Ha-Tikvah – The Hope: For Israel and Palestine Finding Hope
The sun has set on the old year. It is past. It is over. Of course, the point at which the year changes is essentially arbitrary. But then, is midnight in the midst of winter any more logical than sunset in the middle of the moon year? Rosh Ha-Shanah, as its name suggests is the ‘head’ – rosh – of the year, the high point. From the spring month of Nissan, the months ascend, month by month, and then on the first day of the seventh month, on Rosh Ha-Shanah, the year turns down towards autumn and winter. So, like January 1st, Tishri 1st is the date when the Jewish year changes – the marker and threshold between past and future. We have no choice but to cross the threshold, but we do have a choice about how we make the crossing.
Are we travelling light, or do we carry the old year on our backs? Are we looking ahead in eager anticipation, or are we dragging our feet and stumbling, as we look behind us? Do we long for renewal, but feel overwhelmed by the weight we are carrying and cannot put it down – yet? Do we feel out of sync with the New Year, which has simply arrived at the wrong time for us?
Fortunately, the Jewish New Year is not a one-minute wonder. Unlike the chimes at midnight on December 31st, the birth of the Jewish New Year is a process that takes ten days to complete. That process begins this evening, but will not end until the ‘gates of mercy’ close at the end of Yom Kippur. And so, we have time to make the necessary adjustments. Time to reflect on the past year, on our experiences and losses, on what we have done what we failed to do. We have time to consider the baggage we are carrying; what we want to bring with us into the New Year and what we want to leave behind. We have time to reconcile ourselves to the challenge that wherever we are in our lives, however entangled and stuck we feel, time passes; we may not feel that we are moving but we are carried forward, nonetheless, day by day…
But, of course, there is also a sense of urgency. Ten days is more than ten seconds, but it is still a finite period of time and we have work to do: we are challenged to wrestle with the past year and wrest meaning from it for own lives; we are challenged to wrestle with ourselves; we are challenged to attempt to repair and restore broken relationships. We are challenged: full stop. And the biggest challenge we face is to acknowledge that a New Year lies ahead of us – and we don’t know what it will bring.
We face the unknown. We long for certainty, but we face uncertainty. We long for security, but are forced to live with insecurity. In 1977, the Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote and presented a BBC television series, entitled, The Age of Uncertainty – which he also published as a book. Surveying the history of economic thought from Adam Smith to the present day, Galbraith identified a shift from 19th century certainties to 20th century uncertainty. Insecurity is a direct outcome of uncertainty. In their book, The Age of Insecurity, published in 1998 (Verso), Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson argue that governments should redirect their rapidly developing surveillance technology away from the citizen and onto a financial system that is increasingly out-of-control. There is no doubt that the state of the economy is a major source of uncertainty and insecurity for tens of thousands of people, who have lost their jobs and cannot find new employment – and also for those who are in work, but do not know and cannot trust that the prospects for the economy will become more stable.
The twists and turns of Britain’s economic fortunes is just one facet – albeit of major importance – of the multi-various sources of uncertainty and insecurity we face every day – which include, of course, our disquiet about climate change and the threat of possible/probable (?) ecological disaster. And then, of course, there are the twists and turns in our own lives; our concerns for our own health and the health of our loved ones; our worries about parents or children; our personal anxieties about the future, which are often diffuse and difficult to name simply because they are provoked by our anguish about being in a state of un-knowing.
We live in a perpetual state of unknowing. In 1951, Alan Watts, a British-born philosopher, who studied Zen Buddhism, then moved to the United States in 1938 where he became an Episcopal priest, and subsequently left Ministry in 1950, published a ground-breaking book, which encapsulated all that he had learnt on his personal spiritual journey. Entitled, The Wisdom of Insecurity, Watts’ basic message was that there is no such thing as safety and security and that the more we insist on being safe and secure, the more unsafe and insecure we feel. He also taught that there is no reality except the present. Drawing on his training in eastern philosophy, for the most part Watts was addressing a Western audience – and the individual, angst-ridden soul. Are Jewish individuals more anxious and insecure than other non-Jewish individuals? Our history of persecution and churban – destruction – and of being driven from place to place, might explain why it feels as if there are high levels of anxiety and anguish within the Jewish community. Certainly, a high proportion of psychotherapists are Jewish – and the ‘father’ of psychoanalysis himself, Sigmund Freud, was a Jew and the patients he treated, who informed his theories were middle-class Viennese Jews like himself.
By saying this, of course, there is a danger of rehearsing the Woody Allen stereotype about Jewish people. But then, there is the counter image of the Jew: the one who hopes against hope and is ever hopeful of a better future – which explains the high proportion of Jews involved in social justice movements that challenge oppression and work for a more equitable and compassionate society. Watts would not have approved of this flight from insecurity into hope. But then Watts wasn’t Jewish.
In my sermon tomorrow morning, I will say more about the role of ‘Hope’ in Jewish teaching and the implications for Jewish life. This evening, I want to focus on our experience as individuals. Some of us will embrace ‘the wisdom of insecurity.’ Some of us, aware that insecurity is our existential condition, would nevertheless, like to find a way of looking forward hopefully and not fearfully. So, how do we face the future with hope?
