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Story Wrestling: Healing Through Telling Hasidic Stories

by Doug Lipman

Hasidic stories are, intrinsically, healing stories. From the eighteenth-century beginning of this Jewish mystical sect, stories have been a key way to pass on the spiritual and emotional teachings of the movement's masters.

As a result, writings about the power of Hasidic stories have focused on their healing effect on the listener. [See Buxbaum, Yitzhak. Storytelling and Spirituality in Judaism. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1994; Friedman, Maurice. A Dialogue with Hasidic Tales. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1988; and Polsky, Howard W. & Yaella Wozner. Everyday Miracles: The Healing Wisdom of Hasidic Stories. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1989.]

But what about the effect on the teller? What form of transformation can come from the process of learning, adapting, and telling stories from Hasidic tradition? This question led me to undertake an experiment that would change my approach to healing through Hasidic stories.

A Pattern of Healing Experiences

I have told many Hasidic stories. Perhaps a third of them have been important healing stories for me, each in different ways. But there's a usual pattern. I tell a story to a number of rehearsal buddies and coaches, getting appreciations and suggestions, and reevaluating what the story means to me. I tell the story to a variety of audiences. Then there's usually a problem or two I have to solve. Solving the problem leads me to emotional healing.

Sometimes, the problem is obviously emotional. Perhaps a part of the story seems flat; this usually indicates a place where I'm suppressing my emotions. Other times, a story is so emotional for me that just telling it brings me to tears. In either of these cases, I find that the most efficient way to work on the story is to work directly on the feelings. I find what I need to cry about, laugh about, rage about, feel terror about, etc. Often, I tell the story to someone who has agreed to be there for me while I process feelings. I tell the story - not for my listener, but as a trigger for my own unprocessed emotions. I have always found that, following such a session or perhaps many sessions, I am able to tell the story more vividly, with less of my own raw feelings intruding.

Other times, the problem seems technical in nature. Perhaps I can't imagine an ending. Or a character never develops fully. In one case, I felt chronically out of touch with the audience as I told the story; this turned out to indicate an emotional issue for me about my relationship to my listeners. [I've written about this in regard to the Hasidic story, "http://soulofhope.net">The Soul of Hope." See Lipman, Doug, Improving Your Storytelling. Little Rock: August House, 1999. pages 133-4.]

Still other times, I remain unaware of the emotional importance of the story to me. Then, months or even years later, I realize, "Oh! That story was an image leading me on in my emotional growth." For example, the Hasidic story, The Forgotten Story, speaks of a follower of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Hasidic movement) who, upon his teacher's death, is given the job of wandering from place to place telling stories about the Baal Shem Tov. His term of exile comes to an end that was preordained by his teacher; later events make clear the original purpose of his wanderings. For many years, this was a "signature story" for me, one I felt deeply connected to. Only later did I realize the comfort and guidance I got from this story. At the time I began telling it, I felt like I was out on a limb, expanding my audiences beyond the relatively safe world of telling to children in schools - into the confusing and frightening (to me) world of telling to adults. It seemed presumptuous for me to offer myself as someone who could offer spiritual meaning to adults. In that context, this story provided an image of a reluctant storyteller who, nonetheless, was serving an important purpose that would one day be revealed. It gave me a way to acknowledge my feelings of inadequacy while asserting the importance of my role.

An Experiment in Healing

Preparing to write this article, I considered describing in detail one of the healing experiences I just mentioned. But that felt too easy. Why not describe an ongoing process of healing instead of one encased in the safety of the past?

So I decided to work with a new story - one whose effect on me had not yet come to my awareness - as an experiment in healing. I would take this still somewhat raw story and try to accelerate the healing process. Instead of allowing healing to occur as a by-product of my artistic involvement with the story, I would experiment with intentional use of the story for healing.

I was aware of potential difficulties with this approach. One of the advantages of story is that it can provide a metaphorical approach to an issue I am not ready to face head on. Metaphor has its own pace and I knew I was pushing it. But I hoped the immediacy of the experience would counter any inconclusiveness of the results.

The Tale of a Tale

The story I chose was one I had adapted from a translated Hasidic manuscript. [Heschel, Abraham J. The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, pages 59-61.]

Here's the basic plot of the story as I found it: Rabbi Gershon, about to move to Palastine, first stops in Poland to visit his brother-in-law, the Baal Shem Tov. Rabbi Gershon remains three years until he has finished a complete cycle of study of the Talmud, the enormous compendium of bible commentaries. (It is widely known that Rabbi Gershon spent those years teaching the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.)

