Turning Toward Tishrei with Resilience and Purpose


                        Notes and Excerpts from a talk given at Congregation Rodef Shalom / Denver on September 28, 2019                         

Judaism has always held that it lies within man’s power to renew himself, to be reborn and to redirect the course of this life.  In this task, man must rely only on himself, no one can help him.  He is his own creator and innovator.  He is his own redeemer; he is his own messiah who has come to redeem himself from the darkness of his exile to the light of his personal redemption …                     - Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, On Repentance

Everyday resilience

We need resilience in our everyday life, not just when we confront major traumas.

So far we’ve talked about our own experience of resilience. We’ve also explored some competing definitions of resilience and and how it can be built. Now, let’s try to develop a clearer definition of resilience you can work with in this course.

In a recent review of studies in this area, the authors summarised resilience in the following way:

Resilience is a dynamic process or outcome that is the result of interaction over time between a person and the environment … Individual characteristics such as self-efficacy, confidence and coping strategies are important in overcoming challenging situations or recurring setbacks … Difficulties are not simply managed, but individuals are able to bounce back quickly and efficiently, persevere and thrive … Successful adaptation occurs despite obstacles and personal wellbeing is maintained … Reciprocal, mutually supportive personal, professional and peer relationships are important in this process. (Beltman et al. 2011, pp. 185–207)

This definition reflects the way the concept of resilience has evolved over the last two decades. It emphasises that resilience is:

  • a process rather than an end-state

  • about thriving, not just surviving

  • involves supportive relationships, not just individual effort

  • about adaptive, flexible responses and not a heroic feat.

Some psychologists working in this area have taken this one step further. For example, Dr Laurie Leitch who works all around the world building capacity for resilience with communities responding to disaster, refers to resilience as:

The timely capacity of individuals and groups – family, community, country, and enterprise – to be more generative during times of stability and to adapt, reorganise, and grow in response to disruption. (2017, para. 1)

This simple definition builds on the standard understanding of resilience in a very important way. That is, it reframes resilience as an everyday experience, as a capacity to be more ‘generative’ or creative, not only in times of crisis, but also when things are going well.

This makes a lot of sense. If we train ourselves to respond to everyday situations, we are likely to handle larger problems in a more creative and effective manner.


The Tishrei Chagim:  Design or Detriment?

For 30 years as a Jewish professional, I witnessed both the flow of inspiration and vulnerability at this time of year; those leaders who have a plan can be incredibly inspirational and powerful, while those without one can be overwhelmed and exhausted even by thinking about the chagim

The 27th psalm, which we begin to recite after the new moon of Elul, foreshadows and braces us for the many shades of Tishrei … its ingenuity is to be found in the seams of the poetry that spike in the central verse and conclude with an ode to personal strength and courage

Selections from Psalm 27 

לְדָוִ֨ד  יְהוָ֤ה אוֹרִ֣י וְ֭יִשְׁעִי מִמִּ֣י אִירָ֑א יְהוָ֥ה מָֽעוֹז־חַ֝יַּ֗י מִמִּ֥י אֶפְחָֽד׃

  1. Of David. The LORD is my light and my help; whom should I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?

אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהוָה֮ אוֹתָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲז֥וֹת בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֽוֹ׃

  1. One thing I ask of the LORD, only that do I seek: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD, to frequent His temple.

כִּ֤י יִצְפְּנֵ֨נִי בְּסֻכֹּה֮ בְּי֪וֹם רָ֫עָ֥ה יַ֭סְתִּרֵנִי בְּסֵ֣תֶר אָהֳל֑וֹ בְּ֝צ֗וּר יְרוֹמְמֵֽנִי׃

  1. He will shelter me in His pavilion on an evil day, grant me the protection of His tent, raise me high upon a rock.

וְעַתָּ֨ה יָר֪וּם רֹאשִׁ֡י עַ֤ל אֹֽיְבַ֬י סְֽבִיבוֹתַ֗י וְאֶזְבְּחָ֣ה בְ֭אָהֳלוֹ זִבְחֵ֣י תְרוּעָ֑ה אָשִׁ֥ירָה וַ֝אֲזַמְּרָ֗ה לַיהוָֽה׃

  1. Now is my head high over my enemies roundabout; I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy, singing and chanting a hymn to the LORD.

