The Audacity of Hope
This summer, the day before we left Jerusalem to return home, our close friend Shmulik came over to say goodbye. We were leaving for Los Angeles, he for Lebanon. We shared a quiet, intense hug. He, holding his baby boy – I, holding back my tears. Don,” he said, “it’s all so hopeless.”
I got into my rental car and drove to say goodbye to other friends – Rabbi Joel Oseran and his family. Joel spoke here at the Temple last May about the importance of creating a connection with Israel. Arriving at Joel’s house I found everyone running around preparing for guests about to arrive. Not your everyday guests. No, an entire family from the North of Israel - a family that the Oserans had never met. A mother, her 9 month old and her 3 year old, as well as the grandmother were about to arrive. Where was the dad? Killed by a Katyusha, a katyusha fired from Lebanan that landed on their home just the week before. The young mother sat Shiva in the North, then took her babies and her mother and looked for somewhere “safer” to go. The Oseran family opened their home, got furniture for the babies, shopped for food, and graciously hosted this family for weeks until it was safe to return home and try to rebuild their lives. At the Oseran’s home I found the hope that Shmulik, my friend heading toward Lebanon, longed for.
A Chasid once came to his rabbi in tears. “I feel so paralyzed. I’ve tried so hard to repair the world and it does no good – it’s just hopeless. The world is still filled with sin.” The rabbi very patiently embraced the man and explained: “Have hope. Before you change the world, you must start with yourself. And after you’ve repaired yourself, repair your community. And after your community, repair your nation. Know that then you will have begun to repair the world.”
The rabbi advised the Chasid to have hope. Yet as we start our New Year, we feel helpless in the face of the present day situation of our world. Today we share a sense of pessimism - we feel vuue, iht - there is no hope. The situations we face, from Iraq to Lebanon, from Afghanistan to Iran, the overall condition of our world just feels so sad, so huge.
Here in Los Angeles we have the luxury of reacting to all this negativity by burying our heads in the sand, going to the movies, having a nice dinner, avoiding it all. Yet Judaism does not allow us to act like an ostrich. Our New Year is based on , - on hope. On Rosh Hashanah here at Temple we were challenged by fiery passionate sermons. Today -- Yom Kippur -- is a day for quiet reflection, a day for us to search for that promise of hope. At times of pain and despondency it is our undying sense of hope that has given us the courage to move forward into a New Year.
How do we do that? What is the path that each of us can take to regain a sense of hope? Let me share three different teachings of first century rabbis that can guide us.
The first teaching that can bring us a sense of hope as we enter the New Year was taught by the great first-century Rabbi, Yochanan Ben Zakkai: “if you have a sapling in your hand and someone says to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah.1” Wow! Ben Zakkai seems to be telling us, Messiah shmessiah – focus on the here and now, focus on what’s in your hands.
As a rabbi I have the distinct blessing of learning from everyone I meet. I buried an 87 year old man this year, a truly beautiful soul. At a Shiva minyan, his grandson shared: “My Papa taught me that we can create a legacy by valuing every single day. He used to chuckle at people who were obsessed about what was going to happen next month or next year because he always focused on today. And on each today that he lived he touched a life. And here we all are – blessed because of each day that he lived.”
What legacy will we create today? Each year I teach 30 rabbinic students that there is no greater statement of hope than to arise each morning committed to adding value to our lives, to add value to our world. I try to practice what I preach. Each morning I look forward to the holiness I will help create that day. And each night before I fall asleep, I reflect on the holiness that infused my day. When I go into a nursery school classroom and look into the eyes of a 3 year old as I blow my shofar, I know I’ve brought holiness into the world. I sit with tears in my eyes as a grieving widow shares her loneliness. My presence brings her comfort - I know that I’ve brought holiness in the world.
It’s not just rabbis who have the chance to bring holiness into the world and into people’s lives. There are acts that are part of our everyday life that are also acts of holiness: bringing water on a hot day to your gardener; tutoring a homeless child here at our homeless shelter; even tipping generously at the carwash for a job well done. These acts bring hope into our lives and into the world. Surely we can find hope as we look back at the holiness our actions brought to the world and as we look forward to the days afforded to us by this New Year. What legacy will we create tomorrow?
The second teaching leading us to hope is from Rabbi Hillel. He taught:- In a place where there are no upstanding human beings, stand up to be human.2 How does this wonderful lesson teach us about hope? Hillel teaches us that, as Jews, even in our despondency and hopelessness we still have to stand up for what is right, even in places where no one else is courageous enough.
On a personal level Hillel has much to teach us. Last week I watched three of my confirmation students, 10th graders, seated together eating pizza. I couldn’t help overhearing them criticizing the younger students. “Can you believe his haircut? He looks like a sheepdog!” “Can you believe her shoes? Who does she think she is!” I noticed that as the conversation went on and on, one of the students looked more and more uncomfortable. Finally she spoke up. “You guys,” she said. “It’s just not nice. Someone else could be talking about us the same way. Let’s talk about something else.” A hopeful moment - Hillel would have been proud. In a place where no one else was brave enough, she stood up to be a human being, to be a mentsch.
