“A Path Towards Growth from the Trauma of COVID”

A Sermon for Rosh Hashannah Morning 5782

Where was Isaac?  What happened to Isaac after the angel stayed his father’s hand and he sacrificed the ram instead?  After the angel blesses Abraham he descends the mountain – alone.  Isaac, his son who was almost sacrificed, is not mentioned.

The next thing we learn, Sarah has died.   Abraham mourns and arranges for her burial.   Again, no mention of Isaac.  Not at her death and not at her burial.  The mother who doted on him, protected him, loved him unconditionally suddenly is gone and he is not there.

Isaac has disappeared from the narrative.  He re-emerges sometime later when his father’s servant Eliezer comes looking for him, bringing Rebekah to be his wife.  The passage of time is unclear, but Isaac seems to be, as we might say, in a “good place.”  He marries Rebecca and, as the text tells us, “He loved her and found comfort after his mother’s death.”  While there is no record of any further contact between Abraham and Isaac, Isaac and his half-brother, Ishmael, together bury Abraham.  The Torah is always so short with words; the mere mention of this event gives it value.  Perhaps, it is an indication that Isaac was able to achieve some closure in his relationship with his father and rebuild one with his half-brother.

Isaac becomes a very successful shepherd and digs anew the wells his father had dug that were stopped up by the Philistines.  He develops his own relationship with God, with whom he pleads on behalf of his barren wife.  They have twin sons, Jacob and Esau; unfortunately, Isaac does not appear to have integrated lessons about favoritism from his own childhood in his parenting of his sons, but that is for another sermon.

Since the Torah doesn’t offer insights into characters’ interpersonal struggles, one can only imagine how it was that Isaac was able to overcome the traumatic events of his youth and still become a highly functioning adult, husband and father, even if an imperfect one at that.

We do get a hint at what might have helped him on that journey.  When Eliezer finds Isaac, the text says “Vayetze Yitzhak lasuach basadeh”.  The meaning of the term “lasuach” is unclear; the phrase is most commonly translated as “Isaac was going out to stroll in the fields.”  Based on the use of the same term in the Psalms, the medieval commentator Rashi translates “lasuach” as “to pray” or “to meditate.” In either case, it seems that Isaac was in the habit of walking or meditating or praying in the evening.  One might imagine, therefore, that Isaac could have spent this time reflecting on his life, wrestling with his painful past and finding peace with it so that he was ready to start a new chapter. 

Some 20 years ago, two psychologists, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, noted that with appropriate reflection, support and guidance, trauma survivors can experience positive psychological changes from struggling with the traumatic events of their lives.  They named this phenomenon “Post Traumatic Growth” and observed five areas of growth:  appreciation of life, relationships with others, awareness of personal strengths, discovery of new possibilities, and spiritual life.  While people do not manifest growth in all of these areas, and not all at once, growth in any area is deemed positive. [i]

Perhaps we can view Isaac as a model of Post Traumatic Growth, successfully addressing the incredibly painful episodes of his youth, while finding ways to grow from those experiences so that he could lead a happy and productive adulthood, carrying forward the faith of his father and passing it on to a new generation. 

A pandemic is a traumatic event for each of us as individuals and collectively, for our country and, indeed, for the world.   To be sure, we have suffered different degrees of trauma.  Most of us are fortunate and can only sympathize with those who suffered the most devastating losses:  the deaths of loved ones, unemployment, loss of business, eviction.  Many suffered through the virus itself, some still battling the long-term symptoms, while others navigated the challenges of caring for loved ones who were sick.  In ways large and small, the past 18 months have upended all of our lives and we are not yet out of the woods. 

We long to return to life before COVID, but we know that we cannot for our world has forever been altered.   In truth, we don’t even have time to heal from this trauma as we must keep on moving forward, moving through it to keep functioning until we get to the other side of it.  Where will each of us be then?  How will we have been impacted by this pandemic?

Psychologist and HUC-JIR faculty member, Dr. Betsy Stone teaches a fundamental principle related to Post-Traumatic Growth: our goal ought not to be to reset to who we were; rather, to reset to what we are becoming.  By taking a Post-Traumatic Growth approach to living through this pandemic, we can move beyond our losses and frustrations, even as we must acknowledge and process them, and turn their painful lessons towards our benefit.  

We actually have some experience with such an approach as it is similar to what we do each year at this season.  While our focus during these Days of Repentance begins with reflections on the past and making amends for what we have done wrong, our attention is really on moving forward, recognizing that we are not stuck in that place.  With each new year we are called upon to reset to what we are becoming.

I cannot imagine that someone could be living through this time and not be touched deeply by the devastating loss of life.   The numbers and images are just overwhelming.  Surely, bearing witness to this pain and suffering, at some moment, each of us has experienced a deep sense of gratitude for our very lives.  So, we hug our loved ones a little tighter and stay in that place of gratitude briefly, then slowly we drift back into our normal patterns.

What if we could hold onto that sense of appreciation, integrating it in our daily lives?  Living with an awareness of the fragility of life can positively impact so many aspects of our lives, from how we relate to others, to exhibiting greater generosity for those in need, to taking better care of our world. 

It’s not by chance that the researchers included spiritual life among the areas in which one manifests post-traumatic growth.    In times of challenge, we can find the grounding in faith, in rituals, in connecting to something much bigger than us, that can help us to strive to make meaning out of chaos.  Early on in the pandemic, people of all faiths were drawn to their religious communities in numbers far greater than average attendance.  That was certainly our experience. True, in part it was the easy access of zoom or livestream, but so many of us sought community, we sought comfort, we sought strength in one another and in the words of our tradition.

