The Yamim Noraim, or Days of Awe, are important times for connection and reflection in the Jewish community. Amid the sweetness and celebration of Rosh Hashana, rituals like Yizkor and hearing the sound of the shofar open up access to emotions that adults often feel compelled to bottle up.
Sinai and Synapses Fellowship alumna Rabbi Arielle Hanien, who is also in private practice at the Lifespan Psychological Center, affiliated with UCLA, is an expert on psychological healing in the Jewish tradition. In the videos below, she talks about the neuroscientific basis of the healing that occurs through rituals such as these.
There are a few times a year, when the Jewish community is gathering together for prayer for the holiday, when we include a special service that we call the Yizkor service. And Yizkor is a really core idea in Jewish tradition. It’s about memory. But the Yizkor service is different than so much of Jewish holidays and traditions that are about our whole collective memories of Jewish people, in that it’s very personal. When Jews gather together for a Yizkor service, we’re bringing the memories of the individual people that we personally loved, and we’re bringing those memories to our consciousness and even our felt experience. Not in a way that’s necessarily made public – in some communities, a booklet is published with the names of those we love so that people know what kind of mourning we’re carrying, and can collectively help honor those we love and miss. And so that people can show up to us for those losses.
But really, Yizkor is about having a deeply personal experience in a place where lots of people are having a deeply personal experience that can sometimes be so overwhelming, that if not for the company, we wouldn’t be able to summon those tender memories or allow those tears to flow all the way out on our own.
And, from a neuroscientific perspective, you can say that part of what’s happening functionally in a Yizkor service is that there’s a resonance being created in the room. And our mirror neurons are really picking up on all the little permissions that are gradually giving themselves, to feel the grief, to get in tune with the love that brings up so many good memories and also so much of a sense of loss.
As different people find their way to give themselves incremental permissions and access that, the same thing happens naturally in us. That’s how mirror neurons Work. And then we become a resource for someone else. And eventually, in the collective space of that room, permission is really open. Gates are really unlocked, the gates of tears that the rabbis say are not in our control.
And so Yizkor is one of those Jewish traditions that taps into this aspect of what it means to be human, and what the effect can be when we come together. Often, underneath grief and loss that is pent up is a lot of love and joy. And so Yizkor is a ritual that taps into this mirroring effect, this resonance that’s created when we come together, to help the tightness unwind a little and the love and joy to flow again.
She also talks about the melancholic aspects of Rosh Hashana, and how they leave us stronger and more resilient:Read Transcript
Children tend to be really resilient. They cry and let things flow without so much self-consciousness. Adults, by contrast, are much more self-contained. And we tend to stifle tears, and the flow of emotion outward. And what that means is that a lot of that can build up inside as stress and even make us more susceptible to PTSD.
Jewish tradition is really attuned to these natural flows of emotion. So the shofar, for example, the different ways that we sound it, are patterned on different sounds of human crying – long sighs, rhythmic kind of exhales that are crying, and rapid sobbing. So, hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashana, we collectively have this invitation and permission, even, to get in touch with what feels real and to come back to our authentic selves and full feeling, and recover resiliency, the way we would if we were children, in a way that can give us a fresh start in the New Year.