I have had more than my share of hiccups over the past few weeks. Not honestly the big stuff. We have a wonderful new home. We have made an amazing number of new friends in a short time. Our kids are doing very well in the new school transition, thanks in part to Camp Ramah in New England where 3 of them already have local friends. And of course, I have been settling in to a new position here with great joy and expectation all around. The big stuff is very, very good.
But the smaller stuff has been a bit of a slog. Moving your home of 14 years is not simple under any circumstances. Anyone who has moved with kids knows what I’m talking about. But then there was a bout of Lyme Disease. A few curveballs in the house renovations department that left Leah and me on an inflatable bed for 2 months. I endured about 25 hours of hassles in registering our leased cars in MA. And finally, I had a pretty significant car accident right before Rosh Hashanah. Thank God, and Dr. Joe Levy, all is well. But…it was quite a summer. I am thrilled that today is the first day of fall.
When the big stuff is good it is always easier not to sweat the small stuff. But when wave after wave of troubles comes it can become very difficult. In this community many of you have experienced the kind of real trouble in your personal lives that can be soul crushing. There have been for many of us health setbacks, diagnoses we shuttered to hear. There are problems with children we love, issues with parents, spouses and siblings. The stuff of family drama that can tend to drain us on a deep level. Friends, folks in this room, have dealt with joblessness, uncertainties about what tomorrow would bring. And somehow, from deep within, you have mustered the courage, the optimism, the hope to get up -- to go on -- to look to tomorrow cheerfully.
Emily Dickinson wrote:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
Dickinson’s little sparrow called hope, her slight, vulnerable winged creature that exists within us is real. It is present within each of us as we face the various hurdles, dangers and the unknown of our world. But we sometimes thoughtlessly push it aside as so much frivolous nonsense, so much lightness and irrelevancy in light of the heavy, serious challenges we face. Who has time for feathers and tunes without words in a time that calls for armor, full throated shouts against the dangers which encroach on every front? Without intending to, in the name of serious, grownup ways of thinking, we kill this sparrow, tossing its body aside. Sure that hope is a luxury of the irresponsible.
Kavei el Hashem, Hazak v’Yametz Libecah. V’Kavei el Hashem. For the past 5 ½ weeks we have been reiterating this theme twice a day. For another week and a half, for 50 days total, we reiterate our basic conviction. The Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, these are not a time only to beat our breasts. This is not only a time to ruminate on sin and failure, on danger and the encroaching storm. This fast today is as much a time of joy, according to the tradition as is the festival which begins in four days. Like Sukkot, Yom Kippur is a time of joy. Because we now are able to recapture that most critical component of ourselves that can be beaten down and diminished by the onslaught of bad news, by the natural sense of reality -- what is is what is real. We see trend lines and failed past attempts to fix what is broken, to right wrongs, to end racism and anti-Semitism and violence… and we see that feathered creature that perches in the soul as an illusion. We drive right past it. Hope. Tikva. The fervent conviction that tomorrow is ours to make into the better world of our dreams -- it is a casualty of living, lying on the side of the road.
But today we declare all things are possible. Kavei El Hashem. Hazak v’Yametz Libecha. Hope in the Lord. Let your heart be strong, and take courage! As with our personal lives, our collective experience as Jews can also begin to wring the hope out of us if we aren’t careful. As of the close of 5775 there are ample reasons to wonder if tomorrow will bring better things. In many ways, the storms that are roiling the Jewish world today, in American, in Israel and in Europe, are well known. We feel often that we have seen this movie before. And we are very simply in a moment in time that has generated a great deal of anxiety, even fear. I understand that sense, and in certain ways I share it with you. Without intending to bring you down, I need to share with you three stories you already know in our world which challenge our hopefulness as Jews.
