Noah the Survivor: A D’var Torah by Rivkah at Chevrei Tikvah, Fairmount’s LGBT Chavurah

The D’var Torah below was shared by Rivkah on Shabbat Noach at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, October 19-20, 2012. The communities celebrating Shabbat evening worship at our Chevrei Tikvah Chavurah and our Shabbat Morning Minyan, responded with the hope that these words might be shared more widely in the community, to support community members in responding to traumas and post-traumatic stress issues they face and living in accordance with Jewish teachings on saving lives. We hope these words bring comfort and perspective to you. Please feel free to react, to write, to share and respond to what is shared below.

In searching for a topic for my D’var Torah I looked to what our sages and rabbis taught about Genesis chapter 9. I’m also mindful that you are my teachers and I am your student. I have questions. I could have resorted to the obvious childhood notion of the ark. I could have reminded you of Bill Cosby spinning his Noah yarn, or Kermit the Frog’s rendition of the Rainbow Connection. I could have compared Noach and Avraham.  Noach walked with G-d and built an ark at G-d’s bidding without argument.  Avraham walked before G-d and argued when G-d sought to destroy Sodom. I could have spoken about the parsha’s two building projects the ark and tower of Bavel. I could have spoken about the rainbow and in some ways I will.

But Elie Wiesel’s characterization of Noach as the first survivor haunted my learning.

The flood story is often portrayed as upbeat and happy, but is it really? Close your eyes for a moment and picture yourself on the ark. Do you hear your neighbors screams for help?  Are you witnessing their drowning?  Can you feel the horror of those dying? Did Mrs. Noach complain about the wretchedness and the filth  inside the ark? Can you smell it? As the waters receded was the land littered with decaying flesh?  What do you see? smell? hear? Everything Noach knew changed.  Except for his family he was alone. He just survived a calamity, a shoah!

After departing the ark Noach built an altar, made the rainbow covenant, and quickly we find him in a state of drunkenness. I’m not a mental health professional as some of you are. But, would you agree that it seems like Noach is confronted with PTSD? Does it seem absurd to you that Noach can go through the flood as we just imagined it without consequences? Doesn’t it seem to you that Noach was a survivor of his own trauma? Was Noach a scarred man?  Did he see himself a failure?  Was he tortured by guilt? Did Noach care for the world destroyed in front of him?  How did Noach’s family fare? Our text is mostly silent.

How can we use Noach’s trauma to face our own shoah, or the calamity facing the person next to you? Everyone faces traumas big and small everyday.  But it’s our individual and collective response to these traumas that either temper us, prevent us from moving forward, or destroy us.

May I offer a simple model of trauma?  Picture if you will, a balance scale.  On one side we lump the trauma nuggets we face:  skinned knees, pain, loss of a loved one, rape, war, imprisonment, betrayal, cancer, car crash, bullying, or indifference.  On the other we toss on our coping nuggets:  parental and congregational lessons, G-d, love, empathy, Gramma’s lap, a kind word, a friend, a lover, a sister, a sister of choice, a skilled care giver, time, or you. Perhaps some of these nuggets are missing for us. When this scale becomes overburdened on the trauma side a person may become depressed or even suicidal. Over time, when the trauma side doesn’t balance out it becomes PTSD.

As someone who faces complex PTSD resulting from multiple traumas, may I lend you one of my experiences?

A few weeks ago I found the trauma side of my balance seriously overloaded. It was triggered when I received a letter from the VA questioning my eligibility for benefits. Earlier that day I found a notice on the door to my group therapy session saying that it had been permanently cancelled and offered no explanation. A few days earlier my Women’s Torah Study Group disbanded. I was on my eleventh mental health provider in a year. I was panicked.  I couldn’t breathe. The rapes, the beatings, Vietnam, the people I killed, imprisonment, taunts, more beatings, gang rapes, being a human sewer, hearing “you don’t belong here” or “you’re no good”, and the years of drinking all swirled in my head. My physical pain grew.  My spine felt as if it could no longer support me and the messages to and from my lower body became cross wired and befouled. It seemed I couldn’t fix this. I had no way out. I wanted it all to stop, but the only way I could think of to make It stop was to make me stop. My mind quickly went to actively seeking a way to end my life. I could have picked up pills, a knife, or a gun. I could have sought refuge in John Barleycorn or Dr Daniels. But, I picked up the phone.  I called my doctor. Voicemail. Argh! I called a chaplain at the VA.  She kept me on the line.  She summoned her boss who behind the scenes called a suicide counselor to the phone. Collectively, they kept me talking and eventually helped me back away from making a permanent solution to a temporary problem. They saved my life by giving me a coping nugget.

