Part of an ongoing series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.
“I’m an optimist who worries a lot,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on NPR recently. In that phrase, Albright summed up our daily existence.
Each day I wake planning to rise out of bed and fulfill my responsibilities, reflecting an optimism that the world won't implode. At the same time, each day I wake wary that the day will include some disaster. I don’t even need to turn on the news before I start to worry.
It seems part of Jewish DNA to anticipate calamity. It is no wonder. Jewish history is an endless stream of adversity stretched across millennia: exile, pogroms, and the Shoah. Madeleine Albright's family experienced the Shoah as they escaped Europe. Accordingly, enduring tragedy has become part of the greater Jewish identity. And still all tragedies are personal. Our perseverance collectively is made possible by our steadfastness individually.
The call into resilience emerges within our response to calamity.
The Jewish story of unexpected tragedy roots deep in Torah. In Leviticus 10, after Aaron made ritual sacrifices to culminate his dedication of the Mishkan – the holiness-infused traveling tabernacle in the desert – Aaron's two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, made their own offerings and got zapped by fire from above. Aaron didn’t see that disaster coming. It left him literally dumbstruck.
We've all been Aaron. The fire that burns, the disease that kills, and the accident that maims, all can leave survivors bereft and dumbstruck. These and countless other tragedies defy explanation, but we still crave to know why. We're left feeling like the world isn't predictable and it isn't always safe.
Our ancestors responded by imagining, even insisting on, some predictability to explain Aaron's tragedy. Were Aaron's sons deserving of destruction because they were drunk or bursting with ego? Was Aaron’s silence a natural reaction or a reflection of his priestly responsibilities? There's no definitive correct answer. Like our ancestors, we are left to grope with the questions and also with our inability to answer fully.
But we know one thing more: the next morning, somehow Aaron got up and continued with his work and his life.
These days, I find myself less eager to explanation calamity and more curious about Aaron's psycho-spiritual capacity to wake another day and continue his service as High Priest.
Maybe Aaron is our ultimate resilience teacher. After the horrific loss of his sons, somehow he persevered and, what's more, he continued to serve the same God that Torah says sent the fire from above that consumed Aaron's sons. How did Aaron do it? Was it his faith in God? Was it love for God? Was it fear that ceasing service would cause more adversity? Was it worry that such horrific loss could be found random or meaninglessness? Many questions remain about Aaron's resilience after losing his sons.
I would love to see a panel of psychiatrists and theologians interview Aaron about his reaction to this tragedy. It seems almost miraculous that a human being could carry such heartbreak and still persevere – but we see it every day, sometimes hiding in plain sight, among ordinary people carrying extraordinary loss, whose names and stories are less prominent than Aaron in Torah.
What is the wellspring of this seemingly super-human resilience? Is it also the Source of Life, the One who creates? If so, the resilience roots in the supernal source of every challenge: every challenge, however insurmountable it may seem, contains also the seeds of super-human resilience.
Resilience doesn't mean that life doesn't touch us, change us, and even sometimes burn us. Resilience means that we don't quit living, and that we summon the strength – whether within us or from beyond us – to live as if a better tomorrow will come, even with the memory of calamity and the anticipation of more to follow. Perhaps the fire from above sets our hearts ablaze with determination.
Maybe you recall a poster that half-jokingly summarizes each religion in a few words: Confucianism is "Shit happens" and Hinduism is "This shit has happened before." For Jews, the poster says, “Why does this shit always happen to us?” Let's offer an alternative: “When shit happens, we get back up.”
Just ask Aaron and Madeline Albright, this week's resilience teachers.
R. Evan Krame & R. David Markus