Elchanan Poupko

Finding Strength and Friendship In Adversity

Illustrative: artists and Holocaust survivors who participated in 'Paskol Shlishi,' an album of Holocaust-inspired music organized by Zikaron Basalon and Galgalatz for Holocaust Remembrance Day 2023 (Courtesy Zikaron Basalon)

At all times, love a friend, for he is born a brother for adversity. (Proverbs 17:17)

A man acquires friends with whom to associate, and there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. 

(Proverbs 18:24)

The Need to Find Strength

In the Kübler-Ross “five stages of grief” terminology, what follows the stage of bargaining and denial is the stage of depression. This is the stage where we realize what we had dreaded most has become our new reality. We recognize that we may have to live with—or without—something we never imagined we would. This news can be both shocking and depressing to us at the same time. Like a child who hears that he or she will never again see their beloved mother, tragedy deals us blows we never thought we would have to handle. It’s not that we got a shocking piece of news; we get something that is completely beyond the sphere of our comprehension. Something that was a non-possibility just moments ago suddenly becomes our reality. 

And so, we run the risk of getting depressed and letting go. We want to let go because we don’t think there is anything else we can do. We embrace disaster with acceptance and submission because it seems like the only way we can tackle what seems to be unsurmountable. 

For people of faith, this blow can translate into twofold despair: physical and spiritual despair. The physical despair is the common despair characterized by hopelessness, manifesting in just giving up. The other, less discussed form of despair is the sense of being abandoned by God Himself. After all, if God really loves me and cares for me, how can He allow such a thing to happen to me? 

Spiritual despair can be more debilitating and depressing than material depression, which comes with loss and tragedy. In fact, the more religion means to you, the more likely you are to feel despair. “The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.” (Isaiah 49:14). These can be very isolating feelings that take a toll on us in times we can least afford to pay that toll. 

Feeling that God has abandoned us can result in a turn for the worse for our hope, prayer, engagement, and striving to be better. After all, who needs all of those when we have already accepted and braced for the worst? Why bother trying or hoping when everything seems lost? We become convinced that hope and optimism can only lead to heartbreak and disappointment. The words of the Psalmist echo in our mind in 100 different ways: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? [You are] far from my salvation [and] from the words of my moaning. My God, I call out … and You do not reply” (Psalms 23).

It’s at this point that we need, more than anything else, to find strength. We need something to revive our spirit and hopes. Sustaining who we are and what we believe in is essential. There are several approaches we can take in our pursuit of internal strength in difficult times. Most helpful at this point is finding someone who can be at our side. We will later see strategies for situations in which finding someone to be there with us is a non-possibility. However, our first and foremost priority should be finding someone who can stand by us at our most difficult moments. 


Finding Strength Through Others

Two are better than one…For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow. (Ecclesiastes 4)


King Solomon, in his great wisdom, realized that friendships are needed in times of crisis, not just when everything is going well. Finding strength by connecting with others, especially in times of distress, is essential yet challenging at the same time. On the one hand, adverse times are when we need someone by our side more than ever; on the other hand, times of vulnerability are when we are most reluctant to reach out to others. It is when we need it most that we hesitate to seek the support we need so much.

One does not have to have friends within close proximity in order to reach out for social support and engage with the world at times of crisis. Social media and the internet have made it easier to interact with others who share our circumstances or who can offer empathy and support in times of hardship. I was recently taken aback by the power of company to alleviate pain when visiting cancer patients in a large New York Hospital. People whom I had never met and who had been suffering from life-threatening conditions had their eyes lit up by just a smile. The simple question of “How are you” changed how they seemed to be doing.  

No matter how difficult, reaching out to others in times of trouble can be as or even more important than seeking medical and professional care. Talmudic literature shares (Nedarim 40a) the following anecdote highlighting the impact that interacting with others can have in times of illness and adversity.

A student of Rabbi Akiva was sick, and none of his colleagues went to visit him, but Rabbi Akiva went then to visit him. As a result of [Rabbi Akiva] cleaning his house up, and taking care of the student, he [the student] became healthy and lived. It was at that point that Rabbi Akiva went on and proclaimed, “Whoever does not visit the sick, it is as if he actively murdered someone.”

