Jewish Resilience: Holding Strong in a Time of Crisis

In the last few months the world has suffered a challenge of monumental and unprecedented proportions. None of us could ever have imagined what befell us—millions affected, hundreds of thousands dead, economies shattered and lives overturned. Our own community has been particularly hard hit. My own family suffered the loss of our mechutan, Jack Tarzik, Yisrael Yaakov ben Dov ve’Zlata z”l. We continue to remain anxious and frightened, even as the overall situation seems to improve. Even now, a half year after the world shut down, we have no idea what the future will bring. And so, we wonder: How will we be able to survive? What sources of strength might we be able to access as we ponder the shape of our lives in the months and years ahead?

Jewish Action is devoting attention to this question in a special section in this current issue of the magazine. The articles that follow will address it from historical and psychological perspectives. I will focus my introductory comments on one rabbinic example of resilience in the face of tragedy and a concluding thought.

Clearly the most important figure responsible for reconstructing Jewish life in the wake of the Churban Beit Hamikdash, surely a monumental catastrophe if there ever was one, was Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. His famous tripartite request of Vespasian as the upcoming Churban loomed large is uppermost in the Jewish memory of that event, and serves as a most relevant paradigm for surviving subsequent Jewish tragedies throughout the generations:

“Ten li Yavneh vechachameha veshushilta deRabban Gamliel veasvata demesayen leh leRabbi Tzadok” (Gittin 56b).

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to Vespasian, “Give me Yavneh and its Sages and do not destroy it; spare the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel and do not kill them as if they were rebels; and, lastly, give me doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.” Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had three concerns. He was interested in assuring the continued spiritual vitality of the Jewish people (the study of Torah represented by the Academy at Yavneh), their political vitality (the royal line of the house of David represented by Rabban Gamliel), and the vitality of each individual Jew (represented by his interest in one person who needed to be healed). These three categories are central to any reconstruction or resilience in the wake of tragedy: the Torah, the community and the individual.

But I want to move to the next generation, to Rabbi Akiva, for me unquestionably the paradigmatic Jewish historical figure exuding strength, hope and optimism in the face of catastrophe, again and again.

Most well-known is the Talmudic passage at the end of Makkot (24b). The Talmud describes how Rabbi Akiva was walking in Yerushalayim with a group of Sages sometime after the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. When they came to Har haTzofim they tore keriyah and when they came to the Har haBayit they saw a fox emerging from the site of the Kodesh haKodashim, the Holy of Holies. This blatant desecration understandably aroused his companions to cry but Rabbi Akiva was smiling. Incredulous at his reaction, his colleagues asked him for an explanation. Through an analysis of various pesukim, he explained that this event gave him hope for the future. And he was successful. “Amru lo Akiva nichamtanu, Akiva nichamtanu.” In his commentary on this passage, the Maharsha (s.v. lekach ani mesachek) points out that, of course, Rabbi Akiva mourned for the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. After all, he too tore keriyah earlier in their journey. That goes without saying. But his greatness was that he was also able, simultaneously, to access a sense of hope for the future. Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues only saw a world of desolation and devastation, bereft of their beloved Beit Hamikdash which they remembered with great nostalgia and whose absence they mourned with such intensity. Rabbi Akiva saw that, of course, but he also saw hope. He was able to sense hope while not losing sight of the destruction. What an important lesson this is for us. What a role model Rabbi Akiva is for us. Optimism does not mean relinquishing the pain and the sadness. Optimism means feeling hope while, at the same time, feeling the pain and the sadness.

Another opinion of Rabbi Akiva demonstrates this same perspective. There is a disagreement in a mishnah in Pesachim (116b) as to the text of the berachah concluding the first part of the Haggadah recited on Pesach night. Rabbi Tarfon says that we conclude with “asher ge’alanu v’ga’al et avoteinu mi’Mitzrayim.” We thank God for having redeemed us from Egypt and that’s all. But Rabbi Akiva maintains that the berachah continues to include also a prayer for a rebuilt Yerushalayim and Beit Hamikdash. Rabbi Tarfon expresses gratitude for the past; Rabbi Akiva teaches us that we must also express hope and optimism for the future. He assures us that there will yet be simchah and sasson in a rebuilt Temple.

