Here is another High Holiday Sermon.
I did not know what I was going to write until I read an article by Rabbi Marc Gellman who is part of a team with Monsignor Tom Hartman called, The God Squad. For several years they did an answer and question article in newspapers.
This article I read in the Coral Springs Forum is called, “Hope Encapsulates the Meaning of Life.” I would like to share some of it with you.
The Question was: In a recent column on deism, you said that hope is far more important to you than truth, which I liked. A story: My Mother, a non-smoker, died of lung cancer. After her priest offered her last rites, he asked if she had anything else that she’d like. This woman, with no remaining lung strength, loudly and clearly said, “Yes, I’d like my family to have hope. “So, as I go through the years, I often think about the word. How would define hope?
Here is the answer by Rabbi Gellman: “ Hope is more important to me than truth, because it’s easy to be wrong about truth, but it’s impossible to be wrong about hope.
However, hope endures and grounds my faith and my life not because it can’t be refuted but because it can’t be surpassed. It is the core part of my answer to life’s meaning: Do good things and hope that you can do more good things tomorrow. Hope is my spiritual blood.
So that’s how hope functions in me. As for a definition of hope, I’d start with the simplest meaning of hope as the belief that tomorrow will be better than today.
Why do we believe that? Why do we hope when we know that tomorrow may well be worse than today? Well, we could as easily ask, why do we love when we know that our loved one could die? Why do we hunger when we know that sometimes we will not be fed?
There are certain primal desires in our species and hope is one of them. We can’t live without hope, so even calling it a belief makes it seem far too volitional. Hope is the way purpose and goodness propels us into the future. Hope sustains us because it is on its way, and that’s hardly an optional belief.
Religion without hope is not religion because life without hope is not life, and religion is the way we weave hope into our lives. I’m hopeful because I believe that God has made us in God’s image and has laid up for us in the World to Come/Heaven a life for our souls after the death of our bodies.
To me God, even without the promise of heaven, is the indispensable source of my hope. Even without the promise of heaven, God’s compassionate creation of us as moral beings made in God’s image makes my hope not just a naïve expectation, but a certain gift.
The best biblical text on hope is from the Book of Proverbs, 10:28, ‘The hope of the righteous is joy, but the hope of the wicked shall perish.’
From this verse we learn that the reward of our hope is a joyous life and the punishment of evil is the destruction of hope. Hope and righteousness are connected and connect us to joy and God. Cruelty deprives us of that connection and makes our hope vanish like dust in the wind.
The most beautiful meditation on hope I know is that Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is the Thing With Feathers.”
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm,
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strongest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.”
So, you want my definition of hope? Heck, hers is his better.”
We, as a Jewish people, understand the word, “hope.” The Hebrew word for hope is, “tikvah.” The word “hatikvah” is the title of our national anthem in Israel. The song speaks of a hope that remained undimmed for two thousand years even as we endured some of the worst discrimination, oppression, and outright destruction ever known to humankind. A tiny minority of the world’s population and of the countries in which we found ourselves living down the centuries, we nonetheless managed to keep a beacon of hope burning that enables us to survive. We are a miracle! We thrived intellectually, morally, philosophically, and in our own day, economically.
“Hope” is a precious gift. It is a quality that allows us not to deny the reality that we find, but rather to acknowledge it, to confront it head on and to think of other possibilities. When facing long, even unimaginable odds, it is “hope” on which we must draw if we are to see our task through, or, in remembrance of Rabbi Tarfon’s words, “not to despair in the midst of undertaking it.” It is a concept so improbable that the term has recently been paired with the word, audacity.” This is not a bad word and Judaism has a good translation for that as well, “chutzpa.” How implausible, how “chutzpadik it is, after all, to ask people to keep believing that a desirable outcome is possible when all evidence seems to point to the contrary.
Hope is a large part of this morning’s Torah reading for the first day of Rosh HaShana. Abraham banishes Hagar, his maidservant, per Sara’s demand. She is angry with Hagar because she does not treat Sara and Isaac well, therefore, Abraham tells her and Yishmael to leave and she has no place to go but into the desert, presumably to die. Abraham turns to God who tells him to follow Sara’s request, saying that it is instead through Isaac that his weed will continue. It is a moment which, to Abraham, must surely have sounded like a death sentence for Yishmael, as though God was saying, “Put Yishmael out of your mind, for his survival is not significant.” At this moment, where all hope seems gone, suddenly an opening, for God adds, “As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”
Abraham sends the pair off into the wilderness, giving them some bread and water so they might sustain themselves. The water is finished and Hagar is certain they will die. She sends Yishmael off a small distance so that she will not witness his death, and weeps. Again, hope seems utterly gone, and then, again, an opening. God opens her eyes, the text tells us, and shows her a well of water which she can use to restore them both to life. In both of these moments, we learn that hope must never be extinguished, because it has the power to help remake reality, so long as there is a future, there is a different course that it could take. Perhaps that is why the signature example of chutpa, of hope, is Theodore Herzl, declaring after the First Zionist Congress that he expected a Jewish state to be a reality in fifty years. The idea that an assimilated Jew in Switzerland in 1897, in the midst of a resurgent wave of antisemitism in Europe could say this or even imagine it is mind boggling! Herzl eloquently said, “Im tirtzo, ein zo agada,” if you will it, it is no dream.” Fifty years and a few months after Herzl’s prophetic words, the United Nations voted to create a Jewish state in Palestine.
Hope requires the ability to envision a different course, to acknowledge that “change” is possible. I added another word, “change.” Hope and Change are two separate words when it comes to the Days of Awe. “Hope” assumes the possibility of change and serves as the driving force to make it a reality. I think “change” is hope made concrete. During these holidays, we must give concrete expression to our failures and short comings, both by reciting the litany of sins in our prayer services and by articulating our own specific failings to those we love and to ourselves. These acknowledgements create both the awareness of what needs to be done and the incentive for how to get there, the hope.
The 27th Psalm for the month of Elul closes with, “Lulei he’emonti lir’ot b’tuv Adonai b’eretz chayim, “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Why does the verse say, “In the land of the living?” Maybe it means I will see the urge for better things made real in my life in this world, in the land of the living. The psalm then concludes, “Kaveh el Adonai, chazak v’ya’ametz libecha, v’kaveh el Adonai,” “Hope for Adonai, be strong and let your heart take courage, and hope for Adonai.”
Let us use hope to envision a more vibrant path for ourselves, and our communities, and maybe the world. Let us use hope to make changes we can really believe in. Let us say, amen.
*Compiled and written by Cantor Risa Askin.
Used writings by: Rabbi Marc Gellman, and Rabbi Joshua Waxman.