Why Jews Are Optimists

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Psychological resilience is similar to the body’s immune system, which protects an individual from harmful substances. Occasionally, however, we are faced with an enemy, such as the current coronavirus, that overwhelms our ability to cope. The sudden deaths of loved ones, the lack of freedom to do what we want when we want, and our inability to interact with friends and loved ones have been some of the challenges that resulted from the pandemic. All of this is in addition to the bombardment of daily news about random acts of anti-Semitism, violent protests in our cities, possible terror attacks, global warming and other future doomsday scenarios. In the past, bad news was delivered over time, which allowed us to mobilize our defenses against fear. Today we have 24/7 instant access to what is happening anywhere in the world, with no time to recover.

As if all of the above is not enough, along comes psychologist Roy Baumeister in his recent book, The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, who has uncovered what he calls people’s innate “negativity bias.” Apparently, the human brain is hardwired to notice, remember and even magnify negative experiences. He observes, among the many examples of this phenomenon, that insults have a far greater impact upon a person than compliments; that emotional problems, instead of positive variables such as resilience, have for years been the main focus of research in the field of psychology; and that people keep tuning into the “gloom and doom” being endlessly reported in the news. We Orthodox Jews are not immune to this bias, as evidenced by the amount of negative (and sometimes sensational) news reported in Jewish publications. Interestingly, Baumeister recommends countering the effects of negativity by consciously thinking three positive thoughts for every negative one. Is that not what we do when we say berachos each day?

As Orthodox Jews, we need to recognize the role that a Torah outlook plays in helping us be resilient in the face of adversity. A fascinating recently published book entitled Positivity Bias presents the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s view on life and his advice to others. Whenever a person shared a negative experience with the Rebbe, he would, without invalidating the complaint, focus the person’s attention on the positive. One example is when the late Elie Wiesel visited the Rebbe. Wiesel, like many victims who were traumatized by the Holocaust, never cried. He asked the Rebbe to teach him how to cry about the loss of his family in the Holocaust. The Rebbe replied that he would teach him how to cry, but first he had to teach him how to live.

Resilience requires that a person believe in a positive future. Inspired by kabbalah, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook wrote poetry and essays that contain unbounded optimism for the future. His writings galvanized an entire Jewish population to become resilient in the face of overwhelming odds.

While the nihilists of today tell us that the world is hopelessly doomed, the Torah keeps us hopeful and optimistic.

Rav Tzadok HaKohen, one of the great Chassidic masters, writes that the essence of being Jewish is that we never give up hope no matter the circumstances. Indeed, our continuous desire to leave Egypt, our becoming an exclusive nation at Har Sinai, our wandering through the desert and surviving for forty years, our yearning to go back to Eretz Yisrael after the destruction of two Temples, and our belief in the coming of Mashiach are all indications of our resilience and the fact that Jews are diehard optimists. In contrast, the Torah calls our attention to those who were not resilient, such as the spies (meraglim) who were too fearful to continue going forward and others who wanted to return to Egypt at the first sign of trouble.

Another attribute of resilient people, according to research findings, is that they do not hesitate to seek out support and comfort in times of adversity, trusting that others will be there for them. When we consider the Torah’s directives, such as “ve’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha—love your neighbor as yourself,” and “kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh—all Jews are responsible for one another,” we know and trust that there will always be someone to call in time of trouble. These mandates have resulted in numerous organizations such as Hatzalah, Chaverim, Misaskim and other charitable organizations. The knowledge that there is someone to call in a time of trouble helps us get through the crisis. Furthermore, the foundation of our emunah is the belief that Hashem wants to bestow good upon us and wants us to be worthy of His blessings. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that unlike pagan gods who are always angry at man (the word for non-Jewish gods, elilim, derives from the Hebrew root al, negation), our God is on man’s side. In addition to our belief in God, it is also God’s belief in us that gives us the courage to not only survive but to thrive.

Research has also found that resilient people believe in their ability to effect outcomes (self-efficacy).Visionaries such as Rabbi Aharon Kotler and Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin revived Orthodox Jewry by establishing institutions such as Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood and Yeshiva University in New York, educating a large number of the Jewish population and creating the leaders of tomorrow. In addition to the role of our leaders, we, the Jewish people, are a nation of resilient individuals. Perhaps that is why the Torah emphasizes that every single person who came out of Egypt and was traveling through the desert donated his own personal possessions to the building of the mishkan, and that the donations continued until Moshe Rabbeinu told them there was enough. Through the centuries, our people never stopped building communities in the many countries in which we lived. Today, we are witness to the building of Israel and its contributions in multiple fields of endeavor.

Unfortunately. . . Orthodox Jews are not immune to this bias, as evidenced by the amount of negative (and sometimes sensational) news reported in Jewish publications.

Chassidic philosophy teaches the concept of “yeridah l’tzorech aliyah (descending for the purpose of ascending), i.e., not to despair about a downturn because it is a signal that you have no place to go but up. Jewish history itself is a testimony to our ability to not give in to despair and to recover quickly. On a daily basis, we recite in Shemoneh Esrei that Hashem is “matzmiach yeshuah”—He makes salvation blossom. Commenting on this phrase, the Nesivos Shalom explains that just as a seed germinates only after it begins to decay, so is adversity a prelude to growth. The ability to reframe is a protective factor for resilience. People who suffer adversity recover much faster if they are able to accept what happened and move on. Alternatively, they learn from their experiences and redouble their efforts to succeed.

A non-Jewish psychologist colleague of mine once quipped that mentally healthy people think that reality is better than it is. This statement implies that reality is, in fact, depressing and that we have to convince ourselves that it is not. We Jews are constantly reminding ourselves throughout our lives that, in fact, reality is good. Through our daily berachos and daily prayers, we reiterate to ourselves that there is a God Who created this world and His creations are all good. We see life as meaningful and bring Torah and mitzvos into all facets of our lives, including relationships and work. I believe the Ari Hakadosh addressed this issue when he taught that our job as Jews is to uncover the sparks of kedushah in everything that Hashem created.

The rise of the victimhood culture is an illustration of what happens when people lack resilience and succumb to despair. Some people choose to view themselves as victims of oppression; they view others as oppressors who are therefore worthy of being attacked; and they view the future as bleak. The Torah teaches us the opposite, that man is made in Hashem’s image (tzelem Elokim) and that he is to be treated with dignity. While the nihilists of today tell us that the world is hopelessly doomed, the Torah keeps us hopeful and optimistic.

Dr. Morton Frank is a psychologist who maintains a private practice and is an adjunct assistant professor at Queens College.

This article was featured in the Spring 2021 issue of Jewish Action.