Chassidic Lessons on Growing through Trauma

Aharon Zev Moshel, Melbourne, Australia
Emotions & Psychology / Essays 2019 / Finalists

There are very few, if any, people who have not or will not face some measure of trauma in their lives. Snakes and scorpions litter the path of life. Obstacles are an inseparable feature of any journey. Decay is fact of the Universe. But so is growth. The same applies on an individual level. T​here exists a glaring difference in the way individuals react to trauma1. There are those who after experiencing a traumatic event in their lives may fall into deep despair and in extreme cases experiences severe psychological, physical, and emotional symptoms. ​An equal but opposite reaction to trauma is what’s termed post traumatic growth (PTG)2. Here, the individual reacts to the trauma by undergoing a positive psychological, physical, or emotional change. Chassidus teaches that it is within the souls power to experience each event and opt for growth, “​See,​ ​I have set​ ​before you​ ​today​ ​life​ ​and prosperity,​ ​as well as​ ​death​ ​and disaster.3” The obvious question becomes – how? How does an individual, community, people, society rise above trauma and grow? Using the 5 Factor Posttraumatic Growth Inventory4 ​for measuring growth after trauma, this essay will discuss a Chassidic methodology, ​supported by teachings and tales of the Chabad Rebbeim,​ for facilitating PTG.

The Post Traumatic Growth Inventory

1- ​Personal Strength​ – A new realization of inner strength that was not realized before the traumatic event.
2- ​New possibilities​ – Taking on a new way of life or venturing onto doing things they would have otherwise never done.
3- ​Appreciation of life​ – The overall enhancement of the way everyday life is perceived. People will appreciate the average day-to-day occurrences in a magnified way.
4- ​Relating to others​ – Enhanced relationships with others. Helping others taking a forefront position in their lives.
5- ​Spiritual Change​ – Spirituality becoming a new vital focus in their lives.

We will explore these factors and how to support the augmenting of PTG through a Chassidus lens in all of the above five areas.

Personal Strength

Just like a building needs structural integrity, the individual needs to lay a strong foundation upon to develop strongly. Structurally and psychologically, building a strong foundation requires the laying of concrete. No matter how grand and how tall a building, without a steady foundation it is like a castle on sand. The Stress-Diathesis model explains why two individuals may go through the same trauma and one comes out stronger whilst the other may crumble. Each person has a certain level of predispositional vulnerability to stress. In other words, their concrete foundation is at differing levels of strength to begin with. When exposed to a stressor, the person with a greater vulnerability has a lower threshold to trauma and thus becomes affected negatively. The person with a lower vulnerability has a higher threshold and does not react negatively to the trauma in the same way as the former.

Chassidus may provide us with this ever so essential concrete​.

A major chassidic premise is that G-d is the orchestrating force behind everything in this world. It is G-d who is responsible for every occurrence in our everyday lives. Chassidus sheds light on the fact G-d will not test a individual with a challenge that will be impossible for the individual to overcome . It is impossible that a person will be tested with a struggle that is too tough to 5 overcome. The more momentous the challenge seems to be the more power the person is given to prevail over the challenge. The very knowledge that he is given this challenge only 6 because it is 100% possible for him to rise above the challenge has the potential to be a amazing source of inner strength to persevere in the face of adversity. The Friediker Rebbe has a discourse on the line of the Talmud “Lifum gamla shichna”. Rashi explains this as “a camel is 7 loaded according to his capacity to bear.” The Friediker Rebbe expounds this to mean that G‑d demands of people no more than they can bear . Internalizing this insight can fortify one to 8 withstand all that life may throw. The understanding that we are tested according to our abilities can be a catalyst for growth, rather than a slope to slip. It is this understanding which may lay the necessary groundwork upon which PTG may develop.

When this thought is truly internalized it forms the concrete conviction that one can conquer anything life throws him/her. There is nothing that stand in the way of his will. The individual has the needed strength within him/her internally.

Once​ bitachon ​ ( trust in G-d) in God’s purposeful way is established, that no obstacle is too high to surmount, that no matter how traumatic an event, God gives you the power to overcome, the concrete is set and a structure can be built.

New possibilities

The pianist, Keith Jarrett, spent six hours on the road driving to Cologne where he was scheduled to play that night at 11pm. He was driving from Zurich where he had played the previous night. His back was being supported by a brace due to back pains from playing piano night after night, spreading his music. Finally, he arrived at the concert hall only to discover that the piano was broken and dilapidated. The pedals were jammed and some of the keys were not functional. To top it off – it was out of tune.

