Rabbi Lauren Werber Temple B’nai Abraham Erev Rosh Hashanah, 2016
I want to describe two people to you. See if you recognize them, and can think of their names, because you know them both. The first is a man who does his best to live a decent, ethical life in a world that seems to be spiraling out of control around him. He constantly sees greed, oppression and abuse. People around him are breaking laws, acting out sexually, stealing from each other, even killing each other. This man steers clear of such behavior. Eventually, the thugs around him are brought to justice and the man can begin a new life without such influences. Tragically, he turns to alcohol, and never pulls himself up from his troubled beginnings.
The second man is born into a comfortable life, accumulates considerable wealth, and relocates to a new country. Then, a terrible famine strikes and the man struggles to survive before being caught in armed conflicts with neighboring nations. He marries, but is unable to father children for many years, and he and his wife face multiple hardships and dangers. Eventually, he has two sons, one who becomes estranged from him and one who nearly dies an untimely and tragic death. In time, this man earns back his wealth and becomes a respected leader.
So, who are these two men? (Does anybody know)…The first is the biblical figure of Noah. Born among terrible sinners, he has a unique opportunity to uplift himself, beginning with building the ark and saving himself and his family. Yet, he’s unable to separate from his past or to take a chance on a new life. He cannot envision a better way and take the actions necessary to make that better life a reality. He is what author Rick Newman calls a wallower. He’s stuck: he wallows, he cannot move from despair to contentment.
The second man is…Abraham, who we will read about tomorrow morning. He faces multiple challenges, including the near-sacrifice of his beloved son (the rabbis of old say he was tested ten times) but he trudges on, learns from mistakes, tries out new ideas, and accomplishes great things. His trials make him more compassionate, more gifted as a negotiator, more financially savvy, more inspiring to others, and more connected to his God. He is what Rick Newman calls a rebounder.
These terms – wallower and rebounder – come from Newman’s book, called Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. The book focuses almost exclusively on business and financial success, but the ideas extend to our communities and our personal lives, which I find far more compelling. Wallowers, Newman explains, are people who blame others for their failures, complain about their circumstances, fear taking risks, have self-defeating attitudes, become rigid in their thinking, and fail to learn from mistakes. They are often unsuccessful and unhappy. Rebounders, in contrast, accept failure and learn from it, take responsibility for their actions, let go of counter-productive emotions, take action even when there is risk involved, work hard and wait patiently, and adjust their plans when needed.
The essential question this evening is, “How do we become better at rebounding?”
Here, tradition can help. As Jews, our history and culture clearly teach us to be rebounders. (We kvetch a bit, but we rebound.) We already spoke of Abraham, bouncing back from famine, war, and disappointment, not to mention loneliness and isolation. Think also of Moses, drifting on a river to avoid death, losing his family, fleeing for his life, and returning to Pharaoh to lead our people to freedom. And think of Joseph, sold into servitude by his own brothers, thrown in a dungeon prison, and able to work himself up to the second in command in Egypt and to reconcile with his family.
Think of Tisha B’av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Twice we faced exile, and we answered with the development of arguably our greatest work – the Talmud – and with a system of worship that did not require a central temple. Out of the ashes, we built a new, stronger Judaism.
Think of shtetl life and immigration to our country. Hated, mistreated, impoverished, and sometimes forced to leave, we came to a new country – to crowded tenement houses, filthy conditions, and oppressive labor conditions, and in one or two generations, we became paradigms of the American dream and rebounders extraordinaire.
Think of the Holocaust. 1/3 of our population murdered, millions left near death and completely impoverished. And those survivors – that remnant of Israel – found hope, built lives, had children, and enriched our people.
Think of our funeral rituals. We traditionally cut the k’riah ribbon, the sign of our broken hearts, while standing (we don’t take our troubles sitting down), we eat (often eggs – a symbol of life) immediately after the funeral because life goes on. We grieve, but we also live; we mourn, but we also rebound.
Think of the state of Israel, which could only be born out of a culture of rebounders. We had so many “quit points” along the way, so many chances to give up on a 2,000 year-old dream to be a free people in our land/lihiyot am chofshi be’artzeinu, and yet our people persisted. Israel, in hundreds of ways ranging from agriculture to defense to technology to medicine to environmentalism to religious observance and freedom is a rebound nation.
And finally, think of these High Holy Days. What is t’shuva – turning and repentance – if not the insistence that we can start anew, that our suffering and missteps can lead us to do better, that we need not be crippled by the past as we look to the future? Every year, every year at this time, tradition gives us the precious opportunity to rebound.
So how do we do it? How do we say “yes” to these opportunities and make the year to come a year of growth and success? The first thing we do is realize that rebounding (just like in basketball) is a skill. As such it can be learned. We are all born with a different natural ability to rebound (again just like in basketball), but we can all get much better with practice. In tomorrow morning’s Torah portion, we will read, “v’ha’Elohim nisah et Avraham/God tested Abraham.”
The word nisayon – from the root nisah/to test – is used in modern Hebrew to mean “experience.” We can all treat our tests – our challenges and hardships – as experiences from which we learn and grow. I am not suggesting that we look for misfortune just so we can overcome it – I am saying that challenges will come, and how we practice responding will dramatically influence whether we become wallowers or rebounders.
