The Talmud celebrates the healing powers of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai. He would visit the sick, discuss the illness and suffering with the patient, and then hold out his hand to raise the other person from his pain. Then he himself got sick, and R. Hanina raised R. Yohanan out of his illness. Why, the Talmud asks, could the gifted healer R. Yohanan not heal himself? "Because the prisoner cannot free himself from prison." There are certain situations we find ourselves in that trap and obstruct us, physically and spiritually. We make think we can function independently in all matters, but sometimes we realize just how necessary others are in relieving our pain, opening our horizons and freeing ourselves from the shackle of negative or limiting thoughts.
This famous Talmudic expression has traveled far beyond its original context. It has been used to show how "un-free" we become when we put ourselves in situations that actively compromise our integrity or our goodness. We put ourselves in the prison of desire, addiction, seduction, or lies and then we cannot release ourselves. We have become the prison, and we do not have the keys. Sometimes, if we have really damaged our emotional or moral compass, we don't even realize we're in prison. Free will seems like it belongs to someone else, as if it were something we once owned but lost.
What can we do about it? The international photo-journalist Dewitt Jones believes that creativity and problem-solving come when we can relieve ourselves of old behaviors that lock us into stagnation: "Our patterns, too long unquestioned, become our prisons. Break the pattern! And see the scene before you with new eyes." Don't let the pattern become the prison.
In medieval religious philosophy, many regarded the body as the prison of the soul. While the soul aims for meaning, transcendence and eternity, the body it is trapped in feeds itself on material and short-term desires. Jones tells us that our routine behaviors can function as prisons for us. We lock ourselves in our assumptions, our opinions and our long-held views of life, and we fail to see that we are no longer as free as we once were. Our eyes, Jones believes, can help us break this cycle if we give permission for our eyes to see the same situation differently.
I thought a lot about this Talmudic expression when I read a recent review of Tony Judt's posthumously published essays, When the Facts Change. Judt was an English born critic who worked on kibbutz and had an early love for Israel that changed into an almost maddening anger at its perceived injustices. Samuel Moyn writes in The New York Times Sunday Book Review that Judt was better at posing vexing problems to Israel than finding solutions. But Moyn dismisses problem-solving as the role of an intellectual. The "proper role" of an intellectual, he argues, is to offer up and analyze problems "early and exigently before a wide public."
Really? The smartest in society should not content themselves with critique and leave the solutions to politicians and policy makers. Public intellectuals should help us get out of our prisons instead of locking us in for longer with detached observations alone. Tony Judt wrote a response to the criticism that he contradicted himself. "When the facts change, I change myself. What do you do?" he replied.
Judt changed his mind because when the facts changed, he allowed himself to be released from the prison of former views. Sometimes, however, the facts do not change. What then? Sometimes the expectation of learned helplessness becomes its own prison. In recent weeks, many of us feel that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have become the new norm, an old/new prison for us. Old because we've been in the thick of it for so long. New because every time we face a new terrorist attack or painful criticism, it seems to surprise us but it shouldn't. I worry that we have stepped deep into this prison. We cannot get ourselves out, and sometimes we don't even see the prison walls anymore.
Name your pattern. Name your prison. Consider how long have you been trapped behind its bars. According to the Talmud, you will not be able to let yourself out. You'll need help. Who will you allow in to help? It's time.