True Optimism Requires a Dose of Realism
Prior to Sukkos, I observed that the world leaders who attended Shimon Peres's funeral came as much to bludgeon Binyamin Netanyahu as to praise Peres. President Obama's eulogy was particularly egregious in that regard, as Caroline Glick spelled out in the Jerusalem Post.
As is his wont, Obama began by lecturing his audience on the true meaning of Judaism. Though he has never been able to abide the notion of "American exceptionalism," he granted "Jewish exceptionalism." Jews, he suggested, are the only people destined to care more about advancing their moral and ethical vision that about their own existence. Here's how he put it: "Shimon believed that Israel's exceptionalism was rooted not only in fidelity to the Jewish people, but to the moral and ethical vision, the precepts of his Jewish faith."
But without the Jewish people there is no "light unto the nations." The Jewish people were chosen as Hashem's vehicle to reveal Himself to the world. And as long as the Jewish people are downtrodden, and how much more so if they would cease to exist, chas ve'shalom, then Kavod Shomayim (the honor of Heaven) is absent from the world. We'll just have to trust the Ramchal over President Obama on the Jewish ethical vision and the preconditions for its realization.
Peres's opponents, said Obama, "argued that he refused to the true wickedness of the world, and called him naïve." Well, yes, Mr. President, Jewish history has not exactly been a romp through sunny meadows, and if there is one basic lesson for Jewish statesmen, it is to take very seriously those who declare their intent to destroy us.
And as for thinking Peres naïve, what else is one to think of someone who coined the aphorism that "one makes peace with one's eyes closed." There is a word for such "wisdom;" it is idiocy.
But Peres tried to do just what he advised – i.e., plow forward with his eyes closed. He steadfastly ignored Palestinian incitement against the Jews and ordered the foreign ministry under his control to deny its existence.
Jeffrey Goldberg, the court Jew of the Obama administration, took Netanyahu to task in the Atlantic Monthly as a mediocrity, in terms strikingly similar to Obama's. Again the deceased Peres – Israel's "chief optimist" – provides his foil. Like Obama, he hectors Israel's Jews for being not Jewish enough, in his terms, and thinking it "spiritually sufficient for the Jews to build for themselves the perfect ghetto."
Goldberg is generous enough to admit that "the creation of a new Arab state at a moment when Arab states all around Israel are disintegrating might be foolhardy." But nevertheless assigns Netanyahu the task of creating the conditions for a viable Palestinian state to emerge.
Goldberg thereby denies the Palestinians any agency or responsibility. Responsibility for creating the kind of civil society without which no viable polity can emerge; responsibility for giving up the dream of eliminating Israel and eventually reclaiming all former Muslim-ruled territory, without which no Palestinian entity should come into being.
OPTIMISM IS A FINE QUALITY. But who is the greater optimist? The one who takes the world as it is, not as he wishes it were, and creates the conditions for survival and flourishing in that environment? Or the one, who makes pretty speeches and expresses happy thoughts, and leaves his countrymen feeling like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery, as Peres did?
Obama suffers from precisely the same infatuation with noble sentiments that caused Peres to be rejected by the Israeli electorate no less than five times. Only the mud-wrestling contest being waged by the two most reviled people in America has obscured the train wreck of the presidency drawing to a close.
Even Bill Clinton has called, Obama's signature domestic achievement, Obamacare, the "craziest scheme ever" for doubling premiums while halving benefits for tens of millions of Americans. On the international scene, Obama's chief legacy is Syria, in which more than half a million people have died and tens of millions have been uprooted, even as the Russians have reasserted themselves without opposition from the United States as the preeminent power in the Middle East by bombing indiscriminately in support of their ally, Bashir Assad. All while President Obama remains high-mindedly aloof and missing in action.
In truth, the world will be fortunate if Syria remains Obama's main foreign policy legacy. A nuclearized and highly unstable Middle East, in which the terrorist-supporting and expansionist Iranian mullahs gain control over the flow of a still substantial portion of the world's oil, is more likely to be his chief legacy.
