Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

The Courage to Face Life - Letter from the Rabbi

In some of my classes I have been discussing the subject of courage, following the recent Torah readings about the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. Throughout that period the faith of the Israelites, that they can and will escape their Egyptian slave-masters and become a free people, swings wildly between moments of trust and confidence – Yes, God is on our side! – and times when they want only to remain slaves, for freedom is just too risky.

When the Israelites complain to Moses – Why don’t you leave us alone, to remain in Egypt as slaves? – they want to stay in the world they know, rather than take all the risks of freedom. Freedom carries the dignity of making choices, and the possibility of good and new things in our lives, but also it means we live without knowing what tomorrow brings. Willingness to face the uncertainties and the difficulties of life, as well as its possibilities, is what courage is all about. The alternative, in the words of one resident, is: Just give up, stay in bed, and pull the blankets over your head.

Does growing older call on us to have courage? A resident answered: Yes we need courage, because we never know what’s going to happen. Perhaps she was thinking about the sudden change in health she had recently gone through – without a negative word! Another resident told us her first words on waking each morning: No surprises today please!

It is not just the unknown. Some residents live in almost constant pain or discomfort; others get on as best they can despite physical difficulties. Most know the loneliness of life following the death of their long-time husband or wife. As I see how the majority of residents make the best of life without complaint, it strikes me that courage is indeed an important factor in making senior years a positive time of life. Here at the Home, the staff does a wonderful job in making the life of residents as comfortable, dignified and enjoyable as possible. What is sometimes overlooked is that the residents do a wonderful job too. For me, to see such courage is both humbling and inspiring.

The Torah expresses courage as faith in God. For instance, when the Israelites are facing the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army coming up behind them, they initially complain to Moses who tells them: Have no fear, stand by and watch how God will save you! While many people have courage which is not based on faith is God, there are others for whom faith can be a source of courage. Psalm 23 puts it: Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. A sense that one is not alone can give great strength.

I have very great respect for those who came through years in the Nazi death camps or work camps. I know from my reading that not everyone kept their determination to survive; some just gave up. I am not surprised, so I asked the Holocaust survivors in my groups what gave them the courage to keep going. All without exception told me their faith was very important to them. One said his recitation of psalms sustained him. Another said she felt God by her side as she volunteered for work – which turned out to be her route to survival. Another said her religion was important to her, but she also believed a person’s childhood upbringing made a big difference. She herself had had a very poor childhood, and that difficult time gave her the strength she needed to face the enormous challenge of life in the camps. I understand that; although we all want an easy life, it is very often difficult experiences that strengthen us to face even greater challenges in the future.

We talked a little about the courage to face death. One resident was sad about the relative shortness of the time still left for her, wishing she had achieved more. But not one person expressed fear about the future.

Perhaps that is why I love being a rabbi at the Jewish Home: while I am no longer young myself, I work amongst my seniors and my teachers, who help me to think that maybe I too will be able to face all the uncertainties and hardships that lie ahead. For that I am grateful.

Rabbi Anthony Elman Rabbi Anthony Elman is the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home and also serves as Rabbi of the Home's Grancell Village campus. His professional background is multifaceted, encompassing the fields of law, social work, and psychotherapy. Rabbi Elman has been with the Home since his ordination and graduation from the Academy for Jewish Religion-California in May 2007

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