Linda Hirschhorn
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HOPE (5780)

© 2019 Linda Hirschhorn

You have all just heard me sing, meolam kivinu lach, (from the Modim prayer) meaning with kindled hope forever on... and I've been thinking about the texts that we read at this time: From the Torah we read the story of Hagar and Ishmael, the story of Abraham and Isaac and in the Haftorah the story of Hannah and all through Elul we have been reading psalm 27. Threaded through all of these texts is this expression of hope.

You have Hagar in the wilderness with her son Ishmael. She has given him her last drop of water. She expects they will both die. She sits some feet away from him so that she will not have to witness his dying. At her lowest point she hears a voice, and she listens to it. She opens herself up to a new possibility. All she has to do is lift her eyes and she will see the well that will replenish her and her son and save their future generations.

Abraham is told to sacrifice his son Isaac. They go up the mountain together. Isaac carries the wood, his father carries the knife and the fire for the alter. In hope against all hope Isaac asks. Where is the ram? The midrash tells us it was there all along, just a head tilt away.

Hannah the wife of Elkanah is childless. Year after year her husband prays for her at the Temple in Shiloh. One year finally she changes the dynamic. She is the one to pray. She moves her lips, makes up her own words, but makes no sound. The priest Eli thinks she is drunk but she tells him: no I am speaking my truest feelings, from my anger and from my sorrow. She goes home and conceives Shmuel. She is said to be the first person to offer an original prayer from her heart.

And finally we have that last verse from psalm 27 that we sing throughout the High Holidays: “Kaveh el adonai Kaveh! This line in the psalm is repeated twice and translated by Robert Alter as: Keep hope in Adonai. Keep Hope.

At critical junctions - this is the choice we face- despair or hope. Are we simply giving up or maybe just maybe we're holding out for a different outcome. Even when that hope is for divine intervention it still takes the individual will to imagine something different and to act on it.

Rabbi Adina Allen of the Jewish Studio Project in Berkeley calls Judaism a religion of hope. The Torah ends before we enter the Promised land. It ends on a note of hope rather than fulfillment in what she calls the space between the vision and the reality. And here we are on Rosh Hashanah allowing ourselves to feel all the ways in which which we have yet to reach our own personal Promised Land. The land of forgiveness, renewal and connection.

I was watching an old Michael Keaton movie the other night called My Life. He's been taking medicine for cancer but his Doctor says, you know it's not looking great maybe stop taking the medicine enjoy your life while you can.

He leaves the office and then moments later comes rushing back in and says who do you think are. You think you can take away my hope just like that. Let me tell you something, that's all I have got. Hope is all I have got.

Hope is our ability to imagine something new, something different, to change our expectations, continually reorienting us to possibility. The word Kaveh from psalm 27 - translated as hope also means to gather up different strands into one strong cord or string.

To hope then is to gather the different parts of ourselves, the sorrow, the anger the fear and the joy, to gather all the differing narratives we have been telling ourselves and each other about who are and bind them into one strong vision of what kind of life we want to lead, who we want to be, what do we want to have happen.

I am not a scientist but if String Theory is the underlying principle that explains the universe's fundamental interactions then we all are literally 'strung' together by hope in our collective vision of what we want our world to be.

Our nature seeks certainty. Hope may live in the greyness and uncertainty of life. But, if we allow ourselves to hold on, like a drowning person may hold on to that string or that rope, than our vision will emerge into sharp and clear focus.

Hope, in the face of all facts to the contrary, even as we mourn our losses, allows us to act, to sing, to speak to dance, to whisper, to imagine a new reality into existence. Every step towards love, healing and forgiveness, starts from hope.

Rabbi Allen quotes Czech writer and former dissident Vaclav Havel wrote from his prison cell, The kind of hope I often think of, is a dimension of the soul.. an orientation of the heart.”Hope “transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons." Hope for Havel was a profund spiritual practice and the foundation of social change.

Hope is no guarantor of change - but it is essential to the possiblity of making change.

There is a comic strip where on the left panel it has a person at the front of the room addressing a crowd. The person asks: “Who wants change in their life?”

Everyone raises their hand. In the next frame the person asks: “Who wants to change?” silence. Blank stares. Not one person volunteers. Hope is what creates the possibility for change but hope is also what necessitates changing, necessitates action. Its' not always easy. There is often a disconnect between what we hope for and what we are willing to do to make things happen.

Sometimes it requires us to be less comfortable, to let go of habits that no longer serve us but feel familiar and we think keeps us safe. Too often we wait for things to change around us, somewhere outside of us and we keep waiting and waiting.

