There is No Hope, But I May be Wrong – Rabbi Goldberg’s Rosh Hashanah Sermon

There is No Hope, But I May be Wrong

Shanah tovah!

There’s a story about an elderly Jewish man in Miami who called his son in New York and said, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing; forty-five years of this misery is enough.”

“Pop, what are you talking about?” the son screamed.

Said the dad: “We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer. We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of talking about this, so you can call your sister in Chicago and tell her.”  And the father hung up.

Frantic, the son called his sister, who exploded on the phone. “This is not happening!” she shouted. “I’ll take care of this.”

She called her father immediately, and screamed at him, “You are NOT getting divorced. Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?” and hung up.

The old man hung up and called to his wife, “Okay, they’re coming for Rosh Hashanah. Now what do we tell them for Pesach?”

Visits are nice.  So are cards, if you can’t arrange a visit.

I hope some of us have received some nice New Year’s cards.

People still send cards, right?

Hallmark, famed purveyor of creative accolades, doesn’t publish everything their artists conceive.

Here’s a list of some rejected cards (presumably after the attorneys weighed in).

  • I miss you, the dog misses you, and the cat? Well the cat I had put to sleep because it had neither personality nor purpose for living. But me and the dog miss you.
  • Happy Birthday to someone who will make a fine ambassador to France … if anyone asks you, which I can’t imagine. You’d be good, though. It’s a shame.
  • Dear Teacher: You’re more than a great teacher … you’re the lowest paid person of all my role models
  • Front: Happy 78th birthday! Inside: In America, the average life expectancy is 78 years and 5 months.

All of these fall under the rubric of mixed feelings.  Not too mention questionable taste.

But let’s talk about the mixed feelings.

If we’re honest, don’t we feel such mixed feelings today?

On the one hand, we celebrate the New Year.

On the other hand, many of us make the turn toward the New Year this day with trepidation.

After all, this day is not only about the future; it is also about the past.  And we know that the choices we made were not always the right ones.  If our lives were recorded and we could review the video I am sure there are episodes that would make us cringe.

Many of us have gadgets that measure our steps.  What if we had ones that measured our missteps, our sins?

It is not only our personal trepidation that is palpable.  It’s also our national anxiety.

Roger Cohen last week in the New York Times called our time “the great unraveling”.[1]  His list of summer crises gives us a great deal to consider:

It was a time of beheadings. With a left-handed sawing motion, against a desert backdrop, in bright sunlight, a Muslim with a British accent cut off the heads of two American journalists and a British aid worker.

It was a time of aggression. The leader of the largest nation on earth annexed part of a neighboring country, the first such act in Europe since 1945, and stirred up a war on further land he coveted. His surrogates shot down a civilian passenger plane.

It was a time of weakness. The most powerful nation on earth was tired of far-flung wars, its will and treasury depleted by absence of victory. An ungrateful world could just as well police itself.

It was a time of hatred. Anti-Semitic slogans were heard in the land that invented industrialized mass murder for Europe’s Jews. Frightened European Jews removed mezuzahs from their homes.

Europe’s Muslims felt the ugly backlash from the depravity of the decapitators, who were adept at Facebooking their message.  A nihilistic Hamas plotted a New Year’s massacre in Israel and engaged in a cynical war of terror.

The fabric of society frayed. Democracy looked quaint or outmoded…Politicians, haunted by their incapacity, played on the fears of their populations, who were device-distracted or under device-driven stress.

Dystopia was a vogue word, like utopia in the 20th century.

I don’t know about you, but this dystopia thing is starting to get to me.  And it’s not just the tragedies of this summer.  There is also the eerie feeling that, as a nation, we have been here before.

Writing a few months ago in the New Yorker magazine, Adam Gopnik observed that, we don’t have to have a very enlarged sense of history to remember what happened last time Western Civilization sped around the corner from ’13 to ’14. [2]

Not so good.

Writes Gopnik: The year 1913 had been full of rumbling energy and matchless artistic accomplishment and then, within a few months, the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo and the troop trains were running and, pretty soon, the whole positive and optimistic and progressive culture was on its way to committing suicide.

The Great War left more than ten million Europeans dead and a civilization in ruins.  Naturally, a lot of people, staring at this year’s tea leaves—at rising new powers and frightened old ones—are searching for parallels between that ’14 and this one, and finding them.

Continues Gopnik:

Lodged somewhere in our collective memory of that catastrophe is an image, a metaphor of hubris, from just a year or so before: a great four-funnelled ocean liner, the biggest and most luxurious ever built, whose passengers, rich and poor, crowd on board, the whole watched over by a bearded man named Edward John Smith, with the chief designer, Thomas Andrews, along for the maiden voyage, too.

