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Over the Rabbi’s Disk

Rabbi Howard S. Herman, D.D.

Resillance: Jewish Value or Human Nature


The very idea of having to face any kind of adversity is abhorrent to most of us.  No one that I know relishes the worries and stresses that accompany so many of challenges we face in life.  Yet as human we are consistently bombarded with the challenges of problems and adversity.  All during our lives we struggle: growing up, getting married, starting careers and businesses, facing the future, making friends and enemies, confronting illness and on and on.  If we are honest with ourselves, life is a mixture of the good and bad, the bitter and the sweet.  Just like a ship is never sailing in perfectly calm seas all the time, it is the ship’s captain who  is constantly making the proper adjustments to the course that gives the boat the ability to sail unimpeded.  We, too, need to be constantly attuned to the needed adjustments to our lives if we are going to move ahead with a relative degree of calm and tranquility.


Across the span of history Jews have experienced extensive trauma, and even catastrophe and we have survived.  Before the Israelites, were ready to fulfil their dreams, they needed to face themselves in the wilderness and grow up as a people.  The American Psychological association defines resilience

 as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats,  and even significant sources of stress.”  Harvard University psychologist George Vaillant suggests that resilience can be understood as a “twig with a fresh green living core that springs back and continues to grow after encountering pressure.”


Judaism in the main, is about resilience.  Through the centuries, we have experienced extensive trauma, even catastrophe, and have survived as a people.  After each catastrophe the prevailing paradigm was inoperable: we no longer knew how to understand ourselves in relation to God, to other Jews, and to other peoples.  Yet throughout our history we have transcended catastrophe after catastrophe.  We have repeatedly breathed new life into the Jewish people and have discovered roads towards repair.  From trauma, we have had to heal.  We have had to recover and re-vision, re-generate and re-seed Jewish life.  We have found new ways to cultivate resilience, both individually and collectively. 


The way we choose to deal with difficulty and suffering makes all the difference.  We may be tempted to bitterness in our lives, but then what?   The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, once remarked that the way of life is “how” more than it is “what.”  An individual or group may be powerless to control reality, but is nevertheless responsible for how they respond to it.  In this regard, we recall that when the Hebrews came to Marah, they, “could not drink the water because it was bitter.”  However, the Hebrew could be read “they could not drink the water because they (the people) were bitter.  How we choose to see, in other words, says more about us than it does the external world.  It has been said that “hurt people, hurt people” meaning that if healing is not found for our woundedness, our pain will likely “leak out’, as depression and hostility toward others.  Finding inner peace is crucial lest we become poisoned through a portion of bitterness that defiles us.  The worse sort of prison is the one we make for ourselves, by choosing to be taken captive by fear and anger.


Resilience is not about being hard, strong, powerful or invincible.  It is not determined by the stress one is under but rather by one’s relationship to that stress.  It is about self-awareness and the story one tells oneself in the face of changes, setbacks, challenges and adversities.  It is the ability, at all times and under all circumstances to retain one’s basic humanity.  Embedded in this truth to remain human, is retaining a sense of humility and showing your capacity for empathy and compassion toward yourself as well as for the people around you.  It  also requires one to maintain an expansive state, an open mind, an open heart, and flexibility in your approach. 


I wish you all continued resilience to see whatever difficulties you face to the end.


With Blessings


Rabbi Howard Herman DD

Naples Jewish Congregation

Naples, Florida

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