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Hope in the Dark – Yom Kippur

October 9, 2019

Standing among the ruins of the first Temple in Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah sends a letter to the exiled Israelites in Babylon. While other prophets warned of the Temple’s destruction, or promised a return to Zion, Jeremiah finds himself squarely in middle. He must speak to where the people are, right at this moment: in exile, in Babylon.

There will be plenty of time to speak of punishment and forgiveness, but for now, Jeremiah’s message is simple: It’s time to unpack.

“Build houses and live in them,” he writes, “plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Eternal in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper. … For thus said the Eternal: When Babylon’s seventy years are over, I will take note of you, and I will fulfill to you My promise of favor—to bring you back to this place. For I am mindful of the plans I have made concerning you…plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a hopeful future” (Jeremiah 29: 5-11).

Karen Spero, my colleague at Gann Academy, once translated this as, “You’re going to be here for awhile: Find your Starbucks.”

But Jeremiah’s message is more layered than that. The people reading his letter probably won’t live long enough to return to Jerusalem themselves. But in order for redemption to even be possible, they have to move through this period of exile. They cannot simply sit and mourn and wait for it to be over. They need to pray for the prosperity of their host country, but not become wholly absorbed by it. They need to raise up the next generation, so that they might one day return to Jerusalem. In short, Jeremiah is asking them not to give up hope.

To believe in a return to Jerusalem might have felt foolish, under the circumstances. Despair must have sat like a stone in their bellies. Still, it was incumbent upon them to be hopeful. To give in to their mounting despair, to give up on planting and harvesting, being fruitful and multiplying, would have eliminated the possibility of redemption altogether.

As I said on Rosh Hashana, we live in the proverbial “interesting times.” The world often feels as though it has spun out of control. Even our most immediate future feels frighteningly uncertain.

But it is in these uncertain times when hope plays its most important role, according to Rebecca Solnit, activist and author of the book Hope in the Dark. She writes:

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty there is room to act. …. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable…. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same…” (l206).

We as a people are well acquainted with uncertainty: from our forty years of wandering in the desert to our centuries of wandering the globe. Our survival has been in part a product of our tenacity and resourcefulness, in part our dumb luck. But our survival has also been contingent on our never giving up hope.

To cultivate the kind of hope that can sustain us through these dark times, it is important for us to recognize what hope is, and what hope is not.

Hope is not optimism. It is not the belief that everything is going to be fine. Rather, hope is the belief that it is worth getting out of bed in the morning to do the work that will ultimately make things better. Hope is the willingness to push through dark times because we believe in the possibility of creating light.

Hope is not certainty. We cannot be sure that the actions we take will have an immediate impact, or even that they will be successful at all. Hope means doing them anyway, without giving in to cynicism and despair.

Despair can feel easier than hope. It frees us from the responsibility of trying to make things better, and ironically, gives us that comforting sense of certainty that hope cannot. If we do the work, there is a possibility that we could fail to make things better. But if we give up and do nothing, we can know for sure that things will get worse, all on their own.

Hope must also come with the recognition that the work we must do to improve our world will never be finished. There are no easy answers, no guarantees that our actions will be immediately successful, or that the path to change will be direct.

And so, rather than lament the state of the world, as I and many a rabbi are wont to do, this morning I’d like to shine a light on the people who are acting from a place of hope, and whose actions give me hope in dark times.

The young people who organized the March for Our Lives give me hope.

I was a senior in high school during the Columbine massacre. At the time,  a school shooting was a shocking aberration from normal life. Now, sadly, it has become our new normal. 

For my entire adult life, I have watched a terrifying increase in gun violence and mass shootings. This year, they hit too close to home, when a gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Too often, our cries of anguish are met with “thoughts and prayers,” rather than legislative action that could prevent further incidents of gun violence.

But after last year’s shooting at Margery Stoneman Douglas High School, the young people in Parkland, FL decided that they would not give in to despair. Their hope looked a lot like anger. But the two are not mutually exclusive. They would not accept school shootings as an ordinary fact of their lives. They organized the largest single day of protest against gun violence in history. But they also recognized that their demands would not be met in a single day, or even by a single route. They set out on a tour of the country, and partnered with local mayors to register almost a million young people to vote, contributing to a 47% increase in voter turnout for the 2018 midterms, with record participation by young voters.

Recently, they unveiled their “Peace Plan,” which includes both a demand for sensible gun laws and a call for automatic voter registration at the age of 18, so that those most affected by gun violence “have a say in how their country solves this epidemic.”

We do not know how long it will take for any of these changes to come to pass. But this group of young people have stood up to say, “We are committed to a future without gun violence. We believe that it is possible. And we will do the work that needs to be done to make that future a reality.”

The 15-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg gives me hope. She has become the face of a global climate strike, which as of last week boasted 6 million participants around the world. But her movement began much more modestly, just last August, when Greta stood all by herself in front of the Swedish parliament, holding up a sign and handing out leaflets.

What inspired Thunberg to protest, and to continue to protest, even when she started out alone? She told a reporter: “Well, it started with a couple of youths in the United States [who] refused to go to school because of the school shootings. And then someone I knew said, “What if children did that for the climate?” …. And then, I thought that that was a good idea, that maybe it would make a difference. And then I tried to bring people with me, but no one was really interested, so I had to do it alone. But then…the second day, people started joining me.”