Since I chose, ‘Tikvah’, ‘Hope’, as my middle name, I would like to take the opportunity of explaining why because I think that my reasons help us towards an answer to that question. I’m a person, who straddles the anxiety/hope continuum – right in the middle. To be honest, it often feels more like a see-saw! Affected deeply by social injustice as a teenager – particularly, by racism – I coped with my feelings of anguish by engaging with and supporting anti-racist struggles; finding inspiration in the charismatic individuals who personified those struggles: in particular, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and the leaders of the Black Power movement in the United States, and Nelson Mandela and Ruth First and the leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. In other words, I translated my anguish into hope. When I began to take the struggle closer to home, as a woman and as an emerging lesbian, and began to acknowledge my own experiences of persecution, I realised that the only way through was to hope. For me, hope was not an ‘airy-fairy’ notion; it was a source of real nourishment, like water to one fainting with thirst, and food to a starving person. Hope gave me courage and determination, and most important: strength for the fight and vision to see the present trials would be overcome in the not-too-distant future if I did what I could to overcome them. That is why, fifteen years ago, shortly after I had experienced a big setback in my quest for equality and inclusion, I adopted Tikvah – ‘Hope’ – as my middle name. I was down – but I was not out. My new name spurred me on to continue the struggle.
So, how do we face the future with hope? By summoning up our personal resources of hope, developing a vision of the future that inspires us, and committing ourselves to working for the realisation of that vision. Hope is elusive. Hope cannot be bought or caught. But we do have the capacity for hope. Tiny cells of hope lie dormant in the broken chambers of our hearts. Even when we feel hopeless and despairing – indeed, especially, when we feel hopeless and despairing – those tiny cells of hope seek one another out, jostling and encouraging one another and sparking one another into life. Hope is not beyond us; it is within us: we can generate hope. Indeed, the hope for a better future for all of us begins with the hope each one of us can muster in our own hearts. As David Rokeach puts it in his poem about hope:
Desolation will not leave the desert,
Until it leaves the heart.
Perhaps that sounds a bit daunting. Perhaps, lost in our anguish, anxiety and insecurity, we don’t feel we have the ko’ach, the strength to summon up hope. Maybe, that is why we are here – why we have gathered together as a congregation on Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah: to generate a spirit of hope together and to feel strengthened and encouraged and supported by one another, as we journey into the unknown. In his lecture, ‘Age of Insecurity’, delivered on March 23rd 2013, Homi K. Bhabha, asked the question: ‘How do we derive an ethic and an aesthetic of neighborliness that articulates a sense of solidarity and security in the very midst of our own Age of (In)Security? This congregation and thousands of congregations like it around the world are answers to that question. Jewish teaching provides us with a rich resource for developing an ethic and an aesthetic of neighbourliness, and congregational life creates the context for putting that ethic and aesthetic into practice. Existentially, each one of us is alone – with our anguish, our anxieties and fears – but we also enjoy the gift of community. Just as the stray cells of hope in our broken hearts find one another, so we connect together: nourishing and nurturing hope between us. That is why it is so important that each one of us recognises the responsibility we bear for maintaining and developing the gift of community that we share. Our lives, with their successes and failures, hopes and disappointments are not just about us: we find meaning for our lives in our relationships with one another. Let us generate hope and a vision of tomorrow together.
Before concluding my reflections this evening, I would like to share with you some verses from a poem by Carol Backman, entitled, ‘Hope’, which addresses each one of us.
There are times when each of us is sick with the world
And life ways upon us like a heavy boulder
We cannot imagine any good or happy thought
We sink further and deeper into the pit of our despair.
There are times when each of us feels sorely hurt
The very thing we loved the most has been taken away
We feel empty, we feel alone, we are afraid.
There are times when all justice has fled
We have been wronged, cheated, unfairly beaten down
How could life deal such iniquities?
Why must our burdens be so severe?
These are moments all human beings share
When their hearts sink and their minds entertain the worst
Fears assail us all
We tremble and shake at problems facing us.
At these times a little voice from within us rouses us
Often waiting until we reach the very brink of despair
It tells us that we can indeed prevail
At first in nothing more than a whisper.
This little voice abiding in each of us is – hope
It is not logical or even reasonable
It is our heart telling our head that we cannot surrender
For to give in to the trials of life is to let them win over us.
From a whisper hope grows slowly
First in a moderate tone and finally to a roar
It supersedes fear, sorrow, and even despair
It gives us the courage to try again.
“Pick yourself up,” it demands
“Can’t you see that tomorrow has better things in store.”
And we begin to believe in ourselves, and we arise
To meet tomorrow a little stronger and more prepared.
Hope abides in each of us
Giving us the energy to survive
“Life is very good,” it assures us
“Carry on with your work, and you will be blessed.”
‘Hope abides in each of us.’ May each one of us discover that truth as we cross the threshold into the New Year and make a new beginning. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah 5774 – 4th September 2013
 The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (Vintage, 1951).
 Translated by Rabbi Chaim Stern and included in High and Holy Days. A Book of Jewish Wisdom edited by Rabbi Andrew Goldstein and Rabbi Charles Middleburgh. Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2010, p. 15.
 From Covenant of the Heart – Prayers, Poems and Meditations from the Women of Reform Judaism. National Federation of Temple sisterhood is, USA, 1993. Quoted in High and Holy Days. A Book of Jewish Wisdom, pp.16-17.