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Resilient, Positive People of Integrity

Shabbat Shoftim 5777 | August 26, 2017
Israel Kristal passed away last month just short of his 114th birthday. Mr. Kristal’s passing is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Until his death, Irving Kristal was the oldest man in the world. An observant Jew who lived in Haifa, Israel, last year Irving marked his 113th birthday by celebrating his Bar Mitzvah. He missed his chance to celebrate when he was a young 13-year-old who became an orphan in Poland during World War I.
During World War II, the Nazis occupied Poland and confined Irving to the ghetto later sending him to Auschwitz where they murdered his first wife and two children. Mr. Kristal survived the Shoah and moved to Israel. There, eventually, he remarried and built a new family and a successful life.
Oren Kristal, Irving’s grandson, said about his grandfather, “He managed to accomplish a lot. Every year he lived was a like a few years for somebody else.”
Beyond Irving Kristal’s life story and longevity, I admire the intensity his grandson describes. Irving’s life presents us with a model of resilience. I never met him. I assume none of us knows him. Yet, in reading his story I sense a man who knew the truth about human nature. People wreak much horror and create great beauty. Experiencing it all, Mr. Kristal reminds us. Build lives of love, hope, and achievement. Strive always to be resilient.
In our religious lives, you and I are a few weeks away from beginning a New Year. We are now in Elul, the Hebrew month of spiritual and personal preparation for the coming High Holy Days. On many days of this concluding year you and I confronted some of life’s difficult aspects. I hope not too difficult and I hope not too often. It is a challenge to be resilient and hopeful, to choose for ourselves the best possible response to whatever we face.
People who knew him say Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, tried to avoid using negative language whenever possible. When he needed to visit someone in the Beit Holim, a hospital, literally in Hebrew “House of the Ill,” he said he was going to visit them at the Beit Refuah, a “House of Healing.” When hearing that something bad happened, he said, “what took place was the opposite of good.” Rabbi Schneerson never worked toward a deadline. He worked keenly aware of his due dates. A good addition to the resilience we seek. Our lives can elevate what’s positive over what’s negative.
For every negative moment in our lives, where possible, let’s create a positive response. Speak words of kindness. Offer helpful gestures. Smile at someone. Be polite toward him or her, especially when you don’t want to be. Don’t fret over what you don’t like. Appreciate what you enjoy. Hearing news of cruelty or devastation, display compassion and thoughtfulness. If afraid and hurting, plan for any possible moments of pleasure or comfort. Relieve pain. Bring cheer. Offer hope. Cherish memory. Be honest. Kindle the lights of Shabbat. Give tzedakah. Share a meal. Come to synagogue. Offer a prayer. Be in community. Bring a positive response to life whenever and wherever you can.
Just this week I learned about the Kabbalistic Rabbi Sh’muel of Nikolsburg, Moravia (1726-1778.) When he served as rabbi in a community, Rabbi Sh’muel always hung his walking stick and his knapsack on the wall of the synagogue. When the officers of the congregation asked him, “Rabbi, why do you do this?” he replied, “I have no favorites; I don’t bend the rules; and I don’t show deference to anyone. If one of you is displeased, I am prepared to resign as your rabbi at any time, to pick up my staff and knapsack, and move to somewhere else.”
Rabbi Sh’muel placed before those he served an image of fairness and integrity. We need to be resilient. We want to exude a positive attitude. And, we need to live by our ethics and personal integrity. As we read in Torah this morning, “You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality.”
Addressing all of the people, Moses focuses on those who will serve as judges and leaders. As many Torah commentators observe, an official’s behavior sets the expectations for everyone else in the community to follow.
“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.”
The Hebrew grammar is morally instructive. When the Torah states in Hebrew “You shall appoint magistrates and officials,” the word you is the singular form, lekha rather than the plural form of you, lakhem. This is first a communal mitzvah to establish social authority. It is next an individual imperative for each of us to serve as a judge for ourselves.
It’s a basic Jewish moral premise. We are each responsible for the way we carry ourselves and how we present ourselves to others. We must also try to manage and choose how we react to things that happen to us and in the world around us.
As we begin preparing for the New Year, three vignettes offer us guidance. We may not live to be the oldest people in the world, though I wish us all health and longevity in the New Year. We may not twist our words to change their spirit, though I wish us all to be upbeat and hopeful in the New Year. We may not be ready to leave everything behind when our consciences bother us, though I wish us moral convictions and good acts in the New Year.
We may not be individuals whose memories model meaning, though I hope we turn out to be precisely those kinds of people. Carrying over into the New Year all that we must, judging ourselves and planning for our growth or change, I am confident we can each strive to be resilient and positive people of integrity.
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784