Jewish Hope

Image: A person blows a shofar against a background of clouds. ((Shutterstock, all rights reserved)

This is the sermon I gave on Yom Kippur 5782 in a Zoom service for Jewish Gateways.

We are living in times that are genuinely frightening.

We meet tonight virtually because there is a deadly virus circulating in our world, and so we refrain from gathering in person because we want to live, and we want our neighbors to live.

We are living through a time of political unrest. Whatever our individual political positions, surely we can agree that we’ve never seen times quite like these before.

We are living in a time when the world is teeming with refugees: climate refugees, political refugees, and refugees from housing insecurity.

We are facing the realities of climate change: our state is literally on fire, while other parts of the country face killer storms. We are suffering through a drought, while other parts of the country and the world, are drowning.

And personally, we each have stories of injury and loss. Our beloved Rabbi Bridget is recovering from a fall that injured her badly. Some have lost jobs. Some have lost their homes. Some need medical care but cannot access it.

Tomorrow we will read a prayer called the Unataneh Tokef, the Yom Kippur prayer that affirms that we don’t really know what may happen in the coming year, who will live and who will die, who will suffer and who will have comfort, and so on. Even in an easy year it is a difficult prayer. Last year and this year, it has a terrible resonance, because the times are so uneasy.

What’s a Jew to do?

Our tradition is actually quite clear on this, and it offers us resources. Jewish tradition does not encourage us towards empty optimism. Instead, it encourages us to remain hopeful, even in the darkest moments. Not every individual Jew will survive, but as a people, we shall work towards better times, a better world.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l was the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, a major Jewish voice in the 20th and 21st century. He wrote:

“Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage – only a certain naivety – to be an optimist. It takes courage to sustain hope. No Jew – knowing what we do of the past, of hatred, bloodshed, persecution in the name of God, suppression of human rights in the name of freedom – can be an optimist. But Jews have never given up hope.”

It’s true, we Jews as a People have been through some truly terrible times over the millenia. Our Temples were destroyed – twice. We lived in exile for centuries. We suffered the Inquisition and the Holocaust.

But we have never, as a people, lost HOPE.

Hope – the belief that we can make change for the better — is baked into our tradition.

The book of Genesis begins with a statement of hope:  Bereshit bara Elohim et haShamayim v’et ha’aretz. “When God was beginning to make the heavens and the earth…”

The Torah’s first words, Bereshit bara Elohim – when God was beginning to create – Those hold Hope. The Torah tells us that creation is not finished, and God is not finished with creation. Nothing is a done deal. Change is still possible. That’s HOPE.

In Exodus, Moses asks for God’s name. God answers with a mysterious name, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. All a translator can say for sure about it is that the Name of God is in the future tense. Some translate it, “I will be what I will be.” Again, things are not done, not finished: Judaism focuses on the future.

In the beginning of the Book of Ruth, the widow Naomi gives up hope. She says to her widowed daughters in law, “Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I were married tonight and I also bore sons, should you wait for them to grow up?” One way to read the Book of Ruth is to say it is the story of how Naomi lost all hope of grandchildren – and then at the end, she gets a grandson. Ruth does mitzvot, Boaz does mitzvot, the people of Bethlehem do mitzvot, and hope is reborn.

Jewish hope is not mindless optimism. It looks at a difficult, sometimes cruel world and says, “We can fix this.” Sometimes it has to be very tough-minded. As Yehuda Amichai wrote in his poem Ein Yahav, “And I said to myself: That’s true, hope needs to be like barbed wire to keep out despair, hope must be a mine field.” Those are ugly images, but I think the poet is onto something important: the opposite of hope is despair, and we must guard against despair for hope to survive.

Many of the Jewish texts that speak of hope talk about hope in God. That may be very comforting for believers in a personal God, or it may be a challenge, if our idea of God is more abstract. When I read those texts, I remember that we are God’s hands in the world. God is still creating the world, but now God does it with our hands, our brains, and our determination.

How does that work? A person who lives a life of Torah does their best to keep the mitzvot, the commandments in the Torah. They are following God’s directions as expressed in our Torah. When such a person feeds the hungry, God is feeding the hungry. When such a person welcomes a stranger, God is welcoming that stranger. When a person who lives a life of Torah takes action to save the earth, God is saving the earth. No single human being can accomplish much by themselves, but we are not alone: we are part of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, in all our diverse splendor. We are the erev rav, the mixed multitude, who left Egypt together, Jews and people who love Jews or who dwell with Jews, and all together, living lives of Torah, there is hope: we’ve got this.

So now I look out through this screen at all of you, and I feel my faith renewed. Members of this congregation stepped up this High Holidays to take care of one another while Rabbi Bridget was injured. You are continuing to do mitzvot even while your rabbi and teacher has to be out sick. You lift one another up, you speak kindly and truthfully, you do what needs to be done.

That is Jewish hope.

