Beshalach: How to Optimalize Your Optimism

images“The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

-Winston Churchill

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 foolish?   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 being “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 “Beshalach,” after the Jewish people left Egypt, Pharaoh sent his army of charioteers after the Jews, and they were cornered with Egypt at their back, the vast desert on both sides, and the sea in front of them. Short of a new miracle, the Jewish people were facing imminent slaughter.

The Splitting of the Sea

According to Midrashic commentary, one faction wanted to surrender and go back to Egypt. Some were ready to commit suicide. Others were willing to fight the Egyptians, while 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 great Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped into the sea, and when the water reached his nostrils, the sea began to part. Was he an optimist or insane? Irrational or grounded?

In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology explains that there are two ways of looking at life – as an optimist or as a pessimist – and he gives an example. A young couple has their first baby.   The father looks at her in her crib, 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 was also unable to get the baby’s attention with loud sounds. “My God, she’s deaf,” concludes the father.

Mom consults a baby book for advice, reading how there is no reason for alarm 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 still 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. The pessimist “awfulizes” events, views harmful situations as long-lasting, if not permanent, allows the upset to permeate all areas of life and takes it personally. The optimist, on the other hand, doesn’t anticipate defeat, but when it happens, sees defeat as a challenge to be surmounted, limits it to this pertinent situation, and sees the cause as something external.

Okay, now it’s a little chutzpadich, but I think there is another 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” would not regard events as external and impersonal.   Just the opposite. In “Jewish Optimism,” everything is “about me” – for my spiritual growth, that is.   And this brings in the quality of faith – faith that the universe is not out to “get me,” but to “teach me.”

Getting back to the scene at the banks of the Sea of Reeds, in facing Pharaoh’s army, 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 on passive faith as because Judaism calls for belief-driven behavior, and the expression of faith through deliberate action. Judaism teaches that the garments of the soul are for us to actualize our potential. The trick is knowing when the focus needs to be our thought, when it is about speech and when it must manifest through 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 Dual Art of Rising to the Occasion

We need a psychology of rising to the occasion.”

  • Martin Seligman

Staffs and Reeds

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” If anyone knew the truth of this, it would be the author of this quote – Helen Keller.

In the Torah portions, “Mattot-Masei,” the Jewish people were on the cusp of entering the Land of Israel. While this would be at last the joyful fulfillment of God’s ancestral promise, it was not going to be all “milk and honey.” It was quite the opposite; actually, as the Jews who entered into the Land were headed into cycles of trial and suffering that would last for years to come.

At this critical time, God referred to the Jewish people as “mattot” which has the dual meaning of both “tribes” as well as “staffs.” Wooden staffs are unbending, unyielding, straight and strong. Thus, God was imbuing the Jewish people with the very qualities they would need in light of the turmoil and challenges ahead.

While the word mattot was used from time to time, the most common word to describe the Jewish people was not mattot, but “shevatim.” Like the word mattos, shevatim also has a double definition – “tribes” or “reeds.” Unlike wooden staffs, however, reeds are thin and flexible. Reeds are rooted, yet able to withstand external elements by being supple. In general, since God typically uses the word shevatim, one could surmise that embodying the qualities of the flexible reed is our natural or preferred state.

By referring to the Jewish tribes as “mattot” at this particular juncture, however, we should understand that sometimes – as in times of war, upheaval and chaos – we have to stiffen our resolve and embody a very different nature. There are times when being a reed does not serve us. There are times when being a reed actually hurts us. And in such times, we must become like “mattot.” We must become a solid staff. So the question is: When do we become what?

Three Hours and Twelve Minutes

 Recently, the news brought horrors from abroad and close to home. As we were reeling with the news of the massacre in a gay bar in Florida that took place over a horrific three-hour period, we learned soon after of the brutal murder of a French police officer and his wife (in front of their three-year-old child). For twelve infinitely long minutes, the murderer chillingly filmed their torture, while issuing warnings to Europe of Isis’ intention to turn it into an imminent graveyard.  

Not to be an alarmist, but we could be on the brink, once again, of facing significant challenges. The flip side of adversity, however, is that it is the birthplace of greatness, and when we rise to the occasion of formidable challenges, we can achieve great heights. When confronting evil and hatred, we must rise to the occasion and stand as one with the strength of the wooden staff. As Winston Churchill said, “Never give in…never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Looking for the Good

On the other hand, when it comes to our interpersonal relationships and interactions with people outside of our comfort zone, we would be well served to be flexible, to put aside our differences and embrace our commonality. Eventually “close to home” as opposed to “over there” will be indistinct, as hatred anywhere must be perceived as hatred everywhere, and everyone’s backyard becomes a global reality.

When I have empathy for the sufferings of others as my own, I will be inclined to commit acts of benevolence, compassion and bravery. And while I must keep my eyes open to the horrors of this world, it’s just as important, if not more so, to see what is so very good. Otherwise, we will lose the best of what drives us forward.

In an article called, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” Howard Zinn wondered how it’s possible to stay involved and happy in a world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power. And he answered it thus:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places- and there are so many- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of the world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Driving home, I was listening to the news. Overwhelmed with sadness and anxiety, I silently asked God to show me signs of kindness and compassion. As if on cue, I noticed a homeless woman begging in the middle of a hot street, and I saw an arm shoot out of a car window to give her a bottle of water.

Fred Rogers said that when he was a boy and would be afraid of scary things in the news, his mother would say, “Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.” When we see pain and suffering, we must, even to the point of bending over backward, do what we can to ease it. When people hurt, we must heal. When it comes to the root causes of pain and suffering, however, and those who inflict it, we must stand tall against them. God tells us we have a dual nature. We must use our heads and hearts to know when to be what

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write down a challenging situation you are currently facing and if you have been handling it like a staff or like a reed. Would it perhaps be better served by switching approaches? What do you feel will make the biggest impact in transforming this situation to the positive?
  1. When terrible things happen it is easy to lose sight of anything positive that is happening around us. Think about something difficult you have experienced, and then write down five good things that happened during this experience. They may pale in comparison, but focus on them. Then write down how you are feeling when you think about something uplifting alongside something so negative.
  1. Finding the good in those we struggle with is likewise a challenge. Think about someone you have a difficult time getting along with, and write down the characteristics and qualities that bother you about that person. Then alongside each aspect you find negative, write something that is positive about that quality (ie. Stubborn = someone who stands by their beliefs and feelings).