Is Optimism Naive?
Are you confident about the future? There are those who are frustratingly optimistic. No matter what the present, their faith in mankind, destiny and G-d’s basic commitment to goodness is unshakable. Others are more jaded. They look at the current state of affairs and take a dismal view of the future. Where do you stand, do you believe in positive thought?
Our sages were great believers in positive thought. They believed that positive energy always triumphs over negative.1 No matter how bleak the future, how cruel the present and how miserable the past, they believed that positive energy would always prevail. Were they naïve?
Looking at the world today, one wonders if the forces of goodness, if the power of positive, can prevail. Radical movements, in support of terror, abound and stable governments appear unable to counter it. Only recently, relatively unknown Nigerian groups have taken to kidnapping innocent girls and there is little we can do to stop them. Is the future positive?
The power of Positive
Let me tell you why I believe in positive thought and why the sages believed that no matter how powerful evil grows, positive energy is always stronger.
The foundation for such thinking is this: The way G-d constructed our world, nothing is absolutely evil or good. Everything can be used for either, it depends on the user. This is also true of people. No one is consummately good or evil. In each of us there is potential for good and bad. The choice is ours.
Within us there are two driving forces, one for good, the other for bad. The first impulse is to the noble, holy and G-dly, the second is to the wilful, selfish and brazen. We are people of duel impulse, but the choice is ours – we are always in firm control. We can give the nod to our inner G-dly spark and behave morally or let our inner beast rule and turn willful.
Our animal impulse is essentially selfish and our G-dly impulse is essentially selfless. This is easily proven. The Talmud proclaims that as a rule, no one sins for another’s gain.2 If we sin, it’s for ourselves. If I asked you to commit a sin for my benefit, you would turn me down - Thank you for the offer, but go find your own sin. Our G-dly side is the polar opposite. Good people routinely go out of their way for altruistic purpose with no motive of self-gain. The goodness in us is always willing to go out on a limb for others.
This means only one thing. We share our goodness, but hoard our evil. We don’t spread sin. On the contrary, we are rather greedy about it, we keep our power, greed and lust for ourselves. But when it comes to a good deed, we are more than happy to share it. Like a flame on a candle, we appreciate that light isn’t diminished when it’s shared. On the contrary the more it spreads, the brighter it grows.
Rabbi Duber Schneuri, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote that when two people meet, the power of positive energy multiplies. When we are alone, we are equally balanced - our good impulses are countered by our bad impulses. But when we meet, the scales are tipped. My impulse for good reaches out to help you and yours reaches out to help me. By contrast, your impulse for bad remains focused on you and my impulse for bad remains focused on me. Thus I am left with only one impulse for bad, but two impulses for good. My own and the assistance of yours. The scales are tipped for the good.
We now gain insight into the power of a census. On the one hand, the individual only counts for one. On the other hand, each belongs to a community of thousands. By recording the number of Jews that traveled through the desert, the Torah offers a glimpse into how intense the power of positive energy was at that time.
There were 603,550 Jews in the desert.3 Each, with a positive inclination toward goodness and a negative inclination toward greed, misery and grumbling. Yet, each time they did a good deed, the merit was shared with everyone. This means that each good deed was multiplied by a factor of 603,550. But each time they grumbled, they grumbled for themselves. A grumble counted for one sin. A good deed counted for more than a half million.4
The Power of Gathering
This is also why such emphasis is placed on gathering in multitudes to perform good deeds. The quorum for prayer is a minimum of ten men. No matter how holy and meditative private prayer is, one cannot compare the intensity of its positive energy to the energy of public prayer.
When I pray at home, my prayer is only as meritorious as myself. The degree to which G-d listens to my prayer depends directly on the level of my merit. When we pray in large groups, each person’s prayer applies to everyone else. Even if you don’t merit G-d’s attention today, he listens to your prayer because at least nine others, who do merit it, are praying for you.5
Then there is the sacred aura of the room. When a quorum of ten gather, you have ten selfish impulses countered by a hundred good ones. Each person is one to the power of ten. With so much holiness in the room, it becomes a vortex of positive energy and a conducive environment for prayer.
If this is true of prayer, it is true of all good deeds. When we perform them in groups they are multiplied with immediacy. Good deeds performed in private are also multiplied by all the Jews in our orbit, but when they are all present at the same time, the factor of multiplication is more intense and immediate.
Our sages were men of positive thought and always optimistic about the future. To their view, each good deed was multiplied by every other person in the universe while each bad deed counted only for itself. Accordingly, positive energy trumps negative every time. Despite the dismal state of affairs today, we have the power to change the world simply by increasing our acts of kindness and good deeds. Good deeds are contagious; they inspire, first those in our immediate circle and then spread beyond.
The most effective fundraising initiatives are ones that secure matching grants up front. When you know that each dollar you give is multiplied by three or four, you are inclined to give more. When you know that your good deeds are multiplied by a factor of billions you perform as many as you can. Remember, you can make a difference. You can change the world. Go out and change it today!
1. Babylonian Talmud: Sotah, 11a.
2. Babylonian Talmud: Baba Metziah, 5b
3. Numbers 1: 46. This is only men ages 20 – 60. We might speculate that there were three million Jews in all.
4. Babylonian Talmud: Sotah, 37b.The Talmud insists that the merit of each good deed is multiplied by 603,550 x 603,550 because each recipient shares the received merit with all others, thus further expanding the reach.
5. In a quorum you are also praying for others and G-d always listens when we pray for others.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org