Reeh: On taking optimistic view in times of hardship

Rosh Chodesh Elul


Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

Isaiah 54:11-55:5

There was once a proper woman who was concerned about her cat's ability to handle a train ride of several days' duration. She asked her veterinarian to please give "poor Ginger" some tranquilizers so that the animal wouldn't get too upset at being confined for so long.

During the trip, the sedated Ginger went berserk, broke free from her cage and with eyes bulging and fur standing on end leapt around the lady's compartment yowling, hissing and clawing the upholstery. Even another dosage of pills didn't improve Ginger's temperament.

Meanwhile, back home, an embarrassed veterinarian discovered too late that he had inadvertently given Ginger amphetamines instead of tranquilizers. With considerable trepidation, he called his client at her destination and asked how her trip had gone.

"Oh, doctor," she said, "I appreciate your call. Ginger was just dreadful on the train. I can't imagine how much worse she would have been without the pills. Thank you so much for all your help." The doctor modestly accepted her praise.

This story is about the ability to see the positive side of life even when there is no cause to be optimistic. It is relevant to the prophetic reading from the Book of Isaiah associated with this week's Torah portion, Re'eh. This selection from Isaiah is one of seven haftorot of consolation that are read on the seven Sabbaths following Tisha B'Av, the holiday marking the destruction and calamity that befell Jewish nationhood many centuries ago. Many solacing portions follow the commemoration of the First and Second Temples' destruction; we are reminded over and over that even terrible tragedy is not reason enough to stop having a positive outlook on life.

Isaiah demonstrated that even in the midst of national calamity, it is possible to see life's splendor, majesty and grandeur. Metaphors for light and solace shine through every chapter in this prophetic book, pointing to an optimistic future, bright with purpose and mission. Isaiah's words turned Jews' attention away from the trauma of the Temple's destruction and the loss of independence, helping them focus on reestablishing nationhood and rebuilding the Temple.

In the darkest moments when all seemed lost, Isaiah set an example of optimism, hope and faith. One of Isaiah's irrepressible, radiant prophesies, spoken at the darkest moment in Jewish history, says:

Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

The Lord is God from of old,

Creator of the earth from end to end.

He never grows faint or weary,

His wisdom cannot be fathomed.

He gives strength to the weary,

Fresh vigor to the spent.

Youths may grow faint and weary,

And young men stumble and fall;

But they who trust in the Lord shall renew their strength

As eagles grow new plumes:

They shall run and not grow weary,

They shall march and not grow faint.

— Isaiah 40:28-31

Jews, in Isaiah's footsteps, have always cherished the hope of a better future, of an age when God would be one in all the world. Such a positive approach to life's tragedies has earned Jews a unique place in history: We are optimists — even in those gloomy moments when God seems absent or nonexistent.

Optimists define reality not so much by what is actually happening as by what they think — or would like to think — is happening. Take a look at the first word of this week's Torah portion, re'eh . Literally, the imperative form of the Hebrew verb "to see," re'eh can also be read in two other ways, if you change the vowels. Rah means evil one while ray-ah means friend. Thus, instead of "See, this day I have set before you the blessing and the curse," the text might be read as "An enemy has been set before you" or, possibly, "A friend has been set before you." The perspective depends on the reader's outlook.

Re'eh and the supporting texts from Isaiah remind the reader of the personal role we all have in creating our own misery or happiness, no matter what is happening around us. Isaiah's extraordinary ability to see beyond destruction and personal pain is certainly a shining example. That model can serve the reader well, bringing not only solace but also courage, strength and joy.