Dr. Erica Brown
Many years ago, I tucked into a kosher take-out place and asked the man behind the counter what he could make me in two minutes since I didn’t want to miss my train home from New York. He told me he had something ready and sent me quickly on my way. A block and a half later, I realized I had left my briefcase with my computer in the restaurant. Oy. Now I was definitely going to miss the train. I called the number on the take-out bag, checked that it was there and ran back. The nice man handed me my case, looked at me and said, “Repeat after me: “Gam zo le-tova.” This, too, will be for the good. I repeated the mantra, left the restaurant and took off. I made the train.
“Gam zo le-tova” is a talmudic expression attributed to Nahum Ish Gamzu. Hebrew speakers will no doubt notice that his last name and the expression are the same, and this is intentional. So much was he known for putting what we call a positive spin on life’s challenges, that his last name essentially became “An eternal optimist.” Nahum was a teacher of the sainted Rabbi Akiba (BT Brakhot 22a), and suffered terrible body paralysis that he attributed to his own failure to feed a poor man quickly enough (BT Ta’anit 21a). Nahum is at the center of many talmudic miracles. His attitude must have stunned those who could not make sense of his upbeat demeanor despite his terrible bodily handicap.
The writer Daniel Pink, in his book To Sell is Human, describes this as an explanatory style. An explanatory style is the way we explain difficult life events or negative experiences to ourselves. He calls it a kind of self-talk that we use after events to generate internal understanding, following research done by the psychologist Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. Pink writes: “People who give up easily, who become helpless even in situations where they actually can do something, explain bad events as permanent, pervasive and personal. They believe that negative conditions will endure a long time, that the causes are universal rather than specific to the circumstances, and that they’re the ones to blame.” Seligman believed that this way of seeing the world can turn setbacks into disasters and translates over time into learned helplessness.
Contrast this to a positive explanatory style. Difficult events will pass. They are specific to a set of circumstances and not abiding realties, and they are external to the self rather than inherent.
Now let’s apply this thinking to the story of the Exodus. Those born into long-term slavery, who know no other reality from one generation to the next, cannot but help believe that their situation is permanent, pervasive and personal. The Jews must have done something wrong to suffer this kind of oppression. This helplessness was not of their own making but helps explain the rabbinic dictum that only 20% of the Jews left Egypt when they could. If you internalize slavery so that it not only describes what you do but how you think and who you are, you will never leave Egypt, even if you leave.
If you have a positive explanatory style, you can be a slave and be liberated at the same time because you retain an enduring internal sense of freedom and possibility.
It is a common Jewish behavior to see history as a series of tragedies, strung together like mismatched pearls on a long string of sadness. You can certainly look at our history that way, and you would have a lot of supporting evidence. In this worldview, we view outsiders as suspicious and see the world filled with hate and disappointment. Alternatively, we can look at the explosive Jewish miracles that defy all explanation and push the tragedies far apart, the way they really appear on a timeline. When we focus on the spaces between calamities, we find our longevity, our influence, our creativity, our amazing capacity for meaningful survival and our commitment to social justice everywhere we look.
This Passover will be one of the strangest on record. As it progresses, we may even find ourselves unable to adopt a positive explanatory style even amidst our blessings. But the Passover Jew still and always reads the Haggadah and can only come to one conclusion. Nahum Ish Gamzu was right: This, too, will be for the good, even if we don’t understand quite yet what the good is.
Dr. Erica Brown is the Director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at the George Washington University. Her latest book is Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile. This essay has been adapted from one of her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” blogs.