Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline
Rosh HaShanah 1, 5773/2012 - Hope - ©Rabbi Jack Moline
The topic this morning is hope. And I became intrigued by the idea of hope thanks to a talk I heard almost a year ago. I was at the ceremony to receive my DD degree - it's an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree given to rabbis who have survived more than 25 years. In fact, we say that DD stands for "didn't die." The Chancellor, Dr. Arnold Eisen, who actually earned his doctorate, was talking about a book written by Alan Mittleman, a philosophy professor at JTS. It is called Hope in a Democratic Age, and in it, Prof. Mittleman (who also earned his doctorate) conducts a comprehensive discussion of the nature of hope.
I recommend the book to you, though it helps if you have a three-month sabbatical to devote to it. I admit to paying a good deal more attention to his introductory sections and discussion of Jewish sources than of Aquinas, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kant and Moltmann, which sounds like K Street law firm. Here, however, is the pay-off. Hope, says Prof. Mittleman, ought rightly be considered less an emotion and more a virtue.
So do me a favor and don't glaze over. While this sermon may not wind up being as entertaining as when I showed you Israeli underwear, I promise to skip the German philosophers if you'll just stick with me. Because what the world needs now is not love, sweet love, but hope, real hope. And not the kind of hope that has been turning up in campaign slogans, but the kind of hope that is the only possible antidote to despair. And God knows there has been enough despair to go around.
So let's talk for a moment about what a virtue is. Any number of you, especially if you earned your academic degrees, could probably give a discourse on virtue. Plato and Aristotle from back in the day, Immanuel Kant, from a little closer to us, Alisa Rosenbaum, later known as Ayn Rand, from just last century, all had their notions of virtue. I want to make it simple. Being virtuous is being morally admirable, commendable, excellent. A virtue is therefore something morally excellent. It is the opposite of vice, which involves being reprehensible, condemnable, degenerate. A vice is therefore something morally corrupt.
Love is a virtue by that definition. While our Christian neighbors often lay claim to it as their virtue, love rests as a central virtue of our tradition. As you know if you have heard me talk about love before, the love in question is not the kind of romantic love you feel for your main squeeze; it is not the paternal or maternal love you feel toward children, nieces and nephews, or the wonderful babies we paraded in front of you this morning.
Love, the kind we are commanded to have for God with all our hearts, with all our souls and with all our mights, is an affirmation of being in right relationship with God. That, too, sounds more than a little Christian, but I want to assure you that every time you recite the Sh'ma, which predated Christianity by centuries, you are reminding yourself that it is admirable, commendable, excellent to love God and to teach the next generation to love God. And rather than presenting an understanding of love as a fluttering of the heart and a delightful light-headedness, love is defined as speaking God's words at home and away, evening and morning, as binding the words on hand and head, as marking your doorways so as to advertise your commitment to loving God.
If I had to pick a vice that is the opposite of love in the Bible, I would not choose hate. Hate is sometimes a virtue in our tradition, like when we remember Amalek. I would not choose indifference. There are times when indifference, that is, complete neutrality, is also a virtue, like when two parties stand before a judge to resolve a complaint. If I were to choose the vice that is opposite the virtue of love, it would be idolatry. Idolatry is reprehensible, condemnable, degenerate. It is morally corrupt. It purposely redirects love from something of worth to something of no worth. Idolatry cancels the love of God, which is a virtue.
Now I ought to give you some time to think about that contrast, but it is not the point of my message this morning, except in this regard. Just as love as it is used in Scripture and siddur is not primarily an emotional state, hope, as it appears in our tradition, is not wishful thinking. Hope is not the refuge of people who refuse to believe in magic but still desire something magical to occur - like the intensity of their desire or their prayers will change the order of the universe. Hope is not self-deception, the straws at which we grasp in a storm, or a substitute for the baser representations of some religious traditions. Hope is not superstition.
Hope is instead admirably, commendably, excellently moral. Hope is a perspective, an outlook that is cultivated in order to frame the things we do and the outcome we expect as a matter of reason and principle. Hope insists that we are not victims of the cosmos, but participants in a world that depends on our actions.
