Despair or Hope? Part I

October 28th: Beresheet
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The Torah does not tell us much about God’s thought process in deciding to create the world, but that didn’t stop the rabbis of the Midrash from imagining the heavenly deliberations. In one Midrash, we hear the description of a debate among the angels about whether God should create humans. One group of angels is absolutely against it. They talk about how cruel people will be to each other and to the world. Holding up the specter of gossip, oppression, murder, etc., they beg God not to create this inevitable disaster. The other group of angels looks instead to the wonders that people can bring forth: kindness, cooperation, creativity, justice, art, music, etc. They beg God to bless the world with the gifts that humans can potentially bring to the creation. God listens to the debate for a long while but then God slips out the back of the council house, creates humanity, and comes back with this announcement. “Whether I should or should not create humanity is now no longer the question. Now the question is: How can humanity best live life?”

In other words, from even before the beginning, there has been both despair and hope. We may do better. We may bring great destruction. We may be blessed. We may crash and burn.

In our society today, hope is not dead, but there seems to be an awful lot of despair. There is despair is every corner, and some of it is excessive. I sympathize with the problems and challenges that people face, but sometimes I wonder if the depth and tenor expressed is appropriate for the actual difficulties. Both Left and Right see themselves in a kind of life and death struggle, but I find myself wondering if things are really that dire.

In these next two weeks, I would like to examine the despair on the Right and the despair on the Left, hoping for some clarity and constructive hope. The link to our Torah portion, this week, is the Creation and God’s decision to create us even if we may not turn out perfect. The link next week is the story of Noah and the Flood—where destruction and hope live in stark comparison.

Many people on the political Right are very concerned about the economic and social difficulties facing poor and working class Whites. Perhaps this political concern was fueled by a study a few years ago showing a growing suicide rate among this demographic group. The “surprise” was because most social justice attention has been directed to non-White poor people, and the study came to remind us that depression, unemployment, and drug addiction are equal-opportunity scourges. The problem is particularly acute in the Rust Belt, our region where manufacturing jobs and coal mining jobs are harder and harder to find. There is some real suffering going on. The question, however, is whether the suffering we see now is different from the suffering the working class has experienced before. If we are talking about “the system,” the American political, economic, and social system—which, of course, is always the subject of politics, comparing the hard-scrabble life of lower class people today versus 20 or 50 or 100 years ago seems an important task. If things are worse now than they were in the past, then perhaps we need to revisit assumptions and structures of our system. On the other hand, if things have always been hard for coal miners and farmers and factory workers, then the problems they face need to be addressed with a different kind of attention.

From my knowledge, life has always been hard for the lower and working classes. Coal miners have traditionally had marginal incomes, been at the beck and call of coal companies and the vagaries of mineral deposits. Their jobs were dangerous at best—with coal dust, poison gasses, and possible cave-ins always hanging over their heads. In other words, I’m not sure there ever were any “good old days.” Farmers have always lived a precarious existence—working hard but ultimately not controlling their fates. Temperatures, precipitation, insects, weeds, not to mention soil fertility, crop prices, and transportation issues have made the fortunes of farmers a melodramatic affair—for the last 6000 years! As for factory workers—and craftsmen, the Industrial Revolution has been going on for over 200 years, and relocation, dislocation, and (hopefully) adaptation has been the unceasing pattern. One would like to think that hard work determines a good future, but life for working class people has always been full of challenges.

Is it different now, or are we just seeing a different presentation of the traditional problems—and a manipulation of their angst for political purposes?

Amidst all this talk of a “vanishing way of life,” (something people have been complaining about since prehistoric times), consider the following evidence. Look at the visible consumption habits of this threatened class. Take a ride on the highway and notice the fancy pickup trucks, SUVs, Harley Davidson motorcycles (@$20,000+), and Recreational Vehicles being driven by working class people. Talk to the people who spend a week and a thousand dollars at the Grange Fair. Listen to them talk about their microwave ovens, their 50 inch televisions, their cable sports and movie packages, their cell phones, and their vacations on cruise ships and to Disney World. This is not to say that there are not real people suffering real problems, but the fact is that there is money and enjoyment of life in this ethnic and economic class.

So, when I hear that an entire class or ethnic group in America is being destroyed by a failed system, I wonder about the accuracy or the helpfulness of the despair.

As with many serious subjects, drama and emotional outrageousness obscure the real issues and make it harder to plot a better course. Do we really want to go backwards economically and technologically, or is the better answer to figure out strategies to help people adapt to new and changing conditions? There are individuals facing despair in our country. There are certainly large groups of people in other parts of the world facing mass despair, but the challenges of working class White Americans need to be put in perspective—if we, as a nation, are to approach the future and their future in a considered and constructive way.

Next week, the despair on the Left.