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To Be a Jew is to be an Optimist

To Be a Jew is to be an Optimist

A Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Sermon 2014

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The following sermon was delivered by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein during the High Holidays of 2014, shortly after the Jewish world marked 20 years since the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Judging from the reports in the Jewish Week and New York Times, rabbis around the country are delivering sermons on Israel and the war this past summer, the rising menace of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world and other serious tsoros of the Jewish people. The subject of Israel seems to be particularly vexing for rabbis. If they are too pro-Israel they risk being criticized from the left in their congregations, while if they themselves are critical of Israel, they risk the anger and resentment of congregants on the right.

Well, this is not my focus during these High Holy Days. I don’t want to spend them talking about Jewish tzoros. Jews love tzoros. You know, what is a typical Jewish telegram? It reads “Letter to follow. Start worrying!” Or, as Professor Deborah Lipstadt likes to put it: “When a Jew sees the light at the end of the tunnel, he assumes it is a train coming right at him.” Or, as my friend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, wrote in his book, Jewish Humor (1992), “A group of elderly, retired men gather each morning at a café in Tel Aviv. They drink their coffee and sit for hours discussing the world situation. Given the state of the world, their talks usually are depressing. One day, one of the men startled the others by announcing: ‘You know what? I am an optimist!’

“The others are shocked, but then one of them exclaims: ‘Wait a minute! If you are an optimist, why do you look so worried?’

:The other responds: ‘You think it is easy to be an optimist?’”

Well, the title of my sermon for these High Holy Days is “To be a Jew is to be an optimist.” I always felt that way, but my feelings came powerfully to the surface when I read Joseph Telushkin’s book on the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. In that book, Rabbi Telushkin has seven chapters on seven qualities of the Rebbe that made him the unique person he was. One of those chapters discusses his absolute optimism, a lesson which I have tried to internalize and which I would like to offer to you today. I hope it will be helpful to you, not alone today, but throughout the year and well beyond.

The Rebbe was an uncompromising optimist, not because he wasn’t a realist or because he was uninformed about all the difficulties of the Jewish people and humankind. The Rebbe was actually one of the best informed people on earth because he had more than one thousand shlichim couples who were situated literally around the world. He knew from them all the problems and all the issues. He was a realist, but he approached reality from the perspective of optimism.

He insisted on using language to express positive thinking and optimism rather than negativism. For example, he never used the traditional Hebrew word for hospital – beit cholim, which literally means a house of sick people. He insisted on calling it a beit refuah, a house of healing. Why? Because he wanted the people who were in that hospital to know that they were there to gain greater health and not because they were desperately ill. He wanted to focus their minds on the solution rather than on the problem.

When he visited with handicapped soldiers who had been wounded in the wars of Israel, he refused to call them nechai Tzahal - handicapped; he used the word metzuyanim- exceptional. He told them that “if a person has been deprived of a limb or a faculty, this itself indicates that G‑d has also given him special powers to overcome the limitations and to surpass in other areas the achievements of ordinary people. You are not disabled or handicapped but special and unique, as you possess potential that the rest of us do not.

When there was a lot of pressure for him to finish a project, he never referred to the finishing time as a “deadline.” He didn’t like that word. Instead, he used the word “due date.” Deadline connotes death, while due date connotes birth.

The Rebbe never dwelled on the Holocaust. When he occasionally spoke of it, his emphasis was not on the six million martyrs but on how the survivors rebuilt their lives. He turned the preoccupation with the catastrophe into a celebration of achievement.

He had the same optimism when it came to religion. When he met a person who said he wasn’t religious, he would ask him or her to do a mitzvah; to start lighting candles before Shabbat, or to put on tefillin or put a mezuzah on his or her home. But he would go further. He would say: “Are you honest? Do you give charity? Do you pay your employees on time? These are religious acts too! Why do you focus on what you are not? G‑d loves you for all you are, for the mitzvot you do, and now why not add to those mitzvot?

When somebody would sigh in his presence and say s’is shver tsu zein a Yid, he would reply with the declaration of his forebear the Tsemach Tzedek, s’is gut tsu zein a Yid: it is good to be a Jew.

I believe the Rebbe was an uncompromising optimist in the way in which he looked at the world, in the way in which he looked at other Jews – he never gave up on anyone – and in the way he looked at himself.

