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Peter J. Rubinstein
Lifting Your Head: A Perspective During a Financial Crisis

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 30, 2008

2500 years ago the foundations of our Israelite ancestors collapsed. The Kingdom of Judah was occupied by Babylonia. The territorial holdings God promised were in foreign hands. The holy city of Jerusalem was in ruins. The Sacred Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The Holy of Holies in the Temple into which God descended and took residence on Yom Kippur was in flames.

Leaders of the nation were wrenched from their livelihoods, stripped of their possessions and forcibly exiled from their homes, banished to the region of present day Iraq. Many never again returned to their homes in Jerusalem.

Such an upheaval was unimaginable for them. These people, our ancestors, devastated and forlorn, had locked their vision on a comfortable and certain abundant future. Now a volcanic upheaval ripped away the anchors to which they had tethered themselves. The future became unsure. They and their children were terrified. Their world, as they knew it, had come to an end.

These words from the book of Lamentations were written to express their dread and disconsolation:

Aicha yahsh-va va-dad ha-eyr

“Lonely sits the city…her cheek wet with tears”

Re-eh Adonoi…

“See, O Lord, the distress I am in! My heart is in anguish…” (Lam 1:20)

2500 years later we resonate with this experience of communal apprehension. We feel as if we suffered an earthquake but it is not the window panes that rattle. It is our certainty. Our present disquiet is not a consequence of the devastation of our city, though seven years ago we were together for Rosh Hashanah one week after 9/11. Nor is it the destruction of our sanctuary that batters us, though 10 years ago we were together on Rosh Hashanah two weeks after our sanctuary was devastated by fire.

Our foreboding is about the future that is directly related to a seismic economic downturn. Economists warn us that this cycle is different, in fact historic. A corrosive pessimism putrefies the elegance of our spirit and we are shaking. News of financial failure and international upheaval is bleak. We wonder, “What will be our future?” Of even greater pain, our children are asking us the same questions.

As with our ancestors the anchors that have kept us steady for many years are being ripped away. We no longer trust that economic institutions are infallible. We no longer believe that people in charge are always making the right decisions. We no longer casually justify our lust for immediate profit and short-term gratification.

Financial analysts advise us to retrench, to reorder our priorities and investments and make essential changes.

I agree.

It is time to gain new perspective.

When I was in touch with some of you some weeks ago, we talked about how the economy was affecting you. What you said touched me. When the company to which you had dedicated your career faltered, you said you were focusing on the blessings in your life. The anchors to which you held on were not ripped away. These anchors are intact: decency, kindness, health, and friendship and family. You inspired me!

These financial matters are a wake-up call. They invite us to reevaluate life’s meaning, to regauge our personal values not according to the transient, ephemeral computation of material assets or market value of our possessions, but rather to recalibrate the compass of our belief and to measure life by the people we love passionately. In these tumultuous days, let us affirm the reasons we will go on, the purposes for which we live and the people who are the throbs of our heart, the touchstones of our soul and the value of our being.

Megilat Aychah’s final entreaty on behalf of Jerusalem’s exiles is:

Ha-shivaynu Adonoi ay-lecha v’nashu-va, chadaysh yamay-nu k’kedem.

“Take us back, O God, and let us return. Help us to renew ourselves as we were before.”

We are not going to yearn for an elusive mistaken innocence or past prosperity or utopian apparition “k’kedem” as it once seems to have been. That would be too naïve and shallow and we are not going back. Rather, we commit to reawakening our eternal values, understanding our own personal worth and renewing faith in God with an immeasurable optimism.

1) Eternal Truths
Let us begin by anchoring ourselves to the eternal truths which nourish our souls: in William Faulkner’s words “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice,” in Elie Wiesel’s words it is the integrity “to search, to question…to dispel complacency” (The Crisis of Hope), in the Torah’s words: Kedoshim, holiness, ahava, love, tzedakah, lifting up others in need.

Let us recapture the values of life upon which our souls rely and for which our friends cherish us.

