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.

Online Class: Intro to the Jewish Experience!

Image: Two hands fit two puzzle pieces together, with the words “Introduction” above and “To the Jewish Experience” written below. Artwork from pixabay, modified by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

CLASSES BEGIN SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 26.

Introduction to the Jewish Experience, or “Intro,” is a 24-week online class in Basic Judaism. The series is for anyone who hasn’t had a basic Jewish education, or who wishes to learn as an adult.

We study in three terms of 8 weeks, which students may take in any order:

In Jewish Holidays & Lifecycle, we learn about the Jewish year and Jewish time as we explore the important days in the Jewish year, as well as the life ceremonies of Judaism. (Offered Sunday afternoons, 3:30-5pm Pacific Time, via Zoom, beginning 9/26/21)

In Jewish History Through Texts, we learn the history of the Jewish people through approximately 1000 CE, along with the literature of Rabbinic Judaism (Torah, Hebrew Bible, Midrash, Talmud) and we explore the concept of “Jewish Law.” We also explore the origins and history of antisemitism and Jew-hatred. (Offered Sunday afternoons, 1:30-3pm Pacific Time via Zoom, beginning 9/26/21). Will also be offered in January 2022.)

In Traditions of Judaism, we explore those things that the Jewish People worldwide share (Shabbat, the prayer book, the worship service) and we learn about Jewish history through the lens of the varieties of Jewish communities: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and others. We learn about modern-day streams of Judaism (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist) and the history of North American Judaism. We finish with an exploration of Jewish food customs. (Will be offered in January and March 2022.)

TO REGISTER: Send an email to CoffeeShopRabbi@gmail.com, with:

  • Your name
  • The class(es) you want to attend
  • A phone number
  • The name of your rabbi, if you have one.
  • Late signups will be accepted until October 1.

TUITION: The cost of classes is $200 for each 8-session term. However no one will be turned away for inability to pay.

Payment takes place through Eventbrite. Click the class link below, and when you get on the page, click the green box “Tickets.” That will take you to a page where you can choose between “Full Tuition” and “Pay What You Can.” Payment is processed by Jewish Gateways, the sponsor of the class.

Jewish Holidays and Lifecycle

Jewish History through Texts

I have had students from the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist traditions. I welcome students from many places: curious about Judaism, converting to Judaism, just want to understand Jewish relatives better, and some who just began working for a Jewish nonprofit. I welcome students from marginalized Jewish backgrounds: persons of color, LGBTQI persons, and students with disabilities. I am myself a fat woman, a lesbian with disabilities, and I became a Jew as an adult. I am a member in good standing of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Women’s Rabbinic Network, and the Northern California Board of Rabbis.

Join Me for the High Holy Days?

Image: Brightly colored logo for Jewish Gateways‘ High Holidays 2021 Logo. A pomegranate is cupped in a blue arc like a hand. A rainbow surrounds.

L’shana tova! Happy New Year! The Jewish New Year of 5782 begins at sundown on Monday night, September 6, and continues until sundown September 7.

Normally I’m a “Jew in the Pew” for High Holy Days, but this year I am pinch-hitting for Rabbi Bridget Wynne, who is recovering from an accident last week. If you’d like to join me for online services with Jewish Gateways, the registration and information for that is available on their website.

For more information about the High Holy Days I recommend reading my article High Holy Days for Beginners, 2020. The dates have changed but the information is the same.

Other ways you may hear Jews refer to these days, all correct:

  • High Holidays
  • Days of Awe
  • Yamim Noraim (Hebrew) (ya-MEEM no-rah-EEM)
  • Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (ROSH ha-sha-NAH and YOM kee-POOR)
  • “High Hols” (very informal)
  • HHD’s (in tweets and other shorthand media)

Whatever you call them, I wish you a Good and Sweet New Year. May it bring you health, healing, light, and love.

L‘shana tova! Happy New Year!