The Optimism in Fragility
How Tishrei helps us contend with a broken world
I am not an optimist by nature. If you look at baby pictures of me, I often look extremely somber, seemingly worried about some large, existential threat that would normally be considered beyond the concerns of your average 9 month old. My nature has not changed much as I’ve gotten older. I’m prone to anxiety, and often inclined to assume the worst, even as I try to train myself to be otherwise.
Perhaps it is this latent anxiety that leads me to love the fall. Although one of my friends once called fall, admittedly accurately, “the season of death,” I find myself looking forward to it each year. Yes, there is something inherently gloomy about watching the leaves fall off the trees, seeing it get darker earlier and earlier each day, and feeling temperatures drop. But there’s something cozy to me about all of the gloom, the same way I love watching a thunderstorm from outside of my window. Yes, there is an amorphous, impending sense of loss, but there’s something almost comforting about the melancholy.
These past days, weeks, and months, however, have found me in a type of melancholia that is far from comforting. Indeed, the state of the world has not helped my inherent pessimism. Every day since the beginning of 5781, it seems, there is only bad news. I woke up on Rosh Hashanah to see the headline that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away, news that moved me to both tears and terror. During the aseret yemei teshuva, the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a grand jury failed to indict any of the police who had killed Breonna Taylor, letting two go without charges and charging one with endangering property—a judgment without justice, during the moment when justice is supposed to be at the forefront of our minds. The day before, the United States had passed the tragic milestone of 200,000 dead from Covid-19, a reminder that the words “who will live and who will die” are not theoretical right now. I spent Shabbat Shuva reading a back issue of the New York Times magazine about climate refugees, which contained a terrifying reminder of how climate change is already threatening our homes and security. On Wednesday, I was greeted by the news that the President of the United States had refused to denounce white supremacists, or to agree to a peaceful transfer of power. How can we be filled with anything but despair?
As I was considering all of the things causing me anxiety last week, I found myself thinking about how strange it is that we celebrate the beginning of the year in the fall. While many of us are accustomed to this idea, whether because of the Jewish calendar or because of the traditional academic calendar, it is actually a stunning and counterintuitive act of optimism. The secular New Year comes right after the winter solstice, as the days begin to lengthen again. The New Year for the Jews, distinct from the Jewish New Year, comes in the month of Nissan, at the beginning of spring, as everything is starting to bloom. So why do we say the world is born during what is, as my friend called it, the season of death?
There’s a gemara in Avodah Zarah that offers an answer to this question. On page 8a, the gemara brings a baraita, imagining how the first people experienced the first nightfall. It says:
The Sages taught: On the day that Adam the first man was created, when the sun set upon him he said: Woe is me, as because I sinned, the world is becoming dark around me, and the world will return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven. He spent all night fasting and crying, and Eve was crying opposite him. Once dawn broke, he said: This is the order of the world. He arose and sacrificed a bull whose horns preceded its hoofs, as it is stated: “And it shall please the Lord better than a bullock that has horns and hoofs.”
While we take the cycles of the day and the year for granted, imagine how scary it is to watch it getting dark without knowing that the darkness will be followed by light again. Adam thinks the world’s creation is rewinding, due to his own transgressions, and cannot imagine that light—actual light, the light of forgiveness, and the light of new beginnings—will ever follow. He is afraid, and he is unstable in his faith. He imagines the darkness is forever. And yet, whether because it is the way of the world, or whether because Adam and Eve committed to doing better, the light returns.
This type of faith, that light can follow darkness, is at the heart of Sukkot, which begins tomorrow night. Right at the time of year when, at least in New York, it starts to get cold and dark, we are asked to leave our houses and instead put ourselves into a sukkah, a structure that only counts if vulnerability is inherent in its structure. We fulfill the mitzvah of the holiday by acknowledging the fragility of the space around us, and rejoicing in it anyway. In fact, the Torah tells us on Sukkot, we should have only joy, marking this as z’man simchateinu, the season of our happiness. It is dark, we are exposed. And yet, we try to find the faith required to summon joy.
The world is dark right now, and if it is to become light again, it will be through our actions. Unlike the sun following the moon, our renewal as a society is not guaranteed. But it is also not impossible. We can succumb to the despair, or we can look at all the things that are broken, and try to figure out how to help fix them. We can have faith that the world as it is now is not how the world needs to be. We can vote, and help others do the same. We can take climate change seriously, both by changing our own behaviors and by advocating for systematic changes. We can listen to the voices of the people marginalized by our society, and lift their calls up, even at the expense of our own comfort or advantages. We can confront the hateful voices around us, even when it is hard, or when it is scary. We can remember that part of our job in the world is to care about others at least as much as we care about ourselves.
Usually, Sukkot is my favorite holiday. This year, without safe access to the many sukkot where we usually have our meals and the friends and family with whom we share those meals, it is hard to feel like this could possibly be the season of our happiness. But I’m starting to think that finding that happiness is an act of faith, maybe the first one of the many we need right now. We are not happy because of how our world is, but because we believe we have the power to make it as we think it should be. Chag sameach—may we find joy, even in the darkness, and use that joy to propel ourselves towards creating a more hopeful world.