Today we read the story of Nachum "Ish Gamzo," a sort of Tannaitic Candide. His nickname comes from his slogan, "Gam zo letovah," "This also is for the good," which is his customary response to misfortune and misery. I had conflicting responses to his philosophy as presented in these aggadot. On the one hand, I was very interested in the fact that the Jews pick him to bring their gift to Caesar because "melumad b'nisim hu": "he was accustomed to miracles" or "miracles always happened to him" (as Braude has it). This struck me as perhaps a statement with some psychological truth. For a guy who sees everything as positive, who is able to see the best in every situation, many experiences must seem like miracles. It's not necessarily that miracles actually happen to Nachum more often, but rather that since he has the ultimate faith that everything happens for the best, he sees miracles in situations in which others would see only suffering. In one sense, this seems like a great idea-- have an optimistic attitude, and you'll experience the miracles of life more fully.
There's another side to Nachum's perspective, though, and it is more problematic for me. In the first aggadah, Nachum relates to his disciples the story of how he became crippled, and they say, "Woe unto us that we see you in such a state!" He responds, "Greater woe unto me if you did not see me in such a state." Presumably, his response reflects his belief that he would have to suffer for his sin in the world to come unless he suffers in this life. He is happier to have brought his suffering on himself now rather than having to sacrifice his place in the next world. Nachum's optimism is predicated upon an idea of cosmic justice that valorizes suffering and asserts that suffering can be a positive end in itself. While I can imagine that this outlook might help victims of suffering to bear their fates, it could also be used to justify passive acceptance of suffering. Especially for those of us who don't necessarily believe that divine justice will eventually be meted out fairly in a way human beings can comprehend (either before or after death), this approach is difficult to swallow. Any opinions about whether "gam zo letovah" is best understood as a helpful way of seeing the best in the world or a dangerous rationalization of suffering?