This article was originally the cover story of the Jewish Journal. Reprinted with permission.
“What is the secret sauce that holds a family together?” “What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient and happy?” In the age of COVID-19, this is something all of us need to be thinking through.
These are the questions Bruce Feiler asked in a March 15, 2013, story in The New York Times. This was seven years ago, and they are even more relevant now.
Feiler illustrated that one can develop a very strong family narrative. The way to do that is by asking questions such as “Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?”
Feiler asked these questions and what he found was that “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” They did better. According to the article, “The ‘Do You Know’ scale turned out to be the single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
One of the things we really need to think about is why knowing the story of your family helps develop resilience. Even more than that, what kind of narratives are the strongest kinds of narratives to help tell our stories and continue in an enduring way? What Feiler’s research wanted to figure out was what kind of storytelling led to a reality in which the person had the most resilience?
There are three types of narratives: the ascending family narrative; the descending narrative; and the oscillating family narrative. The ascending family narrative goes from negative to positive. For example, the story is: “Son, we came to this country. In the past, everything was terrible. In the beginning, everything was awful. And at the end, now we’re strong, now we accomplished a lot. We started from the bottom; now we’re at the top.”
The descending narrative starts out positive and ends negative. “We had everything, then we lost everything.” The oscillating family narrative vacillates between the two previous narratives. That’s when we say, “Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.”
What those researchers found is that the group that coped best with the trauma of 9/11 was the group that had oscillating family narratives. What does this have to do with the haggadah? What does this have to do with the coronavirus?
Over the past 2,000 years, the architects of the haggadah constructed a learning experience that can help us think through questions of grit, resilience and overcoming challenges in a profound way, so I think the answer is: everything.
On one hand, the story of the haggadah is a typical ascending narrative. The Talmud mentions “matchil biginut umisayem bishevach,” “We start with degradation and we end with prosperity, with praise.” There’s a talmudic dispute: What is this degradation of which we speak? One rabbi named Rav and one rabbi named Shmuel often had these debates. The debate here was: What was the original degradation? One perspective is that the original degradation was spiritual: “Mitchila Ovdei avoda zara hayu avoteinu,” “Our ancestors were idolaters.” The other degradation perspective is more physical, which is “Avadim Hayinu,” “We were slaves.” Both of these perspectives are included in the haggadah.
So it might seem the narrative the haggadah employs is an ascending narrative, but that’s not the case. The arc of the seder experience certainly projects forward, and throughout the seder, we recognize our lives are not perfect. We say “Hashta avdei,” “This year we are slaves,” but we look forward to success, saying “Lishana haba bnei chorin,” “Next year, we will be free.”
What we see throughout the haggadah are ups and downs. One famous narrative smack in the middle of the evening is: “Vehi She’amda, La’avotainu Velanu Shelo Echad Bilvad, Amad Aleinu Lechaloteinu Ela Sheb’chol Dor VaDor Omdim Aleinu Lechaloteinu V’HaKadosh Baruch Hu Matzilenu Miyadam”; “And this is what kept our fathers and what keeps us surviving. For, not only one arose and tried to destroy us, rather in every generation they try to destroy us, and HaShem saves us from their hands.”
What is the DNA of resilience? What can the haggadah have to teach us about the resilience we all need, specifically during the coronavirus pandemic? We may like to think our stories are linear. We start from the bottom, then reach the apex; or we were at the top, then hit rock bottom. But the truest story, the most authentic story, is the story with ups and downs, highlights and lowlights, successes and failures.
Consider every individual’s story. If we are honest about our stories, we all have oscillating narratives. For example, “Cynthia” had an incredibly successful career, then lost her job. She found a new job. “Jerry” worked hard to be a good father. Sometimes, he did not make it to his daughter’s baseball games and sometimes, he did not make it back for dinner. Other times, he was incredibly present.
When we tell these stories to ourselves and to our children, it breeds resilience and grit. When we tell that sort of story, it lets our young people know they’re going to have ups and they’re going to have downs. In his “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” Yuval Noah Harari expands upon the virtue of resilience, saying, “Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, learn new things, and preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations.” It is the ability to reinvent ourselves again and again that will prepare us for whatever life throws our way.
