Resilience is Not Futile

If you’ve ever lost someone who you truly love, ever had your heart broken, ever struggled with an acrimonious divorce, or been the victim of infidelity, I am going to ask you to please stand up, wherever you are. If standing isn’t accessible to you, you can put your hand up. And stay there for just a moment.

If you’ve ever lived through a natural disaster, been the victim of a crime, survived 9/11 or another terrorist attack, please stand up.

If you’ve ever been bullied or if you’ve ever been fired, stand up.

If you’ve ever had a miscarriage or an abortion; If you’ve ever struggled through infertility, please stand up.

If you, or anyone you love have had to cope with mental illness, dementia, some form of physical impairment, or suicide, please stand up.

Finally, if you have personally suffered from COVID, or someone you love has; if you have lost your job or your business in these traumatic months, if you are suffering from deep loneliness or even depression as a result of this time, please stand up.

I wish we could look around in the way we might if we were all here in the sanctuary together. But I am going to venture a guess – that in nearly every household where members of Shaaray Tefila are participating in services this morning, someone is standing or raising their hand.

Adversity doesn’t discriminate. And, it doesn’t have to be the end of you.

If you are standing, or if you have your hand up, a part of you already knows that. If you are alive, you are going to have to, or perhaps you have already had to deal with some tough times.

But you can be resilient – we can all be resilient, together. You are not alone, not even in this moment, no matter where you find yourself right now. You can see the world anew.

Thank you everyone; you can take a seat or put your hands down.

This morning, we will be introduced to an individual in the Torah who, like many of us, lived with trauma.

In a moment beyond his control, he came face to face with death1. It changed him. It left him emotionally shaken, his sense of safety and security gone, his perspective on the world forever altered.

I speak of our ancestor Isaac, who on this very day lay bound and vulnerable under the blade of his father Abraham’s knife, in the harrowing narrative we call the Akedah.

We rarely give Isaac much attention because many see him as a passive bridge between the two greats – Abraham and Jacob.

But this year, I’ve been relating most deeply to Isaac. I believe he can model for us not only how to cope with a harsh and changing world, but most importantly how to seek out and embrace the good in the same world.

Far from a minor character, Isaac can teach us to live purposefully and joyfully – even and especially in the wake of ongoing trauma.

A quick recap: Isaac is Abraham’s second son, his favorite son whom he has with Sarah.

I imagine Isaac’s life is pretty great, especially after his older brother and rival, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother Hagar are sent away from the family.

Our sages claim that it was on Rosh Hashanah that the Torah tale took place: God commanded Abraham to bring Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah and offer him up as a sacrifice.

Many call this story a test of Abraham’s faith.

But though Abraham’s test ends here, for Isaac, it will have only just begun. Thus begins his life-long struggle to live in the shadow of the horror of the Akedah.

On this Rosh Hashanah, in the midst of a pandemic that I fear we are still only in the middle of, and with our country in the middle of so very many challenges, I’d like to focus on what Issac does after our Torah portion, how he was affected by the story, where he goes, how he responds, what choices he makes.

In so doing, I am hoping we might see in his journey, post-trauma, how we might respond in moments of challenge in our own lives.

As our narrative ends, an angel has intervened just at the last moment, when Isaac sees his father’s knife-wielding hand lifted over his neck.

God blesses Abraham for his faithfulness, and then the text says, “Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beersheva.”

What I want to know is: when Abraham and the servants returned to Beersheva, where the heck was Isaac? The Jewish commentaries on this point vary wildly. The Torah is painfully silent about his whereabouts.

All we know is that, in his apparent absence, Isaac’s beloved mother Sarah dies in the very next chapter of the Torah.

After negotiating for a burial plot for Sarah, Abraham sets his servant Eliezer to the task of finding a bride for Isaac. And after a dramatic and beautiful scene in which Eliezer finds a stunningly generous woman named Rebecca to be Isaac’s wife, Isaac himself finally makes a reappearance in the story, some 82 verses later. This is what the Torah says:

“Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Be’er-lakhai-roi… And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching… The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.2

So let’s examine what Isaac did after what I can only assume was a traumatic event on Mount Moriah, an event compounded by the death of his mother.

