Friday, January 06, 2023

The Purpose of Pessimism, The Practice of Optimism


Jacob Blesses His Sons; illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by

Gerard Hoet (1648-1733) and others

Complacency has a habit of making intelligent people look like fools. In 1909, Norman Angell published The Great Illusion, which, (to quote John Keegan) "had demonstrated, to the satisfaction of almost all informed opinion, that the disruption of international credit inevitably to be caused by war would either deter its outbreak or bring it speedily to an end." Five years later, the bloodiest war in world history (until that point) would take place. Yet even the World War was not enough to bring Angell's thesis into question; in 1933, he would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this book, the only one ever presented to an author. Hope often triumphs over experience.


Angell was a firm believer in progress. But others are far more skeptical of utopian narratives because life is too unpredictable and human nature too erratic to expect unending progress.


Right now, sunny optimism seems out of touch. The last decade has ushered in extreme political polarization, a new Cold War, a ground war in Europe, and a pandemic; pessimism is beginning to make a lot more sense. In September 2021, Niall Ferguson challenged Steven Pinker to a wager. Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, had written The Better Angels of our Nature, which argued that humanity has become progressively less violent. Ferguson, a historian, rejected this thesis, and bet Pinker that "by the end of this decade, Dec. 31, 2029, a conventional or nuclear war will claim at least a million lives." Tragically, Ferguson’s wager doesn't seem all that ridiculous anymore.


Jews sit uncomfortably at the crossroads of progress and pessimism. Judaism emphasizes hope and the possibility of a better future. It requires one to seek repentance and self-improvement, and believes in the coming of the Messiah and the ultimate redemption of humanity. The continued existence of the Jewish people itself is the product of optimism; as the Talmud points out, having a Jewish baby during periods of persecution was a supreme act of hope.


While optimism is wonderful in theory, Jewish history has repeatedly taught the lesson of pessimism. In the years before the Holocaust, too many Jews took comfort in the status quo and thought they could simply wait Hitler out. A major Jewish charity event took place at Berlin's Cafe Leon on January 30, 1933, the day when Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Among all the representatives of Jewish organizations that spoke at the event, only the Zionist Rabbi Hans Tramer spoke about Hitler. Saul Friedlander, in Nazi Germany and the Jews, quotes a newspaper report that Tramer’s "speech made no impression. The entire audience considered it panic-mongering."


The Jewish leaders at Cafe Leon were blinded by their own optimism, and couldn’t see the danger right in front of them. In her book on Jewish humor, Ruth Wisse relates the following quote: "We used to say that there were two kinds of German Jews: the pessimists who went to Palestine, and the optimists who went to Auschwitz." There are times when pessimism is important.


Balancing pessimism with hope is the theme of Parshat Vayechi. On the surface, the end of Genesis is upbeat; Jacob’s family is growing by leaps and bounds, becoming wealthier and entrenched, and Joseph is the Viceroy of Egypt. If one could stop right here, the story of the Jews in Egypt would conclude as one of comfort and contentment.


When Jacob passes away, he is mourned for 70 days by all of Egypt, and given a hero's funeral. The Torah describes at length the scene at Jacob’s burial in order to emphasize the elevated status of the emerging Jewish community. A large leadership delegation, including a military guard, accompanies Jacob's casket from Egypt into Canaan (which was presumably an Egyptian vassal state at the time). Then, "they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, and they mourned there with a great and very solemn lamentation….and when the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning at the threshing floor of Atad, they said, 'This is a deep mourning of the Egyptians.' Therefore its name was called Abel Mizraim…" (Genesis 50:10-13) The Egyptian funeral for the patriarch of the Jewish people is so large and dramatic, a city is named for it. Isn't this the very definition of success?


