Friday, October 7, 2022

Kol Nidre 5783: In Hopelessness, Hope

A podcast interview from a couple months ago poised a challenge I’ve been wrestling with in anticipation of these Days of Awe.  The speaker—English poet, playwright and hip-hop artist Kae Tempest—lamented: 

Sometimes I feel like hope is the most antagonistic, violent concept.  Sometimes I hate the thought of it.  It feels so untrue and unreal, so far away from the reality of what it’s like to persevere.

Her words took me aback. For most of my life, I’ve considered hope one of a very few unalloyed virtues that still hold across cultural divides—a vestige of sacredness in our fractured world.  Hope obviously undergirds most faith traditions, but I’ve also witnessed its powerful pull on atheists, agnostics and, especially, sports fans of every persuasion.   What loyal booster of a habitually losing team hasn’t proffered the enduring credo, “Wait till next year!”  And even the most cynical of professions—politics—routinely traffics in the rhetoric of hope, from Ronald Reagan’s “city on a hill” to Shepard Fairy’s iconic poster of Barack Obama.  

As a rabbi, I have been asked to offer hope to dejected health care workers and exasperated activists weary of losing battles in our state legislature.  These good folks sought me out as a representative of the Jewish people, who have endured millennia of suffering yet still proudly sing our national anthem, HaTikvah—the Hope.  While I’m no expert on maintaining hope in hard times, I have done my best to respond with an open ear and empathetic heart.

Then along comes Kae Tempest, with a passionate counter-cultural plea that upends many of my fundamental assumptions.  So where did I turn?  I posted Tempest’s words on Facebook and asked you to share your responses, which were powerful, helpful and, not surprisingly, multi-vocal.  I learned from all of you—and also from a collection of books whose titles included Hope Without Optimism; Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking; and, for scatological skeptics, Everything is ****** (expletive deleted).  I also gleaned insight through conversations with colleagues and family members, especially my daughter Rachel who had much to offer on the subject.

As I read and listened, I came to appreciate those books’ negative take on my often-clichéd understandings of hope.  I revisited High Holy Day sermons I’ve delivered over the last few years, and upon reflection, recognized that my optimism—which was never really my strong suit to start with—frequently faltered.  I tried to offer the rabbinical equivalent of “Wait till next year—l’shanah ha-ba’ah b’Yerushalayim—only to see each “next year” serve up diminishing democracy, staggering gun violence, rising bigotry, dangerous conspiracy theories, lingering pandemic, and stunning apathy in the face of existential climate catastrophe. As I prepared for this fall, I realized I couldn’t in good faith offer more of the same.  Like Kae Tempest, I’m feeling that hope as I’ve hitherto known and preached it, really does feel “so untrue and unreal, so far away from the reality of what it’s like to persevere.”  I’ve discovered that for many people, false hope can breed the kind of complacency that keeps us mired in troubled relationships, noxious workplaces, and all sorts of dark and dangerous circumstances. We convince ourselves that if we just wait it out, things will get better. Writer Wendy Olson explains: 

When we hope for something that isn’t likely going to happen, we resist moving on towards anything else.  Hope will torture you, will constantly remind you of the world you do not inhabit, of the one that is just at the tip of your fingers yet always eluding you. If hope is a tether keeping you attached to misery in the name of romanticism or wishing, then it is time to cut that tether for good

For unmoored hope can easily collapse into crushing disappointment. As a long-suffering English football fan tells the over-exuberant American coach Ted Lasso, “It’s the hope that kills you.” 


As in the personal realm, so, too, in the political sphere, hope can be toxic.  As Dr. Miguel de la Torre writes in Embracing Hopelessness

Hope, as an illusion, is responsible for maintaining oppressive structures.  When all is hopeless, when there exists no chance of establishing justice, the only choice left for the oppressed is to “screw” with the structure. . . By upsetting the norm, an opportunity might arise that can lead to a more just situation. . . Hopelessness is what leads to liberatory action.

Our foundational Jewish redemption narrative concurs.  As most commentators reckon, we were slaves in Egypt for over four hundred years.  Generations of Israelites quietly yearned for liberation but found none.  Only when they surrendered all hope as they’d known it and desperately groaned under their servitude—only then did God take notice, remember the covenant, and launch the course of events that led to our deliverance.


In hindsight, none of this skepticism should have surprised me, for Judaism has never been overly sanguine about either personal or communal hope.  So much of the Torah is a chronicle of failure.  Consider the book of Genesis, which opens with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, and the Tower of Babel—which is to say exile, fratricide, genocide, and exile again.  From that inauspicious start, we move on to our patriarchs and matriarchs, whose stories revolve around dysfunctional marriages, terrible parenting, and murderous sibling rivalries.  As my teacher Rabbi Chanan Brichto pointed out, there isn’t a single family there you’d want to emulate.  And so it goes. . . through most of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. As soon as we leave Egypt, we complain we want to go back.  For the next forty years, we wander and whine, and when we finally reach the Promised Land, Moses, who shouldered the burden of all that kvetching is barred from entry, denied the realization of his whole life’s labor.  One frustration follows another. Later, in the Prophets, we see that even God’s fervent hopes are often foiled.  Isaiah notes: “The Holy One hoped for justice--mishpat, but behold, injustice--mishpach; for equity—tzedakah but behold, outrage—tza’akah.”   The brilliant Hebrew wordplay hammers home how fine the line that separates the prophetic dream from the harsh reality.  


So where does that leave us?  How do we face the future in our own troubled times?  Dante imagined the gate to Hell emblazoned with the grim words, “Abandon hope, all who enter here.”  Is that our tragic fate?

