Once there was a little boy who decorated his very own Kiddush cup at a Jewish summer camp. When he returned home everyone oohed and aahed; his mother thought the cup was as colorful as a rainbow, his father complimented him on the intricacy of the design.
The little Kiddush cup was pretty pleased with herself, too. She was born in a factory where she was just one more inexpensive glass, identical to thousands of others. Now, dressed in beautiful colors she felt truly unique and special in a way she had never experienced before.
Naturally, when that first Friday evening arrived, the boy wanted to use his special goblet for Kiddush. The little cup trembled with nervous joy as she was placed on the beautifully set dinner table for the very first time. That Friday evening was the first of many on which the Kiddush cup had a prized place at the table. Week-in, week-out, for months and then years, the little boy used his cup each and every Shabbat. Over time the paint on her sides began to chip and lose some of its shine, but she never noticed that . . . and it seemed that no one else did, either.
But there came one Friday night when the little Kiddush cup wasn’t taken out at all. From her vantage point in the china cabinet she saw that a brand new and very shiny silver goblet stood in her place. “Mazel tov, my boy!” she heard through the glass door. “We are so proud of how you led services and read Torah at your Bar Mitzvah!” a family member said. “We hope you’ll enjoy using this new sterling silver Kiddush cup, and that it’ll always remind you of this important day in your life as a Jew.”
From that day on, the little Kiddush cup was rarely taken out of the breakfront; gathering dust at the back of the cabinet, she grew more and more faded; for the first time she noticed that her rim was chipped and her paint had flaked off in strips around her base and sides.
Years passed . . . the boy grew into a man. The little Kiddush cup would glimpse him from time to time, but he no longer lived with his parents. Whenever he came for a visit though, her heart would leap with joy as she remembered the days when he was a child and she had been a bright and sparkling new Kiddush cup.
One day, the young man came home with a woman. They smiled and held hands; everyone in the family congratulated them on their engagement, and admired the sparkling diamond ring the young woman wore. That night, the two of them stood before the cabinet as the young man opened the door and took out the old, faded cup. Turning to his fiancée, he said, “I made this when I was a child. I never dreamt that one day the two of us would be standing here talking about getting married. I’d like to give this cup a very special place in our home, if that would be OK with you.” While the little cup didn’t understand what they were talking about, she felt proud that her owner spoke so lovingly about her. He hadn’t forgotten about their years together, after all!
And so on the day of their wedding, the little cup stood proud and tall as the Hazzan held her, chanting the Sheva Berakhot, the seven blessings of marriage. When he was done, both the groom and bride drank deeply from her. It was then the rabbi very carefully wrapped the little cup in a napkin and placed her on the floor. “As you know, it is a tradition at a Jewish wedding to break a glass. Doing so reminds us of the Temple’s destruction in Jerusalem, for even on our happiest occasions we never forget the sorrows of the Jewish past. Let us all pray that however many pieces this glass will break into so may this wonderful couple’s happiness be multiplied.” As the young man’s foot came down with a crash, everyone shouted, “Mazel tov!”
Let me pause the story here . . . The tale may vaguely resemble Margery William’s children’s classic, the Velveteen Rabbit, but what I’ve been sharing is actually an excerpt from a story I wrote for my own children years ago. Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “What a mean father! Could Rabbi Lubliner really be so unfeeling to tell his own children such a grim fairy tale?” Before you judge me, however, let’s get to the ending:
When the wedding reception was over, the happy couple carefully gathered the shards of colored glass from the broken cup, and used them to design a beautiful Mezuzah for the front door of their new home. Nestled inside were the two passages of the Sh’ma written by a Torah scribe containing God’s special name. The little Kiddush cup, who was now a Mezuzah, felt warm and embraced by the ancient sacred words inside her. As for the young man, he never grew tired of telling the story of how his boyhood Kiddush cup had become a Mezuzah, sharing the tale not only with visitors, but his children as well.