Let me add that I am not trying to strip the love you feel of its romance or the hope you feel of its sparkle. The emotions that flow from these values are part of the engine that drive them, perhaps even the fuel necessary to maintain their forward motion. But the absence of butterflies in your stomach or the absent of whimsical optimism in your heart does not mean that love, sweet love or hope, real hope need be absent from your life.
So in case you want to doze, let me tell you what's coming. First, the differences among hope and faith and knowledge. Then three texts you all know very well: the end of the 27th Psalm, Aleinu and Israel's national anthem. And in the end, a recommendation and, if I'm lucky, some inspiration.
Here is a working definition of hope. Hope is the expectation that things will get better. In a religious sense, specifically in a Jewish religious sense, hope is our sense of partnership with God in realizing a world of God's intentions and truths.
So here is why hope is not faith. Faith is the conviction about an outcome. Faith in its purest form does not allow for doubt; it is certainty. Faith is an affirmation, at least in the moment, that things are and will be a certain way independent of whether or not we believe in, participate with or work against them. Perhaps the most famous statement of faith in our tradition comes relatively late in our history: Maimonides 13 principles, which we like to sing at the end of evening worship on Fridays and holidays as they have been set to a piyyut, a liturgical poem. We call it Yigdal, and mostly we believe it circumstantially. The early principles are easy to affirm, even for agnostics - God is one, without beginning or end, without material existence, the source of all creation. The middle gets a little dicey - God gave the Torah to Moses, never has a change of mind and knows our innermost thoughts. Then around the end of the list our affirmation tends to get a little less consistent - the good prosper while the wicked are punished, God will send a Messiah at the end of days and bring the dead back to life.
Faith carries with it a certainty that requires, famously, a belief in things unseen, but also a denial of evidence to the contrary. I mean no criticism of Christianity when I say that the reason faith can play such a large role in Christianity is that the basic faith required is in salvation after death. There is no evidence to the contrary and, as such, the premise goes unchallenged.
But our tradition recommends faith in small bites, sometimes literally, notwithstanding Maimonides's comprehensive list. Your faith is most usually expressed with two syllables: amen, the same word as emunah, which means "faith." And generally, you use that word situationally. You say it at the end of a blessing when the evidence of your faith confronts you: hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz, God brings bread from the earth, amen, take a bite of bread; m'kadeish hashabbat, God sanctifies Shabbat, amen, oh, look, it's shabbes; shehechiyanu v'kiyimanu, v'higianu lazman hazeh, God kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this day, amen, I'm alive, I am sustained and here I am, woo-hoo.
Hope acknowledges doubt. And by the way, that's not to say that there is no room for doubt in our articulation of faith, but doubt is a necessary part of hope. Because if it weren't, we would not have hope, we would have knowledge. No scientist ever says "e hopes it is mc2." No mathematician ever says "the square of the hypotenuse ought to be about the sum of the square of the two sides." No mother ever says, "If your friends jump off a bridge, it's probably something you should try, too."
Hope says instead, "this is the way things ought to be, and my confidence is such that even if things are not going that way, I will continue to expect a better outcome and I will behave in a way that makes that outcome more likely."
Perhaps the best way to illustrate what I mean is with three texts familiar to you all. If you pray regularly with a siddur or if you have come to any evening or morning service here in the last month, you have encountered the 27th Psalm. We recite it during this season of penitence. I have been discussing it a little bit over the last four Friday nights, talking about its motifs - first, the emotion of fear, next the monsters that make us afraid, next the remedies for that fear and lastly some actions we take to affirm the remedies. The Psalm tries to be upbeat, but I can't read it without picturing the author with a tear-stained face, trembling and putting on a brave smile.
Why do we recite this Psalm to and through the holidays? Perhaps it is because we know we are to be judged for our deeds of the past year. Perhaps that fear of being abandoned to the monsters under our beds, or the monsters we imagine we have been in the past year, leave us trembling and without confidence about our ability to pass muster for inclusion in the Book of Life.
Psalm 27 was not written for the High Holy Days, but it was chosen for these days because of the dread that standing before God provokes. And listen, I don't care if you are a believer - you are here today and if you don't accept the literal meaning of these images, you accept them metaphorically. These days are filled with dread, with a need to be honest about ourselves, to step into the bright white light and acknowledge what is illuminated. Ten days from now we will recite a list of our failings just in case we can't put a name to what we see. Armies camped at our gates, flesh-eating enemies, parents abandoning us, people whose breath is violence - it sounds like HBO. It would be easy to surrender or to say that this world is a place of despair.
