Believe in the Impossible – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783

September 25, 2022 – 1 Tishrei 5783

Congregation Bet Ha’am

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

It wasn’t until 2013 that recordings made by Molly Drake became public. Her son, Nick Drake, had been an acoustic guitarist. After his death by suicide in 1974, his music grew in popularity and in recent years, as other artists shared his influence on their music, fans sought more from Drake, leading the family’s estate to release an album of Molly’s music, as well. One of her songs, I Remember, played behind the closing credits of an episode in the most recent season of Ted Lasso.

The song recounts memories of two lovers’ time together. The singer remembers each moment fondly and notes how her partner saw things differently.

            We tramped the open moorland in the rainy April weather

            And came upon the little inn that we had found together

            The landlord gave us toast and tea and stopped to share a joke

            And I remember firelight, I remember firelight, I remember firelight

            And you remember smoke

            We ran about the meadow grass with all the harebells bending

            And shaking in the summer wind a summer never-ending

            We wandered to the little stream among the river flats

            And I remember willow trees, I remember willow trees, I remember willow trees

            And you remember gnats

            We strolled the Spanish marketplace at 90 in the shade

            With all the fruit and vegetables so temptingly arrayed

            And we can share a memory as every lover must

            And I remember oranges, I remember oranges, I remember oranges,

            And you remember dust[1]

Late in the Joseph narrative, when Joseph has already been placed as Pharaoh’s righthand man, but when his family is still unaware that he is even alive, let alone viceroy of Egypt, Joseph’s father Jacob learns that there is food in Egypt as a famine impacts the rest of the region. In sharing this news with his sons, the word that Jacob uses for food is שֶׁבֶר (shever).[2] שֶׁבֶר can also mean calamity. But in the midrash in Genesis Rabbah (91:1), we get a glimpse into why, in the midst of this famine, Jacob sees food and not misfortune. The nuance is in another word that shares its spelling with שֶׁבֶר. With a move of a dot and a swap of a vowel, שֶׁבֶר becomes שֵׂבֶר (seiver), hope. Having hope is what allows Jacob to see what is still possible in spite of what lies before him.

One of my favorite teachings on hope is attributed to Maimonides. Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible, as opposed to the necessity of the probable. To have hope, we have to have the right perspective. Do we choose to see firelight, willow trees, and oranges, or smoke, gnats, and dust? Ahad Ha-Am, the renowned essayist and founder of cultural Zionism wrote in 1904:

Israel has never lived in the present. The present, with its evil and its wickedness, has always filled us with anguish, indignation, and bitterness. But just as constantly have we been inspired with brilliant hopes for the future, and an ineradicable faith in the coming of triumph of the good and the right; and for these hopes and that faith we have always found support in the history of our past, whereon our imagination has brooded, weaving all manner of fair dreams, so as to make the past a kind of mirror of the future. Our very Hebrew language, the garment of the Jewish spirit, has no present tense, but only a past and a future. The question has been much debated whether the fundamental characteristic of the Jewish spirit is optimism or pessimism; and extreme views have been propounded on both sides. But all such discussion is futile. The Jew is both optimist and pessimist; but his pessimism has reference to the present, his optimism to the future.

What we think of others and the world around us is rooted in our capacity to hope. If we believe that people are generally decent, then we can have hope that we can right the world’s wrongs. “Our ability to envision a better world, our willingness to trust in others enough to help us build it, and our conviction that our efforts may bear fruit [indicates] our capacity to hope.”[3] In A Meditation on Hope, Elie Wiesel writes, “Created in the image of [God] who has no image, it is incumbent upon… [humanity] to invoke and create hope where there is none.” The sheer fact that humanity is created in God’s image implies inherent goodness in humanity. “The very first thing the Bible says about humanity creates a deep reservoir of hope.”[4]

“From climate change and the erosion of democratic norms to the resurgence of antisemitism and the fight for human rights, one thing is clear:  if despair triumphs over hope, we’ll never overcome the challenges we face. Hope enables us to envision a better future and fuels our commitment to build it.”[5] At the same time, hope and optimism are not one and the same. Where optimism insists ‘it gets better,’ hope demands that we make an effort to shape the future, that we make it better.