He goes to this place – Be’er Lakhai Roi. Where have we heard of that place before?

This is the spring where Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, had escaped to eight chapters earlier in Genesis3, after Sarah exiled her out of her jealousy that Hagar had become pregnant by Abraham.

At that spring of water in the wilderness, Hagar, exiled and disgraced, traumatized, no doubt, encounters an angel of God who promised that she would be blessed with many children. Hagar then renames the place Be’er Lakhai Roi, which means something like, “the well of life-giving sight.”

In the aftermath of his own near-death experience, Isaac seeks out Hagar. Isaac is seeking comfort, and he cannot confide in his own mother, now dead.

Perhaps we can imagine Isaac and Hagar seeing each other more deeply now, more sensitized to one another’s vulnerability.

It is to the “well of life-giving sight” that Isaac flees.

And it is from that place that he is coming when, the Torah says, he looks up and sees Rebecca, who Isaac brings into his mother’s tent, marries, and falls in love with. It is worth noting that Isaac and Rebecca are the only couple in the Torah about which the text makes it explicit that they love one another.

Later, when they were unable to have children, Isaac takes the initiative to plead with God on the couple’s behalf; something Abraham, Jacob, and Elkanah in our haftarah all failed to do when they were in similar situations.

In the end, Isaac takes control of his past and becomes an actor in his own sacred story, rather than the object of other people’s actions.

Despite enduring unimaginable adversity, Isaac lived to become the father of Jacob, who would become Israel, who, together with Rachel and Leah, would be the progenitors of the Jewish people. Out of the darkness, Isaac sees the world anew. And because he is able to see again, we are here.

Sadly, many of us can identify with Isaac. I know that some of you have gone through life-changing ordeals, sometimes like Isaac, in a matter of minutes. And many of you have felt tested, possibly even beyond your limits.

Perhaps, like Isaac, someone hurt you who was supposed to protect you.

Maybe you have faced a situation so dreadful and so unexpected – illness, violence, abuse, financial disaster, a #metoo affront, bullying, estrangement- the list is painfully long.

Maybe, like Isaac, you withdrew in some way, or at least wanted to.

But if Isaac can endure what he endured, and become the grandfather of the Jewish people, perhaps we might look at adversity with new eyes, as well.

I believe deeply that each of us can rise up from adversity. I know from experience that there are strategies that work. I know that it is possible to make yourself think and act in certain ways that can help you navigate tough times.

Now – there is a monumental volume of research about how to do this; trust me – I’ve been reading volumes the last several months4!

Today, on this New Year, I’m going to share with you just three strategies – the three strategies that I have seen in resilient people over and over again in my 22 years as a rabbi.

These strategies have helped me be resilient in some of my darkest days; I pray that they might help you in yours.

These are strategies, I believe, that anyone can learn – I believe that you can learn them right here today.

Number one: resilient people know that stuff happens.

This is a family show, and it’s yontif, otherwise I might have used another word for “stuff.” Resilient people know that difficulty is a part of life.

Now this doesn’t mean that they actually welcome it in – they’re not actually delusional. It’s just that when the tough times come, resilient people seem to know that difficulty, like exaltation, is part of every human existence.

Recently, in counseling a congregant who had lost a loved one to COVID-19, this member said the most remarkable thing to me. He said, “never once did I find myself thinking ‘why me?’ In fact I remember thinking ‘why not me?’

Terrible things sometimes happen to me just like they do everybody else. That’s life. Now, it’s time to sink or swim.”

I want to thank that person for the gift they gave me – a gift that I am now passing on to you.

Lesson number one: resilient people know that unfair stuff happens, sometimes even to good people, sometimes even to us.

Number two. Resilient people are really good at choosing carefully where they place their attention.

They have a habit of realistically appraising situations, and typically manage to focus on the things that they can change and somehow accept the things that they cannot. This is a vital, learnable skill for resilience.

Resilient people don’t diminish the negative, but they also work out ways of tuning into the good in their lives.

One day, years ago, about a year after my dad died, when doubt was threatening to overwhelm me, a friend said to me: “You do not get to get swallowed up by this. You have to survive.

You’ve got so much to live for. Don’t lose what you have to what you have lost.”