Yet behind the scenes, there are quiet whispers of skepticism. When Jacob requests to be buried in the family plot in Israel, he adds an additional phrase: “Please do not bury me in Egypt” (47:29.) Jacob rejects Egypt, even as a place of temporary burial. As the Ralbag points out, Jacob is profoundly disturbed by Egyptian society and wants to disassociate himself from it. At the very end of the Torah reading, Joseph hints more directly at the impending doom, and says, “God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land...” (50:24) Divine intervention will be needed to return the Jews back home.


A thought-provoking Midrash is cited by Rashi at the beginning of the Torah reading. It notes that Vayechi is the only Parshah that begins in the middle of a paragraph. Rashi explains: “Why is this Parsha totally closed? Because, as soon as our father Jacob passed away, the hearts and eyes of Israel were closed by the misery of the bondage which the Egyptians began to impose upon them. Another reason is because Jacob wished to reveal to his sons the date of the End of Days (i.e., redemption), but this vision was closed from him.” The middle of a paragraph is all closed up, with no window through which to see anything positive; and that is the ambiance of Parshat Vayechi, in which the gloom of exile slowly descends upon Jacob’s family.  


A closer look at the Biblical text uncovers the literary brilliance of this Midrash. The final words of the previous Parsha, Vayigash, are: "And Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired landholdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly." (47:27) In a sense, this report of prosperity is “edited out” of the Parshat Vayechi, which begins instead with the following verse that introduces Jacob’s impending death. The starting point of Vayechi declares: Here begins the tragedy. With Jacob’s death, the golden age in Egypt will come to an end.


Jacob’s family in Egypt live a split-screen reality, of outward success and inner fragility. It is the sort of situation where a pessimist will find plenty to worry about. Jacob's family has a relationship with Egyptian society that hinges on one man, Joseph; and they are also expanding rapidly, which will test the hospitality of their hosts. Eventually, in a bitter reversal of fortune, these aristocrats will become slaves, and endure exile in their adopted homeland.


So how does one prepare for exile? Jacob chooses an unusual method: He blesses his family. What makes this particularly odd is a fascinating biblical parallel. There are only two times when the tribes of Israel are blessed; once by Jacob before they enter exile, and then again by Moses before they enter the land of Israel.


Moses' blessing seems to be well-timed; blessings belong to new beginnings, to a people about to return to their homeland. Yet in Vayechi, as his family stands on the threshold of a 400-year exile, Jacob blesses them as well. And that is strange.


But Jacob's blessings are intended to extend hope. Yes, he recognizes that exile is about to arrive; but it is precisely during times of despair that one must practice optimism.


Jacob wants to offer a preview of the blessings that the twelve tribes will receive before they enter the land of Israel; he wants to ensure that they never forget where their home is, and never forget that they are blessed.


Parshat Vayechi carries a paradoxical lesson: in times of prosperity, consider pessimism, and in times of despair practice optimism. Pessimism is a necessary corrective to the irrational exuberance of heady times; optimism is a spiritual practice, which sustains the soul when one's blessings have otherwise evaporated.


In Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, there is a story entitled "Fine Generations." It relates an anecdote about Bronia Koschitzki, who together with her two sons, aged six and three, were trapped in the Bochnia Ghetto. There was a Hasidic Rebbe in the ghetto to whom people came at all hours to ask for blessings. Bronia came with her two sons for a blessing as well. Initially, the Rebbe gave them a generic blessing “that God will help.” Bronia pressed for something better, and requested that the Rebbe offer her the blessing of “fine generations in the future.” The other people in the room murmured, thinking Bronia was insane; at a time when children were being rounded up and murdered, she was asking for a future of fine generations!


But the Rebbe obliged, and gave her a blessing for a fine future; and Bronia and her children did survive. As she was interviewed for the book, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, she noted that “in a time of war, one has to organize everything, even a blessing.”


Jacob does this as well. As exile closes in, he organizes a blessing for his family, a beacon of hope that will carry them through a bitter exile. Pessimism has its purpose; but during the darkest of days, one must insistently practice optimism, and never let go of hope.

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