Even when their work was barely at its beginnings, the students of Parkland inspired this young woman to take action for the planet. And who knows how many people Thunberg’s actions have yet to inspire?

The passion and compassion of our children is one thing that gives me hope. But it does not absolve us adults from taking action to create a better world.

No matter whom we might have voted for in 2016, many of us were shocked to find so much support behind platforms of racism, misogyny, fear and hatred. But if anything positive has come from this turn of events, it has been watching people become more civically aware and engaged, through voting and registering voters, by holding our elected officials accountable, or even running for office themselves.

As a result, our representatives in government, and those running for office, are starting to look a lot more like the diverse spectrum of people they represent. The 116th Congress includes a record number of women, 127, with women representatives gaining seats in both parties. These include the first Muslim and Native American congresswomen, the first female senators from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arizona (three Republicans and a Democrat), the first two female congresswomen from Iowa, the first two Latina congresswomen from Texas, and the first black congresswomen from Connecticut and Massachussetts. This is not unrelated to the increase in voter turnout resulting from the March for Our Lives campaign.

On a smaller scale, in Harris County, Texas, 17 African American women were appointed to judgeships, bringing the total of African American women on the bench to 19. And part of the credit for this change goes to voter turnout for a Senate candidate who ultimately lost his race. Even in when we think our efforts have failed, good may still come of them.

None of these changes happened by accident. They happened because people like us got out of bed in the morning and decided to fight for a better world. They happened because people like us believed that change was possible, and refused to give up hope.

Hope is recognizing that we can’t know the ripple affect our actions might have on our world. Hope is the willingness to acknowledge the small victories, and to know that the larger victories can only be reached by taking steps forward, steps backward, and steps sideways.

Hope is a commitment to adhere to the words of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:16).

Hope is the willingness to build our houses and start our families in exile, but to never relinquish the dream that our children and grandchildren might make it (back) to the Promised Land.

As many of you know, my beloved grandmother died earlier this year at the age of 96. On her ninetieth birthday, my cousin Rebecca asked her, “What is the greatest invention you have seen in your lifetime?” Without skipping a beat, my grandmother said, “Birth control.”

Two people told that story at her funeral. But looking now at the sweep of her life, I think of all the changes she witnessed. She was born only two years after women secured the right to vote, and two years before she died, she watched a woman run for president. When she was a child, Jews were being persecuted all over the world. Her own family had to work around the quota system to gain entry into the United States. She lived to see the Jewish people prosper in America—her family among them—and the establishment of Israel as a Jewish State. She saw the eradication of polio, the civil rights movement, the first black president (though she would have preferred Hillary), and the legalization of same-sex marriage. She saw many discriminatory walls come down, and many new pathways and possibilities open up. And yes, a lot of those possibilities had to do with giving people access to birth control. But all of them had to do with people who imagined that the world could be better than it was.

96 years is a long life for a human being. But in the span of history it is an instant. Today we read that our lives are “a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, mere dust on the wind, a dream that flies away” (MhN YK 216).  But even if we look at our own short histories, we cannot deny that there has been forward progress.

What has been the greatest invention in your lifetime? What revolutions have you witnessed in your years on earth? What magnificent changes are yet to unfold in our lifetimes? And what evolutions might we take part in that will come to fruition only after we are gone?

The Talmud tells a story about Honi the Circle Maker, who encounters an old man planting a carob tree. Honi asks, “How many years will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The old man answers, “70 years.” Honi chides the old man, “Do you expect to live that long?” The man replies: “I found this world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I am planting for my descendants” (Taanit 23a).

“Build houses and live in them,” Jeremiah told the Israelites in exile, “plant gardens and eat their fruit.” It may be decades, or centuries, before anyone will eat the fruit of our labors. But that doesn’t excuse us from planting seeds.

We plant seeds by encouraging young minds, and by speaking out against hate.

We plant seeds by holding our elected officials accountable, and by supporting activists and changemakers.

We plant seeds by voting and by demanding fair elections, by registering people to vote and encouraging voter turnout.

We plant seeds by raising up the voices of people who have been silenced, and by making space at the table for people who have been underrepresented.

We plant seeds by continuing to hope for a brighter future, and by recognizing that, to reach that future, we must also take action.

We tend to think that change only looks like a landslide election or a wall tumbling down. But the real change comes much more slowly and subtly. Our machzor reminds us of that.

 

“They went forth from Egypt on a single night

but the next time the miracle will be different.

 

Once two Sages were walking very early in the valley

and they saw the light of the morning star.

Said one to the other,

‘This is how the redemption will be.

The dawn breaks with a single ray of light

and bit by bit the sky is illumined,

until morning comes and the darkness is gone.

So the redemption will occur little by little,

growing steadily and gradually

until the world is full of light.

 

Do not wait for a miracle

or the sudden transformation of the world.

Bring the day closer, step by step,

with every act of courage, or kindness,

of healing and repair.

Do not be discouraged by the darkness.

Lift up every spark you can

and watch the horizon

for the coming of dawn.

Look closely!

It has already begun.”

(MhN RH 165, based on JT Brachot 1:1, Ps. 130:6).

 

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz