Piny Hackenbroch
Senior Rabbi Woodside Park Synagogue, London

In a world made of steel, we can learn to heal

A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.

Robert Frost, “A Question”

So far, this year in particular, it has been hard to stay present. The noisy news, the pitiful politics, and the limitless lockdown – all have brought their challenges into 2021. As I reflected on this lockdown, the only word which came to my mind was “exile”.

Exile from my own ‘normal’ life, it seems, is what G-d is asking of me. Yet, when I looked deeper at the concept of “exile”, so pivotal to our heritage, in Judaism, I was shocked.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the 18th Century Hassidic master, suggests that the Jewish concept of exile is not narrowly defined in physical terms.

“Exile” is symptomatic of sadness and depression which overpowers the heart. Conversely, a person that is in a good frame of mind in a joyous state would not be “in exile”.

The question is how we should proceed from a state of sadness and depression in the exile mindset to a liberated and redeemed state of joy and happiness. It is worth noting that some 264 million people, according to the WHO, of all ages, suffer from depression of some kind. Indeed, it was first named as a condition over 2,400 years ago, when Hippocrates, the Ancient Greek physician called it “melancholia”.

Indeed, depression is not a respecter of fame or fortune. From Eminem to Emily Dickinson, to Ellen Degeneres to Edvard Munch – all are well-known examples of people who have struggled with the “black dog”.

Rabbi Nachman offers the following analogy.

Imagine a wedding – a joyous occasion. Many different types of guests arrive at the wedding. Filled with uncles, aunts, family, friends, and plus-ones.

Despite it being a Simcha, (and this is the terrible truth of things) not necessarily all the guests will arrive in the same mindset

There are two groups, those people that are in a joyous frame of mind and those that are in the wrong place, mentally. Initially, when the dancing commences, those that are in the right frame of mind begin to dance. And those who are sad separate themselves in order not to detract or overshadow the festivities. They stand on the side watching, rather dejected.

At a certain point as the celebrations reach a crescendo one of those people, dancing with great exuberance in the circle, will pull in one of those sad depressed-looking individuals on the periphery.

Very often, Initially, on joining the circle, he or she will be reluctant and even resentful as they do not feel in the right frame of mind to celebrate and be happy. But, invariably, as the evening wears on, their mood changes and by the end of the festivities, the newbie is just as joyous as all the other guests.

Using this analogy Rav Nachman suggests a two-stage process in attempting to transform sadness to joy, from exile to redemption.

The first strategy to employ is to pull an element of our sadness into our “circle of inner joy”. This can be achieved, he suggests, through, for example, finding a redeeming factor or gratitude in the cause of sadness itself.

By way of example a single person that goes to a wedding and may be depressed about the fact they are still single. Such a person could look at one of the advantages that they have of still being single. It could be more time for personal development, independence, or the ability to progress their career. Even though this will diminish the melancholy, it will not completely extinguish its weight. Overall, one would still have an overall sense of sadness because of the particular circumstance of a challenge.

Perhaps no one did more to embody this concept than Viktor Frankl. In the three years he spent in Auschwitz, Frankl survived and helped others to survive by inspiring them to discover a purpose in life even in the midst of hell on earth. It was there that he formulated the ideas he later turned into a new type of psychotherapy based on what he called “man’s search for meaning”. His book of that title, written in the course of nine days, has sold more than ten million copies throughout the world, and ranks as one of the most influential works of the twentieth century.

Frankl knew that in the camps, those who lost the will to live died. He tells of how he helped two individuals to find a reason to survive. One, a woman, had a child waiting for her in another country. Another had written the first volumes of a series of travel books, and there were others yet to write. Both therefore had a reason to live. They were still surrounded by a living hell and place of intense sadness yet he was able to give them purpose and meaning in the midst of that sadness.

In Man’s search for meaning Viktor Frankl wrote:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thingthe last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The second and final stage in grappling and overcoming this experience of emotional “exile” is to learn to bring one’s sadness itself into the circle of happiness. To accomplish this, we must understand the origins of sadness and depression.

Adam and Eve in the aftermath of them bringing sin to the world were exiled, banished from the garden of Eden. Their punishment was to be not only death but sadness. Adam and Eve were prevented from re-entering the Garden of Eden. G-d placed “revolving fiery swords” to guard the entrance and prevented them from re-entering the garden.

What is the “sword of the evolving flame”?

Rabbi Nachman suggests that sadness is brought about when two factors coincide; firstly, we experience hardship and difficulty but that will not necessarily cause us to move to intense sadness and depression. It could be a person who experiences suffering or hardship, but it is his/her doing or making, in such a circumstance then there will be a natural disappointment but not overarching dejection.

The second factor of melancholy results when we feel we feel a distinct lack of control over aspects of life. It could be earning a livelihood, health, relationships, or a general feeling that one’s life is altogether out of control. When we feel that life is part of a “revolving sword”, or like a revolving door, then we experience intense sorrow and depression. Powerlessness, as some might put it.

Depression is the outcome of a lack of control. If so, how can such a person ever truly be happy? There will always be some person, place, or thing which is out of their control.

The only way back from collective and personal “exile” is when we experience acceptance. Acceptance is the answer to all our problems. I can only control my feelings and actions – the rest is up to G-d.

The Great Ishbitzer offered a magnificent analogy in appreciating our task in life and serving G-d. if we were to imagine along the journey the travelers find themselves confronted with a tall wall that is blocking their path. Only the strongest of the travelers successfully travails the wall. On reaching the other side of the wall to his amazement he discovers that there was a handle on the other side and rather than a wall it was, in fact, a door.

This is the challenge of life not to try and evade the “revolving swords” – symbolizing the lack of control that we feel in this world. Rather, if we wish to embrace and enjoy true happiness and redemption in life it is our responsibility to recognize someone, G-d, is “revolving the swords”.

Life is not a mere “wheel of fortune” – ultimate control of us and our lives is only in the hands of the Master of the Universe. Rather than a sense of helplessness causing us to feel depressed, we can embrace the helplessness by bringing that sentiment into the circle. When we embrace our lack of control then the weight is lifted from our shoulders and we can be transported through the “revolving swords” and bask in a life of happiness.

About the Author
Rabbi Hackenbroch is Senior Rabbi of Woodside Park Synagogue, London, UK, as well as a commercial mediator, Holocaust Educator and sought after speaker.