Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - Survival

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - 2021/5782


Years ago I read a remarkable book - Unbroken - written by Laura Hillenbrand. It tells the story - mostly based on fact - of the WWII experience of Louis Zamperini. Zameperini had been training as a runner for the Olympics and most likely would have competed, if not medaled, had the war not broken out and had the games not been cancelled. Zamperini was drafted and served as a bombardier in the air force. In 1943 his plane was shot down over the Pacific. He survived that crash, in shark infested waters in a life raft, for a remarkable 47 days only to be “rescued” by the Japanese who immediately interred him in a POW camp. There, suffering from starvation, torture and depravation, Zamperini again remarkably survived. Though his body was battered, his spirit remained unbroken. 

I thought of this incredible story as I was organizing my thoughts in preparation for the High Holidays this year. For the past 18 months, we have felt adrift in dangerous waters, not knowing when it would be safe to leave our homes, not knowing when we would be able to return to civilization, not knowing when we would be rescued from the onslaught of the virus. Though we opened our sanctuary doors for in-person services back in June, only a few weeks later congregants became leary of attending anymore due to the rise in cases due to the delta variant. To this point, so far nearly 650,000 Americans have died from COVID and over 40 million people have had it. Those horrifying and astounding numbers continue to rise and our rescue from that metaphorical life raft seems a long way away. 

In addition to coping with COVID these past 18 months, we have also been impacted by a number of other global issues that have affected us physically and emotionally. We have seen the sudden and quick Taliban take-over of Afghanistan and the many lives - American soldiers and Afghan civilians - that were immediately at risk. That humanitarian disaster came on the heels of the earthquake and tropical storm that left Haiti devastated. And the fires that continue to burn out of control in California and flood waters that have destroyed communities and lives in middle Tennessee. And Hurricane Ida that ravaged Louisiana and the North East leaving a million people without power and countless without homes. The virus, global humanitarian crises, destruction caused by weather and fire are further compounded by the rise in hatred in our country and around the world. Antisemitism, anti Black and anti Asian acts of abuse and violence, have increased exponentially in the past two years. 

It isn’t surprising then that mental health issues have become more widespread in America. Anxiety disorders among the younger population especially have skyrocketed this past year and the number of adults who have thought about suicide has increased as well. COVID and these American and global crises, have threatened our health, which has led to physical and emotional uncertainty and trepidation. 

Yet - despite all these real threats to our physical and emotional health - we are here. Despite all these burdens we are carrying, we have survived. And it is that point, that we have survived, that I’d like to focus on this morning. The fact that we have withstood all that was thrown at us is remarkable. How is it that we have been able to cope with COVID and the impacts it has had on our health, our jobs, our children's education? How have we withstood the rise in hatred around us? How have we managed illness and stress, change and fear for so long? How have we survived?

Six years ago, Michael Bond wrote an article for the BBC’s website titled “The Secrets of Extraordinary Survivors”. He interviewed several people who had survived incredible hardship - much like Louis Zamperini - and he interviewed several mental health professionals who specialize in survival of trauma and he found a number of fascinating common characteristics.

The first is that among some survivors there is a remarkable sense of resiliency. “When [Profressor Simon] Wessely’s team [from King’s College Institute of Psychiatry] asked 1,000 Londoners about their emotional state in the days following the suicide bombings on 7 July 2005, only one in 100 said they felt they needed professional help. A similar survey among residents of New York City after 9/11 by George Bonanno at Columbia University found that a large majority suffered no trauma symptoms at all during the six months that followed. “Resilience and recovery do not require extraordinary resources or an innate toughness, but rather a willingness to adapt to circumstances. The child psychologist Ann Masten calls this “ordinary magic”. Masten, who works at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, points to several key factors, influencing survival such as connecting with a wider community, sharing your experience with others and developing a sense of meaning in life.”

These three factors seem simple yet are remarkable. Having a connection with a community, having an opportunity to talk about and share the experience and having a sense of meaning enable people to cope, survive and flourish after unspeakable horrors. We know this from Holocaust survivors. The US Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem and other organizations have seen the value of having Holocaust survivors share their stories. Not only do the stories then become recorded as oral history and testimony but the story and its retelling to audiences over and over again enable the survivors to emotionally heal from the horror. Most survivors who have shared their stories are members of synagogues, have sent their children to religious school and have thereby developed and reinforced their sense of meaning.

Victor Frankl, the Jewish psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz, wrote extensively about this in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He realized that the main emotional characteristic that enabled people to cope with and survive the ordeals of the concentration camps was a strong sense of meaning. The people who had a strong sense of faith or a strong sense of an ethical and moral value system, were able to survive the depravation, torture and humiliation. 

This lesson of survival was further brought home to me from a class I attended virtually this summer. The theme for this year’s Hartman Rabbinic conference was titled “Torah of Possibility for an Uncertain Future”. Scholars, over 5 days, addressed the threats to our faith community. They highlighted all that is wrong with our lives today and reinforced how at risk our spiritual lives are. One scholar - Yossi Klein HaLevi - offered his perspective on these threats. HaLevi began his career as a journalist, but through his books has become a noted and respected commentator on Israel and the Jewish community. He’s working on a new book which he has preliminarily titled Wisdom of Survival. His thesis resonated with me and provided guidance to me as we continue to navigate the uncertainty around us.