Walter Russell Mead, one of America's leading centrist foreign policy thinkers (and a former Obama supporter) succinctly contrasts the foreign policy achievements of the optimistic Obama and the dour Netanyahu, in a manner that may cast further light on Obama's loathing for his nemesis:
There is perhaps only one thing harder for the American mind to process than the fact that President Obama has been a terrible foreign policy president, and this is that Bibi Netanyahu is an extraordinarily successful Israeli prime minister. In Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, Israel's diplomacy is moving from strength to strength. Virtually every Arab and Middle Eastern leader thinks that Bibi is smarter and stronger than President Obama, and as American prestige across the Middle East has waned under Obama, Israel's prestige – even among the people who hate it – has grown. Bibi's reset with Russia, unlike Obama's, actually worked. His pivot to Asia has been more successful than Obama's. He has had more success building bridges to Sunni Muslims than President Obama, and both Russia and Iran take Bibi and his red lines more seriously than they take Obama's expostulations and pious hopes.
Israel is a stronger global position today than it was when Bibi took office; nobody can say that with a straight face about the nation that President Obama leads," writes Mead. And he explains why: "Bibi understands how the world works better than Obama does. Bibi believes that in the harsh world of international politics, power wisely used matters more than good intentions eloquently phrased."
Far from turning Israel into a fortress ghetto, Netanyahu has expanded Israeli foreign relations in every direction and given Israel's Jews reason to view the future with optimism, despite the dangers all around.
The Seeds Bear Fruits
Between Mincha and Maariv of the second night of Rosh Hashanah, I noticed my son-in-law speaking to a young avreich whom I had never before seen in shul. At the seudah, I asked my son-in-law who he was.
He answered that the avreich had just married his cousin, in a somewhat unlikely shidduch. For one thing, the kallah was a few years older than the chassan, and for another the kallah is of distinguished German-Jewish ancestry and the chassan is Yemenite.
At the chasanah, my son-in-law related, he was standing alone conversing with the father of chassan, who is a R"M in a yeshiva near Jerusalem, when a respected talmid chacham, who has authored a number of highly regarded seforim on Rabbi Akiva Eiger, entered. Assuming that the two families did not know much about one another, the talmid chacham hastened to the father of the chassan, and started telling him what a wonderful family his son was marrying into.
He had not gotten far in his oration, when the father of the chassan cut him off. "I know you," he said. That was a surprise to the talmid chacham, but what came next was a far bigger shock.
"Yes, we were once chavrusos," the father of the chassan continued. "You learned in Ponevezh, didn't you?"
The talmid chacham acknowledged that he had learned in Ponevezh. But he had absolutely no recollection of ever having had a Yemenite chavrusah.
Noticing that his erstwhile chavrusah still did not remember him, the father of the chassan began to tell his story.
"When I finished the army, I decided that I wanted to find out what exactly it is that they learn in yeshivos. Though I came from a religious family, I had never learned in a yeshiva.
"So I asked some people what is the best yeshiva, and they directed me to Ponevezh. When I walked into the Ponevezh beis medrash, I asked a number of bochurim who was the best learner in the yeshiva, and they all pointed to you.
"So I walked over to you, and asked if you would learn with me for a couple of days, and you agreed. I even remember the Maharsha in Bava Kamma that we learned together."
At that point, the talmid chacham finally recalled the brief chavrusah from decades ago.
The father of the chassan then related how after that brief taste of Gemara learning in Ponevezh, he had been eager to immerse himself in learning and had found a yeshiva appropriate for him. He has been in full-time learning and teaching of Torah ever since.
The talmid chacham had come over to the father of the chassan with no intention of doing anything more than to misameiach the families with the match that their children had made. He never dreamed that he was anything more than a bit player in the chasanah.
Yet he ended up discovering that but for his decision to take off from his regular learning sedarim for a couple of days thirty years earlier, in order to help a recently released Israeli soldier get his first taste of the sweetness of Torah, the chasanah would not have been taking place at all.
A few days after sharing this story at the Rosh Hashanah seudah, my son-in-law added a little postscript of his own. A number of years ago, he had a small chabura of high school boys from non-yeshiva backgrounds whom he learned with once a week in the hope that they would decide to go to yeshiva.
One of those boys was particularly promising. To his dismay, my son-in-law learned one day that the teenager had not only decided to go straight to the army but also to drop his religious observance entirely. When my son-in-law went to speak to him, he offered doubts in emunah as his explanation.
My son-in-law urged him to find someone to speak to about his questions. And the person to whom he was directed was the father of the chassan, who was able to put his questions to rest after many long discussions.
That young man is today an outstanding avreich.
The time that we spend to bring our fellow Jews closer to Torah may not always seem to yield fruits immediately. But often seeds are planted, and the fruits of those seeds go on to give forth even more fruits, in ways which we could never have imagined and are unlikely to ever know about until we receive our Heavenly report card.