Our Parsha’s Prescription for Trauma

D’var Torah –  Parshat Vayakhel
Brotherhood Shabbat , March 2, 2019

by Steven N. Broder

Just between us, I don’t think that many in the congregation actually are reading today’s parsha.   After all, it is mostly a tediously detailed blueprint of the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which houses the Ark and the Tablets. Lots about cubits. And acacia wood.  And sockets connecting the cubits of acacia wood.  And cloths. And sealskin tapestry.

Further, it is not even the first time we have seen these instructions and constructions, since they are largely a repeat from the last three parshiyot.

However, it is the context of today’s Torah portion that gives it great meaning. Just last week, we read about the Golden Calf and the terrible consequences:  God’s anger is aroused, the people are punished, three thousand Israelites are killed by the Levites, a plague breaks out, and Moses once again leaves.

It is difficult to imagine a more frightening national trauma.

Given a deeper reading, the parsha this morning suggests that if we are willing to look up from the construction details and broaden our gaze, we have in front of us a prescription for how to recover from trauma.

There are many forms that psychological trauma takes. Our speaker, Irwin Harris, will soon tell us about the attack on his Etz Chaim community and the trauma endured by the congregation. As a nation, we are confronted weekly with traumas created by those who take innocent lives. Columbine, Newtown, and Parkland are now localities that are known nationally. Other traumas occur to soldiers, especially as battlefields have become amorphous and combatants blend with civilians.  Many individuals are traumatized in their own homes through abuse and neglect and then re-traumatized when their stories are not believed. Others experience trauma through loss—of loved ones, of health, of status, of financial security.

Although a person’s response to trauma is very much an individual matter, these reactions have several features in common:

  • Feelings of fear, anxiety, rage, depression
  • Experiences of reliving the event, loss of memory and concentration, nightmares, and disturbed sleep
  • Behaviors of withdrawal, avoidance, and reactions out of proportion to the current situation.

Underlying all of these, there is often a terrible sense of lack of control, mistrust, and pessimism.

How does our parsha offer assistance with recovering from trauma? I see four ways.

First, today’s Torah reading emphasizes community.

The Parsha opens with, and derives its name from, this first step. “Vayakhel Moshe et kal edat B’Nai Yisrael.” “ Moses assembled the entire community of Israel.” This phrase is repeated in verse 20.

As we see many times in the Torah, repetition is an intentional device to bring emphasis and to draw our attention. The word Vayakhel has the same root as Kahal, congregation.  Kal, all of you. Edat, community, B’Nai Yisrael, your group identity. Any one of these three words alone would have been sufficient to identify whom it was that Moses was addressing.

But the message is clear: when trauma makes you want to separate and pull away, do your best to remain with others, be a part, reach out or let others reach out to you. As E.M. Forster wrote, “Only connect!” and as Rav Chazan Aliza said last Shabbos, “When you feel alone, go to minyan and stay for breakfast.” Not easy to do but necessary for healing.

Next, the parsha encourages self-care.

The first commandment Moses gives to the assembled people is to observe the Sabbath and rest. After trauma, self-care is essential. Many individuals irrationally feel guilty about surviving a community or personal trauma and do not feel worthy of taking time out for themselves. Yet Shabbat tells us to do just that. Stop working. Eat good food. Rest. Spend time with family and friends. Recover.

Third, Vayakhel tells us to give to others.

Perhaps the best known aspect of this parsha contains this third element of recovering from trauma. Moses asks the people to give of their material belongings to contribute to the raw materials needed to build the Tabernacle.  The Israelites respond overwhelmingly to the point that Moses has to say, “Enough already.”

What does this have to do with recovery from trauma?  The research literature and clinical experience tell us that one of the best non-medical ways to treat depression from trauma is to volunteer to help others. Volunteering requires us to commit, allows us to feel useful and necessary, and increases motivation. It promotes a sense of common purpose, and therefore provides meaning. Compassion and empathy for those helped lead to a sense of gratitude. Helping others helps oneself.

Vayakhel offers one more way to respond to trauma: Be creative in how you fashion the new reality in which you live.

In the Parsha, artists and crafts people, led by Bezalel and Oholiab, construct a holy space that is beautiful, portable and inspiring. The people turn their anguish into artistry and the Tabernacle is created.

What is the message for us?  After a trauma, an individual, a community, a nation, must rebuild. We have to reach deeply inside to hold onto what is core, and yet create something new that will help us find hope and go on. We have to play the hand that we are dealt creatively.

In her Torah commentary, Hanna Perlberger summarizes:

“The message of Vayakhel is this: Gather up your broken pieces and rebuild. Construct a holy sanctuary. Don’t wallow in despair and self-defeat. Reconnect. Restore. Repair. G‑d gave us an eternal set of blueprints with which to reconstruct after we self-destruct—a spiritual compass by which to regain our bearings. Then even after we’ve taken a beating and endured loss, it is still possible to achieve happiness. It is still possible to live with joy. “

Shabbat Shalom.