Jewish Optimism: Eternal Words with Contemporary Echoes

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30 Jun 2006

THERE ARE THOSE who view Jewish life as confining, gloomy and pessimistic. They claim that Judaism enforces restrictions, a life filled with obligations, somber occasions, all year long prayers three times a day. We have Yom Kippur preceded eight days earlier by Tzom Gedaliah, fasting on Tisha B’Av when only three weeks earlier we cleansed our souls on the seventeenth of Tamuz fast. We are given Mussar with a constant call for self improvement and introspection for betterment. “Why can’t I just be accepted for who I am?” asks the Jewish cynic.

OptimismIt’s not sufficient to come on the Tenth of Tishrei or even on the first to pray, reflect, repent and amend. We Jews begin to set the mood and atone thirty days before the Teshuva journey begins. From the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul we sound the sirens of Shofar, recite Psalm 27 L’Dovid Hashem Ori, and awake in the predawn hours to recite Selichot. Among Sephardim and Yemenites Selichot are recited during all of Elul. Ashkenazim begin only a week before Rosh Hashanah. The whole month of Elul is a period of spiritual reorientation and preparation for the Days of Awe.

Blowing the Shofar is expected to rouse Jews to an awareness of the approaching awesome and demanding days. So isn’t all this gloomy, depressing and pessimistic? Doesn’t it seem as if we are viewed as a bunch of lost sinners, hopeless and forlorn, who by some miraculous, supernatural grace of G-d may be saved from His wrath, if we can somehow survive these trials?

What I have described thus far however, is only the other half of the glass. There are those among us who always complain that the glass is half empty, while others rejoice that the cup is half full. Who is telling the truth? Both are. One speaks out of despair and gloom, while the other lives in an eternal state of Bitachon, hope and optimism.

Let’s look at the other half of the glass and discover the state of mind that Judaism indeed intended for us from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Shmini Atzeret. It was not sheer coincidence that the most optimistic of all Psalms was selected specifically to be recited during this most awesome period-Psalm 27. As a matter of fact, the Midrash teaches that the words L’Dovid Hashem Ori- “the Lord is my life”, refers to Rosh Hashanah; V’Yishi- “and aid”, reflects on Yom Kippur and Ki yitzpeneni b’Suko- “He will hide me with His Tabernacle”, is indicative of Sukkot. Glance through the Psalm and you can immediately find a plethora of words that conjure elements of hope, optimism, happiness and strength. Beginning with the first verse and continuing through the kapitel we find words such as: light, aid, stronghold, no fear, confident, desire, dwell in the House of the Lord, pleasantness, shelter, safe, teach, guide, land of the living, hope, strong, brave. Twenty four loud and clear words and phrases that express optimism all within fourteen short verses.

G-d’s name appears thirteen times in the Psalm and during the month Elul, we are taught that the thirteen gates of Rachamim – of mercy and hope, are open to all of us. What optimism!

Commentaries explain that the L’Dovid Psalm is divided into two distinct parts. Verses 1-6 express David’s hope to “Dwell in the house of the Lord” and to behold His pleasantness. The second half, verses 7-14, is a call for help on behalf of all Jews. It is an injunction to “hold on”, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It is a call reminiscent of the sign put up by Bratzlever Chassidim on the gate to their Second World War ghetto: Yiden-Zeit zich nisht M’yaesh- “Jews-Don’t Give Up!” You want to give up because the other half of the glass is empty; because innocent Jews are being killed in their homeland, because the world is yet again silent when Jewish blood is spilled. But, now is not the time to yield and be pessimistic.

Listen to these words, repeated twice a day for nearly fifty days: “Hope in the Lord, be strong and let your heart be brave; yes, hope in the Lord.” What optimism!

The Malbim points out that of all the pleas set before G-d during the Yomim Noraim there is one plea that if granted, will enable the Jew to overcome all other spiritual obstacles; the need to become totally attached and one with God. “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid.” If the Jew is able to achieve this oneness with God, then, “even though an army were arrayed against me, my heart would not fear; though war shall arise against me, still would I be confident.” Eternal words with contemporary echoes.

“Hope in the Lord, be strong, and let your heart be brave; yes, hope in the Lord.” What’s the point of the Psalmist’s repetition of the powerful injunction to “hope in the Lord”? Why repeat it again? The Brisker Rav explains that David is reassuring the individual Jew, as well as the collective Jewish communities of all eras, that the great reward for the heroic optimism and hope we sustain even in the bleakest of times, is that God will bestow us with even greater abilities and inner strength to hope and persevere. When you and I hold on to God with bitachon and hope that at times may even be fraught with doubt and pain, God will gift us with the ability to truly “Hope in the Lord”, with ease, satisfaction and tranquility. God’s reward for the one whose trust in Him shall never waiver, is ”hope in the Lord”-to merit even greater hope and trust. What a gift!

There is a story of a young student, who walked with crutches, and was known to be particularly friendly and optimistic. He won many academic honors and the respect of his classmates. One day a classmate asked the cause of his deformity. When the young invalid said briefly, “Infantile paralysis”, the friend questioned him further. “With a misfortune like that, how can you face the world so confidently?” “Oh,” replied the young man on crutches, “the disease never touched my heart.” Yes, we face serious and unanswered problems and crisis that may not easily be resolved. For some of us, it seems as if a state of paralysis has taken over our being-but let it not touch our hearts. Let us begin to optimistically await a new year, as we seek to reattach ourselves to the One and the only One who can “make peace upon us, and upon Israel.”