Recently, I had the opportunity to learn about resilience from human-rights activist Natan Sharansky. As Jewish day schools across the country shuttered their buildings and went online because of the coronavirus pandemic, OpenDor Media launched a weekly program called “Game Changers,” in which I interview leading Jewish minds of our day on a variety of topics. Sharansky, who spent nine years in the Soviet gulag, has spoken to thousands of students across the world about how he survived all those years of isolation. He was talking to us about resilience. “With so many things I couldn’t control, with so many things not in my hands, whether or not I will be a free person in prison depends on me,” he said.
How did Sharansky build his muscles of resilience? How do we build muscles of resilience? The basic elements of resilience can best be understood through an acronym my father taught me: SAFE. The first “S” is support. We see this throughout the haggadah. The Passover sacrifice required a sense of community. It had to be done in a haburah (i.e. with a group of others). We start off the seder by saying, “Kol dichfin yetei viyeichol, kol ditzrich yeiti viyifsach,” “Everyone should be a part of this” (to translate it pretty loosely). But the idea is there has to be support, and the haggadah teaches us how to have a narrative. A narrative should be oscillating, with ups and downs, and the way to have resilience throughout this narrative is with “S,” support.
This year, with many of us unable to feel that support from others, we can leverage Zoom, Skype and other technologies before the holiday or, according to a groundbreaking ruling from leading Sephardic rabbis in Israel, during the seder itself, in certain situations.
The next part of SAFE is “A,” action. Act based on hope. Have spiritual courage. Let’s remember the Korban Pesach, that sacrifice offering, was an offering that was quite unique because it took the gods of Egypt and publicly sacrificed them. Doing that took an act of spiritual courage. Action is prevalent throughout the seder. We have so many opportunities to be active during the seder. The Yemenites have a fascinating tradition where they walk around with the matzos on their back during “Avadim Hayinu” because it requires action, action, action. We can’t just sulk. We need to do something.
“F” stands for faith: faith in one another, faith in God, faith to have this relentless drive to overcome, the relentless ability to thrive as a people. We see faith through Hallel, the gratitude we show to God, which is a peak moment of the maggid section. Indeed, the whole storyline is about faith — that this lechem oni, this poor man’s bread, can be turned into a bread representing freedom and redemption.
“E” is express. Talk it out. Share things. What is the story we’re sharing? There is a reason the commandment on the evening of Passover is not “zechirat yetziat mitzrayim,” not remembering the Exodus, but “sippur,” telling the story of the Exodus. The reason for that is because we’re trying to express, express, express. The Talmud is so sensitive to the need to tell the story that in Tractate Pesachim 116, the Talmud teaches us the following law:
The Sages taught: If his son is wise and knows how to inquire, his son asks him. And if he is not wise, his wife asks him. And if even his wife is not capable of asking or if he has no wife, he asks himself. And even if two Torah scholars who know the halakhot of Passover are sitting together and there is no one else present to pose the questions, they ask each other.
If one is alone or in a big group, there is a demand to talk it out in the form of a story. This is no surprise given that human beings are story processors, not logic processors, to paraphrase Jonathan Haidt. When we have the letter “E,” are we thinking about ourselves? When we’re expressing our story, are we a persecuted person, or do we teach ourselves how to transcend persecution? The story of Pesach, the story of the haggadah, is a story of resilience.
The architects of the haggadah taught us how to cope with moments like this pandemic. They taught us you have to have Support, Action, Faith, Express, because now, when all of us are scared, we are wondering: Are we going to tell our story as one that was ascending — we were at the bottom, now we’re at the top — or are we going to tell ourselves the story in which we were at the top and now we’re at the bottom?
The answer is neither. The best way to have resilience, the best way to inspire, the best way to teach our young people to have grit is through the oscillating narrative because having ups and downs is the truest story of humanity and the most authentic story of every individual.
If we all tell that oscillating narrative, we’ll be able to look back at COVID-19 and say, “Here’s how we were able to cope with it. Here’s how we were able to deal with it.” Because after this, our descendants are going to ask us, “What did you do during COVID-19? How did you deal with it? What result did you have? Did you become stingier or did you become more generous? Did you become more isolated, or even in your isolation, did you reach out to others? Did you become more exclusive or more inclusive?”
These are the questions our children and grandchildren inevitably will ask. The responsibility falls on us to provide answers and, just as importantly, to provoke more questions. It’s our responsibility to pass on our stories that each and every one of us must continue to write.
May we all have a beautiful Passover!