D’var Torah: To be like Nachum ish gam zu. Or not.

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 November 2016

One of my least favourite Talmudic characters is the one they call Nachum, ish gam zu.

He is a pretty miserable figure.  One of those people to whom terrible things just happen.  And when they do, whatever happens to him, he says the phrase, “Gam zu l’tovah” – This, too, is for the good.

He is ceaselessly positive, the Talmudic version of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail: “Tis but a scratch, I can still take you…”

Even in the story where he ends up going before Caesar with a chest full of dirt as a present (having been robbed the night before), and is at risk of being killed, he says, “Gam zu l’tovah”.
And, in the end, of course it is.  Because Nachum represents a world in which everything, however terrible, is understood to be God’s will, to be purposeful.  And so, things often do work out OK for him.  Gam zu l’tovah, indeed.

This is a challenge, because it is not my reality.  Things don’t always work out for the best.  To be unerringly positive like him in my world is, sometimes at least, to have misunderstood the situation.

And yet, it is important to try to be positive.
Not least because I do, I genuinely do, believe in the basic decency of humanity.  And I believe, too, in the saying of Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.  When all the evidence suggests that we shouldn’t be, sometimes we should try to be positive.

So despite the fact that this has not been a great week once again, especially this week in Israel, I’d like to try to say “gam zu l’tovah”

The fires in Haifa have been truly awful.  Our hearts go out to everyone affected, including our friends at the Leo Baeck Centre.  There is no real silver lining.  If they are a natural event then they are a tragedy.  If they are intentional then they are a crime, and contribute to the ratcheting up of tension in the area.
But, in an effort to say “Gam zu l’tovah” it is worth acknowledging that the Palestinian Civil Defence force is among those fighting the fires, as they were in 2011.  There is a hint, in the tragedy, of the possibility of cooperation and coexistence.

Another truly awful thing to happen this week in Israel was the vandalizing of the Reform synagogue in the city of Ra’anana, accompanied by threatening grafitti, envelopes containing death threats against prominent Reform leaders, and a knife on which was written a text about the legal obligation to kill traitors.

Again, there is little here to feel positive about here.  Except – gam zu l’tovah – that the attack was condemned, including by Binyamin Netanyahu, by Naftali Bennet, who found it in himself to say one admirable thing this week, and even by some Religious Zionist rabbinic groups.  This, at least is for the good.

If it feels like clutching at straws, that’s because it is.  But once in a while we need to try to be like Nachum ish gam zu, to try to see the good.

Or maybe not.
Perhaps we should not say “This too is for the best”.  Perhaps to do so is to buy into a passive theology that is not ours.  See the good, yes, but not ignore the reality.
Perhaps we are better to agree not with Nachum but Nachman (of Bratslav, that is) and work to make the good.  As he said, “If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix, too”.