“Everything can be taken away 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.”
– Viktor Frankl
I never had to fight very hard for my freedom. I was born and raised in coddled and cozy Long Island suburbia. My freedom came served to me on a silver platter. Which is probably why I don’t think about it too often. Freedom is boring when it’s free.
Yet, Pesach demands that I fight for my freedom. Not just to commemorate glorious days of old, but to actually stir up an experiential salvation anew. To sincerely feel my own bondage and rejoice in my own redemption. Or something to that effect….
“In each and every generation, individuals must actually see themselves as if they are exiting bondage” (Pesachim 116b).
When my grandmother sat in Auschwitz, she probably had no problem conjuring up sentiments of slavery. Her bondage came served to her on a bloodstained platter. But what do I know about servitude? All I know is tearooms and bellboys. With no chain on my legs or yellow star on my shirt, how am I supposed to fight for my own freedom?
A closer look at our original Egyptian slavery reveals some peculiar points to ponder. Both the nature of our work and the delegation of its tasks seem beyond ridiculous.
For starters, Jews were forced to build cities on land that was destined to sink (Sotah 11a). Whatever we ‘d construct would inevitably destruct. How encouraging. We built with no purpose, no meaning to our task. Why’d Egypt waste the cost-free Jewish labor on doomed construction plans? Why play mind games with us?
To make matters worse, Jewish men were assigned so-called “female tasks” while the women were assigned “male tasks.” This means men were changing Egyptian diapers while women carried pyramid stones. Mars and Venus switch roles. Another psychological mind game. Why?
Shawshank Prison. 1967.
Red (a fictional character played by Morgan Freeman in the 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption) is granted parole after 40 years of imprisonment. But, surprisingly, his new freedom is far from freeing. It’s emotionally unbearable.
Prison life provided Red with a sense of security and structure that freedom foreclosed. Freedom is frightening when it comes without a framework for meaningful living. And, so, Red violates his parole. Prison was the only purpose he knew.
Dachau Concentration Camp. 1943.
Viennese psychiatrist Victor Frankl walks through a grim & gruesome gallery of genocide, and somehow sparks a glimmer of light within one of history’s darkest shadows. It is here that he discovers the true essence of freedom.
In his magnum opus, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl writes:
“In between stimulus and response there is a space; in that space lies our power to choose our response. And in our response lies our growth, our freedom.”
In the midst of death and desperation, he realized: They can take away my possessions. They can take away my family. But they can’t take away my freedom. Because my freedom is in my mind. And my mind is all mine.
Indeed, it’s not the physical action, but our attitudinal reaction that truly determines the nature of our experiences. By giving meaning to our suffering, we transform it into a personal awakening. We all search for meaning, we just look in funny places sometimes. Frankl found it in the strangest of places: his own slavery. This discovery is what set him free.
In the spirit of Redemption Season, I’d like to quote Bob Marley’s Redemption Song:
“Redeem yourself from mental slavery. No one but yourself can free your mind.”
Victor Frankl taught the world that you can actually be free while surrounded by captivity. The Shawshank Redemption taught the world that you can actually be in mental captivity while surrounded by freedom.
Egypt was not interested in our work as much as they were in its ultimate meaninglessness and the psychological toll this takes on the soul.
Men were taken out of their elements and were handed kitchen gloves and a mop. Women were taken out of their elements and were handed hammers and nails. This is not who I am. But I’m doing it anyway.
This is the saddest genre of slavery; this is mental slavery. Cognitive dissonance to the umpteenth power.
And to what did all of our hard work amass? Nothing. The entirety of our efforts ultimately engulf in a giant pile of rubble. The ground swallowed up our work like a ruthless wave demolishing an innocent child’s sandcastle. Learned helplessness is very hard to unlearn.
Mental slavery is most debilitating, and Egypt knew this quite well. Every generation experiences some genre of slavery. We 21st century freedom fighters are not battling on mine fields, but on mind fields.
We live with lots of means but a deficit of meaning.
It is extremely difficult to find meaning in today’s super-speedy, ever-modernizing world. But without a sense of meaning, freedom erodes into mental slavery.
It is meaning that makes freedom freeing, and since our minds are the manufacturers of meaning, it behooves us to become mindful. To awaken.
When we make our freedom meaningful, we taste the meaning of freedom.
Have a mindful & meaningful Pesach!
Doni Joszef LMSW is a cognitive psychotherapist practicing with adolescents and young adults in Cedarhurst. He is a member of the DRS Guidance Department, and is available by appointment. Contact Doni by cell: (516)316-2246 or email: DJoszef@Gmail.com.