What would you do in such a situation?

For most of us we would simply be too overwhelmed by the situation. We might buckle under the overwhelming stress of the situation. We might cancel the concert.

For Keith, this challenge resembled a new possibility.

What followed was perhaps the most significant and influential of Jarret’s improvised solos. The hour long improvisation explored new jazz terrain, surveying new sounds to compensate for the shabby piano. To this day, the Köln Concert remains with over 3.5 million copies sold, the best- selling piano solo ever.

All this was a result of what at first seemed like a highly unlucky situation.

This concept is discussed in chassidus. It’s referred to as ​Yeridah L’tzorech Aliyah ​ /decent for an accent. We see this clearly illustrated in physical life, we see that each circumstance relating to birth, planting and growth is connected to pain, difficulties and overcoming obstacles and challenges . The soul follows the same dynamic. Our souls originate from a place of tranquility 9 where the soul basks in G-dly presence. The soul then goes through a rigorous decent into this world. A world of ultimate G-dly concealment. The reason for this precarious descent of the soul is for the sake of the eventual elevation of the soul after being involved in this G-dly veiled world and doing good regardless of the opposition . 10

Once again we are encouraged to adjust our mindset to viewing struggle only as a tool to open up new possibilities. In this paradigm, challenge exists to be used as a springboard to reach places we would have otherwise never reached . The challenge lies in the way we are to look 11 at the very essence of the challenge itself.

The trauma is only there to be used as a catalyst for growth.

If the trauma has indeed led to growth (and not descent) then the negativity associated with the trauma itself has indeed become part and parcel of the ascent itself, much like the souls descent into the world (and away from the Godly presence) becomes just as much an elevation when Godliness is revealed down below.

If we keep this concept in mind, coupled with the ​emunah ​ G-d gives us what we can overcome, it can propel us forward through any challenge life throws at us and find the new possibilities within. The very challenge can take us to places which would have otherwise been impossible to reach.

Appreciation of life

Traumatic events can often shatter fundamental assumptions about the universe. The assumption of meaningfulness is particularly challenged . In the wake of post trauma, the world 12 ceases to make sense; ​How could this thing have happened to me? How could it have happened at all?

Indeed, how can this happen?

What makes Judaism unique is it’s believe in One G-d. Chassidus explains that this belief is not just that G-d is One but that the whole universe is orchestrated by One Supreme Being. Further, every single detail in creation is deliberate and fulfilling its purpose in creation. There is not one thing in universe that is not part of the Divine plan and serves a purpose. This would mean that there can’t be one thing in this world that isn’t divinely planned.

The Frierdiker Rebbe relates how as a young boy he was once walking with his father in the 13 wheat fields near their home. His father exclaimed “See G‑dliness! Every movement of each stalk and grass was included in G‑d’s primordial thought of creation, in G‑d’s all-embracing vision of history, and is guided by divine providence toward a G‑dly purpose.”

As the young Rebbe continued walking he absentmindedly picked a leaf and as he walked he tore pits of the leaf off. His father observing his sons behavior remarked “The Holy Ari says that not only is every leaf on a tree a creation invested with divine life, created for a specific purpose within G‑d’s intent in creation, but also that within each and every leaf there is a spark of a soul that has descended to earth to find its correction and fulfillment”.

If every leaf is Divine then how much more so is every occurrence we experience a meaningfully infused happening. This sense of Divine significance in the face of trauma can serve to lift one up above the crevasse of meaninglessness and a loss of hope.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that one should learn something from everything he sees and hears for this very reason- that the fact that this event has happened to you was Divinely planned. If it’s coming from the Divine then it is innately good. This thought can push us forward from our trauma as well as create a rich and meaningful existence.

Indeed, the “survivor’s confrontation with meaninglessness, in the sense of incomprehensibility, can serve as a catalyst for the construction of meaningfulness, in the sense of [Godly] significance. It is through the terrifying realization of fragility, mortality, and loss as ever-present possibilities that survivors recognize their own power to create lives of value and commitment” .

Relating to Others

So very often a traumatic event can cause an individual to isolate themselves and only go within to find solace and comfort. This withdrawal, albeit the intuitively safer choice, may in actuality exacerbate the trauma, extending it far beyond its use-by date. Isolating rather than connecting can stunt post traumatic growth tremendously. How is one to prevent this seemingly inevitable way of reacting?