It persists, and is reborn, only 70 years after the Shoah. And it can be found in the most discouraging of places. Among educated elites who call Israel to account for every misstep, but who somehow overlook the sins of governments and militias which leave millions dead and displaced across the world. In our universities. A recent nationwide study of more than 1000 Jewish American college students conducted by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law reached some startling conclusions. The survey, which interviewed students at 55 U.S. colleges, found that 54 percent experienced or witnessed “anti-Semitism on campus during the first six months of the 2013-2014 academic year.” That’s more than 50% of students in only 6 months! These acts are apparently not only directed at overtly pro-Israel Jewish activists, as if that would be OK. They are acts, sometimes violent acts, against even marginally identified Jews.
These events, of course, tend to pale in comparison to last January’s horrific attacks against Jews in Paris. Murdered while buying their Shabbat food, murdered while being engaged in free speech, the Jews of France felt more than symbolically besieged. They were truly afraid. And we all joined them in solidarity. Je suis Charlie. Je suis Juif.
Whether perpetuated by governments or other purveyors of hate, whether in the name of a religion or in the name of enlightened postreligious humanism; whether on American campuses, in Middle Eastern capitals or throughout the European continent -- Anti Semitism persists. It is real and it is dangerous.
The deal that has now been negotiated and supported in the US Congress is, honestly, very unpopular in Israel. (That is an understatement.) And while large portions of Israel’s intelligence and military establishment have indicated that on the narrow question of Iran’s acquiring a nuclear weapon it may actually be a good deal, no one can blame Prime Minister Netanyahu or his rival, opposition leader Bugi Hertzog for being afraid and sounding a certain alarm. Iran’s government continues to openly dream of an age when the so called ‘Zionist Enemy’ is wiped off the map. They continue to deny the Holocaust. And they happily support terror in Israel’s cities and over Israel’s skies in the form of rockets that rain down on nursery schools and hospitals from the north to the south. Last summer Leah and two of our kids spent a memorable portion of their vacation in a heder atum, a sealed room, until they heard the all clear. And in the endlessly complex Middle East it is of course not only Iran, but Iran’s sworn 5 enemies (ISIS, remnants of al Qaida, and even Bathists who persist in Iraq) who are on Israel’s borders; threatening what tomorrow may yet bring.
Today it is increasingly clear that we face an uphill struggle when it comes to our own kids. Our own part in guaranteeing the Jewish future may be the most tenuous component of all. We see rates of retreat from engagement in the Jewish world, in Jewish life, that call into question how we will sustain ourselves in the coming generation. The evidence for this is all around us here on the South Shore. It can be seen in Chestnut Hill and even in Brookline as leading flagships of our movement sell their properties and come to terms with their weakened future. There are no shortage of ways in which Jewish identity, identification with Israel, and the future of the people seem truly endangered.
Even in Israel the future can appear uncertain and troubled. Is the next generation of Israelis as eager as their parents to serve in the army? Will they continue to tolerate a chief rabbinate that intrudes in their personal lives? Are they so attached to Israel that they will, after all of their service, be willing to pay massive taxes to subsidize the nonserving, non-tax paying ultra-Orthodox? There is open talk of a brain drain from Israel today, in which some of Israel’s best and brightest (and most successful) seek to pursue their careers outside of the state. Many have given up on having a chance at a ‘normal’ life in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. The irony today is seen in the number of leading Israeli academics and business people who choose an address in Berlin or Milan rather than in Beer Sheva or Mvaseret Tzion.
From intractable terrorism and shuttered Conservative synagogues, from UN condemnations to Israeli Nobel Prize winners whose kids speak better German than Hebrew, I may be bumming you out. I am sorry.
We have been trying to confront these issues, again and again. They have been in the crosshairs of our community over generations, and we can be forgiven for feeling more than a bit stuck. The thing with feathers seems too small, too weak and too remote to provide us much uplift. Where is hope when we need it?
Tonight I want to take you back in time. Back to three other moments, separated by more than 2400 years of Jewish history. Moments of much greater darkness, uncertainty and fear for the Jewish people than our own. Yet in all of these moments we did not allow this thing with feathers to die. We were led by our poets and prophets, by our prayers and our inner spirit to cling to hope. To keep it alive. To not let it die.
