The Case for Optimism
The afternoon prior to the first Obama-Romney debate, I found myself at adjacent gas pumps with a neighborhood friend. He offered his opinion that the election was over and Romney had no chance -- not once but several times. I could not disagree with him. At that point, the polls showed President Obama ahead in all but one battleground state and with a consistent three to four point lead in the national polls.
At one level, I understood that my pal was verbalizing his fears as a means of bracing himself for expected bad news, and setting himself up for a pleasant surprise if the bad news does not materialize. I suppose I do something of the same in my own frequent writing about the Iranian nuclear threat
Nevertheless, I found his vociferous insistence on the inevitability of President Obama's re-election a bit irritating, and not because I suspected that he was eager for a second Obama term. After all there were still three presidential debates to come, and Romney had enough money in hand to blanket the media with ads in the final weeks, something John McCain did not in 2008. And then there was the historical precedent of 1980, when another incumbent with on a poor record, Jimmy Carter, was still up in most polls at the same stage in the election and end up being trounced by Ronald Reagan.
Just a few weeks earlier, I had experienced similar irritation when a friend offered a negative interpretation of the fact that a mutual acquaintance of ours had not yet been released from the hospital, where he had gone for tests. Why not just pray for hoped for outcome and wait to see what happens? I thought to myself. Why offer pessimistic predictions about events over which you have no control, and where the outcome will be known soon enough?
It strikes me that Jews are supposed to be optimistic. One of the six constant mitzvos is to love Hashem. And as the Ramchal and other commentators point out, the key to arousing our love for Hashem is reflecting on His love for us and all His beneficence towards us. He wants only good for us and to shower us with all the blessings for which we daven three times a day.
And what is true for us as individuals is even more true for Klal Yisrael. We are Hashem's Chosen people, His beloved firstborn son. Through us the entire world is blessed, and Hashem reveals Himself most clearly in history via the Jewish people. So as long as we have thought deeply about what is good for us as individuals or the Jewish people as a Klal, why not hope that Hashem shares our analysis.
I'm aware that most of these thoughts, with which I bolster myself when contemplating Iran's nuclear program, could have been said equally by European Jews in August 1939. Bitachon does not mean that everything will turn out as we want. Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt"l, once told a young man who expressed his confidence that the Eibeshter would yet grant his terminally ill father a refuah shleima, "Bitachon does not mean that our every prayer will be answered; it means that whatever happens is part of Hashem's plan."
Still I think optimism should be our default mode, or, at the very least, we should not verbalize every negative speculation and thereby depress ourselves and others.
A few years ago, I met my Rosh Yeshiva's wife on the street. She told me that the Rosh Yeshiva had to raise over a million dollars for a new building within the next year or he would lose the plot allocated him by the Jerusalem municipality. She expressed her skepticism about his ability to do so.
At the chanukas habayis for the new beis hamedrash and dormitory less than two years later, I remarked to the Rosh Yeshiva that the Rebbetzin had not thought he had a chance. He smiled and told me, "She's always pessimistic; I'm always optimistic. And I've found in the long run, the optimistic view is usually closer to reality."
At one level, one can explain that observation psychologically: Those who maintain an optimistic perspective throw themselves into projects with greater energy, and their confidence infects and inspires those around them. Had visionaries such as Sarah Schenirer, or Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, or Rabbi Noach Weinberg been deterred by the many nay-sayers around them, Klal Yisrael would be immeasurably poorer today.
But I think my Rosh Yeshiva was hinting to something more as well: Hashem rewards -- even though the reward may not always be clear -- those who trust in His love and goodness, not to mention His absolute control over events. Just remember, less that 24 hours after the meeting at the gas pump, the first presidential debate in Denver dramatically shifted the momentum in the election.
Facing Adversity with Courage
When we observe those who confront adversity with bravery and without bemoaning their fate, most of us experience a number of reactions. One is shame at the contrast between their lack of self-pity over tragedies that dwarf anything in our experience and our own Sarah Bernhardt imitations at the first hint of a hangnail or a minor cold. Another is appreciation of how many blessings we take for granted. A third is inspiration at how much power we have to determine the impact of events upon us.
All these responses, including the negative emotion of shame, strike me as healthy and worthy of encouragement. I experienced all three reading Azriela Jaffe's recent feature in these pages on Dr. Joseph Sherr and his wife Esther and son Ephraim, "I'm No Hero," about how the family deals with the degenerative disease that has left him unable to breathe unaided and with no use of his arms or legs.
The same week that the feature on the Sherr's appeared, I met a long-time mentor and father figure at a chasanah, and was reminded of a powerful story that shakes me every time I think of it. My friend's father was born after thirteen older siblings died within two weeks of one another in an epidemic that swept through the shtetl in White Russia where his parents lived.
The greatest nightmare of every parent is the loss, chas ve'shalom, of a child. The loss of more than one child, much less thirteen, is beyond our ability to even contemplate. Yet my friend's grandparents not only retained their sanity, but also the emunah and bitachon to bring two more children into the world. My friend still remembers his father receiving letters from his father, a Stolliner Chassid, filled with shtarke mussar and words of chizuk. On her deathbed, his grandmother said calmly, "One Dina is leaving the world, but there will be many Dina's in her place."
And there are. Dozens of them. By my estimate, there are well over five hundred living descendants of the son born after the terrible epidemic. My friend's grandparents have been well rewarded for their courage.
That amazing story of the courage and emunah of Jews only a short blip from us on the timeline of Jewish history, at once shames and inspires me. But it also awakens an awareness of how radically different are our lives from those of our ancestors little more than a century ago. Then it was normal for parents to lose one or more children at any early age. Death in childbirth, deadly epidemics, whole villages burning to the ground in a few hours, and homeless and starving orphans wandering the streets were commonplace. Today such phenomena are unknown and scarcely imaginable. We should count our blessings.
Your Formerly Fearless Prognosticator
Speaking of prognostication, your humble scribe did not have a bang-up week. Following the lead of the brilliant Charles Krauthammer, I ended one piece last week with the confident prediction that Mitt Romney would hit it out of the park in the third and final presidential debate when given a second chance to address the administration's two-weeks of obfuscations about the events surrounding the murder of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya.
Well, the first question directed to Romney was a slow pitch down the middle tailor-made to allow him to just that. And, lo and behold, he did not whiff, he did not even swing. Instead he launched into some vaporous soliloquy about liberating the Moslem world from the shackles of extremism.
That was not the worst of it in the prediction department. In another venue, I spent 2,700 words lamenting how Romney would devote his most of his attention in the debate to Libya because it is an open wound in voters' minds rather than to the broader foreign policy failures of President Obama. Actually, he did neither.
He steadfastly refused to be drawn into a broad critique of the President's foreign policy. With impressive discipline, he spent ninety minutes focused like a laser on convincing those remaining undecided voters that he is not a war-monger and women voters that he is a fine and serious person, not at all snarky.
It never occurred to the ex-debater in me that any human being could possibly pass up the opportunity to score easy debater's points. But that is why Governor Romney has an even chance of being president, and I don't.
I offer my tale of woe in the prognostication department to readers as a valuable time-saving hint: Of all the ways to waste one's time, pouring over predictions about future events is one of the stupidest.