Despite my cheery disposition and my propensity for punning and laughter, it might come as a surprise to many of you that I’m actually a big crier.
- I cry when I watch TV shows like Biggest Loser or Extreme Home Makeover.
- I cry when certain songs or music videos come up on the radio or the computer.
- And, much to Shayna’s chagrin, I cry during movies.
Once, while aboard an American Airlines flight, Shayna looked up from her book and asked:
“Michael, are you crying?”
“No.” I said, trying to hold back the tears.
“It’s okay if you’re crying.”
Given permission, I let the tears stream down my face and explained, “It’s just that Woody was so brave.”
The movie was Toy Story 3.
And I cry a lot at my synagogue, at Temple Emunah.
I cry at kiddush when I talk to my friends about what it is like to lose a parent.
I cry when I meet with widows and we talk about their beloved spouses.
I cry when I speak to not-yet-parents who struggle with infertility.
I cry at nearly every funeral at Beit Olam East, after everyone has left, when I check in with so many of our departed friends.
Because of my job, I am privy to some of the most difficult and sad moments in people’s lives.
And when I am in those moments, I can’t help but internalize some of that pain, some of that loss, and so I cry.
Those intense moments make me think about my own life.
To dwell on my mortality, to reflect on the different chapters of my life’s journey.
To remember when I felt a similar sadness.
And yet, when I come home to Shayna, Nadav, and Eliana, I have to put all those feelings aside.
I don’t want to –I can’t — bring them into the house.
So almost in an instant:
Pain turns to joy.
Sounds of sadness are replaced with outbursts of laughter.
And the soundtrack of my life transitions from a slow-paced requiem to a fast-paced song accompanied by joyous dancing and giggling.
Even if you are not a rabbi or in a helping profession, it is easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of despair at the state of our world.
You simply turn on the news, or listen to political candidates, and they will convince you that the world is a terrible place.
- There are thieves and murderers lurking everywhere.
- That no progress has been made towards economic and social equality.
- No one cares about anything other than themselves.
- Sometimes I wonder:
How on earth can we contain such vastly different emotions?
How can we authentically feel so much?
The answer my friends is simple, though not always obvious.
Life is a varied.
Life has ups and downs.
Our world is complex.
And we are complex.
Despite our desire to organize the world into neat little categories and make things black and white, our world is nearly entirely gray.
These Ten Days of Repentance are, in fact, an exercise in learning to embrace the gray, to accept that we are gray.
They are an admission that we live in a complex world and we are complex people.
We have all been patient and short-tempered.
We have all been honest and disingenuous.
We have all been mean and kind.
My friends, it is so easy to become overwhelmed by the negative.
It is so easy to be blind to the blessings and positive aspects of our lives.
Despite the fact that we live, unquestionably, in the wealthiest, healthiest, safest time period in history, it doesn’t always feel that way.
- Worldwide dire poverty is at its lowest levels,
- We are producing more food than ever before,
- And, statistically speaking, our generation is among the most peaceful and least likely to die from war or natural disaster.
Part of the reason for our negativity, some argue, is that being cynical is good for our survival. It makes us perpetually ready to defend ourselves from potential problems. As a result, we are always on the lookout for whatever could go wrong.
But when all you are looking for is problems — that is all you are going to find.
There is a great book by Christopher Chabris and Danil Simon entitled The Invisible Gorilla. The authors demonstrate time and time again that people sometimes miss what is right in front of their eyes because they are focused on other things. For example, in one study, participants were asked to count how many times a basketball team passed the ball among teammates. Asked to focus on the passes, most viewers didn’t notice that halfway through the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks in between the players of the game, beats his chest, and then walks off camera. Why? They were preoccupied looking at other stuff.
The first step in feeling positive about the world is to make an effort to see the positive in the world.
In other words, you have to fight the urge to despair, in order to not be overcome by it.
To quote my parents, whose wisdom and sage advice becomes clearer as I get older, hay que reir para no llorar. We have to laugh. So we don’t cry.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the benefits of being positive include:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression
- Lower levels of distress
- Cultivating greater resistance to the common cold
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
Perhaps aware of the benefits of focusing on the positive, many sources in our tradition espouse a similar focus on being positive.
The great Hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, teaches, mitzvah gedolah lehyit bsimhah tamid — It is a mitzvah to be happy all the time.
King David in the book of Psalms writes: Ivdu et Hashem b’simhah — worship God with joy.
And regarding Sukkot, the Torah instructs us: V’hayita Ah Sameah — and you shall be nothing but joyous on the holiday.
We are commanded to be joyous, and happy, and positive.
Morning prayer is helpful in this mandate.
