As we set the table for tonight’s seder, I find myself thinking of the origin of the Exodus story, and more specifically Moshe’s journey to leadership.
We are first introduced to Moshe at the beginning of Exodus, when he is just an infant, separated from his caregivers and placed precariously in a basket on the Nile to face the unknown. If we read the rest of Shemot and Vaera carefully, it seems clear that this early disrupted attachment is a formative trauma that informs Moshe’s view of the world around him, his perception of himself and his own abilities, and his leadership style.
In her book on early childhood attachment, psychologist Dr. Alicia Lieberman, explains that a child’s sense of self evolves in the context of relationships with primary caregivers, and that this early attachment informs later relationships and emotional well-being. When these early attachments are disrupted, children feel unmoored, cast at sea with no anchor. Even in cases when later attachments are reestablished, the ongoing influence of these past experiences is evidenced in the continuity of early perceptions of self and others. As a result, those with disrupted attachment may experience increased physiological arousal, react aggressively, or place themselves in danger, and almost all have a distorted capacity to trust. Treatment for disrupted attachment centers around reconnecting with families of origin, physical affection, and building trust.
With this lens, Moshe’s personal narrative takes on new meaning. Moshe is rescued from his basket by Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, and raised in the palace, apart from his people. His first attempt at leadership forces a reckoning of identity, one that will continue to plague him throughout his life. As Moshe walks among his people, the Hebrews, his eyes are opened to their burden. He sees an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man. Activated, Moshe steps up to save his brother, choosing violence as his intervention, killing the Egyptian, and in so doing placing his own life in danger. Recognizing that it is no longer safe to remain in Egypt once his actions are known, he flees to Midian where he settles down. But he carries the burden of his deeds with him, choosing, according to the Ibn Ezra, the lonely profession of a shepherd to avoid the chance of encountering people who might recognize him. Yet his yearning for belongingness is ever present, manifesting in the naming of his son Gershom (“Ger” – stranger, “shom” – there), for “he has been a stranger in a strange land”.
When God chooses Moshe, at eighty years old, to confront Pharaoh and lead the Jews out of Egypt, Moshe questions his self-worth (“Who am I?”), and turns down God five times. It is only when God informs Moshe that his brother, Aaron, is coming, that he is about to be reunited with his family of origin, that Moshe quiets. He tells his father-in-law, Yitro, that he must return to his brothers in Egypt. Then he takes time to kiss his brother and process all that has happened to him. It is only then, that together with his brother, Moshe is prepared to face Pharaoh. And when Moshe’s confidence fails him again in Egypt, the words that soothe are God’s words, reassuring him that he is part of a people, the next in line in a relationship that dates back to Abraham. The verses that follow detail Moshe’s lineage, his connection to his people, his belongingness. And it is from here that Moshe can finally lead.
It is remarkable to read the Exodus story through the lens of disrupted attachment and to consider the implications of this one early childhood experience on our nation’s history. When we think of our own lives, it is obvious how significant early experiences are to the people we’ve become today. Research on adverse childhood experiences, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, confirm this correlation between our past and our future selves, finding that early trauma is one of the biggest predictors of decreased health and longevity. Yet two-thirds of people report experiencing at least one adverse childhood experience, with close to 30% of adults reporting physical abuse as children, and 20% reporting sexual abuse. These rates continue to rise throughout adulthood. As we’ve seen with #metoo, power and sexism combine to create toxic organizational and industry cultures that allow for, and even promote, sexual harassment and assault. And the Jewish community is not immune.
At Sacred Spaces we work with Jewish communal institutions to shift these cultures and create healthy, safe, respectful, organizations through difficult conversations, transparent governance, education, and policy development. As we prepare to welcome Passover and a night of dialogue, let us keep an eye open for the untold narratives shaping the storied figures of the Hagadah and the people in our lives. Let us commit to working together to create Sacred Spaces in our community, so that no matter where we come from, we can heal together in our creation of a healthier, safer, Jewish tomorrow.
Shira Berkovits, Esq., Ph.D.
Founder and CEO, Sacred Spaces