I’m continuing on the theme of freedom prior to Passover. The word for Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim. The letters at the root of the word mean ‘boundaries’ and that’s very much what slavery is about. It’s about boundaries, always chosen by ourselves. Whilst slavery inflicted by others does exist, it is always superficial. Ultimately, the fight for freedom is an internal struggle. It is the struggle to see beyond our self-imposed ‘is’ to a ‘could be’ that is filled with hope and possibility.
At the graduation for my rabbis this week, I spoke of optimism. Because pessimism is a form of slavery. It is a bad habit of looking away from potential and possibility, towards fear and limitation; those ‘boundaries’ of Egypt. Pessimists, as I can be at times, are slaves to their own beliefs, certainties even, about the inevitability of impending change for the worse. It inhibits, even prevents, growth and development.
Optimism, on the other hand, is a spiritual quality. And, whilst you will hear it said (by pessimists themselves) that pessimists are realists, I believe that the opposite is true. It is the optimists who are the realists – for two reasons.
Firstly, if you look at the trajectory of humanity over the past couple of thousand years, it has been inexorably upwards. Yes, there have been glitches along the way, times during which the pessimists might be looking to raise the flag of I-told-you-so. But always, always, the human race has ultimately overcome its challenges and moved onwards…and upwards. This is blatantly true in a material sense. But it is also true in a spiritual sense and in a moral sense. A hundred years ago, our lives were so much better than a hundred years before. And today, a hundred years later, our lives are so much better again. The same will be true in a hundred years’ time, despite the certainty of stormy waters along the way.
The second reason that optimism is rooted in reality is because we are, ultimately, spiritual beings. We are not animals with no vision or potential, living only from day to day, with no way to create a better future. Our spiritual nature makes us pure potential. We have within ourselves both the will and the wisdom, hence the power, to improve our lives, the lives of those around us and the lives of future generations. And, credit to us, we always do. Ultimately. As a whole. Even if there are individuals along the way who do not.
As my wife has taught me, and this was my message for the graduating rabbis, optimism is the quality of true leadership. Volodymyr Zelensky is a shining example. He exudes a feeling of hope and possibility. And such a feeling is magnetic. Because it resonates. Dictators lead though force. True leaders, and they are rare, lead through their tangible vision of a better future. Churchill, King, Mandela. And dare I add Thatcher or Rabin without getting my head chopped off?
Hope drives us to a better future. Pessimism enslaves us in what we have right now. It makes progress impossible and people will never follow a pessimist unless they are forced to do so. In certain ways Hitler was an optimist – an evil and misguided optimist, but an optimist. His vision of ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer’ was understandably attractive to German society. And so, they needed no cardboard cut-outs at his Nuremberg rallies.
Passover is a time for freedom. Personally, one place I’m going to look to be freer this Passover is from my pessimism. Because it is at the root of so much of what holds us back as individuals, as societies, as nations and as a human race.
Parsha in a Nutshell
This week’s portion continues with the mystical affliction of tzaraas, in particular the purification process for someone thus afflicted. It also talks about tzaraas in houses and its purification. They are long and complex procedures and the Rabbis draw an analogy. Since tzaraas generally afflicts someone who has spoken badly about others, the process of purification is very complex and this is akin to the mistake itself. Undoing hurt that we cause others when we speak badly about them is likened to trying to gather together all the feathers from a down pillow – after they have been cast to the wind!