Trying to finish his cycle of study in time for the celebration meal that will follow, Rabbi Gershon stays up all night working. At last, exhausted, he falls asleep and dreams.

In his dream, Rabbi Gershon finds himself lost in the forest outside the city where the Baal Shem Tov lives. After a night in the forest, he meets another wanderer, a man from the city of Brody. The two travel together, finding a series of palatial Jewish academies. Asking for directions back to their cities, the two are told no such places exist, and are advised to remain there, presumably forever. The man from Brody remains at the second academy, but Rabbi Gershon goes on to a third, which is greater and more beautiful than the others. Insisting on returning to the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Gershon finds himself cast through a door.

Rabbi Gershon falls through darkness, then awakens in his own bed. Just then, the Baal Shem Tov and his followers arrive for the celebration meal. The Baal Shem Tov sends a messenger to Brody to inquire of the man in the dream. The messenger returns with the news of the man's death in his sleep. The Baal Shem Tov says, "The world was in need of that man...but he agreed to be there."

My adaptation of this story, Rabbi Gershon's Dream, appears on this website.

Adapting the story

This story fascinated me. I was taken by Rabbi Gershon's dilemma: he wanted to go to Palestine, but he wanted to remain in the presence of the Baal Shem Tov. I was intrigued by his insistence at returning, in spite of the heavenly nature of the three yeshivas.

Yet this story had obvious difficulties. What was I to make of the ending? I was fascinated with the predicament of Rabbi Gershon, but the story ended with a statement about the man from Brody. I couldn't tell the story without changing it. And I couldn't know how to change it until I decided what it meant to me.

What does this tale mean to me?

After outlining and telling the story to a willing listener, I asked for appreciations: what worked in the story, what moved the listener, any images that seemed "alive." Finally, I talked aloud about what the story meant to me. I ended up stating that, for me, the most important thing about this story was that Rabbi Gershon learns to accept the holy in the here and now, to accept his role where he is.

Next, I created an ending that fit this conception. I told the story several more times, always trying to give the story a clear emotional focus based on my understanding of what mattered in it.

Beginning the Intentional Process of Healing

All this had happened before my decision to use this story as an experiment in healing. To begin the experiment, I scheduled a series of sessions with helpers who would listen to me talk aloud.

In my first session, I asked myself, "What had been the emotional pivot for me in my process of adapting this story?" As soon as I asked the question, I knew the answer. It was my choice of Rabbi Gershon's lesson: to find the holy in the here and now rather than look to far horizons.

Then I asked myself: What does that choice of lesson tell me about myself? What message am I giving myself by interpreting this story in that way?

An answer came immediately to mind - and I hated it. You see, at this period in my life, I am simultaneously pursuing my work in the storytelling community and also trying to help bring the transformational power of storytelling into the corporate world. My hated thought was that the lesson of this story for me is to abandon my efforts at this expansion. For me - this thought said - coaching other storytellers is like teaching the Baal Shem Tov's grandson. Trying to gain acceptance in the corporate world is like hurrying off to the Holy Land.

Why did I hate this answer? When I imagined making the choice to "stay where I am," I felt despair. Was this my "inner healer" talking, or my inner tormentor?

I resolved to explore the feeling of despair. In a second session, I tried to feel the despair fully. I felt it in the pit of my stomach; this made me shake with feeling. After some minutes of shaking, I had a thought: I tend to feel that I must either save the world single-handedly, or forfeit my right to exist at all. This is a chronic feeling that has surfaced in more than one difficult place in my life.

Toward the end of an hour of shaking, talking, and occasionally crying, I had a realization: maybe the core issue is just about noticing that I'm okay. That led to a new question: how could I use the imagery of the story to help me notice that I'm fine without heroic achievements? This, in turn, led me to the idea of "talking to" Rabbi Gershon. As a metaphor, the story could allow him to be the one who had this problem, not me. So I said to the character, ""Gosh, Rabbi, maybe you don't need to be any more holy than you are!" This made me laugh for quite a while. Soon, I could feel myself beginning to be more relaxed about this entire issue. This reinforced my belief that the "lesson" I am trying to teach myself through the story is not to pull back my efforts in the corporate world. But, as this session ended, I still felt unsure about how to proceed.

