The mantra the Torah gave me for resilience in times of crisis

For Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, the saying from Deuteronomy 'Choose life' has a deep personal resonance


When Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner started writing her book on resilience, she could hardly have foreseen in what testing times it would be published. There could not have been a more topical theme as many of us draw more deeply on our inner resources to endure the coronavirus lockdown.

Bitesize Resilience: A Crisis Survival Diary, as its title suggests, is a series of daily reflections interleaved with practical guidance on coping with anxiety and distress. The Reform movement’s Senior Rabbi speaks openly about her personal struggles as well as her professional experiences as she suggests how we can find a way to weather life’s storms.

Not surprisingly for a rabbi, it is infused with Jewish wisdom and practice. As she observes, Judaism is a “case study in resilience” with a historic capacity to rise anew from catastrophe.

She recommends finding “mantras” from our texts and prefaces the book with a quotation from Deuteronomy, “Choose life”. It is from Moses’s parting oration to his people as he counsels them to choose the life-giving path of the commandments but, as she points out, there is a poignant irony as he himself is preparing for his own death shortly.

But she inflects the saying with added emotional significance. “Choosing life is a matter of biblical imperative,” she writes. “I know now that this choice is most real — and therefore most powerful — when it is hard to do; when life itself feels so acutely excruciating that actively choosing it feels like the last thing you want to do.”

The imperative is necessary, she says, because “if the choice were left solely in our hands, we may choose not to live, as some people do when they feel desperate”.

She offers examples of supportive ritual. One man, who recited hagomel, the traditional blessing from deliverance from sickness or danger, explained to the congregation that he had come out of a serious depression. “By naming our pain,” she says, “we become more resilient to it.”

Or the 12-year-old girl who had just lost her father. When mourners perform the practice of tearing their clothes before a funeral, they commonly put on an old suit or jumper. But the child chose her best dress as her way of honouring her father.

A rabbi, Rabbi Janner-Klausner argues, should not aspire to be a priest, in some way set apart from the community, but be more like a Levite, whose name comes from the verb in Hebrew “to accompany”. Theirs should be a supportive role; sometimes simply being there for a congregant may be enough without the need to perform any particular action. “In the Temple, the mundane realism of the daily sacrifices took precedence over the special sacrifices,” she notes.

While she mentions the tried and trusted Jewish method of reacting to troubles by reciting Psalms, she suggests people may want to devise their own ritual and offers some how-to advice on what to consider. But DIY rituals can be hard for lay people who may lack a rabbi’s learning to lend it some flavour of tradition.

As a response to the challenge of our time, she cites a healing prayer specially composed by Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, which asks for “the strength to endure even in the face of pain and loss, and the insight to know that this challenging time will pass”. Or another newly composed prayer, by Rabbi Paul Freedman of Radlett Reform Synagogue, for reciting at live-streamed funerals, now conducted by Reform and Liberal clergy alone without mourners. Quoting the 20th century Hebrew writer Eliezer Steinman , it says, “Do not say yachid [alone] but yachad [together].”

It is not only individuals but institutions that have been forced to adapt. Synagogues, their doors closed, have switched to online provision.

“People are turning to spirituality,” she has found. When she ran an online Seder from home for the Reform movement, she expected at most a few dozen but hundreds zoomed in from across the country as they sought the comfort of togetherness.

As a result, she believes the present crisis may have led to “a paradigm change”. Synagogues may return to their buildings but they will need to maintain online programming. Progressive shuls which may have once hummed and ha’d about whether to stream services will have to preserve the facility as people will expect it, just as they will expect funerals to be broadcast for the sake of distant or infirm relatives who may not be able to attend in person.

What has been created in adversity, she thinks, will continue as part of an expanded idea of community.

Bitesize Resilience: A Crisis Survival Diary, £5, is available from Amazon. Proceeds go to the Molly Rose Foundation to support young people’s mental health


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