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When A Bad Flood Happens To Good People

10/09/2015 02:38:42 PM


How do you feel today? Of course, it is yom tov, RH, a joyous day, serious, yet joyous. On the other hand - all  is not the same as it was last year.  

Last year when we said U’netaneh Tokef - and asked who will live and who will die - what we did think life would be year from then?  I never understood unetaneh tokef to only be speaking about life and death. The use of life and death, the most striking diff. between one year and the next, always led me to focus on what would the more subtle differences be.

Who was healthy last year, but is sick now?

And, of course, who had a permanent, warm home last year, and who does not have one now?

As many of us, I have been thinking about the meaning and nature of adversity and hardship.

One thing I realized is that it  did not take long for suffering to be introduced to the world.

According  to the Talmud in masechet Sanhedrin suffering descended into the world in twelfth hour of history - when Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of eden.  

According to a study conducted by in 2007, ninety percent of us will experience at least one serious traumatic event during our lives.

Look around - 90% of the people in this room will encounter such an event - many already have.

How do we define suffering? Is that term reserved only for extreme situations - like serious accidents or war?

What about lesser types of suffering? Do they qualify for concern?

Are families dealing with children who have panic attacks when it rains not suffering?

Are singles or couples that are experiencing personal problems some pre flood and some as a result of the added stressors of the flood not suffering?

Are those forced out of their community and homes into unfamiliar surroundings, distanced from their friends and community and without a strong support network, not suffering?

Are couple struggling with infertility not suffering?

A few weeks ago we had a “Shabbat of Healing”. I heard so comments along the lines of "why do we need this,  people are fine,let's just move on."

All you had to do was spend 5 minutes in one of the process rooms to realize just how wrong those sentiments are.

With all of this said, I do not wish to talk about suffering. This morning, I want to talk about resilience - that ability to bounce back from or cope with a difficult situation.

The more I thought about this, how others and how I have dealt with the dismay brought on by the flood,  the more I realized that some of the key ingredients for coping with suffering, mimic one of the central prayers on the High Holidays.

U'Teshuva, U'Tefilla, U'Tzedakah - Repentance, Prayer and Charity  Ma'avirin et Ro'ah Ha'Gezeirah. We often think that this prayer means that these three things remove the evil decree. That is not what the prayer means. It means they remove the Ro'ah Ha'Gezeira - the evil of the decree. Perhaps this means that they provide some means of dealing with the real pain and suffering brought about by the decree.

So let's take each one - defined broadly, and see how they can cultivate resilience.

The first one, Teshuva - literally means return and it is the word we use for repentance. We make a mistake when we equate Teshuva with creating a new reality.  Return is about resetting or recalibrating who we already are. We all have an essential self and sometimes, over the course of time, we lose track of who we really are. Teshuva is the mechanism we use to get it back.

Some of you, may have heard of Victor Frankl. Victor Frankl was concentration camp survivor developed a psychological approach called Logo-Therapy. Here are his own words as to what that term means.

“Logos is a Greek word that denotes “meaning”! Logotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. According to logotherapy, the striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.”  (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 153-154)

It is not the pleasure principle or the will to power, but the search for meaning that animates us.

Listen to this description of as forced march recorded by Frankle.

“... We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles… The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles... the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps…”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again...nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife...I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look….”

When I read this, I was reminded of the midrash (rabbinic commentary) the describes how Yosef withstood temptation in the house of Potiphar.

"At that moment his father's image came and appeared to him through the window and said: 'Joseph, thy brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the ephod and thine amongst theirs; is it thy wish to have thy name expunged from amongst theirs and be called an associate of harlots?" (Sotah 36b)

Fankle's story and this midrash make a similar point - overcoming difficulty, whether surviving a trauma or withstanding temptation is made easier when we have a purpose.

Frankel's purpose was the love he had for his wife. Yosef’s purpose was maintaining the dignity of his father’s name and his family reputation.

After the flood, a number of people told me that they were better able to cope with their own problems, once they started helping other’s with their problems. When there is a purpose or a calling that allows one to move beyond their immediate circumstances - to look forward - coping is easier.