He suffered a heart attack and he was told that if he continued working very hard after his heart attack, there was a forty percent chance he would have another attack. The Rebbe chose to focus on the implied assurance that there was a sixty percent chance that he wouldn’t and so he continued working very hard, and for the remainder of his life he accomplished incredible things.

Dr. Karin Katz, of our congregation, shared with me a book entitled The Anatomy of Hope. Its author, Dr. Jerome Groopman is Chief of Experimental Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and Dina and Raphael Recanati Professor of Medicine at Harvard. He speaks about the medical value of hope in the recovery from disease. “Hope”, he writes, “is the elevating feeling we experience when we see – in the mind’s eye – a path to a better future…For all my patients, hope, true hope, has proved as important as any medication I might prescribe or any procedure I might perform. Only well into my career did I come to realize this.”

I believe Dr. Groopman’s research and conclusions casts important light on how the Rebbe, with G‑d’s help, was able, after his heart attack, to continue working, achieving, and leading a life which was a blessing for all who came within his orbit.

Why did the Rebbe face the world with such optimism? Some of it may have come from his basic nature, but much of his attitude had its roots in the way Judaism instructs us to look at the world.

One of the best examples of this attitude comes to us in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They look like somber days on which we take stock and regret the things we didn’t do and some of the things that we did do. But they are not somber days. Rosh Hashanah is the day of judgment, but we are confident in G‑d’s judgment.

The prophet Nechemia instructed the people of his time, during the return to Zion after the Babylonian exile, that on Rosh Hashanah they should do as follows:

“Go and eat fatty foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions of food to those who have none and know that G‑d’s happiness will be your strength.”

In other words, Rosh Hashanah is a joyous day.

Yom Kippur is, on the surface, a day which is the antithesis of happiness, and yet there is a very strange Halacha which demonstrates otherwise. If a close relative for whom we have to sit shiva, passes away right before Yom Kippur, and the family has an opportunity after the funeral, to sit shiva for a very short time in the afternoon of erev Yom Kippur, the shiva ends when Yom Kippur begins. If the family sat for a very short time before Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah ends the shiva and Yom Kippur ends the shloshim – the thirty day mourning period.

Why? Because, contrary to surface appearances, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are happy days, days which break a mourning period in the same way as Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot do. The question is why. Why are these terribly serious days also days of simchah, so much so that the simchah of the multitude cancels out the mourning of the individual. Why?

Look at the liturgy:

The Lord and King sits on his throne of mercy.

He who answered Joseph in prison will answer us. He who answered Ezra in exile will answer us.

We believe that G‑d will have mercy on us. We believe that G‑d will answer us when we are in distress. That belief is a source of happiness to us even on these serious days. We have an unshakable faith that G‑d loves us as a father and as a mother and that, in ways that we cannot fully comprehend, He will forgive us for our foibles and he will save us when we are in distress. That is why Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur stops shiva in its tracks.

My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik once explained to us that this idea of unshakable faith is behind the kaddish. Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead. It doesn’t mention death at all. Kaddish was originally formulated during the second Jewish commonwealth, sometime between the fourth and first centuries before the Common Era, when the Jews were very loyal to G‑d, very observant and yet they were under the rule of, first the Persians, then the Syrian Greeks and ultimately the Romans. They asked the rabbis why, when we are so loyal to G‑d, are we ruled by foreign nations? It was then that the rabbis instituted the readings from the prophets on Sabbaths and festivals, readings which for the most part are promises of redemption and good times to come. Following the readings, the people said kaddish which reads: “May G‑d’s name be magnified and sanctified in the world which He has created in accordance with His will and may He establish His kingdom over all the world in our lives and in our time speedily and soon, and let us all say Amen. What the rabbis were saying was that we believe in the redemption and in the promises of the prophets, but the nations of the world look at us as if we are foolish and naïve and so we ask G‑d to please show the world the glory of His kingship so that they should understand our faith in Him. But we affirm our belief in the future. We are optimistic. We say kaddish at a graveside, following the interment of a loved one. We continue to say it throughout the year. As hard as it is, as painful as it may be, we affirm our faith in a loving and merciful G‑d and in the future. And we hope G‑d will reveal the validity of our faith to the world.

