Rosh Hashanah, Morning 5783 – Hope in a Traumatized World

A joke about Hope:

A charitable man decided to visit a sick ward at a hospital to cheer up the patients. He took along a keyboard and played humorous songs and told jokes at many a bedside. After finishing his final performance for an old man, he said, “I hope you get better.” The old man smiled vaguely at the performer and replied, “I hope you do too.”

Boker tov, good morning on this first day of the new year 5783, and a new beginning for all of us.  Yesterday evening, Erev Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about fear, and fear is the opposite, it seems to me, of hope, because fear can paralyze our ability to hope.  Yet, hope is stronger than fear.  Our Jewish, and also universal history, tradition, text, and liturgy play out the strength of hope.

“Hope springs eternal,” wrote Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man.  What does this verse mean and how does it relate to us?  Is it the eternal optimism that motivates us to keep buying lottery tickets? Today’s theme of hope points in another direction, hope in the face of adversity, hope in a traumatized world.  Today, I offer some understandings of what hope is and how its potential can elevate the human spirit.  This is not the casual hope when we say “I hope I can come over for dinner tonight,” but rather hope as the human instinct and antidote to meaninglessness and despair.

It is challenging to have a conversation about hope especially in a Jewish framework:  For one, the more we learn and know, it feels so overwhelming to tackle.  Challenges are so enormous. Problems are so big and we are so small.  For another, there is a real danger of coming off as a Pollyanna:  I’m talking about someone who says that in face of real crises, everything is fine.  This puts many of us liberal Jews off from religious language like:  put your trust in God, which is unhelpful and distasteful.  Most of us don’t believe that God intervenes supernaturally.  It doesn’t feel right to give platitudes like “a Jew has to have faith.” And, despite all our prayers and narratives of hope, Jews aren’t all that comfortable with hope.  How do we know?  A Jewish optimist says “things couldn’t get worse” and a Jewish pessimist says: “things could get much worse.”  Humor is an essential tool in Jewish arsenal of faith, and an essential element of hope.  Consider Mel Brooks’s play, The Producers of 1967 in which two Broadway producers dare to produce the musical “Springtime for Hitler,” meant to be the most offensive play that anyone could imagine.  To Mel Brooks, depicting the Nazis as buffoons was a tool for fighting fascism and evil.  For Brooks, humor is a powerful tool for those who still have hope and can hold the evil at bay.  Mel Brooks would appreciate the Book of Esther as a farce written in face of an attempted genocide of Jews:  victims who refused to be tyrannized.  According to the Talmud, humor is not just hopeful, but actually righteous:  Clowns are the ones who earn a place in the eternal Paradise.  Of course, a caveat here is that hope is found in people who can respond with agency to oppression (and humor is only one way to respond).  A slave for example does not have agency.

Jewish hope has to take into account all the irrational pain in the world.  And, it’s evident that hope is a Jewish value, as it is the title of our national anthem.  Indeed, if we compare the US national anthem to Hatikvah, we can see that the former is all about the past, while we Jews sing our hopes for the future.  In despair over the destruction of Jerusalem in 587, the prophet, Ezekiel, utters:

And God said to me, “O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone; we are doomed.’”  (Ezekiel 37:11)

Our modern anthem, Hatikvah, reversed the meaning of Ezekiel’s sentiment.  We sing: “Our hope is not yet gone.”

Psychologist Saul Levine offers the following by way of describing hope:  Hope is unique to our species because it requires words and thoughts to contemplate possible future events.  Physicians, for example, present encouraging possibilities when breaking bad news to patients because hope during serious illness fosters healing and recovery.  Hope is by its very nature optimistic and encourages us to work towards goals of overcoming the barriers and challenges in front of us.  It has religious meaning for those who believe in God, who through prayer, trust that their future will be protected by that very God.  Hope serves as a personal beacon, much like a lighthouse beckoning us during periods of darkness and stormy seas.  Hope galvanizes our courage and mobilizes our energy and vitality.  In enhances our mood and creative thinking.  Hope also contributes to the human propensity to help others who are in distress.  It is a great human motivator, engendering a sense of purpose and aspirations during desperate times.

I witnessed this kind of hope most poignantly in the summer of 2018, as a clinical pastoral associate.  To fulfill a rabbinical school requirement, I signed up for 10 40-hour weeks with one overnight weekly, at Strong Memorial Hospital, a mammoth trauma hospital in Rochester, NY.  It was transformational in both the exposure to the widest range of physical ailments and most importantly, the way in which each person embraced their condition.  Consider that in a hospital room, a patient has no distractions from themselves and their infirmities, and are forced to face their frailties and diagnoses straight on.  In that hospital room is precisely the place and time to turn to hope, hope in a continued purpose in life, hope in some kind of personal salvation (even in Judaism), and hope in the families, friends, and even medical professionals that surround them.

