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Fight, Flight or Freeze

Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )

by Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy

There are times when our world feels shattered and we don’t want to get out of bed in the morning and face reality. The Torah begins with two approaches to dealing with a world that has literally shattered, thus shedding light on options for how we may pick up the pieces in our own lives.

After the flood inundates the world and destroys almost everything, ‘the waters receded... the ground dried up’ (Gen. 8:13) and Noah gazes out at the devastation from his ark. It is difficult to imagine the despair that Noah must feel as the father of the only remaining family in the entire world. He may feel heartbroken by the human tragedy or guilty for not attempting to salvage anyone from his generation. His reaction is typical – to freeze in his safe-haven, until such time as God commands him to ‘leave the ark!’ (8:16). It is troubling that Noah, a righteous person relative to his generation (Rashi on 6:9), needs to wait to be commanded rather than jumping out of his ark intuitively when faced with the opportunity to rebuild the world. ‘Noah did everything God commanded’ (6:22), and his first recorded independent action is that he ‘debased himself and planted a vineyard, drank the wine and got intoxicated’ (9:20-21). In the midst of this global catastrophe, Noah’s is the story of an obedient servant to the explicit commands of God, but he is void of his own internal compass, and attempts to escape the overwhelming needs of the shattered world and flee from reality through alcohol.

Fast-forward ten generations to the impending destruction of Sodom. Even though Abraham does not live in the city, he feels an innate responsibility to prevent the human tragedy of mass death. Abraham invests everything into trying to save these citizens, even arguing with God himself! He looks for every opportunity to salvage the city and asks, ‘Will You also stamp out the righteous along with the wicked?’ (18:23). To his disappointment, he does not succeed in saving the city and Sodom is wiped out. Although not on the same global scale as the flood, the destruction of Sodom is more severe, involving ‘fire and sulphur’ (19:24) that does not merely wipe out the inhabitants but destroys even ‘the entire plain... and the vegetation of the soil’ (19:24), leaving no opportunity for regrowth.

Abraham, like Noah, stands in the face of utter destruction. Whereas Noah’s external world is shattered, his personal world remains intact. In contrast, Abraham’s connection to the collective becomes inextricably intertwined with his personal world when he invests in attempting to save the city but fails. Though the destruction causes a severe blow to him personally, Abraham’s reaction is completely different to Noah’s. Noah hesitates to leave the ark and then drinks away his sorrows, sinking into a drunken stupor.

By contrast, in the face of external horror and internal despair, ‘Abraham arose in the morning to the place where he had stood before God and he gazed down upon Sodom and Gomorrah... The smoke of the earth arose like that of a furnace’ (19:27-28). The Talmud quotes these verses to show that Abraham’s ‘standing’ refers to prayer (Berachot 26b). Abraham awakes early in the morning the day after the destruction of Sodom and, while the site is still smouldering, he prays in the same way that he had done the day before and the same way he will do the following day. Abraham has no obligation to pray – in fact, he is the first person to connect prayer with a fixed time. In the face of such overwhelming destruction, it would have been understandable had he chosen to sleep late, or even to skip prayer for that day. But Abraham personifies absolute steadfast commitment and consistency, and thus he prays among the smouldering remains.

Our autonomic nervous system triggers instinctive responses to any given stimuli, and its sympathetic branch causes us to either fight or flee when faced with danger. Within one-twentieth of a second, our heart rate rapidly increases, our muscles tense, the mucous membranes dry up and our eyes dilate so that we can see better, breathe more easily and fight harder or flee faster. In such overwhelming circumstances, another common reaction is to simply freeze.

These natural instinctive reactions to stressful moments also extend to situations with more prolonged response times. These responses, if repeated in multiple situations, can become learned behaviours. For example, one might feel helpless in the face of recurring painful situations, and after experiencing a repeated sense of lack of control over one’s situation, one may develop ‘learned helplessness’. Others become more determined every time they tackle a given circumstance and cultivate a sense of resilience, the ability to cope with difficulty with greater tenacity. Our longer-term trials and difficulties offer us the opportunity to cultivate our capacity for training our instincts to respond.

Life consists of a whirlwind of emotions, and it often slaps us in the face with unexpected, difficult circumstances. Noah’s first independent action following the flood is to freeze. Then, when God encourages him to exit the ark, he goes into ‘flight’ mode and escapes through intoxication. Abraham on the other hand arises early to fight the despair and face the destruction, with a vision focusing on the needs of the future world. These two biblical characters exemplify the instinctive fight, flight or freeze responses that every human being experiences.

Following any stimulus there is a brief moment in time during which we have the ability to choose our response. Amid this cosmic momentary pause, will we choose the path of Noah, the easier natural approach of escaping reality? Or will we choose to model our patriarch Abraham, picking ourselves up and marching onwards and upwards for the sake of rebuilding a better world?

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