What would you say, is the world becoming a safer place to live, a healthier environment, a more tolerant society, or is the opposite true? Is the world becoming a more violent place, disease and illness are rampant, and vitriol hatred is taking the place of civilized discourse? Which one is it? Are we going up or are we going down?
On the one hand we can look at the carnage in Syria, the deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean, North Korean missile tests that can reach the US, the spread of the zika virus, or terror attacks not only in Israel, where we have sadly come to expect them, but all over the Western world, populist governments cropping up in places where you least expect them, and democracies crumbling in places like Venezuela.
Looks pretty bad, doesn’t it?
And yet, when we look at the statistics, a very different picture is painted – the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has fallen below 10% for the first time in 2016, global inequality is on the decrease, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have failed to rise for the third year running, child mortality is roughly half of what it had been as recently as 1990, and 300,000 more people are gaining access to electricity each and every day. As recently as 1882, only 2% of homes in New York had running water; in 1900, worldwide life expectancy was 31 years old, today, by contrast, it’s 71 – and those extra decades involve far less suffering, too. In the ten to fifteen minutes that I will be speaking today, almost another 2,000 people will have risen out of [extreme] poverty.
Steven Pinker, who is credited with being one of the great champions of this optimistic view, points out that whenever you’re busy judging governments or economic systems for falling short of standards of decency, it’s all too easy to lose sight of how those standards themselves have altered over time. For example, we can be appalled by when migrants die in the Mediterranean only because we start from the position that unknown strangers from distant lands are worthy of moral consideration – a notion that would probably have struck most of us as absurd had we been born in 1700. Yet the stronger this kind of consensus grows, the more unacceptable each violation of it will seem. And so, ironically enough, the outrage you feel when you read the headlines is actually evidence that this is a magnificent time to be alive.
(Source: Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian, Is the World Really Better Than Ever)
And so, I suppose it makes sense to be an optimist, does it not?
Well, not so fast.
Oliver Burkeman, in an article in the Guardian, titled, Is the World Really Better Than Ever, points out, “that all the evidence of progress has taken place in the last 200 years – a fact that the optimists take as proof of the unstoppable potency of modern civilization, but which might just as easily be taken as evidence of how rare such periods of progress are. Humans have been around for quite some time; extrapolating from a 200-year stretch seems unwise. In doing so, we risk making the mistake of the 19th-century British historian Henry Buckle, who confidently declared that war would soon be a thing of the past. It was 1857…
But the real concern is not that the steady progress of the last two centuries will gradually swing into reverse, plunging us back to the conditions of the past; it’s that the world we have created – the very engine of all that progress – is so complex, volatile and unpredictable that catastrophe might befall us at any moment. Steven Pinker may be absolutely correct that fewer and fewer people are resorting to violence to settle their disagreements, but (as he would concede) it only takes a single angry narcissist in possession of the nuclear codes to spark a global disaster. Digital technology has unquestionably helped fuel a worldwide surge in economic growth, but if cybercriminals use it to bring down the planet’s financial infrastructure next month, that growth might rather swiftly become moot.”
And so we’re back to where we started, it may be undoubtedly clear that the world has indeed progressed substantially, but to be optimistic or pessimistic, at least about the future, is entirely a matter of perspective.
And that idea, the idea of perspective is the secret behind the celebratory nature of this Shabbos, Shabbos Nachamu. It receives its name from the Haftorah that we just read, in which the prophet begins by saying, Nachamu, Nachamu, ami, be comforted my nation. All over the world, there are concerts this Saturday night, there are celebrations, festivities for what is known as Shabbos Nachamu, the Shabbos of consolation.
I always get the question this time of year by people who take life, and take Judaism seriously, who ask me, how in the world are we celebrating on this Shabbos? We just got off the floor, having spent three weeks of mourning, culminating with Tisha B’av; no music, no celebrations, no joy. And now, people all over the world are celebrating?! Doesn’t Nachamu mean comfort as in Nichum Aveilim, comforting a mourner? But celebrations? How does this make any sense?
A number of commentators explain that the word Nachamu or Nichum is actually much more than comfort. The word nechama, is first found in the Torah when G-d decides to destroy the human race with a terrible flood. Vayinachem Hashem. There’s no comfort there! Rather, the word nechama means a change of perspective. It means that we could look at something one way and then decide consciously to look at the same thing and see it differently. That’s what this Shabbos, Shabbos Nachamu is all about.
We spent past three weeks reflecting on a destroyed Temple, on an imperfect world, on the suffering that we experienced and still experience. But today, on Shabbos Nachamu, we change our perspective. We say yes, the world is still far from perfect, there are still so many problems, so much pain, but we choose to focus on the fact that despite the brokenness of this world, despite the bleakness of this or that situation, G-d has promised us that He will redeem us, that there will be a new world order, that things will change.
Is that not reason for euphoric celebration? That despite the darkness, G-d promises us that He will bring light?
Nachamu, Nachamu, Ami. What the prophet is encouraging us to do is to change our perspective. Which by the way is not a very difficult thing for you and I to do in this day and age. Imagine telling your great-great-grandmother that Jews will live in a country where they will not be treated differently at all. She would laugh. Imagine telling her that half the Jews of the world will live in Israel and could stand on the Temple Mount. She would laugh. Imagine telling her that if someone harassed her wherever she was, the Israeli government would step in to save her. My oh my, would she laugh. So if I told you that one day there will be world peace, the poor and orphaned will be accounted for, and that evil will fade away – well, crazier things have happened.
