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Worried Optimism - Psalm 27

August 14, 2021

A group of elderly, retired men gathers each morning at a cafe in Tel Aviv. They drink their coffee and sit for hours discussing the world situation. Given the state of the world, their talks usually are depressing. One day, one of the men startles the others by announcing, “You know what? I am an optimist.” 

The others are shocked, but then one of them notices something fishy. “Wait a minute! If you’re an optimist, why do you look so worried?”

“You think it’s easy to be an optimist?”

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin presents this story in his book, Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews, and it’s one to which we can immediately relate. Jewish culture depends on a strange mixture of freedom to kvetch and freedom to dream. As Telushkin teaches:

By insisting that the world is moving toward perfection, and that the messianic days lie in the future, Judaism encourages Jews to be optimists. But Jewish history, with its tragic record of crusades, expulsions, pogroms, and the Holocaust, impels Jews to pessimism. Hence, as Jews, we are optimists - with worried looks on our faces.

Each morning and evening during the month of Elul, we recite Psalm 27, which you may find on page 80 of Siddur Sim Shalom and page 123 of Siddur Eit Ratzon. This year, more than ever, I find my personal optimism in this piece of Biblical poetry. Psalm 27 does not ignore the communal and individual hardships we have experienced. When it states, “Though my father and mother leave me, Adonai will care for me,” it affirms both our heartbreak and our hope. In the past year, we have experienced a hurricane, a snowstorm, and numerous surges of this seemingly never-ending pandemic. In this community, we have seen illness and death. And yet, as the mixture of emotions in our Psalm conveys, we still embrace our hope for a better future and show up here. 

As we recite in Psalm 27, “I will bring God offerings with shouts of joy, singing, chanting praises to Adonai.” We continue to make two minyanim a week in this synagogue; we continue to raise our voices in song, because we know that we lift each other up with that energy of community. Both inside and outside of the sanctuary, we learn from each other’s care and opinions how to find comfort in moments of light. In the words of our Psalm, “To you, my heart has said, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Adonai, I seek.” When we experience the terror of knowing that friends and family are vulnerable to this new Delta variant, we continue to attend classes and to ask questions about our Judaism. The more we seek out who God is and what God expects from us, the closer we can get to achieving that world without the kind of tragedy and frustration that runs rampant today. We find glimpses of wisdom in the words of the Torah, the Talmud, and each other’s words.

Each and every day, by volunteering at Agudath Achim and other organizations, by practicing kindness and compassion, and by experiencing prayer and ritual, we combat our fear and sadness through the stubborn optimism of seeking God: “One thing I ask of Adonai - for this I yearn - to dwell in the House of Adonai all the days of my life - to behold God’s beauty, to pray in God’s sanctuary.” Through our stubborn optimism, we demand better from God by showing our best selves, by coming together in community, and finally, by commanding God to be God’s best self in words like those in Psalm 27. We’ll recite together, responsively on Page 80 or 123...

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782