This past Friday night we had the pleasure of visiting old friends who live an hour plus drive away. While we were there I was given the opportunity to share my thoughts on logotherapy and Judaism with a group of about 20 very intelligent and thoughtful people. The title of my talk was: The character trait of zerizut (alacrity) in light of Viktor Frankl’s positive existential approach to healing. See more about zerizut here.
What is the relationship between zerizut and healing? To answer this we need to understand the meaning of each term on its own and we need to understand the uniqueness of Viktor Frankl’s approach to healing and living called logotherapy, as well as Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe’s approach to human growth and development.
With this background in mind we will look at zerizut from a Jewish-logotherapeutic perspective.
Viktor Frankl, the creator of logotherapy, was born to traditional Jewish parents in Vienna in 1905 and died in 1997 at the age of 92. He was a renowned neurologist and psychiatrist, director of the Neurological Department of the Rothschild Hospital in Vienna before WWII. He has authored 32 books published in 32 languages and lectured in 209 universities all over the world. His first book, written prior to the war was titled “Say yes to life in spite of everything” and the editors renamed it “The Doctor and the Soul.” As a victim of four concentration camps, suffering from illness and starvation he saw human beings at their worst but also at their best. It was there that he had the chance to really ‘test’ his ideas. He helped people to focus on something or someone they cared about, whether that person was alive or not, and thereby helped them to see that life is unconditionally meaningful, no matter how meaningless it seems. His experiences there and the ability of some of those around him to triumph and survive affirmed for him the timeless truths of logotherapy. Out of this experience was born his most well-known book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
He called his meaning-centered approach ‘logotherapy’ based on one connotation of the word ‘logos’ as ‘meaning.’ Logotherapy is practiced all over the globe in numerous languages. Now, for the first time in history, logotherapeutic training is taking place in Jerusalem for an all Jewish, religious group of nine individuals. It is run by Dr. Teria Shantall, who was personally trained by Dr. Frankl, together with myself as her assistant.
The basic premise of logotherapy is that every single moment in life contains meaning and that it is our job to seek to discover what that meaning is and think about how to respond to it. Clearly, this is a very Jewish approach.
To learn about the character trait of zerizut I learned with the group a passage from the book Alei Shur by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe. The book’s title comes from a gematria (numerical configuration) of the name of the author’s mother. Rabbi Wolbe was born in Berlin in 1914 and died in Jerusalem in 2005, where he served as spiritual adviser in yeshivot for many years. In addition to being a Torah giant he was well-versed in psychology and educational theory. Alei Shur was an outgrowth of his guidance to students in the study and practice of musar, the purpose of which is to refine one’s character and to deepen moral sensitivity.
Based on the Mishnah, Rabbi Wolbe fleshed out the meaning of the four energies required to complete any action: a) bold initiative, b) the lightness that comes with focusing on the value of your goal and the trust that you’ve been given all you need to fill your unique space in the world, c) being oriented around a task and d) having the courage to follow through. You can read the content of that teaching in the post of November 10. This post will be an attempt to record some of the thoughts that came to me in the aftermath.
One of the points Alei Shur related to was the boost of energy that comes from realizing it’s God we’re serving when doing a mitzvah act (Torah commandment). “Joy of a mitzvah?” one participant challenged me. “I don’t understand what you mean. I do what I’m obligated to do, that’s all.” I challenged him back and said “Don’t you feel a difference between working on a job for a boss who’s the sweetest person in the world and doing a job for a boss who’s obnoxious?” The discussion didn’t end there or at the end of the hour. I believe that the sense of value in what we do is something we have to work at. I was motivated to want to answer his question because I think that it is representative of the community at large and is something we all need to address. I don’t know whether this will answer it either, but it should at least provide some food for thought.
Human action in the context of divine providence
The Netziv [Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin] (1816-1893), famed head of the Volozhin yeshiva explains in his commentary on Torah that before Abraham discovered the existence of God everything worked only according to natural law. When Abraham came on the scene divine providence became manifest in the world. Abraham paid attention to God and God paid attention to Abraham! Human action, as part and parcel of an intimate human-Divine relationship was important. We’ve been given the power to act. Man is called upon to do tasks, and through those tasks engage in dynamic interaction between world and Creator. It is through this that we build a relationship with God. Thus everything human beings did was destined to bring ‘feedback,’ or divine intervention in its wake.