The Haggadah earlier includes a story about five rabbis who went to celebrate the Pesach seder in Benei Berak. Why Benei Berak? The question is sharpened because the Gemara (Sanhedrin 32b) tells us that the first one of the Tana’im present, Rabi Eliezer, lived in Lod, and he is reported (Sukkah 27b) to have praised those who do not leave their homes on the holiday. What is he doing in Benei Berak on the night of Pesach?1 Rabbi Reuven Margaliot suggests, based primarily on a mishnah in Ma’aser Sheni, that these rabbis returned from a boat trip abroad and docked in the port of Yafo on erev Pesach. Because it would have been impossible for them to return to their respective homes in time for the holiday, they detoured to nearby Benei Berak to spend it there.2 But, still, why Benei Berak? Rabbi Margaliot himself noticed that this was the home of Rabbi Akiva (Sanhedrin 32b), and herein lies the key to understand this choice.

We may be frightened. We may feel overwhelmed. But there’s no question we have something that could help us.

All these rabbis lived at a time when the Beit Hamikdash was still standing. They remembered the gripping drama of yom tov in Yerushalayim, the excitement of the olei regel who mobbed its streets in celebration of the holiday. They remembered the spiritual ecstasy of the sacrificial rites being performed by the kohanim. And now, on the eve of Pesach night, they beheld only destruction. They had nothing—no Beit Hamikdash, no avodah, no olei regel. Instead of the hustle and bustle they had silence. They wondered, “Where we can go to gain hope and inspiration to help us face our deep sadness, disappointment and depression?” And the answer was clear. “We will go to Benei Berak, to Rabbi Akiva’s house. There we will surely be uplifted and find the strength to cope with our current reality.” Once again it is Rabbi Akiva who served as the source of strength.

This perspective leads me to present an alternative interpretation of the end of this story as recorded in the Haggadah. The standard understanding is that the assembled rabbis were discussing the story of the Exodus all night “ad shebau talmideihem v’amru lahem, ‘rabboteinu, higi’a zeman Keriat Shema shel Shacharit,’” until their students entered and said to them, “Our teachers, the time has arrived to recite the morning Shema.” I have a different suggestion, one that I am sure I must have heard from someone. The rabbis were discussing the story of the Exodus all night “ad shebau talmideihem,” until their students arrived and shared how sad, dejected and discouraged they were. At which point, “v’amru lahem ‘rabboteinu,’” our teachers who were gathered there said to their students, “Don’t be dejected. Don’t be discouraged. Higi’a zeman Keriat Shema shel Shacharit. The darkness has passed and the morning light has arrived. A new day has dawned.” Having spent the night with Rabbi Akiva they were able to comfort their students and imbue them with a sense of optimism and hope to face even a threatening and uncertain future.

One final reference to the optimism of Rabbi Akiva. The Gemara (Yevamot 62b) famously describes how twelve thousand pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva died between Pesach and Shavuot. This is understood as being the source of the custom to observe some expressions of mourning during this time.3 But the Talmudic passage does not end there. Yes, “vehaya haolam shamem,” the entire world was desolate. Twenty-four thousand talmidei chachamim all died within less than two months, and maybe even within a shorter period of time than that.4 But their rebbe, Rabbi Akiva, did not retreat into sadness and depression. On the contrary. He started again. “Ad sheba’ah Rabbi Akiva etzel rabboteinu shebidarom v’shanah lahem.” He left home and found new students. He invested in educating a new group of scholars to teach and inspire. And, indeed, concludes the Gemara, “v’hem hem he’emidu Torah osah sha’ah.” The shalshelet hakabbalah, the chain of tradition, was intact; the perpetuation of the mesorah was assured, thanks to Rabbi Akiva. He lived not only in the past but in the future. It is Rabbi Akiva’s approach that gives us the strength to face our current challenge and, somehow, to persevere.