In one of his novels, the late Alan Paton has one of his characters say: “When I shall ascend to Heaven, which I  certainly intend to do, I will be asked, “Where are your  wounds?’ When I will say, ‘I haven’t any,’ I will be  asked, ‘Was there nothing worth fighting for,’ and that  is a question that I do not want to have to answer.”

So, in order to build resilience ask yourself:

Do we live a life that reflects family or finances as a core commitment?

Is religious conviction (study, prayer) or convenience the guiding principle of our lives?

Engaging in this type of Teshuva - understood as return to our most meaningful self - the things we are willing to fight for -  can provide a wellspring upon which we can draw when facing adversity.

This brings me to the second factor in limiting the reach of evil decrees - Teffila - prayer, or in terms of resilience, faith and religious practice in general.

Listen to how the Rambam - Maimonides describes love of God.

ג. וכיצד היא האהבה הראויה הוא שיאהב את ה' אהבה גדולה יתירה עזה מאוד עד שתהא נפשו קשורה באהבת ה' ונמצא שוגה בה תמיד כאלו חולה חולי האהבה

What is the proper [degree] of love? That a person should love God with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of God. Thus, he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick.


Of course, this is a very lofty goal - to live a life like this is to live on a different plain than most people do. Yet, one cannot deny that such an a way of life will influence response to suffering. Is it conceivable that the soul, thirsting and striving for this type of love of God will react to catastrophe no differently than spiritually detached? (see Jewish Perspectives on the Experience of Suffering  - The Orthodox Forum Series. pg. 29)

Why is this so? Why is it that studies show that people of faith are able to withstand as well as recover from suffering at higher rates than others? A study of over 30 former Vietnam war veterans who spent prolonged time in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, reports that almost to a man, religious faith helped them withstand torture and maintain their sanity while imprisoned.

I will tell you what worked for me. It happened usually during the morning brachot / blessings .I tapped into the notion of gratitude. It may seem strange to focus on gratitude in the midst of removing, like so many others, basically every item from our home. Perhaps it was the contrast between what was lost and what I still had.

So, as I was focused on losing many things, I was still able to thank God for the most basic elements of life , (Pokeach Ivrim) sight , (zokef kifufim) mobility , (malbish arumim)  - that fact that, after all, I did have clothes on my back.

Focusing on gratitude helped me a great deal. It gave me perspective.

Perhaps it comes from the feeling of never being abandoned. Since the beginning of Elul we have been saying Psalms chapter twenty-seven at the end of shacharit (morning services).

There is a very moving verse in that chapter.

כִּי-אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי;    וַיהוָה יַאַסְפֵנִי.

I prefer the translation of Jonathan Sacks in the Koren siddur

“Were my father and mother to forsake me, the Lord would take me in.”

Even after even those who would be the last to abandon us - parents - God gathers us in - God does not dispose of us.

John McCain, in Honor Bound writes the following: "To guard against such despair, in our most dire moments, POW's would make supreme efforts to grasp our faith tightly, to profess it alone in the dark and hasten its revival. Once I Was thrown into another cell after a long and difficult interrogation. I discovered scratched into one of the cell's walls the creed, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty."

So, today, we should ask ourselves, how can I build my fath? What steps can I take to strengthen my relationship with God and to understand  the rituals of Judaism as a mechanism for resilience.

Our faith and ritual can offer great company and comfort during trying times, but only if we have kept our soul running by daily connection to God.

We now come now to the third way to limit the evil of the decree - Tzedakah. Writ large, Tzedakah is about people taking care of people. It is about community. It should come as no surprise that when it comes to resilience, community is a key factor.

Has anyone here ever heard of the “Tap Code”?

Back to the Hanoi Hilton - The Tap Code was a simple method used by prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton to communicate with one another.

Listen to the words spoken by a prisoner of war expressing his feelings the first time he used the Tap Code to communicate with a fellow prisoner.

“Can you imagine what might be going through your mind in an experience like this? Wow! What an opportunity. Somebody wants to network. Somebody wants to team up with me Somebody wants to communicate.”

We take community, communication with others for granted. Those POW’s thirsted for basic human contact.

In order to survive in this world, people need other people. Again, it is one of the universal truths stated at the beginning of the bible - Lo Tov Heyot Adam L’vado -  “it is not good for a person to be alone”.

