Rosh haShanah Sermon 5781

Hope.  These days it’s been in short supply.  I think that when this pandemic reached our shores, people rushed to the grocery stores, whisked it from the shelves along with stores of food, but it never was restocked. 

2020 has been unreal – so hard, so exhausting, so bitterly sad.  As a country, as a planet, we were already facing huge challenges and social divisions, and when the pandemic started, we had to make major changes to our daily lives in a short space of time, with very little time to plan or adjust.  And with the science being very new with regard to COVID-19 we just had to make the best decisions we could with what information we had, as we did our best to keep our heads above water. 

At first, even amongst the fear and uncertainty we could see the silver linings.  It was nice to work from home, to be with the kids more, but the novelty has now worn off. As the seasons turn, I am very present to all the losses – no camp, no visiting grandparents.  Now the summer has passed and kids are in school, albeit in a very different way.  We treasure what we have, but we have endured so much, and at what cost? 

And I say all this as a person who has so much; indeed, one who has more than most.  What of the people for whom this is more than an inconvenience?  I am glad that this pandemic has exposed inequalities and injustices long hidden in our society, but the suffering in this country is palpable.  As I read the news about the politicization of this pandemic, racial violence, fears around voting access, growing anti-Semitism amidst the surge in popularity of right-wing conspiracy theories, and the continuation of the climate crisis: in addition to feeling outrage and heartache, I also feel a deepening sense of responsibility from my privileged perch. In 1972, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

But what to do?  Of course we must continue to put one foot in front of the other and work to fix what we can, but where is our faith in the future and hope for a better tomorrow, for ourselves and for our children? 

I understand that is important to have hope – but to be honest, it is just hard for me to have it these days, and normally I consider myself an optimist.  I see the darker side of society and human nature winning a lot these days. And who could not feel pain and even despair as we follow the headlines, that being present to what is happening in the world causes. 

We aren’t equipped physiologically to be delivered catastrophic or confusing news 24/7. I have to remind myself of this; that is okay take in news just once a day. Because the news headlines are not the full story of us, which is focused on what is catastrophic, corrupt, failing. We have a responsibility, I think, to strive to live toward a narrative of hope, healing, goodness. When you don’t have hope, can’t see the good, it is sign that we need to step back if we are able to, and find something that gives us hope. 

Practices like observing Shabbat and being engaged in community help us step back from the aches of the world.  And, having a consistent gratitude practice is crucial.  Saying thank you, being grateful, giving in the ways that we can – these are subtle but powerful practices that are not just nice things to do, they help keep us sane and balanced.  We cannot give in to grief and despair – yes, feel it, but not to let it rule us.

Hope at this point might seem laughable to some of you, but hope is exactly what we need.  It’s certainly what I need, if I am to inspire you to not during these holy days, but to really focus on the problems and believe that they are fixable. 

Taking about hope today was the sermon that I needed hear.  And, Rosh HaShanah is all about hope – that this coming year might be better than the one before it; that this year we might truly turn ourselves around.

Hope is what motivates us not only to vote, but to get others to vote and engaged. Hope is not is not a panacea needed to make ourselves feel good; hope is a belief that around the corner, there is possibility. A true sense of hopefulness engenders curiosity and openness.

I think it is important to examine what exactly hope is and is not.  Hope is not just resilience (which I’ve spoken about before on Rosh HaShanah) or perseverance, thought is surely underpins them. It is more than being persistent or strong.  Hope, as I’ve conventionally thought of it, is a belief, a feeling that things will get better.  In a sense to be hopeful is a kind of faith or existential optimism.

Rebecca Solnit, the author of “Hope in the Dark,” (2016) writes that hope is not simply optimism; that everything is going to be fine. To have hope, she says, means to embrace a sense of uncertainty – to come to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, and that there is room for us to intervene. She says that if we are to have hope, we have to let go of the certainty that people seems to love more than hope.  We live a very surprising world – one in which saw the creation of the State of Israel, the Berlin Wall falling, a Black president getting elected in America, and yes, Trump becoming president. Unexpected things will happen, and that is certain. 

Rabbi Leora Frankel posits that hope is central to Judaism. Hope, she writes, “sustained our people through 3,000 of wandering, expulsion, and eventually return. Like a baton passed down through the generations, it was hope that emboldened Abraham to first follow God’s call and leave behind everything he knew, and hope that flickered to Moses from the burning bush, igniting our Exodus from Egypt. Hope produced our written Torah in Babylonian exile and transformed Judaism into a portable religion when the Romans torched the Second Temple. Through countless inquisitions and pogroms, through the horrors of the Holocaust, our ancestors held fast to hope and it nourished them. Of course, there is no greater, more tangible manifestation of hope in Jewish history than the modern State of Israel. It is no surprise that Israel’s national anthem is simply named HaTikvah, ‘the hope.’”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of England, would even say that we Jews invented hope – a belief that we can be free if we have faith, that we can look toward a messianic age, a time when there will be no poverty or strife.  “To be a Jew,” Sacks teaches, “is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation, or the blind acceptance of fate.” 

It is amazing to think of our forebears sustaining hope in ghettos and concentration camps. I think that truly a deep faith of God and miracles was essentials for many of them.  But what if we don’t have that same kind of faith or belief?  I think it was Mel Brooks, a good secular Jew, who sang, “No way of knowing, which way it’s going – hope for the best, expect the worst…” (That is more my husband’s approach.)

Here is my approach: Hope is part of our human condition to strive for something better. Hope is a uniquely human quality because it is future-focused, forcing us to squarely face the facts of life and then seeing something past them.  It is like memory, only it is directed toward our future, not the past.  So, I would say: Hope is the story we tell about our future.  It is our vision of what is possible.

The author and teacher Brene Brown teaches that hope is a function of struggle.  It is not an emotion, but a cognitive behavioral process that we learn when we experience adversity.  So, in other words, if you have lived through something hard and have gotten out from under it, you know it is possible to get through hard things.  This strengthens one’s sense of hope for yourself and for others.

We won’t always know how to get from under that hard place though.  Some things are going to feel insurmountable. But it is natural, human, to feel that sense of inadequacy or helplessness. So, rather than give up, we need to learn to accompany each other in this inadequacy, despair, and then to focus on what we can do, and the long view.  In the words of Krista Tippett, who hosts the wonderful radio show called onbeing, “Hope is a muscle that we have to flex, it is a vigorous choice to see what needs repair and attention and also to keep our hearts and imaginations oriented toward what we want to build, what we are walking towards.”

It is tempting to want to get on an airplane and just leave, so that we don’t feel the burden of America’s problems so personally. Tippett believes that we in the United States are in the midst of culture shift and that we must embody how we want to live in contrast to the awfulness – systemic racism, family separation, climate change.  She says, “if we want to build a world of justice, of joy, then we must embody joy and justice. We must be present to frailty and suffering but also to see what is generative, what you can engage with.”

What can you hope for in this New Year?  What can you build?  I think that is the central question and challenge of Rosh Hashanah.  How will you be partners with God in the holy work of recreating this world?  We need to locate our hope, and live inside it, not admire it from a distance.  Flex the muscles of hope daily in whatever way works for you – whether it is prayer, journaling, gardening, or acts of justice, kindness, and giving.  Recognize the good, focus on it, and build it. This is part of our covenant with God that we are affirming today.

So this Rosh Hashanah, with the gates of heaven open and waiting, let us take a few minutes of personal reflection, to consider this question: What would it mean for you, in your own way, to truly live this New Year with hope in your heart?

Shanah Tovah U’metukah, wishing you a year of good health, of sweetness, and of hope.