The commentary Sefer ha-Chaim, the Book of Life, reminds us that “if we are concerned with the loss of wealth but don’t worry about the passing of our days; our wealth will ultimately not help us and our days will never return.”

Even as we witness yesterday’s economic volatility and the vast differences among our political leaders about how to respond; even as we acknowledge the deep pain of financial loss and security and the distress it brings; even as we acknowledge the pall that has descended over us, let not another day pass without committing ourselves to the values which are at the core of our lives: the teachings of goodness and integrity and candor that we are intent to convey to our children. Let us commit ourselves to the mandates of Kedoshim, ahava, tzedakah, holiness, love, helping others in need.

For these three central values of our tradition are the measure of our lives.

Let us stop right now. Let us take account right now. That’s what this day is about. Let us use this time to reflect on what we want our life to be about. What is the most important value we want to embody? What is one small thing we would change about ourselves that would make a difference for ourselves and for those we love? Let us take a full minute on this day of beginning to think about it. What is it that you would change about yourself? We take a minute in silence to consider it all and lock it in mind.

(Silence)

2) Family and Community
2000 years ago the great and youthful sage, Ben Zoma reflected “Who is rich?” His answer: Ha-sameach b’chel-ko, “the person who can be joyful about his/her lot.”

The Talmud presciently outlines these obligations of a parent for a child. You know them well: to bring our children into Jewish life, teach them Torah, help them find a spouse, and to teach them a craft. But there is one more, a curious demand that we teach our children to swim.

A Chasidic rebbe wondered about this obligation, to teach your child to swim. This Rabbi explained that this lesson is not entirely about swimming. It is about earning a living. In the water, you must vigorously propel yourself with your arms and legs to move, but you had better lift your head out of the water in order not to drown. Similarly, he went on, someone working at a livelihood may strain every fiber of our body to succeed but if we don’t lift our head, if we don’t look around, the risk is that our heart and soul will drown.

Many of us have galloped continuously on the treadmill of our careers with the explanation, “I’m providing for my family and their future.” Some of us are constantly traveling to make deals, to promote business. We stay late at our offices to responsibly counsel clients and to market ourselves. We sit at home on weekends with one hand working the laptop and the other hand holding our cell phone with the justification that business can’t wait not even on Shabbat, not even on the weekend. Too often at the dinner table sitting with friends or family we barely lift our eyes from our blackberry, which we monitor below the table cloth believing that nobody at the table knows what we are doing and that we aren’t really listening to them.

From the wisdom of the Talmud, it seems we often miss the point. We are not lifting our heads. Our life partners and children want us to be with them, to share their days, hear their stories, watch them grow up, really listen to them without distraction, and sometimes just hold their hands without business on our mind. They want us to love them most of all. Unless we lift our head, we are going to miss the most important anchors in our lives. The fluctuations in the stock market may affect our finances but real trauma is when there is damage to the health and well-being of our family.

We are not indispensable in our workplace but we are absolutely indispensable in our family, with life partners and among friends.

Our friends will stand shoulder to shoulder with us when we’re weak and hurting and in need no matter what the value of our portfolio. The circle of our love is stronger than the power of the economy, and the meaning of self-worth far exceeds the extent of our net-worth.

If we are a culture of excess then let us be excessive in the deliberateness of listening to those about whom we care. Let us be excessive with our patience for those we love. Let us be excessive in availability to our family and our love for them.

Chadaysh yamay-nu k’kedem. Let us return to who we are and return to what we are.

3) Optimism
Let us proclaim the optimism of our faith and our people.

Our people sang ten songs in the midst of crisis according to the Midrash. One was sung by the Israelites when they escaped Pharaoh’s Army and passed safely to the far shores of the Red sea. They affirmed, “Awesome is your splendor, O God, worker of wonders” (Ex. 15:11). One was sung by Moses before he died. He reflected, “God is my Rock, God’s ways are just” (Deut. 32:4). And Deborah sung one when she defeated her enemies and rejoiced, “I will sing to God, I will sing with full spirit” (Judges 5:3].