By countering the intuitive reaction and reach beyond oneself, to others. Isolation following trauma is typically caused by the presence of an erroneous mindset about the way in which one must endure that trauma; ​I must not be seen to be weak, I cannot impose my suffering upon others, I must endure alone ​ etc. It is this self protective thinking that can inhibit growth beyond trauma.

A powerful method that has the capacity the prevent us from falling into these types of thoughts and consequential isolation is to counteract these self protective thoughts with actions that reach past the self . When our whole focus is around ourselves and our situation we can begin 15 to forget about the external world in turn. As the Rebbe put it “a brief reflection will clearly reveal that the universe we live in is ordered in a system of give and take and the personal universe of the individual(the microcosm) must likewise conform to this system of reciprocal relationship.” 16

Extending a hand begets a hand in return. It is the action of reaching out which precipitates the action of many reaching in. By reaching out to other we are forced to move past the narrow self- focused thinking. As a result we move closer to the people around us. Consequently people want to reciprocate the good you are injecting into this world back into you. Your relationships as a whole are enhanced .  17

The Mitteler Rebbe was once visiting Reb Azil of Homil. The chassidim of the town bemoaned that Reb Azil spent a lot of time to himself and would not befriend them.

When the Mitteler Rebbe asked Reb Azil why he did not befriend the chassidim and teach them chassidus, Reb Azil replied ‘if I do not spend work on myself, how can help others?’

The Mitteler Rebbe responded, ‘if I see that I have not bettered myself, should then I be a total waste? At least let me do a favour for another’. 18

It is this continued engagement and concern for others inspired by the Rebbeim which can pull one out of the self-protective and isolated quarantine and aid in PTG.

Spiritual Change

This brings us to the final area of potential growth after trauma. It’s hard to imagine how after significant trauma one can come closer to G-d. However, the inability to draw close to G-d following a traumatic event is due to an erroneous conceptualizing of good versus bad.

The reason why it seems almost outrageous to say that spiritual growth is possible after trauma is because we attribute the situation to be outright negative. When reflecting on these occurrences we blame G-d for opposing such evil upon us. This feeling itself is what causes the distancing from G-d after these situations.

Tanya explains that the so called ‘negative’ we see in our lives is really hidden good. This does not suggest that the situation is not painful. What is implied is that situation is not bad. Bad, implying something that wasn’t supposed to happen but did. Such as definition is impossible when considering the first premise discussed above (see ​personal strength​): everything that happens is Divinely planned. So why do we perceive it as negative?

The Alter Rebbe explains that when we feel that an event is negative it is only because we 19 don’t have the eyes to perceive its true nature. We perceive the event as negative when looking at it from our perspective. We don’t know G-ds intention therefore we can’t understand why this thing is good.

There are two playing levels when it comes to G-d infusing this world with goodness.

One level is revelation as a revealed good. These are the occurrences that we perceive as inherently good.

Then there is the hidden world of love (goodness). This is the good on G-ds level. When this hidden good comes into the world we won’t necessarily see it’s inherently positive makeup. Chances are that we will view it as purely negative. This is because this hidden love is stemming from a source which is higher than what we can comprehend. These are G-ds thoughts.

It can be explained with the analogy of a child parent relationship: When the parent decides that the child has had too many candies, the parent will withhold giving the child any more candies. From the child’s perspective this is perceived as disastrous, ‘​how dare my parent withhold this from me?’ ​ . If this is the case between a child and parent we can only imagine how we are to perceive G-ds doings.

This acknowledgement, our inbuilt capacity to only see unidimensional aspects of reality, can serve as a fuel to keep going and eventually grow following a traumatic event. Fuelled by the knowledge that God’s hidden ‘goodness’ (/bad) is an event greater expression of His love than the revealed good, PTG can be facilitated.

As the Rebbe wrote in a letter:

When a person finds himself in a situation of “after sunset,” when the light of day has given way to gloom and darkness, one must not despair, G-d forbid, but on the contrary, one must fortify oneself with complete trust in G-d, the Essence of Goodness, and take heart in the firm belief that the darkness is only temporary, and it will soon be superseded by a bright light, which will be seen and felt all the more strongly through the supremacy of light over darkness, and by the intensity of the contrast. 20


1- No challenge is too big to overcome .

