And who by fire, who by water, Who in the sunshine, who in the night time, Who by high ordeal, who by common trial, Who in your merry, merry month of May, Who by very slow decay, And who shall I say is calling? So sings Leonard Cohen basing himself on the Unetaneh Tokef liturgy.
There was a time when the words of this liturgy seemed out of touch with contemporary times – now they are all relevant.
Mi vamayim – Who by water: Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Sandy.
Mi vara’av – Who by hunger: more than a billion people go to sleep hungry every night.
Mi vaskila – Who by stoning – thousands were killed on 9/11 as the Twin Towers came down.
Mi vacherev u’mi vachaya – Who by sword and who by beast: I’m thinking of James Foley and Steve Sotloff, beheaded by humans who acted like beasts.
The world around us seems dark, lonely, sad. My sense is that many people have lost hope. And that’s what I’d like to talk about this Yom Kippur. I’d like to talk about a formula for hope.
The first step is: Keep the dream alive. When despair sets in, when all seems bleak, never forget the dream of a better world, of a world at peace, of a world redeemed. Because if we forget the dream, we will be overwhelmed and immobilized by the despair.
One way we can keep the dream alive is by recognizing that just as there are people who do the most dastardly things – hate and murder – there are many more who do the most heroic things, giving, caring and loving without bounds. As the rabbis say: “Let love which defies the rule overwhelm hate which defies the rule.”
The Talmud teaches that on Rosh Hashana, the day when Adam was created, the sun began to set. Adam became frightened and said, “Woe unto me, the world is turning to darkness and soon will become void and desolate... But then he saw the dawn rise and said, ‘Kach minhago shel olam’ – ‘This is the way of the world.’” (Avodah Zara 8a) Kach minhago shel olam – this is the way of the world – when the sun is setting, never forget that a day will come when the sun will rise, keeping the dream alive.
There is a second step: Hope begins with belief in oneself. We often see the world the way we see ourselves. If the world feels hopeless, it mirrors the hopelessness we feel within ourselves.
What is necessary is to dig deep, to seek out and find our inner spiritual reservoirs which are right there within us, embers ready to be lit. This is not simple. In my pastoral counseling I find that people have poor images of themselves and have to work hard to recognize their inner value, their inner goodness and godliness.
Even if one can’t feel hope, one can act hopefully. From the action, feelings can emerge. As the Sefer Hachinuch (“Book of Education”) says, Acharei hapeulot nimshachim halevavot – Actions shape character, they shape the heart.
This is one of the basic messages of the Book of Jonah which we read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Yonah means dove, the bird of peace, symbol of the Jewish people.
God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, Israel’s arch-enemy.
More deeply, Nineveh is a composite of nin-yah – a grandchild of God, as even the citizens of Nineveh were children of the Lord. Go to Nineveh, God tells Jonah, and inspire them to repent.
Jonah runs 180 degrees in the other direction. He runs in part because he believes there is no chance that those in Nineveh will repent – they are hopeless.
Soon, he is in the bowels of a ship, and then in the belly of the whale. He has moved inward, into himself. Then he realizes a simple but profound message: Hope begins from within. Hope in self yields hope for the larger world.
He is spewed out of the water onto dry land, like being born from a mother’s womb. He prophesizes, preaches hope, and Nineveh repents.
There is a final step: Hope requires trust in our fellow person. Very few of us are Jonahs. Seldom can one succeed alone. What is required is the realization that others hope as well – and together as a “community of hope” we can overcome.
When the three boys, Gil-Ad, Eyal and Naftali, were kidnapped this summer, bitter darkness blanketed Israel.
But as the prophet says, “From bitterness, sweetness can come.”
This is what occurred here. Am Yisrael came together from across the political and religious spectrum, first searching for the boys, then crying with the families after their corpses were found. We were brought together by tragedy. But slowly the tragedy transformed into a unified purpose – a hope for a stronger Israel and a better tomorrow.
When Yair Lapid, head of a left-wing party, spoke at Gil-Ad Shear’s funeral, the right was respectful. And when Racheli Fraenkel rose to say kaddish, the haredi rabbis listened intently.
This unity spilled over to Operation Protective Edge. Not since the Yom Kippur War has Israel been as united.
At the funeral of Max Steinberg, the American lone soldier, 30,000 people showed up. Max was not a lone soldier, he had become a soldier of all of Israel. His closest Israeli buddy spoke of Max’s difficulty with the Hebrew language. Whenever they would part, Max would say, “Ani ohev otcha, achi,” and Max’s Israeli soldier friend would respond in Hebrew-accented English, “Love you, bro.” They struggled with each other’s language but forged a friendship based on a hope for a better Israel – a hope that will forever endure.
Isn’t this the prophetic passages read on the High Holy Days of mother Rachel crying for her children – descendants of Joseph, who comprised the northern kingdom and had been exiled? Rachel mevaka al baneiha me’ana lehinachem – She cries and refuses to be comforted.
God responds Min’i kolech mi’bechi – Hold back your tears, Rachel.
And then, the Hebrew word for hope: Yesh tikva leacharitech – There is hope for the future. Your children from the North will one day reunite with the children from the South – ve’shavu vanim ligvulam. United with hope, Am Yisrael will prevail.
This three-step formula is spelled out in the Unetaneh Tokef. After recording the pessimism of who by water, by famine, by stoning, by sword, the liturgy offers the response declaring u’teshuva, u’tefillah, u’tzezaka.
Teshuva, repentance, is the space between what should be, and what is.
The “should” is the hope that must always be kept alive.
Tefilla, prayer, is self-judgment that can only be favorable if it includes hope that comes from within.
Tzedaka, charity, is the belief that others too hope for a world of tzedek, of justice and righteousness.
Acharon, acharon chaviv, last, last most beloved, hope is bound with belief in God, who will not allow us to falter. In the words of L’David Hashem, the psalm we recite these days, Kaveh el Hashem hazak v’ametz libecha vekaveh el Hashem – Hope in the Lord.
Be strong, of good courage, and hope in the Lord.
Yes, the tzav hasha’ah, the order of the hour, is to turn darkness to light and hopelessness into hope. Who by famine, stoning and sword, into songs praising God – in the melody of Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah.The writer is an American modern-Orthodox ordained rabbi, author, teacher, lecturer, and activist who heads the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, New York.