Where Grounded Optimism & Faith Intersect – The Case of the Jewish Optimist

A man gets into his car and decides – in the name of “optimism” – that he won’t buckle up.   Is he an optimist or is he an idiot?   After delivering a lecture on optimism to a large tech company, Shawn Achor, one of the gurus of Positive Psychology was being driven to the airport by the CEO.   Ignoring the persistent and annoying dinging of the alarm for not using his seat belt, the CEO smiled at Shawn and explained that he was just “optimistic.”

“Optimism is good for a lot of things,” thought Shawn, “but it will not prevent this CEO from getting into a car accident, nor will it prevent him flying through the windshield.”   This is not optimism; rather, it’s a form of insanity, otherwise known as “irrational optimism.”

In this week’s Torah portion, “Beshalach”, after the Jewish people left Egypt, the Pharaoh sent his army of charioteers after them, and now they were cornered with their backs to the sea. Short of a new miracle, the Jewish people were facing imminent slaughter, and the Torah records their bitter remonstrations against Moses crying that they should never have left Egypt and that it would have been better to have remained slaves in Egypt than to die in the wilderness.

According to commentary, at that point, the Jewish people were divided into four separate camps. One group wanted to surrender and go back to Egypt. One group was ready to commit suicide. One group was willing to fight the Egyptian army (I like their moxie but what were they going to do – throw matzos at them?) And another group started to pray. Moses cried out to God and God replied (in essence) – “Stop praying and journey forth.  Do Something!” It was at that point that the famous Nachshon jumped into the sea, and when the water reached his nostrils, the sea began to part. Optimist or crazy? Grounded or irrational? Let’s see.

In his book, “Learned Optimism”, Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology explains that there are two ways of looking at life, and he gives an example. A young couple has their first baby.   The father looks at her in her crib with awe and love, and he calls out her name. Although the baby is awake, she doesn’t respond. Dad picks up a toy with a bell and shakes it. No response. Dad’s heart starts to beat rapidly, and he summons his wife. The mother tries to get the baby’s attention with loud sounds – still without a response – but when she picks up the baby, the baby responded to her. “My God, she’s deaf,” concludes the father.

“No, she’s not. She’s a newborn. Her eyes don’t even focus yet,” says the mother. “Yea – but you clapped loudly, and she didn’t startle.” Mom suggested that they consult their baby book for advice, where they read how there is no reason for alarm if a baby fails to react to loud noises since it takes time for the startle and sound reflex to kick in.

Mom is reassured. Nevertheless, she leaves a voice message with the pediatrician’s office to schedule an appointment, and she goes about her weekend as usual.   Dad, on the other hand, remains a worried mess, ruminating that he has a “bad feeling about this.”

On Monday, the pediatrician administers a neurological exam and finds the baby perfectly healthy. Father does not believe the test results and remains depressed and worried. A week later, when the baby startled at the noise of a backfiring car, the father began to recover his spirits and was able to enjoy his baby once again.

These are the two basic outlooks on life: one pessimistic and one optimistic.   The pessimist “awfulizes” events, views bad situations as long-lasting, if not permanent, allows the upset to permeate all areas of life, and considers it somehow his or her fault.

The optimist, on the other hand, sees defeat as a temporary challenge to be surmounted, confines it to this one situation, and sees the cause as something external.  These two explanatory outlooks on life affect health, relationships, quality of work and achievement, learning, and many other things, and an optimism outlook tends to enhance life across all of its dimensions.

However, aspects of pessimism have their rightful place too, especially where critical thinking is necessary to avoid bad consequences.   For instance, employing optimism in the face of marrying an addict in denial, or buying a house over budget while banking on a future raise or bonus would be a form of irrational optimism, with possibly disastrous consequences.

The point is, the key to emotional and mental freedom is knowing “when to be what”. We all have certain natures by default, which will drive either of these explanatory styles.   The goal is to have “flexible optimism”, to know that you have a choice and to pick your most valuable reality and which manner of thinking will serve you best under the circumstances.

