One of the greatest Jewish contributions to the civilisation of the West is the idea of hope. Not all cultures give rise to hope. To the contrary: at the heart of many cultures is the idea that time is cyclical. What has been, will be. History is a set of eternal recurrences. Nothing ever really changes. Life is tragic. One of the classic expressions of this is contained in the book of Ecclesiastes:
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes, though, is a dissident voice within Tanakh. For the most part, the Hebrew Bible expresses a quite different view: that there can be change in the affairs of humankind. We are summoned to the long journey at whose end is redemption and the messianic age. Judaism is the principled rejection of tragedy in the name of hope.
The sociologist Peter Berger calls hope a 'signal of transcendence', a point at which something beyond penetrates into the human situation. There is nothing inevitable or even rational about hope. It cannot be inferred from any facts about the past or present. Many cultures, from ancient Greece to the present day, have held that hope is an illusion, a childish fantasy, and that a mature response to our place in the universe is to accept its fundamentally tragic nature and to cultivate the stoic virtue of acceptance. Judaism argues otherwise: that the universe is not deaf to our prayers, blind to our aspirations. We are not wrong to strive to perfect the world, refusing to accept the inevitability of suffering and injustice.
Nowhere is this more strikingly in evidence than in this week's sedra. The 26th chapter of Leviticus is one of the most frightening in all literature: the tokhahah, the curses attendant on Israel's disobedience to its divine mission. In graphic prose, we read a preview of history gone wrong. Israel will experience defeat and disaster. It will lose its freedom and its land. The people will go into exile and will suffer terrible persecutions. It is our custom to read this passage sotto voce, in an undertone. It is hard to imagine any nation undergoing such catastrophe and live to tell the tale, let alone to survive. Yet the passage does not end there. At its climax is one of the great consolations in the Bible:
I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land . . . They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees. Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the Lord their G-d. But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their G-d. I am the Lord.
Israel may suffer, but it will never die. It may experience exile, but one day it will return. It may undergo the most terrible persecution, but it will never have reason to despair. The placement of this prophecy at the culmination of the curses is one of the most fateful of all biblical assertions. No fate is so bleak as to murder hope itself. No defeat is final, no exile endless, no tragedy the last word of the story.
There is an echo of this in the great vision of Ezekiel. The prophet sees a valley of dry bones which gradually come together, take on flesh and live again:
Then he said to me: 'Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, "Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost [avdah tikvatenu]; we are cut off." Therefore prophesy and say to them: "This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel . . ."'
Nothing in all of literature so graphically describes the fate of the Jewish people between the Holocaust and the rebirth, in 1948, of the State of Israel. Almost prophetically, Naftali Herz Imber alluded to this text in his words for the song that eventually became Israel's national anthem. He wrote: od lo avdah tikvatenu, 'our hope is not yet lost.' Not by accident is Israel's anthem called Hatikvah, 'the hope'.
Where does hope come from? Berger sees it as a constitutive part of our humanity:
Human existence is always oriented toward the future. Man exists by constantly extending his being into the future, both in his consciousness and in his activity . . . An essential dimension of this 'futurity' of man is hope. It is through hope that men overcome the difficulties of any given here and now. And it is through hope that men find meaning in the face of extreme suffering. (Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels, pp. 68-69)
Only hope empowers us to take risks, engage in long-term projects, marry and have children, and refuse to capitulate in the face of despair:
There seems to be a death-refusing hope at the very core of our humanitas. While empirical reason indicates that this hope is an illusion, there is something in us that, however shamefacedly in an age of triumphant rationality, goes on saying 'no!' and even says 'no!' to the ever so plausible explanations of empirical reason. In a world where man is surrounded by death on all sides, he continues to be a being who says 'no!' to death - and through this 'no!' is brought to faith in another world, the reality of which would validate his hope as something other than illusion. (A Rumor of Angels, p. 72)
I am less sure than Berger that hope is universal. It emerges as part of the emotional vocabulary of Western civilization through a quite specific set of beliefs: that G-d exists, that He cares about us, that He has made a covenant with humanity and a further covenant with the people He chose to be a living example of faith. That covenant shapes our reading of history. G-d has given his word, and He will never break it, however much we may break our side of the promise. Without these beliefs, and we would have no reason to hope at all.
History, as conceived in this week's sedra, is not utopian. Faith does not blind us to the apparent randomness of circumstance, the cruelty of fortune, the seeming injustices of fate. No one, reading Leviticus 26, can be an optimist. Yet no one sensitive to its message can abandon hope. Without this, Jews and Judaism would not have survived. Without belief in the covenant - and its insistence Yet in spite of this - there would be no State of Israel, nor any significant Jewish history after the Holocaust. Jews kept hope alive. Hope kept the Jewish people alive.
Holocaust Memorial Day, Cardiff, January 2006
As we turn from past to future, knowing the worst, yet lifted by the best, let us never give way to a sense of powerlessness, of problems too great to solve and hatreds too deep to cure. Our sages said: One life is like a world. Change a life and you begin to change the world, the only way the world can be changed, one day at a time, one act at a time. Robert Kennedy once said –
‘Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’
That is how we fight the politics of despair; and fight it, we must. The sense of powerlessness is all too easily manipulated by those hungry for power. Fear can be turned into anger, rage, violence, terror, xenophobia, and paranoia; or it can become capitulation and cowardice, defeatism and appeasement. When Franklin D. Roosevelt said – ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ – he was speaking a truth that still speaks to us.
The only antidote to fear is responsibility: the refusal to believe that there is nothing we can do; the decision never to take refuge in blaming others, making them scapegoats for our frustrations and fears. It is easy to complain: to say it’s someone else’s fault. Courage is born the moment we decide not to complain but instead to make a personal protest against the evils of the world by doing good, however small. An ethic of responsibility yields people of astonishing resilience –able to survive any setback, and face any future without fear. ‘A little light’ said the Jewish mystics, ‘drives away much darkness’.
I make no claims to wisdom, but this I have learned, from survivors of the Holocaust, and from the quiet heroes I have met:
* that each of us is here for a purpose;
* that finding that purpose takes time and honesty, knowledge of ourselves and of the world;
* that where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be;
* that even the smallest good deed can change someone’s life; and rare are the days when we can’t make some difference to someone else.
* that it is not the honours we receive that matter, but the honour we give;
* that what counts is not how much we have , but how much of what we have, we share;
* that those who spend at least part of their lives in service to others are the most fulfilled and happiest people;
* that there is no greater gift we can give our children that to let them see us sacrifice something for the sake of an ideal;
* that moral health is no less important to the quality of life than physical health;
* that a word of praise can give meaning to someone’s life;
* that in putting others down, we diminish ourselves; lifting others, we lift ourselves.
* that virtue does not have to be conspicuous to win respect;
* that the best do good without thought of reward;
* that it is not the most wealthy or powerful or successful or self-important who make the greatest difference or engender love;
* that the people who are most missed are those that bring hope into our lives;
* that the ability to give to others is itself a gift;
* and that we can make a difference, and it is only by making a difference that we redeem a life, lifting it from mere existence and endowing it with glory