Torah For Today: Resilience

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Torah For Today: Resilience

Rabbi Naftali Schiff takes a topical issue and offers an Orthodox Jewish response

One year after lockdown, what does the Torah say about resilience and adapting to the “new normal”?

I have a small personal memory in a public forum, but one that I believe speaks to the current zeitgeist that revolves around the challenging quest to bolster resilience among our younger generation at this time in particular.

More than 30 years ago the stirring tune sung at our chupa in Yerushalayim was set to words from the prophet Jeremiah.

“Lechteich acharai bamidbar, be’eretz lo zarua” .  Words that nostalgically refer to the relationship between God and the Jewish People, those who, in their period of “courtship”  were ready and willing based on faith alone, to journey en masse into the desert, to a land unsown.

In the haftarah we read on the holiest of days, Rosh Hashanah, the same prophet Jeremiah refers to the Jews as a “People who are survivors of the sword”.

These words are imprinted on my consciousness as a Jew, having been the refrain of one of the first tunes I learned aged 10 as a member of the renowned Yigal Calek’s London School of Jewish Song.

In my years singing as part of the choir there was another composition that similarly springs to mind; this one set to the famous words of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith, “Ani Maamin”, I Believe.

On many occasions I heard Yigal introduce the dramatic musical prelude at live concerts with the words “…for generations the Jewish People sang Ani Maamin; throughout the Holocaust they sang an Ani Maamin; but this is a new Ani Maamin- one of hope! A march! Orchestra, take it away! Let’s go!”

And with a flourish the thunder of wind instruments would burst forth and 20 young boys on stage would march on the spot and sing in unison to a new rendition of Ani Ma’amin! No longer a refrain of despair laced with longing, rather a fresh march of hope!.

We are hearing much talk about the imperative to teach and nurture resilience for all, about how this life skill and trait has been paramount throughout this Corona time and shall be increasingly so in the “new normal”, post-pandemic world.

As a rabbi, educator and parent I wholeheartedly applaud and agree with this sentiment. However, I would like to suggest that both resilience and the concept of “new normal” have been integral to the life of the Jew throughout our epic 3,500 year journey.

The Jews are a quintessentially resilient people. From the beginning of time we have been relentlessly propelled with drive, aspiration and hope for the fulfilment of a vibrant future. The quest to achieve has also made us the most obstinately persistent of nations to match.

As an aside perhaps, many seem to confuse persistence with resilience. They are indeed similar, however, certainly not one and the same.

Persistence is the ability to continue and stay the course, despite the obstacles. Resilience is the capacity to adapt to changing and often challenging circumstances.

Each demands a toughness and grit perhaps beyond the average. With varying degree, the Jewish People have indeed displayed both to an incredible measure.

We are described as a “stiff necked (obstinate) people”. Rabbi Dr Nachum Rabinovitch z’l, cited this accolade of obstinacy as the salient feature that leads to God forgiving even the most heinous of crimes of the Jews throughout history.

After all, who but a notoriously obstinate people would persist as Jews, clinging to the God of our faith and our core identity through thick and thin despite the generational persecutions, trials and travails?

Holocaust survivors have become my greatest mentors in persistence. I have personally questioned hundreds as to how they managed to go on, when all was but lost. “My mother/father willed me to go on, to bear witness, to survive as a Jew. So I just kept going, one step at a time” sums up the universal answer.

A people that knows where its headed will endure any journey.

However, I would suggest that the trait of resilience is perhaps slightly more nuanced than that of persistence, albeit no less prevalent amongst our people.

If resilience is predicated upon a deep understanding and appreciation that life is full of challenges and that flexibility, optimism and willingness to change are the fundamental attitudes necessary to steer the course, then perhaps the “wandering Jew” wrote the manual on resilience centuries ago.

Haven’t we been schlepping the book around in our suitcases each time we were driven from Anatevka? Are we not the people who adapted with dogged tenacity each time we moved on, or the regime changed, the language, the dogma, the dictator, the culture, the weltanschaung, the government or the borders of the day?

The first commandment given to the Jewish people as they prepared to leave Egypt charged with the mission to bring God’s word to mankind, was that of identifying the new moon.

A people whose journey follows the lunar cycle has built into their psyche the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of a fate that waxes and wanes with the vicissitudes of time.

Neither the dark of the night, nor the resplendence of the sun blinds their collective vision. The hallmark of the Jew is the uncanny ability to constantly reinvent himself and his modus operandi, whilst maintaining a steadfast fidelity to his creed.

Notwithstanding Michael Dickson and Naomi Baum’s excellent new book Isresilience which beautifully highlights a whole range of contemporary Israelis who personify resilience, I would suggest it is precisely this trait that kept the Jew and Judaism as immortal as the creator Himself!

Resilience is not a modern Israeli creation, rather an embodiment of the people of Israel itself. The very name Yisrael implies survival alternately through, despite and at times because of that very struggle.

In fact, it is the very confluence of persistence and resilience that perhaps can provide us with greatest insight.

The prophet Isiah (41,4) describes the Creator as “korei hadorot merosh”, One who calls the generations from the start.”

A people that knows its destiny from the beginning; a nation that appreciates there will be challenges every step of the way; parents who know to transform and transmit that arduous journey to an epic story on seder night knows too to empower, train and educate its children to transition that story to a song adapting the score to harmonise with each dynamic movement.

Such a nation suckles both persistence and resilience with its mother’s milk. Such a people around Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron then Yom Ha’atzmaut some eight decades later, sings with pride, exhilaration and harmony – an Ani Ma’amin that flows into Am Yisrael Chai! Od Avinu Chai! L’shana Haba’a biYerushalayim habenuyah!

Rabbi Naftali Schiff is the founder and chief executive of Jewish Futures

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