Dan Ornstein

Hope Is The Thing With Words

A favorite rabbi joke of mine is the one about the two women who are arguing over whose rabbi is the better clergy person.

The first woman says to her friend, “My rabbi is so brilliant, she can talk about anything for a full hour… with no notes!”

The second woman, unimpressed, scoffs, “So what? My rabbi is so brilliant, he can talk for a full two hours about nothing at all!”

Despite my normal penchant for loquaciousness – I admit that I have been that second rabbi in the joke – I didn’t post my weekly essay at the Times of Israel last week for the first time in more than a year and a half. Last week, I wasn’t particularly busy, so “I was too busy” is no excuse for my failure.

Last week, I was overwhelmed with sadness and anger by the brutal kidnapping of Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal. I reasoned that trying to say anything new would crash land, like the proverbial lead balloon: my words would be mere platitudes that lack real capacity to support these boys’ families or the rest of us in confronting this outrage. I wordsmith partly for a living, but my words failed me and I failed my words.

Last week, I reasoned that it was better to let others more qualified speak the words; better to let these boys’ grieving and aggrieved mothers address the journalists and the world; better to let others write the prayers, to call for us to barge through what the Talmud calls the heavenly gates of tears and flood God’s throne with boiling-water anguish, for all the good it has done so far. Even more than heartfelt, these last two weeks’ conversations throughout the Jewish community about the three boys have been heartbreaking. Yet our political analyses, cultural and moral observations about the kidnapping, many of them certainly deeply insightful, have barely hidden the frustrating sense of despair, disgust and terror we have all felt as Jews, as decent human beings, as parents, siblings and grandparents. As one fraction of a voice in the anguished collective shriek of my fellow Jews, parents and human beings, I reasoned: what could I say in response that would make a difference?

Last week, I reasoned that in the face of this monstrous evil which brutalizes innocent children then cynically justifies the crime as a gesture of political defiance, what could I say in response that would make a difference?

Last week, I also reasoned that in the face of yet more cynical manipulation of Presbyterian Church USA by a ruthlessly anti-Semitic cadre of its leadership who managed to convince a bare majority of their willfully naive co-religionists to demonize Israel, what could I say in response that would make a difference?

Last week, I reasoned that more words and mere words from me would not make a difference.

Last week, I reasoned wrongly, and these are some of the things which brought me back to my senses:

The Bring Back our Boys campaign. It has created instant, virtual Jewish community, which has gone viral with a torrent of words, employing on-line and social media technologies that have too often been the settings for verbal abuse and Jew-On-Jew violence. Will any of it convince Hamas to stop being and doing evil? Not likely. However, it has given me a hopeful glimpse of the Ahavat Yisrael – love for our fellow Jews – of which we Jews are still capable, an all too rare contemporary example of Jewish unity in words.

The frightening prospect that, whatever has happened to them or will happen to them, Gilad, Naftali and Eyal could be swallowed up by the public’s collective amnesia and short attention spans that are exacerbated by lightning fast news cycles. If today’s shocking, urgent story quickly becomes yesterday’s dusty news archive, who will keep outrage and pain over their abduction in the public’s consciousness? How else will we do that as civilized people, if not with words?

Barry Shrage. Barry is the inspirational, phenomenally successful CEO of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. Our local federation brought him in last week to speak with us about communal engagement of young American Jews. The statistics tell us to look forward to a dismal future of escalating assimilation and weakening Jewish identity and loyalty. Barry knows this, but he reminded us that we Jews are a people of faith, not fate. Statistics and news reports only tell us what is, not what has to be. His simple, deeply sincere words reminded me that the Jewish people might always be threatened by enemies from without and within, but we possess the age-old inner power to transcend them and to endure.

We Jews are indeed a people of faith, not of fate. We express that enduring faith in powerful, provocative, purposeful words, and those words in turn strengthen our resolve.

The great American poet, Emily Dickinson once wrote:

Hope is the things with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.

For us, hope is the thing with words. As long as all of us keep writing, whispering, speaking, crying, shouting, bellowing them, we and our hope will not die.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at