586 BCE. Or the Jewish year of 3174. (Or however they counted the years back in Babylon then.) The king, the near god on earth, Emperor Nebuchanezzar had exiled many of the people of Judah on the western edge of his empire. The elites of Jerusalem -- merchants, poets, some political leaders and priests -- were now living by the river Euphrates, becoming accustomed to life as former Judeans. They remembered their former glory as they told stories of their ancestors and their faith. Kids became less and less ‘Judean,’ as they spoke Hebrew less, adopted new names for themselves and even the months of the year, and made their peace with their lives as foreigners.
The people there fully believed their identity had been destroyed as surely as Jerusalem lay in ruins, its holy place ransacked and its dreams gone forever.
One of these exiles, from a priestly family, saw their exile as only a symptom of their ills. The people could be revived, even resurrected, if they only could get beyond their national depression. The people said, “Yevshu Atzmoteinu, v’Avda Tikvateinu,” our bones have dried up, our hope is lost. But Ezekiel said, you who look around and see the dry withered bones of a dead people are unaware of the power of hope. If you understand where our true future lies, in the dreams and persistent hopes of our people, anything is possible. Even these dry bones can live again!
130 CE. 3790. The City of Jerusalem, 700 years after Ezekiel, has been rebuilt, the nation restored and then it all is destroyed again. Now a series of persecutions of Jews has forbidden the teaching of Torah on pain of death. The people are once more living in fear, without a Temple and without hope. Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri responded by writing a prayer rooted in hope. He said that for those who have hope, God is present -- even without a Temple. “Tikvah le’Dorshecha, uFitchon Pe Lamyachalim lach.” There IS hope for those who search for You, there IS prayer for those who eagerly anticipate You. He says that they will have joy, as will the land of Israel, once more. Just hold on to hope. We still offer this prayer today, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is inserted into the 3rd beracha of our Amidah prayers, and is perhaps the oldest special prayer composed for the High Holidays. Each of Rabbi Yochanan’s short paragraphs begins with the word ‘U’vchein,’ meaning…”and therefore, and so.” The prayer promises us, as a consequence of our belief in God’s presence, as a result of our faith in God’s holiness and reality, it promises us that there will be real world consequences. There will be a follow on. There will be a result. Our faith will not be in vain. Our prayer will not be mere words. As Rome persecuted Jews and teachers of Torah in the name of unifying the world under the immoral banner of the emperor Hadrian and the legions of bloodletting troops murdering literally millions of Jews, this ‘Uvechein’ statement was an extraordinary declaration. It says, “Because You, Oh God, are real and good and ultimately powerful, U’vechain it will follow on that there will be a unity of all humanity (not under Rome), but under You. Uvechain. There will follow a return of the Jewish people to our land. U’vechain. And there will be an ultimate victory of hope over experience. Of goodness and morality over power. Of joy over fear.”
Our prayers will lead somewhere. We have faith. We have confidence. We maintain our hope.
1877 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in an area we now call the Ukraine. There a Jewish poet, echoing Ezekiel, echoing Rabbi Yohanan, penned these words.
Od lo avda tikvateinu
Hatikvah bat Shnot Alpaim
Lehiot Am Chofshi Beartzeinu
Eretz Noshanet, Hana David
We have not yet abandoned our hope, the 2000 year long dream, to be a free people in our land: The ancient land where David did settle.
When Naftali Herz Imber wrote these words in 1878, he was writing at a time when dreams of a free, sovereign Jewish people ensconced in our own land, based in the ancient soil of our ancestors was barely a dream. It was not a dream many Jews dared to share. Most were thinking about survival in their native lands. Even among those who had the luxury to dream there was little support. There were those like the Reform movement at the time who declared themselves to be Hebrew Germans, French and American, no longer a Jewish nation. There were Orthodox leaders who rejected Zionism as a rebellion 9 against God, and an elevation of peoplehood over Torah. But mostly there was everywhere evidence of Jewish powerlessness. There had been bloodletting throughout Europe in the 17th Century, there was continued and expanding persecution of Jews in the Russian empire in the 19th Century, and there was a modern form of Anti-Semitism that was just being born, one which held within it the seeds of the greatest destruction of Jewish lives we would ever know. What kind of a fantasy, what little bird could chirp with talk of Jewish sovereignty? Yet with all of these currents swirling around him, Imber and those who took up his poem as their hymn insisted correctly that ours is a tradition of hope. Of optimism. Of love of life and the firm conviction, at the core of our Yom Kippur observance, that tomorrow can be made better. That we are not simply pawns in the tragedy of human struggle. We are agents, we are actors. And we can be God’s partners in perfecting the world.