Yossi Kelin HaLevi shared with us that his father was a Hungarian Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. Growing up in that household, HaLevi said, he could have either learned to develop the personality of a victim or the personality of a survivor. One with a victim personality would blame others for their condition and rightly so. Jews after the Holocaust have the right to blame the Nazis for the destruction of European Jewry and to blame the world for not coming to our aid. As victims we cried out to God, to no avail. As victims we seek retribution and justice. As victims we live in the past rehashing what went wrong and wondering what could have been if circumstances were different.

But survivors have a different perspective. Survivors certainly remember what happened and seek justice and retribution, but are also able to rise above the horror and make change. Survivors rise out of the depths of despair and make a difference. Survivors respond to the wound and allow the scar to motivate them to be forces of good and change in the world. 

HaLevi based this victim vs survivor thesis on a phrase with which many of us are familiar from the Passover Haggadah. This phrase, HaLevi argued, teaches how Judaism wants us to be. We say at the seder - בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים - in every generation each of us is required to see ourselves as if we left Egypt. Let’s think about that for a second. We sing at the seder “עבדים היינו עתה בני חורין - we were slaves and now we are free. We remember Egyptian servitude and we remember the Exodus. But, HaLevi argued, what we most remember is that we left Egypt. The perspective is that of a survivor, not a victim. We remember every year that we survived slavery, with God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm, and we made it to the Promised Land. We remember that we left Egypt, not that we languished there for generations. Egyptian bondage is part of our heritage, in fact it’s one of the reasons for observing Shabbat, but we remember it from the perspective of a survivor, not a victim. Because we were slaves, we make sure that others aren’t enslaved. Because we were set free we advocate for the oppressed. Because we survived and flourished, we need to ensure that others can thrive. 

Transforming the pain into blessing, transforming the suffering into success, that has been the Jewish endeavor. What has defined Judaism post-Holocaust is the creation of the State of Israel. Out of the depths of the worst tragedy to befall the Jewish people in our 4,000 year history, has been the greatest triumph in the history of our people. Jews, as survivors, established a State and all the potential benefits that Jewish autonomy can bring to the Jewish people. From 1933-1945 Jews endured extreme deprivation, antisemitism and slaughter. For 12 years we had nowhere to turn, no place to hide. For 12 years our lives were threatened and our world was shattered. 

Yet, despite the death of ⅓ of the world’s Jewish population we survived. Despite fearing for the end of Judaism, Jews endured. Despite six million lives lost, of that number one and half million children, the Jewish community prevailed. Survival - not victimhood - allowed us to persevere. Survival, not victimhood, allowed us to find our way out of the darkness.

Psychological research has shown that survivors have unique characteristics that enable them to cope with their ordeal. Victor Frankl proved that meaning is one of those characteristics. Yossi Klein HaLevi taught that our 4,000 year tradition is a beacon of that survival attitude. That being able to see ourselves as survivors and not victims of our long history of persecution, murder and suffering, has enabled our Jewish community to survive. Finding meaning in our community is the key to survival.

Those of us who have learned to master the ZOOM technology this past year and a half have witnessed this in action. In the midst of this 18 month COVID ordeal, we have been able to maintain community. It has been uplifting to see over 20 screens every Friday night as we welcome shabbat together. It has been inspiring to be part of a community that prays and studies together each shabbat morning on ZOOM and now both in person and on ZOOM. I am proud that we have been able to provide a minyan morning and evening for all those who have been saying kaddish. Many of those, after 11 months on ZOOM, shared how much the Shaare Tefila ZOOM community not only enabled them to fulfill the mitzvah of saying kaddish but also reinforced the sense of community. And everyone who has participated on ZOOM in one way or another has voiced their gratitude for being able to stay connected with our community.

We have not been alone. We have been resilient and we have been able to find a source of meaning that has grounded us and enabled us to navigate these harsh waters. Like Zamperini on his raft, we have been languishing, but unlike him we know that throughout, we haven’t been alone. 

Three times this morning, after blowing the shofar during musaf, we are going to say the following phrase - היום הרת עולם - today the world came into being. By reciting that phrase, we affirm the new year and the anniversary of the creation of the world. No matter the condition of the world around us, we proclaim that we are alive. We state unequivocally  that we have survived. We affirm that we can see the potential for new life. We express our prayer that we will see the possibility of blessings in our life in the year ahead. 

This should be our focus. In the midst of the chaos, the sickness, the societal discord; in the midst of the proverbial life raft in which we find ourselves; in the midst of the despair and with the masks on our faces; in the midst of all this uncertainty - “hayom harat olam” - today the world came into being. May we continue to search for and find meaning in our lives. May we continue to help each other feel this hope. May we continue to help each other survive. May we continue to help each other thrive.