Friday, December 15, 2023

The Optimism of Seven Lean Years


Pharaoh's Dreams, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902),

gouache on board, Diameter: 5 1/8 in. (13 cm) each, at the Jewish Museum, New York

Optimism is profoundly human. The neuroscientist Tali Sharot, in her book The Optimism Bias, shows that optimism is pervasive, cutting across all cultures. She draws the conclusion that humans are hotwired to imagine an unrealistic picture of the future. It is instinctive to dream of “happily ever after,” even if that often is not the case.


The belief in progress is equally instinctive, because it is nurtured by optimism; and it is just as irrational. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, wrote The End of History. He saw the fall of the Soviet Union as representing the ultimate triumph of the western democratic order, and the culmination of all history. There would be no further conflicts, now that the world had seen the light.


Unfortunately, that was not true. New dictators arose, and arguably, democracy has been on the decline since he wrote the book.


But the failures of optimism doesn't mean it should be completely rejected. Redemption is one of the foundational beliefs of Judaism. Jeremiah held out hope that a newly exiled nation would return home; Isaiah imagined a world filled with peace and harmony. Jews are called by Zechariah “prisoners of hope”; our soul’s first language is optimism.


But since October 7th, Jews have felt betrayed by optimism. History has gone backwards. It feels like it's 1948 again, with Israel fighting for its very existence. Every dream seems counterfeit. Optimism feels like a cognitive trap, which gives one false hope when hope is pointless.


It is here where optimism needs an unlikely ally to succeed: pessimism. That is a central lesson of Joseph's dreams.


Joseph's life story revolves around three sets of dreams. The first two he has as a child, when he is the spoiled younger half-brother who is deeply resented by his siblings. He dreams that they are in the field, and his bundle of grain rises up, and the bundles of his brothers are bowing to him. Then Joseph has another dream, where the sun and the moon and the stars are all bowing to him.


These dreams seemingly need no interpretation. Joseph is declaring himself the ruler of his brothers.


Immediately, the opposite happens. The dreams stir the brothers’ jealousy, and they sell him into slavery in Egypt.


The second set of dreams occur when Joseph is in an Egyptian prison, and two fellow prisoners, the butler and the baker, ask him to interpret their dreams; Joseph does so accurately, predicting that the butler will be freed and the baker will be executed. Two years later, the butler will recommend Joseph as a dream interpreter.


The third set are Pharaoh's dreams. He has two dreams. In one, seven fat cows are swallowed up by seven skinny cows; in the second, seven healthy stalks of grain are devoured by seven sickly stalks of grain.


Joseph is called from prison to interpret Pharaoh's dreams; he explains that there will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Luckily, Joseph explains, the dreams offer a timely warning, which will allow Egypt to get ready for the famine and overcome it. Joseph is so impressive, that he is immediately named the viceroy of Egypt.


What jumps out at the reader is how Pharaoh’s dreams stand in sharp contrast with Joseph's dreams.


Pharaoh's dreams project a tragic ending; but because Pharaoh shared them, they will have a positive ending. Joseph's dreams project a very happy ending for him; but because Joseph shared them, he ends up a slave.


Pharaoh's dreams are difficult to interpret; he turns to all of his priests for answers, but none have one. It is clear to everyone that God is communicating with Pharaoh. In contrast, Joseph's dreams are obvious, and need no interpretation. And his brothers assume that these dreams are just the product of Joseph's imagination and nothing more.


Finally the most fascinating contrast has to do with what occurs after a double dream. Pharaoh's double dream indicates that it will come true immediately; Joseph's double dream seems to wait for a long time to come true.


There are many lessons that these contrasts teach. First of all, it reminds us to beware of happy endings. Joseph's dreams feed his own vanity and make him oblivious to his own brother's hatred; in fact, his dreams make their hatred worse. This is a good dream that causes damage, where a sunny picture of the future is actually a liability.


Second, one must recognize that pessimism often allows optimism to succeed. Pharaoh’s nightmares allow for proper preparation, to be ready for the upcoming famine. The unhappy ending in the dream actually helps Pharaoh achieve a happy ending in real life. This is a bad dream that does a great deal of good, preparing Egypt for the future.


Third, good dreams often have a very long runway. Joseph explains to Pharaoh that the double dream means “that the matter has been determined by God, and that God will soon carry it out.” This is a strange assertion, considering that Joseph's own double dream had seemingly not come true.


However, I would argue that that isn't the case; Joseph's dreams actually came true immediately. What his brothers thought to be a mere figment of Joseph's ambition was actually a divine prophecy. However, both the brothers and Joseph misunderstood this dream; they assumed it meant that Joseph would be the recipient of great privilege, an entitled ruler who receives unearned gifts. But actually, the purpose of the dream was to call Joseph to be a true leader, to be a servant of both his family and all of Egypt.


