Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Until the Last Breath

In times of distress, it feels like we don’t have free will. Overwhelmed by suffering and oppression, it seems like all options have been snatched away from us, and that there’s no way to grab control of our lives. When someone is holding a gun to our head, what choice do we have?

But there is free will in hell. Even when man has lost control of his fate and is about to lose his life, he still has some free will left. Even when deprived of the ability to act, man can make choices, and choose courageous words and quiet nobility. These limited choices won’t affect the outcome, but they can still transform life dramatically.

It is easy ignore these last fragments of free will; after all choice seems so insignificant when the outcome is inevitable. The Romans executed the great Rabbi, Akiva, in the year 135 A.D. During the execution, his students stood nearby, to accompany their teacher during his last moments. As the Romans were slowly and tortuously tearing Akiva’s skin off, the time for the Shema prayer arrived. Weakened and dazed, Akiva pushed himself to recite the prayer. Akiva’s startled students called to him and said: “Rebbe, even now?” Do you still need to say the Shema seconds before your death, when you have already proven your courage and loyalty?

The students’ amazement is understandable; how many people maintain their composure while tortured? But Akiva’s lesson is a significant one: there’s still free will in hell.

Free will remains with us as long as we are capable of choosing our words and our thoughts. Even if we can no longer choose whether or not we do live, it is in our hands to choose how we live out the last moments of our lives. To spend one’s last seconds whispering a prayer may seem insignificant, considering the impending tragedy; but actually, this whispered prayer is heroic, a declaration that as long as man can breathe, his choices still matter. Indeed, Akiva’s choice to say farewell to this world with the Shema on his lips has been emulated hundreds of thousands of times since. Akiva reminds us that free will is possible everywhere, even in hell.

Of course, free will under duress is both rare and precious. Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote a moving book about his experiences entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning”. He spends much of the book explaining that each concentration camp inmate retained his free will, even when things were at their worst. Frankl is inspired by the few who chose to rise above their circumstances. He writes:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

No one can take your free will away!! Yes, it’s normal for the powerless to feel hopeless; after all, once a person has been degraded and demoralized, it’s easy to believe you’re an animal. But you can always decide how you act and react, and you can always retain your humanity. Man’s free will shines through in moments of crisis, when people make heroic choices, and choose to recite the Shema in their dying moments, and to share their rations in a concentration camp. Man always has a choice.

It may seem absurd to stand under the gaze of the angel of death and still worry about mumbling a prayer or giving away a half eaten crust of bread. But in actuality, these small choices are heroic, and affirm man’s invincible spirit, a spirit as infinite as the image of God.

And that invincible spirit remains with us, until the last breath.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Value of Everything

What does it take to survive as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam? Admiral James Stockdale, an American POW who heroically resisted torture and torment for eight years, explained to author Jim Collins how he found the courage to carry on:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story...I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life...”

Stockdale’s powerful sense of optimism inspires. However, Stockdale doesn’t see himself as an optimist. In fact, he explained to Collins that the POW’s least likely to survive were the optimists, because: “they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go.... And they died of a broken heart.”

Ironically, Stockdale is optimistic about the long term future, yet pessimistic about the short term, steadfastly resistant to any false hopes. Collins labeled Stockdale’s views on optimism “The Stockdale Paradox”.

This paradox resembles Maimonides’ views on the Messiah. Belief in the Messiah is an optimistic vision of worldwide redemption. Maimonides is quite clear that faith in the Messiah is a fundamental belief of Judaism; yet, at the same time, Maimonides is emphatic, both in his legal code and in his letters, that one must be careful not to speculate about when and under what circumstances the Messiah will arrive. Maimonides refuses to open the door to Messianic fervor, well aware of the destruction brought by the false Messiahs of his generation. Much like the “Stockdale Paradox”, Maimonides paradoxically demands that we dream of the Messiah’s arrival, yet at the same time Maimonides ignores the possibility the Messiah will come in the near future.

At the heart of both of these paradoxes is a riddle about optimism. Optimism seems to have two definitions; one refers to being contented with whatever we have (“the glass is half full”), and the other refers to hope for a better future ("it’ll all turn out for the best in the end”). These two definitions are dramatically different. One reflects acceptance, the willingness to be satisfied with whatever life gives you; the other reflects dreams and aspirations, motivated by a profound desire for change. Indeed, the common use of the word “optimism” is itself a paradox, because it demands of us to dream of a better future while being absolutely happy with our present situation!

While accepting both of the two definitions of optimism may seem paradoxical, it is not illogical. Oscar Wilde famously said that “a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. Optimism would then be the opposite of cynicism, with the optimist seeing the value in everything, unconcerned about the cost. Of course the optimist values the future, and dreams of a better world and a better life. But the optimist can also see how precious life is, even in a POW camp; an optimist can see the enormous value in pursuing one’s duties, no matter what the costs are, even in the most horrific of places. Optimism sees the value of the present while embracing the potential of the future.

What sustains people like Stockdale who have overcome their ordeals is a dogged refusal to let go of their duties and their dreams. But even optimists sometimes falter when suffering. In March 1945, the Grand Rabbi of Bluzhev, Rabbi Israel Spira, was overwhelmed by despair. He had lost all of his family, and was alone to the world, and he walked up to the electrified fence at Bergen Belsen in order to end it all. A woman, witnessing the Rabbi, began to speak to him. She told the Rabbi: “how can you stand here now and think of ending your life? A day will come and God will bless you 0nce more; you will be grateful that your life was spared. And besides, the world needs you!”.

Rabbi Spira stepped away from the fence. He realized it was his duty to be courageous and optimistic.

From then on, until his death in 1989, Rabbi Spira fulfilled his duties; and he built a better future for himself, and inspired others to do the same.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Women, Survival, and Heroism

(For Parshat Beshalach 2010)

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video (check out the fancy TV quality camera!!), and to Lorne Lieberman for supporting this project.

You can sponsor this video with a 54$ donation. Please contact if you are interested.