I often describe Judaism as the “art of irrational optimism”. By that I’m affirming belief in a Creator who is well-intentioned, who stacks the deck for our ultimate success. This underlying structural directionality towards the eventual resolution of our world into it’s potential fulfillment often isn’t apparent, but it’s built into creation nonetheless. It transcends our logic and empiricism and other isms.
With our western orientation, especially living in the United States, it’s easy to lose sight of this. But spend just a day or two in Israel, and this reality becomes visceral. Surrounded by genocidal neighbors, governed by self-defeating, chaotic and often corrupt leaders, chronically beset by drought, suffering devastating fires, sitting atop a seismically active earthquake fault, you know that there is no logical reason at all that the country survives even for a day. But our logic is limited and there we, indeed, persevere.
Let’s take a more profound paradox. We’re trained to see the world as an, at best, zero-sum game. In other words, for every winner there is a loser. There is a constant amount of matter/energy in the universe–i.e. the Laws of Thermodynamics upon which all science is based. On an individual level, we are convinced that you can either take care of your own needs or dedicate yourself to others, but that it’s impossible to do both simultaneously.
Our tradition completely contradicts that last statement. Remember, we understand the connection between the microcosm, each individual, and the macrocosm of the universe at large. We’re given a set of actions and intentions, הלכות, (halachot) paths, to enable us to connect our finite, separate and individual selves to the Infinite, the One. The fact that there are so many halachot, basically one for each moment of our daily life, is not meant to be intrusive in our lives and to make us angry and frustrated with being over-regulated and micro-managed, but rather to allow us the opportunity at each moment of each day, if we choose, to make that connection.
We’re not intended to live puritanical, grimacing lives of desperation. There is a teaching that says that when we come to give our final accounting of our life, we’re held liable for each (permitted) pleasure we encountered but declined. The flip side of this is that we’re given ברכות, berachot, blessings (perhaps better translated as acknowledgements) to recite before enjoying things in this world. Of course we’re familiar with the ברכות before eating different types of food, but there are also berachot for seeing a wonder of nature, for seeing the ocean, for smelling a fragrant spice or a fragrant plant or flower.
In fact, this is a key insight because it reveals the mechanism that we can both please ourselves and bring further completion to the world by making the connection with the Divine with the same act. We acknowledge God’s presence, benificence and love, thus “unifying the upper and the lower worlds”, bringing the Divine Infinite energy into our material world while lifting our world of physicality and the mundane into the realm of the spiritual.
It’s often a very fine line between enjoying the gifts of our lives and becoming selfish, arrogant and negative. There is also a line, again sometimes hard to find, between using gratefully and abusing selfishly. It’s not always easy, perhaps rarely easy at all, to find and live in this balance, but it is well worth striving for.