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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
June 26, 2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

"Kivinu" means "we hope." And what is hope?

Emily Dickinson wrote that hope is the thing with feathers. She imagined it as a small bird singing a wordless melody inside the soul. It's a nice image, but both fragile and insecure. Then again, that describes Emily Dickinson. The image inspired Woody Allen to title his book of humorous essays Without Feathers. He is also fragile and insecure.

Mostly, you know this word from its form as a proper noun: Hatikvah. Hatikvah is the national anthem of Israel, adapted from a poem written 70 years before the founding of the State by Naftali Herz Imber, a Galitzianer Zionist. It is a nine-stanza poem with a recurring chorus that begins "od lo avda tikvateinu," "our hope is not yet lost." Each of the nine stanzas expresses a yearning for something lost the land, the Jordan River, the Western Wall, the graves of our ancestors and proclaims in the end that only with the loss of the very last Jew would our hope be lost.

Neither poet influenced the vocabulary of the prayer book, which predates them both by hundreds of years. But the difference between Dickinson and Imber illustrates the difference between the popular understanding of hope and the Hebrew understanding. For English-speakers, hope is something somehow romantic and ephemeral the thing with feathers that resides in a soul that somehow, irrationally and against all expectations, continues to expect the unexpected. For Hebrew speakers, hope is something far more tangible and dependable. It involves a completely rational expectation that what has been promised our land, our holy city, our independence will be delivered to us or, perhaps more accurately, that we will be delivered to it.

Indeed, another meaning of the root of "kivinu" is "await." We proclaim that we hope in God. We proclaim that we are waiting for God. Our hope is not something vague and fragile, but something definitive and solid, a collection of pieces we are reassembling, a fulfillment not of wishes but of assurances.

Dickinson insisted that the little bird held on tightly even in a storm and sang its song about the tumult. But Imber insisted that hope coursed through the veins and flowed with the tears of every Jew, an inherent and integrated part of being a member of the People Israel. Whether homeland, God or redemption, the hope will never disappear.

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