ThereFore Choose Life: Choose Resilience

Here is my Rosh Hashanah Sermon from 5782

This past year, has been very traumatic for all of us. More than 625, 000 Americans dead from Covid and millions infected, with continuing long term effects.  More than 4.75 million people have died world-wide. Each person, someone’s sibling, parent, spouse and child. A world unto themselves. Imagine how long it would take to read all the names.  It takes on average 3 hours to read the names of all the victims of 9/11 each year.    That’s approximately 1000 names an hour. And we will observe the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in just a few days.

But  If we were to read all the names of just the American victims of COVID 19,   It would take 434 days non-stop for 24 hours a day.  Which is 1 year and 78 day, more than 14 month non-stop to recite all the names and that’s just of the American victims that we know about so far.  

The enormity of this hard to comprehend.  

Even with this as a backdrop, as we begin the New Year together, I am heartened by the deep connections we made as a community during the past year. I am hopeful as we begin fresh and new for 5782. 

            We have all learned so many things in this past year that we now carry with us.

            Our Kol Ami community found a way to strengthen each other, sustain each other, deepen our ties with each other, even as we kept ourselves safe and socially distant. We lived out our motto Kol Ami Stronger Together.      

And we have tried to emerge from our lock downs and quarantines into a brave new world of vaccines & variants & masks.

Though it can be frustrating, and sometimes maddening, to have to turn on a dime, we have had to learn how to adapt.  This is resilience 101. Being able to learn how to handle situations as they arise.  The challenge for all of us to is to do so with grace, humor, and optimism about the future.

     All of the studies show that resilience is not about IQ or how smart one is rather, “It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges”[i]

We can give in to the traumatic events that we experience or we can overcome them, demonstrating, this very ideal of resilient responses to living.

Maria Kornikova wrote about resilience. “… decades of research have revealed a lot about how it (resilience) works. This research shows that resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught.”[ii]

“In 1989 a developmental psychologist named Emmy Werner published the results of her thirty-two-year longitudinal project[iii]. She had followed a group of nearly 700 children, in Hawaii, from before birth through their third decade of life.  She monitored them for any exposure to stress: maternal stress in utero, poverty, problems in the family, etc. Two-thirds of the children came from backgrounds that were, essentially, stable, successful, and happy; the other third qualified as “at risk.” … she soon discovered that not all of the at-risk children reacted to stress in the same way. Two-thirds of them “developed serious learning or behavior problems by the age of ten, or had delinquency records, mental health problems, or teen-age pregnancies by the age of eighteen.” But the remaining third developed into “competent, confident, and caring young adults.”[iv]

What was it that set the resilient children apart?… She found that several elements predicted resilience. Some elements had to do with luck: a resilient child might have a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure.” 

“ But another”, Emily Werner wrote, “quite large set of elements was psychological, and had to do with how the children responded to the environment. From a young age, resilient children tended to “meet the world on their own terms.” They were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences.” Though not especially gifted, these children used whatever skills they had effectively.”

Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: the children believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates.

In another words, they had the power of choice. The choice of how to respond. Just as we do. We can respond traumatic events and situations with utter helplessness, feeling battered by the winds of time and circumstance or we too can believe that we have the power of choices. That we are not helpless and hopeless.

This is Judaism at its best. We are taught that we have the power to choose, life or death, blessing or curses. We have free will. We are taught by our great teacher Rambam, Maimonides “We each decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly. No one forces us. No one decides for us, no one drags us along one path or the other. We are responsible for what we are.”[v]

Resilience is at the core of being a Jew. Choice is in our hands.

There are some additional things that help in becoming a resilient person.

In a study published by Michele Tugade and Barbara Fredrikson,  they found that resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative experiences.[vi] “Resilient individuals  have optimistic, zestful, and energetic approaches to life, are curious and open to new experiences, and are characterized by what they call: “ high positive emotionality.”[vii]  In addition they found that  very resilient people proactively cultivate the use of humor[viii] relaxation techniques[ix], and optimistic thinking[x].

     This research is groundbreaking. We can see from this the importance of a positive outlook on life, that is bolstered by laughter, play and seeing the glass half full rather than half empty contributes to the ability to be resilient.           
     Interestingly,  our New Year observances on Rosh Hashanah reinforce these notions!  This season of the year is filled with ancient Jewish wisdom that is now confirmed by scientific research.

