Sep. 24, 2009
Wisdom from the Depression
Rabbi Joseph Meszler, Erev Rosh Hashanah 5570, September 18, 2009
The store Staples has had a very successful advertising campaign featuring a large red Easy button. When things get hard, wouldn’t it be nice to hit a large button and have all of our problems solved? The commercials have become so popular that Staples actually sells these plastic buttons as novelty items.
Who wouldn’t want an Easy button to make things smoother? Wouldn’t it be great if there was some kind of magical solution to life’s difficulties? Despite our wishful thinking, we have to face the fact that we have people in our congregation and in the world who truly are going through hard times. The newspaper may say that the stock market is better, but many are saying to themselves, “I am still out of work. My business is down 50%. I am still trying to live with a pay cut. I am going to have to put this on a credit card.” While we may debate stimulus packages, bailouts, health care reforms, stock market rises and falls and unemployment rates, its real people whose lives are being affected. Many feel uncertain about their future. And then we look at world news and see antisemites running amuck in pursuit of nuclear weapons and all sorts of other troubles. It is a scary world with no Easy button. Anxiety spills over into everything. Our fuses are short. We don’t need any more aggravation.
We come to the synagogue this year feeling stressed and overwhelmed, even beaten down. But the fact is these times are not unprecedented. “Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occur which has occurred; there is nothing new under the sun!” (Kohelet 1:9). If we think that this recession is difficult, travel back in time to the year 1933 in the midst of the great Depression and with the rise of Nazism in Europe. That time was far worse than what we are experiencing now. And if families made it through then, then we can make it through now.
With the help of Rabbi Jeffrey Wildstein and the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, I looked at some of the sermons that rabbis gave in the year 1933. What sermons did people hear on Rosh Hashanah back then?
In Chicago, Rabbi Samuel Cohon talked about the rise of Nazism and, heartbreakingly, hoped that it would soon fade, that “the clouds of racial strife and of persecution [would] soon be dispelled by the breath of liberty, good-will, and peace.” Little did he know the disaster that would come and stay until 1945. But in the face of joblessness and widespread hunger, Cohon also explained to his congregants, “Religion does not prove itself by supplying men with their material necessities. Applied science does that more expertly. The supreme task of religion consists in kindling the divine light in the lives of men, and in assuaging their spiritual hunger. The saying that ‘not alone by bread does man live’ has not ceased to be true even in days when the shortage of bread is universally felt… Religion seeks to direct the soul of man to its source and thus fill it with fortitude and peace.”
In other words, while religion cannot put bread on our tables, it can give us reason to get up in the morning even though there is hunger. If we believe in each other, in ourselves, and in the future, we can weather any storm. This is perhaps why Cohon began his Rosh Hashanah address with the words, “Faith lights up the darkness and removes the burdens of the heart.”
For Cohon, what gives us the strength to move forward in difficult times is faith. Judaism gave him a vision of the end to look forward to, a feeling of peace in his heart that we are going to be okay, and a sense, as my grandfather used to say, that “this too shall pass.”
Whereas Cohon spoke of faith in dark times, Rabbi Edgar Siskin of New Haven, Connecticut spoke of thankfulness. Hard hit, his community didn’t know how they were going to make it. Siskin told them, nevertheless, that there was “some good in the depression.” One good was “the discovery, or rather re-discovery of the true values of life.” He wrote:
“How cheap and tawdry, in light of what is now transpiring, the life we were living a few years ago! We wanted money. Gambling. We got it, we lavished it on ourselves. Pandered to all the sensational appetites of the body.
“Everything we laid hold of is gone. Securities, investments, banks, money. Our indulgences sicken and nauseate us… Now there is nothing left but the solid rock – the old simplicities of the quiet home and the loving heart, the ancient verities of prudence, probity, and patience. These can sustain us through the storm.”
