Monday, September 29, 2014

Rosh Hashanah: Against All Odds, Rabbi Shira Stutman

Against All Odds
Rabbi Shira Stutman

The story of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, begins in 1878. Natphtali Herz Imber was a young bohemian and poet who wrote “Tikvateinu”, “our hope”, expressing the desire of the Jewish people to return to their homeland, to Israel. Imber left Palestine in 1888, but the poem—with a new name, “Hatikvah”, and ultimately turned into a song by the early Zionist pioneers of Rishon L’Zion—remained. Written by this secular Jew from Austro-Hungary, with the melody brought by a Romanian immigrant but adapted from a popular Moldovian folk song.[1] In a settlement in Palestine. The original melting pot. In 1948, when the state of Israel was established, Hatikvah became the unofficial national anthem. In 2004, the K’nesset, the Israeli parliament, officially ratified it.

Hatikvah notwithstanding, it certainly was not the summer from hope. On the world scale, we begin with rockets raining down on Israel, and the resultant, on-going, war between Israel and Hamas, one which—no matter how you count the numbers—left thousands dead, hundreds of thousands traumatized, many of them children. Or turn to Ferguson, MO, where Michael Brown—18 years old, about to start college—was gunned down by a policeman. Where his death is a loud reminder of a system of oppression against people of color, and especially African-American males, that snakes its way through our schools, courts, stores, and society.

Or anti-Semitism in France, Germany, Boston, San Francisco. Jews killed in Brussels, stores ransacked in Paris. People attacked here in America, the Goldene Medinah, in New York, in Los Angeles.

And that’s just one part of the news. Some of your minds are tuned to other issues, other places in the world, also deserving of our notice. Rising sea levels. Ukraine, Sudan, thousands of unaccompanied Central American children desperately trying to find a better life here in America.

And what of our own lives, hopes unfulfilled there? Jobs lost or never found, relationships ended, friends leaving DC, loved ones ill or dying. Each of us, no matter how sunny our dispositions or how perfect our social media posts, has our moment of darkness, when we worry that all hope is lost.

How can we have hope in a broken world?

To begin to unravel this puzzle, let us begin, obviously, with a prostitute named Rahab. We’re back a few thousand years, as the Israelites are poised to enter the land of Canaan after being freed from slavery in Egypt. Joshua, who has taken over as leader after Moses’ death, sends in two scouts—“go, look over the land,” he says. “Especially Jericho.” Clearly, “go, look over the land” instead means “go find a prostitute” so the men went directly to Rahab’s home, the text teaches, “and stayed there.”

Meanwhile, the Canaanites heard that there were Israelites at Rahab’s home. Soldiers knock on Rahab’s door to slaughter the Israelites, but she thinks fast. She hides the scouts and tells the soldiers that there are no Israelites in the home. The soldiers leave. In gratitude, the scouts promise that when the Israelite army invades Canaan, they will not touch Rahab or anyone in her family. All she has to do is tie tikvat chut ha-shani (a line of scarlet thread) outside the window, so the Israelites will know who she is. She and her family were saved.

Those of you who speak Hebrew will have already noticed that the Hebrew word “tikvat,” here meaning “line” of cord, is the same word as “tikvah”, meaning hope.

If we are looking for one image, then, of where to find hope, it is in the kav, the thin red line, a small opening in the midst of a difficult situation. It is what saved Rahab and her family. Not just sitting back and waiting for God to provide, but instead, in the midst of fear or uncertainty, anger or apathy, finding an opening for courage: to move on and consciously decide that no matter what happens, you are not going to wait for the end but instead look toward and help create a new future. Some of you have heard me teach that in Judaism, many verbs are not ends unto themselves, but require further action. Zachor, for instance, means not just “remember” but “remember so that”. Consider a new understanding: “tikvah” meaning not just “hope” but “hope—and then do.” Lo Samchinan Anisa, the Talmud teaches. We are not permitted to rely on a miracle. Hope requires ongoing action, even if it’s only a “kav”, a thread’s worth.

