Historian David McCullough tells a story that Abigail Adams received a letter from her sister about her son, John Quincy Adams. It said he was a very impressive young man but that, alas, he seemed a little overly enamored with himself and his opinions and that this was not going over very well in town.
As we come to the darkest part of winter we light candles. Some might think this is about optimism. It is not. It is about hope.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that “optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the faith that, together, we can make things better.” The Jewish people have long since lost the easy optimism that assumes the world is constantly improving. We have seen too much, and with saddened eyes understand how tragic the world can be.
Why does the Torah suddenly tell us of the death of Deborah, Rebecca’s childhood nurse (Genesis 35:8)? Deborah dies in the course of journeying with Jacob and Rebecca, and the family buries her at Beth El. We are told absolutely nothing else of her in the Torah. So perhaps the account of Deborah’s death is intended to teach us about Rebecca.
Last week I sat in three airports and could not escape the tinny, insistent sound of the television. It reminded me of one researcher who claimed that we are always dreaming, but because of the stimulus of the day, dreams can only peak through at night. The noise of the world shuts out our dreams.
Science favors the collective, the species. We are analyzed by groups, the behavior of crowds, evolutionary patterns, economic cycles. Swept up in the net of the social and natural sciences, the “I” seems to disappear.
Here the American and Jewish traditions join hands. A human being is a singular creation in the Bible. The first thing we are told about creation is that each person is in the image of God. When the great American poet Walt Whitman writes that he celebrates himself and sings himself, the accent is not only of the new world, but the biblical heritage.