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September 10, 2018

Everyone Is Fighting A Battle: Building Our Resilience (Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018)

Maurice A. Salth

Dedicated to Rabbi Aaron David Panken Zecher Tzadik Livracha

Here we are.

We made it.

So much has happened during this past year and today we have arrived at the start of a new one. 

I wanted to begin my words today with a joke, something light, maybe about the New York Mets.  I love the Mets.  But this is not a time for levity.  This is the moment to take stock of what has happened during the past year and to prepare to enter this new one.

They say that everyone we meet is fighting a battle we know nothing about.

Sheryl Sandberg gave me a glimpse into her battle when she wrote about the sudden loss of her husband Dave.  His death left her and her two children ages seven and nine in shock. 

She spoke about what happened at the cemetery saying: “When we arrived there, my children got out of the car and fell to the ground weeping unable to move.  I told them, this is the second worst moment of our lives.  We lived through the first, your father’s death, and we will live through this.  It can only get better from here.”  Then she spontaneously started singing a song she knew from her childhood, a version of Oseh Shalom.  Soon everyone at the gravesite joined in, her children followed, and their wailing stopped1.

Everyone we meet is fighting a battle we know nothing about:

caring for a sick parent or spouse;

navigating a crisis at work;

enduring one’s own adolescence;

enduring our child’s adolescence;

moving forward after a divorce;

struggling with a career change;

managing chronic pain.

Maybe we are stunned by the polarization in our country, the increase in antisemitism and the suffering we see in the world.

Life can be difficult; at times brutal. 

As we face life’s inevitable challenges we need resilience. 

Psychologist Adam Grant describes resilience as the strength and speed of our response to adversity.  Our ability to bounce back.  It isn’t about having backbone; it’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone.  It’s the human spirit to persevere2.

Now in principle, I am big fan of resilience.  It’s an easy concept to grasp but its much harder for me to put into practice.  So I was happy to learn that experts agree resilience is an “emotional muscle that can be bolstered3” that we can increase our ability to bounce back. 

Physicians and researchers, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney, from Yale and New York City’s own Mount Sinai medical school, offer three strategies to help us build us build our resilience. 
We need to face reality, cultivate hope and build community4

Face Reality

What does it mean to confront reality?

The first question in the Torah asks Adam to do just this.  Adam has gone against God’s wishes and tasted the fruit from the tree of knowledge. God asks Adam, “Ayekah?”  Hebrew for: “Where are you, right now5?” God knows that Adam has tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  God knows Adam is literally hiding behind the tree as if Adam could escape from being seen.  But still God asks, “Ayekah – where are you?”  What are you hiding from?  What is your reality? 

On Rosh Hashanah our charge is to ask ourselves these same questions. 

So, in preparation for this new year I’ve been examining myself - my habits, my behaviors, my emotions. What’s been affecting me deeply?  Here is one of my answers.

This year I suffered a terrible loss.  In May, my friend Rabbi Aaron Panken died in a plane crash.  His death has unsteadied me.  Aaron held a unique place in my head and heart.  He was my camp counselor, my rabbinic mentor and my confidant.  He installed me as a rabbi at Central right here on this bimah and for this and many other reasons, I would not be standing here without him.  I haven’t fully processed this loss and still have moments when I reach for the phone to call him.  My world has shifted and I need to acknowledge it.  This is my reality.  I am still actively mourning my friend.

What realities are you facing at the start of this new year? 

As we face these realities, how do we stay positive?  How do we cultivate hope?

Cultivate Hope

Our member Bret Parker shows us how it’s done.  At the age of thirty eight he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  In the face of that reality Bret made the choice to live his life according to an affirmation which I will make synagogue friendly.

It’s to do epic…stuff. 

One example: this past February he raised more than $200,000 to help find a cure for Parkinson’s by running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.

On the third day of this intense adventure multiple blisters erupted on the bottom of Bret’s left foot.  He told me “I had no business running” but with a clear mission before him and some protective bandages Bret continued, in pain but undeterred. 

Bret says, “Part of my life’s philosophy is not letting the disease hold me back.  I don’t use it as an excuse, I use it as a reason to push myself even more6.”  Bret you embody what it means to be a realistic optimist.  You assess obstacles, focus on finding solutions, reframe the negative and embrace the positive7.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that to be a Jew, “is to be an agent of hope in a world constantly threatened by despair.  Every ritual, every mitzvah, every page of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation, and the acceptance of destiny8.” 

When circumstances in our life work out for the best or not, we sometimes say it was b’shert, Yiddish for meant to be.  The fact is that our tradition doesn’t promote blind optimism.  Judaism does not put faith in fate or fortune.  Instead we are commanded each day to get up, affirm life and take responsibility for our share of constructing the world as it should be.  What chutzpah we Jews have!  Throughout the millennia we have continued to remain positive, even when our faith in humanity and our faith in God has been sorely tested. 

I am reminded of Hugo Gryn, of blessed memory, who was one England’s most adored rabbis.  When he was a child, he and his father were forced into Auschwitz.  One Hanukkah, his father improvised and somehow crafted a menorah.  His dad used his valuable margarine ration to light a wick for the first night.  Young Hugo protested: “Dad, how can you use what little food we have just to observe this holiday?”  His father replied: “You can live three days without water.  You can live three weeks without food. But you cannot live for three minutes without hope9.”

