(inspired by and based on The Gift by Edith Eger)
Last week we re-lived and remembered the six days of creation, from Monday, 4 September, 25 Elul, straight through to Shabbat, 1 Tishrei, the first day of Rosh Hashana, Adam and Eve’s (Chava’s) Birthday. Hashem set the stage and laid the table during the first five days, for humankind to come onto the scene.
There was a curious event described in the Midrash. On the fifth day of creation, the day Hashem created sea and airborne creatures, the Midrash states that there was a slight and gentle species, a species with not much body mass or weight, a species that is not overly muscular, a species with no teeth, not a very strong species, a species whose feet didn’t carry it very well on land. This species, otherwise known as a ‘bird’, came to Hashem with a complaint, “You set us up for extinction, we are not going to survive. How are we going to be able to defend ourselves in this harsh and hostile world for the rest of history and the rest of creation?”
Hashem turned around and gave the bird a pair of wings. A week later, he came to the bird and said, “Give me some feedback. How’s my gift of wings going?” The bird started to complain. “Horrible,” it said, “now not only are we of slight body and build, no teeth, slow on land, but we have to lug these two heavy wings along with us!”
Hashem’s response; “Silly bird! You are now free! Free of the confines of the earth. Free to peruse the heights, to be liberated from the restrictive land-bound rules of gravity. You are truly free to soar.”
One of my favourite and most inspirational authors is Edith Eger of The Choice. She recently came out with her sequel, and in fact it was just released this last month in Australia, The Gift.
Edith recalls as a child being taken from her home in Hungary and being taken to a concentration camp. There, during the selection, she was asked what was her profession? As a teen she said she was a dancer. She was brought before the ‘Angel of Death’ himself, the infamous, may his memory be erased, Joseph Mengele, and he commanded her in his cold heartless tone, “Dance!” She was frozen to the spot with fear. She could feel the cold floor of the barracks on her bare feet. She closed her eyes and remembered the words her mother had told her, “no one can take from you what you have put in your mind”. In her mind’s eye she left the hell of Auschwitz. In her mind’s eye, she pictured herself standing in the Budapest Opera House. She pictured herself enacting the main part in a ballet. Her limbs started to lift and twirl about as she twirled and literally ‘danced for her life’.
Auschwitz was a hell of suffering, but she describes it as her classroom in life. She recalls that the worst prison she experienced was not the time she spent in concentration camps. The worst prison is the prison we build for ourselves. Entrapping ourselves in our minds and thoughts, in our beliefs that limit how we feel, and what we think we can do, what we think is possible.
Edith committed herself to freeing herself and everyone she came into contact with from mental prisons that we all create in one way or another.
Our goal is to have the freedom to pursue, to choose. In fact, Edith named her lifelong journey and the therapy she uses when she works with all of her clients and readers, ‘Choice Therapy’. The power to harness and choose to be free.
She describes the four key principles, the keys to unlocking the doors to the prisons of our minds and achieving freedom.
The first key principle, based on Martin Seligman’s positive psychology, is to be freed of ‘learned helplessness’. Learned helplessness causes us to suffer most when we believe we have no efficacy in our lives and that nothing we do can improve the outcome. Conversely, we can harness ‘learned optimism’ in which we have the strength, the resilience, the ability to create meaning and choose to influence the direction of our lives. Then we can begin to ‘flourish’.
Principle two – the second key to freedom. There’s a famous Hasidic philosophy ‘Mo’ah Shalit Al Ha’Lev the mind rules the heart and dictates our behaviours’. In fact, this is the basis for CBT, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Our thoughts create our feelings, which inform our behaviour. To change harmful or dysfunctional behaviours, we need to change our thought processes. To replace our negative beliefs with those that serve to support us, those that are catalysts for growth, with positive thought patterns.
Principle three – ‘unconditional positive self-regard’. We can be both loved and accepted whilst being genuinely ourselves. They are not mutually exclusive; we don’t need to deny or hide our true selves in order to earn other people’s acceptance or approval. Teens find this extremely difficult to understand. As adults, it continues to be a challenge. It’s often only many years later that we realise that people are not thinking about us as much as we think they are. Because, believe it or not, they are too busy thinking about themselves. Just like you are at times. That realisation is liberating. We become free when we stop wearing masks. When we remove the façade. When we stop fulfilling roles and expectations assigned to us by other people. There is an amazing by-product of unconditional self-acceptance and love; it’s far easier to be loved by others.
The fourth principle, the fourth key to freedom, is inspired by Victor Frankel. We will all experience, unfortunately, at least half a dozen or more major changes and challenges in our lives, and in fact, some of our own children, despite their tender age, have already experienced some. However, Victor tells us we have the power to convert even our worst experiences and challenges, into our best teachers. Catalysing unforeseen discoveries, opening us up to new possibilities and perspectives. The result, healing, fulfilment and freedom. We have the choice to make meaning and purpose out of all our experiences, and particularly, out of our suffering.
Freedom is not an achievement. It is a lifetime of practice. It is a choice that we make again and again, each and every day. Freedom requires hope. Hope has two core elements. First, the belief and awareness that suffering is only temporary and the ‘Emunah-faith’ that things will be better. Secondly, curiosity. The openness and curiosity to discover what happens next. To be open to ‘Hashogocha Protis-Divine Providence and Guidance’ in our lives. Hope, Emunah and curiosity allow us to remember, honour and respect our past, to liberate ourselves in the present, and to shape our future freely, as we choose to do so.
Being free is not only being free from something, from what others think of us, free from learned helplessness or from dysfunctional thoughts or behaviours, free from wearing a mask or hiding our true self, or free from the challenge of change and trauma. True freedom is also being free to choose to do something.
Hashem gave us a tremendous gift, he gave us wings. He gave us the core Jewish and Australian values. He gave us the tremendous ability to access knowledge. He gave us a deep sense of belonging, connection, friends, family and community. Yes, there are opportunities and challenges. It’s all part of the gift, these are the ‘wings’. Now it is our choice to fly. To rise up above and beyond. Beyond the internal and external prisons, to go out of our comfort zones, as a human, as a Jew, as a Mensch – to make a mark on the people and on the world around you!
Wishing you and your families a ‘G’mar Chatimah Tovah’, may you be signed and sealed for a year of blessing, health, success, joy and nachas.
About the Author
Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.