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Hope Lives — erev Rosh Hashanah

September 12, 2007

We are the ‘People of Hope.’ In Israel’s national anthem, HaTikvah, written in 1886 by Naphtali Herz Imber, we read and sing, Lo avdah tik’va’teynu/”Our hope will not be lost.” This phrase should inspire us because history, and Jewish history in particular, has cuffed hope around so many times throughout the ages, at times beating it within an inch of its life, and yet we are here! Ode avinu chai! Our People still exists! Truly this is one of the great miracles in all of history. Little wonder that we say, Lo avdah tik’va’teynu: “Our hope will not be lost.”

The prophet Zechariah, who preached approximately 2,500 years ago following our return from exile in Babylonia, called us ah’see’ray ha’tikvah/“prisoners of hope” {Zechariah 9:12}. He referred to the terrible time when, in the words of Psalm 137, we lamented, “By the rivers of Babylon, we wept when we remembered Zion…If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget [how to perform rituals], and let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth [as I am reduced to inarticulate hysteria]” {Psalm 137:1, 5-6}. Even there, in the midst of exile, we struggled to redeem hope from despair. Exiled from the land where our prophets walked and sages spoke, we clung to the belief that some day we would return to Jerusalem. Seemingly entombed in Babylonia, we dared hope.

The great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, in his collection entitled Open Closed Open wrote this about hope:

“In Jerusalem, hope springs eternal. Hope is like a faithful dog.

Sometimes she runs ahead of me to check the future, to sniff it out,

and then I call her: Hope, Hope, come here, and she

comes to me. I pet her, she eats out of my hand.

And sometimes she stays behind, near some other hope,

maybe to sniff out whatever was. Then I call her my Despair.

I call out to her: Hey, my little Despair, come here,

and she comes and snuggles up, and again

I call her Hope.”

In whom do we place our most fervent hopes? In our children, many of whom commit a significant amount of time and effort to achieve tikun olam: to heal the world of its pain. They volunteer time at Habitat for Humanity, The Jewish Relief Agency, and Ronald McDonald House; on Native American reservations and with Landmark Volunteers in the Grand Canyon. They walk to raise money for breast cancer research and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. They coach children who compete in the Special Olympics. They spend a year in Israel studying at the University of Haifa and dedicating themselves to projects throughout Israel in the name of peace. Four of our recent high school graduates recently commenced their year abroad as part of the Habonim Dror Program in Israel. Some of our young adults travel abroad to immerse themselves in other cultures by living with families in foreign lands, and they return with a greater appreciation for life in America. We need their idealism and energy. They are our country’s best hope.

I love this country. I don’t say it enough. Like most people, I tend to take my freedom for granted, though less so after 9/11 than ever before. Every time I come through Customs from a trip beyond our borders, I say the sheh’heh’chiyanu to thank God for having brought me home safely to the shores of this nation, and yet my love for the United States is tested by my dismay over what I call ‘the great unraveling’:

  • our health-care system is ailing: 47 million Americans, 15 percent of the population, a number that has increased by 15 percent since 2005, have no health care insurance; one in nine children lacks insurance; in Philadelphia, which has the dubious claim to some of the nation’s highest poverty rates, 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line – they literally cannot afford to seek medical care, and if they do, the government, health providers and the insured subsidize the cost. That this is a fact of daily life in one of the richest countries in the world is cause for national atonement.
  • post-Katrina recovery staggers along and New Orleans remains at risk: before Hurricane Katrina, there were 23 hospitals in Orleans Parish, and now there are only 13; there were 278 child care centers, and now only 98; there were 128 public schools, and now only 83; pre-Katrina there were 368 operational buses, now there are only 69. Violent crime has risen significantly. Housing recovery is slow. Of almost 180,000 families who have applied for rebuilding assistance, only 22 percent have received their checks. {source: NYTimes, 8/28/07, page A21}. Where is the Marshall Plan for this great American city? When can we legitimately claim, “Mission Accomplished”?
  • we torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, or outsource that task to other countries. We close our eyes, cover our ears, and mouth the platitude that torture yields enough verifiable information to justify brutality. We gouge out the language of the Fourth Geneva Convention which governs the duties of an occupying power and the treatment of civilians, including those who are terrorists
  • horribly wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center are treated contemptuously, an indictment of an administration that champions clichés about war and then places soldiers with severed limbs, traumatic wounds and post-combat stress in wards called ‘The Forgotten’
  • claims of executive privilege carry the stench of protection more than principle; Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Gonzalez speak with an arrogant certainty that is chilling to hear;
    the ‘imperial presidency’ roars its disdain for consultation with Congress, and ignores the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which requires the president and government agencies to obtain warrants from a special court before conducting electronic surveillance of people suspected of being terrorists or spies. The current occupier of the Oval Office seeks to expand presidential power in ways that would have startled Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt – two presidents who also governed the nation in times of crisis – by constantly preaching “the power of prerogative”{The Terror Presidency by Jack Goldsmith: W.W. Norton, 2007}

