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The Ironic Power of Pessimism

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

The Ironic Power of Pessimism

Shabbat Parshat Shelach Lecha, June 16-17, 2017

By Rabbi Pam Frydman

Once there was a boy named Stanley. Stanley was a stutterer and he had trouble getting his words out. When it was time for Stanley to become bar mitzvah, his rabbi asked him to write a speech. Stanley reached for the chalk board that he carried with him and he wrote on the chalkboard, “I can’t give a speech.”

“Yes, you can,” said Stanley’s rabbi. “You can give a speech for your bar mitzvah speech because I talked to the cantor and we agreed that after you write your speech, the cantor will set your speech to music so you can sing it.”

Stanley sang his bar mitzvah speech and during the process, he started to believe himself. Stanley grew up to became a lawyer, a rabbi and a lover of music. This past March, Rabbi Stanley W. Levy served as our scholar-in-residence here at Congregation P’nai Tikvah. Those of us who heard Rabbi Stan during our scholar weekend will remember that he had a lot to tell us and teach us.

Our very own scholar-in-residence Rabbi Stanley W. Levy is living proof that the impossible is sometimes possible. We just need to have the vision to understand how to get there, or we need someone else who has the vision to show us how to get there, and then we need to have the stick-to-it-iveness to engage in the difficult work of turning the impossible into the possible.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites were in their second year in the desert and they arrived at the wilderness of Paran which runs along the border of the promised land. It did not take the Israelites forty years to get from Egypt to Israel. They arrived at the border of the promised land during their second year of wandering. Now you might ask, why didn’t the Israelites just enter the land during their second of wandering when they had already arrived at the border? Why did they wander for a full forty years before entering the land?

The answer is that the Israelites who had been slaves in Egypt did not believe that they had the capacity to enter the promised land and conquer it and survive there. Like young Stan Levy who wrote on his chalk board that he could not give a bar mitzvah speech, the Israelites wrote on the chalkboard of history that they needed to keep wandering in the desert for forty years in order to get ready to earn the right to enter the promised land.

This is the story of why the Israelites needed to wander for forty years:

When the Israelites got to the wilderness of Paran, G-o-d told Moses to choose twelves scouts, one from each of the twelve tribes. Moses selected the twelve scouts and he asked the scouts to cross over the border into the promised land and scope it out. Moses told the scouts to see what kind of land it was and what kind of people lived in the land. Were the people in the land strong or weak, few or many? Moses also told the scouts to see whether the land was good or bad, whether the cities were tent cities or fortified cities, whether the land was fat or lean and whether there was wood in the land. Moses also encouraged the scouts to be courageous and he told them to bring back some fruit that they found growing in the land.

The scouts entered the promised land and chose some fruit just as Moses had told them to do. Ten scouts brought back a pessimistic report and two scouts brought back an optimistic report. The pessimists said, “yes, it is a land flowing with milk and honey and here is the fruit you asked us to bring, but the people in the land are fierce and the cities are fortified.” The pessimistic scouts went on to describe the different populations who lived in different parts of the land, including the Anakim -- the giants.

The pessimistic scouts did not just speak with Moses. They gave their report to the entire Israelite community and their report struck fear in the hearts of the people.

The two optimistic scouts told a very different story than the pessimistic scouts. The optimistic scout named Caleb said, “let’s go up into the land right away and possess it. We’ll be able to do it.”

But the pessimists argued with Caleb saying, “we cannot go up against the people in that land because they are stronger then we are and we will appear like grasshoppers in their eyes.”

The Israelites believed the reports of the pessimistic scouts and discounted the reports of the optimistic scouts. They started talking against Moses and Aaron and they also started to bemoan their fate. “Would that we would have died in Egypt!” they cried. “Our wives and children will fall prey,” they moaned. “Better that we should go back to Egypt!” they exclaimed.

Moses and Aaron were so distraught by the pessimism of the people that they fell on their faces. Meanwhile, the optimistic scouts Joshua and Caleb tried to reason with the people. They pointed out that the promised land was a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and they tried to convince the people to enter the land right away and leave it to G-o-d to defend them.

