“Holding on to Hope”A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashannah 5782

In the infamous words of the great Yoggi Bera, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Last Rosh Hashanah we were still absorbing the impact of COVID; but with the speed of the vaccine development and its availability, we thought we would surely reach herd immunity and that we would welcome 5782 under circumstances far closer to the “old normal” with most of us together in person, sitting next to one another, certainly not masked.  And yet here we are, not at all where we had hoped and expected to be.

It is frustrating and disillusioning.

Fear and anxiety have resurfaced along with masks and the Delta variant.

We are angry at the politicization and polarization of health and safety measures and the absolutely unnecessary continued loss of life.  We watch the rising death count, hospitalizations that have again exceeded 100,000; we hear the tearful pleas of hospital staff and sick patients. We know how to prevent this from happening – and yet it continues on.

We worry – will my child be safe in school? Will those under my care and responsibility be safe? Can I transmit the variant?

The happiness we felt from the simple joys of reconnecting with family and friends after so many months of separation has diminished in the realities of this prolonged pandemic.

How not to succumb to despair?

Unfortunately, ours is a people well versed in overcoming desperate circumstances.  Jewish history is replete with tragedy upon tragedy, destruction and expulsion, pogroms and genocide.   We have too many fast days and memorial days on which we commemorate these horrific events, both ancient and modern.

And yet, we have never given in to despair.  I am often reminded of the words of the early 20th French writer, Edmund Fleg, who penned a profound statement articulating his reasons for being Jewish, among them: “I am a Jew because every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.”

Even in the darkest moments of our history, we have held onto hope. 

In the face of the rise of enemy nations around them, the ancient prophets held fast to God’s promise of redemption — if only the people would turn back to God, they would prevail.  When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, took over their land and exiled much of the population, the prophets continued to preach God’s word that the Jews would once again know the glory of Jerusalem. The author of Ps 126, living in Babylonian exile, held onto this promise that despite their suffering, God would restore their fortunes: “those who sow in tears, will reap with songs of joy.”

Indeed, they were able to return and rebuild the Holy Temple, only to have it destroyed by the Romans some 600 years later.  It was under the oppressive and cruel rule of the Romans that the sages infused the divine promise of kingship from the House of David with new meaning, connecting it to future salvation in the embodiment of a Messiah who would herald God’s reign.  They envisioned a time to come when all that was wrong in their world would be made right, when all of their suffering would come to an end.  Israel’s enemies would be defeated, the people would be reconciled with God, and they would return from the farthest corners of the earth to the Promised Land to live in spiritual and physical bliss.

Over the course of time, especially through long periods of oppression and persecution, the belief in the coming of a Messiah grew, adopted as a vehicle for hope that the darkness would end one day and the world would once again be made right.  Reform Judaism turned away from the notion of a personal Messiah, of a particular individual sent by God who would usher in this new day.  Instead, our founders envisioned a “Messianic Age,” with a more universal message, no longer tied to the return of a people in exile to its land, but to a time of world perfection, where all peoples would recognize the unity of God and the prophets’ vision of peace and harmony would be fulfilled. 

Whether it was the more traditional notion of a personal Messiah or the coming of a Messianic age, the essence of Messianism in Jewish thought can be summed up in one word: hope.  Hope for the future; hope for the possibility of change for the better.  Our worship services draw to a conclusion with an affirmation of that hope in the Aleinu prayer:  Bayom Hahu, on that day, God will be one and God’s name shall be one.  A vision of unity and peace for the world.

Even during the Holocaust, when it seemed hopeless that evil would be overcome, the Messianic dream was not abandoned by all.  Jews still prayed the words:  Ani Ma’amin:  I believe with full faith in the coming of the Messiah.  Though he may tarry, I still believe.”

One of the most well-known survivors who embodied this faith and became a living symbol of the Holocaust was Elie Wiesel.   When asked by one of his students at Boston University how he did not give into despair either during the Holocaust or in his on-going battles against evil and injustice, Wiesel referenced the great 18thc Hassidic Master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav who said, “There is no despair.  No matter what, do not despair!”  and then Wiesel told the following story:    Even in the Warsaw ghetto, during the war, Rebbe Nachman’s followers, the Bratzlaver Hassidim, said these words and danced.  One of them had lost his daughter days earlier.  They danced through their pain; they danced knowing it was absurd – but they danced.  To renounce despair is an act of will.  And it is the only way to continue and be able to confront, to resist, darkness.”[i]    “…my tradition is filled with hope,” Wiesel said.  “In spite of three thousand years of suffering and difficulty, it is a celebration.  I was fortunate to be born into this tradition of celebration and that gave me the strength to reject hatred, to reject despair.”[ii]

Judaism is a religion that celebrates life.  With blessings that begin from the moment we wake up in the morning, we pause to express gratitude for all that we have.  

