Friday, May 30, 2008

Are You An Optimist?

Last week’s curse-filled, depressing portion, prompted a wonderful d’var Torah by our bar mitzvah (see it below) and further discussion on Judaism, pessimism and optimism. Judaism is a glass half full religion, but unfortunately, we’ve had a glass mostly empty history. So last week’s portion had a few token verses describing the blessings that would befall us if we obey the commandments, and then fully 36 verses describing the most gruesome negative consequences imaginable, complete with horrific visions of parents being compelled by hunger to eat their young. It is noteworthy that traditional commentators like Rashi bend over backwards to find a bright side of these foreboding passages. It’s almost Monty Pythonesque to see how far they go to “always look on the bright side of life.” As Nehama Leibowitz wrote in her commentary on Behukotai: “Our Parashah thus reflects the principle, which our sages discerned throughout Scriptures, whereby the measure of Divine Goodness outweighs that of Divine retribution (cf. Yoma 76a).”

At the annual meeting this week, I spoke of the need to become realistic optimists. In charging the new board, I mentioned that it is most important (for any leader of any institution, but particularly a synagogue) to check negativity at the door. I mentioned that were I not such an optimist, with unwavering faith in this congregation and in the future, it wouldn’t be easy for me to remain a rabbi. But just to check out my own leanings, I took an optimism text, at My scores revealed, no surprise, that I am moderately to very optimistic. The scores are explained at You can take a different test at

While human nature, genetics and experience play a significant rile in formulating our outlooks, optimism is something that can be learned. These tests are hardly foolproof, and, as an upcoming bar mitzvah student recently reminded me, “the glass is half full if I am filling it up but half empty if I am drinking it.”

In other words it all depends on one’s perspective. Hopefulness is in the eye of the beholder.

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