I recently read an article by Rabbi Dr. Daniel Gordis, entitled, “How America’s Idealism Drained its Jews of their Resilience.” The message of this article truly resonated with me specifically at this time, and hopefully his message will resonate with all of us. Rabbi Dr. Gordis argued that in both Israel and in religious communities outside of Israel, we don’t sugarcoat what it means to be a Jew. Traditional Jews don’t only observe festive holidays, but we also observe Tisha B’Av, Shiva Asar B’Tammuz and other days which commemorate historical tragedies. Even our Tachanun prayer contains heartfelt supplications to God that reflect our anguish: “Al tit’shenu b’yad oyvenu limchot et shmenu – do not abandon us into the hand of our enemies to blot out our name.” Additionally, Israelis who are constantly surrounded by enemies who want to destroy them understand that their Judaism is not only a source of joy, but it can be source of pain and sorrow. Especially for those who have been killed or wounded in defense of the state of Israel, and for their family members, the sacrifice the sacrifice that comes with being a Jew is very real and present.
The point that Rabbi Dr. Gordis was making in this article is that in this brand of Judaism, the experience is not entirely rosy one hundred percent of the time. And in fact, this honest and nuanced reality paints a more complex and a more realistic picture of the human experience. As such, this experience of Judaism builds resilience. When we experience tragedy or suffering, our mourning does not give way to despair or withdrawal. We understand that tragedy and suffering are part of the human condition, and armed with that understanding, we are able to rise to the occasion and find a path to move forward after even unimaginable challenges.
Rabbi Dr. Gordis contrasted this approach to liberal American Jewish movements. These movements avoid engagement with Jewish sadness. They emphasize the joyous aspects of Judaism in their ritual, and are reluctant to address the pain that comes with them. Additionally, these Americans have not made the personal sacrifices of war that Israelis have made in defense of the Jewish state. According to Rabbi Dr. Gordis, the liberal American approach to Judaism is a very optimistic approach; however, there is a steep price to pay and that price is the lack of resilience when tragedy strikes.
He compared two responses to relatively recent tragedies. Less than a year ago, a man attacked the Monsey home of a Chassidic Rebbe, resulting in one death and a number of injuries. Almost immediately after the attack, the rabbi reconvened with his followers in the synagogue next door. In contrast, Rabbi Dr. Gordis notes that after Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life massacre two years ago, the synagogue has opted not to reopen until the building can be remodeled so that re-entering it won’t remind the worshippers of the horrific massacre.
In practice, my own sense is that this is a fine line, and one we must walk carefully. Who is to say in each particular circumstance, how long is the appropriate amount of time to mourn before we turn to the task of rebuilding? Certainly, any such decisions must be made with sensitivity to the community and individuals who have been afflicted. I am not that confident that I personally would offer this contrast between these two circumstances in the way that Rabbi Dr. Gordis did. And yet we can note that our traditional response is to rebuild, almost immediately. We understand that we must mourn, but we also understand that we must rebuild.
Isn’t that the miracle of Chanukah? After defeating the Greeks, before knowing whether we would have enough oil, we relit the menorah as soon as possible. This is what we traditional Jews do. Reflection on our sad past and how we immediately tried to rebuild when given the chance, provides us with the strength to rebuild in the present.
Recently, I quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, who made a similar point, when he wrote: “That is what the Jewish people did collectively when, a mere three years after standing eyeball-to-eyeball with the angel of death at Auschwitz, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the Jewish State in our people’s ancient homeland, the land of Israel. Had world Jewry sat passively and wept from then till now for the murdered generations of European Jewry, it would have been an understandable reaction. But it did not. It was as if the Jewish people had said collectively, in the words of King David, “I will not die but live” (Ps. 118:17), thereby giving testimony to the God of life. That is why the West’s oldest nation is still young, a world leader in life-saving medicine, disaster relief, and life-enhancing technology.
This is a transformative idea. To survive tragedy and trauma, first build the future. Only then, remember the past.”
I think we need to keep this in mind in our present response to COVID. Our community along with many other communities have struggled with the seemingly unending nature of this pandemic, notwithstanding the fact that we have received the good news that a vaccine is on the horizon. Many of us have had our moments during this pandemic, moments of extreme fear, frustration or anxiety. Some of us are gripped with fear over leaving our homes, going into public places even when there is masking and social distancing. Some of us are increasingly frustrated with the threat of future closings that will disrupt some of the normalcy that we have managed to achieve. We should not be judgmental of others because we have never experienced anything like this in our lifetimes and many of us are just trying to get by. At the same time, these are the moments when we must turn to God, look inward, focus on our faith, to help us get through these difficult times. It is no coincidence that the Ramban holds that the only time that prayer is a Torah obligation is in times of crisis. It is as if the Torah is telling us that prayer was tailor-made for this very moment.
We have been trained by God and by His Torah to exhibit resilience. In our daily prayers and in our rituals, we remember not just the happy moments in our history, but also the sad moments. We remember how we suffered, but we also remember how we rebuilt after the suffering. That is what we did then and that is what we will do now. It is this faith that can keep us strong at this time as we wait for the ultimate redemption from all that currently ails us. It is times like these that I am grateful to have been given a Divine guidebook that has taught us not just how to rejoice and express gratitude when things are good, but also how to mourn and then rebuild in the face of challenges like those we face today.