What would have happened if the chaplain had responded with “I’m late for dinner. I’ll call you tomorrow.” or didn’t pick up the phone?

What would have happened if I hadn’t made the call?

A few moments after that call, I made a simple post to Facebook.  “Having a bad day.  Could use your thoughts and prayers.”  I felt so alone. I shook with terror. But then something magical happened.  A response — ironically from Rabbi Caruso, then another response, and another.  I wasn’t so alone. Then a phone call and early the next morning a visit. Another nugget and another, and another. Each seemingly insignificant nugget added up.

Days later an acquaintance posted a similar type of message on Facebook.  I responded and offered help.  Perhaps I should have picked up the phone. Were you teaching me how to respond to Noach? The Talmud teaches us: “Whoever saves one life, it is as if he [or she] has saved the whole world. Whoever destroys one life, it is as if he [or she] has destroyed the whole world.”

On Yom HaShoah in 2007, what motivated Holocaust survivor, Liviu Lebrescu, to use his body to block the door to Norris Hall [at Virginia Tech during the shootings?]  Was he trained to stand in front of those bullets while his Virginia Tech students escaped? Thankfully, not every trauma calls for such an extreme response.

In my life I’ve heard a great deal about Tzedakah or charity.  In my memory, the emphasis has always been on giving. Maimonides defined eight levels of giving Tzedakah.  But, I hadn’t heard much about receiving, or asking for help, or acknowledging Tzedakah. How can we make asking for help easier, or less shameful? How can we recognize and complete the cycle of tzedakah: asking, giving, receiving, and gratitude?

Wiesel suggests in his book Night that “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”  Further, he says “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” May we conclude at the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker that Silence equals Death and think of rainbows as a reminder?

Take a moment and look to your left or right. What trauma has that person faced? How many of us were turned away by our families or betrayed by our country, the police, or an employer? How many of us silently face the horrors of war or rape? You may not see scars, but are they there?  Can you see them now? A bullet may physically injure one soldier, but doesn’t it also injure those nearby? Medical professionals adeptly address physical illnesses and broken bodies, but do they extend care to the closely linked loved ones or each other?

Wiesel cautions about some folks’ responses to trauma stories. He says, “They are committing the greatest indignity human beings can inflict on one another: telling people who have suffered excruciating pain and loss that their pain and loss were illusions.” Can you imagine someone saying your suffering wasn’t as significant as Noach’s or of a holocaust survivor? Or that you weren’t raped?  Or that you chose to be beaten to death?

Does my simple model suggest a measure or degree of the trauma and coping imbalance? Would such a measure explain how two people experiencing the same trauma respond very differently?

What would you do in the face of trauma? Would you notice the sense of urgency?  Would you answer a posting or make a call?  Are you able to ask for help? From a stranger? Will you answer the call to action? Or, make it? What can you do to load your friends and family or even a stranger with coping nuggets or ameliorating trauma nuggets? Just being here added nuggets for all of us.

Many of you have contributed coping nuggets to my scale. Each nugget big or small was important to balance. Others have begun the process of listening in Prolonged Exposure to my recounting of each one of my traumas. Listening to each one over and over and over and over, and over some more until I could face each one moment by moment.

I am grateful.  When I thank you it’s not to inflate your ego, rather I consider it’s essential to complete the cycle of Tzedakah and perhaps to acknowledge the presence of G-d.

I offer my story as a way of telling others they are not alone, that they may draw some courage from what I say, and perhaps add some nuggets to someone else’s scale. Silence equals death. Perhaps when you saved my life, you put into motion that I in turn would contribute to saving another’s.

Is the flood story a challenge for you to respond? When you see a rainbow, will you also remember the lessons of Noach the survivor? Will you feel called to action? May we add a call to action as an amendment to the brit, the covenant of Noach?  Or, is it already there?

Many times when you contribute a coping nugget to another it’s fun. Sometimes you contribute by just being there. So maybe Noach’s story is upbeat and happy after all.

Shabbat Shalom!