Trauma, Repression, and Obsession: A Lesson from Zachor and Amalek

When terrible things happen, it’s natural to react intensely. It can be a tremendous challenge to move beyond the event and forward into “regular life”. Two extreme coping mechanisms include obsession and repression.

Obsession is when our minds become preoccupied with the experience to the point where it takes up more brain space than we want it to, and interferes with our desired functioning.

Repression is when our brains trivialize or ignore the incident or its impact, and then it can affect us indirectly or in more subtle ways.

A more helpful and moderate alternative would be to process and integrate the experience and its effects, in a way that honors the personal relationship to it, but then provides the opportunity to eventually transcend it. When this happens, we no longer need to continually be defined by the pain. This is much easier said than done, but it begins with a clear vision of the goal.

A simple way to remember this that we trade obsessing and repressing for processing.

This week we stand in shul and observe a commandment to recall a national trauma. It wasn’t our only military defeat, but it was, in a way, our first. We were an infant nation, freshly birthed from the labor pains of slavery and miraculous redemption. Just finding our footing, beginning to trust the possibility of living free, of following G-d into the desert, and knowing we would be ok. And then, we weren’t.  

It was considered such a big deal, that we are commanded to talk about and remember it regularly. It’s a curious thing this commandment. On the one hand, the commandment begins with the word “remember”- zachor. Yet the goal seems to be to eradicate the memory- “timcheh.” Are we meant to remember and not forget, or to erase? Clearly the goal is synthesis the event into our national history in a way that provides a lesson. I was thinking that simple a textual analysis of these verses, noting the sequence, yields psychological insight into this seemingly paradoxical process:

“Remember what Amalek did to you… ”

Remember- don’t deny or repress. The first step to processing what happened is to acknowledge it. Speak it out; as they say: “if you can name it, you can tame it.”

“What [they] did to you”:

A major feature of post-trauma is self-blame, sometimes explicitly narrated by the perpetrator, sometimes internalized by the survivor. But an important element of healing is realizing and reassigning misplaced blame. This happened to you when someone took advantage.  

“On the way, when you left Egypt.”

Note the where and when of the story. Another feature of traumatic memory is the excruciating detail, the flashbacks and triggers, pulling the past time and place into the here and now, where it can poison the present and the future. Empowered processing includes filing it in correct autobiographical chronology, so it doesn’t leak all over the newer chapters.

“That they coldly/ happened to you on the way, preying on the weak, tired, and strained, irreverent [disconnected from force of faith].”

Trauma is messy. Understanding the source, remembering and consciously recalling context clues can help us understand the vulnerability of that situation and what happened, and contrast it with the current safety and empowerment. This can also serve to eventually shrink the impact and clear space for a better future.

“And when G-d gives you rest from surrounding enemies, in your inherited land,”

Reorienting to the present time and place allows us to recognize and reinforce the hope, security and safety of no longer being in danger, of no longer needing to hold and feel the pain. We no longer need to fight, flight, or freeze. We can settle into the promised land, surrounded by prosperity and love. Access the promised land of deliverance, the holding environment, be free from the affliction. It’s over, you’re ok now.

“Negate the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens”-

By doing all this, the acknowledgement, the feeling, the focus, the context, the reassignment, the transcendence, the re-centering of body and mind into the present time and safer place, that itself is the start of healing. That experience negates and shrinks the potency of the memory from perpetuating its toxic effect anymore.

“Don’t forget” –

Healing doesn’t mean ignoring. Integrating the experience, the empirical demonstration of resilience, the pain that was survived, the capacity of evil, and the triumph of good, allows for deeper living. It is something that once happened but now is over and we made it. By remembering in this way, in this framework- tested, wiser, bolder, that’s how we overcome the darkness. We don’t capitulate to the nightmare- we rise strong, battle scars and all. Never Again.

Remember, eradicate, but don’t forget.