Shemot: Positive thinking versus Pharaoh
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Shemot: Positive thinking versus Pharaoh

When Moshe leaves the palace of Pharaoh and sees the Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jew to death, he kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. The following day Moshe sees two Jews fighting with one another. When he attempts to break up the fight they ask him, “are you going to kill us as you killed the Egyptian?” The Torah then tells us what Moshe was feeling: “Moshe was afraid and said ‘Indeed, the matter has become known.'” Normally, the Torah tells us a person’s actions, not his feelings. What difference does it make that Moshe was afraid? Why is that important in the context of the story? Why is his utterance of “Indeed the matter has become known” relevant as well?

There are many aspects of the lives of biblical figures that are not spoken about in the Torah. So why include this here in our parsha?

The answer lies in a story told about the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher rebbe. When someone came to him asking for a blessing for an urgent matter, the rebbe responded: “Think positive and it will be positive.”

The rebbe wasn’t simply giving him some psychological advice about thinking good thoughts. He was relating a powerful and profound spiritual truth. The power to think originates from our souls. Our souls are connected on high so what we think and speak has a very real and purposeful effect on the loftier spiritual realms. In other words, our positive thoughts have the potential to change reality, indeed to create a new reality, to obliterate negative decrees, and to bring about real salvation. Does it always mean that it works in a way that we understand? Does it mean we don’t have to have our deeds match our thoughts? Of course not. However, the potential is there and it’s real.

This is in fact what the Torah is teaching us in this episode with Moshe Rabbainu. The reason why the Torah tells us his inner feelings is because there is an important lesson for us. What’s the next verse? “Pharoh heard of this incident and he attempted to kill Moshe…” The juxtaposition of the negative response to Moshe’s negative thoughts are not coincidence. What the Torah is teaching us is, perhaps, had Moshe never thought negatively, had he remained positive that his actions were pure, correct, and proper, and therefore nothing bad would result from them, maybe, just maybe, the entire event would have gone unnoticed by Pharaoh.

Recent developments in cognitive psychology back up this idea of the power of a positive outlook. Dr. Martin Seligman is one of the founders of the field of cognitive psychology, which states that it is our thoughts and our cognition that are responsible for our feelings.

In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Seligman describes a remarkable experimental observation about the power of optimism. Recognizing that out of all professional disciplines, the field of sales requires an extraordinary degree of willingness to overcome rejection, Seligman met with the executives of Metropolitan Life, one of the leading insurance companies in America.

At the time, Metropolitan Life administered a standardized test to anyone who applied for sales jobs. The test focused on intelligence and inherent aptitude for salesmanship, and rejected those applicants with low scores.

Seligman suggested, however, that a second series of tests be administered, one geared toward people’s attitudes about rejection; this test was not about intellectual ability, but rather whether one approached rejection as permanent, or temporary and limited.

He further proposed that a team of salesmen who failed the original intelligence tests but registered as being optimistic in nature be formed in parallel with the group hired based on the conventional method.

The results were striking.

The optimists who had initially been rejected outsold the pessimists in the regular force by 21 percent during the first year. And in the second year by 57 percent!

You see, not only were the optimists better salesmen, their performance kept improving over the wiser pessimists. The reason, Seligman explains, is that while intelligence should initially be at least as important as persistence and optimism, over time, as the mountain of nos accumulated, persistence becomes the decisive factor. Optimism works. In life’s journey, the mountains of nos accumulate, so it becomes increasingly vital to think positively.

And everyone can. Seligman’s crucial finding was that optimism and pessimism were not genetically determined. It’s up to each of us how to view reality. And indeed, today cognitive therapy is one of the most successful of therapeutic methods.

What makes this approach refreshing is that since the time of Freud, psychotherapy has focused on the negative aspects of the human psyche, on the power of the irrational feelings and subconscious demons that drive us. Cognitive therapy is refreshing because it restores power to the individual. It says you are in control of your action. No circumstance outside of us, no drive within us can deprive us of our sovereign power to determine how to think. Let’s put it another way. What determines the direction of a ship at sea? Is it the direction of the wind, or the set of the sails?

The sails determine the direction. No matter what direction the wind is blowing, you can sail in the direction you wish. The wind carries one ship east and another west according to the way that the sails are set.

The sea is your life and you are the captain. The sails are your thoughts. Your thoughts, positive or negative, really do change the direction of your life. You are the captain of your own destiny.

Good thoughts affect our reality much more then we realize. You may not believe this is true, and even if you do, it’s easy to forget, especially when life throws its worst curve balls. It’s hard to stay positive when the world appears to be coming apart at the seams. But this is when optimism is most vital.

So when we face obstacles in life, particularly obstacles that prevent us from fulfilling our purpose here in creation, it’s incumbent upon us to do whatever we can to remove them and simultaneously think positive that indeed, God will help, and they will be removed. Think positive and it will be positive!

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