Rosh HaShanah Sermon 9/26/2014: “Be Strong and Resolute:” The Practice of Resilience in the New Year
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“Be Strong and Resolute:” The Practice of Resilience in the New Year by Rabbi Lynnda Targan
Rosh HaShanah second day sermon at Old York Road Temple Beth Am
September 26, 2014/ 2 Tishri 5775
Good morning everyone. I have to say I can’t believe it’s Fall already. I can’t believe that summer is over. And I can’t believe it’s been a year since we celebrated Rosh HaShanah together. So great to see you again. Thank you again Rabbi Lieb, Rabbi Jake Singer-Beilin, and Cantor Zarkh for making space for me on this bima. It is always such and honor and a privilege to be standing here with all of you. And always a thank you to my wonderful friend Karen Kantor who sprinkles the fairy dust and makes things happen.
Yesterday, Rabbi Leib spoke so brilliantly about our Holyland, Israel. Wasn’t he amazing? He gave a balanced perspective and was spot on about HaMatzav, the situation as they call it, and about the horrific resurgence of Anti-Semitism (who could believe?) in Europe. AND about the disconnection and alienation at best, of our young people and at worse, scorn and even divestment of Israel. A troubling situation for sure. It is a challenging time for Israel and for the Jewish people which Consul General Yaron Sideman also addressed beautifully yesterday at our services.
As it happens, I, too, was in Israel this past July. I was invited to attend the first International Dialogue on the Jewish Educator in Jerusalem. Larry and I decided to go a few days earlier to camp out in Tel Aviv–just to breathe in the Israeli air that I dream about, that I long for, that I crave. Our plan was to spend some time with the many Israeli friends we’ve made over the years, perhaps see Rabbi and Randi Lieb, which never happened but we tried, go to new amazing restaurants in what has become way beyond a humus and falafel culinary destination, enjoy the art scene, walk miles on the tayelet, the pedestrian walk, all the way to Jaffa from the old port, next to the Mediterranean Sea and partake in all of the exquisite spiritual possibilities that abound in Israel.
As you know, Israel was enjoying relative quiet, success in its high technology and medical advances, and progress on many fronts–albeit the usual internal, existential, religious and cultural issues and the problem of living in a hostile neighborhood. But it was as I said, relatively quiet. Until it wasn’t. Until they discovered the bodies of three teenagers, Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, who were kidnapped by Hamas, and left to die like dogs under a pile of rocks in the West Bank. Until an innocent Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was burned to death by a group of Jewish fanatics. Until the rockets started pouring into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and other populous cities in Israel.
I was a child of the fifties in the time of air-raid drills, where we hid under our desks to protect us from the so-called Communist threat. I was in Manhattan on 9/11. Never did I imagine that I would really hide in bomb shelters, sleep in clothes with my valuables parked by the door to make a 90-second dash to a bomb shelter if sirens were heard, or watch iron domes detonate rockets in an azure sky. It was like an episode out of Homeland.
I admit, I was frightened and ready to fly back to Philadelphia on the next flight. But I didn’t. And the reason why I didn’t was because I was with Israelis, who though nervous and horrified themselves, modeled the most unbelievable quality of RESILIENCE. I don’t want to repeat this morning what I’ve already published on my website, so if you’re interested in more of my story about Israel this summer during the taxing days of war and my opinions on the situation, at your leisure, please read my blog, Woowing the Wow of Now on my web page: www.rabbilynndatargan.com) Please leave a comment and share your thoughts whether you agree with me or not.
For now, I want to focus only on the idea of resilience, which is a lesson for our time. The Israelis have lived with some form of a violent reality for more than 66 years, since its inception. It doesn’t seem to get easier, but the Israelis go about their lives being courageous, strong and resilient. “Ayn Breira,” they say. What choice do we have?
I often wonder, where did this resilience, courage and bravery come from? We have it in our DNA. Turns out resilience is as old as humanity, as evidenced by the first Biblical story. Adam and Eve lived in Paradise. They had everything. Then they made a decision that changed their reality and ours, forever. The tale goes that they ate of the forbidden fruit. They lost Paradise. Women were condemned to suffer in childbirth. Men were destined to work by the sweat of their brow. Both of them knew SHAME for the first time. But did they lie under the fig trees and become immobilized? No. They were strong, courageous and resilient. They began anew, schlepping their inevitable losses with them. They were resilient, and they moved on with their narrative, with faith in the future by having children. End of story? No.
