Is Hope Defensible?
Rosh HaShana Thoughts 5775
Rabbi Arik Ascherman
President and Senior Rabbi
Rabbis for Human Rights
Last week members of RHR met with a US Council of Bishops’ peace mission on the last day of their visit. The bishops were quite depressed. When it was my turn to say something, I recounted some of the same stories and verses that many of you who have heard me speak or follow what I write are familiar with. I spoke of the fact that there is a solid majority of Israelis and Palestinians who want a negotiated agreement, but don’t believe the other side wants peace. However, this is the reason that a week before Egyptian President Sadat came to Jerusalem most Israelis were against the very same proposals they overwhelmingly supported when they understood that peace had became real. I quoted Tractate Kiddushin 40b’s teaching that we must see life as two perfectly balanced scales, and that a small, seemingly meaningless action on our part can tip the scales. I explained that, living here, I believe in the basic goodness of my fellow Israelis and of Palestinians, and spoke of the Elul/High Holy Days message that people can change for the better. If I had time, there are so many additional midrashim you know that I love: God sowing the seeds of the Messiah as Joseph is sold into slavery, jumping into the sea before it parts…
Yet, I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised at how the bishops felt. There are a lot of depressed people in Israel and Palestine today, and with good reason. We are in the aftermath of a war in which the only winner was the Malakh HaMavet (Angel of Death). The war’s expenses are also being used as an additional excuse not to fund the recommendations of the Alaluf Committee on Fighting Poverty, recommendations that RHR fought so hard to achieve. Prime Minister Netanyahu is now the radical left winger of his party, being attacked from within and from without for having not allowed the army to “finish the job” in Gaza. Palestinian support for previously languishing Hamas is soaring as a result of the war. While claiming that the war has opened new possibilities for peace, the government has announced a massive land seizure and avoided talks on a permanent cease fire…
It is not just this year. Over a period of years I have noticed that it is more and more difficult to recruit volunteers, and I believe that is because many have given up hope that an investment of their time makes a difference. I am aware that many of my High Holiday messages and other communications in recent years have been defending hope.
Influenced as I also have been by this summer’s carnage, I didn’t realize that I too had lost sight of our successes this year. When I sat down to write our Rosh HaShana funding appeal, I was surprised to see how much we accomplished this year. We turned around the Alaluf Committee, helped freeze the Begin/Prawer Negev Bedouin Bill, convinced the army to teach a curriculum we wrote, obtained a resounding statement by the Israeli High Court that discriminatory planning leading to the demolition of Palestinian homes is unacceptable, and made public housing one of the most talked about subjects in the Knesset… As I write, I have just received the news that our High Court has ordered that the “open” facility essentially imprisoning asylum seekers must be closed. While RHR wasn’t one of the appellants, the decision allows me a different perspective on the night I was pepper sprayed and attacked simply for standing with the asylum seekers who had fled that accursed facility.
Thinking of the incongruity of celebrating achievements in the shadow of war, I am reminded of the joke, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” On the other hand, I know that each of these successes points to what is possible.
So, is hope defensible? When I talk about the power for change inherent in the High Holy Days and the promise of a new year, is Ascherman just putting on his rose colored glasses again?
Can we be so audacious, as to hope, and does that hope have anything to do with the High Holy Days?
As already explained above, I believe there are objective reasons and historical precedents that give hope. For that matter, it is no coincidence that our national anthem is HaTikva, The Hope. Without the ability to see beyond the current reality and truly believe in the possibility that a different and better reality was in the offing, the Jewish people would have disappeared after losing independence almost 2000 years ago, and there would be no State of Israel today.
Secondly, I believe in the power of “restart.” When I, and/or people around me, become stuck in a negative pattern, I will ask if we can do a “restart.” This is an artificial concept, but often it works, just like rebooting our computers can sometimes get them working on the right track again. We make a huge change for the better through the very ability to step outside the negative dynamics that have developed in our relationships and say, “Now I am making a conscious choice to recognize that I am caught up in something unhealthy and want to make a clean start”
There needs to be an act of will on our part, and that act of will could take place at any day, at any time. However, it helps when somebody or something outside us gives us a push, and when we are reinforced and supported by the “collective effervescence” (Emile Durkheim) that occurs when everybody around us is engaged in the same process. Rosh HaShana is our reminder that fresh starts are possible, telling us “the restart begins today.” We can break with patterns of the past, just as in the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh HaShana, God teaches Abraham to break with customs of child sacrifice. Recalling the creation of the world reconnects us with the vision of the world as God intended, and to which we aspire. Yom Kippur, just nine days after Rosh HaShana gives us a target date for doing what is necessary to take concrete steps to make the restart more than just words. If we are taught that “Itzumo shel yom,” (the very essence of the day) gives Yom Kippur the power to cleanse and effect pardon, part of that essence is the power of so many people collectively restarting.
For me, a discussion of the historical basis for hope and the psychology of hope is not complete without a discussion of faith. We pray in the High Holy Day Amidah prayer, “Give hope to those who seek you,” and shortly after told that this will come about. In the Haftarah for the second day, Jeremiah tells us in the name of God that, “There is a reward for your work” (Jeremiah 31:16) and, “There is hope for your future.” (Jeremiah 31:17). On the first day there is more than just promises. Hagar and Ishmael are saved, and the prayer of Hannah is answered. All year around we pray “Mi Khamokha,” in which remembering our redemption on the shores of the sea allow us to believe that future redemption is possible.
Faith is the belief that the arc of history is ultimately moving towards God’s dream for the world. Whatever we will merit to see in our lifetime, we are a part of God’s tapestry, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from doing your part” (Pirkei Avot).
I concluded my remarks to the Catholic bishops by reminding them that we had a special responsibility as religious leaders to do our part. But, responsibility for the world whose birth we celebrate on Rosh HaShana is not limited to religious leaders alone. Faith entails obligation because it reminds us that all the renewal and healing and fresh starts and new possibilities that we believe are possible in the New Year will only happen when we fulfill the roles that God has ordained for us, even though our attempts to know what those roles might be are also a matter of faith.
I admit that I generally do not pray all of the traditional preliminary prayers of the morning service. However, from Rosh Khodesh Elul (the month preceding Rosh HaShana) through Hoshanah Rabah (The seventh day of Sukkot), I recite the prayer, “Not because of our righteousness do we supplicate You.” The conclusion is “ashreinu,” we are blessed because we are obligated to “thank and praise and bless and sanctify.” It occurs to me that we are also blessed because we are commanded to serve and carry out our task and do our part to bring closer to reality the promise of creation.
It is for that reason that every year I bless our staff with the hope that in the New Year they will enjoy the satisfaction and rewards of long days and nights that bring results. I share that blessing with you.
Wishing You a Blessed and Sweet and truly renewing New Year,
P.S Those of you who are on our “regular mail” mailing list will shortly receive shortened camera ready versions of RHR’s annual Yom Kippur vidui (confession) and Sukkot assif (celebration of Israel’s spiritual harvest). The full downloadable vidui will be posted on the RHR website on Sunday, September 28th. The assif will be posted on Sunday, October 5th. We will also be posting ushpizin (Sukkah guests) posters with original artwork welcoming those in need of shelter into our sukkas and into our hearts.
P.S.S. Please contact Sara Zur, firstname.lastname@example.org, about bringing an RHR speaker to your community. I am planning on being in England for Limmud and for the first week of January 2015, and in North America in May 2015