The school year of 2001-2002 was one of the most difficult of my life. As part of a group of 60 future rabbis studying in Israel, I joined Israelis living through weekly suicide bombings and acts of terrorism.
I soon realized the goal of terrorism is not simply to hurt and kill people. It is to instill fear. It is to create a climate of uncertainty in which people are afraid to leave their homes and engage in the basic tasks of life. It is a feeling residents of Boston experienced last week.
What is our best response?
I don't mean faith only in the religious sense. I mean faith in our selves, our values, our way of life. I mean faith in our resilence, our community, our inner strength.
The Most Important Commandment in the Bible
The Hebrew Bible teaches this truth in a compelling way. The phrase God repeats more than any other is Al Tirah -- "Do not fear." God says it to each of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God says it repeatedly to all of the prophets, and tells them to reiterate to the people. Over and over again, Al Tirah, do not fear.
We need to hear it as well. In the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, and the many senseless tragedies we witness each day, we need to remember: Al Tirah, do not be afraid.
Let me be clear. It is not that there is nothing to be afraid of. When God says Al Tirah, it's not the same as a parent saying, "Don't be afraid, there's no monster in the closet." It's quite different.
There are things to be afraid of; we face uncertainty in our lives, our economy, our country, our world. By telling us not to fear, God wants to reassure us that we can handle our fears, if we do not let ourselves become paralyzed by them. Fear can undercut the optimism that assures our future.
The Optimism Bias
This biblical truth has been affirmed in the modern science of positive psychology. Researchers have discovered what they term "the optimism bias." The way we view the future helps shape what it turns out to be. When we view it positively, we reduce anxiety and stress, thus enhancing our productivity in creating the future we envision.
Much of the research in this area has, interestingly, come out of Israel. The world's foremost optimism expert, Dr. Tali Sharot, writes that "The tendency for positive predictions to create positive outcomes is rooted in fundamental rules governing the way the mind perceives, interprets and alters the work it encounters. The mind has a tendency to try to transform predictions into reality because our behavior is influenced by our own subjective perceptions of reality."
If, for example, we believe we will finish running the 5k, we will push ourself harder in order to turn that belief into a reality. We can apply this insight more broadly. If we believe that we can overcome our current economic and political malaise, we will likely discover more creative and successful ways of doing so.
We cannot say what they are now. That is too easy, and optimism is not black and white and definitive. It rests on faith. Not necessarily a faith in a higher power that will solve our problems. Judaism has never had such a simplistic understanding of faith. Rather, it rests on a faith in ourselves and our future.
It is a faith we need now more than ever.