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sermon: Yom Kippur 5778

Finding Jewish Resilience

We shouldn’t be afraid of the difficult. We are built for it.

For the past ten days I have taken a social media break. I did it as an exercise in humility and an exercise in being more present in my own life when I’m at home. One of the happy by-products was quieting the noisy news noise out there. I haven’t scrolled through headlines about Charlottesville and neo-nazis, breaches of our personal data on supposedly-secure sites, ultra-orthodox rabbis denouncing the legitimacy (again) of Reform Jews, investigations of Russian meddling in our elections, the continued and infuriating debate about the human influence on climate change. While I know it’s not realistic to quit getting my news from Facebook, during my break I realized that all of these events are taking up a lot of brain space. The news headlines do not even include the headlines of our own lives, jobs lost and found, medical diagnoses, family deaths, and school report cards.

A few weeks ago on Shabbat, I was talking to a friend about the state of the world. Our conversation was heavy. He lamented the fact that despite his continued effort to remain positive and cheerful for his kid’s sake, he feels on edge, like he has a short fuse. Angry words rush out of his mouth disproportionate to the situation in front of him. While he takes the blame for snapping at people at home and at work, we both recognized that world events are taking a toll on us. I imagine that many of us here are feeling the same way; heavy, anxiety-ridden thinking about what could possibly happen next. The world seems to be in upheaval. We all have coping mechanisms but sometimes it feels like we might as well give up and give sheet-caking a try like Tina Fey, or have a few glasses of wine, or retreat to our phones, or head to the open seas on a cruise for the next few years. But we can’t do that.

Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, reminds us to live in the here and now. In a meeting last week, Cantor Barry mentioned that probably more than anything else, the fact that we have to sit around all day and think about our actions and reactions is part of the healing of this holy day. The hard work is sitting here, captive for hours to contemplate and not escape. That is why this holy day so challenging. All we have is each other, our machzor, and our own thoughts. Now, please don’t run out the door. I know, it’s hard.

However, we shouldn’t be afraid of the difficult. We are built for it.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once put this question to his students: What was the hardest part of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, for Abraham? a) Was it the initial call, b) was it the long walk to Moriah, or c) was it the binding? After the students guessed, the rabbi answered: it was actually d) the hardest part was coming down the mountain. This wise man taught that the hardest part is the long road after the event. Abraham proved that he could recover from the horrific event with his son and that resilience is possible. We may not be the same coming down the other side of the mountain but we surely can make it.

Resilience [is] defined as the psychological capacity to adapt to stressful circumstances and to bounce back from adverse events.The Dark Side of Resilience by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Derek Lusk

Ours is a story of resilience. Our people have been through so much; during biblical times, during the temple period, through conquering powers, through the middle ages, through expulsions, through pogroms, through wars, through the Holocaust, through the Soviet period, through more wars, more discrimination, we’ve been through it all. While we lost too many at the hands of evil oppressors, we are still here to talk about it. We could write the book about resilience and in effect we have.

We do have to wonder how it is that current events are hitting us harder than they might have 50 years ago. Fortunately, we are out of practice. Being Jewish in the US is easier than it ever has been. No longer are there quotas for Jews to enter the country, to enter medical programs, to enter colleges. We are not subjugated to living in particular neighborhoods or barred from social clubs because of our religious and cultural affiliation. However, because we are afforded the ability to “pass” in the greater society, we are out of practice when it comes to bouncing back from challenging events; like the resurgence of vocal anti-semitism.

In an article titled, “How to Build Resilience in Midlife,” Tara Parker-Hope says,

Scientists who study stress and resilience say it’s important to think of resilience as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time. While it’s useful to build up resilience before a big or small crisis hits, there still are active steps you can take during and after a crisis to speed your emotional recovery.

Even though we aren’t at the gym today working our physical muscles, this Yom Kippur let us remember how to flex the Jewish resiliency muscle so that we can go on with our lives despite the often scary narratives around us. Let’s look into our Jewish resilience toolbox. How do we draw on Judaism, as our ancestors have done for thousands of years, to help us remain sane and kind in this world?


The first Jewish resilience tool we should grab is cultivating gratitude. Long before gratitude journals, our people have done the work of recognizing the good that is around us, even in dark times. Our morning liturgy is filled with blessings, seeing the work that God does in our lives. The beauty of this liturgy is that it offers us words when our imaginations might fail us. From the miracle of waking up every morning to connecting with our soul to the physical nature of our bodies’ organs. We see the blessing of helping other people, the blessing of discernment, the blessing of being free.