Webster’s defines “resilience” as an ability to recover in the face of misfortune or distress. Yet resilience is neither a destination nor even an attitude. Author Sherri Mandell, whose 13 year-old son Koby was murdered by Palestinian terrorists in 2001, knows a great deal about the subject. She writes, “. . . resilience is not overcoming. It’s becoming. Becoming more, becoming our fullest and deepest selves as a result of adversity. We don’t leap over troubles as if they don’t exist. We allow them to be our teachers when facing adversity causes us to change, grow, and become greater.”
For Monty Python fans, you may remember a scene in the Holy Grail when King Arthur fights the Black Knight. The latter refuses to concede defeat — even after the king cuts off both his arms, the Black Knight scornfully says, “Tis but a scratch!” Then he loses both legs to Arthur’s sword, after which he shouts defiantly, “Only a flesh wound!”
That my friends is NOT resilience, but stubbornness. The unwillingness to admit weakness and frailty is an impediment to real resilience. To find resilience you must first acknowledge your own brokenness.
You’ve probably heard about the tragic death of Botham Jean, an innocent man shot by Amber Guyger, a former Houston police officer. Guyger, who lived in the apartment directly under Jean, somehow thought she was entering her own dwelling and killed the man she believed to be an intruder. What happened at the conclusion of the trial was simply incredible. During his victim impact statement, Jean’s brother, Brandt, spoke directly to Guyger: “If you truly are sorry — I know I can speak for myself — I forgive you.” With the judge’s permission, Brandt then hugged the convicted killer of his brother.
Let’s be clear: Brandt Jean did not exonerate Guyger of her guilt; Whatever solace she derived from his gesture, his words were uttered for his own family, to help them let go of the anger for the sake of their own healing. Resentment is a spiritual cancer; it blocks the road to resilience by binding us ever more tightly in chains of never-ending bitterness. Yom Kippur would free us of the fetters that shackle us to grudge-holding; the path to finding forgiveness requires us to grant forgiveness. To emerge from the Day of Atonement with your resentments intact is, to use Maimonides’ stark image, like immersing in a Mikveh, a ritual bath, while holding vermin in one’s hand. “Stronger than hate” — to use the slogan that came into being after the horrific murders at Congregation Tree of Life in Pittsburgh” — doesn’t mean our hate is stronger than that of our adversaries, but exactly the opposite. We vanquish hatred by not hating.
Resilience is built into the DNA of Judaism. Jewish law insists we never conclude an Aliyah or a Haftorah on a negative note. Midrash teaches that the 9th of Av, the saddest day on the Hebrew calendar because of the myriad tragedies that occurred on that date, will one day mark the start of the messianic age. And in the presence of death, immediately after filling in the grave of a loved one, mourners recite a special form of Kaddish envisioning a time when “the Eternal will restore life to the dead, uproot idolatry from the earth, and bring our worship of God to the very place where heaven and earth meet.” Kaddish is a prayer for mourners, but not one of mourning; its message is that hurt can be healed, and that the broken pieces of our lives can be reassembled — albeit in new ways in which the cracks themselves become a part of the design.
The French Jewish writer, Edmond Fleg, wrote “I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.” Three years after the Shoah — the horrific nadir of Jewish history — a Jewish state was reborn in our people’s ancestral homeland after more than two thousand year of exile. The marvel of such resilience was adumbrated by the defiant song of the partisans at the darkest hour in our people’s history: “Zog nit keyn mol az du geyst dem letstn veg, Khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg; Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho – S’vet a poyk ton undzer trot – mir zaynen do! Never say that you are on the final way, Though darkened skies may now conceal the blue of day; Because the hour we longed for is so near. Beneath our feet the earth shall thunder: we are here!”
Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, taught his disciples that the root of evil was despair. Despair, if sufficiently powerful, can deceive us into believing God’s light within ourselves or the world has been extinguished. Rebbe Nahman therefore insisted, “If you believe that something can be ruined, also believe that it can be fixed;” He said famously, “The world is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is to cross it without giving into fear.” and he taught, “It is a great mitzvah to be joyous always.”
The Breslover Rebbe, however, was no Polyanna; during his short thirty-eight years of life on earth, he was often afflicted with melancholy and suffered from depression. For him joy was never attenuated from the awareness of life’s fragility and its shadows.
