Chol Ha-mo’ed Sukkot 5780 – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Sermon – It’s not what life throws at you, it’s what you do with it.

Cantor Zoe and I don’t normally coordinate with the bar mitzvah boy, but we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to wear red to support the initiative “show racism the red card” after the horrible events this week.   I know Jonah and Rafi will reassure me that in the gentlemanly sport of rugby such crude abuse would never be condoned. I learnt my first lessons about such abuse on the terraces at Upton Park.  I walked through iron gates with a security guard to go to primary school but “Dave The Gate” as he was known at the Sternberg Centre of old was my friendly welcome, and anti-Semitism or racism of any type had not been part of my life.

It was my dad’s face when I was about 8 or 9 and came rushing down the stairs ready to go with him one Shabbat afternoon to West Ham, dressed in my brand new RSY sweatshirt with Hebrew lettering and a large Magen David on it that taught me more.  He delicately asked me to change and taught me what some of the fans at West Ham could be like.    Telling me about Clyde Best, the first black centre forward to play for the Hammers, ignoring terrible racist abuse including bananas being thrown onto the pitch and monkey noises in 1969, despite becoming a true hero among supporters over the 221 games he played for them. My dad summed it up, “West Ham supporters aren’t always great with things that make us different and being Jewish might be seen as one of those things.  I just want to keep you safe.”  I remember the conversation some 30 plus years later, so in some ways it must have been significant and yet I don’t remember what emotions came with it.

In Clyde Best’s biography he talks about a game a couple of years into his West Ham career when you would have hoped his race would have no longer been a talking point, ““It turned out to be one of my most memorable games for West Ham,” he writes “the latest of many battles with Tottenham Hotspur. In terms of career milestones, 1 April 1972 has to go down as a special landmark when Ron Greenwood became the first manager to select not one, not two, but three black players in the same league game: Clive Charles, Ade Coker and myself all lined up in a 2–0 victory at Upton Park. It was April Fools’ Day and the cynics no doubt questioned whether we were really playing or had just been sent out to warm up.”

What that says of the inevitability of the racism he accepted as a day to day part of his life makes it feel like a world I don’t remember.  Yet this week in Bulgaria I was relieved to see that the players on the pitch at least felt empowered to make a choice.  Yet what did Clyde Best choose in 1970 and what did Tyrone Mings choose when making his international debut on Monday? Simply to be the best.  To be so good that it’s hard to criticise, to put the opposing fans in the position where their abhorrent behaviour could be seen as a result of the humiliation of a 6-0 defeat not because they could in any way accuse them of being lacking or a lesser being because of the colour of their skin.

I wish we could say that society had changed and that nobody in any work place needed to work harder to prove themselves because of the colour of their skin, gender, sexuality or religion and yet when one asks one’s self the question why did Charles, Coker & Best in the 70s or Raheem Sterling, Tyrone Mings or Marcus Rashford today make the big time when so many others tried and failed?  Perhaps it’s their built in, natural instinct to rise above the hardships, to make the best of what life throws at them to see the metaphorical goals and not the defenders.

This week I had the absolute pleasure of meeting a woman who absolutely falls into the same category of inspirational people who turn problems into projects and make one person’s issue a solution for the whole community.  Julia Alberga had a friend whose daughter was having a mental health crisis.  Turning to CAHMS, JAMI, Norwood and every Jewish charity and health care provider she couldn’t find the help and support her family needed.  Julia has turned her friend’s plight into the most extraordinary Jewish “community wellbeing project” helping schools to help their students develop positive mental health and wellbeing from a young age.  In our conversation Julia introduced me to an American psychologist, educator, and author Martin Seligman.  His work revolves around the topics of learned helplessness, positive psychology, depression, resilience, and optimism.  Very simply Seligman looks at teaching people to have a more positive outlook on life.  He teaches that “The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe that bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case.” (– Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, 1991)

He teaches that our sense of wellbeing depends 50% on our genetics: many mental health issues are wrapped up in our DNA and that’s what we have to live with. However only a tiny 10% is dependent on our circumstances, life events which are thrown at us. This leaves a huge 40% of our wellbeing which he thinks is based on our intentional activities; how we respond to life.   Voluntary actions or choices we make daily and at least 40% of our happiness is based on actions and choices we make daily and are under our control. These actions and choices consist of using our strengths to do meaningful, good and pleasant things in our lives.

Had the England team refused to carry on the game they would have walked off that pitch deflated, abused and persecuted.  They had every right to, that was how the racists and bigots wanted them to feel, instead they walked off victorious knowing half their goals were scored by the very same black players who were being so horrifically treated.

This morning Jonah read,


יג  חַג הַסֻּכֹּת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים:

13 You shall keep the feast of sukkot seven days,

יד  וְשָׂמַחְתָּ, בְּחַגֶּךָ:

14 And you shall rejoice in your feast,

טו   כִּי יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ,

15 Because Adonai your God shall bless you

Nu? And what if I’m not feeling very blessed?  What if I’ve had a rotten harvest and not much to feast on let alone the fear of how I’m going to get through the winter.

You shall have nothing but joy! וְהָיִיתָ, אַךְ שָׂמֵחַ.

But it’s ok because when we make our pilgrimage to the Temple

טז   וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה, רֵיקָם.

16 And they shall not appear before the LORD empty;

יז  אִישׁ, כְּמַתְּנַת יָדוֹ, כְּבִרְכַּת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ.

17 Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of Adonai your God which God has given you. {S}

Our Torah readings have made it clear this Shabbat. It’s not about the individual hardships and the challenges we each face as individuals, if as a community, we are given occasions for betterment, like on Yom Kippur as well as occasions for joy, like this week.  It is forcing us to step out of our own personal struggles and commands us to take on the actions which make up the 40%, the positive activities which bring us joy and do good for others.  Seligman doesn’t suggest making the positive choices is always easy but perhaps that’s why Judaism commands it and doesn’t make it dependent on whether we feel it.

Positive psychology is about, Christopher Peterson, one of its founders, teaches, “other people.” Very little that is positive is solitary. When was the last time you laughed uproariously? The last time you felt indescribable joy?  The last time you sensed profound meaning and purpose? The last time you felt enormously proud of an accomplishment? Even without knowing the particulars of these high points of your life, I know their form: all of them took place around other people. Other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up. My friend Stephen Post, professor of Medical Humanities at Stony Brook, tells a story about his mother. When he was a young boy, and his mother saw that he was in a bad mood, she would say, “Stephen, you are looking irritable. Why don’t you go out and help someone? Empirically, Ma Post’s maxim has been put to rigorous test, and we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” (from “Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing: The practical guide to using positive psychology to make you happier and healthier, by Martin Seligman)

The black footballers in Bulgaria needed their team to have their backs to feel confident to continue playing.  We can find our zman simchatenu, our times of joy even in a drought if we take on board this simple message.  Surround yourself with positive people and do something good for someone else.  It’s not a fix to the 50% built into our DNA but it is a way of stacking the wellbeing in our favour.  Judaism gives us the framework; Seligman gives us the psychology, and community makes it easy for us to find the opportunities.  The hard part is making ourselves do it.

However whether it is volunteering at the homeless shelter on Thursday nights or over the Christmas period, whether it is shopping for or visiting members of the community who need you or delivering teddies and books to our new-borns, find your zman simchatenu, your season of joy even in the midst of a drought by choosing to boost your 40%. It’s not a solution but what harm can it do to try?

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