Adam and Eve endured one of the most horrific tragedies to befall a couple. One of their sons, Cain killed another, Abel. An unimaginable family nightmare! Yet, they were resilient enough to have another child, and they had grandchildren. Resilience brought rewards.
Did everyone live happily ever after, after he Fall? No again. Far from it. God saw the descendents as wicked and corrupt. And he told the one righteous man in his generation, Noah, to take his wife and three sons and two of every animal species and build an ark, and stay in this ark for 40 days and 40 nights, with the waters churning and turning and the wind whipping all around them. That act of faith took some kind of resilience. Noah’s family and the inhabitants of the ark left the ark after what undoubtedly was a frightful experience to find that no one was left on the earth but them. They rebuilt. The text says, “Three were the sons of Noah (that came out of the ark), and from these the whole world was spread out.” (Gen 9:19)
In every subsequent Biblical story after Noah, there is some kind of major trauma. But, our foremothers and forefathers were resilient, and here we are today. Different characters, different days, same stories. Part of the human condition is struggle. Struggle to maintain the status quo, to exceed the status quo, to survive, to thrive. To be tough, strong and courageous when and where we need to be.
The world is a topsy-turvy place right now. Isis, the rampant Anti-Semitism we’ve been speaking about, Iran, ebola, Israel bashing, climate-caused disasters. You name it. And we all have our personal tirchas as well. My grandmother called them peckles. Each of us has a little, sometimes a big peckle of something that challenges us—be it loss of a job, illness, death of a loved one, children that disappoint us, just feeling stuck in our stuff.
Here’s the truth of the matter: If we want to have a happy and successful life, we are compelled to learn how to be RESILIENT. To create a practice around being resilient. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. If we have the right attitude, we can find more reasons to hope than to despair. To be strong and courageous. And we MUST be resilient.
The command, “Be strong” and its variant “Be strong and courageous” Hazak V’ematz appears approximately 30 times in various parts of our Tanach, and by the way in the Christian Bible as well. In Deuteronomy when Moses passes the leadership baton to Joshua, he says it three times. Hazak v’ematz. Be strong and courageous. We hear it again in the Book of Joshua, in the Books of Samuel, and in Chronicles. In Psalm 27, the psalm that we recite every day in the entire month of Elul which precedes Rosh Hashanah, we are enjoined to BE STRONG AND COURAGEOUS, before the daily blowing of the shofar (which incidentally takes it own kind of resilience). After every Book of the Torah when we complete a reading, we stand and say, Hazak, Hazak, V’neet Hazak. Be strong, be strong and we will be strong together.
In our holy Torah that is so pithy and epigrammatic, where every word, every letter, every dot in a letter is symbolic, to have a phrase repeated over and over again is something extraordinary and considered to be of vast spiritual importance by the rabbis. Be strong and courageous. It’s God’s pep talk to us.
I think God acknowledges through our sacred texts that life is very hard for people at one time or another. In those tough moments what does it take to be strong and courageous? To be resilient? To be our own GPS system and recalculate?
Not long ago, my friend’s precious granddaughter was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoblastic T-cell lymphoma at 5 years old. The prognosis is good, but in order to beat the disease she has to undergo 2 ½ years of rigorous chemotherapy. If you want to see an example of a family’s resilience, read her mother’s blog: Olive, the Brave.
On the other side of the age spectrum, the late Joan Rivers did an hour standup comedy routine on the night before she had a throat procedure that led to her death. She was 81 years old. She survived the suicide of her husband, estrangement from her TV hero, Johnny Carson, the loss of her own show, and who knows what else? As is depicted the documentary about her, A Piece of Work, she was resilient until the end, wanting to work, wanting to make a difference in the world, through laughter. And just saying, nothing was lost on her very outspoken support of Israel in Israel’s time of need.
The Southern cook, Paula Dean faced one of the worst scandals of her life, the one after her admission that she had diabetes and was promoting comfort food that was high in fat and low in nutrition. Previously, she was a woman who battled agoraphobia to become one of the most hard-working recognized media cooks and restaurateurs in the world, building a billion dollar empire. She admitted to using a racial slur more than 30 years ago in a law suit that was later found to have no merit. Her million-dollar endorsements dried up, the food network fired her, and her empire crumbled. This week she announced that she was starting her own Lifestyle Network. And she unveiled plans to begin anew. It takes resilience to make a comeback as she did. And lots of it.