I have a heavy heart. It is heavy with regret for what has befallen our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Young Americans have died on distant fields of battle fighting a war that was justified by lies. When President Bush called the war to bring democracy to the Middle East a ‘crusade,’ it was impossible to imagine that he and his cohorts simply stumbled into a word so heavily laden with memories of suffering and humiliation for those who died by the sword under the shadow of the cross. If anything was guaranteed to stoke the firestorm with which America was greeted in Iraq, the word ‘crusade’ was the spark that continued to fan the flames. This war has been waged on adrenalin: a summary rush to judgment that bent facts, made a mockery of truth, and sacrificed lives on the altar of arrogance. From the very beginning it lacked for intelligence or any plan other than saving the oil fields and punishing Hussein. Little thought was given to the possibility of insurgency, urban warfare and sustained firefights. “Collateral damage” has become the epitaph of this administration.

What sacrifices have American citizens made? Other than those fighting overseas or their dependents who wait or mourn at home, what has been asked of us? In a January interview with Jim Lehrer, Bush was asked why he had not called for more Americans to “sacrifice something.” He replied, “Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night.” What an incredible opportunity was squandered in the immediate aftermath of 9/11! If the President had asked us to truly make sacrifices – to bear the cost of increased gasoline taxes in order to fund the quest for alternative energy sources, and if Congress had stepped into the breach to demand the same; if the government had moved with alacrity to strengthen our infrastructures – nuclear plants, power grids and transportation systems; if political leaders had raised the taxes of the wealthiest Americans to help fund programs for Americans for whom ‘safety nets’ are in scant supply, as a way of demonstrating to the citizens of this country and to those beyond our borders that true strength comes not from weapons but from will and compassion, the President would not have had to define “sacrifice” as our mental anguish in response to what we are seeing on television beamed back from Iraq. In what could have been a defining moment, a clarion call to action, our government missed an opportunity for a ‘call to conscience’ to battle indifference and neglect in this country, or to create ‘a coalition of nations’ to stand up to terrorism throughout the world. Instead, we went it essentially alone. The Pew Research Center reports that only 39 percent of Frenchmen and 30 percent of Germans have a positive view of the United States, and those are our allies! We squandered the opportunity to truly inspire people to respond to the call of what they could do for their country, and now we rake the embers of dreams of what might have been. Yet, somehow, hope shakes free from the shackles of grievous disappointment.

What can we, the ‘People of Hope,’ teach others about hope? Three weeks ago, 54 of us traveled together on our congregation’s Family Trip to Israel. We held a worship service on Masada on Shabbat morning, August 18th. Masada: where the Zealots held out for two years against the might of the Roman Legion, the greatest military power on earth at the time, an army that waged siege warfare at the base of that mountain against the remnants of those who survived the onslaught against Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70CE. There, some 2,000 years later on Masada’s summit, we read words from that morning’s Torah Portion: “Before you join battle [against your enemies], the officials [representing the king] shall address the troops as follows: ‘Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and someone else will dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another [do so in his stead]…Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.” {Deut. 20:2, 5-8}

“Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.” If fear is contagious, as it certainly must be, then so too is hope! If doubt and despair are contagious, then so too are courage and faith! Are the doubts we face so different from those of our ancestors? Are the concerns we have for our country so different from the difficulties our People faced in ancient Israel? Three weeks ago, immediately after landing in Tel Aviv, we stood in Latrun, the chokepoint that enabled Arab armies to maintain the siege of Jerusalem in 1948 by controlling the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. David ben Gurion said that if Jerusalem fell, the effect that it would have on the fledging State would be disastrous. Jerusalem did not fall.