The root of the word “tikvah” is connected to another word: “mikvah”, the ritual bath that Jews, or people becoming Jews, immerse in for any number of reasons. If one way of thinking about hope is as a thread to grasp, another is thinking about it as holy waters all around, the possibility of rebirth. The image turns from grasping at strings to embracing and shielding us as we step into difficult moments. From hope as something private, individual, to something communal, the sum greater than its parts.

Kav hope—the hope of a thread—is important. It is what saved Rahab, after all. But since it only affected her and her family, it was not enough. True hope is not a solo endeavor; it is a communal one. It requires others around you who can pick you up when you’re lost.

Consider today’s Torah portion: God promises Abraham that both his sons, Ishmael and Isaac, will become great nations. But Abraham expels Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, from the compound, sending them into the desert. Hagar walks until she runs out of water. She loses all tikvah, all hope. She places her son under a tree then sits a small distance away, to await both of their deaths.

And then an angel arrives, to show her what was in front of her all along. It “opens Hagar’s eyes” so that she could see a well of water. She gave Ishmael water, and took for herself. They settle into a good life, and Ishmael grows up and began to build his nation.

Without her angel, the text teaches, Hagar would not have been able to go on. Sometimes we are the bearers of hope for our own selves, and sometimes we rely on others to bear the burden with or for us. It is no coincidence that Israel’s national anthem is an anthem of hope. It is no coincidence that the root word for hope has woven its way into other parts of the Hebrew language. Judaism is, arguably, the religion of hope and Jews are its people. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove speaks of this beautifully when he reminds us that

Judaism’s outstanding contribution to the landscape of religious sentiment is its contention that no matter what happened in the past, the best part of the narrative is yet to come. Every time a Jew prays, every time we recite the amidah, we return to the banks of the sea and stand on the cusp of redemption…Our very liturgy reminds us that you and I, each and every one of us, every single day, exist forever with the best part of our story in front of us.

Even as we look toward the future, though, we cannot forget the past. This past summer may seem like a long time ago for those of us who are not living in the Middle East, for those of us who walk the streets with white privilege. We may choose to engage hope by utilizing strategic amnesia. It’s certainly easy enough to do in this fast-paced world. But being part of the culture of hope means that we have to look backward in addition to forward, that we mine the lessons of the past to teach how to be hopeful in the future.

For when we look back to the summer has passed and the fall that is unfolding, it is easy to think that the world is self-destructing. And perhaps it is. Or perhaps in every generation there have been events—some more catastrophic than others—that made us feel hopeless. Certainly in each of our lives there have been moments when all hope seemed lost. And sometimes it was—for a moment. For hope to work, though, for it to continue to propel you forward, sometimes we need to shift the goal-posts a little bit. You cannot tell someone on hospice to “hope for a cure”. But you can say, “what is your hope for what lives on after you die?” Right now, we cannot hope for a perfect peace in Israel and Palestine, with open borders and exchange of ideas. But that does not mean that hope is lost. After the holiday, go onto youtube and listen to inmates at Bergen-Belsen singing the Hatikvah. And ask yourself how they, survivors of one of the worst moments in Jewish history, could have found that kav of hope.

See a thread of hope in Rambam hospital in Haifa, which is treating Gazans injured in the war. “Here [at Rambam] we see humans; we don’t see sides,” said Yazid Falah, the coordinator for the hospital’s Palestinian patients. “ At the end of the day, everyone is in the same boat.” See a thread of hope in the story of Mustafa, a Gazan who came to Seeds of Peace in Maine this summer so as “to share his suffering” with Israeli Jews he had never would have had the opportunity to meet. See a thread of hope in the fact that anti-Semitism in Germany is criticized by the vast majority of political leadership. See a thread of hope in Captain Ron Johnson standing in front of members of the Ferguson community, and saying simply “To the family of Mike Brown--I’m sorry.” Don’t let the bad in the world obscure the goodness that still surrounds us.

And don’t roll your eyes, please. DC is a city of cynics, and this room, filled will policy analysts and journalists, will be only too quick to let me know how meager, “may I have a little more, please?” this list seems. We know we’re in trouble when we’re grateful to the person who just states facts—thank you so much, Chancellor Merkel, for stating that anti-Semitism is bad, but we already knew that. In the first 13 days after Michael Brown was killed, at least 5 more unarmed African-American males were killed by police. (We don’t have the exact number because the vast majority of police departments don’t keep the data.)