Then the ship sets off from Southampton, sure of itself, unsinkable, until it comes to the ice fields of the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland — and speeds right on through them to its anchorage in New York.

Because this ship isn’t the Titanic but her nearly identical twin sister, the Olympic, made at the same time, by the same people, to do the same job in the same way.  The Olympic not only successfully completed its maiden voyage but became known as Old Reliable, serving as a troop carrier in the First World War, and sailing on for twenty years more.

The story of the two ships is one to keep in mind as we peer ahead into the New Year. It reminds us that our imagination of disaster is dangerously more fertile than our imagination of the ordinary. You have certainly heard of the Titanic; you have probably never heard of the Olympic.

If our history leads us to the First World War, then we imagine that we were always bound on that collision course, and we cannot imagine that, with a bit of luck, we might have been on the Olympic, not the Titanic.

We search for parallels of disaster, and miss parallels of hope. False positives are the great curse of diagnostics, in historical parallels and prostate screenings alike.

Is it all chance and luck, though? Do we not know what boat we’re on until the iceberg informs us?

On this New Year I want to speak about hope.  Hope for our country, hope for our community, hope for our congregation, hope for our families, hope for ourselves.  And, of course, hope for Israel and the Middle East.

This is not an easy emotion to summon these days.  The Titanic, not the Olympic, seems to rule our thoughts and expectations.

Add to this our personal challenges. Broken relationships. Bad jobs. Illness.

Hope seems distant for so many, and how can we not feel their pain?  And what can we do to help?

The sheer quantity of wreckage around us is appalling: wrecked bodies, wrecked marriages, wrecked careers, wrecked plans, wrecked families, wrecked alliances, wrecked friendships, wrecked prosperity.

We avert our eyes. We try not to dwell on it. We whistle in the dark. We wake up in the morning hoping for health and love, justice and success, we build quick mental and emotional defenses against the inrush of bad news, and we try to keep our hopes up.  And then some kind of crash or other puts us or someone we care about in a pile of wreckage.

Newspapers and the Internet document the ruins with photographs, headlines and updates.  Our own hearts and journals fill in the details. Are there any promises, any hopes that are exempt from the general carnage? It doesn’t seem so.

According to Dante, written over the gates of hell are these words: ABANDON HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER. Newspapers and evening news show us the gates of hell every night — and we are tempted to abandon hope every time we enter there:

We had hoped … that he or she was the one.

We had hoped … that the tests would prove negative.

We had hoped … that he would stop drinking.

We had hoped that … please fill in the blanks.

Speaking of hope is a common theme in cultural works across the world.  We know the platitudes:

Hope is the thing with feathers.  The Audacity of Hope.  Keep Hope Alive.  The Man from Hope.   And most of us have been told by well-meaning people to keep our hope alive.

And yet, telling someone to keep having hope when facing serious bad news always seems a little cruel to me.

I cannot offer a solution to all the challenges we are facing.  All I can do as your rabbi is offer a Jewish framework that speaks to me and – I hope – speaks to you.  You see, hope is a very Jewish concept, in its own way.   We like to joke that Jews are pessimistic and depressed, the “ever-dying people” in the words of one historian.

Or as modern author, Aaron David Miller, puts it, we follow “the cosmic oy veh.”  This is not the whole picture, however.

There is a reason that the National Anthem of Israel is called, Hatikvah, “the hope”.  Hope in Israel is not an attitude.  It is a necessity.

The ancient prophets, for all their rebukes, also could summon profound messages of hope.

Here is a good one:

Shuvu levitzaron, asirey hatikvah

Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope. (Zechariah 9:12)

Prisoners of hope?  What does that even mean?

Zechariah was not speaking about literal prisoners. He was addressing the people of Judah after they had been released from exile in Babylon and had returned to their homeland.   But they had become prisoners in another sense. The destruction to which they had returned was overwhelming, and it required great energy just to cobble together the things needed for a subsistence-level existence.

As a result, many had become prisoners of despair.  Through Zechariah, however, God called them to fresh hope based on his covenant made with them. Rather than being prisoners of despair, they now were “prisoners of hope.”

That phrase is a literal translation of the Hebrew, but its meaning, as made clear by the context, is “prisoners who now have hope,” perhaps like a person who is still incarcerated but who has a parole hearing scheduled and reason to expect that the ruling will be favorable.

That is my message for all of us in a very fraught time of our world’s history.  And for those facing a more personal despair.  Whatever the challenge we face, we do have a choice.  We have a choice between being a prisoner of despair or of hope. 

