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Did You Try Pushing?

July 25, 2020

The famed Harry Houdini would claim that if placed in any jail cell in a straight jacket, he could escape within one hour. Apparently, he would travel through small towns in Europe challenging prison guards, and astonishing audiences, with his ability to break free. But the story goes that he once met a cell, in a small village in Ireland, from which he could not escape. And while it is may be that this story never did actually occur, the myth continues to be told because of the truth of its message:

One day, he [Houdini] went to a small Irish village and ran into trouble because in front of a whole flock of people, he broke free of the straight jacket, but no matter what he did, he could not open the lock. Finally, disappointed, the townspeople left. Houdini asked the jailer about the lock, trying to understand why he couldn’t open it. The jailer told him, “It was just an ordinary lock, I figured you could open anything, so I didn’t bother locking it.”

In other words, Houdini had been locking himself in the whole time. His assumption had been that he was locked in. [1]

Houdini could escape any room and could open any lock. But the only obstacle that he could not overcome, in this instance, was his own mind.

When I read this story, it reminded of what psychologists called learned helplessness and the story of elephant training. This may also be a myth (elephant trainers among you- feel free to confirm or deny), but the story goes that elephant trainers tie a rope around the leg of a baby elephant and tether it to a peg in the ground. The elephant is too small and weak to break the hold of the rope. After trying numerous times, eventually the elephant will give up, realizing that it’s not strong enough. It feels helpless. Once it has reached this state, it will never again try to break free, as it assumes that it won’t be able to. Even once the elephant matures to full size, and would physically very easily be able to break the rope, without even exerting much effort, it will not even attempt to do so, as it has developed learned helplessness. It fully believes that it is not capable of something that, in truth, it could accomplish easily. Like Houdini, the elephant is not trapped by the rope or the peg, but only by its mind.

Having shared two stories that may or may not be fully accurate, I’ll share a third that I know is definitely true. When Moshe encounters Hashem at the burning bush, they engage in a lengthy dialogue. Despite Hashem's reassurance, Moshe is concerned that he is not the right one to redeem Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. The Torah records:

ויאמר משה אל ה' בי אדני לא איש דברים אנכי גם מתמל גם משלשם גם מאז דברך אל עבדך כי כבד פה וכבד לשון אנכי.

Moshe said to Hashem, Please, my Lord, I have never been a man of words, not since yesterday, not since the day before yesterday, nor since You have first spoken to Your servant. I am slow of speech and slow of tongue. (Shemot 4:10)

Moshe is expressing learned helplessness. He is telling Hashem that since this job entails approaching Pharaoh and speaking to him, he’s not the right man for the job! Moshe claims that he has never been a great speaker and he’s not good with his words. Not yesterday, not two days ago, and therefore, not tomorrow! Moshe has struggled in this area in his past, and therefore believes he is not likely to excel in the future. Moshe is dealing with the obstacle of his own mind, and the feeling of learned helplessness.

Ultimately, Hashem convinces Moshe to go redeem the Jewish people from Egypt, and the rest, as they say, is history. But Hashem takes one last opportunity to remind Moshe of his original hesitancy. Our parsha begins, “אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה אל כל ישראל, these are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel. (Devarim 1:1)” The fifth book of the Torah is different from the first four. While each of the first four contains a mixture of narrative, laws, and conversations between Moshe and Hashem, the book of Devarim contains basically none of that. Rather, it is one long speech from Moshe to Bnai Yisrael, his parting words of inspiration and instruction prior to his passing. One fifth the entire Torah is Moshe’s words.

לא איש דברים אנכי, I am not a man of words? It’s as if Hashem is reminding Moshe aloud. You think that you are not capable? You believe that since you didn’t speak well yesterday or the day before you won’t tomorrow either? אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה, these are the words that Moshe spoke. Your lasting legacy, and one of your greatest contributions and accomplishments will be the words that you speak. Your words will be heard and studied for millennia.

R. Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin [2] famously wrote, “כְּשֵׁם שֶׁצָּרִיךְ אָדָם לְהַאֲמִין בְּהַשֵׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ כָּךְ צָרִיךְ אַחַר כָּךְ לְהַאֲמִין בְּעַצְמוֹ, just as one must believe in Hashem, so too afterwards, he must believe in himself. (Tzidkat Hatzadik #154)” Of course, we are instructed and expected to believe in Hashem. But just as important is that we believe in ourselves, and realize that we do matter, and we are capable.

Too many of us don’t believe in ourselves, and sometimes that is because of learned helplessness. I tried learning Gemara in high school and didn’t like it. I tried going to minyan a few years ago, but it didn’t speak to me. I tried improving the way I speak, and it didn’t work. We may have stumbled, or even failed in the past, but the sad part is that we believe that we’re destined to continue failing in the future. We’re like Houdini who believes that he is stuck behind a locked door, so he doesn’t even try to simply push it open. We’re like a fully grown elephant (pardon the metaphor) tethered to a peg, and we don’t even try to walk away. Even the great Moshe Rabbeinu struggled to believe in himself at first. But the opening words of Sefer Devarim remind us: if the door seems locked and you are feeling stuck or helpless, that might just mean that with a little push you can open the door wide to new opportunities and accomplishments that change the world.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Fox

[1] Blog: Stress & Meditation, by Dr. Tara Brach, https://www.tarabrach.com/stress-meditation/
[2] R. Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz, Lublin, Poland 1823-1900.

Tue, August 3 2021 25 Av 5781