In the winter of 2018, I was sitting with my weekly “spirituality and recovery group” at the Exodus Transitional Community, a center for people recently released from prison. As their chaplain, I was tasked with caring for the spiritual needs of these people who were trying to rebuild their lives after years or even decades behind bars.
They were, on the whole, a tremendously hopeful group. Survivors of some of the worst things our society has to offer, they mostly all agreed that their lives could change and would change, and they believed in themselves and the spiritual power of their hope to build a better life.
On that particular cold Wednesday morning, I asked the group to share stories of something they had done that they were proud of. Many of the men and women shared stories of reconnecting with family members after incarceration, of enrolling in school programs, and of getting their first “on the books” job of their lives. But one man, who I’ll call Dennis, struggled with an answer: “I don’t know, I guess I haven’t done much to be proud of. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? I ruined a bunch of lives, then spent more than a decade behind bars letting the system ruin my life.”
“Well, let’s look at your life now. What are things you’re doing that might bring positive change to your life?” I asked.
“Come on, I sold drugs. I was incarcerated. I pushed people to be addicted. How do you make that better? Bunch of the people I sold to are dead, or were in prison with me… But now I go out on 125th street, to my old corner, and I give out sandwiches. I can’t take back the problems I caused them by pushing them to buy my supply, but I go up to those guys and offer them a free sandwich. I guess I’m proud of that.”
Dennis was sitting in the depths of a valley of despair, seeing all the destruction around him and finding it hard to see change coming. Yet what he shared, about this little way he had found to change his life, gave everyone in that room a jolt of energy. One moment, one little gesture or action, can ignite hope that transformation is possible.
Take the story of Hagar from the reading for today. Sarah commands Abraham to expel Hagar and her young son Ishmael, and Abraham complies. Hagar and Ishmael are sent into the desert with some bread and a skin of water, and when that runs out, Hagar falls into despair. She sets Ishmael under a bush to die, and walks away to weep, unable to face his death. But Ishmael does not die of thirst. Hagar saves him. We read that, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink.” One small action, Hagar’s eyes were opened, and history is forever changed.
So here’s the million dollar question: was the well there all along and she couldn’t see it, or did it appear because she needed it? Either one is possible, and traditional commentators are split.
I don’t actually think it matters whether or not the well was there. The important point is that when Hagar was in despair, she didn’t see it, and then something happened to allow her to see a different, a better, future. There was a triumph of hope. Hope can be the things that were always there but our eyes weren’t able to see, or hope can be the things that come into our life, shining light in the dark. If the latter sounds like a miracle, maybe it is. But for those of you who didn’t watch the Prince of Egypt as your second seder this year, as my fiance Zack and I did, let me remind you of the lyrics of the most popular song:
There can be miracles when you believe
Though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill
Who knows what miracles you can achieve,
When you believe, somehow you will
You will when you believe.
What we learn from Dennis, and from Hagar, is that we need to hold onto hope. We need to believe in change. We need to believe in miracles.
We are going to be accountable to it.
The Talmud teaches that on the ultimate “Yom Ha’Din”, the judgement day at the end of our lives, we will be asked to reckon with all sorts of things we did in our lives- were we honest in business? Engaged in creating strong relationships? Dedicated to learning and wisdom?
And, were we on the lookout for salvation? Did we hope that the world would change for the better?
Rashi tries to claim that this hope is an eventual one, the fulfillment of messianic dreams beyond our lifetimes. But the Rav Nissim of Gerona, known as the Ran, says no. When the Heavenly Court asks us if we lived a life infused with hope of redemption, watching for the ultimate miracle, it means literally, did we live with the daily expectation that the world could drastically change for the better in our own lifetime. It’s actually heretical not to, the Ran says. And actually, the Ran seems like more of the pragmatist between the two.
You have to see the problems of the world in order to have hope that they will change. You need to confront the world in front of you that is not redeemed in order to have hope for it. If we don’t know what’s wrong, we can’t invest in fixing it. Rav Kook makes a critical point about the nature of this kind of hope. He points out that the word the Talmud chooses for hope is tzipita NOT kivita- tzipia, watching, not tikvah, hoping. What Rav Kook is calling to our attention is that the Heavenly Court is less interested in our mindset than our actions. Hope is a verb, not a state of being. He teaches that the role of the tzofeh, the watchperson, is to warn and to gather people, and to agitate them to make change to bring about redemption. “Thus”, he says, “it is our responsibility to be mindful of every event on earth, because through them salvation can spring forth.”