So here is a shameless plug, shameless, but true. The moral of the story is that the more you come to shul and become part of our community the better you will be able to weather and withstand whatever difficulties you encounter in life.

What is it about community that it gives people the ability to overcome very difficult odds.

Of course, there is the very important aspect of practical assistance - financial and material donations, volunteering time and even being an ear to bend or a shoulder to cry on.

It could be based on the simple idea that knowing other people are in a similar situation is soothing. Nobody is really sure who said:

צרת רבים חצי נחמה      -A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved

but it is true.

In considering this idea, Norman Lamm said the following.

“No wonder that the traditional Hebrew greeting of condolence is that the Lord console the mourner "amongst all other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." The very feeling of being part of a larger group of mourners is in itself a source of comfort.
Similarly, when we visit the sick or pray for them, we wish them a speedy and complete recovery ”amongst all the other sick of Israel." Illness becomes bearable when I am not the only one which is incapacitated by poor health. In both cases...I have gazed not only upon myself, but seen myself as part of  humanity [mankind].”

There is another all important aspect of the importance of community.

On March 16, 1940, Rabbi Klonymus Kalman Shapiro, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto offered a sermon on the bond between chasid and chassid in fellowship and friendship...What is unique about this drasha is that it is given in a time when there was simply no material resources to share. Here is what he said.  

“Mutual sharing and helping is not limited to giving charity or loan. When one hears the troubles of another Jew... if his heart is broken and his blood frozen; if, motivated by his broken heart he repents to God and prays to Him...on behalf of Israel, then this too is a gift which we receive one from the other…”  (Nehemia Polen; The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto)

Caring, expressed in prayer and heartfelt concern is also a genuine contribution.

Rabbi Soloveitchik sums this all up beautifully when he analyzes two words used for community in the Torah - Machane - meaning camp, and Edah, meaning  congregation,

Machane - camp is “created as as a result of the desire for self defense and is nurtured by a sense of fear; the Edah, the congregation is created as a result of the longing for the realization of an exalted ethical idea and is nurtured by the sentiment of love.”

”The congregation is a “result of positive drives. A congregation is a group of individuals possessing a common past, a common future, common goals and desires…”

We instinctively understood the importance of the “Tap Code” and immediately activated the Edah aspect of our community. We refused to sit back and allow each person to fend for themselves.

We made sure that everyone knew they were not alone by actually taking care of hundreds of people. We did it by providing shoulders and ears and we did it by offering heartfelt and tear drenched prayers.

The comfort of belonging and feeling cared for was palpable to anyone who spent time in Freedman hall relief center during the week and the Freedman hall sanctuary on shabbat.

“Resilience refers to the ability to "bounce back" after encountering difficulty. Harvard University psychologist George Vaillant likens resilience to " a twig with a fresh green living core. When twisted out of shape, such a twig bends, but it does not break; instead,instead it springs back and continues growing."

Isn’t this the very definition of Teshuva - to be able to get back to where we were.

On this day we ask that God allow us to access the three ingredients or resilience.

Teshuva - the ability to find meaning by returning to our core - the things we are willing to fight for.

Teffila - the comforting and bolstering reality that is faith - the company and comfort of God.

Tzedakah - the peace of mind that come from knowing we belong, that we are not alone and that so many care about us.

The pattern of the Shofar blowing of Tekiah (solid sound) - Teruah (broken sound)- Teruah (solid sound), remind us perhaps of the need for these things.

Sometimes life is monotonous and undisturbed like the flat sound of the Teruah. At other times - for 90% of us, life will be tumultuous, even traumatic - like the broken and wavering Tekiah. But of course, if we build our resilience, if we embrace the power of Teshuva, Teffila and Tzedakah then, just as the fragmented sounds of the Teruah are replaced by the steady sounds of the Tekiah,  we can find our way back to joy, confidence and happiness.

We ask God to take care of our Edah - our remarkable community.


כו  וְנִסְלַח, לְכָל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל,

26 And all the congregation of the children of Israel shall be forgiven,


May He forgive our iniquities, focus on our goodness and give us the strength to continue healing.

May this year and all of its curses come to an end, and may this coming year with all of its blessings come to a good beginning."

*Many of the ideas and examples in this sermon were culled from: Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges. Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney    


Fri, September 18 2020 29 Elul 5780