לׅׄוּלֵׅׄ֗אׅׄ הֶ֭אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּֽטוּב־יְהוָ֗ה בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים׃

  1. Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living…

קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃

     

Selections from "Why do we Recite Psalm 27 from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah?" by Dr. David Golinkin / Responsa for Today: Volume 4, Issue No. 1, October 2009


Sometime around the year 1745 Ashkenazic Jews began to recite Psalm 27 morning and evening from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah.Rabbi Ephrayim Zalman Margaliot and others refer to a midrash found in Midrash Tehilim on this psalm (27:4, ed. Buber, p. 224; and cf. parallels inVayikra Rabbah 21:4, ed. Margaliot, p. 478; Pesikta D’rav Kahana, Aharey Mot, ed. Buber, fols. 175b-176a; and Pesikta Rabbati, Parashah 8, ed. Ish-Shalom, fols. 30b-31a):

The Rabbis explain this chapter as referring to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

“The Lord is my light” on Rosh Hashanah …

“And my salvation” on Yom Kippur…

In other words, the midrash connects this psalm to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Margaliot (in Elef Lamateh to Mateh Ephrayim 581, subparagraph 6) quotes this midrash and then adds a connection to Sukkot: “and afterwards [the psalm says]: ‘He will shelter me in his Sukkah’ ”.

A third explanation appears in recent literature about the High Holidays, such as The High Holy Days by Rabbi Hayyim Kieval (second edition, Jerusalem, 2004, p. 54) and Ziv Haminhagim by Rabbi Yehudah Dov Zinger (Jerusalem, 1965, p. 143). The last verse of the psalm says “lule he’emanti lirot b’tuv hashem b’eretz hahayyim” – “Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” – and the word luleis dotted in the Masoretic text. This provides a hint that lule in reverse spells Elul!

Of course, according to simple logic, Psalm 27 was chosen to be recited at this time of year because it contains words of encouragement during the Days of Awe, when every Jew is fearful about his fate, and a supplication to God for salvation.

According to Talmudic tradition, the Book of Psalms was written by King David (Bava Batra 14b) and King David devoted most of his life to war. In this psalm, he requests that God grant him physical and spiritual refuge from his warfare.

Indeed, this is the central verse of Psalm 27:

Ahat sha’alti mei’eit hashem otah avakesh

shivti b’vet hashem kol yemei hayay

lahazot b’noam hashem u’l’vaker b’heikhalo.

One thing have I asked of the Lord, this I request,

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,

to gaze at the graciousness of God and to visit in His sanctuary 


The question is:  is this psalm appropriate for us?  Do we really want to sit in the synagogue and the Bet Midrash/House of Study our entire lives – to gaze at the sweetness of God and to visit His sanctuary, like many yeshivah students today?  Or perhaps the best way to serve God is on the street, at work, within society?

I would like to reply with a homiletic explanation that I heard from my father, Rabbi Noah Golinkin z”l, which I later found in the commentary of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) to Psalms (quoted by Rabbi Yissakhar Ya’akovson, Netiv Binah, Vol. 5, Tel Aviv, 1983, pp. 24-25). Rabbi Hirsch says that the psalm does not mean that we should actually dwell in the house of God all the days of our lives.  Even the Kohanim, the Priests, were not in the Temple permanently!

This expression, therefore, comes to say that if we sanctify our lives,then every single place becomes a Beit Hashem, a house of the Lord…  In every place where God’s Torah is observed with strength and purity, then our earthly life becomes a chariot for God’s presence, and God has a place to dwell on this earth.

This is a beautiful idea which is worth stressing during the High Holy Days and worth doing throughout the year: we must turn our homes and our places of work and our communities into Beit Hashem – the house of the Lord – by sanctifying each of these places via mitzvot.

In conclusion, Psalm 27 presents us with a wonderful ideal both for the Days of Awe from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah and throughout the year:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, this I request,

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,

to gaze at the graciousness of God and to visit in his sanctuary.


Tishrei takes us through the valley of humility and vulnerability during the early days of judgement and atonement


Yom Kippur is one 25-hour day that is capable of entering and enriching every day of the year. On Yom Kippur, we peel back some of our denial and make space for the fragility of life. The rituals help us and the liturgy helps us. At the center of the High Holiday Amidah, the collection of prayers known as Tefillah (Prayer), stands U-netaneh Tokef. It begins, “Let us speak of the sacred power of this day—profound and awe-inspiring” (Mahzor Lev Shalem). 

Images of evanescent human life are scattered throughout the Bible, and the rabbis gather them up, presenting us with a vivid reminder that we are vulnerable and our time on earth is fleeting. These images all arise from the natural course of events. It is the nature of grass to live for a short time. We catch a breeze as it brushes by, and then it is gone. We live with this fragility, just as we live with the brevity of our own time on earth in the context of the larger universe.


Selection from U’netaneh Tokef


אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר. בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ. מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר, כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ, וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל, כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר, וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה, וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת, וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ, וְכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף. וְאַתָּה הוּא מֶלֶךְ אֵל חַי וְקַיָּם.


