“Choose life” – The Jewish Secret to Survival

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My mother, a clinical social worker in the Baltimore city public school system, swears by the book The Choice by Edith Eva Eger. Eger survived the Holocaust and all of Mengele’s evil tests. It’s her spirit of embracing the possible, which makes Eger’s post-Holocaust psychology stand out. “We can choose what the horror teaches us,” Eger reminds us. “To become bitter in our grief and fear. Hostile. Paralyzed. Or to hold on to the childlike part of us, the lively and the curious part, the part that is innocent.” 

No matter our struggles, challenges, insecurities or pain, we have the power of choice. 

The question is, what do we choose? 

“Choose life.” “Choose life.” A few days after Dvir Sorek, the 19-year-old Yeshiva student and soldier, was murdered by Palestinian terrorists, I keep repeating his father Yoav’s eulogy, in which he implored everyone to “choose life.”  

How could he speak so positively after this tragedy? Eicha, How? 

1. Zionism as a Tikkun

After reading Eicha on Saturday night, I realized that perhaps the better question than “how” is: what does this sort of response tell us about Zionism and the Jewish people, especially in light of Tisha B’Av?

Tradition tells us that on the 9th of Av, we lost the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple, because of the sin of the spies who, upon returning from the Land of Israel, spoke about the land in an unbecoming way. Yet, the sin of the spies seems quite vague and and the punishment so severe. God tells Moses to take the best and the bravest, the outstanding leaders of the Jewish people to scout out the land. These aristocrats do just that, and they come back with their objective assessment of what’s taking place. They cite the good (i.e. land flowing with milk and honey) and then the bad (i.e. Giants and lots of other nations). Their description was accurate. It was honest. And, that – precisely that – was the very problem. Their objective assessment of the Land of Israel was not good enough.

Consider the early Zionists as a foil to the spies. Unlike the spies, these young men and women, often orphans and penniless, were anything but aristocratic. When they arrived in the Land of Israel, then called Palestine, from Europe, they could have seen the marshes, the disease, the swamps, the local Arab inhabitants, and said, “nope, this isn’t for us.” It would have been accurate. It would have been honest. It would have been fair.  Nobody would have blamed them for this objective assessment. But, the early Zionists had what Ari Shavit calls “convenient blindness” and collectively banded together like the 12 spies should have and said, “We can do it. We can turn this land into our land. We can reclaim our heritage.”  Essentially, they showed themselves to be the descendants of Kalev, who, in the face of adversity from the other spies, in the face of peer pressure and groupthink, asserted his own independent view, and heroically declared, “Aloh naaleh, viyarashnu otah, ki yachol nuchal lah,” “We can do it! Let us go up. We can conquer the land!” The job of the Jew is not to describe things as they are, but as they ought to be. We’re not just realists. We’re thoughtful and reflective optimists, who, in the words of Shimon Peres, choose optimism over pessimism because “optimists and pessimists die the exact same death, but they live very different lives.”

2. Rabbi Akiva and Optimism

One millennium after the story of the spies, the Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Akiva and his rabbinic colleagues who were travelling to Jerusalem. When they approached the Temple Mount, they saw foxes exiting the Holy of Holies. How did the rabbis respond? With tears. How did Rabbi Akiva react? Channeling his inner Kalev, with optimism , with laughter.

Eicha, how?

The rabbis asked Rabbi Akiva this very question, and his answer is a subtle hint into the psyche of the success of the Jewish experience from antiquity to today.

Why do you laugh, they asked? Why do you cry, he replied? How can we not cry, they replied, when we see foxes milling about a place of which it is written that “a stranger who draws near shall die?” To which Rabbi Akiva replied, this is precisely why I laugh. Uriah wrote, “Zion shall be plowed as a field.” Zachariah wrote, “old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem.” So long as Uriah’s prophecy was not fulfilled, I worried that Zachariah’s prophecy might not be fulfilled. Now that Uriah’s prophecy was fulfilled, there is no question that Zachariah’s prophecy will also be fulfilled.

Of course seeing the Temple desolate was devastating. The rabbis’ objective assessment was accurate. It was realistic. It was accurate. It was fair. But, Rabbi Akiva saw things through the lens of anchored optimism, not objective reality and not juvenile fantasy. 

Leo Tolstoy asks, “What is the Jew? What kind of creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who, despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish?”

I think we can begin to answer that question. From Kalev to Rabbi Akiva, from the early Zionists to Yoav Sorek, the Jewish people have shown the ability to see what others either cannot or choose not to see, to live lives of anchored optimism, and to “choose life” in the face of adversity and trauma.

On the heels of Tisha B’av and during the shiva of Dvir Sorek, I echo the words of Yoav Sorek, who described his son as a young man with a “bright face, positive thought, innocence and love for humanity.” Let’s follow in Yoav’s lesson to “choose life,” and let’s remind our young people to engage in the “positive thought and love for humanity” that Dvir lived by.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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