     Why do we stress the sweetness of the year ahead at this season? Dipping apples and honey? Or eating honey cake or ruglach? In part to help us shape the opportunities for positive emotionality! We imagine a sweet year ahead. Put ourselves in a positive hopeful framework. We can start over, wipe the slate clean we say in our prayers.  Why do we make the challah round at the season? To show us that we are not fixed but can turn around our lives, that we can always start over.

     We sound the shofar to raise up our spirits to seek renewal and teshuvah, the built-in hope that we can be forgiven and seek wholeness once again. That we deserve the clean and fresh start. The shofar sounds to remind us that we celebrate the birth of the world and the rebirth of our humanity. Emerging spiritually pure in the new year, free from the drama, trauma and hurts that were done to us and that we inflicted upon others.

     Judaism is a religion, a way of being in the world that is built to teach each one of us how to be resilient. And the New Year, Rosh Hashanah is here to help you reframe and rebuild and renew your resilience skills. 

     We are an ancient people-who have experienced some of the worst traumas imaginable, from slavery in Egypt, to the destruction of our ancient Temples and having to reinvent our entire spiritual live; from the traumas of the Crusaders, the Inquisition and other expulsions; the persecutions fueled by anti-Semitism and of course the Shoa-genocide that is even greater numbers of people than have perished from the Coronovirus; yet, our people have gone on to thrive and live despite attempts to wipe us away.

     Trauma experts teach us that the trauma is not just held psychologically and emotionally but somatically as well. It is in our body. It is in our brains.  And to release these traumas that we have lived through we have to do so emotionally and physically.  It’s not just enough to talk through them.

That is why the use of traditions, of swaying during prayer, enwrapping yourself in a tallit, of dancing the hora, of chanting the Torah, of the repetitive motions of drawing in the light when you light the Shabbat candles is so important. These are not mere customs, but they can be some of the healing physical actions necessary from the collective traumas we experience. The act of lighting Shabbat and holiday candles, of hearing the sound of the shofar or better yet, sounding the shofar, of dwelling in the sukkah, of waving the lulav and etrog are not some quaint antiquated religious theatre, but these ritual movements and choreography can be used to help us overcome the trauma we hold.

And so when we double down on Jewish traditions, and practice them, it can bring meaning, and contentment and connection but it can bring healing and resilience to the individual as well. I believe our Jewish tradition, our customs, our music, our rituals help build resilience in us. They do so because we as a people have known and lived and passed on so much trauma epigenetically, from generation to generation, lador vador. Our rituals, like going to the mikveh, is perhaps our most ancient trauma healing ritual, to spiritually cleanse ourselves.  But our Torah stories also do this.

As Rabbi Erica Asch, President Elect of the Central Conference of American Rabbis writes “Our Jewish story connects us to our ancestors and gives us the tools to build our own resilience in the face of difficulties.”[xi]

We can turn to our texts and our Torah for stories of resilience and inspiration and specifically the Torah portions for Rosh Hashanah! Later this morning we will read from Genesis 21. The complex family story of our patriarch Abraham and his wives, Sarah and Hagar and their children Ishmael and Isaac.

    At first glance this is this a story of jealousy, of family struggle and strife and resentments and rivalries.  But when we delve deeper, we see it is a story of trauma and finally of resilience.

     Abraham and Sarah could not conceive and so Sarah and Abraham had Hagar – Sarah’s hand servant, as a Surrogate mother. She gives birth to Ishmael, the first born of Abraham. The Torah tells us that Hagar had Ishmael on the lap of Sarah, showing that Sarah became the adoptive mother. 

    But in our Torah Portion today, Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac. A biological child of their old age. Abraham was 100 and Sarah in her 90’s. Miraculous indeed!  And the Torah portion  relates an incident that happened between Isaac and his older brother Ishmael at the feast of Isaac’s weaning.  The Torah says “

The child (meaning Isaac) grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was l’tzahek10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

     I use the Hebrew work L’tzahek because it has many meanings. It is first a play on the name of Yitzhak, Isaac whose name means laughter. Because when Sarah heard she was going to get pregnant after menopause she laughed at the angels prophecy.  And she says that God brought her laughter. 

     But there is a darker side to this word, because it can also mean mocking.  That the older brother, Ishamel who is now a young teenager, was mocking the toddler Isaac. 

