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Rosh Hashanah 2020/5781

09/19/2020 04:13:23 PM

Sep19

Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe

"This too, shall pass"

There is a Sephardic custom of a Seder for Rosh Hashanah which includes words that I suspect all of us are prepared to chant: Let the old year end with all its curses! Let the new year begin with all its blessings!

Let the old year end with all its curses! Let the new year begin with all its blessings!

If there was ever a year when those words resonated, it is this one.

 

We need to give voice to some of the specific curses of this past year, and yes, especially the past six months. Every Rosh Hashanah, I think about the members of our Isaiah family who were here the previous year and are not in the new year. Amongst them, this year, I am painfully aware of the physical absence of at least two precious members of our Isaiah family, who died after contracting the coronavirus.

And I grieve along with so many members of our Isaiah family who lost friends and family members to that dread disease. Those losses, in fact, the death of every loved one that has happened these past months has been exacerbated in ways that were previously unimaginable, by not being able to engage in those rituals and practices that we all took for granted… Gathering in person for a funeral, being held, physically, emotionally, and spiritually by friends and family during Shiva, just being able to get a hug from someone who cares when we need it. In many ways, that has been the cruelest part of this whole experience.

 

There are so many things we took for granted that now seem like distant memories from a simpler time… Strolling along the street, and deciding to walk into a store. Going to the movies. Walking around without a mask. Shaking someone’s hand. Sitting in a classroom. Coming to Temple. Riding a bus or train, or getting on an airplane without giving it a second thought. Whoever imagined we would yearn for the day when we would wait in line at the supermarket?

We know that those experiences will return, even if we do not know when.

There is a story that speaks to this reality. The two main characters, King Solomon and Benaiah Ben Yehoyada both appear in the Hebrew Bible, and while this story does not, the wisdom it imparts through three simple Hebrew words, four in English translation, has become part of the canon of Jewish life and literature.

According to the story, Solomon sent Benaiah on an impossible mission: He said to him, “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. “If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied Benaiah, “I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”

“It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.” According to the story, Solomon never expected Benaiah to succeed, but lo and behold, after some time, he came back with the ring that had those words inscribed: Gam zeh ya'avor. This, too, shall pass.

Gam zeh ya'avor. This, too, shall pass.

Almost any other year, if I chose to tell that story, I would be emphasizing the fleeting nature of all human experience and human emotion, including the joyful and celebratory. I would be reminding us to repeat that phrase at times when we find ourselves flying so high that if we are not careful we might crash. I would be reminding us to relish the beautiful joyous moments that we have, because they are fleeting. I would be reminding us that life is ever-changing, and how appreciating its dynamism helps us live more fully.

But of course, this is not any other year. So this year, I tell that story mostly to remind us all of the truth that we know but needs to be articulated over and over: Gam zeh ya'avor. This, too, shall pass.

Until it does, we are going to live in a time that was previously unimaginable. But living we are, and live we must.

Living right now is, well, different, to state the obvious. And while I do not want to minimize for a moment the challenges all of us face, and some of us more than others, I hope that we can maintain a bit of perspective. The losses that some of us have had are incalculable. The illness that too many of us and our loved ones experienced were debilitating and devastating. Some of us will never be quite the same. And yet… We are here. And that, in and of itself, is a blessing.

And we have blessings to count. As far as I am aware, every one of us gathered today has a roof over our heads and food on our tables. And if anyone is challenged in those regards, please be in touch with me, Rabbi Maimin or Cantor Doob immediately.  And not only does the technology exist that allows so many of us to work remotely, those of us who do have the devices we need, and in most cases, even households with school-age children have enough computers and other devices for the remote learning that continues for many.  It is easy to forget how many do not have what we all have.

To be sure, it is not all rosy: Some have lost jobs, and too many others know that their employment is precarious. Certain business owners in particular have taken big financial hits. As Rabbi Maimin reminded us last night, there is tremendous social isolation, and it will only get worse as we move into colder weather. And I am especially mindful of every member of our Isaiah family who lives alone, for whom these past months have been particularly difficult, and how difficult the months ahead are likely to be.