No.  Our Jewish heritage is not naïve, but neither is it nihilistic.  It rejects trite understandings of hope, but also implores us to choose life, to persist through darkness and despair, or, to return to Kae Tempest, to persevere.  Which brings me to the profound paradox at the heart of this matter: it is precisely by acknowledging our hopelessness that we conceive new incarnations of tougher, truer hope.

The twentieth century poet, professor, and preacher Amos Wilder expressed this eloquently in his dictum: the zero hour breeds new algebra.  When we hit the nadir of possibility—that’s when our capacity for renewal and reinvention is born.  Or as my lifelong rabbi, Bob Dylan, famously put it, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

For those working their way through twelve step programs, this paradox is at the heart of recovery.  As two friends on that challenging, lifelong road related to me: Hopelessness saved my life.  Hitting rock bottom is sometimes what it takes to change everything. . . . The best thing I did is give it up and accept reality.  That’s when I found joy.

So, too, on a global scale, I believe it was the decades of hopelessness crystalized in the senseless murder of Mahsa Amini that ignited the courageous protests of Iranian women that may yet change the moral and political order of that nation.  

The zero hour breeds new algebra, indeed.


A profound Jewish expression of this principle has its origins in a rather unlikely place—the Talmudic tractate Baba Metzia, a lengthy discourse on the laws of lost and found property.  The central focus in that discussion is the concept of ye’ush, which literally means “to give up on.”  One who finds a lost object must make every effort to return it to its owner, so long as the owner has not yet made ye’ush—has not given up on recovering the item. But once the owner can be presumed to have done ye’ush, to have concluded their search for the object because it is of little value or has no distinguishing marks, the item becomes free for the taking.  Rabbi Adam Greenwald notes:

In its original context, ye’ush referred only to lost physical property but its spiritual power extends far beyond that definition. There can be a letting go of disappointments, of hopes and desires.  This can be sad, because it means surrendering the hope that what was lost might someday be restored, that what is broken might ever be repaired.  But ye’ush can also be a source of liberation, an invitation to honor loss and then get on with the rest of life. 

This is, of course, easier said than done.  Ye’ush is a last resort, a rabbinic dispensation for despair. Yet it can ultimately be an act of grace and healing.  Surrendering to sadness can be the beginning of joy and heretofore unknown possibilities.


Earlier I mentioned HaTikvah—“The Hope”—Israel’s national anthem.  Perhaps its most famous line is this: Od lo avdah tikvateynu, ha-tikvah bat sh’not alpayimOur hope of the last two thousand years is not lost—to be a free people in our own land.  These words are, obviously a kind of straightforward hymn to hope.

But history tells a more complex and ambiguous tale.  For centuries, traditional Jews did hold fast to their hope of returning to Zion—but that’s not what got the job done; indeed, in the end their faith proved an obstacle.  Their piety was too passive, waiting for the Holy One to bring the messiah and gather in our exiles; they dismissed the notion that we might humanly hasten the task as a sacrilegious negation of God’s plan.  That why the land of Israel was largely built by secular pioneers who rebelled against the old ways, abandoned the faith of their parents, and took matters into their own hands.  Theirs was the chutzpah of hope surrendered and reborn.


If ye’ush is the Hebrew embodiment of that spirit, Yiddish offers another word for hope born of hopelessness—tzebrokhnkayt—which translates roughly as “the quality of broken-heartedness that confers strength in healing.”  In a June 2022 Slate magazine article, journalist Dahlia Lithwick turns tzebrokhnkayt into a manifesto for our age: “Let’s not be OK. Let’s find power in not being OK. Let’s honor our brokenness—and the brokenness of our country—by finding the collective strength to fight for change.”


My friends, on this Yom Kippur, tzebrokhnkayt is the order of the day.  We live in a badly broken world.  As Jews, as Americans, as global citizens, too many of our fondest hopes and dreams lie torn and tattered at our feet.  But that’s not the last word.  Listen to the wisdom Canadian writer Kate Bower shares in her “Blessing for When Faith Breaks Your Heart”:

Blessed are you standing among the ruins of a faith 

that once felt so sturdy,

now turned to dust under your feet. 

The certainty you once had, gone. 

The community you loved, dissipated.

The hope you held dear, hard to find. 

Instead, what’s taken up residence 

is the very stuff that seems counter 

to what you imagined:

Disappointment. Doubt. Disillusionment. Despair. 

In this new landscape, may you practice the courage to find the others

who make space for your questions without easy answers,

who celebrate doubt when it makes room for more faith,

who search high and low for a defiant hope born amidst despair. 

Bless you, dear one. You who don’t give up wrestling,

who have eyes to see something new being rebuilt on top of what was. 

Blessed are you who walk away wounded, yes. But changed.


I leave you with a story, a classic bit of Jewish humor that contains both laughter and truth, as our best jokes always do:

God’s voice rings forth from the heavens proclaiming that in one month, a second deluge will wipe out the entire world, with no possibility for repentance.  The die is cast.  The floodwaters are coming.

What to do?  Leaders of all the world’s religions gather their communities and implore them to help avert the decree.  

The Pope calls for Catholics to pray the rosary.

The Buddhist Roshi advises her people to meditate on suffering.

The Imam tells Muslims to submit to the will of Allah.

And the Protestant preachers implore their congregations to faithfully read the Good Book.

But what does the Rabbi do?

She gathers the Jews and declares: “All hope for this world is lost.  Let us weep and say Kaddish for life as we have known it.  And then, let’s get to work, because we’ve only got thirty days to learn how to live under water.”

Friends, on this sacred day, in this new year, let us learn together.

Ken y’hi ratzon

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