Just imagine Rabbi Akiva— who was no doctor—walking into that dark and dirty room where his student lay helpless and abandoned. Imagine what his mere arrival must have meant to his sick student and what a positive impact the rabbi’s visit had on his student’s health. 

The rabbi gave his student the confidence and knowledge that he was not alone. Someone cared. The rabbi didn’t stop at just a visit. Doing what he could to clean the home and make his ill student feel more comfortable and human, the rabbi added to the overall sense of well-being and clean environment the student was laying in. No longer surrounded by spiderwebs, dust, mold, and dark, now the student was able to look at a clean and pleasant room. This basic human decency, that person-to-person warmth, and concern brought this young student back to life.

The story highlights that no matter how deserving and righteous we might be—as this erudite student was—others can always empower us. As much as we believe in a loving and gracious God, as much as we depend on Him for each and every breath we take, as much as we must thank Him for each and every time that our heartbeats, we still depend on each other to keep us going. We need others. 

Nothing brought this point home for me more powerfully than when I was taking my undergraduate degree in psychology. We had a textbook that outlined the various emotional conditions people can develop, from depression to anorexia, from schizophrenia to narcissistic personality disorder. For each one, the textbook laid out the statistics, who is at risk, and then concluded with the same words every time: “Likelihood also depends on social support.” 

These words struck me in a powerful way. No matter what the statistics are, strong social support can help you beat the odds. It was a commanding moral call to be there for others. It highlighted the fact that no matter the statistics, social support matters a lot. We need to be there for others. We also need to make sure that others are there for us as well. If they are not there for us, we need to do our best and reach out to them. We must do our best, so they can be there at our side. We need to let them know about our distress and help others understand how needed they are at this time. 

Despite knowing the importance of letting others know when we need them, we find it hard to follow our instincts on this. “How embarrassing would it be if I let others know how needy and challenged I am,” we think. Brené Brown pointed out in her astonishing 2010 TED talk in Houston, a talk which went viral with over 25 million people viewing it shortly after that, that being vulnerable is what makes us more human

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change,” she told the world.  Sometimes we need to expose ourselves and allow our vulnerabilities to show in order to do what is best for us. Allowing our vulnerabilities to show can not only prevent hardship and adversities but can be a necessary pathway to success. “I learned something hard about myself,” Ms. Brown said. “As much as I would get frustrated about not being able to get my work out to the world, there was a part of me that was working very hard to engineer staying small, staying right under the radar.” Overcoming our vulnerabilities can be key to success. In cases of illness and distress, it can even mean survival. 

Sometimes we need to reach out to a friend, a family member, a counselor, someone in a relevant profession, or all of the above—and more—to get the support that we need. Doing so is not a substitute for, or a compromise of, our belief and reliance on God, it is us seeking all the help that God has made available for us. Reaching out for help is us taking the steps we are obliged to take in order to take care of ourselves. It’s what we need to do. 

I spent two years studying in a religious seminary away from my family, staying in a college dorm together with other students that had studied there. One day I got a high fever and was lying in bed sick, incapable of doing too much. Since I was new to the place, I didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone to bring me any food or medicine. 

After a day or so of suffering on my own, I remembered that a relative of mine lived in the area. I was reluctant to call him since I was not close with him and his family. My situation was not getting better. Finally, I overcame my embarrassment. I called him and notified him of my situation. He came and brought me to his home, fed me, and gave me the medicine I needed. After some time, I got better. As I was leaving, my relative—known for his cynical sense of humor—told me, “Aren’t you happy you asked us to come over? Just imagine how stupid you would have felt if you died in your dorm room and never asked us to come.” 

While his bold words took me aback, his message resonates with me to this day: reaching out to others for help can be embarrassing, but it is far better than having to deal with avoidable consequences of adversity. With our solemn goal being getting as well as we can, we must do anything we can to get better. We must reach out to others who can play a vital role in our recovery. 

This article is from Rabbi Elchanan Poupko’s upcoming series and book on why bad things happen to good people and coping with adversity.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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