Living Your Option B© Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - 5779/2018
But in February, I visited a shiva home of one of the victims of the school shooting in Parkland. There were pictures up all over the house of the young woman, just 14 years old, whose life was taken. I saw a picture of her when she was just 3 years old in her soccer uniform. There is an old saying about parenthood – the days are long, but the years are short. One day you are changing your child's diaper, the next day, they are entering Kindergarten, and next they are graduating high school, and you wonder where the time went. But for this family, the years of their daughter and sister was cut far too short, a victim of one of the most horrific mass shootings in American history, in a place which should have been a safe haven – her high school classroom.
When you hold your baby for the first time, you sort of jump forward in time. You think to yourself, “I wonder what their voice will sound like? What about their personality?” You picture their first day of school as they hold the little signs with their new grade. You picture them at the bimah at their bar or bat mitzvah, at their prom, in front of their computer as they wait to hear what college they got in to; you picture them on their wedding day.
I will never forget hearing Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson talk about his twins. One of them, his son Jacob, was born with severe autism.
When he was told by doctors of the severity of Jacob's autism, he recalls one thing in particular. Time suddenly stopped, and all of those visions of the future suddenly vanished. All the milestones he was looking forward to would never happen.
Raise your hand if your life is turning out exactly the way you thought it would. If your life followed the trajectory that you expected and there have been no surprises, pleasant or unpleasant along the way.
In our minds, we have a reality that we see – it's called option A, although we don't think of it as option A, we think of it as the inevitable future.
Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, was on vacation with her husband Dave Goldberg. They had two beautiful children at home, and they had a rare opportunity to have a vacation alone. They were sitting in front of a beautiful beach without a care in the world. Her husband decided to go to the gym while Sheryl took a nap. Hours later, he wasn't answering his phone, and after a frantic search, they found her husband, the father of her two children, lying on the floor by an elliptical machine in the resort's gym. They took him to the Emergency Room, and then, just minutes later, she received the news from the doctor: “I'm sorry for your loss.” At the young age of 47, her husband was dead.
Weeks after losing her husband, she was talking to a friend about a father-child activity and who would pick her kids up when her husband usually would, and they came up with a plan. At that moment, she broke down in tears, “But I want Dave!” Her friend put his arm around her and said, “Option A is not available. So let's just kick the heck out of Option B.” It became the title of her next book, a follow up from the book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead which made her famous. This was not the sequel she expected.
There's a famous Jewish phrase, Man plan, God laughs; we might have a plan in life, but it rarely turns out the way we expect, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse. There are many people in this room today who are living out their Option B. Maybe it was losing a friend or family member in that now infamous school shooting, or losing relatives to addiction, a powerful disease that so many of our loved ones carry for life, or for many of us, hearing about a family member or friend who was given a diagnosis of cancer.
Every year, the path we thought we were going to take for the year changes.
Today, I want to share how we can cope with the futures we never expected, and yet, we will experience, whether we like it or not. We do so with our resilience, the God-given ability that helps us to move forward at difficult moments. It gives us the capacity to persevere when it seems utterly impossible to do so.
Sheryl Sandberg recognized that resilience was the soil in which the possibility of a future that had been unalterably changed could take root. I believe our tradition and history can teach us how to overcome, to build our resilience, and persevere by building our reservoirs of hope, and taking action.
Families are the great training ground for Option B, for it is in our families that we encounter some of our greatest challenges and disappointments – loss, infertility, adultery, divorce, bankruptcy, and betrayal. Perhaps this is why the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah focus on families who face these challenges and others.
Abraham’s whole life is a series of Option B choices, at first his wife Sarah cannot have a baby, then he has a baby with Hagar named Ishmael, and then, after Isaac is miraculously conceived and born, Sarah becomes upset with Hagar and Ishmael - Abraham sends them out into the wilderness. But it's not just Abraham who is living in an Option B world. When Hagar had Ishmael, could she imagine that she would be kicked out of her home and watch helplessly as her son almost dies of thirst? It was at that moment when the angel of God says, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy b'asher hu sham, where he is.
Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”
Hold him by the hand – another translation is hold him up in your hand– it's at our most troubling of moments, when we are faced with an uncertain future, that we gain strength and courage when someone else holds us up by taking hold of our hand.
