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.


uriyo said...

Good article. Thanks.

BTW, you accidentally wrote "Freedom" instead of "Meaning" in the Frankl book title.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz said...

Uriyo - thans for poitning that out - it was a late night brain cramp

AskAbigail said...


This was inspiring and very well written.

Thank you
Last week I attended the Hartman Lecture: Mellila Eshad was speaking exactly about this point about the choices we retain even in the midst of the greatest crisis: she shared about three periods of crisis for the Jewish people 1.the destruction of the temple and its aftermath,2;the Spanish inquisition and expulsion and the recent scourge of the Nazi Holocaust through surviving texts.

Especially touching was the Rabbi who continued writing his sermons every Shabbat in the Warsaw Ghetto and burying them in a milk jar.

Some people have surely been sorely tested and come out with their heads high.