Each person’s origin is dust, and each person will return to the earth having spent life seeking sustenance. Scripture compares human beings to a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattered dust, a vanishing dream. And You—You are the Sovereign, living God.


The honest acknowledgement of the fragility of life is paired with the faith that God is eternal. While I have chosen to use Mahzor Lev Shalem’s translation here, because it is gender-inclusive, I do want to point out that in the Hebrew the word for person is adam, which has the resonance of adamah, earth. We are made of the earth; we literally come from the earth and we return to the earth. Yom Kippur is preparing us to die. And in preparing us to die, Yom Kippur is preparing us to live well. Each individual life withers and fades, but we are all held in the divine abundance which endures forever. There’s an invitation to depend on the largeness and permanence of the divine to help us experience this abundance. Our minds may wrestle with ideas about the ever-living God, but the liturgy juxtaposes our impermanence with God’s permanence as an invitation to relax into a promise of something beyond ourselves.

These same images appear in Yizkor, the memorial prayers that we also recite on Yom Kippur: We enter into dialogue with those we love who are no longer in this world. Perhaps we ache with grief. We acknowledge that just as their lives were fleeting, so are ours. And our request is:

Teach us to count each day, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12).

The Psalms teach us that wisdom comes from keeping in mind that life is limited. With an awareness of our mortality comes a heightened awareness that we must make choices about how we live, that our choices matter and need to reflect our values. There’s an urgency about living each day that keeps us on track, or helps us get back on track when we lose our way.

                                                                     - "Living With the Fragility of Life" by Rabbi Mychal Springer


With the hard work of teshuvah completed after Yom Kippur, we move on to the joyfulness of Sukkot, which includes the Hoshana circuits and the final seal to our place in the Book of Life on Hoshana Rabbah.  Evident is the fact that we are still doing the work of self-improvement, as reflected in these next two texts, work which can elude us if we let down our resilience


Meditation Before Sitting in the Sukkah for the First Time:

May it be Your will, Hashem my God and the God of my ancestors, that You cause Your Presence to reside among us; that You spread over us the sukkah of Your peace … May this mitzvah of sukkah that I perform be reckoned as if I had fulfilled it in all of its details, implications, and specifications, as well as all the mitzvot dependent on it.  May you seal (the Book of Life) for our benefit, and allow us the opportunity to dwell many days upon the land, the Holy Land, in Your service, and in Your reverence.


Meditation Before Beating the Hoshana Bundle:

May it be favorable before You, Hashem our God and the God of our ancestors, Who opts for good prophets and their good customs, that You accept with mercy and favor our prayers and our hakafah-circuits.  Remember for our sake the merit of your seven perfect ones. Remove the iron partition separating us from You. Hearken to our pleas and grant us the good seal.  … Seal us in the Book of Good Life.  … From there endow Your servant, who prostrates himself/herself before You with forgiveness, that my days may be lengthened.  Spread wide Your right arm and Your hand to accept me, with my whole-hearted repentance before You.  Open Your goodly treasure trove to satisfy with water a thirsty soul …


In a nutshell, Tishrei is a vast spiritual orchard of opportunity in which to find our “flight plan” for the New Year, and we test the mettle of our resolve through the “sweet and sour” notes of the celebrations.  In the end, however, it is on us as individuals to gird ourselves for the journey

 

Each High Holiday season offers us the opportunity to be the most profound Ba’alei Teshuvah: converts, who are willing to radically change who we once were in order to embrace a new identity and closeness to God. This is an important process, but it can also be a dangerous process. As we go through our identities uprooting and felling trees, we also need to make sure that we commit ourselves to future growth, to drawing up the water. We need to sustain ourselves with the knowledge that deep down we are good and can become better. Teshuvah is not only believing that we are capable of great evil, it is also about affirming that we can improve.

                                                               - Dena Weiss, "From Chopping Down to Raising Up:  Parashat Nitzavim"


Tishrei as a microcosm of the entire year / Tishrei Timeline … 

The intensity of Tishrei, in its swings between judgement, solemnity, and happiness is a rehearsal for the forthcoming seasons of the New Year; the litany of the 27th Psalm is an intentional preparation for that dance … and an escort as we go from Rosh Hashanah to Tzom Gedalia to Yom Kippur to Sukkot to Hoshana Rabbah to Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah


 


Returning and Retaining in the Month of Elul

based on a talk given at The Dat Minyan / Denver on September 7, 2019

As the moon of Elul waxes in the nighttime sky, the Jewish community is preparing for its yearly round of High Holidays, known in Hebrew as the Yamim Norai’m (“Days of Awe”).  With due exception to the weeks leading up to Passover, there is no other time in the Jewish year in which the flurry of activity is so intense and as urgent within community institutions, synagogue strive to prepare for the masses of attendees, schools educate about the customs and themes of the holidays, and not-for-profit agencies engage their respective affinity groups in the merits of giving charitably at this season, so that our moral credits might overwhelm our failures.