We experienced this in the days after the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I attended the sunset candlelight vigil that the city of Parkland organized as a response to the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School that took 17 innocent lives, teens and teachers, where scores of others were physically injured, where thousands were and still are emotionally and spiritually scarred. I did not know what to expect, how many people would show up? What would the atmosphere be like? An estimated 10,000 people who attended with little notice. Together we prayed, we sang, we listened to tributes by parents and teens, by politicians and faith leaders, and together, under a dark sky, we lit up the night.
That Shabbat at Shaarei Kodesh was one of the most moving Shabbatot I have ever experienced. Our sanctuary was filled to capacity, only seen on happy occasions like a bar or bat mitzvah. People who hadn't come for years came to seek refuge, to hold the hand of the person next to them.
In a way, the community was engaging in an act of Tesuvah – literally returning to the center. This is one way we cope with Option B – by taking someone else's hand. It is the most important thing we can do as human beings for one another.
Sandberg says that trauma can motivate people to develop new and deeper relationships.1
Sandberg wrote, “we find our humanity – our will to live and our ability to love – in our connections to one another. Just as individuals can find post-traumatic growth and come out stronger, so can communities. You never know when your community will need to call on that strength, but you can be sure that someday it will.”
The people around us are one of the tools for building resilience.
But we need more than people. Rava, a famous Talmudic rabbi, once said that when we get to Olam Habah, the world to come, God will ask us a number of questions. One of those questions is: Tzipita Li'yeshuah? 2
One translation of this phrase is: Did you hope in your life? Sandberg wrote, “Tragedy does more than rip away our present; it also tears apart our hopes for the future.” 3
It reminded me of the story of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes mountains where a rugby team was stuck for nine days with little supplies and cold conditions. Their ordeal became the inspiration for the book and movie, Alive. They had to do unimaginable things to stay physically alive, but spiritually, what kept them going was hope. One of the survivors, Roberto Canessa explained, “some people say, “if there's life, there's hope, but for us, it was the opposite: “if there's hope, there's life.” Together they planned projects to launch after they return to civilization. One person planned to have a farm, another a restaurant. Each night, two of the survivors looked at the moon and imagined that right then their parents were looking at the same moon. Another took pictures to record their plight. Many wrote letters to their families declaring their will to live. Survivor Javier Methol said, “To maintain faith at all times, despite our setbacks, we had to become alchemists, changing tragedy into a miracle, depression into hope.” 4
We often think of suffering as tearing us away from God, and decimating our faith, but it brings many people closer to God. At Sandberg's husband's funeral, the Rabbi, Jay Moses said, “finding God or a higher power reminds us that we are not at the center of the universe. There is much we don't understand about human existence, and there is order and purpose to it anyway. It helps us feel that our suffering is not random or meaningless.”
In the Talmud (Berachot 5a), the rabbis were searching for the reason as to why God allowed good people to suffer. They called it - Yisurin Shel Ahava – afflictions of love. It is a problematic theology, but there are ways to look at this phrase in a totally different way: our suffering can bring us to love God more, and in turn, trust in ourselves.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, who lost his son to a terrible disease when the boy was just 13, wrote about his way of coping with this loss in his famous book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. He wrote:
“I don’t know why one person gets sick, and another does not, but … I cannot believe that God “sends” illness to a specific person for a specific reason. I don’t believe in a God who has a weekly quota of malignant tumors to distribute, and consults His computer to find out who deserves one most or who could handle it best. … I don’t believe that God causes mental retardation in children, or chooses who should suffer from muscular dystrophy. The God I believe in does not send us the problem; He gives us the strength to cope with the problem.”
It brought me back to a heart breaking confession I heard from one of our teens on the day of the shooting: “Another mass shooting at a school, the 18th school shooting since the new year, and the adults are not going to do a darn thing about it.” This tragedy was different – thoughts and prayers were not enough. When the same tragedy happens over and over again, it can leave one hopeless.
Tzipita Li'yeshuah?5 We usually translate this these words as did you have hope in your life, but some translate it as, did you wait for salvation?
