At the very beginning of this pandemic, the very first thing that happened in my family is that I broke my toe and probably my foot. I had just heard the news that we would be quarantined for two weeks—which, at the time, was shocking. I leapt out of my chair and ran to check the medicine cabinet to ensure we had enough over the counter toddler meds, and in doing so, I kicked a piece of furniture so hard that I nearly passed out. I’m actually surprised you didn’t hear me screaming.
Purple-footed, I thought then that my metaphorical story of this pandemic would be my broken foot that broke on the day our country broke and healed by the end of the quarantine, a dramatic story of panic, pain, and a process toward wholeness again. A story that embodied HOPE above all.
Two weeks slipped into 8 weeks and finally I could walk again, but as we know now, by then, COVID numbers were surging and people were dying. My tidy little narrative was meaningless. Eight weeks became three months, bled into 5, and now six. In that time, schools closed, our kids struggled with virtual learning, desperately missing their friends, and working parents endured the utterly unsustainable. In that time, George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was murdered with a knee on his neck and protestors took to the streets. In that time, people lost their jobs, some went hungry. Loneliness was so thick we could touch it.
Our community lost beloved members and could not mourn together in person. In that time, we learned of intentional misinformation and deception from our government that cost lives, and a presidential campaign began and was bloody with white supremacy before the nominating conventions were over. In that time, we lost some of our greatest advocates for truth and justice in Representative John Lewis and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Yes, we flattened curves because we love each other and yes, we moved our spiritual community to these screens, refusing to lose the tether between us. But In that time, things seemed to keep breaking, each day harder than the one before it.
I thought the poetry of this virus would rise and fall with a story of breaking and healing, but here we still are, standing in the unknown of COVID, the unknown of an increasingly alarming political moment heading into an already contested election. It is a perfect storm of crises, and the ending is still unwritten.
And I came here to talk with you about hope. Especially on this day that is our new year—we crave it, we need it. But hope is a tricky thing. Our tradition—really, most faith traditions—are full of texts that posit hope or try to instill hope. In our Psalms, we read—“we go to sleep crying, but joy comes in the morning.”[i] We sing “those who sow in tears will reap in joy.”[ii] We learn a midrash of Adam and Eve on their very first day on earth. They are so afraid as the sun goes down. It gets darker and darker and they are terrified, thinking maybe the sun won’t come back. But at the break of dawn, the sun rises again. And they are calmed and relieved and grateful.[iii]
And we want that. That guarantee that the sun will rise again, the darkness will give way to the light, and joy will come in that morning. We want to believe there is an “other side” to this and it’s coming. Soon and almost and just over that hill.
But there’s a problem with that kind of hope. As I sat typing these words, a headline popped up that said: “CDC tells states to prepare for COVID-19 Vaccine by Nov 1” and I felt the familiar rollercoaster of “getting my hopes up” and the impending spiral of deep disappointment when it turns out not to be true. Our desire to believe in the next flicker of light is so strong that it also has the power to break us.
Hope is the thing that lets us take the next step forward when things are at their darkest. What do we do when it seems to slip through our fingers over and over?
I was recently introduced to something called the Stockdale Paradox.[iv] It’s named for Admiral James Stockdale, who was held hostage during the Vietnam War. Having survived horrible conditions for 7.5 long years, not knowing if or how he’d survive, he was asked what gave him the strength to come out on the other side. And he said “I never lost faith in the end of the story.
I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life …” But he continued. When he was asked about those who did not make it out of the camps, he said: “The optimists,”… “they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. He said: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end, which you can never afford to lose, with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
This is the paradox he used to get through the hardest time in his life. “To have faith, but to confront reality.”[v] To name how hard this is. How it sucker-punches us right in the gut over and over. But to believe we will prevail, we will come out of this time. Not to believe with an optimism that can manipulate our emotions but with something more. And this, we might call hope.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches: “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. It takes no courage, he says, to be an optimist, but one does need courage to hope.” “No Jew,” he continues, “knowing what we do of the past, of hatred, bloodshed, persecution in the name of God…can be an optimist. But Jews have never given up hope.”[vi]
We are challenged to be an active participant in our own salvation. It’s not an easy ask, especially in such difficult times. But we have a context for this flavor of hope.
In 70 CE, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Roman army. All of Jewish life happened in that city and that Temple. This catastrophe could have meant the end of the Jewish people. Many died, but one guy, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, fled. He ran to a place called Yavneh and he built there a school. And he and the sages re-imagined Judaism into the religion and people that we know today. Animal sacrifice, which they couldn’t do anymore, became prayer as we know it. They morphed our reliance on holy space, which was gone, into holy time, which we and all of the diaspora know as Shabbat.
