Until the lunar year re-synchs with the solar later this spring when we experience the “leap” month of Adar II, our Jewish calendar has appeared “very early” this year. Nonetheless, the upcoming parshiot (weekly Torah readings) which feature the Ten Plagues always occur in the dark days of the year. Although we’re aware, and on Pesach we celebrate that these cataclysmic events struck our enslavers rather than ourselves, even just witnessing such catastrophic disasters must have been terrifying.
Although the tales of the Torah occur in a particular time context, the Torah is eternal and it yearly unfolds in whatever present we find ourselves. As this winter, with its excess of darkness and often-extreme weather grips us, we witness the growing pressure, threat and isolation Israel is experiencing, along with the explosion of openly-expressed (and too often non-denounced) anti-semitism throughout the world.
I frequently write, teach and say that “Judaism is the art of unreasonable (often irrational) optimism”. Although it makes a fine sound-bite, I never say it glibly. Like every art, it takes years of practice, of crafting, of challenge, of small successes and great discouragements. Of course, it’s much more than merely an art (and remember, I say this as someone with an ongoing forty-year art career). It’s a way of life, it’s an obligation, it’s a multi-complex historical and social endeavor and it’s a spiritual journey.
The Jewish people in Eqypt remained silent while the physical world in their immediate vicinity was coming unstuck. Left with a promise, they saw little if any progress, only terror.
We’re told that, as slaves, we had descended to the 49th of 50 gates of pure depredation. It’s taught that we escaped Egypt at the very final moment–had we lingered even one minute longer we never would have emerged. Perhaps that final, fatal step we avoided, the 50th gate itself, was that of total despair. As weakened and exhausted as it must have been, our “art of unreasonable optimism”, of maintaining a glimmer of hope, enabled us to begin the ascent so many years ago. Generations later, it forces us to evaluate every situation we find ourselves in, not as good or bad, but as a staging ground to our next step, to believe that as dark as our immediate position is, as uncertain that little piece of the road ahead as is illuminated right now, our goal not only exists and is possible, but is destined.