Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Optimist and Pessimist

There is a wonderful story told of two children with polar personalities. One was an an optimist in the extreme. No matter what the circumstances, even when things went wrong, she always had a smile. She was sure things would only get better. The other was an extreme pessimist. Nothing made her happy. She always assumed, even in the good times, that bad was sure to follow. Their parents decided to put their dispositions to the test. The pessimist was put in a room full of the most wonderous toys, everything a child could dream of having. The optimist was put up to her neck in a room full of manure. Each had the door locked on them.

In two hours the parents returned. To their amazement when they opened the door on their child the pessimist in the room full of toys, she was sitting in the corner crying. She explained, "All these toys are great. But soon the batteries will wear out and the springs on the wind up toys are sure to break. Its only a matter of time and I will not be able to play with them anymore." And her sibling the optimist, up to her neck in manure, when they opened the door on her she was giggling and splashing in the filth. She said, "I know with all this manure there has to be a horse in here somewhere!"

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shira. We read of the great miracle that occurred at the Sea as Israel was, once and for all, saved from their Egyptian taskmasters. On their deliverance they sang the "Oz Yashir" the song of praise and thanksgiving, a song so filled with holy inspiration that it is included in the Torah and recited each day in our morning prayers.

The sages are clear, Israel, even the most common among them, had an inspired vision at the Sea greater than the prophet Yechezkail. The Torah gives context to the Song with the prelude "And they believed in Hashem and in Moshe His servant".
Their intense belief gave rise to expression in the Song of the Sea.

But the story is puzzling. Those of us who learn Daf Yomi, the daily page of Talmud, only this week studied the text in Tractate Areechin that tells us that of the ten testings of the Divine in the wilderness, two occurred at the Sea, and one of those was after the Sea split and they crossed on dry land! The Talmud tell us "Israel lacked faith". After the miraculous crossing they feared "Just as we crossed perhaps so too did the Egyptian army and they are yet coming after us but from another place on the shore."

How can the Talmud teach that the people lacked faith, even after the crossing, until they saw the dead bodies of the Egyptians wash up onto the shore when the Torah tells us they "believed in Hashem and in Moshe His servant". The Torah is clear that the song was triggerred by the power of their belief. Yet the Talmud takes them to task for precisely that, a shortfall in belief.

Moreover we might wonder. If they indeed had the strong belief as the Torah affirms how is it that only a few days later, when they lacked water, they complained bitterly and inappropriately. And, only a few weeks after that, again they complained, this time about their diet. They had the audacity to question whether they would not have been better off had they never been redeemed.

How do we make sense of all these contradictory dimensions of the psychic and spiritual health of our ancestors?

I think the answer may be something we alluded to in the story with which we began.
When the Torah tells us "And they believed in Hashem..." they did! The People had faith at the sea, an uprecedented faith. But faith is one thing and trust is another. In Hebrew we distinguish between 'emuna' and bitachon'. Undoubtedly the Israelites knew G-d in an intimate way. They had the vision of the prophets at the Sea. But trust is another matter altogether. Trust or bitachon requires us to believe not only in the goodness of the Other, but in the worthiness of ourselves.
To trust we need to not only know G-d exists and to feel His presence. We need to know that G-d will do good for us because we indeed are worthy of His love.

The Israelites of the Exodus indeed believed in G-d. They had emuna. What they lacked was bitachon. And not because they thought G-d was not good. But because they felt undeserving. They did not trust that the good they received today would be there tomorrow. They were pessimists. And like all pessimists they lacked trust, not in the love of Hashem but in the worthiness of themselves to continue to know the blessing.

When the Talmud taught that the People were lacking in belief, I suggest the shortcoming the Talmud is inferring was a belief in themselves and in a G-d who will love them with their flaws. True the sea was parted for them. Yet they still were not sure the Egyptians didn't cross as well. After all, according to the Medrash, even the angels said at the sea "They are idol worshippers and so are they. Why save the Israelites?". We might assume our ancestors wondered the same thing. They had no doubts about the power of G-d. They simply lacked the trust in their own worthiness to be sure G-d would save them at the expense of the Egyptians.

Over and over through the wilderness journey when Israel sins the root of the sin is not a lack of belief in G-d. Rather the root of the sin is a lack of bitachon caused by a feeling of inadequacy and a fear that G-d will not rescue them from their predicament because they are undeserving. Israel's sin was a prevailing pessimism.
It is not that we were in fact deserving. On the contrary, relative to our own merits we indeed had reason to be pessimists. But G-d loves us, with our lacks. He does only good for us no matter our inadequacies. His love is unconditional.

I dare say, the struggle of our ancestors with bitachon is not theres alone. Who of us has not fought the feelings of pessimism from time to time. Perhaps we have been hurt in a relationship and struggle to trust again. Or pehaps we have failed in projects we have undertaken and now we are hesitant to try yet again. The root of our doubts, like those of our parents of the Exodus, is a lack of self worth. If we believe we are deserving we will be optimistic even when things did not turn out as we hoped. When we expect the worst it is typically because we feel we don't deserve success.

What we need to realize is that our success and belief in it is not really about us.
We may well be more right than the optimist. We are undeserving. On our own we have no right to assume things will get better. But trust is about G-d and our relationship to Him. Trust in the good is our conviction that He will always do what is best for us. In the words of Rabbi Akiva, even when that which seems bad happens to us, it is to say "Gam Zu l'tova", "This too is for the good".
We don't invest in the future with optimism because we are confident in ourselves.
We invest because we know G-d loves us and whatever the results it will be for the good.

To be an optimist, to trust again in the face failure, is a spiritual challenge.
We are called upon to believe in G-d's unconditional love for us. There is no room for a prevailing sadness in life. To live as a person of the spirit is to be ready to invest and invest again.

Shabbat Shalom

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