Recently, the New York Times featured an article by Megan Craig entitled, “The Courage to Be Alone.” The author referred to an essay by William James entitled, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” which includes a story by Robert Louis Stevenson about a secret club of “lantern bearers.” These young boys hide small tin lanterns under their heavy coats. From the outside they look like everyone else but when they encounter other members of their group they lift the edge of their coats to reveal the lantern underneath. What drew the author of the article to this story is the connection that it reflects between these boys; the lantern is “a secret emblem of participation.”5 But what attracted me to this story was something else. For the last number of months we have been covered with heavy coats, with layers of heaviness. We have been weighed down by uncertainty and anxiety. We have been worried, agitated, and frightened. But this story reminds us that we all carry lanterns as well. Underneath our heaviness, each one of us has a lantern that provides us with light and warmth. We each have sources of strength to help us confront, and even overcome, the challenges we face. It may be hiding under the heavy coat, but it’s there for us to uncover and appreciate as a source of our strength.

That brings me to my final point. My student, Aron White, drew my attention to a few pesukim in 2 Kings, Chapter 4. There the Navi describes a distraught woman who comes to Elisha, tells him that her husband had died and now a creditor is coming to take her sons away because she owes him money that she cannot repay. Elisha responds, “Hagidi li, mah yesh lach babayit? Tell me, what do you have in your house?” She replies that she has nothing except a jar of oil. He tells her to borrow as many empty vessels as she can from her neighbors, come home, and a miracle will occur. The oil from her jar will fill all the vessels which she will be able to sell and thus have the money to pay her debtor. Her sons will be saved.

How will we be able to survive? What sources of strength might we be able to access as we ponder the shape of our lives in the months and years ahead?

It is a beautiful story. But notice the following: What does Elisha ask the woman? What does he not ask her? He does not ask her, “Yesh lach babayit?, Do you have something in the house?” Rather, he asks her, “Mah yesh lach babayit? What do you have in your house?” I know you have something in your house, he says. I know that you have in your home the capacity to try to help you get out of the predicament in which you are now finding yourself. The only question is, what is it?

As we face our current challenges, it would be helpful if we could recognize that we, too, already have something in our homes that will be able to provide us with strength and support. We may be frightened. We may feel overwhelmed. But there is no question that we have something that could help us. We need not face this alone. We have our jar of oil, our lantern under our heavy coat. We have our resources, our reservoirs of strength, from which we can draw as sources of support. The only question is, what do they look like? It starts with what we, literally, have in our homes, and that is family. And, as my sister-in-law, Dr. Aviva Weisbord, pointed out to me, part of the answer is that we, too, recognize that we, like the mother in this story, can go to our neighbors and draw strength from them and from the members of our community.

What the future will bring, we do not know. But may we have the wisdom to appreciate the blessings that we do have to help us face it, with optimism and with hope.

1. See the Hagahot of Rabbi Levi Hirsch Hayyot (Maharaz Hayyot), Sanhedrin, ad. loc., s.v. achar Rabi Eliezer le’lod.
2. See his Be’er Miriam commentary on the Haggadah (Tel-Aviv, 1937), 12b.
3. See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim, no. 493:1.
4. See Rabbi Abraham b. Natan haYarhi, Sefer haManhig, Hil. Erusin u’Nesu’in, no. 106; Sefer Avudraham, Hil. Pesach, end.
5. Sunday, May 3, 2020, “Review” section, p. 10.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter is university professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future, Yeshiva University.

More in This Section:

Crusades and Crisis by Sholom Licht

Plagues and Perseverance by Faigy Grunfeld

Life After the Holocaust: How They Rebuilt with Rabbi Berel Wein

Finding Light in the Darkness: The Art of Jewish Humor by Steve Lipman

The Ability to Bounce Back: The Psychology of Resilience by Shana Yocheved Schacter

This article was featured in the Fall 2020 issue of Jewish Action.
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