A famous story told by the Hasidic master, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav.
Once a family was cursed, and their son, their pride and joy, became convinced he was a rooster. He removed his clothes, and sat clucking beneath the family table. He refused to eat human food, only chicken food. He refused to speak.
The parents were beside themselves. The called in doctors, healers, therapists, wizards. No one could help. Finally, they invited the rabbi. The rabbi assured them he could cure the boy, but it would be unconventional. The parents agree immediately. “Just heal our boy.”
So the rabbi took off his clothes, descended down under the table, began clucking like a rooster and eating rooster food. And now the parents are truly astonished, they now had a pair of roosters in the house.
The rabbi and the boy spend the day together, clucking and eating chicken food. And at one point the rabbi turned to the boy and said, “It hurts my throat to speak this way. Wouldn’t it be better for us to speak like people?”
“But we’re roosters!” exclaimed the boy.
“So we’ll be roosters who speak like people,” responded the rabbi. And the boy agreed. So they spoke.
The rabbi said, “it’s cold here with no clothes. Wouldn’t it be better for us to dress like people?”
“But we’re roosters! Roosters don’t wear clothes” exclaimed the boy.
“So we’ll be roosters who dress like people,” responded the rabbi. And the boy agreed, and he dressed. And the rabbi said, “I don’t really like rooster food, wouldn’t it be better to eat like people?” And the boy agreed.
Finally, the rabbi said, “My back hurts. Wouldn’t it be better for us to stand and walk the world like people?” And the boy agreed. They rose from beneath the table, and the boy was cured.
I know this rabbi. I am this rabbi. I have sat under the table with so many people who have forgotten who they are. They sit crumpled, bent over, under the table, under all the expectations and demands of life, naked and unprotected from the tragedies that come with adulthood, and starving from the spiritual chickenfeed fed them by contemporary culture.
A woman comes to me and shares that she’s just exhausted – dried up by the endless demands of being wife, mother, daughter, and professional. She can’t figure out what she wants, what might make her happy. She’s worn down by the endless car pools to school, soccer games, gymnastics practice, dance rehearsals, orthodontist appointments and Bar Mitzvah lessons. Somewhere amid all that, she is still being trying to be a human being with a soul.
A man comes when a crisis arrives. His dad dies. His best friend has a heart attack. His job gets downsized. His kid is in trouble. He can’t disconnect or unplug. Everyone wants a piece of him until there are no pieces left for himself. He can’t handle it. This isn’t the life he was prepared for. He feels like he’s a stranger to himself.
Recognize yourself yet?
These men and women aren’t failures by any means. They have achieved all the aspirations of their youth. From the outside, you’d call them very successful. They enjoy all the material rewards our culture metes out to clever, industrious, shrewd, effective people. The homes, the vacations, the cars, the clothes. They have it all. But they sit with the rabbi and confess that something is missing, something is lacking. They were so busy winning, they didn’t notice what they lost. Now, there is an emptiness within, an emptiness that no new acquisition, no vacation adventure, no make-over can satisfy.
Couple all of this angst with the struggles in our world today. Hatred and violence fill the news. Climate change, war, the future for our children and grandchildren, the issues grow each year. How are we supposed to handle all this in our lives?
And so like the boy in our story, we climb under the table, strip off the world and pine for a simpler life. And we believe that rolling back the clock or hiding in the confines of our home with lead us to a better place.
What am I supposed to say as a rabbi to the question of what’s next or why are we here? How do we get out from under the table … from our safe hiding places?
There is no one here tonight that has not had a dark day, who has been faced with illness in the family or a challenge brought on by family, job or other challenges.
A personal moment. As you may know, Dora and I became grandparents this past year. When our kids told us that they were expecting, it was a joy filled moment filled with celebration. Plans were discussed and we looked forward to a mid-summer due date preceded by baby showers and nursery building and lots of shopping if you know Dora. But as I have said often, while man plans … God laughs and when our daughter in law went into early labor due to medical complications, a phone call from our son quickly changed from slowing things down to the baby is coming today. Today … wait that means the baby is only 24 weeks old. Can that happen? Your world suddenly shifts from joy to panic to doubt and then prayer … as Dora and I sat helpless in Bellevue, our kids were facing real life issues thousands of miles away. Hazel Leigh was born 1lb 1oz. So small that the normal preemie equipment was too big for her. A diaper the size of a mailing label, skin so sensitive she could not be touched, breathing on her own but clinging to life. Now nearly a full 6 months later, Hazel is thriving and growing and smiling and playing and her parents are settling into parenthood. And Dora and I are grateful every day when we see her smiles and hear her laughter. Nights once dark and fearful, become days filled with light and love. Hazel is the model of resilience … as are her parents.
I am convinced that this is re·sil·ience.