Hating the Whole Issue

During my next session, I told the story again from scratch, and got appreciations from my listener. I asked myself, "What's the issue here for me?" My mind returned to the issue of having to be a savior or else having no right to live. Immediately, I thought, "I hate this issue!" So I said "I hate this issue!" aloud several times. I began to laugh and shake. I continued to say it, and it continued to produce laughter alternating with shaking. From time to time, thoughts came into my mind, sometimes about the other areas of my life where this issue plays out. I said my thoughts aloud to my listener, then returned to saying "I hate this issue!"

Now a new thought came into my mind: "I am so pleased to give this issue to Rabbi Gershon!" It seemed that putting my attention directly on the issue would "sink" me (leave me in a hopeless state) - but I felt safer putting my attention on his situation. For a while, I experimented saying things like, "Now you're in trouble, Rabbi Gershon!"

Somewhere in this process, I began to think about my father. One image kept coming up: being about twelve years old, sitting at the dining room table with my father as he talked to me. My father is a warm man who relates easily to all people. Yet we had a set of conversations in which he claimed that he and I were "more intelligent" than other people. I remember, as a child, feeling torn between wanting to be special and wanting to belong to the general human race. I ended this session with the determination to work further on this childhood feeling.

Several weeks passed before my next session about this issue. I reviewed where my feelings about the story had led me. Then I tried to use the image of Rabbi Gershon to resolve my childhood dilemma. I said, "You're nothing special, Rabbi Gershon. But everything about you is just fine." This produced more shaking, as well as tears. After several repetitions of this phrase, my scheduled time was over.

At my next session, I began where I had left off. "You're nothing special, Rabbi Gershon" produced explosive laughter. I added an alternative ending to it, "But everything you do matters." This resulted in yawning and shaking. I continued to repeat both forms of this phrase for several sessions. Each repetition produced sustained laughter, yawning, shaking, or tears. I had found my way to releasing a deep vein of hurt!

After Persistence, New Memories

Somewhere in the second or third hour (spread out over several sessions) of using this phrase to produce emotional release, I began to remember childhood experiences of my mother's reactions to people who "thought they were better than us." I realized that my mother, raised on a small farm in rural Michigan, was often critical of people she suspected of having any sense of class superiority. Suddenly I understood that, as a child, I had been caught between two forces: my father's desire to be "more intelligent" than others, and my mother's strong condemnation of arrogance. She never objected to my father's version of feeling superior, but I felt caught between their strong feelings.

For one entire session, I talked about my memories of a young man who would visit my parents occasionally. He would seek my father's approval by bragging about his accomplishments. After he left, my mother would say how much she hated his attitude. During this session, I began to say to the young man, "You're nothing special, but I love everything about you."

Where am I now? I do not feel that the issue is fully resolved for me. But I believe that I have turned an important corner. The phrase, "You're nothing special, Rabbi Gershon. But everything about you is just fine," at last provides a safe refuge from an emotional cross-fire. It allows me to imagine, in terms that work for me at this moment, being both ordinary and loved. This, in turn, allows the release of the associated painful emotions that had accumulated for me.

I haven't finished the job of healing, but I believe I have found an approach that will, in time, heal this piece of childhood confusion and hurt. In the end, I expect to be able to think relaxedly about what has previously been a difficult issue. I expect to be free of the emotional charge generated by these early struggles. And I am sure that this growth will also add depth and flexibility to my telling of Rabbi Gershon's story.

Story Beacons

What does all this tell us about Hasidic stories and healing? These stories give the teller a chance to wrestle with unhealed emotional hurt.

Are Hasidic stories unique in this way? I think not. In fact, I have found that any story can be fodder for this process. My unconscious "healer" doesn't care where a story comes from, only that the imagery fits my needs. Personal stories, historical stories, fairy tales, even jokes can sometimes contain images that shine to me, like lighthouses, through the fog of unhealed emotional hurt.

Following the light of such stories can guide me as I excavate and remove the remains of unfinished struggles. To be sure, I can follow the beacon of a story by listening to it and talking about my responses. But the process of learning, adapting, and telling a story can put me into an even more active relationship with its images. Telling is a dynamic event that molds the story while transforming the teller.

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You can read my adaptation of the story, Rabbi Gershon's Dream" on this website.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my skilled listeners: Pam McGrath, Fran Yardley, Marni Gillard, Connie Dodge, JoAnn Portalupi, Katie Greene, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Randi Freundlich, Elizabeth Skidmore, and Jay O'Callahan.

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