Wipe Your Tears
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All of which is a long-winded way of explaining why it would be really fortuitous if Jerome Seinfeld’s Hebrew name were Jeremiah – the prophet whose words we read this morning. As the students in my Tuesday morning class know, Jeremiah’s ministry spanned some forty years, beginning around the year 627 BCE. It was a dramatic and traumatic period in ancient Israel’s history that saw the fall of the Neo-Assyrian empire, the Babylonian regime turning Judah into a vassal state, the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and large parts of the population being sent into Babylonian exile. A dark hour for our people if ever there was one, sorrow exacerbated by the inability to know how long the exile would last. Jeremiah’s fifty-two chapters contain a variety of messages. He opens the book with an agenda both dim and promising: to uproot and pull down, to build and plant. (1:10). At times, as in the case of this morning’s haftarah, when the Torah portions of B’har and B’hukkotai are combined, we read of the guilt of Judah, how it was the people’s sins that resulted in our self-inflicted downfall. This is the Jeremiah who castigates Israel, a Jeremiah of doom, a Jeremiah who puts Israel put to shame. It is where the word “jeremiad” – if you ever wondered – comes from.
But at other times, as is the case when our Torah readings are read on successive weeks, we hear from a different Jeremiah – a Jeremiah whom we might be inclined to call “Jerry.” This Jeremiah comes with words of comfort, consolation, and confidence. The eyes of this Jeremiah, no different than the other one, are wide open to the challenges of the hour. Not only was he attuned to Israel’s imperiled and besieged state, but he himself was personally imprisoned. This Jeremiah sees the weakened resolve of his kinsmen in the face of trauma and responds not with cries of despair, but with oracles of hope, comfort, and restoration, a conviction that while times are tough, Israel will be back. Listen to his words:
Koh amar Adonai, min’i kolekh mi-bekhi, v’einayikh mi-dim’ah . . . v’shavu mei-eretz oyev. V’yesh tikvah l’aharitekh. Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears . . . . They shall return . . . and there is hope for your future. (31:16-17)
It is not just Jeremiah’s poetry that reflects his resolve and hopes for the future, but his actions as well. Chapter 32 of Jeremiah documents an extraordinary scene when, despite the fact of his people’s exile, Jeremiah purchases land in his Judean hometown of Anathoth, a real estate transaction analogous to a person purchasing Midtown commercial property in Manhattan today – a defiant act announcing that one must remain ever vested in the place you live, wounded though it may be, because you believe that we will turn a corner and there will be a return. The language is bold, beautiful, courageous, and confident. A time will come, declares Jeremiah, when a new covenant will be made, when each generation will be judged on its own merits, and the beloved city shall be rebuilt. This Jeremiah is all about meeting the future boldly – the model of spiritual resilience in the face of adversity.
Before I move forward, let me pause to say what I am saying and what I am not saying. COVID is not the Babylonian empire; this pandemic is not God’s will; and New York City, much as I love it, is not Jerusalem. I am neither a politician nor an economist; I am in no position to predict the direction of the economy or the efficacy of vaccines against variants. What I can weigh in on, however, is how our people have lived from time immemorial. How, time and again, in the face of loss and trauma, we have mustered the requisite spiritual audacity to meet the challenges of the hour with faith that however hard today may be, tomorrow can be better.
You see, Jeremiah may have been one of first and most famous of our people to voice hope in the face of loss, but he was by no means the last. When the First Temple was destroyed and Israel was exiled from their land the first time, they left singing, “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” (Psalms 126:6) When the Second Temple was destroyed at the hands of the Romans, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai had himself spirited out of Jerusalem in a coffin in order to establish a rabbinic academy in the coastal town of Yavne, recasting a temple-based religion of sacrifice into one of prayer and mitzvot. A cycle of crisis and renewal has, to some degree, become the very calling card of our people. When the Jews were expelled from Spain, we responded by creating Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Hasidism emerged in the face of pogrom and persecution. Herzl’s political Zionism was a response to antisemitism and the failures of the emancipation. Spiritually, geographically, politically – time and again we have met crisis with courage, adversity with adaptability. The pattern has been there, truth be told, since Adam and Eve stood East of Eden, since Noah exited the ark after the Flood. “What is,” asked Mark Twain in reference to the Jews, “the secret of his immortality?” Our ability to both confront and transcend the circumstances of our pain, to recover, regenerate, and reinvent, to build and rebuild – despite the naysayers who would counsel otherwise.
The most studied example of the sources of Jewish resilience, not surprisingly, is also perhaps the most traumatic and most recent: the Holocaust. I recently had occasion to read William Helmreich’s groundbreaking work Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and The Success They Made in America. Helmreich, who tragically died of COVID this past year, conducted interviews with 380 Holocaust survivors in search of understanding why they did as well as they did after the war considering all they had endured. While underscoring the challenges they faced – trauma, displacement, language barriers, lack of formal education, and otherwise – Helmreich identified ten coping mechanisms survivors adopted in the face of adversity: 1) flexibility, 2) assertiveness, 3) tenacity, 4) optimism, 5) intelligence, 6) distancing ability, 7) group consciousness, 8) assimilating the knowledge that they had survived, 9) finding meaning in one’s life, and 10) courage. While we could and perhaps should take time to unpack each one of these attributes, collectively they contribute to a spirit of resilience. Collectively they help explain how such traumatized individuals were able to reconstitute themselves so successfully despite what they had been through. In Helmreich’s words “The Holocaust was never far from the survivors’ minds, but to the extent that they could transcend it and focus on the tasks at hand they did well at life.” (p. 269). The survivor community, more than anyone, understood that they were not in control of their destiny, but they nonetheless sought meaning in life and in community and demonstrated the requisite combination of courage and capacity for hope in order to meet an unknown future. (p. 276). In other words, they did exactly what Jeremiah did in a different time, place, and circumstance – what Jews have been doing all along.
We are not the subjects of Helmreich’s study. Whatever our challenges, they pale, thank God, in comparison to the time of Jeremiah, or for that matter, any other calamity that has befallen our people. But all of us can be, if we so choose, heirs to their wisdom. We are all hurting right now; we have all been kicked off the merry-go-round; there is not a person whose life has not been diminished, who is not anxious about what the future will hold. We do ourselves no favors by denying our problems or denying that our problems make us suffer. There are circumstances beyond our control and a future beyond the horizon of our vision. We have a choice to make of how we will greet each day – with gloom and doom or with hope and resilience. For me, the choice between being an optimist or pessimist is somewhat self-evident; it is not really even a choice. As Shimon Peres of blessed memory said: “Optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.” As Jews have always done, we can be idealists and realists, eyes wide open to our circumstance, but not immobilized by it. We need not know our future fully in order to take present action to adapt to it. And we can acknowledge the fullness of our pain but also find a path to transcend it. As the prophet himself counseled in his day, so too in our own: “Restrain your weeping, your eyes from shedding tears . . . there is hope for your future, your children shall return.”