Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5778
Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy: An Ode to my 39th Year
1 Tishrei 5778
In 1933, Jack Benny celebrated his 39th birthday on-air with his audience during The Jack Benny Program. When he turned 40 the next year, he wanted to again enjoy his birthday with fans. The day arrived and he refused to say he was turning 40. Instead, Benny announced he was ... "39 and holding." Why? Because "there's nothing funny about 40," declared the funnyman. The gaff was indeed so funny that his 39th birthday celebration became a running gag, and the actor/comedian born Benjamin Kubelsky, February 14, 1894, never aged himself after 1933. He was forever 39!
While I have never watched a single episode of the Jack Benny Program, I am 39 years old – for a couple of more months – and I think he is onto something. “Forty is a threshold,” said a Professor of psychiatry at UCLA. Why is forty such a threshold? “Forty was once viewed as the traditional entry into middle age; staying 39 represents a denial of the transition.” Another clinical psychologist once wrote, “A lot of people struggle with the idea of moving from their 30’s into their 40’s.” I would broaden this by saying that no matter the decade any of us is leaving or approaching, questioning and soul-searching from year to year, decade to decade, can accompany the change. The issues vary from person to person, but the areas open for questioning are pretty standard: Career, marriage, relationships, children, physical appearance, and ability.
At the cusp of this threshold, I don’t know that I am facing any significant struggle, but I recognize that age is as much a state of mind as it is some kind of physical measurement. Though I may not be 39 and holding, there is something very real within the desire to hold onto something and to avoid the changes that are beyond our control.
Our ability and willingness to face what is ahead boils down to one basic question. How will we live with the decisions that we have made and have yet to make? Or, as author Sheryl Sandberg has experienced and writes about in her book, Option B, how do we accept what I don’t have and live with the options as they are in front of me? In her book, Option B, Sheryl Sandberg explores “the capacity of the human spirit to persevere.” Following the unexpected passing of her husband, Sandberg feared that she and her children would never find joy again. She discovered that her fear is fortunately unfounded, and she is able to show how she and others overcome a wide range of hardships. She posits that it is helpful to think of resilience like a muscle, one that atrophies in the calm between the storms of our lives. But there are things we can do to develop it, so we are better prepared when adversity strikes. This preparedness helped her accept Option B when Option A was no longer available.
It does not matter how many times Jack Benny or any one of us has turned 39; part of Sandberg’s message, and mine for the Near Year is that which is important is how we view ourselves and the changes around us from year to year. We can appreciate the stories of our youth or days past, yet we must allow ourselves to truly see these moments of our past because the tales they tell are the jubilation and discomfort that make life worth living. These moments can be, borrowing words from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, radically amazing!
Central to Sandberg’s book is her grief journey illustrated in part by a great quote from author/playwright Samuel Beckett at the beginning of Chapter One: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Early on Sandberg writes, “dealing with grief was like building physical stamina; the more you exercise, the faster your heart rate recovers after it is elevated. And sometimes during especially vigorous physical activity, you discover strength you didn’t know you had.”
I look at the story of Akedat Yizchak (The Binding of Isaac) and I think about many of the central characters that embark upon a physical and emotional journey. They realized a level of personal strength, fortitude, and belief in God and one another through the experience they shared. We see the physical strain when the Torah describes those things Abraham and Isaac carried with them: “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering…He took the firestone and the knife.” (Genesis 22:6)
The scene bares emotional strain as well. Isaac said to his father, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (22:8) And Abraham said, “It is God who will see to the sheep for this burnt offering, my son.” Whether Abraham was telling his son a boldface lie, or Abraham really believed God would come through, the scene must have been exhausting. “They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac.” This old man Abraham built an altar, laid out wood, and bound his son who commentaries would lead us to believe may have been as old as 37 years old. How could it be that Abraham did all of this?! The moment must have been difficult for Abraham and somehow passively devastating to Isaac.
Within a text that is centered on the ideas of faith and the bonding between father and son, it is easy to lose sight of the human and physical dimensions of the story. “And it came to pass after these things that God tried Abraham.” (Gen. 22:1) Midrash Tanhuma asks, “After what things?” “According to R. Yohanan, citing R. Yose ben Zimra, after the feast given upon the ‘child’s having brown and being weaned.” Many things happened before God “tried Abraham.”
The proceedings of Akedat Yitzchak like so many trials of our lives today, present emotional heartache where it is difficult respond in any sane way. It takes Sandberg a while, but she does resolve to endure Option B when Option A is no longer possible. And she challenges us to change systems that don’t always take our humanness into account. Our strength and resilience in the face of adversity is the muscle we need; it is this muscle that forces us to “lean in” when times are tough. Harvard University psychologist George Vaillant suggests that resilience can be understood as a “twig with a fresh, green living core” that springs back and continues to grow after encountering pressure. Sandberg discovers that when we lean in to the numerous lessons life has to offer, there’s a lot more joy to be found. From the story of Akedat Yitzchak and other from our tradition to today, I believe that we are as resilient as ever.
Aided by his faith and resilience, Abraham was able to move forward and deal with all of the adversity that came before him. A midrash shows Satan, the Adversary, trying to prevent Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. Satan appears before Abraham multiple times, each time trying to stop Abraham on his journey and prevent him from crossing the threshold from a loving, faithful father to a murderer. Whereas, according to the midrash, God believed that could sacrifice his son, Satan did not and did what he could to stop Abraham. Satan’s final effort is to turn into a river that Abraham could not cross. Yet, Abraham committed himself to carrying on, at which point, God “rebukes the water” and it dries up.
We are, like Abraham, more resilient than we think. There are things we can do for ourselves and for other people who are hurting, that will allow our resilience to bloom. The challenge is to see the opportunity presented by these events, however seismic. I tend to find humor in nearly everything, even when my birthday rolls around. Funny keeps us young. Silly is funny. And, funny or not, forty is coming so I may as well deal with it.
 Sandberg, Sheryl. Introduction, 12
 Sandberg, 25
is director of admissions for the Rabbinical & H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A parent, partner, teacher and coffee enthusiast, Rabbi Rafi Cohen enjoys helping individual students and families find Jewish meaning in their lives.