How to Respond – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780

November 22, 2019

I do a lot of thinking about how people respond to bad situations.  As a rabbi, I see many different ‘bad situations’ – illnesses, crimes, professional transitions, personal transitions, arguments between business partners and fights between friends or relatives.  I am witness to crises of faith and those confronting lack of any faith.

I consider it one of my greatest privileges to be invited into people’s lives at these moments.  Not because I am going to solve these spiritual afflictions but because I will stand alongside each person as we confront, explore or accept what is happening.

These private conversations are not shared in sermons or during congregational gatherings.  These discrete moments take place in my office, on walks together or in coffee shops.  Each story is unique.  When people assume rabbis sit around all week only to prepare our sermons for Shabbat mornings, I assure you that Saturday morning is just the most public aspect of what we are honored to do.

In these conversations, a question I frequently return to is “how much power do you want to cede to the other person to define your own sense of worth.”  It is an important question and one worthy of asking on the High Holidays.

The High Holidays stir memories of important relationships which are now broken.  A cousin whom you stopped talking to for an offense you can barely remember.  A sibling’s egregious wrong that split the family.

Relationships are complicated.

Long ago I read a book by Viktor Frankl.  He was a Holocaust survivor and wrote an amazing book in 1946 just after the Shoah – Man’s Search for Meaning.  It is an important read.  While his circumstances were unimaginable to us, he wrote this book applying his insights into human nature. He had seen man’s raw nature.  Frankl experienced man’s greatest extremes of cruelty and evil as well as kindnesses.

While derived from the worst of humanity, Frankl’s lessons offer us direction in confronting our own ‘bad situations.’

Frankl teaches:

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

We may not be able to change our circumstances but we can decide how we will respond.  Confronted with difficulties large and small, we are the ones who dictate if we respond with meanness, pettiness, or other parts of our ‘lower’ selves.  Or, we can decide that we will respond with dignity and character.

I often ask people I am meeting with, “When this moment of conflict is over, how do you want to look back on yourself?”

It is an important question.

There is an enticing sweetness to writing a piercing email to the other person; a type of pleasure at having the ‘last word.’ There is a bit of Schadenfreude – the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another.[1]

But who do you want to be in the end?  Are you going to cede the power to the other person to make you transform, even momentarily, into someone you are not proud of?

I want to tell you a light story which demonstrates our ability to decide how we respond to a situation… even if we cannot change the circumstance.

This is a story about Rabbi Jonah Rank who currently serves a congregation in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  It is a lovely little shul which Rebekah and I had the opportunity to visit years ago.  I heard this story from Rabbi Jack Reimer.  When Rabbi Rank was a rabbinical student, he spent a year studying in Jerusalem.  Jonah came back from class one day, and looked into his pocket. He discovered that his wallet was gone.

He lost his money, his credit cards, driver’s license and insurance card.  He was sure it did not fall out and realized he must have been a victim of a crime.  There are far worse crimes but he still felt violated.

So how did he respond?  He wrote a letter which I think can teach us a lesson on how we can respond to circumstances far more complicated than this.

He titled his open letter: “To Whoever Stole My Wallet.”

Let me read it:

Dear Whoever Stole My Wallet:

I was in my apartment when I realized that my wallet was gone. So the first thing I did was retrace my steps to see if I had maybe dropped it somewhere on the way home. No such luck.

Then I called my friends to whose home I had been invited for dinner that night. There was no way I could I go. I had no money for transportation, much less for the wine that I was supposed to bring. They were very nice about it and promised to deliver my dinner in the morning. They told me not to worry about the wine. They would manage.

Then I called some friends. They immediately offered to send me food for the night.

After I ate, I prayed a messianic hope that all people in need of food will get the food that they need, as quickly as I did. (Jonah’s letter went on to say,) I didn’t pray this prayer because I believed it was possible. I prayed that prayer because I wished it were possible.