This Midrash accentuates our people’s unvanquished optimism. We will not succumb to the brutality of evil. We will not foreclose on the future. And we will never accede to defeat.

To the contrary, when Babylonia brutalized Jerusalem thousands of years ago, the people proclaimed, “Nakum oo-vayninu,” “We will rise up and rebuild.” This congregation rallied with those same words after the devastation of our sanctuary in 1998.

We are the people of Israel. We have faith in the future. We have faith in God with whom Jacob wrestled; God who called us into history; God whose existence gives us purpose and strength and comfort when we are terrified and weak. 

For me strength is born from faith. In my own difficult moments and when I am with some of you during the most unspeakably brutal, outrageously unfair, heart wrenching tragic losses you have suffered when I can barely hold back tears. I need God. I need family and I need you who are my friends as well. I could not do this work by myself.

We, the people of Israel, depend on a message, a faith of hope. We have suffered but we are here. We are few but we are here. We have encountered untold devastation but we are here. It is not a noble privilege to suffer but it is our history and we carry on.

These days we are shaken by economic shifts. We are uncertain about the shape of the future, and there is something to do about it: for us to retrench and recalibrate the strength of our character, the decency of our demeanor and the value of our lives. These values are not negotiable. These values will not be lost to us on Wall Street. These are the values that are nourished in us on 55th Street.

The particular Torah from which we read today fiercely embodies the insurmountable, indestructible, tenacious will of our people.

Many of you know the story. As the Nazis approached the town of Oświęcim, of Auschwitz, this Torah was taken from the ark of the synagogue and carried to the cemetery. There is no doubt that the people who clasped this scroll knew what their fate would soon be: death in the gas chambers, destruction of their community, obliteration of Jewish life. They knew that their world was coming to an end. As the goosesteps of the German army approached, a few of the town’s Jews dug a grave. Imagine the scene. They knew they and their families would be exterminated, and yet, bent over the grave, gently lowered this Torah into a tin container they had fashioned so that the scroll would survive and covered it with dirt.

Did they believe that this Torah would ever be discovered and unearthed?  Did they believe that this Torah would ever be touched, caressed, held and read by Jews who outlived the Nazis?  Could they have possibly envisioned that Jewish life would survive and that their Torah would be discovered, raised from the grave and entrusted to us to place in our Holy Ark, in the sanctuary of this synagogue in New York City so that you could touch it and our children could read from it?  The reasonable part of me honestly answers, “No, not at all, that’s absurd. None of that could have been imagined, considered, envisioned.  It’s just impossible.”  But the Jewish part of me says, “Yes. Yes, that was their hope.” Yes, because Jews survive on faith and dreams and aspirations.  Yes, because we trust in the foundations of human decency that endure. We believe in personal and communal kindness upon which we build. We are determined to share with others even when we have very little to share.

2500 years ago, breezes blew through the rubble of Jerusalem and the wind carried the ashes of the Temple aloft.

In the midst of devastating circumstances, our people reclaimed their undying faith. They began again. They continued the legacy of our people.
And so shall we. Even when we are shaken, the anchors of our life are firmly rooted; they are the bedrock of decency, optimism, faith in God and those we love. You see, we know that when we lift our heads.

Yes, this is an extraordinarily difficult time and the future will be different. But together we shall courageously face whatever is ahead. We shall make the changes that we demand of ourselves. With arms around each other, we shall not loose hope. Shoulder to shoulder we shall not loose courage. We shall stand firm. We shall not loose faith.

We will plead as Jews do every time they return a Torah to the ark, Chadaysh yamay-nu k’kedem, “Let us return again to the land of our soul.” Let us return to who we are. Let us return to what we are. Let us make the changes to which we have committed ourselves today. Let us renew ourselves and this world with the power of our persistent and impenetrable heartfelt strength as we move forward to bring comfort to this city, calm to this nation, and wisdom to this creation. May we move forward with God’s help.

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