Sign In Forgot Password

Hard to be a Jew

Rabbi Richard Plavin

Our ancestors in the old country used to say “Tzver su zein a Yid – it is difficult to be a Jew.” Today, I think we can say: “Tzver su zein a Mentsch – it is hard to be a human being.” It makes no difference whether you are a Jew or a Mormon or an Episcopalian or a Buddhist – life is tough. Our ancestors had hardships we no longer face, but we have our own up-dated, latest model problems and these are significant challenges for us all.

Fifty years ago terrorism was not a big concern. Today, it is a constant threat. In the Cold War era, we had the absurd security of “mad” M.A.D. “Mutually Assured Destruction.” We assumed our enemies did not want to die just as we didn’t. Today we face an enemy whose burning hatred of our way of life is greater than his fear of death. Is there anything we can do to prepare for the possibility of some fanatic Jihadist bringing a dirty bomb into our community?

We all know that things have changed radically in terms of our work lives. Years ago a person prepared for a career, worked at it for many decades, and retired with the knowledge that he could count on a pension and a rock-solid Social Security system. Today, the sociologists tell us our young people switch careers on average every seven years. They had better not depend upon Social Security for their retirement. Today’s retirees see their retirement funds drop like a roller coaster every time the government publishes unemployment or gross national debt figures.

And those unemployment statistics are not just numbers; they are people we all know. They are people, young and old, who don’t have work after years of loyalty to a company or following years of earning advanced degrees. The pain this causes them, the despair that grows out of months of not going to work, and the ripple effect it has on our entire economy, is something most of us have never seen before. What makes matters worse is that our elected officials appear to be at a total loss. We seem to have a gridlock in Washington with a government apparently unwilling or unable to do anything to relieve the economic crisis we all face.

As Jews, we tremble for Israel as well. A nuclear Iran ruled by maniacs and located not nearly far enough away is utterly terrifying. That same Iran has franchise units called Hamas and Hezbollah on Israel’s southern and northern borders. Between them, they have the missile capability of hitting any city or village in all of Israel. What a frightening thought. If that is not enough to make sleep utterly impossible, Israel is the only country in the world that has to justify its very existence. The other day I Googled “BDS,” the acronym for boycotts, divestment and sanctions. The webpage that came up first was entitled “BDS: the movement for freedom, justice and equality.” It was chilling. Who sees that as justice or freedom? The people who are holding Gilad Shalit in captivity for over five years? Those who would direct an anti-tank missile at a school bus? With issues like these inin our hearts, the question is how do we move forward? How do we have the courage to get up in the morning and face another day? How do we resist crippling despair? Rav Nachman of Bratslav said, “Yiddin, Jews, it is forbidden to despair – asur l’hitya-esh.” Easier said then done, Rabbi. I wish Rav Nachman were still with us so we could ask him how he suggests we fulfill this imperative. No doubt his answer would be that we must retain faith in God. “Yisrael b’tach baShem – A Jew trusts in God.”

For many generations that was an adequate answer for most people. And for some Jews today, it still is. I have to admit that I envy those people. I saw many such people this summer in Israel. On the bus, they would sit with a book of Psalms in hand, fervently reading the words. With God in their heart and the words of the Psalmist on their lips, they can face what life might bring. The crucial point is they were not alone. The Psalmist says that Psalm 23, “Lo ira rah kee-atah emadee.” “I fear no evil for Thou art with me.” We express the same idea in the last line of Adon Olam, “Adonai li lo ira,” “God is with me; I will not fear.” Feeling God’s nearness can be a tremendous source of strength. But what can you do when that just isn’t enough? Let me share other thoughts on this dilemma.

It is important to know that we are not alone in our despair. I have often been asked why a minyan is needed for the Kaddish prayer. Mourners have asked if they can say Kaddish in the privacy of their own home; that sometimes coming to the synagogue is inconvenient or just impossible. One might think that those hallowed words can be just between yourself and God?

From my perspective the rabbis were very wise in mandating a minyan for the recitation of Kaddish. They wanted us to recognize that we are not alone in our suffering. If you would say those same words at home you would surely be standing before God, but in relation to community, you would be by yourself. When you stand up in a minyan to say Kaddish, you see that you are not the only one standing. There are other mourners and that helps you recognize that facing the death of a loved one is part of life. It is something everyone has to do. Only those who die very young avoid that trauma. Kaddish builds community, but it also gives you the courage that comes from being surrounded by that community.

Indeed, the presence of community can be one of the most significant bulwarks we have to deal with our sadness. When people are sitting Shiva, I often introduced the service with a reading by Rabbi Morris Adler, may he rest in peace. It is a wonderful essay many of you have unfortunately had to hear too often. One particular line stands out for me: “No Jew stands alone in bereavement; an entire people closes ranks and encircles its stricken member with the warmth of supportive sympathy.”

Friends, I want you to know that Beth Sholom B’nai Israel is a community support system. I hear that time and again from for many people, and; perhaps it can be that for you as well. Come out to services, especially on Shabbat, be it Saturday morning or Friday night, and join us in prayer of equal importance, join us in fellowship. Even if prayer is not your source of strength, our community can be. To quote our president who was quoting Harry Golden in a recent bulletin article, if you don’t come to talk to God, come at least to talk to Goldstein.

