As we gather here this evening, just nine days into the New Year, the sombre, reflective spirit associated with Yom Kippur, combines with a complex bundle of feelings that each one of us carries within us, as we face the year ahead. We know that our purpose on this most sacred day of the Jewish year is to examine our lives, acknowledge our errors, and the ways in which we have hurt others as well as ourselves, with as much honesty as we can muster, and resolve to do better in the year ahead. But we don’t live our lives in a vacuum; beyond the circle of our personal relationships, we live in community, in a nexus of communities, in society, in the world.
We look back at the past year, and even before we get down to unravelling our own behaviour in our efforts to change, it is hard not to feel overwhelmed by external events, issues, problems and stubborn realities: authoritarian regimes that torture and subjugate their own people, radical movements, responding to colonialism and tyranny by engaging in acts of terror at home as well as abroad, unending wars, the global refugee crisis, gender violence, homophobia and transphobia in so many parts of the globe, poverty and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the global ecological crisis and the threat of climate change, continuing instability in the Middle East, and in particular, the ongoing impasse in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The list goes on. There are so many reasons to despair. Some of us may be asking ourselves the question: What’s the point in trying to improve myself and my personal relationships when the world around me is so chaotic and uncertain?
Yes, it’s hard not to despair. But despair is so dangerous. We get mired in feelings of hopelessness. Some of us divert despair into equally negative emotions and responses, like: cynicism and fatalism. The main problem with cynicism is that like a contagion it infects any efforts to change the world. The word, deriving originally from a school of ancient Greek philosophers known as the Cynics, those who are cynical are inclined to question the integrity of others and believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest – not least, politicians and the whole enterprise of politics. In this particular context, it’s clear to see that cynicism is closely connected to scepticism, distrust, mistrust, doubt and suspicion. Allied, too, with incredulity, negativity and world-weariness, cynicism also expresses the disillusion, and disenchantment we can feel when efforts to create change seem to come to nothing. Of course, at the heart of cynicism: pessimism; an inclination to feel that nothing ever changes and to see any efforts to create change as futile.
Which brings me to fatalism. Fatalism is just as dangerous as cynicism. Those who are inclined to fatalism imagine that all the terrible things that happen are predetermined and therefore inevitable. From a fatalistic point of view, free -will is impossible. We cannot control what happens or institute any change. Fatalism can breed a submissive attitude to events, passive acceptance, resignation and defeatism. Everything is just fated. Like cynicism, fatalism tends to pessimism and negative thinking, and a ‘doom and gloom’ mentality.
It’s not my intention this evening to make any of us feel even more gloomy and despairing than we already feel. It is my intention to argue that given that cynicism and fatalism lead nowhere and only serve to intensify a sense of hopelessness and pointlessness, we must commit ourselves to Hope – with a capital ‘H’. To give up on hope is surely to pronounce a death sentence on humanity. But then again, the question remains: how can we genuinely generate a feeling of hope, given the state of the world?
Perhaps, we could begin by remembering that hope – tikvah – in Hebrew, is an endemically Jewish inclination. The very survival of the Jewish people against the odds is evidence of the triumph of a spirit of hope. Just think of the catalogue of calamities that have afflicted our people: over 200 years spent in slavery in Egypt in the 13th century BCE; conquest by successive empires from the eighth century BCE through the first century CE: the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans; 1700 years of demonisation under Christendom, involving segregation and marginalisation, persecution and violence; the deadly consequences of the development of modern racist anti-Semitism, culminating in the Sho’ah.
Why are we still here? Of course, there are many possible answers to this question, including, for some that despite the terrible catastrophes that have befallen us, the Eternal One is with us eternally. That response was certainly evident in previous generations. Tomorrow afternoon, in the musaf service, the ‘additional service’, which is the deepest moment of the day, we will sing the song, Ani Ma’amin, derived from the ‘Thirteen Principles of Faith’ composed by the Jewish philosopher and codifier, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known by the acronym, Rambam, and as Maimonides. Ani Ma’amin declares: Ani ma’amin be’emunah sh’leimah – ‘I believe with complete faith that the Messiah will come’ – in our Liberal Judaism version, ‘that the time of redemption will come’ – ‘and though he/it be long delayed, I will await him/it every day.’ I remember my mother telling me that as her father approached home at the close of Shabbat – Shabbes in their household – he would be singing a Yiddish song that begins: a gitte voch, a gitte voch, mashi’ach vet kimmen aufen villen voch – ‘a good week, a good week’ – the Yiddish version of the Hebrew, shavu’a tov, shavu’a tov – the Messiah will come in the fullness of the week’. For the generations, who endured a ghetto existence, Shabbes nurtured the hope of the messianic times, and so to ward off feelings of sadness as Shabbes ended that the Messiah had not yet come, instead of resorting to despair, our forebears looked forward with hopefulness to the prospect that maybe at the end of the coming week, the Messiah would arrive…
Of course, we live in very different times and circumstances. The spirit of hopeful expectation expressed in that Yiddish song is generally only found among the Chasidim today, who tend to live as though they are still in Eastern Europe in the 18th century. So, what about us? What can we do, so modern and sophisticated as we are, to nurture the spirit of hope? In his book of essays, Writing in the Dark, published in 2008, David Grossman, who as an Israeli, and as a parent, whose son was killed in the 2006 Israeli incursion into Lebanon, is more than familiar with despair, speaks about what he calls “acquired naïveté”. David Grossman writes:
I must … admit that I’m a great believer in “acquired naïveté,” by which I mean a conscious and determined decision to be somewhat naive, precisely in a situation that is all but rotting away with sobriety and cynicism, that for years has been leading us astray. It is a naïveté that knows full well what it faces and what it contends with, but also knows that despair creates more despair, hatred, and violence, while hope – even if it is the product of this “acquired naïveté” – may very slowly bring about the mechanisms of prospect, of faith in the possibility of change, of extricating oneself from an eternal victim mentality.
‘Cynicism has been leading us astray…. despair creates more despair, hatred, and violence.’ So, our only hope is hope. Let us not forget that the Israeli National Anthem is Ha-Tikvah – ‘The Hope’. Perhaps, this year that marks the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the subsequent occupation, the 70th anniversary of the UN vote on partition of the land on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean into two states, and the centenary of the Balfour Declaration that expressed the British government’s support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland, might remind us that, ultimately, the only hope of a future for the State of Israel is that the hope of a State of Palestine alongside Israel is realised.
So, do you think you can make ‘a conscious and determined decision to be somewhat naïve’? It may be easier for some of us. I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for my basic naïveté – my naive belief that most people’s inclination to open-hearted benevolence will be stronger than their drive to mean-spirited malevolence. After a horrendous time in my life – and my rabbinic career – just over 20 years ago, when I had experienced a particularly bad period of homophobia, I decided to adopt the middle name, Tikvah, and so consciously and determinedly make ‘hope’ part of my identity. In the face of all signs that there was no reason to hope, realising how far hope had got me from the time that I began my rabbinic journey in 1984, despite the naysayers and bigots, I decided against reason, to make tikvah, my mantra.
Each one of us must find their own way towards hope. During the past year, in response to continuing racism and bigotry, particularly in the United States, we have seen the rise of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. We need to realise that our individual lives matter. In that quest, a nugget of wisdom in the Talmud is instructive: ‘Happy is the one who performs a good deed that may tip the scales for themselves and the world.’ Yes, we may feel overwhelmed by what is going on across the globe, but each one of us can make a difference – a difference, not only for the world, but also for ourselves; because when we defy despair, cynicism and fatalism, and adopt hope as a strategy, we can, both, help to repair the world and heal our own brokenness. This evening, as we face the challenge to renew our lives, may the survival of our people ‘from Egypt until now,’ and the bonds of community we share together, inspire us to summon up a spirit of hope for the journey that lies ahead. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
Erev Yom Kippur 5777 – 29th September 2017
- Born, c.1135 in Cordova, Spain; died in Egypt in 1204. ↑
- Bloomsbury, pub co, 2008, p. 207. ↑
- David Grossman’s grief at the loss of his son is expressed in his book, Falling Out of Time, published in 2014. ↑
- 5 June-11 June 1967. ↑
- 29 November 1947. ↑
- https://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/The_Balfour_Declaration ↑
- https://www.facebook.com/BlackLivesMatter ↑
- Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 40a. ↑
- Sh’lach L’kha, Numbers 14:19. ↑