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The Optimism of Seven Lean Years

Right now it is difficult to dream, and optimism is scarce. But the lessons of our Torah reading is that there are no grand dreams of the future without difficulty and sacrifice.
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December 15, 2023
Sebastian Gorczowski/Getty Images

Optimism is profoundly human. The neuroscientist Tali Sharot, in her book The Optimism Bias, shows that optimism is pervasive, cutting across all cultures. She draws the conclusion that humans are hotwired to imagine an unrealistic picture of the future. It is instinctive to dream of “happy ever after,” even if that often is not the case.

The belief in progress is equally instinctive, because it is nurtured by optimism; and it is just as irrational. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, wrote The End of History. He saw the fall of the Soviet Union as representing the ultimate triumph of the western democratic order, and the culmination of all history. There would be no further conflicts, now that the world had seen the light.

Unfortunately, that was not true. New dictators arose, and arguably, democracy has been on the decline since he wrote the book.

But the failures of optimism doesn’t  mean it should be completely rejected. Redemption is one of the foundational beliefs of Judaism. Jeremiah held out hope that a newly exiled nation would return home; Isaiah imagined a world filled with peace and harmony. Jews are called by Zechariah “prisoners of hope”; our souls’ first language is optimism.

But since October 7th, Jews have felt betrayed by optimism. History has gone backwards. It feels like it’s 1948 again, with Israel fighting for its very existence. Every dream seems counterfeit. Optimism feels like a cognitive trap, which gives one false hope when hope is pointless.

It is here where optimism needs an unlikely ally to succeed: pessimism. That is a central lesson of Joseph’s dreams.

Joseph’s life story revolves around three sets of dreams. The first two he has as a child, when he is the spoiled younger half-brother who is deeply resented by his siblings. He dreams that they are in the field, and his bundle of grain rises up, and the bundles of his brothers are bowing to him. Then Joseph has another dream, where the sun and the moon and the stars are all bowing to him.

These dreams seemingly need no interpretation. Joseph is declaring himself the ruler of his brothers.

Immediately,  the opposite happens. The dreams stir the brothers’ jealousy, and they sell him into slavery in Egypt.

The second set of dreams occur when Joseph is in an Egyptian prison, and two fellow prisoners, the butler and the baker, ask him to interpret their dreams; Joseph does so accurately, predicting that the butler will be freed and the baker will be executed. Two years later, the butler will recommend Joseph as a dream interpreter.

The third set are Pharaoh’s dreams. He has two dreams. In one, seven fat cows are swallowed up by seven skinny cows; in the second, seven healthy stalks of grain are devoured by seven sickly stalks of grain.

Joseph is called from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams; he explains that there will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Luckily, Joseph explains, the dreams offer a timely warning, which will allow Egypt to get ready for the famine and overcome it. Joseph is so impressive, that he is immediately named the viceroy of Egypt.

What jumps out at the reader is how Pharaoh’s dreams stand in sharp contrast with Joseph’s dreams.

Pharaoh’s dreams project a tragic ending; but because Pharaoh shared them, they will have a positive ending. Joseph’s dreams project a very happy ending for him; but because Joseph shared them, he ends up a slave.

Pharaoh’s dreams are difficult to interpret; he turns to all of his priests.for answers, but none have one. It is clear to everyone that God is communicating with Pharaoh. In contrast, Joseph’s dreams are obvious, and need no interpretation. And his brothers assume that these dreams are just the product of Joseph’s imagination and nothing more.

Finally the most fascinating contrast has to do with what occurs after a double dream. Pharaoh’s double dream indicates that it will come true immediately; Joseph’s double dream seems to wait for a long time to come true.

There are many lessons that these contrasts teach. First of all, it reminds us to beware of happy endings. Joseph’s dreams feed his own vanity, and make him oblivious to his own brother’s hatred; in fact, his dreams make their hatred worse. This is a good dream that causes damage, where a sunny picture of the future is actually a liability.

Second, one must recognize that pessimism often allows optimism to succeed. Pharaoh’s nightmares allow for proper preparation, to be ready for the upcoming famine. The unhappy ending in the dream actually helps Pharaoh achieve a happy ending in real life. This is a bad dream that does a great deal of good, preparing Egypt for the future.

