What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger

An unlikely pair, Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th century German philosopher, and Kelly Clarkson, 21st century American singer and songwriter, share at least one thing in common: They have both published the idea that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. And interestingly, the Jewish calendar, especially in the summer, promotes this idea in its calendrical messaging.

The summer months are not generally known for their holidays. High Holidays in the fall, Chanukah generally in the winter, and Passover in the spring are the big ones for American Jews. And yet, Tish’a b’Av, the 9th of Av, is an
important annual psychological experience for Jews nationally and individually.

Tish’a b’Av and the three weeks that precede it create space within the Jewish calendar to remember national
sadness and loss. We mark an occasion which recalls the siege and destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem by reading Eicha, Lamentations. In chapter 3 of that book we read a description of the author’s deep sadness and a hope for redemption:

“They have cut off my life in the dungeon, and have cast stones upon me. Waters flowed over my head; I said: ‘I am cut off.’ I called upon Your name, O LORD, Out of the lowest dungeon. You heard my voice; hide not Your ear at my sighing, at my cry. You drew near in the day that I called upon You; You said: ‘Fear not.’ O Lord, You have pleaded the causes of my soul; You have redeemed my life. O LORD, You have seen my wrong; You judge my cause. (chapter 3, verses 53-59).”

The author recalls a feeling of complete abandonment, paired with the feeling of God’s presence. It is both the
experience of grief and comfort that find their way into this memory, and it is their pairing that gives us reason to read it each year and relive these emotions, in order to connect our own emotional experience to an ancient one. Reading Eicha as a community reminds us that tears are ever present for us—both communally and personally. As a people we have known oppression again and again, and yet, the knowledge that we have bounced back from these experiences of loss and pain build a resilience within us that focuses our cause even as we wipe tears from our eyes.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs explains how Jews differ from Buddhists in this regard. He argues that Judaism is more activist than Buddhism. To demonstrate this he compares Moses and Buddha. Both were raised in the king’s palace and when they left the walls of the palace, they experienced with horror a world filled with pain, injustice, and
suffering. However, Jacobs asserts that while Buddha’s enlightenment “consists in his realization that desire is the cause of suffering and the aim of man should be to rise above all desire,” Moses reacts to suffering
by “allowing the desire for a better world to lead to his fighting injustice and helping his brethren emerge from slavery and bondage.” (Jacobs, What does Judaism Say About…?) Moses and Buddha both see the terrible
condition of human beings. However, while Buddha does not encourage contentment or discontent, Moses teaches that divine discontent can cause humanity’s condition to improve.

Recalling our experience of loss reminds us that grief is a normal part of our human condition. There is no escaping sadness and grief. And yet, Jews are encouraged to have hope and to trust that comfort can still emerge from
discomfort. To quote the words of Isaiah, whose words we recite in the haftarah after Tisha b’Av, “kol koreh bamidbar, panu derech Adonai. Yashru ba’aravah mesilah l’Eloheinu.” “A voice rings out, ‘clear in the desert a road for the Lord! Level in the wilderness a highway for God!’” (40:3)

Isaiah reminds us that comfort after loss will come. However, it will not come without a voice calling for a new path in the wilderness. And that voice will ultimately lead to those working diligently to build a road to a better world, one in which the path of justice and righteousness is clear to walk down.

Isaiah’s prophecy reminds us that the work of forging a path is always available to us—even when it is not
convenient or when it doesn’t seem like the tools for building that road are available to us. And yet, our Tradition tells us that we must persist if we are to see a better world. These words urge us to ask ourselves the question: What do we, as a community, do to confront injustice?

This season at Shaarei Tikvah, we are expanding our social action work to include advocacy on behalf of
undocumented immigrants in America. By forging a new path for people who want to build a home here in
America, often escaping from dangerous places in search of a safer place to raise a family, we are supporting their right to lead a better life. By advocating for the vulnerable, we are helping others find a new path after loss with the hope that comfort will soon arrive.

During these months, let us listen to voices of our ancestors (as well as philosophers and American idol winners) and remember that witnessing pain and sadness is important for the purpose of strengthening our resolve to
respond with action and build a better world.

B’tikvah, with hope,

Rabbi Baldachin

 

 

 

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