William Hamilton
William Hamilton

When ‘out there’ meets ‘in here’ (Elul’s Project)

There’s a huge difference between victimization which comes from outside us, and victimhood which is forged inside us. We don’t get to control whether or not we’re victimized. The boss who rages, the spouse who cheats, the law that discriminates, or the accident that lands you in the hospital. But we do eventually get to decide how these wrongs define us. That determination happens inside us.

Holocaust survivor Eva Eger clarifies this distinction in her compelling 2017 memoir. “No one can make you a victim but you” Eger asserts. Common to those who are defined by victimhood is “a way of thinking that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, and without healthy limits or boundaries.” It’s a life where we become “our own jailors”

She is careful not to blame the victim. She herself took an entire lifetime before she could articulate her own response to what she was told the day she and her family arrived in Auschwitz. She had asked an inmate whether she would see her mother again. The woman pointed to the smoke rising from a chimney, “She is burning there. Talk about her in the past tense.”

I am moved not only by Eger’s perspective, but also by the protracted period of time it took her to attain it. The Torah seems sensitive to the patience required to arrive at more seasoned responses. This week’s portion stresses choice. “See: I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse” (Deut. 11:26). Again, toward the end of the Torah’s final book, choice is emphasized “See: I set before you today, life and good, death and bad…Therefore choose life” (Deut. 30:15,19).

If free choice is so precious, why does the Torah wait so long to accentuate it? Maybe because it can take time to distance ourselves from wrongs done to us.  We cannot release ourselves from harmful reversals so quickly. Also, by saving the power of choice for later on, God’s Torah reminds us that it’s never too late to exercise it.

There’s a lot of blaming being hurled around these days. Perhaps blaming is what people who are feeling bad do in order to feel better.

Yet rather than handing to others sovereignty over our lives, we can choose to consider “How can I use my sufferings to help others endure theirs?”

This weekend we enter the Hebrew month of Elul’s liturgy of forgiveness (Selichot). Perhaps we can begin by being more forgiving of ourselves. May we discover how better weather inside of us can help things feel less inclement around us.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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