2- The reason why this struggle has occurred is so that as an effect we can experience momentous growth .  22

3- Realize that everything we encounter is controlled by G-d himself. Everything experienced is there for a reason. Nothing happened that should not have.  23

4- When one candle lights another candle, it’s flame is only enhanced. We gain the most when giving to others   .  24 25 26

5- As hard as it may seem, to acknowledge that everything is divinely orchestrated and emergent from such a deep place of love that perceiving this from our unidimensional plane of reality is not always possible. 27

My we find comfort in the teachings of Chassidus and the words of the Rebbe when he said “​Those who find themselves in a state of personal exile, there is no cause for discouragement and despondence, G-d forbid. On the contrary, one must find increasing strength in complete trust in the Creator and Master of the Universe, that his personal deliverance from distress and confinement is speedily on its way.”  28 29

1 A psychological explanation is the diathesis- stress model. Individuals differ in diathesis (vulnerability to stress). The reason two different people may go through the same event and only one exhibits an affect is because the latter had a pre-existing tendency (genetic, psychological, biological, or situational factor) towards stressors and their threshold was lower.
2 Posttraumatic Growth Research Group- university of North Carolina Department of Psychology
Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun being the ones who coined the term PTG.
3Deuteronomy 30:15
4 ​developed by Tedeschi and Calhoun is the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI) (Journal of  Traumatic Stress, 1996).
5 Although this concept is seen throughout Torah (  Talmud / avoda zora 3A, midrash / shimois rabba 34) we will be looking it as chassidus interprets it.
6 Igrot Kodesh, Vol. 32, p.48
7 Kesuvos 67a
8.  נדפס בקונטרס קה )כ”א טבת תשי”ג(. ולאח”ז בסה”מ קונטרסים ח”ג ע’ קיט ואילך. סה”מ תרפ”ה ע’ רנז ואילך –  תרפ”ה
9 Igros Kodesh, Vol. IX, p. 181
10 likkutei torah parshas behar, pg. 41
11 A letter from the Rebbe To All Participants in the Dedication Exercises at Camp Gan Israel, Linden, Michigan, titled as Ninth and Fifteenth of Av: Descent for the Purpose of Ascent
12 Janoff-Bulman, R. (1989). Assumptive worlds and the stress of traumatic events: Applications of the schema construct. Social Cognition, 7, 113–136. doi:10.1521/ soco.1989.7.2.113
13 Likkutei Dibburim, Vol. I, page 177 (in English)
14 Janoff-Bulman, R., & Yopyk, D. (2004). Random outcomes and valued commitments: Existential dilemmas and the paradox of meaning. In J. Grenberg, S. L. Koole, & T. Pyszczynski (Eds.), Handbook of experimental existential psychology (pp. 122–138). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
15 Research into post trauma shows that the choice for many survivors to grow is to engage in prosocial, altruistic acts. Moral considerations are commonly seen in the meaning-making choices of trauma survivors, e.g. AIDS survivors volunteer at clinics, veterans in outreach programs, rape victims at crisis hotlines.​ The Psychology of Meaning, 2013, Janoff-Bulman, pg. 8
16 A letter by the Rebbe addresses to someone who was suffering from  suicidal thoughts.
17 Social support, merely the presence of a caring other (even stranger), is strongly associated with recovery posttrauma (Nrewin, Andrews, & Valentine, 2000)
18 Shmuos v’Sippurim, vol. 2, p. 155
19 Tanya chapter 26 (alter Rebbe)
20 A letter from the Rebbe, 15 Kislev 5738 (1978)
21 (Igrot Kodesh, Vol. 32, p.48)
22 Concept of Yeredah zorech aleyah as seen in Igros Kodesh, Vol. IX, p. 181
23 Concept of hashgachu prutis / Divine Providence
24 Toras Menachem 5713, vol. 3
25 Torah Ohr (Alter Rebbe) states that when one gives to others (tzedaka),  נעשה מוחו ולבו זכין אלף פעמים (.ככה The original source of this statement Is in the beginning of Torah Ohr as well as  )
בלקו”ת שלח לז, א 26 Likkutei Sichos Cheilek Tes Zayin Purim. 27 Tanya chapter 26 28 A letter from the Rebbe, 15 Kislev 5738 (1978 29 Edited by Michoel Moshel. Yisroel Weisberg helped with collecting sources.