But the reports of the pessimistic scouts had caused the Israelites to become so pessimistic that they actually became violent and they prepared to pelt Joshua and Caleb with stones. At a certain point, G-o-d intervened and brought a plague that claimed the lives of the ten pessimistic scouts.

It was the pessimism of the Israelites in response to the report of the pessimistic scouts that led G-o-d to require the Israelites to wander in the desert for forty years until the generation of adults who left Egypt could live out their lives and die in the wilderness. The forty years of wandering was an act of compassion by G-o-d who allowed the Jewish people to raise up a generation of optimistic Jews who could enter the promised land and conquer and possess it.

The story isn’t over yet. We still become pessimistic from time to time. We still forget that being a chosen people does not mean that we are better than everyone else. It just means that we are chosen to walk the path of Judaism while others have been chosen to walk their own special path.

Moses is known as the greatest Jew who ever lived. But Moses did not win a Nobel Peace Prize and he did not earn his doctorate from Yale or Harvard. Moses was the son of slaves and he was raised amidst royalty by Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him when he was a baby. When Moses grew up, he ran away from Egypt after killing a task master he saw beating a slave. Ultimately, he became a shepherd and tended the flocks that belonged to his father-in-law. It was while Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flocks that he came upon the burning bush where G-o-d spoke with him and told him to go down to Egypt to help free the Israelites from slavery.

The greatness of Moses was not in his pedigree. Rather, it was in his capacity to believe in himself and to believe that he, a mere mortal, could bargain with G-o-d on behalf of his people. When the Israelites began pelting the optimistic scouts with stones, G-o-d was ready to finish them off right there and then. But Moses intervened. He talked to G-o-d about how the peoples of the world who had heard that G-o-d freed the slaves would start to think that G-o-d was not able to bring these former slaves into the land that he had promised them, and therefore G-o-d had to kill them off. In addition to this magnificent use of reverse psychology, Moses also begged and pleaded with G-o-d by reciting G-o-d’s attributes that we recite on the high holidays and festivals.

G-o-d heeded the plea of Moses and forgave the pessimistic Israelites who had not already died in the plague. G-o-d let them live out their lives in desert. But G-o-d explained to Moses, and in doing so, G-o-d also explains to us, that the pessimists can live out their lives, but they cannot enter the land of promise, because they lack the faith to know that the promise of their own personal and religious future is truly within their reach and instead, they remain in the wilderness of their own doubts.

Here we are in modern times and we are once again on the precipice between hope and doubt. I am saying goodbye to you this weekend because it is my last Shabbat and last Sunday with Congregation P’nai Tikvah. Perhaps I will visit in the future as your scholar-in-residence, or perhaps I will visit for another reason. But regardless of whether I visit, I will continue to believe in each and every one of you, and in your ability to find your own optimistic voice and to believe in yourselves and in this community.

Rabbi Mintz will return from Israel at the end of June or the beginning of July, and our Executive Committee and Board of Directors will begin the process of introducing you to our new rabbinic intern who will serve alongside Rabbi Mintz and our capable cantor, musicians, educators and volunteers.

I will miss you and I will also believe in you. You are welcome to email me or phone me and I will speak with you and write to you as a friend, but I will no longer be your rabbi because that role will belong to Rabbi Mintz and your rabbinic intern.

Thank you. Thank you to everyone for giving me this opportunity to serve G-o-d by serving you. I am sorry for the ways that I failed you and or let you down. I am sorry that our journey together was for only one year; I would have preferred longer and I know that some of you would have preferred that as well. But let us not fall into pessimism. Rather, let us rise in optimism that better times are ahead for you here at Congregation P’nai Tikvah, and for me wherever fate takes me next.

I want to conclude with birkat kohanim, the priestly blessings with which we are invited to bless our children after we bless the candles on Shabbat. These are also the same priestly blessings with which the kohanim, our priestly class, have been blessing us throughout the ages. It is traditional to rise for the priestly blessings and I want to ask you to please stand in body or in spirit.

יְבָרֶכְךָ ה‘ וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. יָאֵר ה‘ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶךָּ. יִשָּׂא ה‘ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם:

Yeverechecha adonai ve'yishmereicha.

Ya'er adonai panav eileicha vichuneika.

Yisa adonai panav eileicha ve'yasem lecha shalom.

Amen. Shabbat shalom.


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