How do we cultivate this kind of hope or bring it to the surface at the same time that we struggle with pain, sadness, or a grim diagnosis?  Let us consider an openness to trust, even in the face of overwhelming ambiguity, that is, a belief in a kind and generous universe; an expectation of change and a willingness to seek it, even if that change will not alter the condition of our body, but simply still our emotions and those of our loved ones, and a renewed capacity to see beauty in life and in the world however expansive or confined that world presents itself, especially in a hospital room.  Here, we are not talking just about those who are struggling physically.  Here we can seamlessly make the jump to life outside the hospital room, to society at large.  A need for hope is pressing right now, especially if you are a news junkie:  Supreme Court decisions, the sense of a slow dismantling of democracy in America and in Israel, a sense of crisis around the climate—a real fear of what next generations are going to have to live through because of our climate decisions, wars, economic hardships, baseless violence – you name the trauma that induces your discomfort!

Hope is not always what one gets, but what one can give.  It may be more about legacy than future.  Most patients hope for a cure, for relief and for remission.  For them, hope is a personal transformation for the better.  But what about the patient who has and will continue to suffer with cancer and heart disease and believes their suffering is not accomplishing anything – what can that patient hope for?  Perhaps for this patient, it may be to talk about their life, continue to critique their surroundings, continue to offer wisdom and influence family, friends, medical providers and visitors, in order to make a difference and maintain hope.

The same applies to how each of us relates to social ills.  Hope requires us to be resilient.  For us today it’s less about catastrophes and more about the world going in the wrong direction.  If one election goes bad, for example, resilient people can see the long haul, the long game.

Judaism teaches that we are obliged to be witnesses who refuse to be apathetic, and aspire to restore and re-glue the broken shards of justice taken from the mystical image of Tikkun olam, of repairing the world.  Indeed, Judaism gave to the world a unique source of hope – the idea of a Messiah or Messianic Age, that history has an arrow to it, with a more complete and fulfilling future than the present world we live in.  Traditionally we are meant to wait patiently and passively and God will bring the Messiah or Messianic Age when ready. But this posture does not work for us now.  Modernity and Zionism in the 19th century heralded a change in this posture.  If we want a Messianic kind of world, we have to collectively be the Messiah and create the world to which we aspire.

Elie Wiesel comments: “Some may call hope absurd, but strangely enough it was not false for such is the nature of the human condition.  One hour before dying teachers teach and students learn from them essential lessons about a human’s fate, and the meaning of their passage on earth.  One reads a novel and dies before coming to the denouement.  One plants a tree and it’s taken away the next day.  Such is human destiny that all tales are ultimately interrupted.  The last word is not ours, but the one before the last . . .is ours.”  Elie Wiesel says this even as he bemoans (and I quote): “I belong to a traumatized generation, and many of us here belong to it as well.  A generation for whom it was tempting to renounce hope, too tempting, too inviting.”  His words touch us deeply at this moment in time.  Being the poet as well as the survivor and teacher, Wiesel finishes this 1999 lecture with “Hope being the key to freedom and fulfillment, without it life would be a prison, for hope is a gift that a wounded memory can bestow upon itself.”

Here, and especially here in this congregation, during these High holiday services, hope is in the relationship with God.  Hope intersects with faith.  A person without faith may lead an ethical life, but not always a hopeful one.  The principles of all faiths offer us as individuals, and as humanity, a vision of hope, that is, a purpose that gives meaning to what we do, and that there is fulfillment in relationship with the Eternal One.  We can hope through our prayers, as prayers are not only petition, but also praise and gratitude, for having a partner in the Holy One to share our vision as well as our frustration.

Hope is in the relationship with another person.  Martin Buber writes:  “In moments of lost faith and suffering, one voice can lift another.  This is the secret of the bond between spirit and spirit, when both voices sing together.  Hope is, with courage and daring, welcoming another into one’s distress and loss of heart, and conversely, entering into another’s suffering and sadness.”

Yes, hope is the opposite of despair and its antidote as well.  In an introduction to Psalm137 which refers to the Israelites in exile in Babylonia, Amy Eilberg, the first ordained conservative rabbi in 1982, writes:  I am in spiritual exile.  Nothing is normal, nothing is familiar, nothing is as it should be.  I remember better times, when life was easier, when I thought I knew just where I was going, when the future seemed wide open before me.  Now, my body’s not working and everything is changed.  Sometimes, I can’t even let in the people who used to bring me joy.  I cannot sing.  I allow myself to cry.  Then, suddenly something shifts.  I see a ray of light.  I notice what IS working.  I can sing songs of gratitude now.  I am breathing.  I am here.  I am still me.  I must keep singing if I can do it only a moment a day.  I won’t let my words stop expressing who I am.  I will use my tongue to say what I need to say.  I will not be defeated by despair.  I will take the next step in front of me, because life continues.  Thank you, God.  Thank you, humanity.

Like Rabbi Eilberg and John Donne, may hope spring up eternally for each and every one of us!  Kein yihiye ratzon – May this God’s will.