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.