Rabbi Yochanan could have very understandably given up. Or he could have said—wait, I’m sure a better day is coming soon! But instead, he looked at the utterly brutal thing he was facing, he grieved deeply all that was lost, and then he chose to take action. And when he was at his lowest, he still believed his actions could make a difference.
It may have been the hardest thing he ever did. It will surely be among the hardest things we ever do.
In many ways, we are facing a Jerusalem that’s breaking. With multiple and intersecting crises of COVID, systemic racism and the rise of White Supremacy and anti-semitism, economic distress and ecological disaster, loss of trust in our government and institutions, and unprecedented challenges in our own homes.
Where are you feeling it most? It’s alright to name our most brutal truths.
A brutal truth in our country is a systemic racism that does massive violence to our Black family and neighbors. Optimism might have us say—ya know, maybe we wanted to believe we were in a post-racial America. We had a Black president—maybe things were just getting better on their own.
But centuries of entrenched inequality don’t just get better. It takes a sustained set of ongoing actions by people committed to dismantling racism. So where is the hope in that? Radical hope is us making a commitment to do that hard work and believing that our work will ultimately bring about an anti-racist society. That would be hope.
A brutal truth is that we are in a terrifying political moment in our fragile democracy. The stakes are so high. Higher now than they were 24 hours ago. Optimism would be to believe that we’ll wake up on November 4th and it will just all turn out okay. This is why optimism is not only enticing, but also dangerous. It abdicates our role in critically important moments. Hope, however, is believing that our actions now can set us on a different course. The single most powerful demonstration of hope today might be helping to make sure that every person has the right and ability to vote in this election – that would be an extraordinary act of hope.
Maybe the brutal truth you’re facing is the pain or loneliness your kids or your parents are going through, or your own broken heart as you sit exhausted in this depleting moment. What does hope look like for you? What actions—even small ones—could you take that you believe might make a difference? Will you choose to laugh more with your friends? Will you seek out nature and break open to its inspiration or a therapist and break open to yourself? Will you make food at a soup kitchen? Call a neighbor who’s suffering? Love bigger and more radically than you ever have before? Because that, too, is the hope of resilience, of resistance, of creating a new world in the midst of the pain of this one.
Today, on Rosh Hashanah, our new year, we pray: Hayom Harat Olam.[vii] This is the day the world is born anew. Can you believe that—today—even on the hardest Rosh Hashanah we’ve seen in some time—we still declare that we have conceived of a new world, a new reality, and it is right now being born! But in this prayer, it’s not a passive birth. We are named as actors in helping it emerge —we ask God to lead us toward chen, acts of grace, toward mishpat, acts of justice, and toward kedushah, acts of holiness that elevate our lives. Our actions will it into existence. It is not easy to birth a new world. It is not easy to participate in our own salvation, when some days, we feel like we’re just getting by.
And yet, as the author, Rebecca Solnit, writes: “We have more to do and doing it is itself a way to assuage despair, misery, fear. Hope, she teaches, matters most when it’s hardest.”[viii] Hope, even now, especially now, essentially now. If we can find the well springs of courage to name how very hard this all is, and to still be able to say out loud to one another that our actions can, might, do, make a difference, if we can count ourselves on each other’s team for what lies ahead—then we have already chosen hope.
That is the joy that comes in the morning. That is the sun that rises again. It’s in us, such that together, in time, we will rise out of these hardest days, we will care for one another in life-giving ways, and we will build something better, light out of darkness.
May the year ahead be gentler on us, be sweeter for us and those we love, truly for all people. May this be a year of true hope. Shanah tovah U’metukah.[ix]
Rabbi Stephanie Kolin
Union Temple of Brooklyn
Rosh Hashanah Morning
[i] Psalm 30:5
[ii] Psalm 126:5
[iii] Avodah Zarah 8a
[iv] I am so grateful to my friend Robin, and her co-author, for writing this brilliant article, from which I am trying to draw deeply in this moment. “What the Stockdale Paradox Tells us About Crisis Leadership,” by Robin Abrahams and Boris Groysberg, Aug 17, 2020. https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/what-the-stockdale-paradox-tells-us-about-crisis-leadership?fbclid=IwAR0I6Et6MBw6PtMWthITnJnQdEIdXozmW0eoth8WJLRfG2Z2g9uPyAbrqTs
[vi] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference
[vii] Traditional Rosh Hashanah liturgy, found in the shofar service
[viii] From her Facebook post on September 12, 2020
[ix] An overall gratitude and acknowledgement: I want to thank Rabbis Joshua Lesser, Michael Adam Latz, Oren Steinitz, Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, and Cantor Cheryl Wunch for their rigorous and generous sharing of ideas and teachings on hope, and Rabbis Dara Frimmer and Asher Knight for their wise and hilarious “chevruting.”