Believing is an act of rebellion, optimism an act of courage

“Optimism is radical. It is the hard choice, the brave choice. And it is most needed now in the face of despair – just as a car is most useful when there is a distance to close. Otherwise it’s a large unmovable object parked in the garage.”

These words by Oscar-winning filmmaker Del Toro were written back in the distant past: the beginning of 2019, but are strikingly relevant for a Corona world.

It’s hard to be an optimist today, many would pronounce you a fool or a romantic. After all, we’re living in a strange season of social distancing and isolation, masks and sterilizers and everywhere the threat of the tiny virus, unseen but potentially deadly in its smile and spread. It’s like William Blake’s “invisible worm/That flies in the night. In the howling storm” and destroys in “his dark secret way” the beautiful rose .

It’s even harder to be positive when your life is overturned, when you or people close to you are losing their jobs and mighty companies and industries are collapsing like sandcastles on the beach.These are scary times even if we in Australia seem fortunate to be flattening the curve and curbing the little tyrant.

It’s tempting to give in to despair and depression when almost everything you relied on and took for granted is spinning in unpredictable ways,

But it’s precisely at times like this that optimism is the right and best choice. Not the kind of mindless and sentimental optimism that denies reality and evades the awful truth that things are simply shocking, hard to comprehend and causing enormous pain in people’s lives. But the kind of optimism that acknowledges the fear, the pain and the loss and makes a choice not to surrender but to strengthen, not to falter but to fight, not to give up but to climb up.

It takes courage and conviction to be an optimist. Jewish history has taught us one thing: you can’t have blind hope but neither can you surrender to blind hopelessness. Despite our history and enormous suffering, we held on to hope. David took on Goliath, Queen Isabella didn’t vanquish us and Hitler didn’t destroy us.

Optimism is a choice and bravery can topple the powerful. Says Del Toro “Every day we all become the balance of our choices – choices between love and fear, belief or despair. Optimism is our instinct to inhale while suffering… Look around you now and decide between the two. Inhale or die”

These words speak to me today as we spend most of our time (in the words of the Shema) “sitting in our homes” rather than walking or “traveling along the road” (Deuteronomy 6:7). These words speak to me now as I reflect on what matters most. And sitting at home has given me pause to think more deeply about how faith gives hope, how prayer can strengthen and steel you. It gives me hope today on Yom Hashoah.

I’ve just re-read Victor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search For Meaning, his memoir of Auschwitz and how in situations far worse for many than ours, people could still choose and did still choose life over death, dignity even while dying. Frankl liked to quote Nietzsche “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” You often don’t have control over the circumstances of your life, you can’t control most external events, but you can shape your attitude to them. You may not know God’s inscrutable ways but you can decide how you will react to them.

For years I’ve read the Psalms of King David but they’ve never meant as much to me as now. I was struck this morning by the phrase (Psalms 45,15) in Ashrei “The eyes of all Yeshaburu wait for you”. The word Shever in Hebrew is more commonly used in the sense of to break, shatter or ruin, but spelt exactly the same way it can also mean to hope, expect, to wait.

I wondered how the word usually associated with broken-ness can also refer to hope and anticipation. Then it struck me with a bolt of clarity – that’s precisely what optimism is about. It’s not about denying the ugly reality of a world so easily broken by war, conflict, a pandemic or the plague.  It’s about acknowledging it, facing it and recognizing you’re not going to let it decide for you  it’s not going to shape you.

That’s why I relish the positives of confinement – a time to pray more deeply, read and learn more widely, reflect more thoughtfully and relate better to all I am in contact with. An opportunity to appreciate every breath.

Corona may attack the very air we breathe, but we can confound it and we will beat it. For now we can do that best by preserving and honoring every single breath we take and the breath of everyone we meet.

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.
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