Parashat Shelah: The age of pessimism

Our descent into gloomy pessimism was caused by loss of faith – both in God and in ourselves.

 HALF EMPTY or half full? (photo credit: manu schwendener/Unsplash)
HALF EMPTY or half full?
(photo credit: manu schwendener/Unsplash)

Ever since we were liberated from Egypt, we had heard glowing reports about a land of God that flowed with milk and honey. Having arrived at the doorstep of this magical land, we secretly dispatched 12 agents to gather intel and to determine the best entry strategy.

Everything our spies witnessed in Israel corroborated our expectations. Israel was not a typical land, and everything about this country was outsized, beyond human imagination. The mammoth fruits were so colossal that it took eight men to carry one cluster of grapes. Fearsome giants roamed the land, capable of crushing any would-be trespassers underfoot. Evidently, these gigantic ogres weren’t prepared to simply roll over and hand us their country. Life seemed unforgiving in this ruthless land, which appeared to devour its inhabitants. Nothing is ever as easy as it looks on paper, and entering the land of God was no different.

Shuddering at the reports of the returning spies, we stood at a historical crossroads. We could optimistically place our trust in a God who had emancipated us from Egypt and had split the sea. Alternatively, we could take the pessimistic route, assuming the worst and caving in to our dark fears. Sadly, we chose the cynical approach, rebelled against Moses and rerouted Jewish history for 40 years. It all depends on how you spin it.

Our descent into gloomy pessimism was caused by loss of faith – both in God and in ourselves. A year before the expedition of the spies, we betrayed God by bowing to a golden calf. Though He forgave us, perhaps there were limits to His divine clemency. Suffering the lingering trauma of our national betrayal, we harbored severe reservations about whether God would assist us in battling these insurmountable giants.

More significant than losing faith in God, we lost faith in ourselves. In the weeks before this reconnaissance mission, the nation was roiled by several jarring controversies, such as our immature complaining about meat and our nostalgic pining for the creature comforts of Egypt. After these controversies subsided, the slandering of Moses by his own two siblings further eroded confidence in his leadership. Our social fabric was quickly disintegrating, and without confidence in our future, we sank into dark pessimism, collapsing under the pressure of our fears.

THE PARTING of the Red Sea during the Jewish nation’s escape from Egypt, an illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE PARTING of the Red Sea during the Jewish nation’s escape from Egypt, an illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Religious success depends on delicately balancing between doubt and optimism. Questioning ourselves and examining our personal behavior enables honest introspection and religious improvement. By contrast, inflated self-confidence builds complacency and leads to religious apathy and attrition. Doubt preserves religious integrity.

Though doubt and uncertainty are vital for personal religious growth, pessimism and uncertainty about our collective future are religiously unhealthy. Essential to religious belief is an optimistic view of the future. God established a historical covenant with our people guaranteeing our Jewish destiny. We may face temporary or even prolonged adversity, but Jewish destiny is inevitable. Excess pessimism about our future represents a deficiency of faith in God. Faith isn’t meant to glaze over hardship or propose naive assumptions that “everything will be all right.” However, faith should provide a bedrock of optimism for our long-term prospects.

The age of pessimism

We are currently surrounded by a culture of pessimism. Several anti-humanistic trends are weakening our belief in the future of humanity and are causing widespread pessimism. The first tide of pessimism is based on environmental concerns about the unlimited growth of technology and how it is causing irreparable damage to our planet. This bleak outlook about the future is infecting modern culture with pessimism, convincing us that tomorrow will undoubtedly be worse than today. Astonishingly, some even assert that it is pointless and selfish to bring children into a world that will soon go extinct. Panic about global destruction is causing widespread anticipatory anxiety and is providing a gloomy outlook about our future on this planet. We obviously must do better to conserve planetary resources, but without demoralizing doomsday prophecies and without falling into pessimism.

Ironically, the second current of modern pessimism, often referred to as techno-pessimism, is being driven by overconfidence in human technological prowess. Artificial intelligence will completely reshape our world and help us transcend many of our human limits. Fusing artificial intelligence to human beings may allow us to increase our intelligence and faculties. Additionally, we may be able to create sentient beings that can travel to parts of outer space that currently lie beyond the limits of human travel. Down the line, we may be able to preserve our minds or create new forms of intelligence.

Ironically, this supremely optimistic view of the future cheapens the value of human life. If we create beings of superior intelligence, what does that say about human identity and about our future? As robots become more human, humans become more “robosized.” Perhaps Darwin was right and, as the world evolves to produce higher beings, humans will be the next in line to go extinct. Perhaps we are creating our own extinction.

Environmentalist alarms and swelled ambitions about enhanced reality are combining to paint a bleak and pessimistic future for the creature of God we call Homo sapiens.

Israeli pessimism

Israelis have their own set of reasons to be pessimistic. Over the past year, life in Israel hasn’t always been rosy. We have endured terrible internal strife, which has shattered our national unity and torn apart our social fabric. In the past, as difficult as life has been in Israel, we always took solace in national unity as the great equalizer. We may have encountered difficult periods, but at least we faced the challenges together, as one family. There is nothing like being at home, even when adversity strikes. However, over the past year, it has felt as though our home itself is burning. To make matters worse, our enemies have sensed our social vulnerability and have begun rattling the sabres of war. Over the past year in Israel, there has been much to be pessimistic about.

This is precisely where faith sets in – faith in God, the dignity of man and the destiny of Jewish history. Humans are the masterpiece of God’s creation, gifted with the divine image and personal dignity. As part of His concern for human welfare, He guaranteed that our planet will not collapse, and that humanity will not go extinct. The divine promise of global sustainability does not absolve us from the moral duty of environmental conservation, but it does provide a baseline of confidence about the future. We may develop advanced technology to create beings of higher intelligence of faculties, but we alone possess a divinely endowed and immortal soul, and we alone have been chosen by God for moral experience and conscience.

As Jews, we have been chosen not just for moral expectations but for a historical covenant. For thousands of years, though dislocated from our homeland, we represented God and His values. Our return to the Land of Israel is an event of epic proportions and signals the beginning of the end of history. We know exactly how history concludes.

No one can determine exactly how the future will unfold, but faith stabilizes our confidence about the future and should help us repel the dark clouds of pessimism. ■

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.