Rabbi's Message, Rabbi Alvin Kass, June 2014


Rabbi Alvin Kass
Chief Chaplain of the NYPD

Half Empty

A few years ago Larry David starred in a popular television comedy series called "Curb Your Enthusiasm". His character was a cynical, self-absorbed pessimist.

I have a coffee mug at home given to me by my daughter, which has a horizontal line half way down the length of the cup drawn around its circumference. Above the line are the words "half empty" and below the line are the words "half empty". The metaphorical message of the mug appears to be that however you look at it, life should be viewed as half empty rather than half full.

That stark pessimism appears to permeate the national mood. Traditionally America was looked upon as a land of opportunity where our children would always do better than we did. However, a Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll from early August contains the jolting finding that 76% of Americans 18 and older are no longer confident that their children's generation will fare better than they did. That same poll indicated that 71% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, a conviction held onto for over a decade.

A June Gallop poll shows that American confidence in the three branches of the government has fallen to an all-time low. The judiciary retained the confidence of just 30% of Americans, the presidency 29%, and the congress 7%. The malaise transcends both political parties. Job creation remains meager. College students are incurring ever higher debt. Upward mobility seems like a figment of the imagination.

Many likewise fear that internationally America is on the decline. Our power to influence world events appears to be severely limited. What have we to show for all the blood and treasure that were invested in Iraq and Afghanistan? Terrorism, radicalism, and extremism permeate large portions of the globe.

"Half empty/half empty" dominates the headlines. However, it is a gross distortion of the reality. To live in this country is such a wonderful blessing. Ours may not be a perfect society, but it's the best the world has to offer. Ironically, many of our severest critics abroad invest their money in America; because, it is by far the safest and most stable society on the planet. Our problem is not that people are trying to escape from America, but that so many people are trying to get in. We worry whether the country can absorb them all. Most nations wish they had what we have.

Without in any way minimizing the country's problems, there is so much to be optimistic and hopeful about. The coming High Holy Days are a perfect time to absorb a dose of optimism. First of all, the arrival of a new year means new hope, possibility and opportunity. Fascinatingly, although Jews believe that God judges us at this time of the year and determines our future, they have confidence in God's goodness and compassion.

We know well how much we have failed to live up to our duties and obligations and how much better we could be if we really tried. Still, we are convinced that God is, not only a stern judge, but a loving father who wants the best for us.

The first words of the haftorah that we recite on the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah is: "I shall surely rejoice before the Lord." However awesome and overwhelming this season of penitence may be, we approach it with hope, confidence, and optimism.

We wear white to symbolize our aspirations for purity. We come together with family and friends. We eat sweet foods and exchange joyous greetings.

The new year will have its problems. We'll probably continue to stumble and fall. The headlines will contain much that will disturb and upset us. Yet, we believe, with it all, that a kind and compassionate Deity will help us along if we falter on our path toward the future. As Jews and as Americans we have good reason to conclude that our coffee mug for 5775 should not read "Half empty/half empty", but rather "My cup runneth over!"

Miryom, Sarah, Lewis, Sarah, and Bennett, Danny, Debby, Judah, and Nava join me in the prayer: "L'shanah tovah tikatevu," may you be inscribed and sealed for a good, healthy year.


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