This Too Shall Pass

Sermon delivered on October 17, 2008, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States during the darkest days of our nation’s history. War tore state from state, and families were ripped asunder. Almost every American family, north and south, suffered war casualties.

Though he was rejected by half of the country, Lincoln felt responsible as the President of the whole United States. Perhaps we should not be surprised that this deeply thoughtful and religious man sought solace in a story from our Jewish folklore. Lincoln even told this story in a speech.

“There was a king who had the most magnificent collection of jewels in the entire world. It was the source of his greatest joy. One night he dreamed that somewhere in the world, a magnificent ring held the power to make a sad person happy, and a joyful person even happier. The dream was so real to him that he decided that he must seek and possess this ring.

“He offered a huge reward to anyone who could find it. After everyone else had given up their search, one of the king’s servants continued to scour the world for the magical ring. Finally, he too was ready to give up, when he stopped in to one last shop. There, the owner said that he, indeed, was in possession of this ring!

“The servant offered to pay whatever price the shopkeeper asked, but the man refused payment saying, ‘No, your king needs this ring. Take it as my gift.’

“The servant rushed to the palace, entered the king’s chamber, and presented the ring to him. Upon opening the box, the king found a plain, unadorned metal ring. Could this truly be the precious, magical ring he had dreamt about? Then he noticed three Hebrew words engraved on the ring. ‘Gam zeh ya-avor – this too shall pass.’

“The king was puzzled. And it took him many years to realize the true magical power of the ring. When he was truly sad, he would look at the ring and it would remind him that “this too shall pass,” and he would be consoled. And when he experienced true joy, the ring reminded him that “this too shall pass,” and he learned to hold on and appreciate those precious moments of joy. Soon the king realized that this truly was the most valuable ring in the world. He lost interest in the rest of his collection. All his dazzling jewels and gems paled when compared to the plain ring with the three Hebrew words, ‘gam zeh ya-avor, this too shall pass,’ and he always wore this ring of greatest value with pride on his royal finger.”

Almost 150 years later, we are deeply touched. Those who have read about Lincoln know that he was given to depression. He had reason to be despondent. And yet, he could take comfort in faith. America’s worst days would not last forever. Lincoln could look back on American history. Surely, he recalled that “four score and seven years” earlier, the nation had been born of blood and toil. The War of 1812 was even worse than the Revolution. And yet, America had known glory between those first two wars and especially since 1812. Lincoln knew what we know: Our nation possesses an inherent greatness. No mater how bad things get, American ingenuity and optimism and faith will assure that better times are ahead. Gam zeh ya’avor. “This too shall pass.”

The difficulty of our own days does not match the misery of Lincoln’s years. Nevertheless, our economic future is frightening. When economists and pundits seem to agree that these days are the worst since the Great Depression, can we have confidence that a second Great Depression isn’t around the corner? The issue is not abstract. Real human beings, some in our own midst, face real questions about their own future. Their jobs. Their homes. Their livelihood. Their self-esteem. The well-being of their families.

The story that Lincoln loved fits these times well. We are reminded of history’s lesson: This, too, shall indeed pass. The message also matches the meaning of Sukkot.

Our harvest festival is a study in contrasts. We are commanded to be happy. That’s right: an emotion is thrust upon us. At the same time, we are required to dwell in a fragile hut. A strong gust could destroy our Sukkah. Our joy, then, would seem to be ephemeral. Our happiness could blow away.

During this festival, we are bidden to read the words of Ecclesiastes. Garrett will chant these famous verses tomorrow: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. . . . A time to weep and a time to laugh. . . . A time to love and a time to hate.” Might we add, “a time for slavery, a time for Civil War, and a time when two of the nominees for the highest offices in the land are an African American man and a woman?” Might we add, “a time for economic growth and a time for devastating Depression?” Might we add, “a time for one congregational family to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah and a time to another family to mourn the loss of a beloved family member?” Might we add, “a time to celebrate the long-deferred blessing of marriage for two men and a time for gays and lesbians to face discrimination and hate crimes across the land?”

Gam zeh ya’avor. “This too shall pass.”

For me, personally, and for my family, the message is particularly poignant. A year ago yesterday, my nephew Owen celebrated his eighth birthday. His mother, my sister, baked his favorite cake, and served it to him in bed, for breakfast, as is their family tradition. It was a happy day, a year ago. Yesterday, on the other hand, was very different. The family spent the day together, but without the same kind of celebration. This July 27, as many of you know, Owen drowned in a tragic accident, while with his family on a white water rafting excursion. A few weeks later, on August 22, his brother Julian turned twelve. He did have his birthday cake in bed. He received a birthday present that Owen had selected for him weeks before his death.

Gam zeh ya’avor. This too shall pass.

What does it mean? Ecclesiastes wrote, hevel, “vanity,” perhaps better translated, “meaninglessness,” it’s all hevel.

Yesterday, Owen’s great-grandmother died. My brother-in-law’s grandmother was very elderly, and not well. Though she had celebrated Owen’s birth, she was not aware of his death. What did it mean that she died on his birthday, or that Owen was born on the day that another great-grandmother died? My maternal grandmother died on the same day, eight years before Owen was born. What does it mean? Hevel? Meaningless?

Gam zeh ya’avor. This too shall pass. What will pass? Life in this world? For Owen? For his great-grandmothers? For all of us?

Well, yes. Of course that’s true, though we prefer not to think of it. Humanity shall pass out of existence, like the dinosaurs before us. Then the Earth itself. And the sun.

Gam zeh ya’avor. This too shall pass.

But don’t forget: Abraham Lincoln found comfort in the story. The sixteenth President did not tell the story that he might wallow in his depression, or drag others down into it with him. We’re talking about the man who saved the nation. He saw better times, and was willing to fight to make that brighter day come to be. When Abraham Lincoln recited, “This too will pass,” he understood it to be a positive message, a message of hope.

Abraham Lincoln understood that difficult days would come to an end. Surely, on the darkest days of the Civil War, President Lincoln knew not how the nation and he would be extracted from misery; but history and faith told him those days would pass. And they did.

I never got past introductory Economics in college, but I have studied history enough to know that nations experience economic cycles. This downturn may be deep. And yet, whether it takes months, or a couple of years, or a decade, better days are ahead.

Gam zeh ya’avor. This too shall pass.

Let us not forget, though: The story applies to good times, not just bad. And the point in good times is not to make us sad. At a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding, a pessimist would look at the words on the ring, and say: gam zeh ya’avor, “this too shall pass,” our happy days will come to an end. But that’s not the moral of our story. Instead, Judaism teaches: The joy won’t last forever. The glass is broken at the end of the wedding to remind us that no marriage, however happy, is as joyous as the celebration. Therefore, we are taught to rejoice in the good times, to seize the moment and recognize that it is precious.

When my nephew died, and ever since, though their sadness is real, my sister and brother-in-law really only want to talk about the good times, the special person who was their son for eight and a half years. Those days have passed, but they continue to savor every happy moment that they had with their little boy.

The message of Sukkot is that every human experience has its season. The folktale that Lincoln loved is basically a retelling of Ecclesiastes’ own message that Garrett will read tomorrow. In bad times, let us hold on to hope. Our difficulties, whether personal or communal, won’t last forever. And let us fulfill the commandment. No matter our circumstances, let us rejoice in the Sukkah. Our time for joy may be limited, so let us celebrate life to the fullest.

Gam zeh ya’avor. This too shall pass.