The final blessing before the Amidah, known as redemption blessings, asks that we relive our liberation from Egypt. And so I say to myself every day: if our ancestors were able to move beyond the shackles and servitude in Egypt and make their way to the Promised Land, then I too can overcome my challenges.
And then, I insert my own prayer, if people I personally know were able to overcome the horrors of the Shoah, the Holocaust, start a family, and help build the modern State of Israel, then I definitely can tackle whatever comes my way.
And yet, despite my desire to see the positive, despite my siddur, my prayerbook, helping me to see that I can overcome adversity, it is sometimes difficult to hold this worldview.
There are times when I can’t make myself feel joyous.
There are times that I feel a pain so deeply, that I need to cry.
And that’s okay.
In fact, it’s good.
Some scientists believe that crying sets off a chain of chemical reactions to help flush out other hormones and chemicals in our bodies. Others think that crying is a subtle signal to others that you need help, love, care.
For me, I think we cry because we have tapped into something so powerful, so pure, that rational words won’t do.
Crying is the language of debilitating sadness.
Crying is the code for expressing to others, to complete strangers, the totality of your experience.
Crying is universal.
Because people understand what it means to be moved to tears.
In the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read about Hagar’s crying out. Hagar, exiled from her home, resigned to the death of her child, cries out to God, for salvation. Those tears shed by Hagar are the tears that generations of mothers and fathers have cried on behalf of their children. They are the same tears that Shayna and I cried in the ICU, and they are the tears that tens of thousands of refugee parents shed as they contemplate their children’s future as they struggle to find what to eat and where to live. Her tears are our tears.
And on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. A moment where a father nearly sacrifices his son. A moment after which neither father nor son speak again. A moment after which time is demarcated before and after that moment.
The Torah picks up on an interesting detail in the life of Isaac. Chapter 27 states:
וַיְהִי כִּי-זָקֵן יִצְחָק, וַתִּכְהֶיןָ עֵינָיו מֵרְאֹת
And it came to pass when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dimmed from seeing.
Why were they dim? Explains one commentary, they were dim from the tears shed while Isaac was on the altar. Those are the same tears we shed when we are wronged by another. They are the tears shed from strained relationships. The same tears when we’ve been betrayed. His tears are our tears.
And yet Hagar and her child, Ishmael, survive. They became a great and mighty nation. Hagar wipes her tears and continues on with her life.
Isaac too, survives. He goes on to marry Rebekah, start a family, and serve as the next link in the history of the Jewish people.
They move forward.
In this mission to remain positive, I want to acknowledge that there are certain situations when grief is deep and time is a key component in the healing. And I also want to acknowledge that there are instances when a positive disposition is not enough.
- Postpartum depression
- Losing a job
- And, of course, losing a loved one
Counseling, medication, and supervision are critical to remedy a difficult situation. Members of the clergy — here, Rabbi Lerner and I — are available should you find yourself in such a situation.
Before I close, I’d like to share with you the power of positive thinking and the importance of seeing the good. I’d like to share with you stories of two inspirational people. Former F1 motorsports superstar, Alex Zanardi, and my father-in-law, Kenny Hersh.
And although these two individuals contain a passion for life that is inspiring, one must acknowledge that they are made even stronger by their loving families and their communities. I particularly want to recognize my mother-in-law, Leah Hersh. For it is through her unwavering dedication and unending love that Kenny is able to continue being the person he always was.
For those who don’t know, Alex Zanardi was an incredible Formula 1 and CART racing superstar. Those are the race cars with the open wheels that race at tracks like the Indianapolis 500. Zanardi quickly became an elite driver winning racing championships in 1997 and 1998.
All that changed in 2001 when he was involved in a horrific crash during a race in Germany. Another driver, traveling over 200 miles per hour collided with the somewhat stalled Zanardi. His car was instantly ripped in half, he lost over 50% of the blood flowing through his body. His legs were separated and obliterated from his body. Fearing the worst, he was given final rites by a local priest.
After a week in a coma, after 40 days in the hospital, and after undergoing 15 surgeries, Alex was discharged from the hospital and began physical therapy. Within three months, he began walking. Soon thereafter, he was once again cooking for his family, sailing their boat, and returning to a new normal life.
However, with racing programmed into his blood, Alex began training for non-motor sports competitions.
In 2007, he completed the New York Marathon; in 2012, he earned a gold medal in the London Paralympics; and in 2014, he completed an Ironman, which combines a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride (using his hand cycle), and a 26.2 mile run using his racing wheelchair.
A few weeks ago, almost 15 years to the day of his accident, he joined thousands of others affected with physical and mental disabilities in the Rio Paralympics and won another gold medal.
