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Rabbi's Yom Kippur Sermon: Learning and Integrating Resilience

Shalom all,

Thank you for an incredibly meaningful and uplifting High Holy Days. Please send me your reflections on cultivating resilience. I will compile our collective wisdom to offer as spiritual resources for my colleagues in North Carolina as they pastor to their communities…in addition to the material resources.

Blessings and love,

Rabbi Teller

Learning and Integrating Resilience
Yom Kippur 5779
Rabbi Ranon Teller
Congregation Brith Shalom, Bellaire, TX

We are still recovering from Hurricane Harvey. We pray for North Carolina and South Carolina and Virginia as they begin their road to recovery. We send them our thoughts and our prayers – and we’re sending them supplies, manpower, and funds. I have colleagues and friends in Durham, Raleigh, and Greensboro, and although they didn’t get hit too hard, they will be integrally involved in the recovery. We know what it’s like to get walloped by a hurricane. As a city and as a community, we’ve been through this trauma. What guidance can we offer?

It’s a strange question to ask because we’re still recovering ourselves. Many folks here are still rebuilding their homes, still making decisions. Houstonians all over the city and beyond are still displaced and homeless. Beth Yeshurun finished their sanctuary just in time for Rosh Hashanah. United Orthodox Synagogues is still a one-room synagogue. We are still recovering from Hurricane Harvey. Even people who are “recovered” are still feeling traumatized. My home didn’t flood, and still, every time it rains, I feel anxious and vulnerable.

It’s true that the city of Houston and the Houston Jewish community have displayed remarkable strength, unity, leadership, and determination, and we are recovering – Houston Strong – and yet, we’re still feeling vulnerable. What advice can we offer them when we’re still traumatized every time it rains? I’ve prepared some thoughts on resilience for us and for those affected by Hurricane Florence. After Yom Kippur, I’m going to send this sermon out to get your feedback. Then, I’ll send our collective wisdom to our friends in North Carolina. Let’s figure out the lessons we’ve learned about cultivating resilience, for ourselves for them.

I think we’ve learned that resilience isn’t necessarily about being tough. In hurricane winds, mighty oak trees snap like twigs. We’ve learned that resilience isn’t about “bouncing back”. The hurricane changed us forever and there is no going back. Resilience is about (1) facing challenging realities, (2) embracing alternative options, and (3) walking forward together – patiently and courageously.

One. Facing challenging realities. Start from where we are. After the flood, it was difficult to accept the reality and the magnitude of the devastation. When I was meeting with people whose homes were destroyed, I heard a common theme. They were saying, “It’s just stuff” or “There are people who are much worse off than me”. That was all true and altruistic, but there seemed to be something “off”. I did some research and discovered a coping mechanism called minimization. Psychologists define minimization as a kind of self-deception involving denial coupled with rationalization in situations where complete denial is implausible. We want to deny the whole thing, but we can’t. After the flood, the evidence was too clear – there were water and muck everywhere. So, as an alternative to denial, we minimize the trauma, because we’re not able to integrate the depth of the devastation. In the moment, coping mechanisms are excellent survival tactics, but in order build up our resilience, we have to be painfully honest about our feelings of loss. We see a great example of expressing genuine loss in the Torah portion that we read on the first day of Rosh Hashannah.

Ishmael and Hagar are abandoned by Abraham in the desert with few provisions. When their provisions run out, Hagar puts her son Ishmael under a tree, moves a distance away from him, and Hagar starts to cry. The end in near. The Torah reports that God hears Ishmael’s voice, ba’asher hu sham “as he is there”, and God opens up Hagar’s eyes; she sees a well of water and they are saved. The Rabbis ask, as you might ask, “Wait a minute, why did God hear Ishmael’s voice? The Torah says that Hagar was crying, and didn’t even mention Ishmael’s cry?!”

Reb Zalman Sorotzkin, known as the Lutzker Rav, answers with an interpretation of the strange phrase “as he is there” ba’asher hu sham. The truth is, says the Lutzker Rav, they were both crying, but the text was written from Hagar’s perspective and her coping mechanism was denial. Her denial was so effective that she didn’t hear her son crying. That would have been too much for her. But God heard Ishmael cry because Ishmael hadn’t yet developed coping skills – he was there – “as he is” – experiencing the fullness of the tragic moment. As a result, God only heard Ishmael’s cry.

The Lutzer Rav continues, “The comparison is to a noble king who was passing through a town one day when a child approached his chariot, asking for a drink of water. The king ignored the request and drove on. The very next day, the king was traveling through a desert, when suddenly, he heard the faint cry of the very same child asking for a drink of water. This time, the noble king stopped his carriage immediately and gave the child water.” This is analogous to Hagar and Ishmael. The Lutzker Rav concludes that Hagar’s voice didn’t move God because Hagar was in denial and her prayers didn’t resonate in the cosmos. God only heard Ishmael voice because it came from a naïve and honest place – b’asher hu sham – “as he was, right there”.

