work, perhaps one of the reasons why ritualized self-talk is prescribed multiple times a day in so many faiths. Even when we think we are well, we need to constantly interrogate ourselves, to make sure we aren’t considering letting go of that tree branch we’re hanging from.
It is ludicrous to think that parachuting in four times a year and prescribing a stew of semi-toxic chemicals can add anything to this lifelong litany we ask people to engage in. If they could heal themselves, don’t we think they would have done so already? If we are trying to validate the self-talk that “today is going to be a good day,” or “someone cares about you,” we need a more sustained presence.
It’s said that Yosef arrived at that meeting in a chariot he outfitted himself, in great haste, because of the honor he wished to do with his father. No matter that he was the vizier, and had servants to do all these things for him. No matter that Ya’akov’s entourage would have delivered him directly to Yosef. Yosef got there himself, at the very moment Ya’akov crossed the boundary into Egypt.
Was it Yosef’s act of deference that allowed Ya’akov to feel God’s presence at last? Was it the overwhelming feeling of, “You came! You are here in front of me!” that moved him to prayer after so long? If so, what can a healer do to be like Yosef?
- “You listened to my pain story and didn’t say I was faking or an addict – and then you called to check to see if I was better the next day.”
- “You didn’t blame me for getting arrested, and I saw you at that protest last week.”
- “You attended my son’s wedding and came to give me a blessing.”
- “You believed my story of abuse, and I have never shared it with anyone, and despite that you didn’t think I was disgusting and saw me again the following week to talk more.”
- “You came to my house when I couldn’t get out.”
- “You called me back in the middle of the night when I was scared.”
- “You rearranged your schedule and restructured your practice to make more time for people like me.”
- “You ran toward me when other people run away.”
Change from within is hard – yet Yosef, with all his power, was humble enough to dispense with protocol, forgo his usual amenities and go where he needed to go. Naturally, we might say, he would do so for his father – but how many times do we fail to find enough time for our parents, let alone for those we care for professionally. But as I have phrased it before, Yosef did not default. And so must we. We need to act more regularly to demonstrate that caring, to behave in such a way that one day someone’s self-talk might be, “My healer was in this place and I knew it not.”