It feels hypocritical to tell you that investing your attention in the problems of the world is a radical, critically important form of hope. When I look at everything in the world that feels broken right now, I would not say hope is the first feeling that comes to mind. Systemic racism finally brought to the fore, public discourse that privileges vitriol, a pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans and sickened millions, democracy threatened… these things do not make me feel hopeful, they make me feel terrified. And angry. 2020 does not feel like a hopeful year. It feels like a nightmare. I toggle between feeling fired up about protesting and wanting to pull a blanket over my head, surround myself with bowls of popcorn and watch New Girl until the world ends.
Despair, hopelessness- these are natural responses to feeling like we are in the middle of a doomsday scenario. In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet describes coming into a valley of dry bones. “Will these bones ever come alive again?” God asks the prophet. “I don’t know, only you do,” Ezekiel says. God then commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones that they will once again be covered with flesh and be filled with the breath of life. And as Ezekiel is speaking to the bones, in this nightmarish valley of death, the bones come alive, and breath fills them. But even after these bones have been brought back to life, a true miracle of God, they cannot shake their despair. “Our bones are dried up,” these revived corpses say, אָבְדָה תִקְוָתֵנוּ נִגְזַרְנוּ לָנוּ. “Our hope is gone; we are doomed.”
If these bones, brought back to life by the Creator and Sustainer of life, can’t feel hope, how can we be expected to?
Yet Hebrew poet Naftali Imber refutes the claim in Ezekiel. Maybe you’ve heard his poem. In 1878 in Galicia, not a great time and place to be a Jew, Imber reflects on our continued yearning, over thousands of years, and claims, “od lo avda tikvateinu.” We have not yet lost our ability to hope. How? How could Imber think about that 2000 years of persecution and come to the conclusion that there was still hope?
By leaning into Rav Kook’s definition of hope. By being a watchperson, as Kook describes. The tzofeh, the watchperson, is tasked with surveilling the surrounding landscape to report to those who cannot see it about the current state of affairs. They must, necessarily, be in the moment, but they must also be alert to the possibility of something in a coming moment. One of my teachers in rabbinical school, Rabbi David Hoffman, hears Rav Kook asking us “Did you look at your reality, see it’s flaws and take responsibility for them?”. And I think many of us can honestly say yes. Feeling despair means we’re paying attention. It’s the first step in hope, to keep our eyes open to what is happening around us.
We look at this valley of death and we see the potential for life. Hope is our protest against fear and hatred, violence and division. It is our insistence that we will believe in miracles, that our hope is indeed hard to kill. Moving past the data points of the world is not easy, why is why on Yom HaDin we ask about “tzipita le’yeshua”, did we watch out for the coming of a better time. Were we committed to goodness? Did we help others see what we see, to effect change in the world?
The High Holidays gives us the opportunity to reflect on how things are and how we want them to be, in our own personal lives and in the world at large. And reflecting on what is not right can, paradoxically, give us hope. If things can change for the worse, they can also change for the better. Seeing how the world has changed should give us hope that the status quo is not fixed, it is fluid, changeable. Committing to changing the world is a big ask, but I believe that we have the strength to do so. We make little commitments in our lives all the time- to eat better, to be more active, to give ourselves rest when we need it.
What if we committed to hope the way we commit to Whole 30, or a new workout plan? We would have to commit to making it a fixed part of our life on a daily basis, affirming Naftali Imber’s claim that we still have hope. And then we would need to constantly be on the lookout for how to make it fit into the reality of each day, as Rav Kook asks of us.
Dennis, and Hagar, Rav Kook and Naftali Imber- they all teach us two important lessons: there is always some way, even if it’s as small as a sandwich, to bring about a better world, and that alone should give us hope. But also, to hope is a verb that requires us to keep our eyes open to the brokenness of the present moment. Hope requires us to be resilient, so that we do not get stuck in the belief that because we’ve made mistakes, we’re bad, or because we live in a broken world, it must be this way forever.
Today, the day the world is born again, commit with me. Though despair may close my eyes, I will allow them to be reopened. I will keep watch, engaged in the struggles of this moment and ready to bring about change when it comes. I have not yet lost the ability to hope.
 Genesis 21:19
 תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף לא עמוד א
אמר רבא: בשעה שמכניסין אדם לדין אומרים לו: נשאת ונתת באמונה, קבעת עתים לתורה, עסקת בפריה ורביה, צפית לישועה, פלפלת בחכמה, הבנת דבר מתוך דבר