Okay, now it’s a little chutzpadich, but I think there is a third explanatory style, which I am calling “Jewish Optimism”, and since I’m coining the phrase, I get to define it. Jewish Optimism takes the best aspects of optimism, such as looking at events in their most favorable light and rising to the challenge with an “I-can” or an “it-can-be-done” attitude.

But when it comes to causality, Jewish Optimism doesn’t regard events as external and impersonal.   Just the opposite. In Jewish Optimism, everything is “about me” – for my spiritual growth.   And this brings in the quality of faith – faith that the universe is not out to “get me”, but to “teach me”.   And that ultimately leads to having a real and personal relationship with God.

Getting back to the scene at the banks of the Sea of Reeds, in facing Pharaoh’s army, the pessimists wanted to surrender or commit suicide. One group of optimists wanted to fight, but it was irrational to think that an unarmed and untrained group of men women and children could defeat the onslaught of a mighty avalanche of charioteers.

The same God that liberated the Jewish people through His open and divine intervention was now telling them to go, to “do something,” And so Nachshon, the Jewish optimist, walked calmly into the sea, and in so doing, he also paved the way for the Jewish expression of faith.

And this sets Judaism apart from any religion that is based just on thought, beliefs, or silent spirituality because Judaism calls for belief-driven behavior, and the expression of faith through deliberate action.

So the next time you face a challenge, decide first whether grounded optimism is appropriate, and if so, try adding a little faith.   Know that whatever test you are undergoing is the test you were meant to have, that you can pass it, and that you will emerge emotionally stronger, intellectually wiser, and spiritually higher.   Become a Jewish optimist, and there is no telling how many seas you will be able to part in your life.





The Balancing Act Of Freedom: Knowing When To Be What

I believe now that our fractured society is longing for a world in which the unity of humanity and the cosmos, the wholeness of body, soul and spirit and the unity of the masculine and feminine principles is valued, in which meaning is restored. – Chris Clark

Last week, we took a little 3-day family outing, bringing loads of luggage fit for a Sherpa, to NYC, the land of “everything”. We left home an hour and a half past our estimated departure time (don’t ask). Ten or fifteen minutes into the trip we had to turn around and come back home to get a forgotten item (really don’t ask). And I couldn’t help but wonder how Moses managed to get a few million Jews out the door carrying all of their possessions, leaving Egypt in one fell swoop.

In this week’s Torah portion, “Bo”, we see the unfolding of the last three plagues, the laws of Passover, and the leaving of Egypt. That’s a lot of stuff for Moses to be dealing with, and so I was curious about the insertion of two lines that seemed irrelevant, out of the blue, and frankly, a little off the wall. God said to Moses and Aaron: This month shall be for you the beginning of the months. It shall be for you the first of the months of the year.

I’m going to cut to the chase and tell you embedded in these two cryptic lines is the command to sanctify the new moon (Rosh Chodesh) and also to ensure that Passover always occurs in the spring season. In essence, in the middle of one of the biggest craziest ballagons in history, God commanded Moses to create a “calendar” – and just any calendar – but a strange and unique calendar that is based on both the lunar months and the solar year.

After all, the Jewish calendar is the only calendar based on both the sun and the moon. Only these two systems (lunar and solar) are not in sync, and thus, it requires adding leap months, and other adjustments to reconcile the two over a perpetual 19-year cycle.

What was so important that it had to be commanded on the eve of leaving Egypt and why make it so complicated? The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzraim”, from the word “Metzar” – which means “narrow” and “constricted”. In leaving Egypt, the Jewish people were going from narrowness to expansion, from a bounded country to a limitless open dessert, from slavery to freedom.

