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The Fifth Question: Pessimist or Optimist?

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Passover is the story that answers man's existential quest for spiritual connection.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Prepare yourself to be asked that very question by God Himself.

According to the Talmud, there is a "final exam" all of us will have to take when we depart from this world. Before we are assigned to the eternal home for our soul, we have to respond to a series of queries about how we lived our lives. The heavenly court then renders its judgment based on our answers.

Some of the questions are obvious: Did you conduct yourself honestly in your business dealings? Did you set aside time to study the Torah? Did you live your life in accord with divine teachings?

But, amazingly enough, one of the things it seems they are concerned about in heaven is whether we went through our days with an attitude of optimism or pessimism. Did you, we'll be asked, await salvation? Were you, like the pessimist, a misfortune teller, always sure that nothing would ever go right, always certain that hope was the misplaced confidence of a hopelessly naive idealist? Or were you wise enough to realize that optimism is God's greatest gift to mankind, a miraculous medicine meant to allow us to cope with reality by reaffirming a Higher Power's care and compassion?

It seems there's a great deal of truth in Golda Meir's observation that, "Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow himself." But the commentators on this remarkable passage wonder: What is the Biblical source for this question? If we are held accountable for our attitude and it's a mitzvah (commandment) of such profound significance to be an optimist, where in the Torah can we find this mandate?

The answer the sages give offers us a new insight about Passover.

The very first of the Ten Commandments tells us, "I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage." Strange. God doesn't identify Himself as the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Instead He chooses to emphasize his role as Redeemer of the Jewish people. But wasn't creating the world much more difficult? After all, Abraham Lincoln was able to free slaves, but only the Almighty could have brought the universe into existence?

True. But to stress God as Creator would never give us the knowledge that after He finished fashioning the world, He still cares about it and is personally involved in its preservation and perfection.

What the Exodus from Egypt proved is that deism is just as much a mistake as atheism; to reject God's ongoing concern with us is as heretical as to deny His existence.

The first commandment represents an affirmation of trust in a Higher Being who in every generation and in every place is committed to our benevolent care.

The first commandment in its deepest sense demands that we believe not simply that a long time ago God did something wondrous for our people. No, it represents an affirmation of trust in a Higher Being who in every generation and in every place is committed to our benevolent care. "The land of Egypt and the house of bondage" are paradigms of national struggle and personal difficulties. Who has not at times suffered somewhat like our ancestors did in their ancient bondage? Who has not experienced the slavery of addiction -- to wealth, to power, to fame, to pleasure? Who has not cried out to God numerous times, "Please do not forsake me in my time of need. Please do not remain silent when I call out to you as my last hope"?

The reason we're expected to give the right answer when we will be asked after death, "Did you await salvation?" is because we should have taken to heart the demand implicit in the very first commandment.

Does God hear us when we cry? Does He even know of our presence? Passover, the narrative God chooses as his calling card to proclaim His identity, is the story that answers man's existential quest for spiritual connection. Yes, there is a God who listens, who knows, who redeems -- and just as He did so a long time ago, He will again answer us as we face our daily challenges.

In the final analysis, there are only two ways to look at life. Either our days have no meaning, the result of haphazard coincidence, or they are part of a master plan that obey a divinely ordained order for history. No coincidence, then, that the key ritual for Passover is known as the Seder, Hebrew word for "order." Not because there is an order to the meal but because there is an order to our lives. Coincidence, it's been said, is merely God's way of choosing to remain anonymous. The world, as Shakespeare put it, is indeed a stage -- but the Torah adds the most important point to that metaphor: it is a stage with a Director.

And that's why every Jew must be an optimist. Pessimists fear an uncertain future. People with faith look forward to divinely promised blessings. Passover, Jewish law dictates, must always be observed in the Spring. Our lunar calendar is adjusted by way of an extra "leap year month" if the holiday falls too early, in days that are still part of winter. That's because Passover and Spring are twins. Both symbolize hope and new beginnings. Both promise rebirth based on God's continuing love for mankind.

So when people ask you the oft-repeated question, "Are you prepared for Passover?", don't just think about the wine and the matzahs, the pre-Pesach cleaning and the diligent efforts to get rid of all the chametz (unleavened bread), but think about whether you're ready to really absorb the holiday's most fundamental message: An optimist is always right -- because he has an invisible means of support.

And that's why Passover isn't the holiday about the Jewish past but the festival that proclaims the future arrival of Elijah and the Messiah.


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