We have what it takes to survive difficult times, to learn what can be learned, to record what can be recorded, to remember those who need to be remembered. We can do this.

As Rabbi Sacks wrote, no Jew can be a mindless optimist, knowing what we know about how low humanity can go. But Jews – and those who love Jews – can face reality, and have a quiet resolve that we will do our part to heal this troubled world. We will not give up hope. 

So I want to finish this sermon tonight with a quotation from the end of Psalm 27, a psalm about hope,

A psalm that challenges us to keep walking forward, to keep on keeping mitzvot, to keep on doing what needs to be done in the world:

Kaveh el Adonai, hazak v’amatz libehkha, ukaveh el Adonai  —

Hope in the Eternal One;
be strong and of good courage! 
O hope in the Eternal, hope in one another.

“Chazak v’amatz” – be strong and of good courage – let’s say it together, to each other —  chazak v’amatz!

Keyn y-hi ratzon, may it be God’s will.  Amen.

Throwing Myself Into the Arms of Shabbat

Early this morning, after staying up to hear the news about the UK voting to leave the European Union, I posted this message to friends on Facebook:

This (Brexit, Trump) is what comes of the obsession with deficits post-2008 and the growing disparity in incomes. The 90% feel enraged and abandoned, looking for someone to blame, voting their fears.

I don’t know when I have felt so pessimistic. Time for Shabbat.

Then I did a bit of housework, always good therapy. I saw messages from friends, including an exhortation to “Look for the good, it’s still there” from a friend who sees much more of the trouble in the world close up than I do, a nurse who spent much of the last week watching over the victims of Orlando.  These good angels made me rethink my bad mood.

This is not the time to succumb to the blues. There is important work to do in this world. There are things that CAN be made right. We can fix our broken institutions here in the U.S. It isn’t too late to have a functioning Supreme Court, a Congress where they actually vote on bills that matter, and an economic system that brings a decent life to everyone, not just to the wealthy. 

I am tired right now. That SCOTUS non-result that has hurt immigrants hurt my heart. Brexit hurts people for whom I care very much. The reaction of those well-meaning people at the local Republican HQ – “Trump isn’t ours, please go away” – chilled me. Orlando shocked me to my bones.

And yet:

Last weekend I saw my youngest married to a good woman. I saw a new generation of my family begin. I saw that my sons are grown and they are good men. So I refuse to give up hope in the world.

Last weekend I was reminded what a precious and wonderful “family of choice” I have. The people who have chosen to love me and my children are a tribe of our own, built from what seemed, 30 years ago, to be the wreckage of my life. I have children of my body and adopted children, a brother I adore and adopted siblings who would walk through fire for me, ex-in-laws who have been dear to me ever since I met them in the fall of 1973. I have my beloved and beshert, Linda, and to our mutual amazement, we are legally married! So I refuse to give up on the world.

Last week I saw an outpouring of support for the gay men and other Q people and allies murdered in Orlando. There were a few haters. There were people who used it as another opportunity to demonize Muslims. But the vast majority of people saw those gay men as human beings, and saw the shooter as what he was: a hate filled individual who used Daesh/ISIS as his excuse. Even ten years ago, the reaction would have been quite different. So I refuse to give up hope in the world.

Last Monday night I was the guest of Muslim neighbors at their iftar. I saw the earnest seeking after true spiritual growth. I felt the welcome of generous spirits, and I listened to fears and worries that were very much like my own. I am convinced that the Holy One at the center of our attention is the same One. Their love for our country is the same as mine. I refuse to give up hope in the world.

I’m going to keep Shabbat, and let Shabbat keep me this week. Shabbat shalom, my friends. We will still do good in this world, whatever happens.

You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination. But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period—I am addressing myself to the School—surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. –Winston Churchill, October 29, 1941

Hope is a Jewish Value

 Image: A hovering Rufous Hummingbird (via Wikipedia)
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
Two things come to my mind when I hear the word “Hope.” The first is this poem by Emily Dickinson, of which I give the first stanza above. The second is HaTikva, “The Hope,” the national anthem of Israel:
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope – the 2,000 year old hope – will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
Miss Emily did a marvelous job of portraying the ridiculousness of hope: “a thing with feathers.” For over a thousand years, Jews finished each Passover seder with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” and it might as well have been “Next year on the Moon!” And yet our ancestors refused to give up on the idea, the hope, that someday we’d return to the land of Abraham, of King David, and of Rabbi Akiva. At the very end of the 19th century, Zionism became a worldwide movement, and in 1948, the modern State of Israel was born.
As individuals, we also have hopes, visions of the selves we might be, stronger, better, more whole than we are today. If at this moment, your life feels flimsy, messed-up, and incomplete, don’t despair. Remember Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers.”  Feed that little bird your best efforts, your good resolutions, and a willingness to ask for help and accept it. Change is possible, if we are willing to maintain our hope.