Hope is not about probability. In fact, sometimes it is quite the opposite. What we hope for may never happen. And still, being hopeful makes a difference. Being hopeful requires two things of us, that we believe that reality can change and that our actions can help to change it. Is that not the essence of these Days of Awe? Hope shows up in all sorts of situations. In some, it is about our ability to influence a situation, like hoping to do well on a test, which is influenced by own preparation. In others, things are beyond our control, like hoping not to miss a connecting flight. “Sometimes hope is more about how we conduct ourselves in a difficult situation than about whether we can find a way out of it.”[6]

Life’s challenges can push us toward negativity, but our faith reminds us that at any moment, there are more kind acts being performed than hateful ones. Song of Songs, which portrays the relationship of God and Israel as lovers, as husband and wife, contains the verse:  I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had turned away, and was gone. My soul failed when he spoke; I sought him, but I could not find him; I called, but he gave me no answer” (5:6). In Midrash Leket Tov, written in the early 12th century by Tuvia ben Rabbi Eliezer, we read, “Many times the people of Israel opened the door of repentance and they thought they would be redeemed… And the time of redemption receded from them… This is how they cry out in exile and they are not answered… behold, though, Israel hopes in every generation for God’s salvation… Still we are expectant, we wait, we hope.”

It can be hard to choose hope over despair, especially when God’s absence is sometimes palpable in the world’s suffering. David Arnow, in his book Choosing Hope, writes, “[T]exts like these reveal the struggle to hold onto fundamental beliefs that sustain hope—in the trustworthiness of either God or humanity—[which] gives us an entryway to relate to them. We can identify with this author’s refusal to relinquish a particular hope against a wash of experience over the centuries that might well justify despair. Hope versus despair: It’s a test we all face regardless of our beliefs. Texts like this shine a light on how hard our ancestors fought to choose hope.”[7]

Joseph Albo, 15th century Spanish commentator, notes the final verse of Psalm 27, the psalm that thrums through the month of Elul as we approach the High Holy Days. It says, “Hope in the Eternal. Be strong and of good courage. Have hope in the Eternal” (Ps. 27:14). Why does the verse begin and end with hope? Albo writes, “This shows that hope is the cause of strength, and that strength in turn is a cause of more hope.”

Tomorrow morning, we’ll hear the harrowing tale of the Akeidah, the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. It’s a challenging tale that forces us to ask, “What kind of a God would ask that?” but when we look at the Akeidah through the lens of hope, it’s a different text. Psychologist David Arnow, writing for T’ruah, teaches that the Akeidah is a passage of hope. We often translate Genesis 22:2 as, “Take your son… and offer him there as a burnt offering,” but וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה (v’ha’aleihu sham l’olah) could also mean raise him or bring him up to an offering. Midrash HaGadol presents Abraham’s dilemma:  Does God mean Abraham should bring him as a burnt offering or bring him to the place of burnt offerings? How do we know what Abraham thinks? We know by listening to his words. He tells the servants early in the story, “The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you” (Gen. 22:5). Then, when Isaac inquires about the sheep for the offering, Abraham responds, “God will see to the sheep” (Gen. 22:8). “Abraham’s words were a prophesy—a vision of the future he hoped to see.”[8]

This isn’t the only place where we see Biblical protagonists hope in God. In fact, many classical Jewish texts see God as the ultimate source of hope. Still, it would not be unreasonable of us to say that God has not honored the Divine end of the covenantal bargain. Where is the fulfillment of the promise to favor us and bless us? Of course, this is no longer our theology, to wait for God to make things happen. Today, we images of God are tasked with fulfilling our own hopes as God’s agents in the world. So much of the Biblical canon, especially the Prophets, are steeped in hope. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and others share messages of hope to an exiled people, giving them hope in the possibility of return to their land.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope. Every ritual, every command, every syllable of the Jewish story is a protest against escapism, resignation and the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism, the religion of the free God, is a religion of freedom. Jewish faith is written in the future tense. It is belief in a future that is not yet but could be, if we heed God’s call, obey [God’s] will and act together as a covenantal community. The name of the Jewish future is hope.”[9]

May you have a happy, healthy, and sweet new year. Shanah tovah.


[1] Molly Drake, I Remember, Molly Drake, Squirrel Things Recordings, March 2013, https://youtu.be/ZYo2ryZ3wUs.

[2] Genesis 42:1.

[3] David Arnow, Foundations of Hope, https://davidarnowauthor.com/, January 2022, p. 1.

[4] Arnow, Foundations of Hope, p. 1.

[5] David Arnow, Facing Our Trials with Hope:  Abraham and the Akedah, A D’var Torah for Rosh Hashanah, (M)oral Torah from T’ruah, 2022.

[6] David Arnow, What is Hope?, https://davidarnowauthor.com/, January 2022.

[7] David Arnow, Choosing Hope, Jewish Publication Society, 2022, p. 214.

[8] Arnow, Facing Our Trials with Hope.

[9] Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense:  Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-first Century (New York:  Knopf Doubleday, 2009), 249-250 Kindle.

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