Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Yom HaShoah: Choosing Freedom

Choosing Freedom
Thoughts on Yom HaShoah 2020
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Viktor Frankl, the well-known Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist, observed that many of the men whom he encountered in the concentration camps were singularly focused on retrospective thought. Attempting to escape from the ‘trapped present,’ they obsessed over the days and years prior to their imprisonment with dreams about their ‘free past.’ “But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger,” Frankl wrote, “It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.” Laying before them was an opportunity to “make a victory of those very experiences, turning life into an inner triumph.” Mistakenly believing that the “real opportunities” of life had already passed, however, many of the men ignored the challenges that lay in the present, tragically vegetating in the deadly atmosphere of the concentration camps.[1] 

Fellow survivor and psychotherapist Edith Eger expressed a similar idea in her award-winning memoir, The Choice. “Freedom lies in examining the choices available to us and examining the consequence of those choices,” she wrote, “The more choices you have…the less you’re going to feel like a victim.” She reflected upon her experiences in the concentration camps, realizing that “at every selection line, the stakes were life and death, the choice was never mine to make,” but even then, “I could choose how I responded, I could choose my actions and speech, I could choose what I held in mind. I could choose whether to walk into the electrified barbed wire, to refuse to leave my bed, or I could choose to struggle and live.”[2] 

Dr. Eger was, in fact, echoing the lessons of her late mentor Viktor Frankl, who likewise observed:

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action…Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress...Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually…It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful. [3]

Frankl later founded the psychological field of logotherapy, which guides people to finding a sense of freedom even as they suffer.[4] He distinguished between responsibility – which is imposed from the outside, and responsibleness – which is freely chosen. “Responsibleness means inner discipline,” Joseph Fabry explained, as “we respond not because we are forced to, but because we so decide.” And while our lives often feel predetermined by hereditary genes, drives, emotions, and early childhood experiences, coupled with specific environment and economic conditions, logotherapy asserts that we may still retain a source of freedom – the ability to choose how we respond to our particular situation.[5] 

This coexistence of responsibility and responsibleness manifests itself in the life of a shomer missvot on a constant basis, as well. On more than one occasion, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l spoke about the dual nature of missvot. He noted that there are two aspects inherent to the religious gesture in Judaism: ‘strict objective discipline’ and ‘exalted subjective romance.’ Both are indispensable. While tefilah, for example, is performed by uttering the words of prayer, it is only fulfilled by drawing forth our personal thoughts and emotions. And while rejoicing on the festivals is performed by eating meat and drink wine, it is only fulfilled through the internal feelings of joy and happiness. R. Soloveitchik remarked:

Feelings not manifesting themselves in deeds are volatile and transient; deeds not linked with inner experience and soulless. Both the subjective as well as the objective components are indispensable for the self-realization of the religious personality.”[6]

R. Isadore Twersky z”l likewise wrote, regarding the missvot, “The objective act is standard and unchanging; the practice is various and multifaceted.”[7]

Although the laws and strictures of halakhah impose responsibility upon us, they likewise invite us to discover the freedom of responsibleness, by recognizing our internal feelings and expressing them in the performance of missvot.

It is perhaps relevant, in the context, the way that the Hakhamim noticed the difference between how “Noah walked with God” (Bereshit 6:9) and “Avraham “walked before God” (24:40).[8] Noah was the paradigmatic listener. “Walking with God,” he heeded the divine responsibility to build and ascend the ark. Avraham’s actions, in contrast, stemmed from the higher-level source of responsibleness. “Walking before God,” he intuitively chose his way in life based upon a deep understanding of the “way of God.”

Dr. Eger remembered her visits to two Vietnam paraplegic veterans on one particular day. The first patient, Tom, lay on his bed, curled up in a fetal position, cursing God and country. “He seems imprisoned,” she wrote, “by his injured body, by his misery, by his rage.” Entering the room of the other vet, Chuck, she found him out of bed and sitting in his wheelchair. “It’s interesting,” he told her, “I’ve been given a second chance in life. Isn’t it amazing?” He brimmed over with a sense of discovery and possibility, realizing that while sitting in the wheelchair his eyes are closer to sight of beautiful flowers planted in the yard and the looks in his children’s eyes. “Every person is part Tom and part Chuck,” Eger wrote. “We are overwhelmed by loss and think we will never recover a sense of self and purpose…But despite – and really, because of – the struggles and the tragedies in our lives, each of us has the capacity to gain the perspective that transform us from victim to thriver.” [9] 

The current state of affairs of our world grants us, again, with the choice of imprisonment or freedom. We can, on the one hand, give in to the objective difficulties that have been leveled upon us by this pandemic. By doing so, we will chain ourselves up to a life of bondage and servitude. Acknowledging the tough responsibility imposed upon us, however, we can still choose a path of responsibleness by determining our attitude and perspective in the weeks ahead. By doing so, we will be choosing to be free.

[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston, MA, 2014), pg. 67-68.
[2] Edith E. Eger, The Choice: Embracing the Possible (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 253 and 205.
[3] Man’s Search for Meaning, pg. 61-63.
[4] See, e.g., Man’s Search for Meaning, pg. 106-107.
[5] Joseph B. Fabry, The Pursuit of Meaning (Charlottesville, VA, 2013), pg. 108-11
[6] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed (Jersey City, NJ, 2000), pg. 40. Cf. R. Jacob J. Schachter, “Halakhic Authority in a World of Personal Autonomy,” in Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (New Milford, CT, 2012), pg. 171-172 fn.45.
[7] R. Isadore Twersky, “What Must a Jew Study – And Why?”, in Visions of Jewish Education (Cambridge, UK, 2003), pg. 52.
[8] Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 6:9, s.v. et.
[9] The Choice: Embracing the Possible, pg. 177.