So it should not be a surprise that the last line of the Psalm is all about hope. Kavei el H', chazak v'ya'ametz libekha v'kavei el H' is what we say. "Hope in God, be strong and of good courage by hoping in God," that's what we say. Most of the psalm is written in the first person, but this last line comes as a piece of advice from outside the experience of the psalmist. It does not deny the fear, and it does not deny the danger. It even opens the possibility of disaster by allowing the psalmist's concerns to stand open-ended.
But it articulates the virtue that refuses to accept despair. Hope in God. Strength and courage, though they be hard to come by, will see you through this moment to a better future - even if that future is not immediate, because that is God's plan for the world.
But hope is not just a strategy for dealing with disaster. Hope is also what we put forward as our posture in circumstances of blessing. It could be that you rarely hear Psalm 27 even if you come on Shabbat morning if you arrive more than ten minutes into the service, and that's most of you. But no matter how late you get here, you are here for Aleinu. Aleinu is one of the oldest prayers in our liturgy - it may date back to the Temple, which is about as credibly authentic a prayer as you can get. Its original place was where you will see it in a few minutes, the Malkhuyot section of the musaf service. But as our prayer book says, it has a certain pride of place - every day's worship concludes with it.
I would bet that most of you can sing the melody we use on Shabbat and festivals for the first paragraph. The words that go with that sing-song chant are an affirmation of God and of God's power in this world. Also included are affirmations about the place of privilege we claim to enjoy in God's world. We were not left to fend for ourselves, nor to cast our lot with others, but to work under the watchful and loving gaze of the Sovereign of Sovereigns of Sovereigns, the Holy One of Blessed Name.
I don't think you can be in any better position than that. No matter the day, no matter the circumstances, no matter what awaits us out the door, the proclamation we make morning, noon and night roughly translates into the coarse vernacular of our times as "we are the champions, my friends."
Raised to the spiritual heights of our gratitude and election, having bent our knees and then raised ourselves upright to stand with our peerless God, we make an affirmation of consequence. We do not say "we therefore believe" or "we therefore thank" or "we therefore take pride." We say al kein n'kaveh, "we therefore hope." We hope for a time when all people, not just Jews, will recognize the uniqueness of God and abandon the surrogates and substitutes that block their access to God and godliness. We do not pray for them to become Jews. We pray for them to join us in our endeavor l'takein olam, "to fix the world" into the kind of place God intended it to be.
The expression of our hope is our partnership with God. In the worst of times it makes perfect sense to pray to God to be saved from the monsters of Psalm 27. But in the best of times, in the best of circumstances, the value, the virtue, the moral excellence that is commended to us every day is "we therefore hope." We hope for the uprooting of idolatry - you will remember, the opposite of love for God. We hope for the unity of devotion to God from every quarter. And this grand idea we have, this hope that animates our daily prayer, becomes our mission to share and proclaim.
The last thing our liturgy requires us to say before we put our prayers behind us and go out into the world is our hope for a better world. It is not a wish or a fantasy. It is a mandate. However we are to do it - by teaching or by example, by conversation or by proclamation, by the exercise of our power or by our appreciation of the culture around us - we hope to fix the world and make it a more Godly place.
This year I get to highlight the newest pillar that has been installed in our sanctuary. Thanks to the generosity of Lynne and Don Sandler, whose devotion to the synagogue was already unparalleled before this commitment, we now have representation of the pillar devoted to the three major festivals - Pesach, Shavu'ot and Sukkot. Lynne and Don, thanks for this latest expression of your love for our community. I can tell you that it is reciprocated in abundance.
Each of these three holidays also carries an expression of hope. Shavu'ot, in addition to its emphasis on the first fruits, asks us to join with God in disseminating Torah, of filling the world with the message of divine concern and direction. Sukkot, the harvest festival, insists that we join God in providing for the physical needs of all by dwelling in the fragile booths we erect for the holiday and by using our abundance to care for those in need. Pesach, of course, demands that we proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof. Freedom from oppression is not just the once and exclusive experience of Jews. It is the natural situation for the human family.
