June 22, 2024
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June 22, 2024
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Are optimists naive to believe that things will turn out OK? Isn’t it smarter to be cynical and wait for the other shoe to drop? Why do many people, if they have a preference, choose to be pessimistic in their thinking and expect things to go badly?

Real optimists do not believe that everything will be great. Instead, while acknowledging that there will be setbacks along the way, they believe that the odds of a good outcome are in their favor over time. For example, although we all have our difficulties and challenges, we have to admit that the world we live in is a much better place that the world was 100 years ago. We have cars, entertainment, health advances, and we live much more prosperous lives. So why do we read newspaper articles that predict recessions, political upheaval, doom and gloom? If the stock market rises by 1%, no mention is made of it. However, if the stock market falls by 1% it will be reported in big, bold letters.

Martin Seligman, Ph.D., a famous psychologist, wrote a book called “Learned Optimism.” His premise was that life inflicts the same setbacks on both the optimist and the pessimist. However, it is how we interpret life’s events that can greatly affect our moods and attitudes. The optimist will weather these challenges better because he interprets life’s events in a more gracious and benevolent manner.

For example, imagine that a close friend passes you by and does not say hello or acknowledge you. You can choose to interpret this to mean that he hates you and is no longer talking to you. This could make you feel angry or depressed. On the other hand, if you interpret this event by telling yourself that your friend is busy or is not wearing his glasses, suddenly you do not feel as bad. The sun is still shining and the world is evolving as it should be.

Rabbi Berel Wein tells us that this duality of emotion has continued within the Jewish people throughout our many years of existence. There is more than enough sadness to go around in the story of the Jews in history. Yet Jews on the whole have always been upbeat, even sanguine about their future. Every Rosh Hashanah we face the New Year with optimism. Even though we know that the new year will not be free of problems and even difficulties, nevertheless we are confident that we will benefit from its attendant blessings. Hard realism always tempered with optimism seems to be the Jewish formula towards life and circumstances. The struggle to prosper begins with a spirit of inner optimism.

The Talmud (Taanit 21a and Sanhedrin 108b) points to “Nachum Ish Gamzu” as an example of a person who was an eternal optimist. No matter what happened to him he would say, “Gam zu letovah,” meaning “It’s all for the best.” They point out that he had much to worry about, especially as it pertained to his health and well-being. Yet, time and again, things always worked out for the best for him.

There is the famous story told in Tanach (2 Kings 7) about the four lepers who changed the course of a siege. Shomron had been besieged and the starvation was so great that some people were resorting to cannibalism. Food could not be bought even for the highest price. Elisha the prophet promised optimistically that the fortune of the people would be changed within a day. “By this time tomorrow, a measure of fine flour will be sold for a shekel and two measures of barley would be sold for a shekel as well.”

The king’s chief officer scoffed pessimistically and said that this was impossible and would never happen. Elisha told the officer that he would see it with his own eyes but would not benefit from it. The next day, sure enough, the four lepers told themselves that they had nothing to lose by checking out the enemies’ encampment. Hashem made their footsteps sound as if an army was approaching the soldiers. The enemy soldiers, in turn, panicked and left the encampment with all of its supplies available for the besieged Jewish people to plunder. Elisha’s prophecy had come true. However, the pessimistic officer was trampled to death in the melee to get to these supplies. This was a lesson to stay in faith and hold back feelings of pessimism from overtaking our thoughts and emotions.

Although Tisha B’Av is generally a dark and gloomy day there is a glimmer of hope within. According to Jewish tradition, Moshiach will be born on Tisha B’Av. As the coming of Moshiach is one of the tenets of our faith, it is incumbent upon us to stay optimistic and maintain our faith.

Finally, we read how King David had many trials and tribulations in life. Yet, he tells us (Psalms 55:17), “As for me, I will call upon God and he will save me. I pray and call aloud and he hears my voice.”

Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” May Hashem bless us so that we maintain our faith and optimism. May we make good choices in how we think and feel in life.


Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of New York and New Jersey. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected].

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