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A Recurring Nightmare

Published in Ayeka by Aryeh Ben David
Posted on July 20, 2014

I have had a recurring nightmare for over 20 years.

During reserve duty in the first intifada I was sent at night with two other soldiers into the city of Hebron. Our jeep got lost amidst the endless alleyways and twisting dead ends, and we couldn’t find our way out. We got more and more lost until finally the army had to send in a force to extricate us. For me, as an older recruit and fairly new at soldiering, the experience was traumatic.

Over two decades later, I still have vivid nightmares of getting lost, chased, and in frantic danger. I wake up sweating and hyperventilating.

If you were to ask me if my traumatic army experience still affects me – I would certainly answer you “Not at all.” But the human being is complex and mysterious. My unconscious clearly believes otherwise and reminds me weekly.

I don’t know what my recurring nightmare is coming to teach me. Something clearly is holding me back from dwelling on that. It’s easier to forget it and move on. Life is good.

The “Jewish Summer” is also tormented by a recurring nightmare – the memory of national and spiritual destructions which occurred over 2,000 years ago. As much as we would like to ignore it and focus on sunshine, fun, and summer vacations – it won’t go away. It is part of our national psyche, part of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Erica Brown, in her wonderful book – In the Narrow Places – brilliantly articulates how difficult it is today to personally connect to these tragedies.

The 22 days, from 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, are referred to as “The Narrow Straits” (Bein HaMetzarim), after the third verse in Aicha – “All that pursue her will overtake her within the narrow straits.”

Take a moment and try to imagine yourself inside this image: You are being pursued, walls on both sides of you, nowhere to escape (re: Rashi).

During these 3 weeks we are trapped. The walls of our lives are about to come crashing down on us; we are always sensing imminent disaster.

This powerful image is the exact opposite of the Jewish People leaving Egypt, when the Red Sea parted with walls on both sides and the Jewish People fled between them to safety.

Narrowness can make us feel trapped, but it can also be the exit ramp to our freedom. We each have the ability to transform our experience of narrowness into greatness.

My nightmare comes to me against my will, the voice of my unconscious in the dark of night.

The nightmare of these 3 weeks we intentionally bring to our consciousness.

We have to ask the question: What is the value for us of reliving a nightmare?

There are many answers to this question – I would like to suggest one that resonates with me (Shabbat 118a):

The danger of seeing ourselves in the “narrow straits” is that we ourselves become narrow. Our vision becomes very limited. We become obsessed with our own victimhood, feeling small and powerless.

* The way to transcend being a victim, from focusing on and pitying ourselves, is to become unselfish and giving. To care for and love someone else.

* The way to transcend having a small and constricted vision is to tap into something beyond ourselves, eternal and transcendent.

The pain and angst of smallness can be the catalyst for personal and spiritual growth. The month of Av is followed by Elul – the month that invites us to love the Eternal and Transcendent.

Ultimately, feeling helpless and depleted is not the end goal. We don’t dwell in the darkness and tragedy, but we don’t deny it either. We embrace the anguish and sorrow.

For now, during these 3 weeks, truth and pain, memory and fear, are blended into our recurring national nightmare.

May we have the courage not to sleep through it.