We do not just remember our historical encounters with the wisdom of Torah, the sustenance of the land and the exodus from slavery. We reenact them so that they become a part of our lives. And we do not merely affirm our faith that these matters will come to be in God's own time. We do not merely satisfy ourselves with the knowledge that they exist because of our history. We hope to be the agents of wisdom, sustenance and freedom in the world.
On the Shabbat during Pesach - at the exact opposite end of the year from this season - we read a section of the prophet Ezekiel that contains one of the most famous and powerful images of all the Bible. God showed him a valley filled with bones, and those bones were very dry indeed. "Can these bones live?" God asked Ezekiel. "Only you know," Ezekiel responded. And then, at God's instruction, Ezekiel prophesied over the bones and they moved. They joined together into skeletons, flesh formed upon them and, eventually, the breath of life filled them.
Why did God need Ezekiel to prophesy? Could not God have simply resurrected those abandoned dead, pulled them together and shown the power of the Almighty without Ezekiel's participation?
Fortunately, the text itself provides the answer. God says to Ezekiel, "These bones are the House of Israel, and they say, yeivoshu atzmoteinu v'avda tikvateinu." They say, "Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost." And they say, "We are doomed." Dry bones and lost hope - those are the parallel terms.
God's miraculous healing power can restore flesh and blood and breath to the dry and lifeless bones. But only a human partner, only a human partner seeing the vision of emptiness and hearing the voice of despair can partner with God to inspire the people who believe they are doomed and resurrect their hope - not the hope that is a wish, not the hope that is a fantasy, not the hope that is a dream, but the hope that is a virtue, morally admirable, commendable, excellent. A hope that is dependant neither on pure emotion nor mere evidence, a hope that makes room for doubt and unlikelihood, but understands that even when things look pretty grim, even when our bones are dry and baked by the fires of evil, od lo avda tikvateinu, our hope is not yet lost.
And that is the refrain in the national anthem of the State of Israel. Od lo avda tikvateinu, our hope is not yet lost. Hope is the virtue symbolized by the modern political expression of Jewish self-determination. We are the keepers of a vision, sent into this world to banish darkness and fear and the monsters who would consume human flesh with nuclear weapons, who would breathe out violence (the word for violence in Hebrew being chamas), who would abandon their children to despair instead of nurturing hope. We are a people dissatisfied with our learning, our abundance and our freedom not because it isn't enough for us, but because we therefore hope that those blessings will become global, that all people on their own terms will come to value the potential that is inherent in a world of respect and mutual cooperation and hope.
When we are true to that hope we are virtuous - morally admirable, commendable, excellent. And when we promote despair, sowing the seeds of distrust among friends, yearning for proof that the tragedies of the past are returning to the present, moaning yeivoshu atzmoteinu v'avda tikvateinu, then we are reprehensible, condemnable, degenerate. Then we are morally corrupt. Then we are embracing vice.
So I mentioned all those famous old philosophers, quoted texts from three different times in history, and spoke a little Hebrew so that I can at least pretend to have earned my DD degree. But I want to conclude with a message you won't get from Schopenhauer, Aristotle or any of those K Street lawyers.
I can't talk you into faith, nor do I want to do so. I can't download sufficient knowledge for myself, so I certainly can't do so for you. My desire, my goal, my effort today is for you to be admirable, commendable, excellent by keeping three things in mind.
Kavei el H', chazak v'ya'ametz libekha v'kavei el H' ; "Hope in God, be strong and of good courage by hoping in God." By whatever name you call God or reject God, strengthen yourself against despair.
Al kein n'kaveh, "we therefore hope." Whatever blessing is ours is ours to share. The wisdom and success that has sustained us for thousands of years can do the same for others. Only by offering what we value to the world can we realize our mission.
Od lo avda tikvateinu, "our hope is not yet lost." Whether the thousand in this sanctuary or the millions who have realized the promise of Israel, we will never abandon our hope.
Not the hope that is a wish. Not the hope that is a fantasy. Not the hope that is a dream. Not the hope that is a campaign slogan. Not a confectioner's hope. Rather, hope that is the expectation that things will get better. Hope that is our sense of partnership with God in realizing a world of God's intentions and truths.
This world will be a better place and so will each of us if we claim as our legacy and our practice our standard of moral excellence: the virtue of hope.