Come Healing – Kol Nidre 2021 / 5782

We are pleased to share Rabbi Ari Isenberg’s sermon from Kol Nidre:

Let me tell you the story of Matt Weinstein. Matt was on vacation in Antarctica. An incredible voyage. Spectacular scenery. Halfway through the trip, he received a page to go up to the ship’s bridge to take a satellite phone call. When he picked up the phone, it was his wife Genene. She said, “Bernie Madoff’s been arrested – his entire fund was a complete scam.” What she didn’t have to say, but what they both knew, was that they had just lost their entire life’s savings.

Matt initially carried a huge amount of shame; he couldn’t go to sleep without thinking about it …  it was overwhelming. Especially in isolation, it was really hard for him to stop blaming himself and figure out how to get through this crisis.

For Matt, the process of recovery began with connection to others who had also been victims of Madoff’s scheme. They built a community; ultimately, it opened their hearts. Matt said, “I felt so alive, so open; so aware of myself and the world …  if given the chance to have life play out again, I wouldn’t change a thing”.

Incredible. He wouldn’t have changed a thing.

In her book Sacred Therapy, Estelle Frankel notes that, in the course of our lives, each of us will inevitably experience crisis. We will have our hearts broken, maybe even more than once. We will all experience times when our lives, as we have known them, are suddenly shattered by the intrusion of crisis, fate, or tragedy – all elements beyond our control.

These shatterings can have many faces: divorce or separation, the unexpected death of a loved one, a sudden job or financial loss, an acute illness, the onset of a chronic disabling condition, acute mental health issues, or even natural catastrophes or social upheavals in the world. Of course, war, violence and terrorism — namely, the loss of our personal safety — are part of this list as well. Having just commemorated the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and all of us still reeling from a pandemic that has taken over 600,000 American lives, and many of us still repairing our homes from the storm two weeks ago, on a communal level, we know crisis all-too-well of late.

And though so many of us have, and — in some way — we will all at some point be affected by a crisis, we are often pressured to conceal it, given very little opportunity to be open about our suffering in life.

Let’s face it — there is a stigma, a shame attached to suffering or struggling through something in life. Many of us suffer in isolation, in silence. Even though there will come a time when all of our bodies will slow down, will no longer be able to do what we want them to do, we are convinced that we have to hide the pain, mask the symptoms.

Smile when sad; fight back tears when all you want to do is cry and scream. We have been programmed to believe that crisis and pain have no benefit, and that those who encounter it invariably struggle through the rest of their lives.

But, like the story of Matt Weinstein, and given how it seems to be an inevitable part of life at one time or another, suffering can and should be seen as ennobling rather than degrading. Personal tragedy can be turned into triumph. Communal tragedy can be turned into a unifying force. Meaning is available in spite of — even through — suffering.

As Estelle Frankel asserts, it is at those very moments, times when it seems as though our entire world is crashing in on us, that we may — in fact — be the beneficiaries of a personal epiphany that changes the course of the rest of our lives. A breakdown leading to a breakthrough. We may, born out of those moments of pain and loss, sense a newfound inner strength and resilience. Once the pain subsides and the search for meaning commences, healing comes.

Viktor Frankl certainly thought so. In his celebrated book Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl reflected on his time as a prisoner in Auschwitz. He identified three sources for meaning in life: in work, in love, and — surprisingly — in courage during difficult times. Our suffering, Frankl argued, holds meaning by the way in which we respond to it.

Forces beyond our control can take away everything we possess, except for one thing: the freedom to choose how we will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and what you will do about what happens to you. As he noted, powerfully: “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

If moments of crisis can have such profound impact on our lives, could it be that to live lives that reflect our truest selves, to instill shleimut — wholeness — into our lives, we first have to endure a measure of brokenness? The Talmud seems to think so – quoting tractacte Nedarim: “Once a person renders himself, or herself, like a wilderness, utterly exposed, deserted before all, only then is blessing given as a gift.”

Maybe that’s why Judaism maintains a sacred role for darkness — nighttime. After all, for Jews, time begins at night – sundown. Each new day begins with nightfall, rather than daybreak. The Torah repeatedly stresses, in the creation story, “there was evening and there was morning”, vayehi erev vayehi boker. Before there could be light, darkness had to be created.

If we are honest with ourselves, many of us in this room have come here today slightly broken, wounded.

The 13th Century Midrash Ha’Gadol recounts: If a man has a vessel, so long as the vessel is whole he is happy with it; broken, he does not want it. But not so with God. So long as the vessel is whole, God does not wish to see it; broken, God wishes it. And what is the favorite vessel of the Holy One? The heart of man.

Underscoring that point, the Hassidic teacher Menachem Mendel of Kotzk famously said: “Nothing is more whole than a broken heart.”

How does God first appear to Moses? Through a burning bush. The Midrash points out that God purposely appears in the lowly bush to teach that God, too, felt the pain of the Jewish people enslaved in Egypt. As we were low, so did God feel that lowliness.

We wish we lived in a world without crisis, loss, pain – we don’t wish tragedy or devastation on anyone. But, in varying ways, since we will all experience a measure of it in our lives, why not respond to those moments without secrecy, with the courage to rely on community.

Through our response, what begins as a crisis may evolve into a blessing. We will discover that we may have to let go of relationships that hold us back, or we might find that our work is no longer congruent with who we are becoming. To be true to ourselves, we may even have to let go of a seemingly successful identity or lucrative career. These times of transition can be quite challenging to our sense of security. But it is precisely in those moments when transformation occurs.

How does an oyster make pearls? By integrating, not expelling, the painful grains of sand that inevitably invade it. We need belief in the power of reconstruction. I’m reminded of the main character in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Here was a young man for whom every single setback, loss, and humiliation in his life was, in the end, one of the keys to his ultimate reconstruction.

May we resolve this year to grow through adversity, and in so doing, healing will come.

Come Healing by Leonard Cohen – adapted

O gather up the brokenness

And bring it to me now

The fragrance of those promises

You never dared to vow

The splinters that you carry

And the ones you left behind

Come healing of the body

Come healing of the mind

And let the heavens hear it

The penitential hymn

Come healing of the spirit

Come healing of the limb

Behold the gates of mercy

In arbitrary space

And none of us deserving

The cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing

Where love has been confined

Come healing of the body

Come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding

That tore the light apart

Come healing of the reason

Come healing of the heart

O troubled dust concealing

An undivided love

The heart beneath is teaching

To the broken heart above

And let the heavens hear it

The penitential hymn

Come healing of the spirit

Come healing of the limb

O let the heavens hear it

The penitential hymn

Come healing of the spirit

Come healing of the limb