Prisoners of hope

The world in which we live is an uncertain one. We face economic problems that seem unsolvable. How will we ever overcome the divides and the tides of hatred that plague the people in our lands?

September 9, 2011 15:09
3 minute read.
Hope in Jerusalem

Hope in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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A few weeks ago, we visited the very fine Jewish Museum in Sydney, Australia, and had the privilege of listening to a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor describe movingly and vividly his experiences during the war. He spoke to us for nearly half an hour, explaining how he’d managed to survive for three years in slave labor camps, Buchenwald and two death marches, and finally to escape just before the war was over and become once more a free man.

He summed up the secret of his survival in one brief sentence, which he repeated often: “I never gave up hope.” There were many who could not help but succumb to despair – who could blame them? – and perished. No matter what happened, though, this man always believed he would survive, and therefore he did everything he could, taking all measures possible under the circumstances to increase his chances of survival. Never to despair, always to hope. It cannot have been easy, but survive he did.

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Hope may indeed be the key to Jewish survival. The prophet Zechariah coined an interesting phrase: We are, he said, “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12). The anthem of Israel is “Hatikva” – “The Hope.” It must have taken a great deal of strength to keep alive the hope of survival and redemption during the many times of darkness in Jewish history, ancient and modern.

The struggle for Soviet Jewry, for example, must have seemed all but impossible. Could one really hope to overcome the all-powerful Soviet empire and obtain freedom for Jews? I remember visiting there in the darkest days of Soviet oppression in the 1970s and being overawed by the optimism shown by refuseniks, some of whom had been waiting for five or 10 years for the right to leave. Yet their hope was eventually realized. The Evil Empire collapsed, and they prevailed.

Hope is also the theme of Psalm 27, which is recited daily from the beginning of Elul through the High Holy Day season. The psalmist is deeply troubled. He is beset by enemies who would destroy him. At times he feels that God has hidden Himself and abandoned him. Yet he concludes the psalm by saying, “If I did not believe that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living....” He could not survive without that belief. And then he says to himself “Hope in the Lord. Be strong and strengthen your heart and hope in the Lord!” The selection of that psalm was a deliberate message to each of us in this season, as we face an unknown future, never to despair, never to give up. There is always hope.

The world in which we live is an uncertain one. We face economic problems that seem unsolvable. We face political problems that often cause us to despair. How will we ever overcome the divides and the tides of hatred that plague the people in our lands? In Israel we seem to be at a low point in our history, unable to move forward toward peace, facing terrorist groups that have established a base in Gaza and feel free to attack us with weapons ranging from knives and guns to sophisticated rockets. We also have internal problems that cause many of us to question if we are not in danger of losing sight of the values of human rights, freedom of speech and action, and democratic values that are the essence of Israeli life.

Yet the message of that Holocaust survivor, the message of the psalm, should not be forgotten. Never give up hope. The world is full of surprises, as we have seen in the demise of Arab dictators this year.

Sometimes when things seem darkest, the light appears. But hope alone is not enough. As my survivor friend said, because he had hope, he took whatever steps were possible to assure his survival. It is a hope that leads to action, not to stagnation; a hope that enables us to survive at times of darkness and despair and that leads to the attainment of freedom, peace and social justice. Indeed, “Hope in the Lord. Be strong and strengthen your heart and hope in the Lord.”

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. His latest book is Entering Torah.

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