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The Fallacy of Happy Endings Parshas Balak

I have good news and bad news. Which one do you want to hear first?

 

The truth is, I don’t have either, but I was curious which one you would choose. And that’s because Daniel Pink, in his latest book titled, Now, cites study after study indicating that people like things to finish on a high and positive note. Whether it’s a book, whether it’s an announcement, and even colonoscopies! That’s right, studies have found that people rate longer, more painful colonoscopies far more favorably than shorter ones that end on a painful note!

Finishing on a positive note outweighs any pain or sadness that one feels during the experience. You probably missed it but if you check the Shabbos sheet, we rearranged the announcements, placing the condolences above the Mazel Tov’s and not beneath them, so that the last thing you read is positive.

I guess if there is some good news, it’s that Judaism’s telling of history also finishes on a positive note. A tenant of our tradition is the belief in the Messianic Era and the End of Days. After all the sadness, misfortune, and bloodshed of the world as we know it, we believe in a final chapter during which “the lamb will lie with the wolf”, and “the nations will beat the swords into ploughs”. It doesn’t get much better than that in terms of happy endings. Utopia.

And yet, Messianism is a very dangerous belief. In the words of Giles Fraser, “It is often said that the danger with religion is that it gets too political. The reverse is true. The danger” he argues, “is that it dreams of a world beyond politics, where everyone moves in perfect agreement, beyond contestation. This becomes a dream so compelling some people will kill for it.”

In its most extreme and dangerous form, you have radical Islam; this world, to them, is a mirage, it’s nothing, it is simply a tool to get to the next, so who cares if we leave a path of destruction in our way?

Another tragic example was communism. Karl Mark was their prophet, painting a beautiful, utopian world, where everyone is the same, with no inequality or divisions. But how many millions of people were slaughtered on the altar of communism for the sake of the greater good, of bringing about this utopian vision?

Or if you want a more current example, if you want to see the negative impact of Messianism, go to Crown Heights and interview people. Because with all the wonderful accomplishments of Chabad, for all that they do for the Jewish People, there are many in their ranks who are still struggling, trying to understand how the Messiah, their great rabbi who they believed to be Mashiach, can die.

A friend of mine was a student in Crown Heights when the Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson died; he described losing the Rebbe like a phantom limb. You know it’s not there, but you feel like it is. He spent months recuperating, mentally, and he and so many of his friends, because of that experience, still struggle with their faith.

Or travel to Israel and speak to some segments of the religious Zionists who still cannot understand how the six-day war did not lead immediately to the redemption, and they are disillusioned as they cannot understand how huge tracts of land are now back in Egyptian or Arab hands.

Tragically, in some of those circles, you hear a faint echo of the sentiment you hear coming out of ISIS. A sentiment that states that we are bringing the Messiah, we don’t need to follow any rules, we don’t need to be sensitive to the loss of life. We’re right, you’re wrong. End of story.

And, you may ask, maybe they are right…

Doesn’t Judaism teach us of an End of Days? Of a better world? Shouldn’t we be pushing forward at all costs?

In a sermon delivered in the late 70’s, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, former chancellor of Yeshiva University, distinguished between a Utopian Vision and the true Messianic Vision. To quote:

“[The Utopian vision] teaches that we can, with the means available to us, create the perfect society, one of universal peace and justice for all men. The Messianic vision is one which sets a… goal and inspires us to approximate it as best we can. But it knows that we cannot do so fully right now. The Utopian dream is one which inspires us with impatience and drives us to expect realization here and now.” [The Messianic dream teaches us to] “dream the dreams of Isaiah, of nation not lifting up sword against nation… but don’t be unrealistic. Strive for these always — but without illusions as to their viability and applicability and realizability in the present or the immediate future.”

So what does this mean practically? I’ll share two applications:

1 – I noticed that Rabbi Wohlberg’s topic this week is the Trump Peace Plan and the Wohlberg Peace Plan. I can’t wait to hear what it is, not only because I’m sure it will be hysterical, but because I don’t have a peace plan but I know we need one. Simply wishing the Arabs away is not a solution – nor is pretending that only Israel is to blame a solution either. Both approaches are utopian and not messianic. Both approaches, that of the far left and the far right, want to impose their make-believe world on reality. Utopian dreams don’t work and are dangerous.