Joan Lunden is on the cover of this week’s People Magazine, bald and beautiful battling breast cancer. She put herself out in the public eye as she did to offer the prospect of resilience as a healing mechanism. She says she refuses to wallow in self-pity. You want to live with the attitude, “I’m going to beat this side of things,” she says… “I just tell myself ‘You can’t worry about things that haven’t happened yet.’”
In early September, the Fraenkels, American/Israeli parents of one of the slain teenagers in Israel, Naftali, appeared at Federation’s New York Lion of Judah Conference that I attended. They stood and thanked everyone for helping them stay resilient, praying for their son, while there was hope that he was still alive, and comforting them in Shivah when he was found dead. That’s resilience.
We have so many examples of people, public and private figures, past and present, whose resilience made them supersede their circumstances: survivors of hurricanes, tsunamis, cancer survivors, homeless kids whose resilience catapulted them through graduation from Harvard. We remember the victims of the Boston marathon bombing, men and women falsely accused of murder and/or rape, who spent decades in jail, only to be cleared by Barry Sheck’s Innocence Project. We call to mind the resilience of people recovering from addictions and their families, our military personnel and their families, summoning up every ounce of resilience to make it through a tour of duty, sometimes more than one.
We’re in a new year now and we need to be strong and courageous every day. We hope that everything will be wonderful in the coming days ahead, but for some there are ongoing situations that require massive doses of resilience: an illness or injury, sustained pain, being a caretaker to someone with a chronic illness, losses, losses, losses. And we can never anticipate all that’s over the horizon.
And resilience is not just about the horrors of life we have to endure. Resilience is vital to realize our potential: to launch a new business, maintain relationships, woo a love interest like Jacob did for Rachel for 14 years, work with difficult people, build a new house, become pregnant, keep a synagogue lively, lose weight, gain weight, learn a musical instrument, a new language, face ourselves on Yom Kippur.
Those of you close to me know me know that I’ve been writing a book for a long time. I thought I was finished. Other writers who have ever made the attempt to publish any genre of books, or write articles or sermons understand how hard it is. To get to the page every day, especially when a million other distractions become competing influences. To face the blank page, to deal with structure, syntax, word choices in the middle and to try to send it out to the masses to be judged at the end. Not always so favorably requires resilience. To find an agent. For the agent to find a publisher, especially in these days of a decimated publishing industry. To rewrite. To deal with legal issues that may come up around it. To rewrite again and again and again. It takes resilience.
Larry and I live across the street from the Art Museum and one of our favorite things to do is to watch people from all over the world pose at the Rocky statue. They stand in long lines waiting for their turns to snap pictures with the mythic boxing hero. Even monks in saffron colored robes stand smiling in front of the Rocky statue, because our Rocky poses as a symbol of resilience.
I have a confession to make: Yesterday, as the Unetanah Tokef prayer, the central part of our High Holiday liturgy was being introduced, I turned to my darling friend Sheila Burstein, sitting to my right, and told her I was deeply disturbed by this prayer. She looked at me as though I was a Martian, not a rabbi. Even though I love how Cantor Zarkh sings the B’Rosh Hashanah refrain, I want to do what my grandchildren do when they don’t want to hear something. Hold their ears and say “AHHHHH.”
Yes, I get the part about being a finite being with a finite amount of time to do good in the world, about the fact that we are not always in control of what happens to us. But that image of us walking like sheep in front of a punitive God who judges us for fire, flood or famine in the coming year—even though our liturgy tells us that tzedakah, tefilla and teshuvah can overturn a harsh decree, well, I really haven’t been able to harmonize that piyut with what I think is needed at this High Holiday season…And that is to feel hope.
And with that, Rabbi Lieb reads a stunning new rendition of the Unataneh Tokef prayer from the forthcoming Reform Machzor, “Mishkan Hanefesh,” the one we’re using this morning. The more sensitive version ends with “God of holiness, God of hope, let us glimpse Your truth, as we attach our hope to Yours.”
Be strong and courageous. How do we do that? What can we bring into 5775 that will keep us strong and courageous, make us resilient. To live in hope, like the Israelis, with their national anthem HaTikvah, there are certain practices that we can develop to expand our resilience quotient. This is my Top-10 list, which is neither exclusive or exhaustive. We’ll put it up on the website so you can have reinforcement whenever you need it.