 

At the same time, I am humbled and gratified by the generosity of spirit of this community. Back in March, we put out a call for those who would make themselves available to respond to the needs of other members of our Isaiah family, whether it be grocery shopping, picking up a prescription, even bringing someone to a medical appointment (with masks in place, of course). We simultaneously invited members of the congregation to let us know what needs they have with which others can help. The response has been overwhelming… And the biggest problem we have is the dozens and dozens of volunteers who want to help and have not been called upon because there has not been enough of a request for their assistance!

And blessings abound in other ways. Ironically, and unexpectedly, some have reported how meaningful, surprisingly meaningful, Zoom Shiva, for example, has been…in part by allowing some to participate who would never have been able to join in person. That has even been true for celebrations: just two weeks ago, we celebrated a young man becoming Bar Mitzvah whose great aunt and great uncle were able to join us from Australia without having to spend 24 hours on a plane to do so. That has been the unexpected blessing in this whole experience, made possible by technology that we have also begun to take for granted. I mentioned this in my letter to the congregation that was included in the Rosh Hashanah packages that everyone in our congregation received - one more example of the blessing that is our Temple Isaiah family - but think about it: just a few years back, we would not have been able to gather even as we do now to celebrate the holidays. And that, of course, is true for our ability to stay connected in so many ways. It is a challenging time, to be sure, a frightening time. It is a time of disorientation and upheaval, and much that we knew before and took for granted will no longer be.

And…This too, shall pass.

And when it does, the world in which we live will look and be at least somewhat different. But until it does, most of us are in a surprisingly comfortable reality. It is by no means a reality we would have chosen, but relative to the dark periods of human history that even some who are part of this gathering right now have experienced, relative to the day-to-day existence of the 2 billion people in this world who do not even have regular access to safe, nutritious, insufficient food, and relative to the deprivations of so many others, our challenge just does not feel as great. Perhaps you have seen the slogan directed at a certain age demographic, reminding them that this is not quite as challenging a time as some might think: “Our grandparents were called to war. You are being called to sit on your couch. We can do this.”

We can all do this. But the truth is, it is still pretty traumatic, and we ought not minimize it, either. It will pass. But once it does, and we do come out of it, how we emerge will depend to a great extent on how we approach this time and the time still to come.

A few minutes ago, we read what may be the most trauma inducing story in Jewish tradition. Perhaps you have wondered, as I have, who was more traumatized, Abraham, who tied up his beloved son, took a knife to his neck, and was prepared to offer him up as a sacrifice, or Isaac, who had all that done to him. Maybe that cannot be quantified. But what we know about each of their lives after this event is instructive and illuminating.

Abraham went home, and the next thing we read is that Sarah died. Our rabbis suggest that it was related to the previous story… That she had a heart attack, or perhaps fell off the roof when she heard that Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac. The Torah text itself is silent about that. But it does tell us that Abraham purchased a choice burial cave for his beloved Sarah, and then got down to other business. He sent his servant back to his ancestral homeland to bring home a wife for Isaac, who succeeded in doing so. And then, at the age of at least 137, we read that he took another wife, with whom he had six more sons (the rabbis suggest, a daughter as well), and that he eventually died at the age of 175, having been blessed, the Torah tells us, “in everything.“

It sure sounds as if he overcame his trauma.

Isaac… Well, we do not hear as much about Isaac. In fact, we never hear from him, in his own voice again until after Abraham is dead, and even then, we do not hear very much. He married Rebecca, the woman that his father servant brought back for him. Apparently, he made some kind of life. But there is not a shred of dialogue between him and his father following the story of his binding and preparation to be sacrificed. And frankly, he is an almost comically passive character.  He never spoke of what happened up on Mount Moriah, perhaps because he wanted to forget it, or perhaps because he did not need to do so. After the Akedah, he married, had children, and built a life for himself. He even reconciled with his estranged brother, Ishmael, at their father’s burial which they completed together. He quietly went on with his life, and in the context of the narrative found in the Torah, he is little more than a transitional figure between his father, Abraham, and his son, Jacob. He is an entirely passive figure throughout the narrative… The little bit of agency he displays is only in reaction to others: his father, his wife, his sons. Even though Isaac does not appear to go through a meaningful transformation, the fact that he made it through and was able to play the role he did insured our existence. Without Isaac, without his marrying, and he and Rebecca being the parents of Jacob, we would not be gathering today as we are, and there would be no such thing as the Jewish people.

