Applied Hope

Rachel’s Tomb is a challenging place to visit.  Protected behind slabs of concrete and barbed wire on the outskirts of Bethlehem, it remains accessible for ongoing worship and learning.  Our ADL Counterterrorism mission was brought to the site by the Deputy Commander of the nearby Security Terminal through which more than 7,000 Palestinians travel to and from Jerusalem each day.

We were greeted warmly by worshipers inside.  It had been 35 years since I had visited the site.  For all of the sadness that requires the grounds to be securely entombed, there was a quiet serenity within the area that took me by surprise.  Visitors approached and withdrew with reverence and good spirits. 

The metamorphosis of the biblical Rachel resonated.  Rachel is a matriarch who is never satisfied.  Enjoying the love of her husband, she can’t go on living without bearing children.  When she does conceive and bear a son, she names him Joseph (meaning ‘to add’) hoping for an additional child.  After delivering a second son (Benjamin), she dies ‘on the way’ (ba-derech) en route to some unrealized destination.  Her death feels tragic.  Centuries later the prophet Jeremiah transforms Rachel into an agent of promise-fulfillment and hope (Ch. 31).  Her inconsolable weeping as her descendants wander into exile earns a promise of their eventual return and of a nation reborn.

More is at stake here than the identity of Rachel.  Her shift from a woman of limits and tragedy, to the embodiment of empowerment and hope points to something much larger – the move away from Greek notions of myth and fate toward Judaism’s focus upon accountability and possibility.  The difference between these world views is at the heart of Hanukkah.  Hanukkah remembers the contest between Judaism and Hellenism. The Maccabees preferred the God of Abraham to the God of Aristotle – a God who calls rather than a God recalled.  Hanukkah captures Judaism’s principled rejection of tragedy in the name of applied hope.  Applied hope expects our actions to make hope look credible.

Applied hope is different than optimism.  Optimists and pessimists are both fatalists.  Each believes that things will turn out a certain way.  By contrast, being an agent of applied hope makes an unpredictable future available. 

Thanking our delegation, the Deputy Commander prepared to put on his protective gear. Several hundred protestors on the Bethlehem side of the security barrier were beginning to riot in opposition to the US President’s statement concerning Jerusalem’s identity. 

As we prepare for Hanukkah’s next night, we cling to the hope that a challenging present need not determine a destiny of tragedy.  And may Rachel’s transformation inspire ours.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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