Rabbi Gershon Schusterman – Los Angeles, CA
It was just two days before Rosh Hashanah and the Hayom Yom was being read aloud in our shul. The text was, “…as the familiar adage expresses it, ‘G-d does not remain a debtor.’ For every good thing a Jew does, G-d repays him generously—with children, vitality and abundant sustenance;” to which someone muttered to himself, but loud enough for everyone to hear, “Yeah, right! No good deed goes unpunished!” A smattering of laughter was heard and everyone moved on.
I find a sense of cynicism affecting—and infecting—the attitude of more than a handful of my Anash friends. When I ask, “Why the attitude?” I’m answered, “We call ’em as we see ’em.”
Cynicism is the belief that altruism is dead and that people are motivated solely by self-interest. As a result, cynics are distrustful of human sincerity and integrity. A further result is that even when someone does something which is obviously good, the cynic will seek to impugn it by attributing it to nefarious motives.
It is clear that when a someone of our community has a cynical outlook as his default position, it is damaging — to him and to those around him.
I’m not saying that every cynic articulates, even to himself, what I say here. I believe, however, that it is all inherent in the cynic’s worldview.
We all know that people are flawed. “A person is born as a wild donkey’s colt” (Iyov 11:12). We are saddled with a yetzer hara, nefesh habehamis and ego. From such inauspicious beginnings, we should not expect perfection.
We start out defective. We all know how difficult it is to modify, let alone change, our proclivities.
As we judge ourselves, so should we judge others. Since we tend to cut ourselves a lot of slack, we should be as empathetic in judging others.
The work-in-progress-person—let’s call him the realist—strives for excellence. When he falls, he picks himself up and strives again. “Even the tzadik falls seven times… and gets up” (Mishlei 24:16) to continue striving, perhaps to fall again. Progress is often two steps forward and one step back. The cynic, on the other hand, were he to strive, would strive for perfection. Inasmuch as perfection is unattainable, he ceases to strive or doesn’t strive at all.
There’s a war going on and we are the battlefield. The two forces—good and evil—are fighting over us, each trying to persuade us to join its side, trying to conquer us. The battle it is not even evenly matched. The “other side,” has the advantage of brute strength. But “our side” compensates by our steadfast belief in the ultimate truth of our cause and our absolute faith in our ability to win the battle. These translate as optimism, joy and alacrity, which keep us in the ring and enable us to fight on and, ultimately, win the battle. This is the battle of our lives, because it is the battle for our lives.
On the battlefield the commanding officer is respected and heeded, even though one might find him wanting in many respects. Personal criticism is out of place when the focus must be on the critical business at hand — to keep the momentum of the battle going forward.
Likewise, even as we see failure in others and in ourselves, we cannot allow that to demoralize us and abandon the battle. We cannot afford to expend our energy to criticize others or to wallow in self-criticism and self-pity. We must remain focused on our mission.
The cynic, however, has abdicated the battlefield. With a pithy quip and a well-placed sneer he proclaims: This is not a battle I care to fight. Only a fool would commit to this cause. Not only has the cynic himself gone AWOL, he discourages the weak-kneed from joining the battle. Where one should be bolstering those who are fighting the noble war, the cynic demoralizes them. Who benefits from this? The adversary. In aiding and abetting the enemy, the cynic is guilty of sedition.
The cynic attests, perhaps unwittingly, that he himself is not to be bound by any standards. He denigrates those who aspire to grow and strive for excellence, even though they know that they will not be perfect. The cynic says, in effect, “Perfection is impossible, and striving for excellence is self-serving.” So why aspire to anything at all? What is left? Nihilism! That nothing matters!
Listen to what Elisha ben Abuya (a.k.a. Acher), the ultimate cynic, said: “Since I won’t make it to the world-to-come, I might as well eat, drink and be merry in this world (Chagiga 15a).”
Cynicism is admitting defeat even before going to battle. The cynic is proclaiming his impotence. He is displaying abject cowardice. The courageous, however, fight on even when the outlook for victory seems bleak. Their conviction in the truth of their cause drives their determination to persevere and leads, ultimately, to victory.
Cynicism is like a callus on one’s heart. A callus is the body’s defense to avoid pain. When there is repetitive abrasion, the body hardens the skin in that area so that it becomes insensitive and the person does not feel the pain. But what can one say when the callous is built up around one’s heart?
To live is more than to exist. Being fully alive is to experience both joy and pain. If one strives to avoid pain at all costs, one risks avoiding the joys of life as well. In life, and in Chassidic life in particular, growth is fundamental. An open and sensitive heart is the fertile soil in which development takes place. When one’s heart is hardened, it is like parched earth in which nothing grows, except thorns.
The antithesis and antidote to cynicism is temimus—whole-hearted, optimistic and joyous devotion which is fundamental to Jewish life, as the Torah exhorts us, tamim tihiye im Hashem Elokecha, to be whole-hearted with G-d, your G-d (Devarim 18:13). This is what we should be considering the days before Yom Kippur.
Abridged from the N’shei Chabad Newsletter (Tammuz 5715) and reprinted with their permission