"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity;
an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
Lately, I have been thinking about this quote. There are significant and real “difficulties” all around us, as Jews and as Americans. Within our Orthodox community, we continue to confront scandals that should cause us to reassess our educational emphases and our priorities. We have injustices that need to be addressed in our policies and attitudes. As Americans, just this week, tragic mass shootings have again alerted us to the pressing need for revamping gun laws and meaningfully addressing mental health challenges, among other important issues.
Difficulties and problems should never get swept under the carpet, be excused, rationalized, or ignored. Our mandate as Torah Jews is to consistently work to repair and improve Hashem’s world, to protect the vulnerable, stand up for those with no voice, and pursue justice and righteousness, both within our own community and without.
Indeed, such activity is not only noble and virtuous, it is what God expects from us and it is what He values, even above ritual and sacrifice. In Mishlei (21:3), Shlomo HaMelech teaches, עֲ֭שֹׂה צְדָקָ֣ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט נִבְחָ֖ר לַה׳ מִזָּֽבַח, “To do what is right and just is more desired by God than sacrifice.” Our great Prophet Yeshayahu gave us the exact formula to bring redemption: “צִיּ֖וֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּ֣ט תִּפָּדֶ֑ה וְשָׁבֶ֖יהָ בִּצְדָקָֽה׃, Zion will be saved through the practice of justice; Her captives released through righteousness.”
Yes, the problems surrounding us are very real. But when confronting them, the question remains are we optimists or pessimists, do we see opportunities or difficulties, are we focused on solutions or on challenges?
A recent article cogently and compellingly presented several real challenges that the Orthodox community faces, specifically with regard to Orthodox women. The author is passionately working to address them and to make important changes in policies and attitudes. While I don’t agree with all of the characterizations and conclusions, the message itself was valuable. The messaging, in contrast, was not. The author wrote, in reference to these challenges, “The heart of Orthodoxy is broken, splintered into a dangerous and gaping divide.” Not only do I believe that is an inaccurate diagnosis of the health of our collective heart, I believe this portrayal can be damaging and destructive.
The Orthodox community, or at a minimum segments of it, has never provided as many opportunities for women to study Torah, and to do so at high levels, as it does today. Women have never had as many opportunities for leadership within the community as they do today. Some wish the opportunities were broader, others wish that change would happen faster. And to be sure, there are segments of the Orthodox community practicing more restrictive policies, guided by what they consider issues of modesty, which offend and even harm. But should that alone determine the health of the heart of orthodoxy?
Work to make the changes you believe should happen. Fight to correct injustices, wrongs and damaging practices. But do so with the perspective that in many ways we are in the golden age of Orthodoxy in America, for men and for women. Don’t only see how far there is to go, see how far we have come. Don’t portray an Orthodoxy broken and divided, but one that is working to be whole, that is beautiful, warm, welcoming, passionate, and inspiring.
Do we want people to read about Orthodoxy, be turned off and walk away, or read that we have the courage to address our deficiencies and faults, but at the same time are proud to present and participate in a community that is filled with kindness, goodness, opportunity, love and spirituality? Do we want to present our difficulties as opportunities or see the opportunities as difficulties?
The great authority on healthy marriages, Dr. John Gottman, teaches about the difference in between what he calls “negative sentiment override” and “positive sentiment override” and their impact on relationships. Our overall perspective on each other and the health of our relationship influences our mindset towards one another when issues arise. When we invest quality time and meaningful communication and the overall framework of a relationship is healthy and strong, our positive sentiment can override suspicion, criticism, and negativity and enable us to address issues constructively and productively. When our relationship is malnourished, we bring a negative sentiment such that everything the other person does and says is interpreted through a negative lens, precluding us from breakthrough or reconciliation.
When it comes to our relationship with our Orthodox community, do we bring and promote a negative sentiment, or are we practicing positive sentiment override?
The same questions can be asked about the tone and tenor of current conversations in America. Hate, hateful speech and most certainly hate crimes, must be confronted and demand real action and change. But the response to hate can’t just be hate, the reaction to rhetoric shouldn’t be more rhetoric, and the answer to negativity is not more negativity. The problems in this country are real, they are significant, and they must be addressed with meaningful legislation and change. But don't lose sight of the fact that it is still one of the greatest, safest countries, not only in the world, but in history. We hear about horrific, violent incidents too frequently, but are we aware or do we appreciative that violent crime in America continues to be on a sharp, steady decline over the last 25 years?
The Talmud (Makkos 24b) tells the famous story of Rebbe Akiva and his colleagues observing the Temple Mount after the destruction. They watched as a fox emerged from the Holy of Holies. The other rabbis cried at the sight of such devastation and desecration, but Rebbe Akiva laughed. When asked, he explained that just as the prophecy of destruction had now taken place, the prophecy of redemption and rebuilding will take place as well. Where they saw difficulty, Rebbe Akiva saw opportunity. When they saw sadness, he saw hope and possibility.
If we want to bring the redemption, we must have the courage to be willing to not only see the problems, but to address them seriously. But we must be careful to do so as students of Rebbe Akiva, optimists who see the opportunities within each difficulty.