A few days later, we were at an archeological dig at Beit Guvrin, some 20 miles west of Jerusalem, where during the Roman incursion Jewish families lived in underground caves. In those caves, our People subsisted on hope. Under the eyes of the Romans, we fought and survived the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. We went into exile, but not extinction. On Wednesday, August 15th, children, women and men from our congregation sifted the dust of the ages and found ancient artifacts from long ago that attest to our People’s presence in that place from a distant time. Hope triumphed over tyranny. Od avinu chai!

Three weeks ago, we stood at the Western Wall, gazing up at the massive, carved stones that are all that remain of the retaining wall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The wall is long and it is watered with tears. Between the stones’ crevasses, inserted in the highest points that people can reach, are small pieces of paper – some neatly folded, others curled into little balls – on which people have written words to God. The wall is a conduit of hope. The wall is a symbol of endurance. The wall is a touchstone to the past and a rock-solid place of hope in the future. Prayers coat the wall like the morning dew, and the heat of the sun burns the words into the stones, but something else occurs near the base of the wall, and it receives little comment but it deserves more attention.

There are haphazard rows of tables that extend from twenty feet beyond the wall toward the Western Wall Plaza, a gathering place for all genders. Each table has two or three chairs, all facing the Wall, and men sit there praying – reading the siddur or the Book of Psalms – and some of them are studying. They are studying tractates from the Talmud. As you face the wall and look to your left, there is a small entrance area that is a well-lit, large cavern. It is an extension of the Western Wall and it is a beehive of activity, for there too men are praying and they are studying: fifty to a hundred or more at a time. There is a low hum in that cavern, a cacophony of consonants and vowels that seem to bear no relation to each other until you move closer to their source and hear words of Torah and texts from Talmud. Next to the wall, the remnant of the Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70CE, study continues. Every minute, every hour, of every day. At the Western Wall, amidst tears, there is Torah. Some would say that the wall is a place that symbolizes destruction, and others will tell you with greater fervor that it defines hope. In a place where people pray, they also study about the teachings, traditions and values of the past in order to bring more light to darkened times. Hope does spring eternal.

Listen to these words from Devarim/The Book of Deuteronomy. As we were about to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, we were told, “Curses shall come upon you and shall pursue you, and overtake you…because you did not hearken unto the voice of God with joyfulness and with a glad heart” {Deuteronomy 28:46}. After a long litany of warnings about what we must do and what we must refrain from doing, we are admonished to live “with joyfulness and with a glad heart.” In the Book of Genesis, there is only one variation of the word simcha; no term for joy at all in Exodus; only one occurrence in Leviticus and again in Numbers; but in the Book of Deuteronomy, it appears more than 10 times! During our creation, through our formation as a community of faith, throughout our wanderings, victories and defeats, the word for “joy” or “happiness” is in scant supply. Yet on the eve of entering the Promised Land, when we paused to consider where we had been, what we accomplished, the hopes we carried and the children we conceived, we were told to live “with joyfulness and a glad heart.” On the threshold of our future, joy and gladness are to be essential expressions of life.

As then, so too now. After all that we have been through, it is incumbent upon us, in the words of Torah, “to live with joyfulness and a glad heart.”

Tonight we stand on the threshold of a new year. What hope, joy, gratitude and gladness will we bring to it? What will we do to advance the cause of justice and peace? What are we going to do for our People? How will we touch the lives of other people? What are we prepared to do for our country?

“My country, ‘tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

Of thee I dream.”

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin