March 31, 2020

Choosing Life: The Jewish Secret to Survival

My mother, a clinical social worker in the Baltimore public school system, swears by the book “The Choice” by Edith Eva Eger. Eger survived the Holocaust, while her parents were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. It’s her spirit of embracing the possible that 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.” A few days after Dvir Sorek, an 18-year-old yeshiva student and soldier, was killed by Palestinian terrorists, I kept repeating his father Yoav’s eulogy in which he implored everyone to “choose life.”

How could he speak so positively after this tragedy? Eikhah, how?

After reading Eikhah on a Saturday night, I realized 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?

Zionism as a Tikkun

Tradition tells us that on the ninth of Av, we lost the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, because of the sin of spies who, upon return from the Land of Israel, spoke about the land in an unbecoming way. Yet, the sin of the spies seems quite vague and the punishment so severe. God tells Moshe to take the best and the bravest, the outstanding leaders of the Jewish people to scout 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), then the bad (i.e. there were giants and a lot of other nations). Their description was accurate. It was honest. And that was the problem. Their objective assessment of the Land of Israel was not good enough.

Consider the early Zionists as foils 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 might 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 writer 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.”

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

Essentially, they showed themselves to be the descendants of Kalev, who, in the face of adversity from the other spies, peer pressure and groupthink, asserted his own view and heroically declared, “Aloh naaleh, viyarashnu otah, ki yachol nuchal lah,” “We can do it! We can conquer the land!”

The job of a 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 the late Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, choose optimism over pessimism because “optimists and pessimists die the exact same death, but they live very different lives.”

Rabbi Akiva and Optimism

One millennium after the story of the spies, the Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Akiva and his rabbinic colleagues traveling 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? By channeling his inner Kalev — with optimism and laughter.

“Eikhah, 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 said, 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 fair. But Rabbi Akiva saw things through the lens of anchored optimism — not objective reality and not juvenile fantasy.

Russian author 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 and from the early Zionists to Yoav Sorek, the Jewish people have shown the ability to see what others either cannot or choose not to, 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 shivah of Dvir Sorek, I echo the words of Yoav Sorek, who described his slain son as a young man with a “bright face, positive thought, innocence and love for humanity.” Let’s follow Yoav Sorek’s lesson to “choose life,” and let’s remind our young people to engage in the “positive thought and love for humanity” by which Dvir lived.

Noam Weissman is the senior vice president of education of Jerusalem U, a digital media company focused on Israel education and Jewish identity.