“Learned Helplessness”

Each week, I receive an email from ReformJudaism.org. Through this venue, I receive articles from colleagues, tips for rabbis on how to help congregations, short divrei torah, and new liturgy.  This particular week, I opened it up and found a new prayer, written by Rabbi Jack Riemer, President Clinton’s rabbinic counsel and the co-author of several books. The prayer was written in response to the events taking place throughout the world including, most notably, this morning’s inauguration of a new U.S. President.  The prayer “We Cannot Pray to You” reads as follows:

We cannot pray to You, O God,
to banish war,
for You have filled the world
with paths to peace,
if only we would take them.

We cannot pray to You
to end starvation,
for there is food enough for all,
if only we would share it.

We cannot merely pray
for prejudice to cease,
for we might see
the good in all
that lies before our eyes,
if only we would use them.

We cannot merely pray
“Root out despair,”
for the spark of hope
already waits within the human heart,
for us to fan it into flame.

We must not ask of You, O God,
to take the task that You
have given us.
We cannot shirk,
we cannot flee away,
Avoiding obligation for ever.

Therefore we pray, O God,
for wisdom and will, for courage
to do and to become,
not only to look on
with helpless yearning
as though we had no strength.

For Your sake and ours
speedily and soon, let it be:
that our land may be safe,
that our lives may be blessed.

During these difficult days, Rabbi Riemer’s prayer speaks to me, as I hope it speaks to each of you. A great many of us may be feeling depressed; feeling defeated.  No matter where you stand on politics–Democrat, Republican, Independent–a man who is in no way “presidential” in his behavior just became our 45th President.  A large percentage of our country did not vote for him; an even larger percentage did not vote at all.  There is a growing number of protests in front of the offices of congressmen and senators, and even in front of Trump Tower.  People aren’t happy.  The New York Times said it well:  “It took Barack Obama 18 months in the White House for his approval rating to slip to 44 percent in Gallup polling, and it took George W. Bush 4½ years to fall that far. Mr. Trump got there before even being sworn in.”[1]  But it’s more than just being unhappy.  A large percentage of Americans, and a huge majority of my colleagues, feel helpless.  We watched politics go down in flames, we watched the electoral college system fail, and we watched our representatives make decisions out of avarice, out of favoritism, out of spite.  All while we sat there, feeling we could do nothing.  Many people, I’m sure, prayed the night of the election.  Many people prayed this morning, and many will pray tonight.  But as Rabbi Riemer reminds us by his prayer, it is important that we pray for the right things.


Far too many in this world pray for God to help them directly; they pray that God will make them successful, that they wake up tomorrow an overnight success story. They pray to become healthy, for their bodies to look the way they want them to look.  They pray to become wealthy, that they’ll get that Powerball number and their problems will be gone. We’re all guilty of it: laying awake in the middle of the night wishing that tomorrow we wake up a different person, our anxieties quieted, our fears removed, our prayers answered.  It is less often, however, that we hear a prayer like Rabbi Riemer’s.  Those who pray for success don’t pray for the patience and endurance to become successful; they don’t pray for the strength and motivation to get up and go to the gym. But why? The answer, I believe, is learned helplessness.


“Learned Helplessness” was a theory created by Martin Seligman, an American psychologist in the 1960s.  Seligman discovered through is research that there are situations in life that can make people believe that outcomes are uncontrollable.  It is why people remain passive, remain negative, even though they have an ability to change themselves and their lives.  When expectations shift to this negative state, Seligman argues that “other consequences may accompany the inability or unwillingness to act, including low self-esteem, chronic failure, sadness, and physical illness.”[2]  If, over the course of a period in our lives, we experience crushing defeat, perpetual abuse, our brains begin to learn that this is the norm everywhere, and that there is no escape.  Why bother?


This was a tactic that was used by the Nazis on the Jews, wearing Jews down over a period of years, taking away rights and hope little by little, until they marched with no hope to the gas chambers.   It’s a tactic used by abusers to their spouses, their children, or even prisoners and hostages. We hear repeatedly the question, “how could the Jews march like cattle to the slaughter?” or “why does that women stay in that abusive relationship?” The answer is direct and purposeful learned helplessness.  But so many of us have experienced indirect learned helplessness.  Over 40% of Americans, that’s over 90 million voters, chose not to vote in this year’s presidential election.  Why? Well possibly lots of reasons, but one for certain is the idea that was planted in our heads: Why bother?  The politicians are both bad, things will never change anyway, and what’s one vote in several million?


“Learned helplessness” is a serious issue.  It can cause depression, and mental and physical health issues.  But more than that, learned helplessness can help evil triumph; it can help the world burn; it can allow for corruption, greed, and injustice; it can lead to horribly unqualified men and women being put into positions of tremendous power.  But “learned helplessness” is escapable.  Nothing in our destiny is inescapable.  Jewish tradition teaches us that while everything is foreseen, we have the free will to change the future.  And we can start with Rabbi Riemer’s prayer.


We can’t just pray that war will end. The paths are there, the tools are there, and we must find them and use them.  We can’t just pray to end starvation. The food is out there; we must simply share it.  We can’t just pray to end prejudice, discrimination, hatred, antisemitism, islamophobia, and homophobia. The education and the values are available, we must simply teach them.  When we pray for God to provide us with the easy way out, the miracles that don’t require work on our part, we forget the partnership that we have between us and the Divine.  God created this world imperfect; the task of tikkun olam is ours.  God placed humanity to tend and watch over the world, to guard it and to add to it.  So, here’s what we can and should pray to God for: for wisdom; for the will to act; for the courage to fight for what is right; for patience; for endurance; for inner strength to rise and become vehicles for change.  May we never look at a situation like ours in the world and in America and say “why bother?” and may we never pray that God turns a switch to change our fate.  Rather, for God’s sake and ours, speedily and soon, let it be: that our land may be safe, that our lives may be blessed because we have been given the power to do so.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/17/us/politics/donald-trump-obama-approval-rating.html?_r=0

[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/learned-helplessness


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