By way of introduction I want to say that I’m trying to describe a certain kind of experience which is a very personal one. Even if your religious commitments are different from mine I hope you will be able to identify points of similarity in your experience.
Frankl put a strong emphasis on love as something that fills life with meaning. This is an important thought in the background for me.
The continuation of the introduction to what I learned from the book Alei Shur with my friend and study partner was about the joy of connecting with God through mitzvah acts.
Mitzvah is usually translated as “commandment” but linguistically what it means is “togetherness” (Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsh) and conceptually what is means is being energized to connect (Noam Elimelech, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin). I prefer sticking to the Hebrew because of the (unfortunate) negative connotation commandment sometimes has.
In my belief mitzvot are actions and ways of being that have been revealed through divine revelation as things that God wants me to do as my part in the human-divine relationship. Humans beings and God are so vastly different – the difference between the finite and the infinite – yet there are actions we can take that are bonding in this relationship.
Religion is not the area of life that logotherapy relates to. Logotherapy and religion are two distinct realms. Religion deals with explicit instructions. Logotherapy relates to that which is not clear and not explicit.
At the same time having a relationship with God is so basic to being human that it cannot help but be present in the room during therapy. The therapist has no superhuman powers but is only helping the person to hear how God is speaking to this person through his or her reality. In a deeply personal sense, having a relationship with God is not a “religious” issue. If the client is religious and his or her relationship with God is an essential part of this person’s life we can talk about it. The aspect of our relationship with God that is not a subject for therapy is specific religious directives.
I want to focus on this area of specific religious directives as a source of meaning for the individual, since (according to Frankl) meaning is what produces happiness. There is a qualitative difference between not knowing what the other wants from me and knowing what the other wants from me.
The idea of knowing what the other wants from me is not exclusive to Judaism and is not even exclusive to my relationship with God. People everywhere do certain actions out of a belief that this is what God wants from them. In interpersonal relationships as well, doing something like taking out the trash because it was my idea is not the same as taking it out because someone told me to do it.
If I’m told to do something I might feel resistance for no other reason than because I want to preserve my autonomy and the right to make my own decisions. I might also suspect the motivation of the other in telling me what to do.
On the other hand I might understand that this is what the other person wants from me and because this is a loving relationship I will do it joyfully. It’s not the act of taking out the trash that motivates me. It’s the desire to help the other person, relieve the other person of burden. In other words I’m doing it out of love. Actions done out of love and commitment are the glue that bonds the relationship.
This is all assuming the other is not trying to take unfair advantage of me, that I’m not enabling addictive behavior and I’m also not only giving all the time as if my needs have no significance.
Part of my belief in God’s commands is that they are not tyrannical demands but they are loving demands. I cannot help it if there are religious people and societies who claim that God speaks to them telling them to kill people and I cannot help it if there are psychotic people who hear voices giving them similar messages.
The mitzvot as I know them are loving mitzvot, given by a loving God. They are with my good in mind. Most of the mitzvot are instructions in how to be better at loving other people. Even those mitzvot that I don’t understand make more sense when I study them more deeply. So I have trust in the system, just as someone has trust in any loving relationship. I can take out the trash grudgingly or lovingly.
When Frankl says that happiness ensues as a result of doing something meaningful, one of the ways his statement speaks to me is the meaning I find in fulfilling God’s laws. The joy of doing a mitzvah is the happiness of being able to connect with God through the mitzvah.