Rabbi Siemers – January 2015
I hope this note finds everyone well. In the world and national scene there is quite a bit of negative news to process. So this is as good as an occasion as any to write on the virtue of optimism. One of my teachers is fond of saying that the one sin never allowed Jews is despair – we can never take the counsel of our fears. He might has been quoting Nachum of Breslov, the founder of the great Breslover dynasty. The sentiment was also expressed by Augustine, so there is an ecumenical dimension to the requirement to stay on the sunny side.
On the fifteenth of Shevat (the New Year for trees, which this year falls on January 25) we are accustomed to reflect on a passage of Talmud that takes off on the verse:
שיר המעלות בשוב ה’ את שיבת ציון היינו כחולמים
It’s a famous line that we recite before the Grace After Meals on festivals and Shabbat and it means roughly “When the Lord returned us to Zion it was as if we awoke from a dream”. A certain person asked, “How can an exile of 70 years be a dream? Who sleeps for 70 years? ” If course this person was Honi, the famous miracle worker of the age of the Rabbis, and to answer his question God put him to sleep for seventy years so that he was able to see the trees planted by one generation bear fruit in the next. With time and faith the world is renewed. The people who lived through the destruction of the First Temple could not have imagined that there was a future for Israel, but in 70 years we were restored. And in our day we have seen greater restorations after even longer periods when we were sustained only by dreams.
The great danger of despair is that it robs us of our vision of the future and destroys our ability to see beyond ourselves. The future needs us to believe in it, and our stewardship of what comes after us requires hopefulness. The corrective is to learn to look beyond ourselves. I hope that next year is for us one of planting as well as harvesting. If we look for opportunities to serve the future with open, optimistic eyes may we see unlimited abundance. May we continue to confound the doom-casters.
Rabbi Bill Siemers