Perhaps you’ve had moments like this in your life, too. In such times, you actually do have a decision to make: whether you will let the negative drown you in tears, or whether you will acknowledge the pain and, simultaneously, remember what you have to live for.

Psychologists have a technical term for this; they call it “benefit finding.” In my non-expert terminology, I call it: trying to find things to be grateful for.

In difficult times, being able to switch the focus of your attention to also include the good has been shown by science to be a powerful strategy.

In 2005, a researcher named Martin Seligmann and his colleagues conducted an experiment. They asked people to track three good things that happened to them each day over the course of the six month study. That’s it.

What they found was that those people showed higher levels of gratitude, higher levels of happiness, and less depression than those who did not engage in this practice.

We can move from a state that Seligman calls “learned helplessness” to a state of “learned optimism.5

When you are going through grief or some other difficult, life-altering time, you might need a reminder – you might need permission to feel grateful.

In our living room, we’ve got a simple letterboard sign that Elyssa has been changing each day since March to indicate what day it is, so that this mind-numbing time can’t steal from us the sense that each day counts.

One of my close friends has a practice at dinner every night where each person at the table is required to offer one thing that they’re grateful for, no matter how difficult or challenging the day might have been.

There is no one right practice that works for everyone. The goal is to find the language and method that works best for you.

Whatever you do, I invite you to learn lesson number two: make a deliberate, intentional, ongoing effort every single day to tune in to what’s good in your world.

And number three. Resilient people ask themselves: is what I am doing right now helping or harming me?

This is a question that is used a lot in good therapy. And boy is it powerful.

This question can be applied to so many different contexts. And the key is to be kind to yourself.

Ask yourself: Is the way I am thinking helping or harming me in my bid to get that promotion, to pass that exam, or to recover from a heart attack?

As I suggested last Rosh Hashanah, ask whether holding on to the ancient pain inflicted on you by a family member or loved one is helping or hurting you.

Ask whether staring at pictures of loved ones who have died or from whom you are estranged helps or harms your state of mind. If doing so brings you further into sadness, put away the photos for another day.

Is scrolling through social media and seeing how much happier everyone else seems to be than you helping or hurting?

Asking yourself whether the way you are thinking, what you are doing, the way you are acting, how you are responding in this moment is helping or harming you, puts you back in the driver’s seat.

It gives you some control over your decision-making at moments where everything may feel like it is out of your control.

These three strategies are readily available to any of us anytime, anywhere.

And here’s the bottom line. All my experience, and all my study tells me that resilience isn’t some fixed trait that some people have and some people don’t. With an openness to some practice, resilience is something we can all develop.

We all have moments in our lives, and the last 6 months feel like a collective one of those moments – when the path in front of us splits- when the journey we thought we were going down veers off in some completely unexpected direction that we never anticipated, and that we certainly didn’t ask for.

I imagine that even before this pandemic most of us in this community have had moments like that – moments that were awful and unexpected.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you think: there is no way that I am coming back from this, I urge you to lean into these strategies, and to think again.

Know that stuff happens. Remember to be grateful. And ask yourself whether what you are doing now is helping or hurting.

I won’t pretend that thinking this way is easy. I won’t pretend or promise that these strategies will remove all the pain – that’s actually not the goal.

But if I’ve learned anything in the work I do, or in my own life’s circuitous path, it is that thinking this way really can help us move forward in the midst of challenge or even trauma.

In my life, and in my work, I have learned that it is possible, and sometimes even necessary, to live and grieve at the same time.

And for that, I will be forever grateful.

Adversity doesn’t discriminate. And, it doesn’t have to be the end of you. You can become more resilient. Like Isaac, you can come to see the world anew.

Shanah tovah.

End Notes

  1. Thanks to Rabbi Amy Scheinerman for her inspiration in thinking of Isaac in this way.
  2. Genesis 24:62-67
  3. Genesis 16:7
  4. I read many articles and books on this topic; the most concise and helpful work I reference here was done by Dr. Lucy Hone, director of the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience. Her book, “Finding Strength and Embracing Life After a Loss That Changes Everything,” is powerful and personal, and resonated with me in the work I do.
  5. Another book I read that was incredibly helpful was Seligman’s “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Change Your Life.”