Faced with the most horrific reality, this father and son managed to create light in the darkest place on earth.  They did this together.  They had each other.

We have each other.

We are not alone.

Build Community

Building community is what we do here at Central. We strive to be a place of true connection. 

It is an honor to serve as one of your rabbis.  You continually teach me how to live, manage trials, find equilibrium, and move forward.  You have also taught me that sometimes the greatest act of courage is simply to get out of bed in the morning.  

Mishnah states: Aseh lecha rav, u’kneh lecha chaver, find yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend10.  Good advice for life, even better advice when you are a member of a shul.  Whether we are at a service, in a class, or volunteering – whenever we assemble – we can take the opportunity to find teachers and foster friendships.  We know relationships take work and we know we flourish when we have one-on-one time with each other.  The Torah notes on multiple occasions that even God was energized by time with individuals, specifically with Moses11.  Yes, in our tradition even God needs quality face time.  We do too. 

We are more likely to weather challenges when we have durable social support in our lives. 

I know some of us feel isolated.  It can be difficult to establish friendships when we are lonely.  Experience has shown it is possible to develop a new cohort.  I encourage you to engage with our many programs here at Central or with one of us clergy or staff.  We will help you find your group, your class, your chevre, your friends. 

There is buoyancy that comes from being in community.  This May one of our members, Walter Loeb, was the victim of a hit and run.  Walter was left with his hip broken in three places.  He entered a rehabilitation facility on the east side.  Now Walter is a member of a Central Synagogue Wise Aging Group.  When his wise aging comrades learned of his predicament they chose to convene around Walter’s bedside for their June meeting.  I heard the room was packed; the rehabilitation facility’s food was terrible; and it was the best gathering they ever had. 

In recent years it has become more important than ever to build our resilience.  Some of us have found ourselves in an ideological conflict with a family member, friend or fellow congregant.  The very people who could help us strengthen our resilience have become the people we need resilience to stay connected to.  One cartoon entitled: “Thanksgiving Dinner: Avoid Arguments at all Costs” detailed how to cover one’s eyes and ears by placing an entire Turkey on one’s head.  Let me be clear, I do not recommend trying this at Rosh Hashanah lunch later today.  It’s just too messy.

Our nation has been tested before but this is the first-time we citizens are being bombarded by unrelenting waves of news and opinions crashing into our daily lives.  With regards to our beloved Israel, a strong, diverse response to events there has strained many relationships.  We must not let these arguments tear us apart. 

I have family members with whom I struggle to stay close.  I’ve come to realize even if we disagree, we still need each other.  When I learned that Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg had forged a long and meaningful friendship, well, I was motivated to double my efforts with my own mishpucha.  We can disagree with each other and still love each other.

Central Synagogue is a place where people with different points of view come together to pray, learn, serve, express diverse opinions and experience shared humanity.  Shared humanity is not slogan, it is an action.  It’s the core of the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself12.  It is who we are.  It is what our tradition demands.  It is what we do.  It is crucial that we recognize and tend to the ties that bind us – we need each other.  Our country and Israel need us.  Our tradition wisely reminds us that when we take care of each other we stay connected. 

As we reflect upon our priorities for this new Jewish year, remember the Elu Devarim prayer from this morning’s liturgy.  It directs us to visit our friends, family and neighbors who are ill and in need of help; to attend funerals, shivas and all the weddings we are invited to – even if they are out of town, especially if they are out of town.  Even if they are in New Jersey. 

In short, show up for people because when we do, and when we keep showing up for each other – we nurture our friendships and community.  We nurture resilience in ourselves and in those we know and love.

I once asked a class full of adult congregants this question: how does the Torah end?  A brave person raised their hand and answered: “Um, happily ever after?”  It was a good attempt.  But no, our most sacred book does not resolve with everyone living happily ever after.

So how does the Torah end? 

With resilience.

Moses and the Israelites are in the wilderness. On the boarder of the Promised Land.  God restates that Moses is not going into Israel even after Moses has led the Israelites for forty years, but Moses is not dismayed.

Moses doesn’t fixate on what he hasn’t achieved.  He doesn’t look back and bemoan his losses. 

Moses stays in the present and does his best to gain clarity from all he has learned.  He focuses on the possibilities ahead and celebrates the extraordinary bond he has to his people and to God. 

These last Torah verses describe Moses’ eyes as undimmed and his vigor unabated. 

He is…resilient!

So here we are.

Heading into this new year, with the chapters of our books unfolding. 

Like Moses, may our eyes shine with promise and our spirits reverberate with resilience.

Shanah Tovah.

1 Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), p. 12 
2 Sandberg and Grant, Option B, p. 10
3 Parker-Pope Tara (2018, August 1). How to Build Resilience in Midlife.  The New York Times, p. D1.
4 Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney, Resilience – The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012) 
5 Genesis 3:9
7 Southwick and Charney, Resilience – The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, p. 51
8 Sacks, Jonathan, Future Tense: Jews, Judaism and Israel in the Twenty-First Century. (New York , Schocken, 2009)
10 Mishnah Pirke Avot 1:6.
11 Exodus 33:11 (Adonai would speak to Moses face to face, as one person speaks to another) and Numbers 12:8 (With him [Moses] I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles).
12 Leviticus 19:18

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