Maybe we think we are unchangeable. That we've reached an age where all of our habits and routines are set. We've forged a deep groove and that's the path we walk on. Yet science tells us that our brain cells are constantly reorganizing themselves. The human brain is anything but static, growing and changing as it adapts to new information and circumstances. Its not biology that keeps us fixed.

Maybe we're just afraid of changing afraid of the unfamiliar of newness.

Yet this is the whole concept of teshuva- of changing, turning away, returning back to something more essential, more nourishing. Last night we sang: Return again, return to who you are, to all your are..

Teshuva is turning away from those things that have kept us from our goal, from those things as we say on Yom Kippur that have made us miss the mark-The al chet that we recite on Yom Kippur literally means that arrow which we shot missed the mark. Its time to take aim again, to turn back to all we are, to all we can be.

If we didn’t believe in the possibility of change, we wouldn't wouldn't be would be here today. We wouldn’t go through the challenging, soul-revealing process of teshuva.

Real change starts in the imagination. You have to picture what it is you want.

Returning to our Torah readings for Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Allen says: In our darkest days,we are like Isaac, tied on the altar, bound to our inescapable doom and the ram stands, caught in the thicket, waiting or us to raise our eyes, to tilt our heads, to see, what we imagine we want to see, that even in these most dire straits, hope waits for us just slightly out of view.

Or perhaps we are like Hagar sitting in the dry desert, parched, sure that we will die, yet willing to listen to a strange voice speaking to us telling us what we imagined could be, that there just a ways off is the well waiting to replenish us. Urging us to tilt our head ever so slightly, to change our perspective.

Maybe we are like Hannah year after year crying, growing bitter, allowing herself to feel new words welling up, urging to be whispered.

These are the days in which we ask ourselves what is the future we desire? What are we hoping for? The deeply difficult prayer untaneh tokef that I have talked about in previous years, poses this very question: who will live, who will die, who by fire, who by flood, by hunger, by thirst etc. The prayer imagines the worst. Sometimes it is easier to conjure up the worst than think of the long winding difficult roads to what might come next.

Can we imagine something different? On a daily level we as individuals and as a community choose what we want to focus and act on. At its extremes the prayer challenges us: Is our world ending or are we at a time of new possibilities. Because this prayer is not about how we might die but how we choose to live. For some of us the language of this ancient prayer- the fires, the floods may jolt us into reflecting on real every day perils that confront us right now and what we can and want do about that. This ability to choose what we see in the world as it is now and what we imagine allows us to create our future.

Rabbi Jonathan Saks chief Rabbi of England says: society is what we choose to make it. The future is open. There is nothing inevitable in the affairs of humankind.

At the end of untaneh tokef we are given a guide on how to make those choices: - Through teshuva- through our commitment to change.- personally and as a community. Through Tefila- through our commitment to come together to pray, and through tsedaka- through our commitment to acting justly – that's how we move forward, that is how we make our future.

Hope is the life force, the energy within us that keeps us going from one day to the next impelling us to bridge the discrepancy between vision and reality. (With no guarantees.)

Prof. Benjamin Sommers of JTS in his commentary on the verse in Psalm 27, says that Hope, rather than perfect confidence, characterizes the most mature Jewish faith: a readiness to admit one’s mistakes and fears, to look toward God, while renouncing the ability to predict or even rely on any of God’s actions and still we keep hope.

Hope doesn't deny reality but it can create it.

And so 2,000 years after standing at the entrance to the promised land we have Israeli national anthem called Hatikvah, the hope. Od lo ovadh tikvatenu we still have not lost hope.

The sense that the future can always be more perfect than the present is both comforting and motivational. Again from the wise Rabbi Saks, “To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair.”

Rava, one of the great scholars of the Talmud imagined the question that may be asked of us when we reach the end of our journey: Most of them are easy enough:“Did you deal honestly in your business? Did you set aside time for study?” Yet one of Rava’s questions stands out among the others: Did you have hope?”

I'll give the final word to Rashi. Rashi, 12th century scholar who as a wine grower knew there are good harvest years and not so good ones, and lived with Torah’s words like no other: In his commnetary on psalm 27 “ he says kaveh” is repeated twice, because if your prayer does not come true, you go back and hope again. It is not a false oracle. It is life: Sometimes the grapes grow, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it rains, sometimes it doesn’t. Other than just walking away Rashi offers the only way to go, Im lo titkabel tefilatekha, khozer v’kaveh. If your prayer does not come to pass, go back and hope again.

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