Third, good dreams often have a very long runway. Joseph explains to Pharaoh that the double dream means “that the matter has been determined by God, and that God will soon carry it out.” This is a strange assertion, considering that Joseph’s own double dream had seemingly not come true.

However, I would argue that that isn’t the case; Joseph’s dreams actually came true immediately. What his brothers thought to be a mere figment of Joseph’s ambition was actually a divine prophecy. However, both the brothers and Joseph misunderstood this dream; they assumed it meant that Joseph would be the recipient of great privilege, an entitled ruler who receives unearned gifts. But actually, the purpose of the dream was to call Joseph to be a true leader, to be a servant of both his family and all of Egypt.

In order to do that, Joseph would have to learn humility. In order to become an authentic leader, Joseph would need to be a slave first. And so he becomes a slave immediately, which prepares for the fulfillment of his dream.

Joseph could only achieve this dream through great difficulty. But the pain and suffering he endured as a slave got him ready for his ultimate role. And in the happiest of endings for the entire family, Joseph was in the exact right place to save them from the famine.

Right now it is difficult to dream, and optimism is scarce. But the lessons of our Torah reading is that there are no grand dreams of the future without difficulty and sacrifice. But if we learn to prepare for the famine, we will be able to endure.

And we have known this all along. In 1956, Moshe Dayan gave a eulogy for Roi Rotherg, a 21 year old soldier who was ambushed in the fields of Nahal Oz, near Gaza. This eulogy is prescient; it speaks directly to us today in the aftermath of October 7th. Dayan explained that Israel must never be lulled into complacency, imagining that everything will be okay. A country like Israel will have enemies, and she must be ready. He said:

That is our generation’s fate and our life’s choice — to be willing and armed, strong and unyielding, lest the sword be knocked from our fist and our lives cut down.

It was difficult to contemplate this reality in 1956, when burying Roi Rotberg, a young soldier who was brutally killed on a Kibbutz. Is even more difficult to contemplate this reality in 2023, after so many were brutally murdered on Kibbutzim, and much like Roi, young soldiers are giving their lives on a daily basis for Israel. Dayan’s eulogy is painfully pessimistic.

But like Pharaoh’s nightmarish dream, this bitter pessimism is the only way forward to a better future. Ordinary optimism might cause us to overestimate what can be, and imagine that we simply can be carefree. But optimism is not a blank check.

Mature optimism is something different; it walks hand in hand with pessimism, to enable one to be ready for each day’s crisis. Tomorrow will be another day, another opportunity for hope. But not today. We must not lose sight of reality.

What gives me optimism now is how Israelis are heroically carrying the burden of an awful time; they stand ready to meet the challenges of the seven lean years. Shai Bernstein (whose father, Dr. David Bernstein, taught at Ramaz for many years,) wrote a powerful note about his service in Gaza:

I’ve seen with my own eyes.

I’ve seen injured friends in the hospital who, despite the pain and long recovery process that await them, seem way stronger than me.

I’ve seen Colonel Asaf Chamami’s mom at his Shiva; I almost fell apart right in front of her eyes. She was the strong one, not me.

I’ve seen teachers, doctors, factory workers, and people working in tech, leaving their jobs and families, leaving everything they have and fighting like lions.

I’ve seen Matan (voted for Meretz), Jonathan (Lapid), Guy (Bibi), and Itamar (Gantz) having a fierce political argument.

It looked like a competition of who loved the State of Israel more.

I’ve seen the same four chevra leap with all of their gear into the breach, together as one.

I’ve seen them run to aid the injured after the missile hit us, even though the bullets were still flying over their heads. Each one carrying the stretcher, lending a shoulder, together.

I’ve seen communities across the US buckling down, raising money and working hard to send supplies, to support to the soldiers and citizens of Israel. (Some of the letters we got from kids were so simple, yet special and moving – you could cry).

I’ve seen a polarized and divided nation that became united in an instant.

We realize that we’re fighting not only for our lives, but for our very right to exist.

This letter chronicles the pain of young men and women leaving their families, of injured soldiers in the hospital, of parents burying their children. And yet the letter is not at all pessimistic. It is inspiring that so many people like Shai are willing to carry the burden of the seven lean years, and ensure a better future.

And even during a nightmare, that is worthy of optimism.


Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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