This past year has been a rough one, for us and for the entire world. For some, it has been excruciatingly difficult. They have lost parents or life partners, or lost their source of income, or they received a dreaded medical diagnosis and know they face a very difficult future, be it as a patient or a caretaker. Some have lost love relationships in their life, and now must face the future alone.

A colleague of mine, Rabbi David Green spoon in Baltimore, wrote recently on the subject of resilience, of being able to survive difficult hardships. According to him He maintains that resilience is a character trait we can learn. It is not just a matter of having the Resilience is not merely a God given gift that you either possess or do not; when you need it, you can develop it. it is a trait that you can develop when you need it. Clearly, this would be a good time to do that.

The first component of resilience that Rabbi Greenspoon identified of these is having connections, exactly what I was just speaking about –the importance of what I called knowing that you are not alone. Our deepest, most significant connections remind us of that, and help us gather strength. The more support we have, the more courageous we can be and the more likely we will be not to give up in the face of hardship. You know that the Unetaneh Tokef prayer tells us that one of the ways we can mitigate the harsh decree is prayer. Perhaps we can give that a new twist by suggesting what it means is that coming to Shul is good idea can give us comfort because you we meet others and build a circle of support.

Another important tool in our quest for healing is directing our focus appropriately. We must be able to consciously look at our situation in life, to break it into bite-sized pieces and set reasonable goals. What may seem at first to be insurmountable can be reframed as a workable problem. We cannot stop crises from entering our life, but we can reframe a crisis, and set realistic goals to deal with the problem at hand. These can be simple acts but they are no less significant because of their simplicity. Very often, just putting one foot in front of the other, just moving forward in whatever small steps we can take, can make a huge difference, and each small success will give us encouragement to more on to the next.

While it is undeniable that we all have problems to face, it is also true that we all have strengths, specific talents that we can apply to life’s challenges. We can move from victim to survivor by changing our focus from our weaknesses to our strengths. Let me give you an example: I think about my mother-in-law, aleha hashalom. Her disabilities made it impossible for her to get out of the house, or often even her bedroom, without significant help. But it did not keep her from using the telephone. She spent hours reaching out to others. Never mentioning her problems, she inquired about theirs and offered advice and support. She set an example from which we could all learn. So what is it we that you do well and could apply to the situation at hand? Some people might be able toPerhaps you can network to find help, or draw on their your creativity to move in a new direction. I often tell people that very often the best way to help yourself is to help others. When you reach out to other people with hardships and you give them whatever support you can. I promise you that you will feel your own load lighten, you feel much better about yourself. I think about my mother-in-law, aleha hashalom. Her disabilities made it impossible for her to get out of the house, or even her bedroom, without significant help. But it did keep her from using the telephone. She spent hours reaching out to others. Never mentioning her problems, she inquired about theirs and offered advice and support. She set an example.

It is important for us to recognize that sustainable change in our quest for resiliency will occur incrementally. Just as building our muscles comes in incremental steps through hours of exercise in the gym, similarly our finding light in the darkness will not happen in one fell swoop. Just as those who seek to break an addiction must take the process step by step, so it is with building our resiliency.

I firmly believe that working on your sense of gratitude will build your ability to face hardship. Take a few minutes each day to reflect on what you already have in life for which you can give thanks. Our prayer book can be a great resource. It will point out gifts you never focused on, like getting up in the morning, or having enough food for breakfast. Thanking God for the rising sun, or for dusk at the end of the day, can add a measure of spiritual awareness to your life. I love the line I say in my prayers every morning: “Kol zman sh’ha’neshama b’kirbi, modeh ani. – Every moment that my soul is within me, I give thanks.” Again, that is why the Unetaneh Tokef says that prayer can soften the severity of the decree. Awareness of your blessings can strengthen your ability to endure when hardship comes your way.

We are all going to have some elements of “evil decree” in our lives. I love the point Rabbi Harold Kushner makes about a line in Psalm 23. “Yea, when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” The text does not say, “if” you through that valley; it says “when.” Because we all will. Life isn’t fair, sometimes it isn’t fun, and often it is downright tough. But we can be tough too. When we walk through the shadow, I hope we can feel God’s presence with us. I hope we can gain strength from loved ones and community, and we can take courage from knowing the remarkable stock from which we come. I hope we can build resilience by focusing on our gifts and slowly but surely finding our way again to the light.

I conclude with a Hasidic tale. The Baal Shem Tov once asked a water-carrier, “Yankel, how are you today?” “Oy, Rebbe,” Yankel sighed, “I am old and my shoulders are weak. The children are busy studying Torah but not one thinks of me. My wife is old and sick. My sons-in-law spend so much time studying that I have to do all the work. I am depressed by all my woes.”

The next day the Baal Shem called to Yankel: “And how do you feel today?” Yankel chuckled and said: “Rebbe, you know, I’m a lucky man. I have five children and sons-in-law who study Torah. My wife, an Eshesh Chayil, a valorous woman, keeps the house clean even though she’s old and sick. And come to think of it, all this is borne on these old shoulders. Yes, Rebbe, I’m a lucky man, thank God.”

The Baal Shem commented to his students who had watched both conversations: “Not a single thing had changed. But today Yankel received more of God’s compassion.”
This New Year, may we all receive more of God’s compassion. May God’s graciousness shine upon us, and may we be blessed with peace. AMEN.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782