In order to do that, Joseph would have to learn humility. In order to become an authentic leader, Joseph would need to be a slave first. And so he becomes a slave immediately, which prepares for the fulfillment of his dream.


Joseph could only achieve this dream through great difficulty. But the pain and suffering he endured as a slave got him ready for his ultimate role. And in the happiest of endings for the entire family, Joseph was in the exact right place to save them from the famine.


Right now it is difficult to dream, and optimism is scarce. But the lessons of our Torah reading is that there are no grand dreams of the future without difficulty and sacrifice. But if we learn to prepare for the famine, we will be able to endure.


And we have known this all along. In 1956, Moshe Dayan gave a eulogy for Roi Rotberg, a 21 year old soldier who was ambushed in the fields of Nahal Oz, near Gaza. This eulogy is prescient; it speaks directly to us today in the aftermath of October 7th. Dayan explained that Israel must never be lulled into complacency, imagining that everything will be okay. A country like Israel will have enemies, and she must be ready.


He said:

That is our generation's fate and our life's choice -- to be willing and armed, strong and unyielding, lest the sword be knocked from our fist and our lives cut down.

It was difficult to contemplate this reality in 1956, when burying Roi Rotberg, a young soldier who was brutally killed on a Kibbutz. Is even more difficult to contemplate this reality in 2023, after so many were brutally murdered on Kibbutzim, and much like Roi, young soldiers are giving their lives on a daily basis for Israel. Dayan’s eulogy is painfully pessimistic.


But like Pharaoh's nightmarish dream, this bitter pessimism is the only way forward to a better future. Ordinary optimism might cause us to overestimate what can be, and imagine that we simply can be carefree. But optimism is not a blank check.


Mature optimism is something different; it walks hand in hand with pessimism, to enable one to be ready for each day's crisis. Tomorrow will be another day, another opportunity for hope. But not today. We must not lose sight of reality.


What gives me optimism now is how Israelis are heroically carrying the burden of an awful time; they stand ready to meet the challenges of the seven lean years. Shai Bernstein (whose father, Dr. David Bernstein, taught at Ramaz for many years,) wrote a powerful note about his service in Gaza:


I’ve seen with my own eyes.


I’ve seen injured friends in the hospital who, despite the pain and long recovery process that await them, seem way stronger than me.


I’ve seen Colonel Asaf Chamami’s mom at his Shiva; I almost fell apart right in front of her eyes. She was the strong one, not me.


I’ve seen teachers, doctors, factory workers, and people working in tech, leaving their jobs and families, leaving everything they have and fighting like lions.


I’ve seen Matan (voted for Meretz), Jonathan (Lapid), Guy (Bibi), and Itamar (Gantz) having a fierce political argument.


It looked like a competition of who loved the State of Israel more.


I’ve seen the same four chevra leap with all of their gear into the breach, together as one.


I’ve seen them run to aid the injured after the missile hit us, even though the bullets were still flying over their heads. Each one carrying the stretcher, lending a shoulder, together.


I’ve seen communities across the US buckling down, raising money and working hard to send supplies, to support to the soldiers and citizens of Israel. (Some of the letters we got from kids were so simple, yet special and moving - you could cry).


I’ve seen a polarized and divided nation that became united in an instant.


We realize that we’re fighting not only for our lives, but for our very right to exist.


This letter chronicles the pain of young men and women leaving their families, of injured soldiers in the hospital, of parents burying their children. And yet the letter is not at all pessimistic. It is inspiring that so many people like Shai are willing to carry the burden of the seven lean years, and ensure a better future.


And even during a nightmare, that is worthy of optimism.

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Wrestling Lessons: A Sermon About the KJ Mission to Israel

KJ/Ramaz Israel Thanksgiving Mission - Produced by Elyssa Brezel from Esther Feierman on Vimeo.

When will the war be over? Last week in Israel, this question came up multiple times in conversation. Our group had the privilege of eating lunch last Shabbat with Benny Gantz, and we asked him the same question. At the time, there was a ceasefire; some soldiers were coming home for the weekend, and everyone seemed to catch their breath once again. But this was only a temporary lull; Hamas is still in power, and hostages are still in captivity. Unfortunately, as Gantz and many others explained, there is no quick solution; the war may take several more months to achieve its objectives.


This was a difficult answer for us to hear. Everyone wants things to go back to normal as soon as possible.


We want our hostages home, we want our soldiers home, we want the evacuees back in their homes.


