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Rabbi Ezray - Rosh Hashana: The Challenge of Hope

09/14/2021 08:36:38 AM


Rabbi Ezray

         I recently listened to a podcast featuring our congregant Andy Karsner about his involvement with alternative energy. As the interview was winding down, Andy shared an interesting personal story. He and Maria moved to New York and had their first child Caroline right after 9/11. They gave her the middle name Hope - Tikvah in Hebrew. Think about the name. How could they see hope during a time of such fear and upset?  They believed that to give a child the name Tikvah holds on to a different reality not defined by fear.  It lets her live with what might be and lets her know she has a role in bringing hope into our world.

         Tikvah was important to cultivate after 9/11 – and it may be even more important now.  Hope feels more elusive and distant than I can remember.  Just as things seemed to be returning to a sense of normal - everything changed in a split second.  Numbers spiking. Breakthrough cases multiplying. Fire blazing.  And there are so many other things we could add to the list which makes this moment feel so heavy. Brick after brick of painful realities pile up and grow. It feels like too much.

         It is exactly these moments that call upon us to hold onto tikvah.  Tikvah allows us to imagine and hold on to a different future. It is not magical thinking-- pretending everything will be okay or that things will rapidly change.  Tikvah calls upon us to encounter the present - acknowledging the painful gap between our hopes and our reality. Some things are beyond our ability to change – holding onto the vision of what might be is important in those moments.  And sometimes, as we hold on to what might be – possibilities emerge. Hope is an action where we work to work to bring our hopes to life amidst uncertain outcome. Author Rebecca Solnit captures tikvah: “To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety.”

         Tikvah calls on us to voice pain – while refusing to be defined by it. In tomorrow morning’s Haftarah, we recount going into exile after the destruction of the Temple.  Talk about despair!  The prophet Jeremiah pictures Rachel, as refugees pass by her grave on the way to exile, weeping for her children. I feel those tears.  Those tears and pain are the beginning of hope. Amidst the tears, Jeremiah proclaims: “Yesh Tikvah – There is hope!”  He articulates a different and even preposterous vision: “V’shavu vanim ligvulam – The children shall return to their borders.” Really?!  How could he envision return amidst such terrible defeat and exile?  I imagine walking past him and feeling angry!  How unrealistic!  How ridiculous! Yet Jeremiah articulates tikvah, and that may be a reason why Judaism survived.  The philosopher David Hartman summed up this mindset: “To be a Jew is to believe in the promise of the future.”  We humbly hold on to what might be – even when it feels distant and let it soak into our souls.

          Today I ask you to walk with me exploring concepts connected to hope – gathering together and deepening connections to one another - which emanate from Hebrew word tikvah.

         The root letters in the word tikvah are kuf, vav, hey – kaveh.  One definition of kuf, vav, hey – kaveh is to gather together.  You may have heard of the word mikveh – the ritual bath. It is a place where water gathers together. Embedded in the word tikvah is the concept of gathering. Tikvah grows and lives as we gather.  We read about it in this morning’s haftarah.  Hannah and her family travel to Shiloh – which at that time was the place where they brought offerings. They did what is familiar to us when Jews gather.  They went together.  They joined in rituals.  They connected to God. They shared prayers. Hannah poured out her individual prayer from her heart at the place of gathering. Then and now, gathering creates spiritual energy that changes us.  One of the reasons I became a rabbi is that I love what happens when we gather. Our prayers affirm our shared values and beliefs – and doubts. During the Healing prayer we support those with loved ones and friends who are ill – and reach out to help.  When we stand for Kaddish, others know we have had a loss and support us.  At Kiddish we share a meal and catch up. Gathering is the glue that holds us together.  And it isn’t just at synagogue – it is at houses of mourning, celebrations in homes, gatherings of activism. Gathering fulfills our inherent need to experience love, to feel safe, to act together. It is where hope lives.   

         Last year, leading services in an empty Sanctuary brought me to tears.  I opened the ark, and I was alone. Unable to gather as we normally do, over these last 18 months, I have felt an almost unbearable sadness.  Yet tikvah can come from that place of pain. The day after being in that empty sanctuary someone sent me a handwritten note saying she understood how hard it must have been for me.  When we say, “I’m not alright” tikvah finds room to grow. Pain dissipates a bit once it is named.  Support from others nurtures hopes.  We begin to imagine how else we might gather. We adapt. We adjust. We pivot. We gather in smaller group outdoor settings. We find new ways for B’nai Mitzvah to hold meaning. We embrace technology that allows back and forth and seeing one another.  And here we are together again. Hope lives. Not in same way, but under this canopy, in other spaces on the grounds and over zoom. We will gather as an entire community again.  It will be wonderful – and different.  My request of you is to reflect on how you might make gathering come to life amidst our current realities:  Reach out to someone you haven’t seen in a while. Think about how to make virtual gathering feel compelling – gathering can occur in meaningful ways via technology.  Make your way back to safe gatherings here when you are ready.  Take a look at Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters and bring the lessons of what makes a successful gathering that can be applied to our current reality.

