The Real Kind of Hope

Rosh HaShanah 5777

Shanah Tova!  This year, these words are more difficult to say than in the past. It has been a tough year.  For me personally, for so many of us here this evening.  We have experienced the death of loved ones.  Sudden illnesses have torn families apart. Some of us have lost jobs and experienced the uncertainty of tomorrow.  Others have confronted challenges that come with aging, losing a sense of independence. We’ve faced all sorts of hardships this past year.

It has no doubt been a difficult year for our city, as well. Gun violence is at its worst.  Our city continues to operate without a budget. Things have been difficult on a global level, too.  We live in an America where minimum wage does not provide enough for people to live. Antisemitism is on the rise throughout Europe. Terrorist attacks occur on a weekly basis.  We hear and we see so much intolerance and hate for nearly every minority group in the world.  We constantly live with a growing fear of terror. We feel less safe today than we did yesterday. 

By now, you are probably thinking, “I didn’t come to Rosh Hashanah services to be further depressed about the world.”  But here’s the thing — I have not told you anything you don’t already know. Really.

And the truth is, the darkness in our own lives, in our city, and in our world can indeed feel quite overwhelming, scary, and even paralyze us. In these darkest times so many of us feel as though we are barely hanging on by a thread.

And yet, here we are on this eve of Rosh Hashanah, the eve of our Jewish New Year. How are we supposed to celebrate this gift of the New Year, if it really doesn’t feel like a gift at all?

Let me let you in on a little secret — Rosh Hashanah impels us to talk about hope.  This is the only Jewish holiday that occurs on the day of the new moon?  On the first of every Jewish month, the day of the new moon, we cannot actually see the moon.  Tonight is literally our darkest Jewish holiday. And yet, it is on this very day, that the opening words of our prayers began, “Tiku va’chodesh shofar, ba’keseh l’yom chagainu”, “Blow the shofar when the moon is covered”.  When the moon is covered, when we cannot see even a little sliver of light, we are commanded to blast the shofar, a symbol of hope — hope even in the darkest of times. 

Did you know that the only time the word “hope” occurs in our prayers is during our evening services on these High Holy Days?  In the middle of the Amidah we find an additional section of prayers focusing on the themes of kingship, remembrance and shofar. And, it’s also the oldest part of our Rosh Hashanah Liturgy.[1] On the holiest days of the year, we pray words of hope together as a community, asking God, “Grant hope to those who seek You.”

On this dark evening, as we begin our New Jewish Year, our prayers remind us that we must cultivate hope. Even when there is no promise of a better tomorrow, we continue to wake up each day.  Think about our history as a people, time and time again — we persist.  We continue to live our lives.  Somehow, somehow from deep within, we have held on tight to the courage to get up and move forward. We continue to have hope.

Because that is what Jews do.

 Our American society has taught us about hope in sappy movies and cheesy hallmark cards. Hope becomes a sort of cheerfulness, a confidence that things will turn out for the best, that they will at least get better.   We are surrounded with this kind of hope from our earliest age.  Every story we read ends “and they all lived happily ever after.”  Every movie we watch ties up all conflict with a pretty bow — Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, even the Ugly Duckling.  We hear the language of hope all the time, “I hope my train is on time,” “I hope to get a promotion, “I hope to find comfort.” If I hope for something, it will come true. 

Jewish hope is different.  Our hope, Jewish hope is much more difficult than hallmark hope. It is not a hope that guarantees happy endings.  It is not a hope that makes everything better.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Hope is a conviction, rooted in trust…an ability to soar above the darkness that overshadows the divine.”[2]  Our job then is to defy the darkness.  When the moon is fully covered, as it is on this very evening, and when we can see no light, we continue to hope.  This is no Walt Disney dreamland. It is not even a naive illusion. Jewish hope means that even when things are grim and even when it feels as though tomorrow will be worse than today, we continue to hang on.  We continue to hope even when we have no promise of when the world will be whole again, or if we will ever achieve peace. Our Jewish tradition teaches that we can and we must overshadow the darkness.  Regardless of how things turn out , we continue to hope, as we continue to work towards making the world more whole. 

