Footsteps to Follow: Meeting the difficult challenges we face

The horrific tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC., with the brutal murder of nine church members, presents a profound challenge to all of us. How do we cope with tragedy? How do we deal with the deep traumas in our lives?

Bill Cosby once said, “If you can find humor in anything, you can survive it.” Can we really survive anything if we keep our sense of humor? The Nazi brutality of the concentration camps, the Gulag created by Stalin, and the murder of millions under Mao-TzeTung, as well as the current barbarity of ISIS seems to leave no room for humor.

In his book “Man’s Search For Meaning,” Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl asserts that humor helped people survive the camps. Frankl’s work introduced logotheropy and hope. Frankl maintained that “I never would have made it if I could not have laughed.” He observed: “Humor, more than anything else in the human makeup, affords an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.

Frankl wrote that he and other prisoners tried to invent at least one funny story a day. Here is one of them. A prisoner accidentally bumps into a Nazi guard. The guard turns and shouts “Schwein!” (which means “pig” in German). The prisoner bows and says, “Cohen. Pleased to meet you.” The joke clearly demonstrates how humor helps reverse who is in control and who seems to be the superior being. Even in the terrible conditions of the camp, such jokes provided a means of momentarily overcoming extreme adversity.

Nathan Sharansky overcame his fear of a threatened firing squad in the former Soviet Union by joking about it. But he was not successful at first. The relief was initially very short-lived, if it occurred at all. But he gradually came to see the power that joking gave him. When he ultimately gained control over his fears, he stopped being at the mercy of his captors.

Captain Gerald Coffee, who was a POW in Vietnam, said: “Laughter sets the spirit free to move through even the most tragic circumstances. It helps us shake our heads clear, get our feet back under us and restore our sense of balance and purpose. Humor is integral to our peace of mind and ability to go beyond survival.”

For some people, laughter works in dealing with trauma and tragedy. For others, hope and inner strength is the key to maintaining one’s equilibrium. “The Ethics Of The Fathers” (Pirkei Avon) chapter 5 mishnah 4 records: “With ten trials was our Father Abraham tried and he stood firm through them all, to show how great was the love of our Father Abraham for God.” The Mishnah further comments: “The potter will strike only those pots that are sturdy because he knows that they will withstand even repeated blows.”

Abraham’s trials included being thrown into a fiery furnace by Nimrod, but he emerged unharmed. Famine forced him to flee to Egypt, where both he and his wife Sarah faced immediate danger. But his greatest challenge was, at God’s command, to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Rabbi Mecklenberg, the author of “Haktav V’Hakabbulah” asks the question: “God knew that Abraham would pass the test. If so, what was the purpose?” His insightful comment applies to us all. “Only when a person is tested and stretched does he exhibit his full potential.”

The Hebrew word for test is “Nisan,” meaning to rise up, to hold up in the face of adversity, pain and the challenges in our lives. In the Torah portion “Naso,” the twelve tribes of Israel garnered hope by raising their individual flags. Oftentimes we do not realize the inner strength we possess and the potential for renewal in our lives. We must raise the flag of hope to move forward.

The prophet Jeremiah purchased a plot of land for 100 shekalim from a cousin, Analot, during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Why would he take such a risk? Jeremiah said, “Yesh Tikvah B’Yisrael (there is hope for Israel). We will survive the challenge and v’shav ubanim l’gvulam (Israel will return to its land).”

David Goldberg, CEO of Survey Monkey, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 47. His wife, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, posted a message to mark the end of Shloshim (the 30 days of mourning). Below are some of her inspirational words.

“I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past 30 days, I have spent many a moment lost in the void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well. But when I can, I want to choose meaning and life.”

For all who experience tragedy and trauma, may these words resonate: “Ki nicham Hashem m’Tzion (for the Lord shall comfort Zion).” May the Almighty ease our pain with His gifts of humor, hope, and inner strength.

Herbert Horowitz is Rabbi Emeritus of Shore Parkway Jewish Center, Brooklyn, N.Y. and currently serving as Rabbi of Ohev Sholom Synagogue, Williamsport.


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