For the People of the Oy, the Cup is Half Full

Optimism is not always an obvious feature in the character of the Jewish People. We are the People of the big “Oy,” as those of us in congregations know so well. We are worriers and too often expect the worst to happen. This worrying is not unfounded, as can be confirmed by a history in which bad things have happened to us. We are not imagining it.

Interestingly enough, the Jewish People are also amazing optimists while wringing our hands at the same time. We “Choose Life” as commanded in our Torah, and we affirm the birth of the Mashiach/Messianic Age (choose your theological approach) on Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for our Temples and other painful Jewish historical episodes. Placing the birth of light and renewal smack within a fast day commemorating the darkness of destruction gives a clear message that we as a people need always to remember that hitting rock bottom is often the necessary birthing ground for hope and future salvation. And so, we are curiously, a people of Pessimistic Optimists.

This week’s parasha, Shlach Lecha, is a beautiful example of this point. Of the twelve spies sent by Moshe Rabbeinu to scout the land, ten came back with stunning tales of the disaster awaiting us when we enter Eretz Yisrael. “We were like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33). These ten spies clearly did not believe in their own personal power to change our future in the face of adversity. It was Joshua and Caleb alone who came back reporting that it was “a land that flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 14:8), who changed our history. They saw exactly what the other ten saw, but their spin on the situation was one of hope and the power to overcome the challenges ahead. It was Joshua and Caleb’s positive inspiration that made for the decision to move forward with courage into a land that was, in fact, quite frightening for a ragged bunch of people who had the recent memory of being degraded in oppression and slavery.

Working to uphold social justice in today’s world of daunting injustices, oppression and pain requires just this kind of optimism. It means that one must believe that, with it all, the world can be a better place and that I can make it happen through my actions. Being an activist for social justice means that one can walk past seemingly insurmountable odds and not be mired in the paralysis of pessimism and inaction. It is personal optimism that pushes us to march, protest and give voice to express demands for changes in unjust situations, be they political or social. The pessimist is the one who shrugs his or her shoulders and feels that nothing can change. The optimist dives in with faith.

And so it is that we Jews come by optimism and activism quite honestly. It is our historical and spiritual legacy. It is Joshua and Caleb in this week’s parasha, Shlach Lecha. It is Miriam who saved a baby brother at the risk of life and limb, who then grew up to lead us to liberation. It is Tamar, left alone, who defied convention to have a child whose future ancestors became the line of David and by extension the Messianic Age. And, among countless others in our Torah, it is Moshe, who while Divinely chosen, could himself had chosen another more royal and luxurious life instead of speaking out and acting against injustice. All were optimists at their core that the world could be better and that they would contribute personally of themselves to make it happen.

Shlach Lecha is our Torah’s bold statement exhorting us to be positive, have faith and express it through action. Our Jewish world would have been a very different place had Moshe followed the ten. It is the two lone and solitary voices, speaking out against the majority, that made the positive difference in every future Jewish step that followed.


In memory of my dear husband, Cantor Nathaniel Entin z”l, who left this earthy existence on Parashat Shlach Lecha in the year 2005.

Rabbi Cynthia Kravitz was ordained in 1983 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She has served for 33 years in congregations throughout the Greater Philadelphia area and Chester County.