Oddly enough we find the origin of the Hebrew word for Hope, tikva, in an unusual story about  a Canaanite Harlot named Rahab. As the Israelites prepare to enter the Land, Joshua, the new leader of the Jewish people sends in two spies to scope it out. Upon entering, the scouts arrive at the house of Rahab and stay there.[3]  As you might imagine, when word gets out about these Israelites, the Canaanites are less than thrilled and plan to attack.  In that very moment, Rahab, the Harlot becomes Rahab the Heroine as she protects the two Israelite scouts.  As a reward, the scouts promise that when the Israelite army invades Canaan, they will return the favor, and Rahab and her family will be protected. In order to protect her, they offer her a scarlet tikvah, thread, to hang from her window.  This scarlet thread becomes Rahab’s only guarantee that her household will be spared by the Israelites.[4]  It was literally her tikvah, her only hope.

Hope is that thread that we continue to hold onto during the darkest moments in our own lives, and in our world.  It is the common thread that we, as a Jewish people hold onto ever so tightly when nothing is promised, nothing is guaranteed.

Rahab could not simply wait for God to provide, but rather she used the scarlet thread as an opening for courage.  In this sense, hope, or the word tikvah, in Hebrew, goes beyond a mere feeling that everything will turn out okay. Rather, in this Jewish sense, hope is what we continue to hold onto even when a dark uncertainty abounds.

The Jewish people have held onto hope since the beginning of time.  For 2000 years we survived without a land of our own.  And yet, the choice for Israel’s national anthem was Hatikva, “the hope.”   Despite all of the darkness of exile and persecution that filled those 2000 years, the Jewish people held onto the thread of hope.

We, too, must take hold of the tikva, of the thread, and use it to build toward a future still unrealized. When World II broke out, Rabbi Leo Baeck refused to leave his German community. He was sent to Terezin at the age of 70, and even there, he continued to teach. In his writings post World War II, he described Jewish hope as “ethical optimism”. Baeck wrote, “The optimism of Judaism consists of the belief in God, and consequently also a belief in man who is able to realize in himself the good which first finds its reality in God.”[5]  In other words, to be an ethical optimist is to have Jewish hope. Not merely the feeling or the faith or even the belief in God, but a belief, also, in human beings.  A belief that each and every one of us is capable, obligated to do more than feel, more than have faith. To act. To physically take hold of the tikvah, of the flimsy thread and build a bridge towards a potential future, a better future, a more hopeful future. To question what is, and to imagine what can be.[6]

Let me tell you a story about young 12 year old boy. On an October afternoon, Cassius Clay rode his brand new bicycle to the Columbia Auditorium. He parked his bicycle and a few hours later returned to find that it had been stolen.  Upset and angry, Cassius, sat on the steps of the Auditorium in tears.  It seemed as if things for Cassius could not get any worse.

Right then, in that moment, an off-duty police officer, Joe Martin, saw Cassius sitting on the steps, and asked what was wrong.  Cassius shared that his brand-new bicycle was stolen! Martin was not optimistic about finding the bike, he was brutally honest with Cassius that it was unlikely he would find his bicycle. Cassius, disappointed and still quite angry replied, “If I find the guy who took my bike, I’m gonna whup him.”

Martin asked the young  boy if he knew how to fight and invited him into the basement of a nearby building where he owned a boxing studio.  This off-duty police officer did not promise that he would find Cassius’ bicycle.  That would have been false hope, wishful thinking. Cassius never went on to whup the man who stole his bicycle. But as a result of Joe Martin’s kindness and generosity, we might even call it hope, Cassius walked a long distance being broken hearted 12 year old boy, to becoming someone great, Muhammed Ali.  

