Half Empty or Half Full?

I have heard it said that a pessimistic person thinks that the glass is half empty. The optimistic person says that the glass is half full. And the hopeful person says, “You may be using  the wrong glass!”

In this week’s parasha the Israelites are poised to enter the Land of Canaan. Although it is popularly believed that the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, this is not the whole story. After leaving Egypt the Israelite camped at Mt. Sinai for about one year where they received the Torah and assembled the Mishkah. Then, they pulled up camp and, just a few months later, they were prepared to enter Canaan. Moses sends 12 spies to reconnoiter the land. They have two missions. The first is to assess the strength of the Canaanites who inhabited the land. The second is to investigate the geography and fertility of the land itself. After 40 days the spies return with their report. I imagine that when the spies met with Moses  the conversation went something like this:

Spies:  “Well, Moses, we have some good news and some bad news,” said ten of the spies, who we will call “the pessimists.”

“Mainly good news,” interrupted Joshua and Caleb, the optimists.

“Which would you like first?” said the pessimists.

“Give me the good news,” said Moses hopefully.

“The land is indeed ‘flowing with milk and honey’. It is a good land. It is fertile. It can easily sustain our population for generations to come. There is plenty of room to grow and prosper”.

“And the bad news?” asked Moses warily.

“There is no bad news,” said the optimists.

“The bad news,“  continued the pessimists, “is that the Canaanites who live there are very powerful. They live in walled cities. They are well practiced in the art of war. We don’t have a chance against them.”

“It is true that they are powerful and well-defended,” countered the optimists. But we can overcome them. We must enter the land now, and defeat them!”

As we know, the pessimists carried the day. Word got out about their dire assessment, and the People of Israel began to panic. The Israelites threatened to rebel against Moses and appoint new leaders who would guide them back to the safety of Egypt. In their fear, they forgot what slavery was like.

Moses had a crisis on his hands. So Moses did what Moses does when he confronts a crisis. He consults G-d. Moses had never seen G-d so frustrated. In fact, G-d was in the process of scrapping his old plans and drawing up new ones, which He was quite eager to share with Moses. G-d’s new plan was to rip up the covenant with the Jewish people, send pestilence in their midst, wipe them out to a man, and make a new covenant with Moses and his descendants.  It might take a little longer, but G-d was determined to fulfill His promise to Abraham and Sarah that the Land of Canaan would belong to the Jewish people.

Moses, the man of hope, countered. G-d had traveled too far down this path with the People of Israel to turn back now. To destroy them at this point in the game and start all over with Moses’ descendants would irreparably damage G-d’s reputation among the nations of the world who had heard of the Exodus from Egypt.  People would say, argued Moses, that the same G-d who performed signs and wonders and brought the People out of Egypt was powerless to bring them into the Land of Canaan!  Moreover, Moses reminds G-d of something that apparently G-d Himself had forgotten. Remember, G-d, You Yourself said You were “slow to anger”. You yourself said you were “abounding in kindness”.  You yourself said you were “forgiving”!  “G-d,” I imagine Moses saying, “I can hardly recognize You!”

Moses, the man of hope, carried the day. G-d relented, forgave, and developed a new plan that would delay the Israelite entrance into the Land of Canaan for another 38 years. By then, reasoned G-d, the people would be ready to see the glass half full. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, discerns another difference between a person who is optimistic and a person who has hope. He writes, “One of the most important distinctions I have learned in the course of reflection on Jewish history is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Knowing what we do of our past, no Jew can be an optimist. But Jews have never – despite a history of sometimes awesome suffering – {Jews have never]  given up hope”.

To that we can all say, AMEN! 

Photo by manu schwendener on Unsplash