And yet—if Jews have given anything to the world, it is the ongoing, against-all-odds and reason to the contrary, sense of hope. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, teaches that

to be a Jew 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. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet. There is no more challenging vocation. Throughout history, when human beings have sought hope they have found it in the Jewish story. Judaism is the religion, and Israel the home, of hope.

Without hope, all we have left is despair. And as scholar Steven Katz writes, “Jews are, as Jews, forbidden to despair of redemption, or to become cynical about the world and humanity, for to submit to cynicism is to abdicate responsibility for the here and now and to deliver the future into the hands of the forces of evil.” Yes—there is evil in the world. Our job is not to ignore the evil but to lift up the kav—the small thread—of hope wherever we can.

The central prayer of the entire High Holy Day season is the unetaneh tokef, which David led us in singing a little while ago. It is, as much as anything else, a prayer of hope in times that threaten despair. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written/and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: /how many will pass away and how many will be born; / who will live and who will die…” and so on. We teeter on the edge of nihilism, each of us acknowledging that we could die at any moment, and then? And then, hope arrives. U’teshuvah, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hag’zeyrah. With teshuva, with tefilah, with tzedakah, we can avert the decree. We have agency in even the darkest moments. Even just a kav.

We conclude as we began, with the Hatikvah, one of the few national anthems in the entire world written in the minor key. A song of pride. A song, unlike many world anthems, devoid of war or battle imagery. It is a song of hope for a world that we are a long way from realizing. A world of shalom, of peace and wholeness.

But the song has not been without controversy. Orthodox Jews object to one line, Arab-Israelis and their allies to a few others. Nothing is easy when it comes to the Middle East. But yet here we are, still moving forward, still choosing hope. Sometimes, instead of reality defining our beliefs, we must allow our beliefs to help define our reality. By choosing to embrace hope, we actually are better positioned to create the conditions for which we hope, and thus our hopes are more likely to be realized. Living in despair will guarantee that we remain in despair. Living in hope can help to justify our hope--because it gives us the strength to act.

Pessimists will tell you that "hope is not a strategy". In fact, hope IS a strategy--as long as the hope is coupled with action. In the year to come, may you allow your hope to spur you on. Hope for an improved relationship with family or friends, and move forward, one small step at a time, one text or lunch at a time, toward it. Hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and go and visit, learn peoples’ stories, donate to tzedakahs that support your goals. Hope for an end to injustice in America and call out racism when you see it, including—for those of us who are white—staying conscious of our own privilege and where it comes into play. Do it as individuals, do it as a community.

In a recent article, the journalist Yossi Klein Halevi wrote of psalm 27, recited every day in the month before Rosh Hashana, which ends with the following words: “Put your hope in Adonai, be strong, and keep strong your heart!” Every single day, the entire month before Rosh Hashanah, we read this psalm, commanding us to hope. And then, we sound the shofar, commanding us to action. He writes,

This is a society of believers. Even those who don't believe in God tend to believe in the enduring mystery of Jewish survival.
The other morning while driving my 16-year-old son, Shachar, to school, I said: “Here we are, in a traffic jam in Jerusalem. But sometimes I think about how the most ordinary details of my daily life were the greatest dream of my ancestors.”
“I think about that a lot,” he replied matter of factly.
That was all he said. But that was enough. I knew he would be able to survive here.
Hope comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it is as big as the 18th Zionist Congress, in 1933, when Hatikvah was officially adopted as the Zionist movement’s national anthem. Or as big as the 1963 march on Washington, at which Martin Luther King gave his famous speech. Or as big as 300,000 people coming together in New York City for the People’s Climate March. Those are mikvah hope moments. And sometimes it is as small as a traffic jam in Jerusalem. Or a 12-year-old girl pitcher who throws 70 mph and ends up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Those are kav moments. And we need each and every one of them to survive. As we are awash in hope, we are strengthened by it. And then we sound the shofar, commanding us to action. It helps us keep strong our hearts. May we all turn our hearts toward that hope and work together for a better future.


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