This is why I have hope today.
Because our ancestors, who faced so much more danger, because they had hope.
I have hope today because, even with a flawed Iran deal and a great deal of uncertainty, I know that Israel is and will be strong.
I have hope because although we have continued conflict with the Palestinians, I know that human beings are capable of pursing peace. Because 67 years ago when the state of Israel was founded we had no peace treaties, no borders of shared agreement. And today, Egypt and Jordan are peace partners, the Gulf States including Saudi Arabia share much with Israel and millions of Palestinians and Israelis continue to dream of, work for and cling to hope that tomorrow will be a day of peace.
I have hope that the Jewish future in America is brighter than its past. I have hope because I believe in the attractive, joyous power and draw of authentic Jewish living. Because I have no doubt that in the marketplace of ideas, where people are free to pursue what they find meaningful, while we will lose some -- we will draw in many, many more.
I have hope because I believe in God, and I know that God calls us to hope.
If I could choose to change places with any of my ancestors, those who faced Roman armies and Spanish Inquisitions; those who wore medieval yellow stars or those who wore Nazi concentration camp uniforms; those who heard Father Coughlin on the radio or those who saw Klu Klux Klan rallies with tens of thousands march in Washington DC; those who literally had to choose between being a Jew or getting an education;
I would not change places with a single one of them.
We are, for all of our troubles, still the luckiest generation of Jews to ever exist.
We are, for all the challenges of today, blessed with the means to confront those challenges.
We should not be down as a Jewish community. We don’t need to be. We cannot afford to be.
We need to stop feeling down, put on our feathers, and be the people of Hatikvah, the ever present hope.
Yom Kippur, and Kol Nidrei night in particular, is a time to look at ourselves. At our world. To take stock. To see honestly. To strip 11 ourselves down and stare at the truths underneath our veneer, beneath our clipot (the shells) that hide our honest core.
It is also a time to look backwards, at the year past -- and far beyond. And it is a time, with the haunting melodies of our davening in our ears, to remember that we are only a brief moment in time. We wear white and fast, as did our fathers and mothers for millennia, recalling that we exist as a link in a chain of time. Stepping into their roles, knowing that each year brings another passage of time, another set of opportunities passing before us. No matter the hurdles, the challenges, the failures or victories we encounter, we are part of a much larger, much longer, much deeper story than our own. We are part of a many thousands of years’ long history. And our moment, for all of its complexity and the ways in which we feel tested, ours is not the first generation to face a world that is not yet redeemed. We have many reasons to be filled today with the hope which is the story of our people.
There is a story about two doctors who were eating breakfast one morning. One complained bitterly, "You know, Bob, I just don't understand it. We used the same drugs, the same dosage, the same schedule and the same entry criteria. Yet I got a 22 percent response rate and you got a 74 percent. That's unheard of. How do you do it?"
His colleague replied, "We're both using Etoposide, Platinum, Oncovin and Hydroxyurea. You call yours EPOH. I tell my patients I'm giving them HOPE. As dismal as the statistics are, I emphasize that we have a chance."
Living with that little winged creature is not a luxury. It is a necessity. It doesn’t guarantee success. But without it we truly don’t have a chance.
In 5776, we don’t just have a chance. We are flourishing. We are capable of even more. Hazak Veematz! Be strong. Come to shul to strengthen others, and be strengthened by them. Come together with our community, with our people, with our future. We are guaranteed the blessings of tomorrow.
We are the people of hope.
Rabbi Ron Fish