On Jewish Optimism: Pre Selichot Reflections

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22 Aug 2010

Half Full GlassThere are those who view Jewish way of life as confining, a pessimistic mode of life, filled with restrictions and a life long agenda of obligations and repetitive serious occasions; praying three times a day with some Tehilim to add. There is Yom Kippur preceded eight days earlier by Tzom Gedaliah, fasting on Tisha B’Av when three weeks earlier there was the seventeenth of Tammuz. There is an emphasis on introspective study of Mussar – ethics, heavy and piercing reflections and moral imperatives. There is an inner voice calling to improve and strive higher. “Why can’t I just be accepted for what I am,” asks the Jewish cynic! Just think of how the Jew prepares for his New Year: No, it’s not sufficient to come on the first Tishrei or even on the tenth, pray, celebrate, wish, reflect and amend. We Jews prepare and set the mood and tone thirty days before the teshuva journey begins. So, from the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul we sound sirens of shofar, recite Psalm 27 – L’Dovid HaShem Ori, and awake in predawn hours to recite Selichot. Mind you, among Sephardim and Yemenites, Selichot are recited the entire month of Elul. We begin only a week before Rosh Hashanah. Nevertheless, the whole month of Elul is a period of spiritual orientation and preparation for Days of Awe. Blowing the Shofar is expected to rouse Jews to an awareness of and identification with the approaching awesome, serious and soul-searching days. So tell me, 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 sheer miraculous, supernatural grace of God will be saved from His wrath?

Perhaps! But described thus far is only the other half of the glass. Remember, the two men who sat with identical glasses of water before them. One complains that his glass is half empty, while the other rejoices that his is half full. Who is telling the truth? Both are. One speaks out of despair, gloom and pessimism, while the other lives in an eternal state of hope, trust and optimism.

Let’s look at the other half of the glass and discover the state of mind that Judaism really intended for us from Rosh Chodesh through the very end of these Days of Awe on Shemini Atzeret. Open up your Sidurim and discover the most optimistic of all Psalms, selected specifically for this awesome period – Psalm 27. As a matter of fact, the Midrash teaches that the words L’Dovid HaShem Ori, “The Lord is my light,” refer to Rosh Hashanah; v’yishi, “and aid” reflects on Yom Kippur; and ki yitzpeneni b’suko, “He will hide me within His tabernacle,” is indicative of Sukkot. Skim through the Psalm quickly and find all the key words that conjure up in your mind elements of hope, optimism, happiness and strength. Begin with the first verse and go through the Psalmist’s chapter: light, aid, stronghold, not fear, confident, desire, dwell in the house of the Lord, pleasantness, shelter, safe, high, sing, chant, gracious, seek you My presence, help, care, teach, guide, land of the living, hope, strong, brave – twenty four loud, clear and vibrating optimistic words and phrases, within fourteen short verses.

This time of year is the time when God’s closeness to us can most easily be grasped. It is as though as invisible curtain that we ourselves designed through bad choices, fear and pain can now be drawn aside. Elul is compared to the time of year that God, by way of parable, is likened to a human king who resides in his palace and is virtually inaccessible to the average person. Once a year, the king tours his kingdom with the goal of getting to know his subjects. Anyone can go to the royal parsonage and tell him whatever is on his mind and in his heart, and know that the king is there to hear him.

God’s name appears thirteen times in the Psalm, we are taught, for during the month of Elul the thirteen gates of rachamim, of mercy and hope are open to us. God revealed His own 13 attributes of mercy to Moshe, so His children would be personally aware of the ample access available to Him. What optimism!

Commentaries explain that Psalm 27 is divided into two distinct parts: verses 1-6 express David’s clearly stated 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 a call reminiscent of the sign displayed by Breslover Chassidim on the gate of their ghetto during holocaust years: 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; not all Jews are learning, praying, honest and moral; Jews are assimilating and intermarrying in the midst of the secular city, our brethren in Israel continue to be threatened by hostile neighbors, near and far. Who gave you the right to yield and be pessimistic and gloomy?

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

Malbim points out that of all the very many pleas set before God during these Days of Awe, Jews plead for one thing which will enable them 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?” The Jew yearns for oneness with God, for 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.” Nothing more than this spiritual component is required to overcome all other physical and spiritual obstacles.

Among the students coming for a new year at school was a young man on crutches, who was 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.”

It’s hard having to make the trek with crutches both real and imagined, but don’t give up. It’s harder to keep going, easier to quit. Sincerely pray to the One above to give you the strength and resolve to preserve, and the clarity to know that your life and its worthwhile goals are too important to ever stop trying.

Yes, as the year ends and we confidently anticipate a new one – many problems are not as yet resolved, disappointments both personal and communal linger, critical questions are yet to be answered, and tough crisis are still there to tackled – but let them not touch our hearts. “Hope, be strong, and be brave.”

Shana Tova.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran – serves as Senior Rabbinic Coordinator and Vice President Communications & Marketing of Orthodox Union’s Kashruth Division