David Walk

Hope Perches in the Soul

We Jews have lived on hope for thousands of years. It is the source of the strength which has kept us going through more disasters and destructions than any people should bear. What is the nature of this hope? What is its source? I believe that this week’s Torah reading gives us a critical insight into this remarkable phenomenon. Oh, and by the way, I think many incidents in Tanach do the same, the plentitude of misery has required a plethora of hope supplying support. But let’s focus on our parsha this week, shall we? 

The incident which triggered this thought is right at the beginning of our parsha. Yitzchak and his beloved Rivka have been married for twenty years without children. At this point they up their sense of urgency. Perhaps, because Jewish tradition suggests a new spouse at some point in the process of continuing the line, or, maybe, the verse itself suggests the gravity of the situation: Yitzchak entreated (prayed fervently) on behalf of Rivka his wife (Breishit 25:21). His fervor was an expression of love for her. 

The heavy-duty term for prayer is V’YE’TAR. There are so many attempts to explain this unusual term. The most famous is perhaps the pitchfork image of moving reality from one status to another, as a pitchfork moves straw. But I like the image conjured by the Ohev Yisrael (the original Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel): The essential intent and purpose of prayer must be to repair any lacking in the full presence of the SHECHINA (Divine Presence, KAVAYACHOL) in our realm. 

The saintly Rebbe is detailing that the intense effort of Yitzchak was a sense that the Divine plan required an heir, and now. With that determination and faith came the intensity of his outreach to God. When Rivka becomes pregnant quickly, it’s announced before the verse ends, Yitzchak’s faith is rewarded and he is content with the situation, in spite of a difficult pregnancy. Rivka, not so much. 

Rivka requires reassurance that the painful situation will have a positive outcome. We are told what Rivka was thinking, ‘If this is the painful, confusing situation, why is this happening to me? And she sought (DARASH) God.’ She gets the answer which reassures and calms. I will ignore the tortuous attempts to explain how she got the satisfactory answer. Many authorities resist the clear indication that God spoke directly to Rivka for reasons I’d rather not discuss here, but it may be related to why she needed reassurance and Yitzchak didn’t. 

So, why did Rivka need and seek reassurance? Simple answer: She was the one suffering. We fathers aren’t always as sympathetic to our wives as we should be. However, I’d like to go in another direction. Yitzchak, the offspring of Avraham and Sarah, lived with hope; Rivka, the sister of Lavan, didn’t. 

What is hope? Since ‘hope’ is a psychological state, I will quote from the American Psychological Association dictionary: the expectation that one will have positive experiences or that a potentially threatening or negative situation will not materialize or will ultimately result in a favorable state of affairs. Hope has been characterized in the psychological literature in various ways, including as a character strength; an emotion; a component of motivation that is critical to goal attainment; a mechanism that facilitates coping with loss, illness, and other significant stresses; or an integrated combination of these features.    

Cool! But what is the source of this hopefulness? Where does the hope come from? I think our tradition suggests two answers, because we have two terms for hope. In Tehillim David HaMelech says: And now, Lord, what do I hope for (KIVITI); my positive expectation (TOCHALTI) is in You? (39:7). There are two terms which are usually translated as ‘hope’, because there are two separate categories of what the psychologists call ‘hope’.  

The first is our famous word for hope, TIKVA. The other YACHOL (with a CHET). What’s the difference? My security blanket on these issues is the Malbim, who never allows synonyms in Biblical texts. TIKVA describes the fact that the individual has faith and confidence in a positive outcome for any situation. YACHOL, instead, means a concrete expectation of a positive solution to whatever problem looms. YACHOL tends to be based on a specific promise.  

Rivka had YACHOL because of the reassuring message from God. She had a concrete expectation. Yitzchak, on the other hand, lived a life of confidence in God’s plan. I believe strongly that this was based on his upbringing in the tent of Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu. These two categories of hope are both very important, and often, I believe work together, as in the case of David HaMelech. 

Perhaps, the two can be translated as ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’. And they are critical to a successful life. As psychologist Nancy Colier said, ‘Hope is not a luxury, for mental health it is a necessity…I think it’s actually fundamental to our mental wellbeing.’  

Rivka and Yitzchak are tasked with birthing the next generation of the Chosen People. They must have hope and optimism. Failure isn’t an option and neither is despair. We need that, too. The next generation of Judaism depends upon it.  

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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