Positive Thinking

From: Andrea

Dear Rabbi,

Would you say that Judaism is an “optimistic” religion? Is there room for positive thinking within Judaism?

Dear Andrea,

I would say yes, Judaism is definitely an optimistic religion and positive thinking plays an important role in a Jew’s world view in general, and service of G‑d in particular.

All the stories in the Torah are positive. Individuals or the Jewish nation may have experienced difficulties or suffered setbacks, but ultimately, they succeeded and good was achieved and prevailed. This is true regarding Adam’s repentance and the continuation of humanity, the preservation of Noah and his descendants through the flood, Abraham’s spreading the message of G‑d to all mankind, the Tribes’ redemption from Egypt and the Jewish People’s receiving the Promised Land.

The fact that all of these wonderful things did not happen in the context of serenity, stability and prosperity but rather on the backdrop of great personal and national obstacles and hardships illustrates that Judaism’s optimism is not only of a “natural” sort, but even when against all odds. There is no “Tragedy” in Jewish literature, nor is there “Fatalism” in Jewish philosophy. Even the suffering Job, tutored and elevated by his hardships, rose to true greatness in the end.

The promising messages of the Prophets and the novel idea of the Messianic Era in Judaism also demonstrate its essential optimism. A religion which maintains such a glorious view of the future despite the often dire reality of the present, particularly regarding the Jewish People itself, certainly encourages positive thinking.

Prayer is another example of Jewish optimism. We need not accept imperfections of the present. In fact, the word for prayer in Hebrew, “tefilla”, connotes wrestling. In prayer, one wrestles with oneself, one’s reality and even with G‑d in order to change things for the better.

That being said, Jewish positive thinking also enables one to accept an imperfect present if need be. Or rather, Jewish optimism extends beyond hoping for a brighter future to include illuminating what seems to be a dismal present. If after making responsible effort to improve our reality, things don’t get “better”, Judaism teaches not just that one must accept (at least temporarily) his lot, but also that this reality, insofar as it’s the Will of G‑d (at least temporarily) is actually the best possible reality.

This extending of the idea of “making the best of a bad situation” to “seeing what seems to be bad as the best situation” is exemplified by a famous story regarding Rabbi Akiva (Berachot 60b). Rabbi Akiva was on a journey and needed lodgings for the night. When he entered town asking for hospitality, he was summarily denied it. Exclaiming, “Whatever G‑d does is for the best”, he set up camp in the nearby forest, lighting a candle, and making provisions for his rooster and donkey, intending to get an early start in the morn. During the night, a wind came and blew out the candle leaving him in complete darkness. He exclaimed, “All is for the best”. A cat came and ate the rooster preventing his early rise, to which he exclaimed, “All is for the best”. A lion came and devoured the donkey taking his source of transportation, to which he exclaimed, “All is for the best”. In the morning he saw that the town had been ransacked by robbers and all the inhabitants had been killed. When Rabbi Akiva considered that had he been admitted to the town he would have been killed; or after having camped in the woods, had the candle been lit, or had the cat meowed or the donkey brayed, he would have been seen or heard, he once again justifiably exclaimed, “All that G‑d does, He does for the best!”

An interesting idea to ponder is whether our thoughts actually have an effect on reality, such that pessimism breeds a negative actuality while optimism actually creates a positive reality. The mystical and Chasidic teachings of Judaism are replete with the idea that not only what we do and say has an effect for good or for bad on the physical and spiritual worlds, but even something as subtle and intangible as thoughts have such an effect.

And in truth, since G‑d thought Existence into being (the statement, “And G‑d said…” being understood as an expression of G‑d’s Will, since G‑d doesn’t speak), and since mankind was created in the image of G‑d (again, not to be understood literally but rather in our ability to will), then just as G‑d thinks Creation, our thoughts can also create reality and it’s positively worth thinking positive!

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