President Kennedy’s inaugural address is considered to this day to be one of the greatest speeches in the history of American politics. Kennedy did not write this speech all by himself. He was aided by his Jewish speechwriter Ted Sorensen. In his speech, the President spoke about all the great challenges which await not only America, but the entire human race, for the foreseeable future, and for the ensuing decades. Kennedy quoted from the book of Isaiah a verse which we Jews read on Yom Kippur, he spoke about defeating political tyranny, alleviating poverty, eradicating diseases, and infusing our nation with a spirit of altruism and renewal.
Towards the end of his speech, Kennedy admitted that all these lofty goals of his – his dreams about eliminating war, poverty and disease – all these goals will not be achieved during his first presidential term. In fact, Kennedy went so far as to state the following: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days [of this administration]. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days . . .nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin!”
In other words, Kennedy, as befitting a pragmatic idealist, realized that the road to freedom and redemption is an excruciatingly long one. And yet, Kennedy still urged our nation, and the entire free world, to be proactive, and to do our fair share for the betterment of the world. This same ethical sentiment, of calling upon humanity to work hard for the redemption of the world, while at the same time realizing full-well that we may not live to see the final redemption in our lifetime, was also articulated by the ancient Jewish sages, millennia before President Kennedy appeared on the historical scene. In the Mishanah, in Ethics of the Fathers, we find the following ethical instruction for the Jew: “It is not up to you to finish the job [of fixing this world], but nor are you allowed to desist from it.”
Tragically, throughout the stormy seas of life, many of us are sometimes tempted to throw in the towel, to fall into what I call “existential defeatism.”
To just give up on all prospects for positive and enduring change, whether it is in our personal or collective lives. We are tempted to raise our hands in silent and defeatist resignation, and passively surrender ourselves to our current predicament, and the contemporary state of affairs.
But existential defeatism is neither the Jewish way, nor the American way. Our tradition declared millennia ago an all-out war against this pernicious foe of the human spirit known as “existential defeatism.” Judaism preaches hope where there is despair, resilience where there is resignation, empathy where there is apathy. In the words of the great Shimon Peres, for the Jewish people “there are no desperate situations, there are only desperate people.”
In our parashah, the Torah makes two seemingly contradictory statements. One verse categorically states: “There shall be no more poor amongst you” – implying a utopian societal vision of a society devoid of homelessness, hunger and material paucity. But a few verses later, the Torah goes on to say something seemingly completely different: “For the poor shall not cease from the earth,” meaning – there will always be poor people around. So which one is it? Are we working for a day in which poverty is utterly eradicated from the human saga, or do we accept socio-economic disparities as an inherent collective ill, and merely do our best to moderate and alleviate these ills as best we can?
I believe that the Torah is telling us that the answer is both! That on the one hand, we should toil hard to rid our society of its ills, as if poverty and war are doomed to always be synonymous with the human condition, but on the other hand – that we should also “imagine” like John Lennon did, and like our sages of antiquity did millennia before Lennon, a world cleansed of malice and heartache, a world redeemed, a world in which moral grandeur and spiritual sublimity reign supreme.