Hagar couldn’t walk forward on the path toward resilience because she was still in denial and minimizing her feelings trauma. When we try to rationalize or suspend or avoid, we block potential sources for help. We block our spiritual resources and our emotional resources, like our family and friends who might offer more support if we weren’t minimizing our trauma. Seek the truth of our situation. We say in our prayers “God is Truth” Adonai Eloheichem Emet. After the immediate trauma clears and we are out of imminent danger, we begin the work of resilience by taking an honest inventory of ourselves.

That’s the first step toward resilience: an authentic, deep inventory. Start from where we are. Be honest and clear about we need. That’s Step #1 of resilience – start from where we are.

Step 2. Once we figure out where we’re starting from and what we need, it’s time to figure out Option B. We all have an Option A in our heads – the ideal version of our lives. The next step in resilience is to figure out how to leave Option A behind and live, and embrace Option B.

A few years ago, Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, in a tragic accident. May the telling of this story help to make his memory a blessing. Thirty days after his death, she wrote about what she had learned, in the hopes that it might help someone else in their grief and struggle toward resilience. She closed her message with a story. (Footnote: She was expressing powerful emotions and used some “powerful” words. I substitute those 4-letter words with the 5-letter word ‘Sugar’.) She writes, “I was talking to one of my friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, ‘But I want Dave. I want option A.’ He put his arm around me and said, ‘Option A is not available. So, let’s just kick the ‘sugar’ out of option B.” And that’s just what Sheryl Sandberg continues to do.

My favorite phrase in the siddur these days is a praise of God, “by Whose generosity every day is reborn. By Whose generosity, each and every day is refreshed.” Hame’ir la’aretz v’ladarim aleha, hamechadesh b’tuvo bchol yom tamid. Every time we wake up in the morning, God gives us an opportunity to recreate ourselves and the rest of world around us and try kick the sugar out of option B. That’s step two of our resilience training, embracing option B.

Step 3 of resiliance is: Walk forward courageously together. Franklin Roosevelt once wrote, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” Yes, we still may be anxious when it rains, and we still may be disappointed with Option B. But moving forward together, and building our resilience for the future, is most important. A truly courageous walk doesn’t have to be pretty. Like Willis Reed limping onto the court for game seven, like the Spirit of 76, the classic American painting of a fife and drum and flag bearer, injured from the war, courage doesn’t have to be pretty. Like our forefather Jacob limping from his night fight with an angel, courage is walking toward resilience even while injured by the trauma. When we walk forward together after a trauma, we’re not walking like we did before; we’re walking a little crooked. We’re walking with a little more depth and experience. We are Yisrael, the people who wrestle and struggle and walk forward together. Perfection isn’t the ideal; we’re after resilience.
Prior to the 15th century, the prevailing Japanese aesthetic was described as lavish perfection. Then came wabi-sabi. According to Japanese legend, a young man named Sen no Rikyu wanted desperately to learn the highly stylized rituals known as the Way of Tea. He went to tea-master Takeeno Joo, who first tested the young man by asking him to tend the garden. Sen no Rikyu cleaned up debris around the garden and then raked the ground until it was perfect. Then, before he walked away, he gazed at the immaculate garden, contemplating with a furrowed brow. Before presenting his work to the master, he shook a cherry tree, and a few flowers spilled randomly onto the ground. The garden was transformed from perfection to imperfection – and wabi-sabi was born.

Wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection. It’s the art of prioritizing authenticity over perfection. In Japan, the concept is now so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult to explain to Westerners; no direct translation exists. But we use it in our taste and style. Normally, if a white bowl breaks, you might glue it back together with white lacquer to disguise the breaks, to try to make it look as perfect as possible. In wabi-sabi, if a white bowl breaks, you might glue it back together with lacquer sprinkled with gold to highlight the cracks and imperfections. Wabi-sabi finds the beauty in imperfections.

When we walk forward courageously, we are walking with all of our imperfections because we carry our trauma with us. And still we walk forward together. It may not be pretty, but then again, we are Houston – not so pretty. We’re not a city that prides itself on its picturesque landscape. We are hard-working. We are determined. We are caring. We are resilient. We pray for ourselves. We pray for North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

Each year as the High Holy Days approached, Reb Chaim of Zanz would tell his students this story: A man once became lost in a forest. The more he wandered, the more he lost his way. After several days in the forest, he saw another person approaching. He was so relieved; he would finally be rescued from the forest. So he asked the other traveler, “Excuse me, I’ve been lost for days. Do you know the way out of the forest?”

The traveler responded, “I am also lost and don’t know the way home. Let us join forces and walk the path together.”

With tears in his eyes, Rabbi Chaim would tell his students: “So it is with us. We, too, have lost our way – and we’re wandering on our life’s journey alone. Let us look for a new path together.”

Ribono Shel Olam, Source of Resilience, heal us now. Help us become more honest with ourselves. Help us embrace the Option B of our lives. Help us to move forward courageously together. And in that way, we will cultivate our resilience and help repair the world in Your image. And together we say: Amen.