Though these prayers are available to us in the siddur, it may seem daunting to begin a practice of gratitude in this way. Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, the founder and spiritual leader of the Lab Shul in New York described his gratitude practice in an interview with Krista Tippett on the NPR show, On Being. He said,

I’m in my late 40s, I’m a father, I’m a rabbi, and I’m looking at my life and how it’s evolving… I sit every morning for a few moments, wrapped up in my father’s prayer shawl. I meditate and write in my journal. I rarely use any of the liturgical texts. And what it’s about is discipline. It’s a workout. And it’s the workout for gratitude. It’s a workout for what Heschel called radical amazement and wonder. And it’s just an exercise in meditation in silence. Sit for a few moments and cultivate love.

Rabbi Lau-Lavie is suggesting that we can sit for a few minutes, think, possibly pray and be grateful for the blessings that we have in our lives. We can be wowed by the beauty and complexity of nature and wonder about the mysteries of life. These blessings give us strength when we are feeling weary of the world.


Our second Jewish resilience tool is community. In real moments of personal despair, community can give us the strength to get back on our feet and move forward. Again our traditions provide us a framework for drawing from this tool. When a family member dies, Judaism walks with us and tells us what to do. Just before the funeral service, the family stands together to cut the kriah ribbon; a physical symbol of mourning. After a blessing each person tears the ribbon and with it a sound emerges that reminds us that this is real, our loved one is no longer with us. What’s more is that after this moment of standing and declaring that what’s done is done is that we return to the ground, sitting on low stools or the floor, and stay there for seven more days allowing our community to feed us, offer comfort and presence. At the conclusion of the seven days the community comes back, prays with us, and as an official end of shiva, we take a walk – rising out of our lowness by leaning on the shoulders of people we know. Our community is a natural place to find resilience, you are surrounded by other people who have either been through what you are dealing with or are equipped with our traditions to help you along in the process.

The flip side of receiving community comfort and support is providing it for others. Psychiatry professor, and co-author of the book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Dr. Steven M. Southwick says,

Part of resilience is taking responsibility for your life, and for creating a life that you consider meaningful and purposeful. It doesn’t have to be a big mission — it could be your family. As long as what you’re involved in has meaning to you, that can push you through all sorts of adversity.

We are built for this, resilience is part of being in the Jewish community, we just have to practice leaning on it and working toward it to reap the benefits.

Hope for the future

Our final tool is less tangible but probably the most powerful one we have in creating resilience in the our age — hope. Zechariah, one of our prophets famously says, “we are prisoners of hope.” (Zech. 9:12) While the idea of being a prisoner to anything seems restricting, what he is saying is that hope is in our Jewish DNA. Without hope, we might not have been able to eek our way out of the situations we have faced for centuries.

While there are numerous examples of Jewish hope, one that really gives us the flavor of resilience is through Ashkenazi Jewish food. Like some of the best culinary traditions around the world, Jewish food is not full of delicacies and expensive products. Jewish food is comprised of the left overs, the tough cuts of meat, the chicken bones, the schmaltz. Each one of these foods are made into delicacies that we love. Jewish food is born out of hope. The ingenuity of our ancestors helps us to see how with a little-of-this and a little-of-that we can make it.

Jewish resilience relies on more than just hope but a belief that life will get better. Rabbi David Hartman distinguishes between two types of hope. The first, a utopian hope which is all about escapism; like binge-watching tv or eating all of the cake. The second is a realistic hope. Realistic hope he says is “the courage to bear human responsibility…and accept the burden of living and building within contexts of uncertainty.” Hope is not about sitting around and wishing for something to change. Instead, it is about believing with courage that we can hold on to the burden of the moment and survive.

Hatikvah — Israel’s national anthem — says it all.

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope – the 2,000 year old hope – will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Gratitude, community, and realistic hope: these are the Jewish resilience tools that are going to get us through. These are the tools that have always carried our people through. Today on the Sabbath of all Sabbaths, Yom Kippur, let us be resilient in the face of the world. Our families are counting on us, our people are counting on us, and we are counting on ourselves to persevere.

G’mar Chatima Tova