Sunday, July 6, 2008

My Final YIOP Drashah - The Power of Optimism

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’m on a Steven Ambrose kick; I finished “Band of Brothers,” so I now moved on to "D-Day". Towards the beginning of the book, he describes the difference in mentality between the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the commander of the German Army in the Western theater of France, Erwin Rommel. While Romell was a realist, cognizant of the difficulty of holding off an Allied landing in France, Eisenhower was an unrelenting optimist. An official US Army biography on Ike writes,

Through D-Day, Eisenhower's most marked characteristics were his unfailing
optimism about the success of the invasion and his determination to overcome all
obstacles that stood in its way.

That type of attitude filters down. When a leader exhibits optimism, positive energy and a can-do attitude, that attitude permeates his or her entire structure. Subordinates feed of that energy, and find ways to accomplish things they thought that they could not. Just think about the power of a simple word of encouragement. Just when you’re ready to give up – at a job, an assignment, a task – it doesn’t matter what. And then someone comes over and says, “You know, I know this is difficult, but I’m sure that you can do it.” How powerful such a simple expression can be! And how easy. And if optimism can bring energy enthusiasm, pessimism can destroy it. And that pessimism can be so dangerous, that it must be rooted out even at great cost.
Today we read about Moshe’s seemingly small mistake – the sin of מי מריבה – the waters of מריבה. The Torah describes a water shortage, and the complaints of the nation for water. God tells Moshe to approach the rock and speak to it – to ask it for water. Instead, Moshe gathers the people around the well, and instead of speaking to the rock says to the people, שמעו נא המורים, המן הסלע הזה נוציא לכם מים – “Listen please you bitter people. From this rock should we extract water from you?!” He then hits the rock twice, the rock gushes a torrent of water and everyone’s happy.
Except God. You see God had instructed Moshe to speak to the rock, not to hit it. God’s judgment is swift. יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני ישראל – “Because you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Jewish people,” לכן לא תביאו את הקהל הזה אל הארץ אשר נתתי להם – “therefore, you will not bring this congregation to the Land that I have given them.”
Virtually every פרשן is perplexed. OK – Moshe made a mistake. Yes, he hit the rock. But doesn’t it seem a little extreme? Doesn’t God seem a little harsh to take from Moshe his greatest single desire – to enter the Land of Israel – for such a seemingly small misstep?
Commentators offer scores of answers to this question – each one just a little different. I’d like to focus on one approach suggested in the Midrash. Quoting a פסוק in שיר השירים that refers to an orchard of almond trees, the Midrash compares leadership to climbing an almond tree.

האגוז הזה חלוק, מי שאינו אומן לעלות בו מיד הוא נופל, שצריך לשמור עצמו שלא
יפול הימנו, כך כל מי שמשרת את ישראל צריך לשמור עצמו שלא יטול את שלו מתחת ידיהם
כגון משה וישעיה ואליהו, משה אמר שמעו נא המורים (במדבר כ' י') ונאמר לא תביאו את
הקהל הזה (שם שם /במדבר כ'/ י"ב), ישעיה אמר ובתוך עם טמא שפתים אנכי יושב (ישעיה
ו' ה') מיד ובידו רצפה (שם /ישעיהו/ שם /ו'/ ו'), אליהו כי עזבו בריתך בית ישראל
(מלכים א' י"ט י' וי"ד) ונאמר ואת אלישע בן שפט [מאבל מחולה] תמשח לנביא תחתיך

Just as the almond tree is smooth and slippery, and one who does not know how to
climb it will fall immediately, so too anyone who serves the Jewish people must
guard himself not to take his hands out from under them, as did Moshe, Yishayah
and Eliyahu. Moshe said, “Hear please, you bitter ones,” and it says, “you will
not bring this congregation.” Yishayah said, “And I sit amongst a nation of
impure lips,” immediately [he was punished with] a burning stone. Eliyahu said,
“For the House of Israel has abandoned your covenant,” and it says, “and you
shall anoint Elisha ben Shafat as a prophet in your place.”

What’s the connection between these three examples? In what way do Moshe, Eliyahu and Yirmiyahu – three of our greatest prophets and teachers – fail? They don’t fail as much as they are no longer able to see only the positive. They have lost their rosy glasses. They cannot only see good in the Jewish people anymore. Moshe finally sees the people as, המורים – a bunch of bitter complainers. And that’s why he can no longer lead the Jewish people, because leaders must be eternal optimists. They must always be able to see the good in their people; their potential and beauty and energy, and see not their faults and shortcoming, but their potential to continue to build and grow.
Indeed, this sense of optimism has carried the Jewish people through the darkest imaginable times; through tiresome and tiring persecutions, pogroms and pillaging, hatred and Holocaust. And yet we persevere. Why? How? Because we’re eternal optimists. We have to be. It’s in our blood. Just look at the קדושה we said this morning.

ממקומך מלכנו תופיע – ותמלוך עלינו כי מחכים אנחנו לך
From Your exalted
place You will appear, and You will rule over us, for we are waiting for you.
Notice that we don’t say, מלוך עלינו, הופיע לנו – “please God, rule over us, reveal Yourself.” We don’t ask for that because we take we take it for granted. Of course God will redeem us. We just don’t know when. So why not now? Indeed, why not?
We don’t wonder whether the redemption will come. We know that it’s coming, in our sense of faith and belief and yes, eternal optimism. And we are commanded to know it as well – it’s the last of Rambam’s Priciples of Faith – אני מאמין באמונה שלמה – I believe with perfect faith. That’s not just faith. It’s optimism – the ability to overlook the darkness of the tunnel and see the light at the end.
Indeed, every great endeavor; every project or business or enterprise rests on a foundation of optimism. A good friend told me this week, “If you don’t ask, you get a ‘no’ one hundred percent of the time.” And he’s right. But to ask, I’ve got to think that the answer will be yes, because if I didn’t, I’d never ask in the first place. If I thought I’d fail, I’d never take that new job, or begin the new program, or move to Israel – because, “what’s the point if I’m only going to fail anyway”?
I am optimistic not just about the גאולה, but also about the power of community – and specifically this community, to achieve great things. Last week David Ungar spoke at סעודה שלישית, and he said that he loves coming to shul because here we witness the rebirth of Judaism before our eyes, and he’s right. But it’s only happening because the are, were and will be people who put their energies and efforts into the faith that our shul will continue to thrive and prosper.
Winston Churchill once said, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” These are difficult times in the US. A deflated stock market, and a terrible Michigan economy. It’s easy to see dark days ahead. But Churchill, who had a few things to worry about in his time, also said, “For myself I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anything else.”
There will always be challenges and difficulties. The strength of this shul lies in the amazing ability of its members to see above them; to overcome them and continue to build and connect the Jewish people of this entire community to God. It has been an honor to lead this shul, to teach you and learn from you, and to speak from this pulpit week in and week out. And, as I leave you I can honestly say that the future of the Young Israel of Oak Park is very bright indeed.
It’s all up to you.

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