Biblical PTSD

Toledot By :  Andrew Shugerman Posted On Nov 1, 2010 / 5771 | Midrash: Between the Lines

בראשית רבה סה:י

ותכהין עיניו מראות א״ר אלעזר בן עזריה מראות ברע מראות ברעתו של רשע

ד״א מראות מכח אותה ראיה שבשעה שעקד אברהם אבינו את בנו על גבי המזבח בכו מלאכי השרת הה״ד (ישעיה לג) הן אראלם צעקו חוצה וגו׳ ונשרו דמעות מעיניהם לתוך עיניו והיו רשומות בתוך עיניו וכיון שהזקין כהו עיניו הה״ד ויהי כי זקן יצחק וגו

Genesis Rabbah 65:10

[When Isaac was old] and his eyes went dim from seeing . . . (Gen. 27:1). R. Eleazar b. Azariah said: from seeing the evil of that wicked man (his son Esau) . . . Another interpretation of from seeing: from the shock of that spectacle when our father Abraham bound his son Isaac upon the altar. The ministering angels wept . . . and tears dropped from their eyes into his and were imprinted upon his eyes so that, when he aged, his eyes dimmed, as it is written, When Isaac was old . . .

Many centuries before the advent of modern medicine in general and care for mental health in particular, our Sages developed the symbolic language of angels’ tears to explain the hidden wounds impressed upon Isaac’s psyche in the aftermath of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Today, one finds myriad psychological interpretations of his near-death experience at the hands of his father, Abraham. In fact, a trend has emerged in Israeli poetry over the last few decades: reexamining the Akedah as a paradigm for understanding the role of trauma and fear in contemporary Jewish life.

Israel Prize-winning poet Hayim Gouri famously revisited the Akedah and its repercussions in his poem “Heritage” (Yerushah):

The old man raised his head. / Seeing that it was no dream / and the angel stood there / —the knife slipped from his hand.
The boy, released from his bonds, / saw his father’s back.
Isaac, as the story goes, was not sacrificed. / He lived many days more, / saw (life’s) goodness, until his eyesight dimmed.
But he bequeathed that hour to his descendants. / They are born / with a knife in their hearts.

Gouri’s final verse connects the event that caused Isaac’s blindness to a life-threatening injury that all Jews, as his descendants, have inherited. Just as the midrash imagines Isaac’s dimmed eyesight as a delayed reaction to the angels’ tears, we experience as “a knife in (our) hearts” a fear that the darkest moments in our history might be repeated. Indeed, many scholars have described this poem and others like it as literary attempts to recover from and make sense of the Shoah and of violence in Israeli life.

I take great pride in teaching about this collective literary and scholarly effort to heal ourselves through creative expression and compassionate critique. Reading poems like Gouri’s has sensitized me to the spiritual power of these texts as modern midrashim. They give us new language for coping with our recent past through empathy and imagination.

Let us embrace this life-affirming enterprise, too, as part of a heritage that balances our human emotions. Our Sages speak of a dual duty to love and to revere God. While “God-fearing” behavior relates to our need for discipline and protection, the devotional love of our Covenant with God both inspires and requires the courage and confidence to meet any test we may face.

May we rise to the challenge of the anxieties and uncertainties in our lives today, secure in the promise that Isaac receives from God early in this week’s Torah portion: “Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your offspring for the sake of My servant Abraham” (Gen. 26:24).