- First, take care of yourself. Hillel’s adage never loses its relevance. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
One important qualification…If you have emotional issues and need medical intervention, please, please make sure you get it. Nothing to be ashamed of. The recent death of comedienne Robin Williams puts depression back on the front burners with a stern warning to all of us to pay attention to ourselves and get medical assistance when we feel nothing but despair.
- Spend time in silence every day. Listen to what your heart tells you to do. It’s calming, and serenity is a prelude to resilience.
- Seek community. Surround yourself with as much love as possible. By being with others, you’ll have support, friendship and people who can act as sounding boards, and maybe even move you in a better direction. If nothing else you’ll have company. Here at Old York Road Temple Beth Am there are plenty of opportunities to connect. You are welcome.
My 92 year old mother-in-law who is here with me today lives at the Watermark in Center City. The seniors in the community suffer many losses. Last year my mother-in-law lost her second husband, but she’s doing ok. As she tells me: “Where I live, we’re like a family and we help each other.” Her constant refrain, “We do the best we can.” It takes resilience.
- Enlist physical help. As much as you can. The martyr card never works. It just wears us out. Some of us think that if we ask for help we are burdening others. But look at the situation this way: When you ask someone for assistance, you are allowing them to do a mitzvah, and that makes them feel good, too. Every Holocaust survivor that I ever met said that they wouldn’t have survived without the help and kindness of someone.
- Pray—ok, you would expect me to say that, but you don’t need to be a clergy person to make prayer a priority. On a recent panel at Women of Vision, an arm of Women’s Philanthropy of Federation where I serve on the executive board, three high powered working women were asked the age-old questions: “Do you think women can have it all? And how do you do balance everything?” Naomi Adler, a lawyer and the new CEO of our Federation said, “I know this may sound corny, but I get through what I have to by praying. The act of prayer centers me and allows me the opportunity to do act thoughtfully.”
Try it, you’ll like it. Whether you use the Siddur or say prayers of natural expression for yourself or intercessionary prayers on behalf of someone else, just the act of verbalizing your angst, your dreams and your hopes, will be fortifying.
Here’s an example of one simple piece I’ve written and used:
Presider Over the Universe:
Please help me maintain a positive outlook even as I deal with difficult days and stormy nights. Keep me strong as I face the unknowns ahead. Please lead me on the healing and accepting path to begin again. Thank you for the power and peace of this prayerful and loving moment. Amen.
A simple one directly from our traditional morning blessings is:
Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam
HaNotein L’yaef koach.
Blessed Are You Adonai, Ruler of the Earth. Your power gives strength to the weary.
- Develop an inner culture of gratitude. We can all recite a litany of what’s not working in our lives, but there is always something in a day to be grateful for. Concentrate on the good, not the bad and the ugly.
- Do something for other people–whatever that gesture or expression is. You want to feel better about yourself, give something to someone else–a phone call, money, a quick note, a meal if you can in trying times. Any little gratuitous act of kindness will have benefits for you as well. One of my early rabbis and mentors, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg used to say, “Do what you can, and then a little more.”
- Live in the solution, not the problem. Live in the solution, not the problem. In other words, don’t dray. Get moving and make a to-do list that propels you forward. Just do it!
- Spend your time in joy. Watch TV shows that make you laugh. Listen to music if that’s your pleasure. It’s interesting how two of the greatest hits of last year were, Happy by Pharelle Willimas and Brave by Sara Bareilles. You need a boost, look up the lyrics.
And it was just announced that Sara Barellis and Cyndi Lauper collaborated on a song combining their two hit records, Brave and True Colors respectively for the benefit of pediatric cancer at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Check it out on u-tube. It’s amazing! If anyone needs resilience and the mantra to be strong, brave and courageous, it’s those little kids, who are fighting adult size problems.
10. Finally, forgive. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. As the lyrics from the song from the Disney movie, Frozen, that my granddaughter sings every day reminds: “Let it go, Let it go….” (Sing it if you will…) You’ll be lighter and have infinitely more room for the attributes you need to be strong, courageous and resilient.
So in this year 5775, full of exquisite and sweet possibilities, I say again to you, and I say to myself: “Be strong and Courageous.” Hazak v’ematz. Be resilient!
Hazak, Hazak Venit Hazak. Be strong, be strong and we will be strong together…May it be so…Shanah Tovah to you and all you hold dear. May it be the best and most RESILIENT year ever…