This positive attitude is presented to us by our sages in an oft-quoted statement about Tisha b’Av. The Talmud says that on the day the Temple was destroyed the redeemer was born. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, when he was still a young man, and before he became the Rebbe, wrote to his future mother-in-law some months before his wedding and dated the letter erev Tisha b’Av, the birthday of the righteous Messiah. That is the way in which the Rebbe related to the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

This optimistic attitude that we learn from Judaism and from the Rebbe, should not only offer us a way of relating to the world and the global problems we face, but it should also inform the way we look at ourselves and others. We have to look at people and recognize their potential, not their failings, their redeeming qualities and not their disappointing ones. And we have to look at our own problems without fear, without getting depressed and with an eye toward what we can accomplish. As Dr. Groopman put it “Hope gives us the courage to confront our circumstances and the capacity to surmount them.”

Many years ago, we had a fifth grade in Ramaz which had in it a large group of students who were giving us fits. I called a meeting of all the teachers of the grade to discuss each and every child and determine how we should relate them. One of the teachers wasn’t there for the beginning of the meeting. The other teachers began complaining about this child and that student and the great difficulties that they were presenting. Then the missing teacher walked in. I said to her, “Vicki, tell me about so and so,” and she said, “ohhh, she is such an artistic child, she has such creative ability; you can’t even imagine it.” And what about this young boy? “Ohhh, he is so good in math. He is absolutely a mathematical wiz.” For each child I mentioned she was able to describe the strengths of that child. This teacher is still teaching in Ramaz, thirty years later, and still finding the strong points of each child and building the child through that child’s strength. The Rebbe would be proud of her.

Many years ago, the late Max Stern, in his 80’s, was in Lenox Hill Hospital suffering from a serious illness. Someone came to visit him and was standing at the bed with a long face. Max Stern, who was known for his directness, said to him: “Why do you have such a long face? You think I am going to die? Don’t worry; G‑d isn’t ready to take me yet. He knows I have many more mitzvahs to perform.” That’s a man who was able to be optimistic from a horizontal position in a hospital.

I have a friend who just turned eighty and he was complaining to me that various joints in his body are not functioning as well as they used to. He was obviously a little depressed about his age. I said to him: “Why are you dwelling on the things that are not the way they used to be. Nothing is the way it used to be! But you are an extraordinarily active person in your retirement. You are doing wonderful things. Why don’t you rejoice in all that you doing and all of the opportunities that you have, to which his wife said – “Amen.”

I recently co-officiated with my protégé and colleague, Rabbi Dale Polakoff, at a wedding of a Ramaz alumna. I don’t know how many of you are aware of the fact that Rabbi Polakoff, following open heart surgery last February, suffered a very serious stroke. The outlook for his recovery was bleak. He could have given up hope of returning to his rabbinic functions. Perhaps a realistic appraisal of his situation would have warranted his giving up. But he didn’t. He was determined to come back from this misfortune. With G‑d’s help and his wife Ellen’s great encouragement and support, he is functioning fully as the Rabbi of the Great Neck Synagogue on these High Holy Days. That is exactly what Dr. Groopman had in mind when he said that hope and optimism are sometimes more important than medications and medical procedures.

This indigenous Jewish attitude of optimism and hope for the future is important, not alone in our private lives but also in the religious, ethical and moral world. As we have seen, these days of teshuva, when we pound our chests with Ashamnu, are not days of doom and gloom. Just listen to how we sing Ashamnu, with so much enthusiasm and verve. We sing that way because the days of awe are also days of joy. We believe in G‑d’s understanding love and forgiveness.

We are joyous because we know we have absolute freedom. We can change our behavior if we want to. We can control our appetite if we choose to. We do not have to be ruled by our passions, if we decide accordingly. We can actually transform ourselves if we so desire. That is a great gift from G‑d. Nothing is determined. Unlike in other religions, everything is in our hands.

So we should never be down on ourselves or give into despair. No matter how bad things may be in the world or in our personal lives, we should try to make things better and see our struggles as challenges and opportunities. We should think positively, and appreciate whatever we have and are, and not dwell on what we have not and are not. This was the way in which the Lubavitcher Rebbe lived his life and impacted on other people.

Rav Kook once said: if you find yourself in a dark place, don’t waste your time cursing the darkness; Just light a candle. That is the Jewish way.

At the end of our lives, the Talmud tells us, we will be asked a number of questions by the Heavenly Court. Did you conduct your business affairs honorably? Did you study Torah? And so on. The last question is: Did you expect deliverance and redemption?

May we all do our best to answer that question in the affirmative.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City and the principal of the Ramaz School.
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CM July 9, 2016

I appreciated reading this sermon, thank you for sharing that with us.
Optimism is such an incredible gift to better your own life with. Reply

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