Doom and gloom! That is how the Jewish cynic views the authentic Jewish life. Confining. Legalistic. Obligatory.
So many somber remembrances. So many burdens and obligations.
Praying three times a day. Fasts. Study. Moral teachings to learn. The self to improve.
“Why can’t I just be accepted for what I am,” asks the Jewish cynic. “Why can’t I just observe the New Year on the first of Tishrei or, better yet, on the tenth? That gives me plenty of time to pray, reflect and make amends. All without disrupting my regular tennis game. Why must Jews be expected to begin their preparation thirty days before the teshuva journey begins?”
From the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul we sound the shofar, recite Psalm 27, L’Dovid HaShem Ori, and awake in the predawn hours to recite Selichot. The Sefardim and Yemenites recite Selichot all of Elul!
Why must Jews be so serious? All this introspection! All this sin and misdeeds! You can’t convince the Jewish cynic that all this attention to improving one’s spiritual well-being isn’t downright depressing.
So it appears to those who view the glass as half empty.
The pessimist looks at the half filled glass and bemoans that it is half empty. “Oh poor me! There is only half a glass. It is very nearly empty.” The optimist looks at the very same glass and rejoices that it is half full.
Which of the two is correct? Both see the same glass and acknowledge its same physical properties. But one speaks out of despair while the other enjoys the benefit of living in a state of optimism and hope.
Contrary to the cynic and pessimist, the optimist has the truer perspective on Judaism. The “glass half full” shows us the power of that period from Rosh Chodesh through the conclusion of Days of Awe and holiness, Shmini Atzeret. When we open our siddurim, we discover the most optimistic of all Psalms, selected specifically for this awesome period – Psalm 27. The Midrash teaches that the words L’Dovid HaShem Ori, the Lord is my life, refer to Rosh Hashanah while v’yishi, and aid, reflects on Yom Kippur. Ki yitzpeneni b’suko, He will hide me within His tabernacle, speaks of Sukkot.
A quick glance through the psalm is enough to find all the words that conjure up hope, optimism, happiness, and strength. Begin with the first posuk and go through the kapitel, 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.
Fourteen short verses. Twenty-four optimistic words and phrases.
God’s name appears thirteen times in the psalm, once each for the thirteen gates of rachamim – mercy and hope – which are open to us during the month of Elul.
The commentaries divide the psalm into two distinct parts. Verses 1-6 express the clearly stated hope of David to “dwell in the house of the Lord” and to “behold His pleasantness.” The second set of verses, verses 7-14, are a call for help on behalf of all Jews. It is a call reminiscent of the sign put up by Bratzlaver Chassidim on the gate to their ghetto during the Second World War: Yiden, Zeit Zich Nisht M’Yaesh – Jews, Don’t Give Up!”
That is not pessimism. That is strength and hope! That is looking at half a glass and seeing fullness, not emptiness. Pessimism is not Jews who daven or who guard the Sabbath. Pessimism is Jews who are not davening, who are not learning. Pessimism is Jews who are assimilating and intermarrying.
Pessimism is Jews more concerned with their tennis game than their souls.
Listen to these words, twice a day for nearly fifty days, – hope in the Lord, be strong, and let your heart be brave; yes, hope in the Lord.
That is optimism!
The Malbim, notes that of all the pleas set before God during the Days of Awe, there is one which will enable the Jew to overcome all other spiritual obstacles, the one that asks that he become totally one with God. “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Each Jew is to yearn for the I–Thou relationship with God, 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.”
Among the students coming for a new year at a college was a young man who hobbled on crutches, a young man who was particularly friendly and optimistic. During the year, he won many academic honors along with the respect of his classmates. One day a classmate asked the cause of his deformity.
With a shrug, the young man said, “Infantile paralysis.”
This intrigued the classmate and so he asked, “With a misfortune like that, how can you face the world so confidently?”
The young man leaned on his crutches and smiled. “Oh,” he replied, “the disease never touched my heart.”
The world is filled with problems and challenges. There are serious issues that we must resolve, difficult questions to answer, and seemingly impossible crises to tackle – but let us be as the young man and not let those things touch our hearts.
For the Jew, the glass is always half full for it is God who has poured it.
Hope. Be strong. Be brave.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president – communications and marketing.