There exists an inherent tension between tradition and optimism. Tradition emphasizes the imperfections in human nature and the many difficulties of life in this world. According to the tradition, our existence began with the fall from Paradise and our banishment onto the physical plane. The rest of history is the story of our decline over the generations in both spiritual and moral terms. Concurrent with this human decline is a process of gradual obscuration in the revelation of the Divine Presence in the world. Tradition looks to the past for inspiration; optimism looks toward the future.
Yet this does not have to be our spiritual perspective. Our faith in God can be the source of optimism and hope – faith in the power of heaven, faith in our ability to harness our Divine nature and transform our lives.
Reverence for the tradition and the holy ones of the past need not become a form of ancestor worship. We should revere our forefathers and mothers as the founders of our people, but we should also recognize that humanity continues to grow and evolve.
In one of his teachings, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook asks: why is it that we no longer have great teachers like Moses? Why is it that God does not reveal Himself through mighty wonders and miracles as He did in Egypt and at the crossing of the Red Sea? Rav Kook then proceeds to give us a quite unexpected answer.
At the time of the Exodus from Egypt, he says, the people were at an early stage in their spiritual evolution. The masses lived in a primitive manner and had a gross level of consciousness. In order to deal with such a difficult nation, God needed to have a leader of extraordinary qualities like Moses. Otherwise, the people never would have listened and the leader would have quickly given up in despair. As it is, the Torah is filled with stories of the cantankerous behavior of the Israelites in the desert. Moses is continually turning to God in exasperation, and even God Himself is ready to give up on Israel on several occasions.
The same thing is true of the grand display of miracles. Only open and dramatic miracles could convince a nation that had lived for four hundred years as slaves of the reality of God’s existence. They were incapable of any higher revelation. The events at Sinai are clear proof of this. Rather then experiencing great joy and light from God’s Presence, the Children of Israel were overwhelmed with fear and awe. In fact, after the initial Divine revelation a delegation of the people came to Moses and told him, “You speak with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:16)
Today, Rav Kook goes on to explain, the situation is different. Over the past three thousand five hundred years humanity has greatly evolved. Humanity, in general, is now on a more elevated level. Because of this overall spiritual evolution, God no longer needs to perform great miracles for us. We can experience His presence in more subtle ways.
The same principle applies with regard to our leaders. Leaving Egypt, we were like young children who required the powerful supervision and care of a Moses. Now, we are capable of carrying more of the spiritual burden. We are able to take more responsibility for ourselves.
Humanity is moving ahead through a transformation in consciousness. Today we see the world with very different eyes. Our consciousness encompasses a broader reality. We think in terms of greater expanses of time and space.
We peer down into the world of the microscopic and subatomic. We gaze up into the universe of galaxies, supernovas and black holes. We communicate along the electronic highways of the global village. We delve into the inner realm of the human mind.
Humanity is now capable of experiencing God in a more direct manner than our ancestors. We are able to touch more refined levels of being and awareness. We can reach higher planes that were not within their grasp.
All these developments have changed the way in which God works in the world. They have enlarged the parameters of His interaction with humankind. They have opened up new possibilities for the relationship between the human and the Divine.
Despite this spiritual advancement, humanity will always be capable of both great good and great evil. This free will to choose is an essential part of our makeup, the crux of human life on this plane of existence. It is through our choices that we learn and gain wisdom. It is through confronting the struggles and challenges in our lives that we grow and evolve.
At the same time, here too spiritual optimism plays an important role. If we believe that God is truly all powerful and all knowing, then our failures must also be part of the process of our growth. Even the fall from Eden must have its place within God’s Eternal Plan. The fall of humanity needs to be viewed not only as a failure, but also as a spiritual opportunity. Descending into the “klipot” (husks of matter) has provided us with the opportunity to raise up the many Divine sparks that have fallen into this broken world. We have become God’s instruments to fill this material darkness with God’s Eternal Light.
The Kabbalah of the Ari is bursting with this kind of optimism. Its imagery depicts a universe that holds out the promise of both redemption and repair. In the Ari’s universe everything has purpose and meaning; every act is a vehicle for restoring Divine harmony.
The Ari portrays the shattering as an integral part of the process of the creation of the cosmos. Both the shattering and the repair were necessary in order for the manifested universe to exist. The tzimtzum, the contraction or diminishing of God’s presence from the world, was really a kind of Divine protection. It enabled us to absorb God’s infinite radiation without being obliterated, like a series of filters placed before the eyes in order to look directly at the sun’s brilliant light. Only in this manner could we access this awesome Divine energy. How else could the finite grasp hold of the light of the Infinite?
Spiritual optimism is the language of the Kabbalah. All of its teachings are based upon the assumption that the universe will continually evolve and advance. The Kabbalah views all of history as a spiritual journey that is moving inexorably toward unity and perfection. As Rav Kook writes:
“All existence evolves and ascends…Its ascent is general as it is in particulars. It ascends toward the height of the absolute good. Obviously the good and the comprehensive [whole] all go together. Existence is destined to reach a point when the whole will assimilate the good in all its constituted particulars…No particularity will remain outside, not a spark will be lost from the ensemble…The doctrine of evolution…has a greater affinity with the secret teachings of the Kabbalah than all other philosophies.”
If we are Divine agents of this work of repair, then the Torah and the mitzvot (commandments or spiritual acts) are our tools. They set in motion the process of reclamation. Through the mitzvot even the most mundane actions are converted into potent cosmic forces that help redress the imbalance in the universe.
Sri Ramakrishna teaches:
“Bondage is of the mind, and freedom is also of the mind. A man is free if he constantly thinks: ‘I am a free soul. How can I be bound, whether I live in the world or in the forest? I am a child of God, the King of Kings. Who can bind me? …by repeating with grit and determination, ‘I am not bound, I am free, one really becomes so – one really becomes free.” 
Spiritual optimism is about reshaping the nature of our mental attitude. It is about focusing our thoughts and emotions toward hope and love and faith. It is about learning to harness the might of the Divine spark within us. It is about learning to draw on the energy of the infinite Will of God. This is the true practice of religion.
We repair the world through concentrating our spiritual intention and raising our consciousness. This focusing of our inner energies unleashes a positive spiritual force that transforms the very fabric of existence. By living with spiritual optimism, we align ourselves with this current of vibrant Divine effulgence. When we join our hearts and minds with the dynamic force of spiritual optimism, we have the power to heal the world.
- ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 138↵