Though they seem to be playing together, there is murder in the wind’  writes scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg.[xii]  Sarah sees in her son and Ishmael, a replaying of the Cain and Abel story where the older brother Cain eventually murders his brother Able. Zornberg hints based upon rabbinic interpretation that Sarah, can see the rivalry and violence that may come.  Rashi the great commentator, cites the midrash that the boys are playing a kind of William Tell game, with Ishmael shooting arrows at Isaac and then claiming, ‘But I’m only playing.’ [xiii]

    And there is yet another interpretation of this verse and particularly this word l’tzahek. It means to sport with, play with and yes, it has sexual overtones.  Did Sarah see the older brother abusing the younger brother?  Our commentators agree that is the correct interpretation of the word bringing proof from many different places[xiv].

    Isaac, shot at by his older brother, perhaps molested by his older brother is certainly a victim in this story.

     And yet, in tomorrow’s Torah portion in Genesis 22 we will see him willingly accompany his father, Abraham to the top of Mt. Moriah. And his father will bind him to the altar and nearly sacrifice him, stopped only by an angel of God who cries out at the last minute. 

   Can you even imagine what this young man experiences in seeing his father over him with a knife?  First his older brother tried to either shoot him or molest him and then his father tries to kill him. 

And yet, in Isaac we see an inner strength that allows him to thrive. He had a choice. He could have left the story completely rejecting the traditions of his parents.  He had a choice to fall apart. Instead, he chose to live his life fully, to stay connected to his family particularly his mother, to fall in love and marry Rebecca, to have two sons whom he loves. To pass on the traditions of his parents to the next generation.  He chooses wholeness and healing.  And even is credited with inventing the afternoon prayers of Mincha, as he went out to the fields to meditate and reflect and perhaps to heal.

Isaac is seen by some scholars as the weakest of the three patriarchs. One writes that Isaac is but a bridge between Abraham and Jacob. There are the fewest stories in the Torah about Isaac and he seems the meekest of the three.  I think this is a misreading of Isaac.  I see Isaac as strong and resilient. He seems to have overcome a terrifying relationship with his brother, Ishmael and his father.  He meets up with his brother when the time comes to bury their father and Isaac fulfills his obligations.  He builds a life for himself and his family.  But he doesn’t dwell in these toxic relationships either. These are beautiful and holy moments and speaks to his inner fortitude and ability to move forward in his life.  Isaac chooses life. His life. He has chosen to overcome the many vicissitudes of life. He is the embodiment of resilience.

        As we read these Torah stories, let us see the Isaac in us , let us learn to walk in the fields with hope and use his example in overcoming life’s difficulties, traumas and terrors to nevertheless build a life of meaning and love. Let us use our rituals to release the traumas and rebuild our faith.

    Let us therefore Choose Life. Choose Hope, choose to be among the Resilient ones.  Let us use these holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and these Ten Days of Repentance to bolster our resilience skills, using the traditions of our people, to reframe, renew and refresh our souls. Let us repair ourselves and in so doing repair the world.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.


[i] https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-for-resilience

[ii] Ibid

[iii] WERNER, E. E. 1982. Vulnerable, but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. American Journal of Orthopsychiatric Association, 59.

[iv] ibid

[v] Hilchot Teshuvot 5:2, Moses Maimonides, adapted

[vi] Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 320–333. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.86.2.320

[vii] Block J, Kremen AM. IQ and ego-resiliency: Conceptual and empirical connections and separateness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1996;70:349–361

[viii] Werner E, Smith RS. Overcoming the odds: High risk children from birth to adulthood. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University; 1992

[ix] Wolin SJ, Wolin S. Bound and determined: Growing up resilient in a troubled family. New York: Villard; 1993.

[x] Kumpfer KL. Factors and processes contributing to resilience: The resilience framework. In: Glantz MD, Johnson JL, editors. Resilience and development: Positive life adaptations. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers; 1999. pp. 179–224.

[xi] Asch, Erica, Rosh Hashanah sermon 2020 https://bethelaugusta.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/71/2020/09/Rosh-Hashanah-Day-Resilience.pdf

[xii] Zornberg, Aviva The Beginnings of Desire, Penguin-Random House, 1995, page 135

[xiv] Schwartz, Joshua, “Ishamel at Play: On Exegesis and Jewish Society”, Hebrew Union College Annual  Vol. 66 (1995), pp. 203-221 (19 pages)

[xiii][1] Rabbi Alexandra Wright, https://www.liberaljudaism.org/2019/10/sermon-comparing-genesis-21-22/

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