Superimposed upon this cultural intensity are the spiritual imperatives of introspection (Heb. hitbod’dut) and return (Heb. teshuvah) - a month-long aspiration toward being ready for the Days of Judgement (which, we are taught, is dispensed by our Creator from the Heavenly Throne on Rosh Hashanah) and Atonement (toward which we pin our hopes on Yom Kippur).

Our task is to perform a total recall of the year that is nearly behind us, and to audit for offenses we made, and to seek forgiveness from thei offended.  All of this demands from us more focus, planning, and thick-skinned endurance than other periods of time.  The demands of the hour require, in a nutshell, an amulet of resilience.

Resilience is commonly defined as the capacity to ‘bounce back’ after an adverse event. Moreover, it is a dynamic process or outcome that is the result of interaction over time between a person and the environment. This definition reflects the way the concept of resilience has evolved over the last two decades. It emphasizes that resilience is a process rather than an end-state.  This simple definition builds on the standard understanding of resilience in a very important way. That is, it reframes resilience as an everyday experience, as a capacity to be more ‘generative’ or creative, not only in times of crisis, but also when things are going well.  This makes a lot of sense. If we train ourselves to respond to everyday situations, we are likely to handle larger problems in a more creative and effective manner (O’Donnell, 2019)

Regardless of the time of year, Jewish Tradition is always realistic about human nature and never provides simplistic or instantaneously magical solutions to personal problems and difficulties. Rather, consolation is to be viewed as a process of maturity and development. 

Our weekly Torah portions bring us through the final installment of the Torah during these weeks of Elul, in which a resilient Moses confers his final lessons to the fledgling Israelite nation.  We recall how, at the outset of Deuteronomy, he had appealed to God to grant him a pardon so that he might be able to enter the Promised Land with his people, and, alas, his request was denied. Nevertheless, for the balance of the Book, Moshe continues to fulfill his mission as the leader of the Jewish people and the greatest of all prophets. Even when one is not completely comforted, one must continue with a positive mission in life and not use the disappointments and tragedies that eventually beset all of us as an excuse for surrender and disengagement.  It is obvious that failure, resilience and accomplishment exist side-by-side within us individually and as a nation.  

As the course of Elul unfolds, what we repent, repair and return (to) depends exquisitely on what we remember.  Truth be told, there are some things we’d rather not remember; we might be better served in not holding onto, for instance, who hurt us, or whom we hurt, or every time we said or did what we shouldn’t, or every time we didn’t say or do what we should. 

We would do well to exercise some self-directed compassion in situations where active remembrance feeds an unhealthy, if not obsessive dynamic.   

According to some, self-compassion is even more important than self-esteem. For example, as psychologist Kristen Neff from the University of Texas at Austin says:

Self-compassion doesn’t demand that we evaluate ourselves positively or that we see ourselves as better than others. Rather, the positive emotions of self-compassion kick in exactly when self-esteem falls down; when we don’t meet our expectations or fail in some way. This means that the sense of intrinsic self-worth inherent in self-compassion is highly stable. It is constantly available to provide us with care and support in times of need. My research and that of my colleagues has shown that self-compassion offers the same benefits as high self-esteem, such as less anxiety and depression and greater happiness. However, it is not associated with the downsides of self-esteem such as narcissism, social comparison or ego-defensiveness. 

This brings modern faith leaders such as Rabbi DE Markus to prescribe “a little escapism” (even selective amnesia) as “a tried and true anti-hurt mechanism. But escapism and amnesia aren’t long-term resilience strategies because ultimately, they don’t work. Consciously or not, we remember more than we may want. And ultimately, that’s for the good: the Jewish High Holy Day season is transformative only in proportion to what we let ourselves remember and feel.”

“The goal is that we remember precisely not to repeat and not to re-live. The best we can hope of life’s hurts is that they both strengthen us and soften us – condition us to carry the memory, and soften us so that we’re more empathetic to others’ hurts and so we don’t lash our hurts on others. So one measure of our spiritual (and collective social) resilience is the extent to which we harness those lessons for real, without being steeled by them.”                                                                                                                                                                                    

Resilience, in the end, is our game strategy, throughout the course of this Elul journey of memory: to remember compassionately without re-living hurtfully. Returning must entail retaining self-dignity, and making our resilience manifest in doing so. 


Works Cited: