Hope Amidst Despair

What are the great contributions that Judaism has provided to Western civilization? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gave an answer that might surprise you: hope.

What are the great contributions that Judaism has provided to Western civilization? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gave an answer that might surprise you: hope.

Jews have been geniuses of hope. Rabbi Sacks points out that many cultures don’t embrace hope. They believe in the philosophy of the circle – everything is cyclical and history is a series of eternal recurrences. Nothing changes. To expect change in this philosophy is labeled naïve and foolish.

That is not mainstream Jewish belief. Mainstream Jewish belief embraces the philosophy of the line rather than the circle. At any point in the history of humanity things can change. Jewish history is full of those moments where everything changed: Abraham embraces monotheism, Moses challenges Pharaoh, the Jews are freed from slavery, the state of Israel is established.

Judaism is a religion of radical hope. The sociologist Peter Berger calls hope a point in which something beyond penetrates into the human situation. There is nothing inevitable or even rational about hope. It cannot be inferred from any facts about the past or present. Judaism’s contribution to our world is that we hold onto the hope that things can get better.

Nowhere is the power of hope more clearly expressed than in this morning’s portion. Leviticus 26 may be the most depressing, upsetting and frightening pieces of Jewish literature that exists. In graphic descriptions we read about a tragic world of pain and suffering due to our disobedience. It is hard to imagine any nation surviving such catastrophe. But tragic outcome is not inevitable. Look at the ending (Lev. 26:45):

“I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God: I, the Lord.”

No fate is so bleak that hope dies. Facing defeat, exile, tragedy we hold onto hope.

Hope is not merely words: “I hope things get better.” “I hope my heart condition improves.” “I hope I get an A on my test.” The key to Jewish hope is visualizing a different outcome and acting to bring it to fruition.

Acting on hope does not always mean the situation will change – but the ripples of living with hope are profound. One of my favorite stories is the story of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a well-known British rabbi in the Reform movement and the chanukiah. Rabbi Gryn was born in a village that at the time was part of Czechoslovakia, and now is in the Ukraine. As a young boy his family was sent to Auschwitz. For a while he and his father shared a barrack. One midwinter evening one of the inmates reminded them that it was the first night of Chanukah, the festival of lights. His father constructed a little menorah out of scrap metal. For a wick, he took some threads from his prison uniform. For oil, he used some butter that he somehow obtained from a guard. If he were caught lighting the menorah, he would have been severely punished – perhaps even killed. Beyond the risk, Hugo protested to his father at the “waste” of precious food. Would it not be better to share the butter on a crust of bread than burn it?

Then his father said something he would always remember: “Hugo, both you and I know that a person can live a very long time without food. But a person cannot live a single day without hope.” Hope sustains. It allows you to live with meaning, dignity and purpose, and defined Rabbi Hugo Gryn throughout his life.

Hope can exist in personal moments like the story of Rabbi Gryn, and it exists in dark places of war and suffering. Rabbi Sacks shared an amazing story that in late summer of 1999, he was in a town called Pristina in the country Kosovo. Rabbi Sacks was making a BBC television program about the aftermath of the Kosovo campaign. For those who do not remember or were not alive, Kosovo was a terrible moment in modern history of murder and devastation. Communities were destroyed, ethnic cleansing occurred, and over 800,000 people left homeless.

While interviewing General Sir Michael Jackson, then head of the NATO forces, General Jackson thanked Rabbi Sacks for what the Jews had done. Rabbi Sacks was baffled – what the Jews had done?

General Jackson shared that the Jewish community had taken charge of the city’s twenty-three primary schools. When the refugees returned home, the most reassuring sign that life was going to be okay was that the schools were open.

Rabbi Sacks was even more baffled – there were only 11 Jews in Pristina – how did they keep the schools open? So he investigated.

In the early days of the conflict, Israel sent a field medical team to work with the Kosovan Albanian refugees. They noticed that while other agencies were concentrating on the adults, there was no one working with the children. Traumatized by the conflict and far from home, they were running wild.

The team phoned back to Israel and asked for young volunteers. Every youth movement in Israel, from the most secular to the most religious, sent out teams of youth leaders at two-week intervals. They worked with the children, organizing summer camps, sports competitions, drama and music events and whatever else they could think of to make their temporary exile less traumatic.

Their effort won high praise from UNICEF, the United Nations children’s organization. It was in the wake of this that “the Jewish people” – Israel, the American-based “Joint” and other Jewish agencies – were asked to supervise the return to normality of the school system in Pristina, and that is how the Jews saved the school system.

Let’s deepen our understanding of hope. Hope is built on chesed, acts of kindness. It is grounded in values: love, friendship, peace, healing. A piece of embracing hope comes from immersing our lives in values larger than ourselves.

Hope is not magic or silliness. No one is hobbling up to the bima to throw away their crutches and be cured. That’s dysfunctional hope and leads to disaster. It makes people vulnerable to deception and simplistic non-solutions. Real hope visualizes change, which creates the mindset that thoughtful action may help create circumstance where hope can be realized. Sometimes it takes generations – but we continue to envision a different reality, we look toward what might be. This morning we read of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived at the time of the destruction of the 1st Temple and the exile to Babylonia. Right at the time of exile, he bought a field in Ananot. Normally you don’t buy real estate in a place you are leaving – unless you are cultivating the hope that you can return.

Hope is an attitude toward living and results in a different life. It calls on us to put the present in the background while we strive toward the future. Our precious legacy is that we are part of a people who have kept hope alive, and that in turn kept us alive. Let’s choose hope, in every moment.