October 4, 2022
Jewish Optimism: Adopting our God’s-Eye-View (Yom Kippur 5783)
Jewish Optimism: Adopting our God’s-Eye-View
Rabbi Ari S. Lorge, Yom Kippur 5783
It was a rainy day. I was riding the bus to work, and I made the usual mistake of opening my news digest to get the headlines, before I had my morning coffee.
“New variant of Covid-19 spreading.”
“New findings from the January 6th committee.”
“Earth may be entering a mass extinction event.”
If that isn’t burying the lede, I don’t know what is.
No amount of coffee turned that morning around. I imagined that whoever wrote that headline was keenly aware of the classic joke:
What’s the difference between a Jewish pessimist and a Jewish optimist?
The Jewish pessimist says, “Things can’t possibly get any worse.”
The Jewish optimist says, “Sure they can!”
We are living in a time of turmoil. We feel this so keenly, that every day conversations take on existential agita. You know it is bad when we are turning to the "Game of Thrones" prequel for escapism.
National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman sums up our mood perfectly in a recent work:
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days…1
I can’t pretend we enter a New Year bustling with unbridled hope. There are real dangers facing our community, our country, and the world. But, there is one danger about which I have grown increasingly concerned as a result of the many conversations we’ve shared this year: despair. Elders tell me they can’t believe this is the world of their twilight years, couples come questioning the morality of having children, and youth are racked with anxiety over the state of the world. While those feelings are warranted, what we do with those feelings matters a great deal. And the turn toward despair, despondency, and fatalism is dangerous.
What should we do with our heartbreak? Rabbi Leo Baeck provides guidance for these days. Baeck was the leader of German Jewry before and during the Holocaust. When the deportations began he refused to flee to safety. He continued to lead our people while imprisoned in Theresienstadt concentration camp. He managed to survive and began to once again teach and write. His work emphasizes an idea rooted in the tradition that he believed was a key component of Jewish existence and resilience. Rabbi Baeck wrote that in order to face the world’s wickedness Jews needed Jewish optimism. A shocking statement from a man and rabbi who saw his entire world destroyed before his eyes.
What did Rabbi Baeck mean by Jewish optimism? Nothing pollyannaish. “There is no sentimentality” in this optimism Baeck taught.2 Jewish optimism begins with the heartbreak that leads Jews to utter our most famous exclamation.
We say “oy” when the world rends our heart and falls so terribly short of our expectations. It is such a rich exclamation. “Oy.” When we say “oy” we don't just use our voice. We use our whole bodies, our whole being. From the depths of our “oy” is where Baeck suggests we find our optimism.
That means, it is good to feel strife. How Jewish is that? I want to be clear. I am not saying it is good to suffer. But it is good to look out at the world and feel moral embarrassment and outrage. Karl Marx famously claimed that religion is an opiate used to tranquilize the masses. He did not know Judaism. Judaism does exactly the opposite. Jewish thinkers of all ideologies - Baeck,3 Heschel,4 Buber,5 Soloveitchik6 - all suggest that when we truly study Torah, it will lead us to feel disturbed by our society. Jewish living forces us to feel out of place in the broken world rather than adjusting to the absurdities and abominations around us. Judaism requires us to be dismayed at the brokenness, rather than joining in the chorus of those who call the brokenness, “wholeness.”
But, while Judaism should lead us to feel strife, modern society is overrun by voices seeking to quiet our disquiet.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the giant of Jewish education, cautioned us, “Peace of mind has come to be regarded in our time as one of life’s highest ideals. Clergy, leaders of cults, psychologists, advertisers - all seem to agree that this is the thing most to be desired. And of course all of them are in some measure prepared to provide it…but…without inward strife there can be no life.”7 We must not anesthetize ourselves to the troubling parts of the world. Judaism asks us to see them and feel them.
So all of you who are ge-shrying oy gevalt…exactly. Counterintuitively, that oy, is the first step toward Jewish optimism. This is what makes oy different from despair. While they both begin with heartbreak, despair makes us passive, resigned to our fate, adamant that there is nothing to be done. But, “oy,” does the opposite. “Oy” is the catalyst for Jewish action and Jewish optimism.
I know what you’re thinking. “Rabbi, you’ve spent half the time convincing us it was okay to feel oy…for this we needed a sermon? What do we do with our oy? How does it help us muster optimism?”
The pivot from “oy” to optimism is in the unique way we could look at the world. Jews are asked to adopt what I’ve come to call our God’s-eye-view. You’ve heard of a bird’s-eye-view? Perhaps a bird’s-eye-view is enough of a height for some people to overcome their “oy.” Not Jews. Crank that idea up to an 11. We need a God’s-eye-view. It has helped us in every age move with purpose and even joy through a broken world.
What do we see from our God’s-eye-view? The goal on the horizon. At the root of our faith is the conviction that people and the world change. Because of that conviction, we believe a day will dawn that will bring about peace, wholeness, and perfect tranquility. That moment, sometimes called the Messianic Era, sometimes the World to Come, sometimes the Kingdom of Heaven, lies in the future, so long as we work for it. Our God’s-eye-view reminds us we have a purpose. And remembering we have a purpose is a powerful antidote to despair.
Baeck summed it up by saying, “despite the prevalence of wickedness,…” we face “the world with the will to change it and with the commandment to realize the good in it.”8 While so much may be reeling around us, we are not aimless or powerless. Our task and charge remains constant - as Isaiah the prophet declared to our ancestors: “prepare the way,”9 move the world toward the Messianic era. Our optimism isn’t naively believing things will inevitably get better. We are optimistic because we have “identified the outcome we hope for and are playing an active role in bringing it about.”10
How do we do that? We pay attention to the things that evoke our heartbreak. That is where our work is. That is where we are called to build a small piece of the Messianic Age in our time. Our God’s-eye-view reminds us that Judaism says to each of us: “there is a task that you, and you alone, can perform.”11 The mission is ours…should we choose to accept it. To be in Jewish community is to be ready to accept that call.