Let’s start with our congregation. When I came here ten years ago, many of us were wallowing. We blamed everyone but ourselves for our situation – for declining membership, a barely existing religious school, almost no programming, and finances that couldn’t keep us going forever. We blamed demographics (“There aren’t enough Jews on the West side and too many are elderly or dying”), we blamed geography (“If only our building were in the suburbs”), we blamed bureaucracy (“Federation doesn’t acknowledge or promote us”), we blamed our members (“the older people don’t want to help anymore and the younger people won’t commit to anything), and the list could go on. Some of us believed we would get by like we always have, but we weren’t ready to make a plan to ensure that we would survive and, better yet, thrive. We looked to the past, mourned the loss of people, rejected ideas because we feared they would fail, and limped along hoping things would work out.
And then, gradually something changed. Slowly, our focus shifted and we became rebounders. No longer embittered by past failures or paralyzed by fear, we took action, embraced uncertainty, tried new things, opened our hearts, and looked forward. The results? – Programs and spaces for young families, a growing and innovative religious school, more adult education than ever, community programs and new fundraisers, experimentation with services, parent education programs on the horizon, social programs with unbelievably high attendance rates, speakers sponsored by the congregation, cooperation with other synagogues and organizations, a new website getting hundreds of hits a week, a sense of pride in who we are, a feeling of optimism about the future, and a growing presence on the West side.
We are rebounding. Some of our trials will fail and we will learn and move on, but much of what we are doing will succeed and the reasons are simple: We are being reflective and honest, we’ve stopped blaming others, we’ve taken old counter-productive emotions out of the mix, we’re being patient as we look for results, and we are being intentional in our actions. As your rabbi, I am confident that we will keep this up, and in a few years we will be a model for rebounding congregations. We have so much to be proud of as this journey continues in this new year.
But this is Rosh Hashana and it’s not just about a new year of soul-searching and celebrating for our community. The High Holy Days are at once deeply communal and intensely private. This day is also about the personal quest to start anew. Each of us can choose whether to wallow or rebound. (We can choose.)
Here’s a true story to illustrate. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson describes the first time he visited a terminally ill patient in the hospital. Accompanied by an experienced chaplain, he entered the room, prepared to empathize and mourn. He explains:
With the inexperience of youth, I believed that nothing good can ever come from pain…Imagine my horror, then, when the chaplain turned to the patient and asked, “What has your cancer taught you?” And imagine my surprise when the patient responded by offering many valuable lessons that he derived from his illness: renewed love of life, better priorities, deeper love for his family. This man…was able to share the precious insights that he had gained at a very high price.
Is this not the ultimate hardship, facing death? And is this not the ultimate rebound? This man in the hospital could achieve a sense of shleimut,of wholeness, because he was willing to readjust his expectations and goals, to learn from his situation, and to continue to do better.
If rebounding is possible even at the end of life, then how much more so it’s possible when we face other problems. I want to be clear – I’m focusing this evening on what we can do ourselves, but I know (we all know) that we cannot always do it alone. We may suffer from mental health disorders, a crisis may erupt so suddenly that we cannot activate our coping mechanisms, or a trauma may be too great to face without professional help. Entertainer Conan O’Brien once explained, “Nietzsche famously said, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. What he failed to stress is that it almost kills you.” Conan may be right, and sometimes, the most courageous first step in rebounding is getting help. Yet, there is so much we can do for ourselves when we are knocked down.
We may be knocked down by things like illness, death of a loved one, family tensions, job insecurity or loss, financial hardship, or regret. Or, our challenges may stem from our childhoods or from various types of injustice. Whatever the cause, when we realize that we are down, we choose whether to get up and how to do so. As the book of Proverbs teaches, “A righteous person falls seven times and rises up again.” Sometimes we fall an eighth time, too. (What then?)
If we are to be rebounders in these cases, we must first accept what we cannot control and then take responsibility for what we could have controlled and what we can still control. We need to refrain from the blame game, and consciously decide not to hold onto bitterness or nostalgia, but instead to focus on new opportunities. When then-helicopter pilot, Tammy Duckworth, lost both legs and permanently damaged an arm in the Iraq War, she didn’t focus on the injustice of it, but instead put her energies into rehab. Today, she not only walks, but she represents Illinois’s 10th Congressional district in the House of Representatives (she lost her first campaign, but again didn’t give up) and she is now running for a US Senate seat.
When Congressman Louis Stokes travelled by train in the army, he couldn’t eat in the white dining hall or in the next-door dining hall for German POWs, but was relegated to a third dining hall for “negroes.” He didn’t grow bitter, give up on getting out of the poverty he faced as a child, or use discrimination as an excuse to fail, but instead worked with allies – black and white – achieved more than even he could imagine and helped to break down racial barriers. …We too, must let go of excuses and hostilities and instead focus on the goals we set for ourselves.
We also have to accept that the path won’t be smooth or easy and that we will need to adjust the course as we go. Thomas Edison, a rebounder profiled in Rick Newman’s book, advised others that ‘more money is lost over not knowing when to stop than in almost any other way.’ The same is true of emotional energy. We must at some point stop trying to please or impress others, stop grieving over lost relationships, stop being paralyzed by loss, then we can move on with our lives and begin to rebound.
Hardship is never fun and we would never choose it, but sometimes it can be productive – we can come out on the other side, at the least okay and, at the best, stronger and more focused. We always have a choice. We can be like Noah, wallowing in the tragedy of life and never finding new purpose or inspiration. Or we can be like Abraham, Moses and Joseph, and like our mighty little temple. We can use hardship as a teacher, we can muster our strength, learn from our mistakes, plan for our future, and rebound into the new year. May our precious, sacred, incredibly special synagogue continue to rebound and may we, in the year to come, help to make it so. And, may we strive to be rebounders as well. May each of us welcome the new year with hope, purpose, passion, and the will to make our lives better. May we all find blessing and be blessings in the year to come.
Ken Y’hi ratzon