In a messianic vision, we need to on the one hand unabashedly take claim of our well-earned moral high-ground – we have offered peace plan after peace plan, given land away for nothing, fought in the most sensitive of fashions, and received nothing in return. And we need to balance that conviction with compassion, with a recognition that there are millions of Arabs living in our land, and just because no one else is caring for them that doesn’t exempt us from doing the same. That’s messianism on a national level.

On a personal level, the difference between a Messianic and Utopian mindset often takes place when dealing with personal tragedies, or even better, other people’s personal tragedies. The worst thing you can ever say to anyone is, “Don’t worry, it will all be okay.” Have you ever been on the receiving side of that? There’s nothing more grating to the ear.

It’s not comforting because it’s patently false. Unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending, not every illness is healed, not only that, but many tragedies don’t even have a silver lining. (Is there a silver lining on the Holocaust?!)

Now some of you once again may question this, based on a well-known story involving Rabbi Akiva. The great sage of the 2nd century was once travelling with a donkey, a rooster, and a lamp. He came to a city but no one welcomed him in and he was forced to sleep in the neighboring forest. That night, his donkey was eaten by wild animals, his rooster died, and the torch blew out. But instead of despairing, Rabbi Akiva famously said, “Gam zu l’tovah, this too is for the good.”

And he was right.

Because the next morning he learned that the city that didn’t welcome him, was overrun by an invading army. Had he stayed there, he would have been taken captive. Had his donkey been alive to neigh, had his rooster crowed, and had his lamp given off light, who knows if he would have survived. “Gam zu l’tovah, this too is for the good.”

This was a mantra of Rabbi Akiva throughout his life. When he saw the ruins of the Temple, while his colleagues cried, Rabbi Akiva laughed, telling them that now that we’ve hit rock-bottom, we will certainly arise again. And when a young warrior, by the name of Bar Koseva started gathering troops to rebel against the Romans, Rabbi Akiva threw his support behind him, claiming that Bar Koseva, was actually Bar Kochba, the Son of the Star, a play on words, based on this week’s Parsha, where the Messianic king is referred to as a star. Rabbi Akiva boldly proclaimed this warrior to be the Messiah. “Gam zu l’tovah, this too is for the good.”

But of course, it wasn’t all for the good.

Not only did Bar Kochba die, not only did this rebellion cause the Romans to brutally murder more Jews than they ever had before, but Rabbi Akiva himself died a most gruesome death at the hands of the Roman executioners.

You see, Judaism does believe that “Gam zu l’tovah, this too is for the good” but in a Messianic fashion and not in a utopian one. We believe that in the big picture everything is for the good – whether it’s an illness, a tragedy, a hardship, in some cosmic fashion, it is ultimately for the good. Whether because it puts us on a proper path, because it alleviates some suffering from the afterlife, because it paves the way for the End of Days, or for a myriad of other reasons. Everything is for the good, but not necessarily in the here and now.

This is why when a person dies, Jewish law demands of us to mourn, even though we know the deceased is in a better place. And this is why there is so little discussion in Biblical sources of the afterlife. We live with the dreams of the Messianic ideal with our feet firmly planted on earth. On the one hand we proclaim, Ani Ma’amin, I believe in a better world to come – and it can indeed come at any moment! We do live with the recognition that “Gam zu l’tovah, this too is for the good,” – on some level everything is for the good. And at the same time, Judaism demands of us to acknowledge the world as we know it, to engage in it, to face evil and not ignore it. To try to change the world without obliterating it.

Today begins the Three Weeks of Mourning leading up to Tisha B’av. I think it’s an appropriate time to discuss the notion of evil and suffering from a Jewish perspective and so over the next two weeks, I’d like to continue this conversation, both philosophically as well as practically, on how to grapple with the existence and experience of evil in this world.

For today, let’s conclude by just reiterating – Jewish stories do have a happy ending but I suppose it depends on how you define the end of the story. We are ‘Messianists’ and not ‘Utopianists’. We believe in acknowledging evil, acknowledging hardship, acknowledging that in our lives every story may not conclude the way we want it to. But we also believe in striving for something better, not imposing something better, but working, working together even with those who we do not agree, on perfecting this world, and bringing it slowly but surely in line with the beautiful Messianic vision of the future.

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