Articles > Recovering from Tragedy
By Rabbi Mitch Smith
Everybody falls down, but Olympic athletes get up faster, and gold medalists get up the fastest of all. -1984 Paralympics skiing silver medalist Bonnie St. John
Each summer, Jews remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem with prayers and fasting on Tisha B’av (the ninth day of Av). However, with the rebirth of the State of Israel, many people ask – what’s the point of such a day?
For one thing, remembering such tragedies may well be one of the keys to our survival as a people. More importantly, our ability to rebound from these tragedies and put the past behind us offers a life lesson for all of us.
Who in their right mind would ever choose to be visited by adversity? Yet many who face it tell us it enhanced their lives. In the case of cyclist Lance Armstrong, it was the startling revelation that he had cancer. “My previous fears, fear of not being liked, fear of being laughed at, fear of losing my money, suddenly seemed like small cowardices,” Armstrong wrote in It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. “But as I thought about it ….I had a new sense of purpose, and it had nothing to do with my exploits on a bike.”
“The truth is, if you asked me to choose between winning the Tour de France and cancer, I would choose cancer…. because of what it has done for me as a human being, a man, a husband, a son, and a father….If there is a purpose to the suffering, I think it must be this: it’s meant to improve us.”
Echoing this same sentiment, actor Kirk Douglas called his own medical affliction My Stroke of Luck. Overwhelmed at first by depression, Douglas later wrote, “My stroke has taught me to be more compassionate, to work harder at relationships, to value friendship more, and to have a richer spiritual life….My stroke taught me so much, and for all that it stole, it gave me even more.”
In life, we all occasionally get knocked down. But some people get up more readily than others. Bonnie St. John, silver medal winner in downhill skiing in the 1984 Paralympic Games recalled an important lesson that she learned at the time. “In my first run of the slalom, I was ahead, but then I fell down and had to get up to complete the race. In fact, the woman who won the gold medal also fell down. I knew from previous races that I could ski faster than her. But what won the gold medal for her was that she got up faster that I did after falling down. I learned that everybody falls down, but Olympic athletes get up faster, and gold medalists get up the fastest of all.”
Like the destruction of the Temple and exile from their land, Jewish history has no lack of misfortunes which have befallen our people, moments where we have been knocked down and been challenged to get back up. Under circumstances of adversity, Judaism not only bounced back, but came back stronger and more vital than before. The very concept of communal prayer that brings us together in synagogues around the world might never have come about but for the destruction of the Temple and the demise of the priestly sacrifice.
No one would deliberately choose to experience defeat or devastation, but perhaps like Lance Armstrong, and Kirk Douglas, the Jewish people found some measure of luck in our misfortunes. Had the Jews continued to exist unfettered by adversity, we might have gone the way of other ancient peoples. But whenever forced to adapt to a harsh fate, the Jewish people re-examined their beliefs and found new interpretations to Jewish living which not only contributed to the survival of Judaism for the next 2,500 years, but increased the contributions which the Jewish civilization has bestowed upon all of humanity.
Tisha B’av falls this year on Saturday night, August 9, and Sunday the 10th.
Rabbi Mitch Smith is the Director of Sport Psychology Services at Florida Atlantic University, and the Director of The Center for Sport and Jewish Life. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book: “Baseballs, Basketballs, and Matzah Balls: What Sports Can Teach Us About the Jewish Holidays… and Vice Versa”.
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