Resilience

We might be stronger than we think.

 It's an optimistic picture.

 Even if we don't feel its a possibility at the time, we can recover from stress and even trauma.

 

Research shows us a tantalizingly optimistic picture. Resilience is not a trait of exceptional people but something we can consciously develop. And whats fascinating for us, is that membership of religious communities, such as this, helps us develop that resilience.

 

We might be stronger and more resilient than we think.

Its not just communities like ours who value resilience, as resilient dynamism is the topic for the upcoming Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum. Theyve identified a severe global threat that accompanies this double dip economic recession. This is a "crisis of ethics, a crisis of morality" as they see countries becoming more nationalistic and more egotistical.

Whats fascinating for us, I think, is that the Forum has turned to religious communities, to see what can be learnt from us as what they call longstanding transmitters of values, as communities who understand what strengthens resilience.

Earlier this month, I was privileged to represent the Reform Movement, along with leading global charities, and 10 other international faith leaders, at a civil society consultation of the World Economic Forum. Just so we can feel good about our Movement punching above our weight, there were two Jewish Organisations represented there - Chabad USA and the Movement for Reform Judaism. The values of our Movement, of justice, equality, tikkun olam, protection of the weak, impacted on the discussions about resilience.

 

By taking part in a Jewish community however we define ourselves religiously - we make ourselves stronger than we might have thought.

The ability of our community to strengthen resilience goes beyond feel good community moments. Religious-cultural civilizations like ours cause a long-term, cumulative impact. Being members of a community builds psychological resilience in children and adolescents, and helps us be resilient whilst ageing. We offer meaning, support and intimacy.

 

The essential practical framework of communal life is supported by the more intangible aspects of our Jewish lives, individually and together. As Kenneth Pargament states in The Psychology of Religion and Coping, Through prayer, the disorientation that accompanies threat and loss may be replaced with new purpose. Through relationships with others in the community or through mystical experience, new visions may be generated instead of shattered dreams.

Mutual care, prayer, ritual and relationships all support our coping. And then there’s the golden tonic among our religious coping methods which is perhaps a less expected one - telling stories. Jews are compulsive story tellers whether narratives about ourselves or about others. These stories provide a frame for our world, a prism of reality and interpretation. They enable us to make sense and to move on. They provide coherence and closure. The stories we tell about ourselves and our world define our self-image and move us to particular ways of action (or inaction).

 

This may strike you as odd. Can you really build a resilient reality on foundations of recall and interpretation? As Jews, this is exactly what we do and our history reflects our exceptional resilience! Heres how we do it.

 

We tell and we tell again many stories each holding a different message. Our retelling the story of the Exodus reinforces our awareness of our origins as slaves, and so we celebrate freedom. We defend our freedom like the lions of Judah and know that we must defend the freedom of others like the lionesses of Judah!

By retelling our stories, we make ourselves stronger and more resilient than we thought we would be able to be.

 

As well as remembering, what also helps us to be resilient is our capacity to forget our stories. Forgetting protects us and enables us to cope with the next challenge.

The Talmud asks: will we always need to return to these same memories. Were they still retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt after the first exile from Israel? As the Prophet Jeremiah stated: The time is coming when no one will refer to the God who delivered Israel from Egypt.' instead they'll refer to "God who brought Israel back from Assyria.

The Rabbis explained that this doesnt mean that mention of the Exodus will be obliterated, but that memories evolve and that the deliverance from subjection to the other kingdoms will take the first place and the Exodus from Egypt shall become secondary. It continues with an allegory:

This is like a man who was travelling on the road when he encountered a wolf and escaped from it, and he went along relating the affair of the wolf. He then encountered a lion and escaped from it, and went along relating the event of the lion. He then encountered a snake and escaped from it, whereupon he forgot the two previous incidents and went along relating the event of the snake. So with Israel: the later troubles make them forget the earlier ones.[i]

Our narratives must continue to develop, and along with them, a changing self-image. Our history doesnt need to determine our destiny.

 

We can make ourselves stronger than we may think by looking at what is hard.

 

Our capacity to cope is strengthened by bringing our joys and pain into the communal space. We create communal spaces, services and even committees where we dont flinch from looking at the painful along with the pleasant. Exploring, acknowledging and believing we can respond to our vulnerabilities, nurtured by our communities, is the rich elixir of resilience.

 

At this time of year, we are reinforcing our central psychological narratives. The climax of the High Holyday Torah portions is on Yom Kippur afternoon when we name realities and choices:

 

See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil; I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live.[ii]

 

We acknowledge life and good, death and evil. Pain is real and not illusionary, there is both good and evil and we affirm a belief that (apart from exceptional circumstances) we have some control over this, or at least, over our experience of it.

How we tell our stories, and how we interpret them, develops or hinders our resilience.

Lets take an example of a well known Jewish joke:

The Coren sisters lets call them, Rebecca and Sarah -are on a train, both reading newspapers. Rebecca is reading the Jewish Chronicle but Sarah is reading Der Sturmer, the Nazi newspaper. Rebecca turns to Sarah, "why on earth are you reading that? It's says that the Jews control the media, control the banks and are getting more powerful day by day?"

Sarah raises her eyebrows, "why are YOU reading the Jewish Chronicle? That says everyone hates us, every comment on Israel threatens its existence and that it's getting worse every day. At least my newspaper says we control the media, the banks and that we're getting more powerful day by day!"

 

What we tell ourselves is formative, so this is the point at which I ask: What do we tell ourselves and other people about who we are?

Which narrative will the Progressive Jewish community here in the Diaspora and in Israel tell this year, 5773? Were acutely aware of Israel-Iran tensions; of the world Jewish community becoming more heridi, ultra-Orthodox.

Are we strong? Are we victims? Are we a Jewish community in decline or are we at our core dynamic and resilient? Where are we as the Reform Movement in the changing patterns of community?

 

We might have told the story Reform Judaism as a small, marginal group within Anglo-Jewry, but over the past 15 years thats changed. We can alter our narrative and our self-image to recognise our strength. Being invited to the World Economic Forum as one of the two Jewish global voices is just one small example. We can, we should and we will acknowledge our impact on the fabric of Judaism, here and across the world. Its a story built on the practices and values of communities, comprised of individuals and their stories; the way that we function in our communities here and in another 40-something synagogues and groups gives validity, to our position in the wider world and to the stories and their values that we can stand up and share with pride.

 

Will our stories make us stronger or weaker?

This era of global fragility wont dissipate quickly. As we enter a New Year, therell be personal challenges we never expected. We will need to be resilient and cope.

So name the difficult and luxuriate in the good. Lets consciously choose how to frame our world and our actions so that we are strong in ourselves and our communities and uphold our values and say them out aloud, even when it may be uncomfortable.

Blessed are you, Eternal God, who creates both life and death, blessing and cursing.

Blessed are you, Eternal God, who has given us the strength we didn't think we had to tell and retell our stories, to renew ourselves to be resilient and to cope.

Shanah tovah, g'mar chatimah tovah.



[i] Berachot 12b-13a

[ii] Deut 30

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