Developing a spiritual practice like Isaac, who went out in the evening to stroll, to meditate, and/or to pray, is certainly a path towards become more mindful of the blessings of our lives.  

So much of prayer is about pausing to make us more aware and to give thanks.    When we say Motzi before we eat – we are actually stopping to say, “Wow, I am so lucky to have this food.”    Perhaps in our pausing we can consider all that went into growing and preparing that food and find ways to show our appreciation.  So, too, can we remember those who struggle for food and take actions on their behalf.

I spoke last night about our tradition of sharing simchas during Shabbat services and how doing so can give us hope.  I have to admit that pre-COVID I minimized the significance of this ritual.   Now I appreciate it as one of the most important elements of our worship when, despite the challenges we are facing, we can raise up and celebrate life’s special moments. 

During the Selichot program last week, we spent some time reflecting on our experiences of the pandemic.  One of the reflection prompts was to think about what we have missed.  For most of us, our initial response – family and friends — was shrugged off as a given and we moved on to other things.   More than anything this pandemic has reminded us just how precious are the relationships in our lives.  What joy we felt in those reunions!  We will demonstrate Post-Traumatic Growth if the painful memories of those forced separations motivate us to keep our relationships central, to focus more attention on them and not to take them for granted, to nurture those that need cultivation and strive to rebuild that which may be broken, to be more accepting of others’ flaws even as we learn to accept our own, perhaps letting go of things that in our new bigger picture may not matter all that much.

The forced isolation of COVID exposed us as well to the isolation that some people experience all the time.   We found ways to maintain connections, even when not being able to be physically present.  The significance of this outreach cannot be understated, especially for those who had to navigate loss without the support of and comfort from community.   

COVID has challenged us in ways we could never have imagined.  No doubt we have all discovered abilities we never knew we had or learned new skills that we had thought were beyond us.  We were forced to change how we did everything – how we interacted with others, how we worked, how we parented, how we shopped, how we played, how we helped others, how we relaxed, how we engaged with the world!   The list is endless and each of ours is unique.  Above all, we have all learned just how adaptable we can be.

All too often, many of us focus on what we cannot do or what we wish we could do.  Coming through this pandemic is an opportunity to lift up what we have accomplished, what we can in fact do and, even new skills that we’ve acquired.  These ought to be, in Stone’s words, our “COVID keepers,” that which we hold onto even when do we reach a new normal.

Turning our world upside down and inside out, COVID did force us to do things differently and even to see aspects of our lives in new ways.  We quickly became aware of that which was most important to us, often because of people we couldn’t see or things we couldn’t do.  It took energy, creativity and planning to do most anything, so it became clear early on what we valued most.  A positive outcome from all of the isolation and forced limitations could be a renewed sense of our priorities; an awareness of our ability to adapt and change can open our eyes to see new possibilities, a willingness to explore making changes that can improve our lives overall.

Studies are showing a significant uptick in the number of people who are seeking to make a change in their professional lives due to COVID.  According to Prudential Financial’s Pulse of the American Worker survey, 1 in 4 workers is preparing to look for opportunities with a new employer once the pandemic threat has subsided.  Why?  Many of their reasons reflect Post-Traumatic Growth:  they feel stuck in their current positions and want career advancement; they want an employer who will provide benefits central to their economic well-being; they want flexibility in work schedules, including the option to work remotely part of the time; and they want a better work-life balance.  Some employers are taking note and re-evaluating current practices with an eye towards changes.[ii] 

We don’t have to make dramatic changes like a new job to experience post traumatic growth.  It might be as simple as realizing that little things that used to upset us just aren’t worth the anger or having more energy or discovering new interests.  Experiencing growth from trauma is not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes time, effort and patience.  

We are living through an unbelievably challenging time.  It is so hard to see beyond the hills we still have to climb.  We don’t even know the long-term effects that COVID will have on individuals as well as on our society.   It is quite understandable that these fears and challenges can overwhelm us.  However, if we can focus our energies and attentions beyond those fears and the losses and find ways to see and celebrate the gains and the ways that we have grown out of this experience, we will all be stronger in the end.

There is an ancient Japanese technique of fixing cracked pottery called Kintsugi that is a good symbol for Post-Traumatic Growth.  Some of you may have seen it featured in the Hulu dramatic series, “Nine Perfect Strangers.”  Rather than trying to hide the cracks, Kintsugi involves rejoining the broken pieces with a lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum that actually highlights the cracks.  Ultimately, the repaired piece is a stronger, more beautiful new whole, even while owning its broken history. 

The word for whole in Hebrew is shalem; you’ll note the similarity to Shalom, meaning peace.  We find true peace when we can unite disparate or broken pieces into a new whole. 

May 5782 be a year in which we, our nation and our world can overcome and heal from the brokenness and trauma of this pandemic.  May we each find a new shalem that will be shalom, a peaceful whole that comes from renewal and growth.

[i] https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/post-traumatic-growth-finding-meaning-and-creativity-in-adversity/ — by Scott Barry Kaufman, 4/20/20

[ii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2021/05/16/why-millions-of-employees-plan-to-switch-jobs-post-covid/?sh=43d5c2d311e7

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