Rav Kook had a teaching about walking a long distance: “If you find yourself in a dark place, don’t waste your time cursing the darkness, just light a candle. That is the Jewish way.”  We’ve all heard the phrase the “there is a light at the end of the tunnel.” But if you really think about it, when you are in the darkest part of the tunnel, you actually cannot see the light at the end. There is no promise of a romanticized happy outcome. What Rav Kook teaches us then, is that regardless of if we are able to see that light at the end of the tunnel, regardless of how dark our world is, we must still hope. For Jewish hope means hanging on to a thread, even if it is a very thin coarse thread. It means, even in the dark muck of our lives, even when we have no answers, no solutions of how to make the situation better, our tradition demands that we must still hope.  For it is that flimsy thread that give us the courage, the energy, the thrust that we need in order to light that candle, to put one foot in front of the other, to love even if it hurts.

We who are seeking light during a dark year, when all we want to do is shut off the news, close the papers, throw our arms up and ask God, “why?”, we are given the gift of a response on this Erev Rosh Hashanah, as we pray, “Grant us hope”.  Hope. Ethical Optimism.

This is the exact aim of the words we recite over and over again during these High Holy Days, “But repentance, prayer and acts of righteousness temper Judgement’s decree”– to encourage ethical optimism.  We do not recite this prayer on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur as a way of “wishful thinking”.  No, this prayer serves as an expression of our faith when we recognize the power of our own human actions.  This most awesome prayer of the High Holy Days, reminds each and every one of us that through our actions, we have the potential to be a force in our hopefulness.  The High Holy Days then become our challenge to live up to that hope.

On July 2nd, the Jewish people lost perhaps, our greatest model of what it means to be a Jew, and to be optimist, Elie Wiesel.  Wiesel, like many others, survived the brutality that was the Shoah, the Holocaust. Wiesel was faced with a deep sense of fear and of despair. And YET he continued to live and to live to have a legacy.  In his writings he shared his memories.  He recounted stories and moments during the war. And in those darkest moments, on those darkest nights, while in Auschwitz, Wiesel continued to hope. He often shared a story about Simchat Torah while in the camps.  This joyous holiday, was gloomy.  There was no celebration.  There was no Torah to dance around. There was no Torah. An old man walked over to a young boy and said to him,

“Do you know the Sh’ma?
and the boy answered, “I know the Sh’ma and more than that.”      
And the man said, “The Sh’ma is enough.”

 And the man called the rest, “Come Jews, it is Simchat Torah, the time to dance around the Torah, to dance and to sing.

            And the old man lifted the boy as the Torah is lifted, and the Jews danced around the man and his Torah. They danced and sang and wept.[7]  Even in the camps, they celebrated Simchat Torah. 

We’ve had a rough year.  For some of us things continue to feel grim.  We wonder if things will ever get better. The truth is that we have no guarantee. And yet here we are, once again on the cusp of a New Year, the year 5777 — look around this sanctuary.  Perhaps this is our best image of what it means to be an ethical optimist, to have Jewish hope.  Hope is not optional when human beings are capable of so much more goodness.  Hope is not optional when we continue to celebrate young people becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah, celebrate couples marrying beneath a chuppah.  Hope is not optional when we must fight against fear and hate. Hope is not optional when we can love.  Hope is not optional for us as Jews.  Hope is embedded within who we are as a people Israel. And so, we continue to hold onto the thread of hope because when our world is turned upside down, and when it feels dark, we care.  We turn to one another with love and with compassion. We take action to help temper judgement’s decree. For in Auschwitz they danced, surely we have to.

This New Year of 5777 will not bring an end to violence and to terror. It will not bring an end to intolerance and to hate.  It may not even bring an end to illness and suffering, or even fully heal broken hearts. But in this New year, let us all channel that strength of who we are as a people, who we have been as a people for thousands of years, and continue to grasp hold of that tikva, to our thread of hope.




[1] Reuven Hammer. Entering the High Holy Days. 50.

[2] Heschel, Israel and Echo of Eternity, 94

[3] Joshua 2:1.

[4] Joshua Chapter 2.

[5] Leo Baeck. The Essence of Judaism. 87.

[6] Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education.

[7] Jack Stern. The Right Not to Remain Silent: Living Morally in a Complex World


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