There are two types of fire - the fire that consumes and the fire within that ignites for good. The internet and cable television are fires that consume. Their fiery flames engulf us with negative messages - notions that the world is only a scary and dangerous place. Problems are presented as insurmountable, we have no right to be happy as long as one person is suffering - everyday is another bleak day, and, of course we are to believe everyone is angry and hostile to those who have differing opinions.
Daily we are faced with a firestorm of consuming problems and angst. The pandemic has been especially challenging and even when there is good news, we are immediately warned of the next lurking variant, real or otherwise.
The human brain has a natural tendency to give weight to (and remember) negative experiences or interactions more than positive ones. Psychologists refer to this as negativity bias. “Our brains are wired to scout for the bad stuff” and fixate on the threat, says psychologist and author Rick Hanson. Because of this bias, “doom and gloom” sells and we are naturally attracted to the negativity - as we generally believe the fire raging today is worse than any fire in the past (though I can make a strong argument that this is factually not true).
But we have a choice and it is time to exercise that choice. We must ignite that fire of hope and good that is within each of us to brighten the way for our children, for ourselves, for our community.
It is in our Jewish DNA to see adversity as transitory - always with the hope of better times in the future. We Jews stubbornly refuse to write an ending to our story no matter how challenging the times.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l wrote that “one of the most formative moments in the history of Judaism came in the encounter between Moses and God in the burning bush. Moses asks God what name he should use when people ask him who He is. God replies enigmatically, in a phrase that occurs nowhere else in Tanakh: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. Non-Jewish translations read this to mean, “I am what (or who, or that) I am.” Some render it, “I am: that is who I am,” or “I am the One who is.” These are deeply significant mistranslations. The phrase means, literally, “I will be what I will be,” or more fundamentally, God’s name belongs to the future tense. His call is to that which is not yet. If we fail to understand this, we will miss the very thing that makes Judaism unique.” Abraham leaves his home and family for a promise that is in the distant future. He doesn’t even live to see it fulfilled, but he goes, grounded in the hope of a better place and a brighter future.
Elie Wiesel z”l, who knew his share of hopeless situations, once said, “One must wager on the future. I believe it is possible, in spite of everything, to believe in friendship in a world without friendship, and even to believe in God in a world where there has been an eclipse of God’s face…we must not give in to cynicism. To save the life of a single child, no effort is too much. To make a tired old man smile is to perform an essential task. To defeat injustice and misfortune, if only for one instant, for a single victim, is to invent a new reason to hope.”
Through hard times and good, we are always going somewhere - a place yet to be. Knowing there is a future, our stories yet to be told, calls out to us to be hopeful. This is what has sustained the Jewish people through the millennia. We move through challenging and dark times by holding each other up as we get closer to healing and better times.
Our children need to hear from us that we are not only alright, but better days are just ahead - and that is true. We don’t just wait for those better days, we create them. We create them by reclaiming our lives and learning how to live with a pandemic not hide from life. We create better days by structuring our lives around our Jewish values and what we cherish most - our families, our friends, our community. We seek purpose when we wake in the morning. We give our hearts and our time beyond ourselves. We love, we give, we take, we hope, we build, we repair, we move forward. We ignite the flame that gives us light and hope and the strength to begin to extinguish the consuming flame.