Optimism vs. Pessimism: The Danger of Blurring Imagination and Reality | Aleph Beta

Optimism Vs. Pessimism

The Danger Of Blurring Imagination And Reality

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

In this week's parsha video, we ask, are pessimists just rationalists, and is hope just naivete? Rabbi Fohrman points out an intriguing language parallel and argues that hope always exists, but we must direct it towards the future, not the past.


Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Shelach.

Today I would like to talk to you about the ideas of hope and hopelessness.

Imagination vs. Reality: Finding Hope in the Hopeless Situations

Everything looks sunny if you can have a sense of hope. Just ask Annie how she looks at tomorrow but there is a part of us that argues against hope, a part of us that uses a very clever argument to really destroy hope and the argument is, 'You are just giving in into your imagination'. When you look at the reality and if you really understand the way things are then you would be crushed the same way I am. I understand reality, you live in the world of your imagination.

This really is the counter argument against any hopefulness and it's a very clever counter argument. It seems so much more rational, so much more grounded than hope. Reality is so much more rationally appealing than imagination, isn't it? What is the counter argument for that? Does reality really defeat hope? I don't think so and I think this week's Parsha tells us why.

Hopelessness in the Bible

This week's Parsha talks to us about hopelessness. As the spies came back with their report and they spoke of the giants that inhabited the land of Israel and the people became convinced that they didn't have the military might to prevail over the inhabitants of the land. That night they cried, vatisa kol-haeda vayitnu et kolam vayivku ham balaylah hahu, the people lifted up their voices and cried.

That particular expression for lifting up your voice and crying is an expression that the Torah uses to convey hopelessness. It is the sense that something is slipping through your fingers and will never come back. It is the expression used to describe Hagar when she becomes convinced that her son Ishmael is doomed to die and she casts him beneath the bramble bush and sits off a distance away, lifts up her voice and cries. It is the same language used to describe Esau, when Esau realizes he is not going to get the blessing from his father and he lifts up his voice and cries. It is the language used by the Torah to describe Yaakov, when Yaakov first meets Rachel, the woman of his dreams and yet intuits that in some way he is never really going to be able to unite with her, there will always be something that comes in the way.

We discussed these early on in our parsha videos back in Genesis and here too the people lift up their voices and they cry. We will never be able to prevail, we will never get the land. What happens next I believe is a study in the dynamics of hopelessness.

The Choice Between Thinking Positive and Negative

Vayilonu al-Moshe v'al-Aharon kol benei Yisrael, the people complained to Aaron and to Moshe and they said lu-matnu, if only we had died in Egypt, o bamidbar hazeh, or in this desert, lu matnu, if only we had died. Lamah Hashem mevi otanu al-haaretz hazot, why did God bring us to this land just to die by the sword, halo tov lanu shuv mitzrayimah, wouldn't it just be better to go back to Egypt, vayomru ish al-achiv and then one man said to his friend nitnah rosh v'nashuvah mitzrayimah, let's appoint ourselves a new leader and go back to Egypt.

Look at those verses carefully, look at the role of Egypt in those verses. There are three stages here. Chart how the role of Egypt changes from verse to verse. Let's look at the first one. Lu matnu, they say, if only we had died in Egypt or in this desert, if only we had died. How central is Egypt, not very central. Their main point is that if only we had died. Doesn't really matter where we die, we die in the desert, we die in Egypt but then look at the next verse, lamah Hashem mevi otanu al-haaretz hazot, why did God bring us to this place? Halo tov lanu shuv mitzrayimah, wouldn't it be better for us to just be back to Egypt? Egypt is a little bit more central still not the main idea of the verse. The main idea of the verse is how come you brought us here? But the focus on Egypt is raised. Look at the next verse, vayomru ish al-achiv, one person said to his fellow, nitnah rosh v'nashuvah mitzrayimah, let's find ourselves a leader, let's go back to Egypt. Now Egypt is front and center. What's happened here, what's happened here is the snowball effect. They started talking about Egypt tangentially and then Egypt works its way more and more into their consciousness until it is the center, till everything revolves around. This fantasy that we can just chuck it all and go back to Egypt.

Egypt is better, it is a better place to die, better place to live but now let's subject the argument to rational analysis. Is dying in Egypt really so much better than dying by going to fight against inhabitants of a land? The people's argument is that to go battle against the land is hopeless. We understand the reality, we know that we can never conquer the land. You fools to have hoped, to imagine a better future but you know what hopelessness is really doing?

Fueling Hopelessness: The Past vs. the Future

The fuel for hopelessness is actually the imagination as well. It's just that instead of directing imagination towards the future, the hopeless person directs it towards the past. That past, it was so wonderful, why did we ever change it? How did a I ever let you convince me to give up that job back at the fast food joint? Things were so much better there, think of all the free burgers.

The past was horrible, that is why we left but then the hopeless mind, imagination begins to work insidiously to transform not the future but the past. The past was so much better, it was better in Egypt, let's go back to Egypt.

What the hopeless part of you tells you that I am a realist, that I don't give into imagination, it is a bald faced lie. In the end, human beings always imagine. So the only question is what do we imagine? To imagine a better future, where do we lie to ourselves and imagine a better past?

How to Change Negative Thinking to Positive

Imagination is constructive when it's directed towards the future, destructive when it is directed towards the past, and the beautiful thing is it is actually something that you can practice, it is something that you can train yourself to do, examine your thoughts. You move in to a new house, do you find yourself beset by buyer's remorse? Wouldn't it be so much better to move into the one with the sun room? How did we pass that one up in the other neighborhood? Subject those thoughts to critical analysis. Are you so certain that your imagination isn't playing games with you?

If you think it might be, try directing your imagination towards the future. Look at all the times that we have ahead of us, how this house will feel when the shouts of joyful children and grandchildren of mine reverberate down the walls, how would it feel? If I can bring happiness and serenity into my home, in my relationship with my wife, my relationships with my kids, what will this house feel like then?

The Power of Looking to the Future, Not the Past

The beautiful thing is I have control over those things, I at least have a shot through my own efforts combined with God shining his face on me to be able to imagine and create a better future. I have no shot to change the past. Ironically using imagination directing solely towards the past is the most irrational thing of all.

The past can't be changed but the future might be. Use imagination to give yourself the courage to make that better future come alive. It's what imagination was made for.

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