There is “A time for weeping and a time for laughing,

A time for wailing and a time for dancing …”  

wrote Ecclesiastes over two thousand years ago; he reminds us to seek out moments for joy and celebration even in times of difficulty.

It’s why our communal sharing of simchas at Shabbat services is so important.   It comes right after the healing prayer and lifts our spirits, whether people are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries or a grandchild’s dance recital.  Whether we can be together through an internet platform or if we’re fortunate to be in person, it is important for our souls to find moments to lift up and celebrate.  These moments give us hope for a time when we will all laugh, when we will all dance, when we will all sing songs of joy.

Hope gave Wiesel the strength to protest against human suffering.   Hope is what can give us strength to do our part to bring about a better tomorrow. 

Hope won’t defeat COVID, but hope can empower us to act in ways that will. With hope, we can once again don our masks, frustrating as it may be.  With hope, we can donate to organizations that help those who have suffered economically from this pandemic, we can make chili for our turn at lunch box, we can donate for projects at the Morse school.   The list of ways that we can give others hope is endless. 

“Hope is a choice,” said Wiesel, “and a gift we give to one another.  It can be absurd.   It does not rely on facts.  It is simply a choice.”[iii]

Hope is contagious. 

The story is told of a monastery that had fallen on hard times.  It was once a great order, but over the centuries, through persecutions and the rise of secularism, its numbers had dwindled so much that there only five monks left in the decaying mother house – Abbott and 4 others, all men over 70. 

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery, there was a little hut, where the rabbi from a nearby town would periodically stay as a place of retreat and contemplation.  At one such time, as the monks agonized over what seemed to be the imminent demise of their monastery, the Abbott decided to go visit the rabbi and see if, by chance, he might have some words of wisdom to help them. 

The rabbi welcomed the Abbott but when the Abbott explained the purpose of his visit, the Rabbi could only commiserate with him.  “I know how it is,” he explained.  “The spirit has gone out of the people.  It’s the same in my town.  Almost no one comes to synagogue anymore.”  So the two wept together, studied Torah and talked of life.  As the Abbott prepared to leave, he thanked the Rabbi and expressed his gratitude that they had finally met after all these years.  “But I have failed in my mission in coming to see you,” said the Abbott.  “Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am so sorry.” The rabbi responded.  “I have no advice to give you.  I can only tell you one thing – the Messiah is one of you.”

When the Abbott returned to the monastery the monks asked what the rabbi said, “He couldn’t help,” the Abbott answered. “We wept together and we studied Torah.  But he did say something very cryptic as I was leaving—that the Messiah is one of us.  I simply don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks following that visit, the monks pondered the rabbi’s words.  “The Messiah is one of us?  Could the rabbi really have meant that one of us here at this monastery is the Messiah?  If so, which one?  Surely, he meant Father Abbott.  If it would be anyone, it would be Father Abbott.  He has been our leader for over a generation.

On the other hand, maybe he meant brother Thomas.  Certainly, brother Thomas is a holy man.  Everyone knows that Brother Thomas is a man of light!

Surely, he didn’t mean Brother Elred.  He gets crotchety at times.  But come to think of it, even though he can be difficult, when you look back on it, Brother Elred is almost always right.  Maybe the rabbi meant Brother Elred.

He couldn’t have meant Brother Philip.  Philip is so passive, he hardly ever speaks up.  But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him.  Yes, Brother Philip is there by your side.  He could be the Messiah!

Of course the rabbi couldn’t have meant me!  I’m just an ordinary monk.  But what if he did?  Could I be the Messiah? Oh God, not me – don’t let it be me.

As each of the monks wondered about the others in this manner, they started to treat others and themselves with extraordinary respect, on the off chance that one among them might just be the Messiah.

Now the forest where the monastery was situated was a beautiful place and people still occasionally came to visit to picnic on its lawn, wander some of the paths and once in a while, someone would enter the monastery to meditate in its chapel.   The new aura of respect that mysteriously surrounded the monastery seemed to radiate out and permeated the whole area. People were drawn back to picnic, to play and to pray.  They began to bring their friends to this special place.  And their friends brought friends. 

After a time, some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more to the old monks.  Eventually one asked if he could join them; and then another; and then another.  Within a few years, the monastery once again became a thriving order, a vibrant center of light and spirituality – thanks to the Rabbi’s gift.[iv]

As we welcome in 5782, may we give one another the precious gift of hope.

[i] Ariel Burger, Witness: Lessons from the Classroom of Elie Wisel, p.125

[ii] Ibid., p. 126

[iii] Ibid., p. 186

[iv] The Rabbi’s Gift as told by M. Scott Peck

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