He said: “The perfect life is the combination of great moments and bad ones, and under that point of view, my life is fantastic, because I’ve certainly hit more than one bump….Once you put everything in the right perspective, even bad times can be an opportunity to refresh your appetite, your desire….What would we all be without a project? Whether the project is something that you decide to look for or something that destiny imposed on you — like me after my accident — there’s no difference. Because after so many years have passed, look at all the things I’ve done, all of which are more or less directly related to my condition. I’m comfortable in my life. I know that I’m a lucky boy. Losing my legs was one of the greatest opportunities of my life. I feel very lucky, I feel my life is a never-ending privilege.”
The second vignette comes from a slightly less known, but equally inspirational person. I’d like to talk a little bit about my father-in-law, Kenny Hersh.
As a child growing up in New Jersey and, later in life, in Providence, Kenny was someone who took full advantage of every day.
He trained and ran 5Ks, was the first one on the dance floor at a simhah, played clarinet in a klezmer band, could manually mix paints at work to match any color, and volunteered at his shul.
He was an incredible father, a loving husband to his wife Leah, and for better or worse, a Yankees fan. After working as a high school guidance counselor for a few years, Kenny eventually joined Leah’s family business, American Wallpaper in Fall River, MA.
After a series of inexplicable falls and some problems with his coordination, Kenny visited medical experts in Providence and Boston. Through a series of tests, Kenny was diagnosed with Primary Lateral Sclerosis, PLS. A degenerative neurological condition that weakens voluntary muscles. Although relieved to finally have a diagnosis, the condition would mean increasing difficulty with basic tasks like walking, eating, and speaking.
That was more than 10 years ago.
And yet, despite the challenges,
Despite the muscle stiffness,
Despite the difficulty speaking,
Despite the mobility issues,
Despite the fact that he often communicates through his iPad,
Despite the slips and falls on to icy sidewalks,
Despite that nearly everything takes longer and can be more frustrating,
Kenny continues to be an unstoppable and unignorable presence in our family.
Whether you just met Kenny or you’ve known him all your life, it takes only a few minutes and a few keystrokes to appreciate Kenny’s charm, his humor, his kindness, his compassion, and his intelligence.
Kenny continues to go to the gym, using the stair climber to reach the top of a 110-story building every week. Kenny continues to, despite all logic, drive and put in a day’s work at the family business. Kenny continues to be a comedic force at family meals, Kenny continues to be a an ezer knegdo, a perfect partner to his wife Leah, a wise and loving parent to his six children and children-in-law, and perhaps most importantly, the most playful and treat-giving saba to his eight grandchildren.
Rather than wallow in his sadness, Kenny makes the most out of every day, with a spirit and a love of life that is enviable.
I recently asked Kenny, if he ever got frustrated.
“Of course! There are things I miss, but the thing that I find most frustrating is the inability to speak. I love to talk and that is frustrating. I would trade off being in a wheelchair to be able to speak freely again. It is especially hard dealing with my wonderful grandchildren. I would love to be able to read to Nadav and Eliana in English, Spanish, or Hebrew. What joy I miss in not being able to sing with them and talk with them. What a pleasure it would be to walk with them on the beach and swim with them; to run with them, to fly a kite with them and crawl on the floor with them.
As I have seen with Micah, [his 8-year-old grandchild], once he was able to read, our relationship really grew as we were able to laugh together and have a “conversation.”
I look forward to the day when I can do that with all my grandchildren.
I think that there are choices when put in a situation like this: crawl under the covers and hibernate or try to work around the challenges and move forward and enjoy an exciting life. I choose the latter.
I don’t want a pity party, but just the realization that I am still the same person I always was, but with a disability.
I have so much to be thankful for and get inner strength from my wife, children, and grandchildren. They make me want to push the envelope to be an important part of their lives. Our friends and community in Providence and around the country give me support and make me feel included as an intelligent and mindful part of their lives.
And of course, having fun and being able to laugh makes this ride much easier.”
My friends, I do not deny that there are problems in the world. I do not deny that there are times when we feel that we have insurmountable challenges. And I do not deny that at times we have to embrace that sadness.
But in 5777, I implore you to also look for the positive in the world. Just by the virtue of where and when we live we are blessed with so much.
It is okay to not be burdened by sorrow all the time.
It is okay to focus on the positive.
Not because we need to ignore the negative. Adarabah, to the contrary, because it is only by recognizing the good that we can tackle the bad.
It is only by crying that we can feel the joy more deeply.
It is only by rejoicing, that we can be there to understand someone’s sorrow more deeply.
Let us cry together.
Let us rejoice together.
Let us feel the full spectrum of human emotion in the new year.