Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Optimism Reconsidered

I was raised to be an optimist. My mother, a supreme optimist, taught me that the future always brings good tidings. In Yeshiva, I learned how prayer and mitzvot shield the righteous from harm; don’t worry, bad things don’t happen to good people. As a student, I learned how the march of scientific progress has cured disease and improved life. How could I be anything other than an optimist?

Indeed, optimism is what led me to the Rabbinate. The pulpit was a perfect place to share my idealistic dreams of progress and redemption.

Ironically, the Rabbinate actually did much to erode my optimism. Until I started working as a Rabbi, tragedy was pretty much an abstraction, something remote; it is as a Rabbi that I first had to confront actual tragedies. Unfortunately, I have officiated at funerals for accident victims, and visited parents sitting shiva for their children. While I was struggling with these tragedies in my own community, in New York and Israel, terrorists murdered thousands of innocents in suicide attacks. The convergence of these catastrophic events shook my optimism, and even my faith. I learned that life doesn’t always have a happy ending; I realized that bad things can happen to good people.

I was forced to reconsider my beliefs. In my search for new insights, authors like Rav Solovietchik, Victor Frankl and the Piaseczner Rebbe opened my eyes to realistic approaches to the problem of evil. My belief became more profound, and there was even some room for optimism.

No, I no longer believe that things will always go well. (I haven’t shelved my hopes completely, but that’s for another day). I can never again be a passive optimist. Passive optimists believe that “all is for the best” and whatever happens, no matter how awful, is truly good. Actually, this approach is insensitive, disparaging the genuine suffering that many people experience.

But even a realist can be an optimist. I cannot be sure everything will be alright; I do not know or understand God’s plans. But if I try, I can improve things. This is optimism of action, an optimism about what we can do and accomplish.

The world is tragic, but we can still produce happiness. Terrorists, illnesses and accidents destroy the beautiful and the innocent; it is up to us to combat evil, give love, and create new life. With kindness, spirituality and progress, we can improve the world.

My current optimism has nothing to do with fate. I believe in free will, and I believe in the possibility of human goodness. I am optimistic because I can, (and you can), choose to improve the world. All we have to do is make the right choices.

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