Passover 5783

Overcoming learned helplessness

In Short

This Pesach, as we see Israelis making wind energy with the tornados of history, we can learn from them and from Nachshon; never accepting what happens to us as unavoidable, always believing in our own power to change ourselves and the world.

The concept of “learned helplessness,” coined by psychologist Martin Seligman, became the cornerstone of his groundbreaking positive psychology theory that now helps millions overcome depression and anxiety.

Seligman observed laboratory animals that were subjected to random, unavoidable, mild electric shocks. Understanding that they would be shocked regardless of their behavior, trapped in an environment they could not escape, these animals cowered in lethargy and apathy. Resigned to their fate, they simply waited for the next blow, convinced that they were helpless to avoid it.

Something similar happened to the Israelites in Egypt. There’s a level of suffering, writes psychiatrist Erich Fromm in The Fear of Freedom, that deprives people of the will to escape it. They become automatons, putting one foot in front of the other, only concerned with avoiding the capricious whip of the foreman. Pharaoh, like all tyrants, knew that. The Hebrew slaves are starting to think of liberation? Easy-peasy, let’s add to their suffering by making them collect hay in the fields. They’re starting to rear their heads? Let’s throw their firstborns into the Nile. The Hebrews then lost all of their agency because they thought that nothing they could do that could improve their lot. The Midrash asks, “Why did the Israelites spent four hundred years in Egypt? Because until then they had never asked God to liberate them.” Like a Hasidic master said centuries later, “The real tragedy of the Israelite exile in Egypt is that they learned to tolerate it.”

I don’t know about you, but when I look at the state of the world – from the rise of antisemitism to the expansion of left-wing and right-wing illiberalism, to the return of imperial wars, to climate change, to polarization, to gun violence in America – I feel the dark pull of learned helplessness. It seems that it doesn’t matter what we do because fighting the unstoppable forces of intolerance, apathy and cruelty feels like fighting a storm by punching it with your fists. 

It’s not only the political and social reality but the very makeup of the modern world that makes us feel helpless. Increasingly, we live in a world we don’t understand, dependent on technologies that we can’t comprehend, manipulated by algorithms that we can’t see. In the past, if your horse drawn cart broke, you could see the broken axle. You may not be able to fix it, but you understood what the problem was and the options for a solution were simple, few in number, and easy to access. Today, things are faster and more complicated. If your self-driving car decides to smash you against a wall, the immense damage done will occur before you even have time to wonder why it might be happening. As this Passover approaches, we as modern humans, are trapped in a paradox; we like to believe that we’re hyper empowered, and yet we feel that there’s nothing we can do to change the course of our reality. It’s a very depressing state of mind, one that guarantees inaction and continued suffering. Much like that of the Hebrews in Egypt. 

Enter the Israelis. 

When, thanks to the quirks of its political system, illiberal parties entered the Israeli ruling coalition, many, including myself, shrugged in resignation. There’s left-wing and right-wing illiberalism everywhere, I said, from Hungary to Brazil, to Venezuela, to Italy… It’s the zeitgeist and there’s nothing we can do about it…it’s just the way things are now. 

But the Israelis didn’t agree. They took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to defend what they considered to be the risk of losing democratic freedoms and protections. For thirteen consecutive weeks, they brought 10% of the population to the streets in an exemplary peaceful manner. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the equivalent in the United States, 35 million people, taking to the streets of America and not seeing a single person hospitalized. But that’s what the Israelis have done. They mobilized the business sectors, labor unions, academia, doctors and military leaders in a series of demonstrations unprecedented in the history of the country – and maybe of the world. 

No one can say yet if the goals of the protests will be achieved in the long term, but it’s clear that they succeeded, so far, in stalling the government from acquiring absolute power. That alone flies in the face of months of punditry calling the reform inevitable.

This is not about who’s right or wrong in the current conflict, or whether the judicial overhaul is good or bad, but about the attitude and the mindset that brought all those Israelis to the streets. 

Whether we support or oppose the judicial overhaul, we can all learn from the mindset of this unprecedented popular movement, one that doesn’t regard reality as inevitable and history as inescapable. Whether your cause is fighting against antisemitism or climate change, or fighting for progressivism or conservatism, there’s always something you can do. The tides of history may be powerful, but you can be the wave-breaker. 

In that sense, Israelis were, once again, a light onto the nations, for they proved that “learned helplessness” is nothing but an illusion, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a fallacy by which we victimize ourselves. 

And it’s not a coincidence that the symbols of the protest are those of Zionism – the flag, Hatikvah, and the declaration of independence. Zionism is the ultimate rejection of the victim mentality. It’s the idea that Jews can and must emancipate themselves regardless of much helplessness they’ve learned from history. Its key message is that Jews are not going to cry helplessly over the persecution they suffered, but are going to take their destiny into their own hands. Zionism offers the hope that comes from taking responsibility, recovering agency and escaping the vicious circle of self-pity. The “Zionist attitude,” forged in a history-defying crucible, understands that reality isn’t something that merely happens to us. 

In Egypt, only when we ceased seeing our bondage as inevitable could we be liberated. Then, we went from immobile acceptance of suffering to having people like Nahshon, that Israelite who jumped into the Red Sea without waiting for a miracle – and thus, says the midrash, made the miracle possible. 

This Pesach, as we see Israelis making wind energy with the tornados of history, we can learn from them and from Nachshon; never accepting what happens to us as unavoidable, always believing in our own power to change ourselves and the world. Let us discover the inspiration that comes from finding sources of energy and hope in the darker recesses of our suffering, the metamorphosis of despair into light and the transformation of anguish into strength. Because of that, Israel is a permanent beacon of hope, for all that choose to bask in its light.

Chag Sameach!

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.