And adopting our God’s-eye-view provides another gift for these difficult days. Perspective. When our focus is too narrow, we can mistake momentary setbacks for definitive defeats. A God’s-eye-view asks us to zoom out and remember: our people have marched through most of recorded history, and we expect to walk through the rest, working to bring about that Messianic Age. There are some who look at the last few years and decide the losses are so severe there is no point in continuing the work. I can understand the despair that would lead people to feel this way. Believe me, I’ve felt that futility. But Judaism has no patience for futility. It demands that we look beyond the moment, beyond the scope of an election cycle, or even a lifetime. We have become so accustomed to short-term thinking. A-God’s-eye view asks us to recalibrate our sense of long-term. We must make decisions with the mindset of moving millenia not moments. The gains we made in the world were the work of our ancestors over the course of generations. And progress was not linear. We have not always handed the next generation a better world. But that did not stop us from doing everything we can with the hour before us. Sometimes, our lot in life is to be the ones who, alongside today's defeats, plant the seeds for tomorrow’s great victories.
We can see this play out in an unlikely place. The ocean. Coral reefs around the world have experienced unparalleled bleaching events that decimate the ecosystems and all the life that relies on them. Coral scientists warned this was coming as the ocean warmed and grew more acidic. But, beginning in 2014 in a span of 3 years reef ecosystems that lasted millennia, that felt immortal, died. Despair set in. Many scientists declared wild coral would be dead by mid-century. A few scientists took a God’s-eye-view. Rather than letting despair paralyze them and allowing the defeats of today to be irrevocable, they are pioneering paths to create a future for coral reefs — imagining solutions for the year 2325 not 2025. Their breakthroughs are creating hope; creating optimism where none existed.12 It may be that our descendants will swim among vibrant coral thanks to these scientists’ dogged pursuits to change the course of centuries, not decades.
Once we sense our purpose, once we recalibrate the full scope of time in which we are working to fulfill our purpose, our God’s-eye-view graces us with the most important tool for attaining Jewish optimism: courage.We find reservoirs of courage that enable us to do what is right, rather than what is popular, easy, or self-interested.13 These are days that call for courage. But it is in short supply. When our societal systems are overrun by hucksterism, chicanery, and meanness, the seductive path is to join in, to be part of the carnival, to say “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ’em.” Many take that path. If we truly take a God’s-eye-view and find Jewish optimism, we will have the courage to resist the temptations to selfishness, the allure of power over principle, and the enslavement of conscience to greed. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said it beautifully, “In the midst of a world where humanity’s stated aim is ‘נַעֲשֶה לָּנוּ שֵם’ ‘to make a name for ourselves,’14 and its ambition is to increase our power and extend our domain no matter what the cost, the Nation of Abraham is to heed only one call: ‘וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה’. ‘Become a blessing.’”15
We know all too well there are real dangers lurking about us. Today, fulfilling the call to “become a blessing”16 will require deeds of countercultural courage: speaking truth in an age of fraud and falsehood, standing for civility in an age of violence, safeguarding civil rights and the rule of law in an age of impunity, being proud active Jews while antisemitism rages. But the beauty of a God’s-eye-view, is that it is shared. We do not stand alone. We stand with those who came before us, those who surround us today, those who will take on the mantle tomorrow. Together, we reach for a Messianic age; knowing it requires each of us to find the courage to see the wilderness before our eyes, to refuse to call it a Promised Land when there is so much promise yet to be fulfilled, and yet to firmly believe, though the path is circuitous, sometimes dangerous, always laborious, that it is worth walking. For the destination will only be built by our deeds.
The poem that so captured our angst, also captures the promise:
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days,
While at the same time, blessed to outlive them…
Maybe everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed & strange.
But only when everything hurts
May everything change.17
1 Amanda Gorman, “Hymn For the Hurting,” The New York Times, May 27, 2022, Opinion | Amanda Gorman Poem: Hymn for the Hurting - The New York Times (nytimes.com).
2 Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism (New York: Schocken, 1961), 250.
3 Leo Baeck, Judaism in the World of Tomorrow pg 9.
4 Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Prayer as Discipline,” in Insecurity of Freedom (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966), 258.
5 Martin Buber, “The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,” in Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis (New York: Schocken, 1963), 89-102.
6 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1983), 19-20.
7 Adin Steinsaltz, The Strife of the Spirit (Northvale: Jason Aronson Inc., 1988).
8 Baeck, The Essence of Judaism, 85.
9 Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 40:3
10 This is key according to Joanna Marcy and Chris Johnstone, two academics who work and write on issues of resilience, hope, and coping with change. Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope (Novato: New World Library, 2022). The idea echoes Baeck’s own most clearly expressed in Leo Baeck, God and Man in Judaism (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1958), 69-70).
11 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who is Man (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965), 36.
12 Irus Braverman, Coral Whisperers: Scientists on the Brink (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018).
13 Baeck, God and Man in Judaism, 70.
14 From parashat Noah, this is the stated goal of the builders of the tower of Babel.
15 Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, trans. Daniel Haberman (New York: Feldheim Publishers, 2002), 292-294.
16 Bereshit (Genesis) 12:2
17 Gorman, Hymn For the Hurting, 2022.