         An aspect of gathering and the hope it fosters is the connections it creates. And connections go beyond gathering.  Go back to the word tikvah.  The two letters in the middle of the word are kuf, vav – forming the word kav.  The word kav means a line.  Embedded in the word tikvah are the lines that reach back to the past, across and around to fellow human beings and up to G-d.  Tikvah lives in these connections.  

         The lines between us have simultaneously strengthened and frayed during the pandemic.  Viruses, suffering and loss know no borders – and our awareness of how deeply intertwined our fate is with humans around the world has grown.  Tikvah calls upon us to ask: How can we as individuals and a community support the humanity of those around the world with whom we are intertwined? Embedding lines of connection - kav - in the word tikvah reminds us that hope lives in our connections to fellow humans.

         While our connections have been magnified, we also know lines of connection break too easily. Living tikvah means looking at where and why connections have frayed. Our connections have been threatened far before pandemic. Take a look at the Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, which describes the loneliness that defined America, even before the pandemic, and the negative health implications of this reality.  Loneliness is a reality in America and has grown acutely during the pandemic. What must we do to help those who are disconnected begin to find connection? This is challenging and important work.  Let this challenge be a piece of your work in 5782.

         When we look at the gap between our hopes and our reality, we allow our pain to drive us to potential solutions. When hope feels distant, we re-double our efforts. Where do those areas exist for you?

         One of the most painful realities where I find myself losing hope is the bitter divide in country.  It has been bad for a while, is getting worse - and has made its way into the Jewish community. Too many times I have witnessed us turning away from one another, vilifying those with whom we disagree.  The work of tikvah calls on us not to yield to despair, but to work even harder as the problem grows. 

         We will dig into this work.  I asked you to read the book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out by Amanda Ripley. She gives us a framework and stories that help us pivot as we seek to realize the tikvah of staying connected. There is an amazing success story that we can build upon. She describes how congregants from the mostly liberal, upper west side Congregation B’nai Jeshurun decided to have an exchange with a group of mostly conservative prison workers from Michigan.  The thought was that the only way to stay connected and heal the rifts in our country is by knowing one another.  Their hope was that as they got to know another other, stereotypes would diminish, and connections would grow. They confronted the fear, anger and judgements which make connection impossible.

         They made plans to visit one another – to really listen and learn.  It was not easy – they heard opinions with which they passionately disagreed.  People were nervous and afraid, uncomfortable and at times angry. But they found something else – generosity, openness, humanity. The exchange opened doors of possibility.  When we explore the stories we share, listen with curiosity, and reflect back what we heard to make sure we heard correctly – doors open to discover someone’s humanity. Tikvah transforms from distant hope to a possibility.  

         When the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting occurred, the Michigan group wrote a letter of solidarity to their New York counterparts. Two of them flew to New York City to read it at Shabbat services. They wrote: “We are writing today as conservative, patriotic Americans…We believe America is indeed an exceptional place that has served as a unique symbol and model to the world.  As such, we have seen enough of the divisive politics that separate our country and are calling for an end to any rhetoric that confuses hate and fear mongering with patriotism…We must stop this before America stops being America.” What if people across the political spectrum made statements like this?

         This exchange interrupted the cycle of seeing people through the glasses of anger and division. The tough work of disagreeing passionately, acting on our ethical core in disparate ways – while also holding onto the humanity of the people with whom we disagree - emerged from the encounter. Of course, there are people with whom we cannot create connections – either because their actions are evil, or they refuse to interact civilly. But, more often than not, we will discover people who are thoughtful, ethical and with whom we can find shared purpose and action.  

         The hope that sustains me is that CBJ be a place where people with divergent perspectives feel the respect from and give respect to one another. We will dig into this work in the coming year – learning skills and creating small groups of divergent viewpoints to talk and listen.  The program will be called Tikvah and its impact will ripple. Hope comes little by little.  It grows and begins to gain force.  In the Talmud they ask, “What happens when you pray for hope, but things don’t work out?”  The answer to is go back and continue to work. 

         I began with the name Caroline Hope.  I conclude with another name.  This name came amidst the chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan.  A very pregnant Afghani woman got on a C-17, determined to fly to freedom.  She went into a difficult labor.  Needing more air, the pilot descended so that she would have the oxygen she needed.  The Afghani women used their shawls to give the mother privacy, and when the plane landed, medics rushed on board – there was no time to get to a hospital; and the baby was born on the tarmac.  When the baby was born, the parents decided to name her Reach which was the call sign of the airplane. Tikvah calls upon us to reach. In 5782 let’s reach!

         May we reach into our pain and find hope.   Reflect upon your hopes. What are they? 

         May we reach toward one another.  Think about with whom you will connect.  Challenge yourself to reach toward someone you might not have thought about before today.  How might you deepen the lines of connection this year?    

         May we reach into areas where hope seems lost.  What are those areas for you?  What can you do to hold onto hope and to narrow the gap between what is and what might be?

         Let’s reach out to the unknown future believing that hope will sustain as it has for generations. Shanah Tovah.       

Mon, August 15 2022 18 Av 5782