Isaac was sufficiently resilient to keep going and become a central figure in our people’s history, but it just does not seem that he recovered from the trauma quite as well as his father did.

It turns out that there is a relatively recent psychological theory that may help us understand this dynamic.

We are all familiar with the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder. But I doubt that many beyond the psychologists and psychiatrists in our midst are aware of the theory of post-traumatic growth, PTG.  It was developed by two psychologists in the mid-90s, and holds that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward. Dr. Richard Tedeschi, one of the theorists behind it, says that  through post-traumatic growth, "People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life."

In other words… While unwanted, traumatic events can inspire meaningful growth.

Now, post-traumatic growth does not just happen. It takes real work, typically guided by a trained professional. But the message of PTG is the message of these high holidays:

We can grow. We can develop new understandings of ourselves, the world we live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future we might have, and a better understanding of how to live life.

That is especially true this year. We have been given an opportunity to grow this year like few others.

Now, it is worth noting that those who study PTG indicate that ironically, those of us who are more resilient, as perhaps Isaac was, will not experience as much growth, because we will not have experienced the kind of world-rocking upheaval that inspires reconsideration and examination of our belief systems. And that is not a bad thing. It is enough to survive trauma and still be able to function.

As for Abraham, he is a model of constant growth, in part as a result of his response to a series of challenges throughout his life. According to rabbinic tradition, Abraham was tested by God 10 times, the first when he was called to leave his homeland, the last, the Akedah. He continued to grow and take hold of his choices and his life, vigorously shaping his own future, even after the Akedah, even after the death of his beloved Sarah. 

The rabbis have an interesting take on the notion that, in his later years, as the Torah says, “God had blessed Abraham in everything.” In the midrash, Rabbi Levi gives three interpretations of this verse:  

‘Everything’–he ruled over his desires.

‘Everything’–that Ishmael achieved reconciliation with him in his [Abraham’s] lifetime.

‘Everything’-that his storehouse never lacked for anything.

And R. Levi further said in the name of R. Hama: It means that God did not test him again.” (Genesis Rabbah 59:7)

What made these experiences blessings is that they were all spiritual values or goals. That is what a blessing is. We do not feel blessed by things we do not value.

 

The first way that Abraham was blessed, Rabbi Levi is telling us, was by gaining a deep self-knowledge and discipline, and coming through life’s challenges with a sense of peace, a sense that the “tests” he endured were not so dramatic anymore.

For most of us, the test that we are enduring through this time is not, thankfully, so significant that we are likely to come away with an entirely new outlook on life. And frankly, for many of us, just getting through relatively unscathed will be enough. To borrow a phrase from Passover, dayeinu. Let us just make it to the other side. Let us be more like Isaac.  But to the extent that we are capable, as most of us are, of emerging from this time with new understandings of ourselves, the world we live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future we might have and a better understanding of how to live life, we will, to varying degrees, be able to draw blessing from this unwanted and uninvited experience - we might, as was Abraham, be capable of post-traumatic growth. In fact…while few of us will experience the kind of growth that Abraham did, because only a very few of us are experiencing that deep a trauma, even fewer of us will be unchanged, as there is enough challenge and yes, trauma to inspire growth. For most of us, how much we will have grown through this time once the page turns and we are in a new chapter will depend in largest measure on how we choose to come through this time… Whether we are simply waiting for it to end, or if we are choosing to go inside ourselves and use this opportunity to have a better understanding of how to live our lives.

That is, of course, the message of Rosh Hashanah every year. Only this year, the field has been cleared and prepared for us in ways it has never been in our lifetimes. And while it is true every year, it is especially true this year, that Rosh Hashanah provides us with the call, and the opportunity, to know, to have, and to be blessing.

Gam zeh yaavor. This too, shall pass. And when it does, may it find us having not only endured this time, but having grown from it in ways that we might never have chosen or imagined, and so, having taken from it true blessing.

Indeed, I pray for all of us:

“May this new year be one that brings us blessings of the kind that we could never have imagined that we so desperately need.”

And may the challenges of this past year make us more compassionate, more appreciative, and more loving in the new year. May our days of virtual experiences come to an end soon. And may we all be blessed with happiness and health.

Let the old year end with all its curses! Let the new year begin with all its blessings!

And if you are so inclined, I invite you to say,

Amen.

Sun, October 24 2021 18 Cheshvan 5782