But sometimes there aren't any quick answers. Sometimes you must wrestle instead.

Our Torah reading includes the passage about Jacob's wrestling match with the angel. They wrestle for hours until morning; it only ends then because the angel begs Jacob to let him leave.


The Hebrew word for wrestling, vayeavek, emphasizes how tedious and uncomfortable wrestling is. The Ramban offers two theories regarding the origin of the word. One is that it’s related to the Hebrew word for hugging, chibuk; wrestlers hold each other close as they grapple in excruciating intimacy with their enemy. The other is that vayeavek is related to the Hebrew word for dust, avak. Wrestling is a very slow form of combat; the feet of wrestlers are constantly shifting, in search of a more advantageous position. When wrestlers wrestle, they kick up a lot of dust.


In short, wrestling is both painful and painfully slow. But Israel is born in a wrestling match. At daybreak, the angel changes Jacob's name to Israel, in recognition of Jacob's courage; the angel declares to Jacob, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome,” and these words in Hebrew contain the root of the word “Israel.”


Here we need to pause for a moment. Names are powerful reflections of plans and perspectives. Is the Torah suggesting that the people of Israel are fated to wrestle?


And the answer is: absolutely yes.


Wrestling is part of every life; there are no easy solutions for the endless challenges of life. This is all the more so true of a people who have held tight to their destiny for 3,300 years; to survive, an aptitude for wrestling must be part of Jewish DNA.


We are once again facing a time of wrestling for Jews; and the lessons of Jacob’s wrestling match are now more important than ever. I’d like to share three insights from this section of the Torah today.


The first is: you know it won't be easy.


Side by side with this horrific massacre in Israel is a dramatic uptick in antisemitism around the world. Many Jews have been stunned by this. In truth, I am among them. Had you asked me a few years ago, I would have told you that antisemitism was disappearing.


But now antisemitism is back with enormous intensity. This is profoundly disconcerting for us. But it's disconcerting only because we had the wrong expectations. We had forgotten that being a Jew won't always be easy, that wrestling is a part of Jewish destiny.


At the same time, this attack by Hamas shocked Israel, which was completely unprepared. As Ronen Bergman reported yesterday in the New York Times, although Israeli intelligence had reliable reports of a planned Hamas attack, it was dismissed it as being improbable.


This type of mistake is sadly a common one. People evaluate the future based on what they see in the present; and they have a predisposition to optimism and tend to accept the most positive view of their own situation. The desire “to dwell in tranquility” caused Israel to forget the most important rule: it won't come easy. And frankly, you can't expect a high-tech fence to fight a war. Just ask the French; it didn’t work in World War II either.


The first, and most difficult, wrestling lesson is that it doesn't come easy. Not life, not being a Jew. But this name change reminds us that we can handle it. We are Israel, we are wrestlers.


And we are fortunate to have so many heroes ready to wrestle. Dan Polisar of Shalem College spoke to our group about his son, who is a commander currently on duty in Gaza. A piece of rubble had fallen on his helmet, and he was taken to the hospital to be checked out. Thankfully everything was good, but the doctor wanted him to stay home for a few days of monitoring. But that outcome was not acceptable; the commander knew his troops needed him. So, Dan and his son argued with the doctor; she still refused to let him go. They insisted she speak to her supervisor. That didn’t work, so they insisted that she speak to the head of the hospital; finally, the medical staff reluctantly allowed the commander to return.


But Dan related one other point, which was the most powerful part of this story. During the back and forth with the doctor, Dan and his son were discussing their problem in the waiting room. There, a soldier, who Dan described as having “a bruise the size of Texas on his arm,” sees them talking and asks them what had happened. When the soldier hears their predicament, he laughs and says: “Who cares if the doctor doesn’t give you permission? Just grab a transport and go back to Gaza!”


Jacob gets injured during his wrestling match, but he forges ahead; so do these heroes, bruises and all. Yes, wrestling isn’t easy. Israel’s soldiers know that, but they are ready to take on the challenge anyway.


The second lesson is you don't let anyone wrestle alone.


At the end of the wrestling match, the angel injures Jacob on his thigh. Because of that, the Torah tells us that Jews are forbidden from eating the sciatic nerve.


But the reason is somewhat unclear. Why would we commemorate this injury, and why with a prohibition?


The 13th-century French rabbi Hizkunni offers a fascinating explanation. He says that the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve is a penalty; Jacob's family is being punished because Jacob was left alone and vulnerable. Jacob's sons should not have neglected their father and left him unaccompanied. And so, for generations, Jews have accepted this penalty and not eaten the sciatic nerve.


