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, inspired by 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 too relevant.
Mi vamayim – Who by water: victims of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, of the tsunamis of Thailand and Japan
Mi va’ra’av – Who by hunger: more than a billion people go to sleep hungry every night
Mi va’skila – Who by stoning – the thousands killed on 9/11 as the stones of the Twin Towers came down
Mi va’cherev u’mi va’chaya – Who by sword and who by beast: Americans 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 so, as Yom Kippur approaches, I offer a formula for hope.
The first step: keep hoping. When despair sets in, when all seems bleak, never forget the hope of a better world, of a world at peace, of a world redeemed. Because if we forget the hope, we will be overwhelmed and immobilized by the despair.
One way we can keep hope alive is by recognizing that, just as there are people who do dastardly things – inflicting pain and suffering in the name of hate – there are many more who do 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 Hashanah, 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, and the world feels bleak, don’t forget that a new day will come and the sun will rise again. Let that belief in a new day help you sustain hope for a world that feels bright again.
There is a second step: hope begins with belief in oneself. We often see the world the way we see ourselves. So, if the world feels hopeless, it might be that what we see is simply the mirror image of the hopelessness we feel within ourselves.
To change this image, we need to dig deep – to seek our inner spiritual reservoirs, to find the embers within us ready to be lit. This is not easy. In my pastoral counseling, I find that people often have poor images of themselves, that it takes hard work for them 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. Psychologists talk about the phenomenon of neuronal pathways of the brain firing in both directions – from the brain to the smile and from even the forced smile to the brain.
Eight hundred years ago, the Sefer Hachinuch made this very point: acharei hapeulot nimshachim ha levavot – actions shape character, they shape the heart.
This is one of the basic messages of the Book of Jonah that we read Yom Kippur afternoon. Yonah means dove, the bird of peace, symbol of the Jewish people.
God tells Yonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, Israel’s archenemy. 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 Yonah, and inspire them to repent.
Instead, Yonah runs in the opposite direction. He runs in part because he believes there is no chance that Nineveh will repent – they are hopeless.
Soon, he is in the bowels of a ship, and then 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, preaching hope, and in time Nineveh repents.
And the third step: hope requires trust in others. 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 Israeli boys Gilad, 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 they 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 Gilad Sha’ar’s funeral, the right wing 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. The funeral of Max Steinberg, the American lone soldier killed in the fighting, was attended by 30,000 people – and in their attendance Max became a soldier of all of Israel. At the service, his closest Israeli buddy spoke of Max’s difficulty with the Hebrew language, and how whenever they parted Max would say, “ani ohev otcha achi,” to which Max’s Israeli friend would respond in Hebrew-accented English, “Love you, bro.” Two young men, from two different countries speaking two different languages, forged a friendship based on a single hope for a better Israel – a hope that will forever endure.
Consider the prophetic passages 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 tikvah 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 prayer. After citing the pessimism of “who by water, by famine, by stoning, by sword” – the liturgy offers the response, declaring: u’teshuva, u’tefillah, u’tzedaka.
Teshuva is the space between what should be and what is. The “should” is the hope that must always be kept alive. Keep hoping.
Tefillah is self-judgment. This can only be favorable if it includes a hope that comes from within. Hope begins with belief in oneself.
Tzedaka is the belief that others also hope for a world of tzedek, of justice and righteousness. Hope requires trust in others.
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 (challenge) today is to turn darkness to light and hopelessness into hope, converting “Who by famine, stoning, and sword” into songs praising God – Hallelujah.