That’s what today is all about. We could still feel the pain of the Salomon family from Chalamish who were brutally murdered on a Friday night, we could still cringe over the infighting that takes place among fellow Jews. But Nachamu, Nachamu, Ami, on this Shabbos we take a fresh perspective – look how far we’ve gone and G-d promises us that one day there will be a redemption that will go even further.
This message of perspective, of changing our perspective is relevant not only today on Shabbos Nachamu, it’s relevant every day. Because let’s be honest, we are a nation of pessimists and cynics. And frankly, who could blame us? That’s what 2000 years of tragic history does to you. You think you’re safe, think again. You’re comfortable, it’s time to move. But that cynicism and pessimism impacts the way we think, the way we talk, and the way we act. A few simple examples:
- A few weeks ago, a woman told me she has a group that gets together every week to talk about tragedies – to lament this crisis and that crisis, and to probably create a few new crises. Imagine what getting together on a weekly basis to discuss horror stories does to your outlook in life – and to your blood pressure.
- The other day I spoke to a friend who was telling me everything that was wrong with the school he sent his daughter to. With so many things wrong I was kind of surprised that he let his child attend the school. Is there nothing good about the school?
- The most common and recurring example, when there is a scandal in our community, locally, nationally, the responses that I hear in the media or among friends, is so packed with cynicism and blame that there is no room for even a glimmer of hope, for any possible solution.
I think it’s time to say collectively, Nachamu, Nachamu, Ami – as a nation, we need to change our attitude. It’s not about optimism or pessimism, it’s how we think about problems. And what I mean by that is this:
- If you tell everyone to pray for someone who is sick, let them know when they’re better. I just heard that someone I’ve been praying for over the past half a year is right now probably healthier than me. Everyone was quick to tell me when she was unhealthy but no one told me when she got better.
- Let’s be more honest about the issues in society, in politics, in the schools we send our kids to. It’s much easier and much more enjoyable to be cynical. I love cynicism, I do. I love that clever feeling of poking a hole in a perfect structure. But things aren’t as bad as we sometimes say they are, so we deliberately exaggerate, distort, and omit to make our point more powerful. Please stop. It’s bad for our hearts and more importantly, it’s bad for our children. Cynicism is toxic.
I told this friend of mine that perhaps what’s causing children to run away from religion is not only the rules of the school that are sometimes genuinely overbearing, but it’s possibly the parents negative attitude about those rules that really jades the child.
- And lastly, there are issues in our Jewish community. There are things that are really broken. But how do we talk about them? How do we frame the problem? Do we only blame those who are guilty or do we speak of solutions and how things can change? I am not suggesting we white-wash, sweep things under the carpet or anything of that nature, but how do we critique? Do we do so with intent to destroy or with the intent to fix? And of course we may not have a solution. To suggest that if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, is a little extreme, but is our criticism constructive or destructive?
Nachamu Ami – you could be an optimist or a pessimist in your outlook, either way, it’s time for our nation to adopt a positive and constructive posture.
Malky Klein is a name you may have heard of in the past few weeks. Malky, born to a Chassidish family lived in Borough Park. Popular, and fun-loving, she wasn’t very academic; she had some severe learning disabilities. In second grade, one of her teachers told her in front of the whole class that she should have stayed back in first grade. Though she was just seven years old those painful words stuck with her throughout her entire life.
She was rejected from the high school of her choice and after a few weeks in a high school that accepted her she was thrown out and had no school to go to. She was so embarrassed by her predicament that she wore her school uniform all day long so no one would know that she wasn’t in school. The pain of rejection eventually exploded and with time she moved away from her family, away from her faith, and into the dark world of heroin use.
In and out of rehab for some time, she eventually decided it was time to come home. Her first day home she overdosed. Thankfully, her father, who gave her love throughout this entire ordeal, was not too far and administered narcan, saving her life. On Shabbos afternoon, she overdosed again. This time no one was there to save her. Malky Klein, the sweet Chassidish girl from Borough Park, passed away.
I learned all this from a radio interview with Malky’s father. It’s a long interview during which he goes into every detail of her life. Throughout the story I was shaken by the amount of educators who made such foolish decisions, decisions that ultimately paved the way for this tragedy. But as the interview came to an end, the radio host asked Malky’s father if he could please share a message with the principals who rejected his daughter. The host was clearly egging him on, hoping he would yell and scream at how they killed his daughter.
But Avraham Klein, Malky’s father, didn’t take the bait. Instead he chose not to be angry, but to be compassionate, not be cynical, but to be hopeful, not be destructive, despite his destroyed family, and instead decided to build.
“I believe in the Jewish People… When we see issues that we can identify… there is no people who respond to a crisis like we do… We need to concentrate on learning more about the issues so we could help our children so that this doesn’t happen again.”
The world may be getting better, it may be getting worse. We can all agree that there are issues that need to be addressed. Nachamu, Nachamu, Ami. Let’s speak about them positively, let’s speak about them constructively, and let’s make a difference.