It reminds me of a old Jewish story – a pious rabbi was caught in the largest rain storm in the history of his town. As the town began to flood, and water came into people's homes, his congregants came to his home, “Rabbi, you will drown if you stay in your home, please, come with us to dry land.” The Rabbi looks at them and says, “I am man of faith, God will provide, I'm going to wait.” After begging him for hours, the people had to leave. The water got so high that it reached up to his neck, so he went on the roof of his home. No one is around, and suddenly, he sees a light coming from a small boat - “Sir, I'm here to rescue you, please come aboard!” No thank you...God will provide, I'm going to wait. Then, the roof became covered with water – and a helicopter comes out of the sky, a ladder drops, “sir, climb up the ladder, this is your last chance!” No thank you...God will provide. The pious rabbi drowned, and he stands before the heavenly throne. God, I've been a pious follower all my life, I have had faith in you, I waited for salvation...where were you? God answers, “I sent your congregants, I sent a boat, for 'My' sake, I sent you a helicopter, what more did you expect?!!”
Tzipita Li'yeshuah? The Talmud chose a strange word – tzipita, which some translate at waiting or yearning, but a more accurate translation might be 'seeing'. Did you see a different future and act upon it? The Talmud imagines that God is not just asking if we desired redemption and salvation, rather, God wants to know, what did you do to bring it about?
The Alenu, a prayer that was written just for today, is an aspirational prayer – it dreams of a future where the whole world will be united when the wicked will turn good. We say the words, “L'Taken Olam B'Malchut Shaddai.” In that sentence, you can hear a version of the words, Tikkun Olam, a mending of the world, but it's actually more than that. L'Taken Olam B'Malchut Shaddai, to heal the world to make it suitable for God's presence means that we must lay the groundwork for God through our actions. Rather than the Messiah coming to us, we bring on the Messiah through our deeds, and we may even have a piece of the Messiah in us.
Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “There are three ways to mourn – to weep, to be silent, and to turn sorrow into song.”
Did you 'see' a different future and do something with that vision? This is one of the keys to resilience – to be able to see past your suffering and imagine a different future.
Viktor Frankl, one of the most famous Psychologists of the 20th century and a Holocaust survivor, wrote, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning.” Our faith can build our resilience, and it can take us to places we could not imagine.”
The early Zionists were sick of waiting for a Jewish homeland. We waited for 2,000 years, so they tried a different tactic. Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, wrote in his diary at the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1898, “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word — which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly — it would be this: At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.” In 1948, fifty years later, the Jewish state gained her independence, with it's national anthem, HaTikvah, the Hope.
Community, faith and hope, and acting in the world helped people suffering in our community build resilience.
At the beginning, I mentioned Rabbi Brad Artson's son Jacob who was born with severe autism, and whose future vanished from Rabbi Artson's vision. Jacob never really learned how to verbally speak, but he communicates through typing and received his high school diploma. He 'speaks' through the use of a computer at conferences on autism across the country. He wrote, “I have been fortunate that my family gave me the desire to be a believer and inspire others to overcome their own obstacles by never letting me use autism as an excuse. I want to make the world a better place by helping others see that everyone is made in God’s image and it is our job to find the part of God hidden in every human being.”6
After Parkland, the students stopped waiting for the adults to do something, and a tight-knit group of friends created one of the largest marches in the history of our country, creating a movement called March For Our Lives.
After Parkland, parents have taken action on behalf of their children, one of the victim's mothers ran for the school board a couple of weeks ago, and won.
After Parkland, the superintendent of Broward schools, Robert Runcie said, “our schools put a lot of emphasis on the power of debate, our kids are very good at debate...and now I know why. Now I know why we have put such an emphasis on debating as part of the curriculum.”
Up until this moment, debate was a nice thing to learn, and now we know why they practiced so much, because the moment was waiting for them.
What life saving mitzvah has your name on it that is waiting for us, waiting for you this year?
In this New Year, all of us have an opportunity to build our resilience by courageously holding each other's hand in community, by building our faith in God and ourselves through hope, and acting upon it by creating the future that we see as we come out of our darkest moments. When life throws curve balls at us, and it will, and when suddenly Option A isn't available, God give us this charge – take someone else by the hand this year and help them; build your resilience through hope and take action; and let's kick the heck out of Option B.