One of the hallmarks of being a slave is the inability to control anything, specifically time. When God commanded us to be in charge of publicly announcing the new moon (Rosh Chodesh/the new month), we were given the gift of being able to declare and sanctify time itself. And as the Jewish people were coming into their newly liberated status, it was important that they understood that freedom is not the same as a “free-for-all” and that expansion and freedom requires a balanced approach.

Jewish mysticism teaches us that the differences between the sun and the moon are not just physical, but spiritual, and that the masculine spiritual energy of giving (the sun) and the feminine spiritual energy of receiving (the moon) are two cosmic forces that need to be brought into balance and harmony. The characteristics of masculine energy are that it is “top down”, proactive, exerts will, imposes an external solution, fixes a situation, overcomes, and emits. When masculine energy interacts with the world, the predominant energy is the execution of the will of the giver or executor.

The characteristics of feminine energy, on the other hand, are that it is “bottom up”, that it sees potential, cultivates, builds, reveals innate qualities, and transforms. When feminine energy interacts with the world, the emphasis is on the receiver – not the giver.

This is not about being a man or a woman. These are energies and qualities that we all have, and it goes back to the beginning, with the creation of Adam that occurs in two parts. First, as being created in the image of God, Adam was given dominion over everything. If it crawled, walked, swam, or flew, Adam was in charge. This was proactive masculine energy.

Second, when God blew His breath into Adam’s nostrils, placed him in Garden of Eden and told him to “tend it”, Adam was tasked with care-taking, cultivating, and nurturing. This was feminine energy. We need both energies, both ways of being – but to be a free and fully functioning person, we need to know “when to be what”.

There are times when we need an immediate solution to something, where there is a crisis, calling for fast and effective leadership in a top down strong way. And there are times when leadership serves by building consensus, collaborative brainstorming, building relationships and cultivating talent. There are times when we need to impart concepts and information, and times when we want to foster the process of learning. There is a time to be active and a time to be passive. There is a time to be the conqueror and a time to be the cultivator. There is a time to be Adam #1 and Adam #2.

In the book, Built to Last, authors Collins and Porras conducted a 6-year study at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, studying eighteen truly exceptional and long-lasting companies as well as their direct competitors. They were looking for an answer to the question: “What makes the truly exceptional companies different from the comparison companies and what were the common practices these enduringly great companies followed throughout their history?” In other words, was there a secret to their success?

And what they found was that exceptionally visionary and enduring companies all shared trait this in common – they knew “when to be what”. They knew when to be hierarchical and when to be flat, when to micro-manage and when to full-out delegate. They had a fixed core of values as well as the flexibility to change on a dime. By being able to embrace both sides of the coin, they knew “what to do when” and “when to be what”.

Jewish mysticism teaches that that the era of redemption will see the return of feminine energy. Masculine energy can win a war and impose a cease-fire, but true peace is a bottom up and inside out process. In the times of the Messiah, said the prophet Isaiah, “the light of the moon shall be like the light of the sun. Thus, these cosmic forces and energies will be in balance and harmony.

When we left Egypt, we received the Torah, and we were tasked with being the light unto nations. We have to be conscious of our ability to receive and our strength to give. We must be conscious of our collective soul as well as our individual missions, and to bring our families, our communities, the world, and ultimately ourselves into a state of balance. When the whole world knows “when to be what”, the sun and moon will be equal. This is what freedom looks like and this is why we were freed from Egypt – for the purpose of balance, harmony and ultimate redemption.

Something To Ponder:

  1. Has there been a situation, which you met with a proactive, forceful, task-oriented, decisive and immediate energy, which could have been better served if you had met it with a nurturing, collaborative, long-term, team-building and receptive energy?
  2. How about the reverse?
  3. Is there a situation right now that you are trying to control or force an outcome to that is resisting you? What would happen if you let go? Who could you be? What could be possible?
  4. Is there a situation right now, which would benefit from your immediate attention and action? What do you need to be doing right now that you are avoiding taking on?
  5. How would you be served and supported by tapping into energies that you thought were taboo to you or inappropriate for your gender?