Resilience is not a leap into the future, but an acceptance of the present. Sometimes we have to be willing to go through the motions for a period of time until our souls catch up to our hopes. First we acknowledge and name our pain; then, when the time is right we have to let go of our sorrow, our anger, our fear, our pain.
No one loves holding on to pain. Yet somehow we cling tenaciously to the familiar, no matter how unpleasant, because we’re afraid to let go. We are like the fellow who falls off a cliff, yet manages to grab the branch of a scrubby tree growing from the canyon wall. In desperation he prays to God for help, who responds by reassuring the man, and then tells him to let go. “But God, you don’t understand,” the panicky man answers, “I’ll die if I do.” “I promise you won’t. Now let go,” the Almighty says again. In the ensuing silence, in a weak and terrified voice the man calls out again, “Is there anyone else up there?”
The alcoholic opens the door to recovery when he lets go and admits his powerlessness. We want to be resilient, but we’re too afraid to let go. But until we do, the journey forward can’t begin.
Yom Kippur is the day God calls us to let go. We occupy this space, beating our chests with one hand, all the while stubbornly clinging with the other to the scrubby branch growing out of the canyon wall. We’re afraid to let go; even more tragically, some of us don’t even realize that we’re barely hanging on to a branch that could break any second, flinging us to an abyss.
But we’ve got one advantage over the man dangling from the branch: he was alone when he fell, but we have each other. A story is told in the Talmud about Rabbi Yohanan, whose righteousness had the ability to heal others. Yet it happened once that the great sage himself fell ill. His colleague, Rabbi Hanina, came to visit Rabbi Yohanan and asked him, “Are these sufferings welcome to you?” to which the latter replied, “Neither they nor their reward.” Rabbi Hanina then said, “Give me your hand,” and raised him up. The sages ask, “Why could Rabbi Yohanan not raise himself?” To which the text answers, “The prisoner cannot free himself from the jail” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5b).
Resilience is nourished by community. The kindness of others breaks through the walls of suffering. When two friends climb a hill, the incline seems less steep than when they climb it alone. So, too, when all of us realize that we only need one hand to hold that proverbial branch, we can take the other to form a human chain and slowly make our way to safety. On Yom Kippur we gather as a community we confess our shortcomings in the plural and we acknowledge our blemishes collectively because resilience cannot thrive in isolation. The not-so-secret truth is that in the compassion and understanding we show others we find healing and greater resilience for ourselves.
On Yom Kippur we stand before God like broken, battered Kiddush cups. We have been chipped by life’s defeats and losses, our colors faded, tarnished by disappointment in ourselves or others. “Life ain’t no crystal stair,” as poet Langston Hughes once wrote, “But all the time I’ve been a-climbin’ on, and reachin’ landin’s, and turnin’ corners, and sometimes goin’ in the dark where there ain’t been no light. . .”
Yom Kippur is a not a day of sadness, but quite the contrary; indeed, according to the Mishnah, never was there a more joyous day on the Jewish calendar than Yom Kippur (Ta’anit 4:8). Tradition compares a couple’s wedding day to Yom Kippur: on both occasions we may begin life anew with a clean slate, our sins forgiven, our future no longer mortgaged to the baggage of the past.
Only you and I have the power to offer up our brokenness to God, and to one another, by asking pardon for our blemishes, by granting forgiveness to those who have hurt us. In doing so we rewrite the narrative and repair the brokenness; we can become something better and greater. We may even experience the resilience that can transform us from a cracked and faded glass into a beautiful Mezuzah filled with holiness and the wonder of God’s presence.
On Yom Kippur God asks us to write the story of who we are and what we wish to become. The best of stories aren’t the ones in which there is perpetual sunshine and bliss. “Once upon a time there was a princess who was always happy. The end” — is flat. In the meaningful stories, there is a mountain to climb, a raging river to cross, a glass to be smashed. To reach the other side we must first enter the darkness; only after we’ve embraced our own imperfections in the presence of one another, will we find the resilience that is God’s reward to the great storytellers of this world. On a day given to the hope for renewal, one that promises a million possibilities, God has given you an opening: “Once upon a time . . .” Now you must take it from here.