Attitude towards Suffering - Parshat Vaeira
We read the same Torah portion every year and yet still there are things we may have missed. This challenges us to continue to study the Torah from different vantage points and keeps the study fresh and exciting.
In a class by Rabbi Baruch Simon,1 I had a similar experience. He notes, while discussing Parshat Vaeira, that every year at the Pesach Seder, we mention that the 4 cups of wine that we drink at the Seder correspond to the 4 languages of redemption: And I will remove you from the suffering in Egypt and I will save you from servitude and I will redeem you with a strong arm and I will take you as a people for me.2 The first 3 languages (underlined) seem so similar, why do we need all three? (Hmmm...I never noticed that before.) The martyred Kozhiglover Rav, Rabbi Aryeh Frumer, hy"d, explains that each of the first 3 languages of redemption represents a different phase of the overall process of redemption and therefore the Torah needs different words to describe them. The first phase, was for the people to realize that they even had a right to object to their conditions. Their suffering was so great they simply didn’t have the strength to object. Even to realize that there was a reason to object required the kind of fortitude that they didn’t have. That was the first redemption. The second phase was for them to not be a servant to the work and then it will not feel so burdensome. The third phase of the redemption was the actual cessation of servitude.3
The first phase is the one that intrigues me the most. People can be so caught up in their suffering that their very real concern for their welfare takes on its own life and it is hard for them to see past it. They may not even be able to realize that there is a different way. (This is by no means a judgment but rather a description.) Being able to distance oneself from and be aware of the situation requires a level of self-awareness and self-worth that is difficult to sustain under certain conditions. Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, says in describing how he endured life in the death camps 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."4 The Kozhiglover, who lived in the Warsaw ghetto before being murdered in the Majdanek camp by the Nazis, proposes that it is possible that the servitude in Egypt which lasted for generations was so great that it blocked out the ability to even access that 'last of the human freedoms'.
It is not always easy to realize that we can choose our attitude. Nor is it easy to act upon it. But, if it is done, it will make a difference. Once a person can see, or even believe, that there is a choice, it is easier to function and choose a path that will work. As Frankl writes "What is significant is the person’s attitude toward an unalterable fate."5 The ability to choose our attitude is what distinguishes humanity and helps us retain dignity.
There are any number of examples of people who endured great suffering yet showed courage, bravery, and greatness while overcoming their suffering. Whether it means overcoming physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual trauma - loss of status, health, a loved one - there are people who have succeeded and in so doing give hope to all those who may be suffering that there is a dignified way back to living.
For a person to realize that they have a right to 'live the life they wish' requires strength, will and awareness. Many along the way may lose the 'will' or even the belief that they are worthy but they are willing to search for it again. Certain parts of life may be out of our control but using our ability to choose our attitude towards that unalterable fate is the first step towards the way in which we demonstrate our humanity and find fulfillment.
Have A Great Shabbat!