The lesson is you don't allow someone to wrestle alone.


We can be proud of how united the Jewish people are. In Israel, everybody is getting involved, whether it be soldiers in the reserves or volunteers in the streets.


We met an injured soldier who was fighting alongside Yossi Hershkovitz, the principal of the Pelech High School for Boys in Jerusalem; prior to that, he had taught at SAR. Hershkovitz died when a booby-trapped tunnel claimed his life.


The injured soldier told us that all of the younger members of the unit asked Hershkovitz why he reported. Hershkovitz was 44, had five children, and was exempt from service. Hershkovitz told them that he was there because the younger soldiers needed his experience and his help. He wasn't going to let them remain alone.


This is the story of Israel today; remarkable sacrifices, all in the cause of helping each other.


The Jews of America are doing their part as well. A few weeks ago, there was an unprecedented rally, where 290,000 people stood in solidarity with Israel. To my mind, the most powerful speech came from Natan Sharansky, who explained to the crowd why unity matters. He spoke about how he and his friends resisted against the former Soviet Union, and said:


Many people thought that our cause was hopeless. How could a few men and women beat an empire all on their own?


But we knew very well that we weren’t truly alone. Israel and the Jewish People stood with us. From the small demonstration that four students organized at Columbia University in 1964, to the massive rally when 250,000 Jews gathered right here in this very place in 1987, three generations of World Jewry dedicated themselves to our struggle. Many of your grandparents fought for us. Many of your parents fought for us. Many of you fought for us. And this fact, this togetherness, gave me strength in my years in the Soviet Gulag.


My jailors tried to tell me that I am alone, that I am doomed, that our struggle will fail. But all I had to do was to remember the many Jewish visitors who came to see us in Moscow over the years to know that they were lying. I knew you. I knew how devoted and loving you were. I knew that we were one fighting family. And so I knew that there was only one possible outcome for our joint struggle….victory.


Coming together matters. That’s why our mission went to Israel. And at every stop we were thanked for coming, by cab drivers, soldiers, and even by Benny Gantz.


And that is why I tell everyone I see they must go visit Israel now. We cannot allow Jacob to wrestle alone.


The third lesson is we are wrestling for something bigger.


The night after the conclusion of the mission I went to the wedding of our friends' son Yoni Troy, to Tali Miller. It was a beautiful wedding, the children of two families that had made Aliyah, building their own home together in Israel.


Underneath the Chuppah, there were several prayers recited. An uncle of the bride recited the prayer for the Israeli soldiers. Cousins of the groom, whose homes are on the Gaza border, recited a prayer for those who have been evacuated. And Naor, Yoni’s commanding officer, who rushed in from his base and was still in uniform, recited a prayer for the hostages. Naor is from Sderot, and ten people he knew, including family members, were killed, and five others were taken hostage. There was not a dry eye when Naor recited the prayer.


Afterwards, something troubled me. Here we were, at the picture-perfect Jewish wedding of two wonderful people from two wonderful families in Israel. For centuries, Jews have prayed under the Chuppah “od yishamah b’arei yehuda,” that soon we would return to Israel, and the rejoicing of brides and grooms would once again be heard in the cities of Judea. And now we were at a wedding in the hills of Judea, where everything we prayed for has come true; and even so, we have to offer these heartbreaking prayers.


The question is: What point was there in praying for weddings in Israel for all these centuries, when now, weddings in Israel need new prayers?


But the answer is simple: the centuries of wrestling were for something bigger than comfort or happiness.


Yes, Israel comes with crises, challenges, and hardships.


But at least we're back in our homeland.


Herman Wouk, the playwright and novelist visited Israel in 1955. He was invited by David Ben-Gurion, who was out of politics at the time, to visit him in Sde Boker in the Negev. At that point, terrorists were regularly coming across the border from Gaza, and they needed to provide Wouk with an army escort, and Wouk had to return to Tel Aviv before sunset.


At the end of the visit, Ben-Gurion turned to Wouk and said, “When are you moving to Israel? You know that this is the only place for Jews like you. You know only here you will be free.”


Wouk responded with a bit of shock. He said: “Free? Free? The enemy has armies surrounding you, their leaders publicly threatening to wipe out the Zionist entity, your roads are impassable after sundown, and you say that you're free?


Ben-Gurion responded, “I did not say safe. I said free.”


And that was the ultimate lesson of our trip. We've seen Israel at a difficult time; but this is also Israel's finest hour. We are wrestling once again, and that’s never easy; but we are wrestling for something bigger. And thank God we have our own sovereignty, our own state, our own army.


Thank God we're free.


And that's worth wrestling for.