RABBI DEBORAH A. HIRSCH
ROSH HASHANAH EVE 5777
Each summer holds the same routine for many in our city—warmer weather, time out at weekend homes, kids at camp, parents with more ‘me’ time, freedom from homework, trips to Citi Field or Yankees Stadium, dress-down work days or weeks, perhaps, even shorter work schedules as the weekend getaways expanded to include Fridays or Mondays. This summer, for a span of two weeks, Americans and many around the world were glued to their televisions or tablets—watching as Athletes around the world participated in the Games of the 21st Olympiad. Indeed there were favorites: Michael Phelps who didn’t disappoint, Women’s soccer that did. Simone Manuel became the first African American woman to win a Gold medal in swimming. Simone Biles who stole the hearts of millions. And for the people of Puerto Rico, Monica Puig—a clear underdog—went on to defeat Tennis’ second seed, Angelique Kerber—to capture Puerto Rico’s first gold medal. Mara Abbott—who moved into first position in the women’s 87-mile bike race, after Annamiek Van Vluten crashed with serious injury. Abbott, considered one of the strongest uphill cyclists watched as her 38 second lead precipitously declined in the last kilometer of the race—within 100 meters of the finish line she steeply descended from Gold Medal to 4th place—no medal–A heart-breaking moment to be sure. Aly Reisman—fondly called ‘the grandma’ of her gymnastics team brought confidence and encouragement to her younger teammates. The image of Aly hugging Simone Biles as Biles took the gold was an image of mentschlikite and sportsmanship personified.
As we know Olympic athletes train for years—sacrifice much of their young lives—as do parents, and even grandparents, make sacrifices: The competition meets, the travel schedules, the financial burden, the pressure, and ultimately, the feeling of exaltation or bitter defeat. More than half of the athletes that participated in Rio did not medal—and, many returned to their native countries without fanfare or ticker tape parades—these hopeful stars will now take a deep breath and begin the grueling process once again. Somehow, somewhere, they will find the resilience to tuck their defeats into a corner and forge ahead, eyes, body and mind set on doing better in Tokyo in 2020—visioning themselves on the platform clutching the elusive gold medal in their hands.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” What motivates defeated athletes to kick-start the cycle of Olympic training? For some training has already begun for 2020. Only a rarified few athletes will receive Nike or sports drink endorsement—fewer will become sports commentators. The vast majority of those who train will barely succeed financially between this year’s Olympics and 2020—indeed, they must have the inner gumption – the stamina, the passion and resilience to start from scratch—never relinquishing their quest for personal best or world record.
These High Holy Days—this first eve of the New Year 5777—is finding that place within each of us to start anew. It’s about tapping into our spiritual, resilience gene. The meaning of these Noraim—Days of Awe—is firmly rooted in our desire to turn from those actions when we missed the mark—make adjustments and continue on life’s journey. Elie Wiesel, the vocal and written conscience of the Holocaust, who died earlier this year, wrote, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”
Tomorrow morning’s Torah reading, of the Akedah—the Binding of Isaac is perhaps the most controversial portion of Torah. Abraham returns from that life-altering ordeal to find his beloved Sarah has died—one tradition teaches that upon hearing of Abraham’s God-given mission, Sarah died from shock, sadness, rage and pain. Sarah—alone with her thoughts, overwhelmed by her emotions could not find resilience. In contrast, Abraham, while still mourning his beloved Sarah—looks to his future that almost went up as smoke on the altar, and sends forth his most trusted servant—perhaps his singular confidant, to find a wife for Isaac and to fulfill God’s promise of making Abraham a mighty nation.
Resilience is most critical when we are faced with defeat, when we desperately try to find purpose and meaning in the wake of catastrophe.
Sherri Mandell’s book, Road to Resilience, published this past November, provides us with direction. Mandell was the mother of 13 year-old Koby, who in May of 2001 with his friend, Yosef Ishran, were stoned to death —the 62nd and 63rd fatalities of the Second Intifada in Israel. One can ask how a parent can ever overcome such unimaginable tragedy. In her prologue to the book, Mandell wrote:
Jewish philosophy teaches that resilience is not overcoming, it’s becoming. Becoming more, becoming our fullest, deepest selves as a result of adversity. We don’t escape, but contemplate and reshape. We don’t leap over troubles as if they don’t exist. We allow them to be our teachers. We experience resilience when we are enlarged rather than diminished by our challenges, when facing adversity causes us to change, grow, and become greater.
Building upon Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ literary style found in The Five Stages of Death, Mandell explores the seven Cs of resilience: chaos, community, choice, creativi