While Hillel’s admonition operates on a personal level, it can operate on a larger, national and international scale as well. Much of the hopelessness we feel is because we feel under attack by fanatical forces that we can’t understand let alone confront. Yet, in Israel today, commissions of inquiry are at work to determine if the Israeli Government and the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, remained true to the core Jewish values upon which Israel was founded. I’ve read of a brave officer who is organizing the soldiers he led into Lebanon to stand up and tell the stories of abuses they witnessed during the war. Hillel would be proud of that officer for standing up.
Ronald Reagan, quoting an old adage (questionably attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville),3 said: America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great. He could have been speaking of Israel as well. Israelis are not afraid – like that officer, they are not shying away from standing up and asking the hard questions.
To be great, we here in America need to ask those questions as well. As we fight for democracy and freedom in the world, are we remaining true to our core values of democracy and freedom at home? What would Hillel say to us today about how our nation lives our values? What do our core Jewish and American values say about torture, wiretaps, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib? The Courts are dealing with issues of legality. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has publicly questioned the morality of our policy. It is time that we, each of us, deals with the moral issues, the Jewish issues. To have hope, Hillel asks us to stand up and ask the serious questions that need to be asked.
The third teaching that points toward hope is through community. We learn, also from Pirke Avot,- Do not separate yourself from your community.4 We Jews cannot pray or say Kaddish without a minyan. Bar and Bat Mitzvah services take place within a community at a synagogue. Mitzvah day doesn’t happen as individuals.
We belong to many communities, from the gym, to the PTA, to our bridge clubs. Synagogue provides us with a different model – a community based upon relationships of meaning. It is in this community that we share the entirety of our lives, from the joy of birth, to the celebration of Bnai Mitzvah and the marriages of our loved ones. It is in this community at the end of life that we find comfort, saying Kaddish at funerals and at Shiva. Ours is not simply a social community, ours is a community of meaning that can bring hope to our lives.
I’ve seen the suffering of Jews who separate themselves from their community. A new member of the Temple told me that before she joined the Temple, her father died. She and her sister had nowhere to turn. The cemetery assigned her a rabbi with whom they had no relationship. Without a community there were only 15 people gathered at the gravesite on the day of the funeral. The rabbi wouldn’t let Kaddish be said because there wasn’t a minyan of men. Two daughters with no community couldn’t say Kaddish for their father. These two women suffered at such a vulnerable time in their lives because they weren’t part of a community.
Hillel understood this and compelled us to connect to our community. Let me share with you an example of how reaching out to others can bring hope into our lives. Remember last year I spoke about house meetings – an opportunity to sit together with others from the Temple and create community by sharing personal stories? At an expanded housemeeting that we held at Temple last year with outside visitors, one guest - Salvador – told us how his child couldn’t play outside at recess because of the toxic waste bubbling up in the playground at her school. Salvador knew the power of community – even without knowing Hillel’s words, these lessons resonated in Salvador’s soul. He organized the parents and together with the principal demanded that the Board of Education clean up the toxic waste. When the Board of Education couldn’t do it Salvador took his group of parents to Sacramento and got the millions needed. And his daughter and her friends got to play outside in their own schoolyard. I feel hope because of the community that this courageous man forged. Last week Salvador had a stroke while camping with his family and he is now on our mi-shebayrach list.
Closer to home, we will create hope this fall when we embark upon stage two of our house meetings. We will ask you who have not yet attended a meeting to take home the post card you were handed today and sign up, sit together with other Temple Judea congregants, hear their stories and share yours. In these one-time meetings you too can begin to create strong bonds as I created with Salvador. In these meetings you can begin to explore how you too can bring hope to the world.
This Yom Kippur Judaism says to us,- there is hope. And with these three teachings, Judaism provides us a path toward hope.
1. If you have a sapling in your hand and someone says to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah. We find hope knowing that each day provides us the potential to add value to our lives, to create a living legacy.
2. - In a place where there are no upstanding human beings, stand up to be human. We create hope through purposeful action, standing up for what is right, for the core values that Judaism would have us live in our lives and in our world.
3. - Do not separate yourself from your community. We share hope by actively connecting ourselves to the Jewish community.
Judaism provides us a path by which despair can be conquered by hope. In only one day in Israel last summer I felt my own despondency give way to hope. I cried at the despair Shmulik shared as he left for the North of Israel. And the same day, sitting in Joel Oseran’s home surrounded by a high chair and crib for the visiting family from the North, I felt hope.
This Yom Kippur, if we commit in the coming year to: creating a legacy, standing up for what is right, and connecting to our community, we will be able to heed the words that wise rabbi said to his Chasid: “Have hope.”
1 Avot d’rebbe Natan 31b
2 Pirke Avot 2:6
3 THE TOCQUEVILLE FRAUD, The Weekly Standard, November 13, 1995, By John J. Pitney, Jr.
4 Pirke Avot 2:5