Then my parents called, in response to the E-mail I had sent them. They told me they had cancelled my credit cards. The new cards  should arrive in a week. The people at the credit card companies were sympathetic, and they promised that they would send the new cards as soon as they could.

(Jonah continued,) I have enough food for the next few days, and, though I have no money, I have a roof over my head.  But most important, I have a loving and caring family and some good friends.

(The open letter continues,) I wonder if you have a loving and caring family and friends too, Mr. Thief? If not, I feel sorry for you.

Honestly, except for you, Mr. Thief, all the people that I have met here (in Jerusalem) so far have been very friendly. But perhaps that is not fair for me to say about you. For all I know, you may be a nice guy too. Who knows? After all, I haven’t met you – at least not face to face.

For all I know, you may be homeless. For all I know, with the money you took from me, you may be able to buy yourself a whole bunch of decent meals. Or for all I know, you may use the money to buy meals for starving children. Who can say for sure?

It’s hard for me to judge anyone, and perhaps this too is a messianic wish – that you will use my money for good purposes. I would like to believe that whatever you are doing with my wallet is greater than anything that I would have done with it. I hope that you are feeding the hungry, or paying for an expensive but necessary medical bill for yourself or for someone in your family, or that you are using my money to do some other good deed. This is what I pray for.  But I don’t think it is very likely. It is because I don’t think that it is very likely, that I pray for it.

And now: this is the most important thing that I want to say to you, Mr. Thief:  You can take my cards, you can take my license, and you can take my cash, but you are not really as much of a thief as you may think you are.

You can take all of these things away from me, but you cannot take away my optimism. You cannot take away my prayer, and you cannot take away from me the love and the care of my friends and my family.

Maybe you made me broke, but you did not break me!

I still stand with the strong support of countless people, my family and my friends whose concern for me reminds me on a daily basis how rich I am, just to be alive.

With much gratitude for having good people in my life, and for living in a wonderful world,

Sincerely yours,

 Jonah Rank

P.S. I enclose my E-mail address, just in case you want to return my wallet.

It is a lovely letter.  I don’t know if the thief ever read it or if the wallet was ever returned, but I know it was an unexpected response to a circumstance he could not change.

Jonah was able to respond not from anger and spite but from a deeper and richer place.  And for that response, I am sure he looks back and feels good about his reaction.  Let’s be honest though, it was just the inconvenience of a wallet.  The issues in our lives might be far more acute.

The lessons of Viktor Frankl and Jonah Rank remain true – How we respond makes all the difference.

Rabbi Harold Kusher was once asked by a woman what she should do with the anger that she felt towards her ex-husband. He said to her: If you would not give him free rent in your house, then why do you give him free rent in your mind.

We control how we respond.  We control how much spiritual space someone takes up within us.  Or as Kushner says, we decide who gets free rent in our minds or hearts.

There is a cost for carrying hurt and anger within us.  These emotions pull us down rather than making us buoyant.  They narrow our sense of options rather than open new horizons.  They burden us and seep into other relationships.

So this is the lesson I want to bring as we begin the High Holidays –  Let’s use this time to set aside the insults and injuries, the bruises and wounds, the scars and sores that we have accumulated during the past year. Let’s leave them behind so we are not weighed down by them.  Let’s focus on the good in our lives.

Think of the friends and family you have.  Think of who will come through for you.  Rabbi Rank was rich because he knew what to focus on, and what to be thankful for.  That is the secret of being truly rich.

I pray this will be a year in which none of us will be robbed of any of our possessions. But if it is a year in which you do lose some of your possessions, whether to a thief or to the economy or for some other reason, let it be a year in which you know what you still have. You have the ability to control how you respond.

Further, let it be a year in which you never forget what really counts in life. Let it be a year in which you choose the buoyant path rather than the path of short term ‘got’ya’.

This is a prayer precisely because I know it is not easy.  It will require us to bring our best selves forward.  And so my true hope is that when we get to the other side of our difficulties, we will each be able to reflect back and be proud of how we responded.  I pray we will be able to hold our heads high throughout the year.