Siskin was grateful for the removal of pretense and overindulgence in shallowness. Being stripped down to the bone removed what turned out to be the excesses of life and reminded him what we really need. He felt thankful for a spiritual bank account in one’s character. It is why he called his sermon, “Appraising Our Assets.” Our real assets are not our money or possessions. Not only do we know that we can get along with less, but we remember the value of our spiritual goods. Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman of St. Louis echoed Siskin’s thoughts when he wrote, “Fame is empty. Success is hollow. Popularity is fleeting. Love alone endures. A home built on love is the garden of Eden in this world.”
But of all the sermons I read, the words of Rabbi Harold Saperstein of Temple Emanuel of Lynnebrook, Long Island rang truest to me. We might be familiar with the last name of Saperstein because he was the father of Rabbi David Saperstein who heads the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Saperstein dared to ask, in the midst of the depression and Nazism, “How can we be happy?” I have to tell you, at first I was surprised by this question. For me, Judaism isn’t so much about being happy. It is about doing the right thing that God expects you to do, whether it makes you happy or not. How ridiculous it seems, especially in the times that he lived through, to talk about happiness at all! Besides, if anything makes Jews really happy, it’s complaining!
But then I read Saperstein’s explanation, and it all made sense. He wrote the story of Mrs. Alice Freeman Palmer, one of the early presidents of Wellesley College. Mrs. Palmer would speak to the children in the slums of Boston at the bottom of the Depression. One of the children said, “Please, Mrs. Palmer, tell us how to be happy.” Saperstein records her response:
“The good woman was touched by the pathetic request. She wanted to help them, but for a moment hardly knew what to say. Then rising to the occasion she answered, ‘My children, if you desire happiness there are three things you must do. First, each day you must learn by heart something that is worth remembering, some line of poetry, or a verse from the Bible, or a sentence from some good book.’ She wasn’t sure whether they understood what she meant until one of the children asked, ‘You mean something we would be glad to remember if we should become blind.’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘that is exactly what I mean – something you would be glad to remember if you were to become blind. And second, you must stop from your work each day long enough to look at something about you and to say, ‘Isn’t that beautiful. And finally,’ she continued, ‘you must do something good each day, something to help someone else.’ ‘If I help take care of my neighbor’s baby, am I doing something good?’ one of the children asked. ‘Yes, my child,’ the woman answered, ‘that is doing something good.’ And that day the children went away happy, confident that at least they had found the road to happiness.”
What Saperstein seems to have been teaching by relating this tale is that we as Jews do not pursue happiness in and of itself. We become happy by pursuing other things and making our lives “meaningful and purposeful, by the inspiration of literature, by aesthetic appreciation, and by the service to” others. These things are not free because they require effort and time. But they also cannot be bought at any store nor lost in the stock market. If we invest in these things, they can never be taken from us. He explains, “Money may be lost, prestige may be swept away, health may be undermined, beauty may vanish as the morning mist, vain pleasures, once enjoyed, are gone forever. But the beauty of a poem once felt, the sublimity of a noble thought once grasped are sources of spiritual wealth which no one can take from us.”
Faith, gratitude, and true happiness. In reviewing these words from 1933 and understanding the context in which they were spoken, our trials seem so much smaller. If they could achieve these virtues under those worse conditions back then, then we can find them in our lives now.
So ask yourself, at this onset of the New Year 5770, at what is hopefully the bottom of the recession, what gives you faith? Perhaps it is your voice that is needed to give faith to others, to assure them that everything is going to come out okay, that “this too shall pass.”
For what are you grateful when you are appraising your real assets? What is in your spiritual bank account that cannot be taken from you? What do you really need in life?
And what makes you really happy? Not temporarily joyful, but deeply at ease. What things require your time and effort that bring you satisfaction? The proverb from Pirkei Avot still rings true: “Who is wealthy? Those who are content with their lot.”
I wish there was an Easy button that could take away all of the strife and trials of living, but there isn’t. Instead, we have our Judaism. And just as the Jewish people have weathered the storms of some 25 centuries, so will we get through this one. We will do so if we rely upon each other and are gentle with each other. Don’t let the short fuses blow but instead take a breath and try to be understanding. Let us be slow to judge and criticize and instead be quick to see the good and encourage. And let us always believe in the decency and blessings that still fill God’s world.