Thirty years of life as a rabbi have taught me that there is no shortage of adversity in life. Whether it’s a minor setback or a major trauma, we all endure hardships across our lives. The differences among us lie not only in the shape hardship takes for us but also in how we respond when it knocks at our door. Do you find yourself weighed down by the challenges life throws at you? Or do you courageously embrace the struggle?
Resilience is the ability to cope with adversity and to use challenges to forge strength and prosperity. Having resilience does not mean that you don’t struggle, make mistakes, or need to ask for help. Quite to the contrary, resilient individuals are those who keep plugging along even when the situation becomes ugly or exhausting, who learn from their own mishaps and misfortunes, and who rely on others with confidence and trust.
Adversity does create a wake in its path and its tragic side should not be downplayed. But even when tragedy strikes, growth is possible. Post-traumatic growth—which can often occur alongside post-traumatic stress—is the set of positive changes that result from a traumatic experience and can include a deeper appreciation for life, a bolstered sense of one’s own capabilities, and stronger connections to others. We have seen that in the wake of the Hurricanes and earthquakes that have struck our planet.
Resilient people find a way to reframe situations in a more positive light while still accepting the reality. Imagine a news broadcast interviewing victims of a natural disaster. Some sadly remark: “We’ll never get our lives back.” Others retort: “This was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but it’s only a bump in the road. This community has come together and shown its strength in so many unbelievable ways.”
We have the power to decide how we’re going to interpret the adversities we face. As we persevere through life, we develop a more grateful approach to living. The hardship that scars us is often the same stuff of life that manufactures hard-earned wisdom.
Are you the Optimist? Optimists are among the most resilient of us, and they succeed by virtue of focusing their attention on how they can make their situations better. Or are you the pessimist? When faced with a challenge, pessimistic thinkers are more likely to be blind to opportunities to enact positive changes.
My hero … my wife. When a simple elective blood test turned into a life altering cancer diagnosis, Dora could have withdrawn and crumbled. But she didn’t. She is fierce. She is driven and she chose to grab life by the horns and lead it. She has run marathons, climbed mountains, endured radiation and chemotherapy, she has had good days and bad and now represents Ford Motor Company in their More Good Days campaign. She found her voice through her struggle against cancer and she has become an inspiration to those who know her.
She is not alone. Through illnesses, job loss, family struggles many have followed in her same path. For me though, she is the best example I can come up with about resilience. For Dora, resilience is being in charge. She took control of her life, her health and her future. She is a blessing.
When you catch yourself feeling stuck or bogged down in adversity, find one thing you have control over and take action on it.
While personal strength matters a lot, it is ultimately the sense of community and relationship to others that enables true resilience. Knowing that there’s someone else out there who cares is invaluable when we’re down for the count. Tending to your most important relationships when times are good builds the trust and intimacy that will help those relationships stay strong when adversity hits.
We have many communities in our lives that aid in our resilience. We have a community filled with family. Creating a supportive, nurturing, embracing family community is essential to building a community of resilience.
But I know that for some, family can’t meet all our needs. We need a second family, our faith community to stand tall for each other. Our faith community, Temple B’nai Torah, is that inclusive, welcoming, supportive and nurturing community that strives to be the foundation of resilience for our membership. For sure, we are not perfect, and sometimes we need help to rise, but our hope and prayer is that we can create a web of support to cradle those at times of greatest need. And we know, there are many in our community with profound needs where we can provide the power of resilience.
On Rosh Hashanah I called on each of you to lift someone else up. Together we can lift our community up.
I want to conclude with a word that I learned a couple of weeks ago. It is kintsugi. Not a Hebrew term but Japanese. Kintsugi is the art of embracing the flawed or imperfect. Kintsugi is related to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which calls for seeing beauty in the flawed or imperfect. The repair method was also born from the Japanese feeling of mottainai, which expresses regret when something is wasted, as well as mushin, the acceptance of change. In Japanese art, pottery or paintings are often made imperfect so as to highlight the repair or renewal of a piece. In Japanese culture, keeping an object around even after it has broken and highlighting the cracks and repairs is highly prized and often adds to the value and beauty of an object.
Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated…using a gold paint or glue over the cracks.
The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all of us are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. This poignancy is known in Japan as compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identiﬁcation with, the brokenness in which we live.
Tonight we sit, surrounded by hundreds of people, each of us with our own brokenness hidden from our neighbors. The year that has passed has left its scars and scabs, its joys and blessings. Imagine if we could highlight both and be honest and open and bring our battles to the surface. Isn’t that what this day is about? Depleting ourselves and our resistance so that our resilience can come to the surface. Imagine our community, which cherishes honesty and openness and the embrace of the neighbor who honors us with an open heart and hand.
We have the power to be resilient. Through family, community and faith, we can rise. We can rise together because we are stronger together. Because we care together.
May this day become a day of awareness.
And may we bring our compassion and faith to bear on those around us.
An easy fast to all.