So just how do we become prisoners of hope?  Let’s follow the advice of the prophet: we return to our stronghold.

And, what, pray-tell, is our stronghold?

It’s not an actual fortress.  The Hebrew word, bitzaron, actually means to “withhold,” or “cut-off” – to “enclose.”

So I would translate the advice of the prophet like this:

To be a prisoner of hope, withhold your judgment.  In other words, don’t despair.

Instead, remember the message of the bumper sticker:

There’s no hope, but I may be wrong.

In practical terms it means not giving up, despite the odds or the chorus of negativity in our ears.

It means keeping in your heart a flicker that we may actually be on the Olympic, not the Titanic.

Take peace in the Middle East, for example.  No one says it will be easy, especially after this summer.  But I would ask us to remember the events of a few decades ago:

On March 11, 1978, 11 Palestinian militants came ashore in Zodiac boats north of Tel Aviv and set about murdering as many Israelis as they could with guns and grenades. They hijacked a taxi and two buses; 38 were killed, including 13 children. The massacre was intended as a provocation; a disproportionate Israeli response was assumed. And three days later, Israel invaded southern Lebanon, which was then controlled by the Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasir Arafat. “Those who killed Jews in our times cannot enjoy impunity,” the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin said. More than a thousand Palestinian civilians were killed; more than 100,000 were left homeless. The world, including President Jimmy Carter, was horrified. Following another invasion in 1982, Israel would occupy parts of southern Lebanon until May 2000. The similarity to recent events in Gaza is striking, of course. The Middle East never changes.

Except, very occasionally, when it does. A mere six months after the Lebanon incursion, Begin and the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, would negotiate peace between their countries, having been hounded into a very tentative dialogue by Carter during 13 days spent in isolation at Camp David. It was not a happy two weeks for the participants; Begin and Sadat could barely look at each other; no one sang “Kumbaya.” A great deal of what Carter and Sadat wanted to accomplish — a comprehensive plan to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands — had to be set aside. But a framework for peace between Egypt and Israel, the region’s principal adversaries, was beaten into shape during marathon sessions of what can only be called bare-knuckle diplomacy. Thirty-five years later, the peace between Israel and Egypt stands, sometimes unsteadily, as the most profound diplomatic achievement to emerge from the Arab-Israeli conflict. [1]

Honestly, who would have seen that coming on March 12, 1978?

In our personal lives too I recommend we keep moving despite the odds.  Call it hoping with our feet.

We see such examples all around us if we look:

Cancer survivors.  Holocaust survivors.  Israeli terrorist survivors.

How do we hope with our feet?  We feed the hungry, visit the sick, fight for worker justice.  We defend Israel and work for a more just society in Israel and at home.

How can we hope with our feet?  We can get up each morning and resolve to meet the day with faith that the good we do matters, even if we don’t always know how.

How do we hope with our feet?  We continue to believe that most people are good, and that, in the words of Dr. King, the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.

I began by speaking of World War I beginning one hundred years ago.  On the eve of the war, British statesman Sir Edward Grey, observed, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.”

Lamps and lights going out is a prophetic reference to the blackouts made necessary during nighttime bombing runs. Such blackouts were frequent and commonplace during the war years. But the words also reflect the loss of hope during war.  These days, there are many battles in the world, and hope is once again in short supply.  Even as our hearts go out to those suffering in the Middle East and elsewhere, we also should remember to bring hope in the dark places nearby.

There will always be those who tell us not to bother with hope.  At times our voices may join this grim chorus.  “Nothing’s going right.  I’ll never get this job.  I will never fall in love again.  I will never get out of this rut.  I will never heal.”

But we need not be prisoners of such despair.

For hope is not passive.  Hope is not standing on the sidelines.  It’s also not wishful thinking.  Hope is the courage to work for a better world.

Hope is to buy a ticket for the RMS Olympic, not the Titanic.

Hope is the comprehension that there is always so much within our power.  And hope is about not giving up.

As the poet put it:

Hope, like the gleaming taper’s light,

Adorns and cheers our way;

And still, as darker grows the night,

Emits a brighter ray.

Oliver Goldsmith

British-Irish author (1730 – 1774)


Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope – cried the prophet.  My prayer for all of us at this New Year is that, we too, will embrace the bonds of hope.  We will look to the horizon and see the possible born from the impossible.  We will look to each other for succor and strength.  And we will stride with strong gait into a dark but waiting world.  Amen.

[1] Joe Klein, New York Times, September 14, 2014, reviewing Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September.

[1] Roger Cohen, New York Times, September 15, 2014.

[2] Adam Gopnik, New Yorker, January 6, 2014