The meaning of “commandment” for the Netziv is zeruz – the very same word we are investigating here. Zerizut moves you out of a state of lethargy and into action. We are called to a task.
Life as a task.
Similarly Frankl speaks of life as a task. Each situation is unique and calls for one unique task, the one right response to the situation. The conviction that one has a task has enormous psycho-therapeutic value. “Nothing is more likely to help a person overcome or endure objective difficulties or subjective troubles than the consciousness of having a task in life.” (The Doctor and the Soul, p. 56)
Why is this so? It brings home the truth that even difficult events don’t turn you into a victim and your life is not haphazard, but rather that you has been given a unique mission or destiny to do something about those circumstances and to work towards creating a world as it ought to be.
Furthermore this unique task that you can do has an important value that is being fulfilled through your action; values can only be reached through concrete tasks. So as long as you are responding in this way of fulfilling values and continually evaluating your actions, your life is highly significant!
Part of a greater whole
A fundamental principle of logotherapy very much related to life as a task is the will to meaning. We are born wanting to reach out to a meaningful encounter with others. We want to connect and we seek a response from the world. We are our most authentically ourselves when we forget ourselves, and we forget ourselves when we are engaged in doing something meaningful. Ill health starts when a child reaches out and no one touches him. No one responds.
Logotherapy works at building the person’s sense that there is a valuable cause to serve. The world needs us. We have a service to render. We were created for a reason. At the very same time that we are called out of ourselves and forget ourselves through a task life has given us to do, we encounter a face-to-face relationship with life.
The unconscious God
Frankl writes that the religious person is not only aware of the task but the source of the task, i.e. God. Furthermore he says that not everyone is conscious of God but that on an unconscious level we seek this connection with God because this is the natural outreach beyond the self. At the same time, Frankl does not speak of God calling us; he spells ‘Transcendent voice’ with a capital “T” yet he depicts this voice in terms of “reality” calling us.
What is reality?
I have to wonder: Is Frankl couching the Transcendent voice in terms of “reality” in order to level the playing field and make logotherapy accessible to both those who are conscious of God as well as those who are not, or is it possible that he expresses it this way because what we are hearing as reality speaking actually is God calling us?
At the end of the evening Alan (my husband) and I continued to talk about the question that was raised earlier in the group and the discussion surrounding it. I asked him later to write down what he had said to me. I am including his comments as he wrote them.
Here is what he said: The real question is how you look at G-d. As David Aaron says, you can say that you exist in reality and G-d exists is reality, and you deal with G-d like this “purple guy in the sky”, and you’re trying to figure out what this mysterious guy is telling you through hints here and there. Reality is just this impersonal mass, where people are these little isolated atoms floating around, each one a self-contacted bundle of will, and problems, and desires, and goals. Or you can say that we exist in reality, but G-d IS reality. Not in the world, but the place of the world. We exist in G-d, similar to the relationship between an idea and the mind that has the idea. The reality we live in is a mind-driven reality, which is headed toward something, a personal kind of reality. People are not atoms existing as isolated units in this reality, but they all play different roles in the organic unit – and all, when they are doing their job, contributing to the fulfillment of G-d’s (reality’s) will. A person can’t function best by considering himself in isolation, any more than a foot can be considered an ideal foot by being healthy but disconnected to a body. The ideal foot helps the body along. Similarly, an individual person can only achieve his or her purpose by considering how s/he is helping G-d’s will along. This doesn’t have to mean between man and man alone, thought that’s certainly part of it. All limbs are part of the organism, and making them healthy and functioning is a great thing. The key is to focus on the whole, and then the element achieves its ideal state. By disconnecting itself from the whole, ostensibly for its own improvement, the element is in fact disconnecting itself from its own destiny.
Does this evoke any thoughts for you?