War is an iron fist gripping our hearts. At times, we get used to its pressure and somehow learn to put one foot in front of the other anyway. At other times, those difficult ones when we need to digest yet more terrible, tragic news, it squeezes. We ask ourselves how we can continue, how we can go on, when the pain is paralyzing and we can’t breathe.
And yet, somehow, we do.
How? I’ve previously discussed how we use song and music to help us cope.
Today I want to talk about hope.
Hope. A unique combination of optimism and faith that sustains us through the hardest of times.
One of the oldest cornerstones of our Jewish faith, and the anthem of our young nation-state, hope is essential to our survival as a people.
In this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, we see a people, oppressed and enslaved for over 200 years, freed:
“וַיּסֵּ֨ב אֱלֹקים ׀ אֶת־הָעָ֛ם דֶּ֥רֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר יַם־ס֑וּף וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃”
“So G-d led the people round about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt.” (Shemot 13:18)
Rashi suggests that the term חמושים (which simply means ‘armed’, but is otherwise understood to come from the root חמש, meaning ‘five’ or ‘one fifth’) implies that only a small percentage of the Jews enslaved in Egypt actually left (Rashi on Shemot 13:18), with the remainder dying during the plague of darkness. Rashi doesn’t give a clear reason for this, though it is often assumed that he believed the majority was doomed because they were unworthy or unwilling to leave Egypt.
An alternative explanation is that most of the nation were not mentally prepared for a life of freedom. They could not envision a future that was significantly different to their present.
We know that the vast majority of Jews directly affected by the Holocaust did not survive it. I am certainly not suggesting that it was a lack of hope that led to the murder of millions. We learn from those who did survive, including my incredible grandmother-in-law, Guta Goldstein, that survival was a matter of apparent luck and good fortune as much as anything else.
However, I think it is fair to say that while hope alone was not enough to ensure survival, it was essential. Without a sense of hope, a belief that the future can be good, it is difficult or impossible to face challenges that threaten our survival.
Hope means belief in something good that is bigger than ourselves, that we believe will come about in spite of (and sometimes as a result of) our own pain and difficulties.
Hope is faith in the face of adversity.
But it’s not enough to have hope. We need to make our hope real, to prove to ourselves and others that it exists. For our own sakes, for the sake of our fellow Jews and that of the global community of spectators who cheer or jeer, we must express hope.
Expressing hope means demonstrating loyalty to a future that is different to the present, a future that is good.
Expressing hope is bringing children into a broken world, whilst hoping and working to make it whole again. So many people in my cynical generation refuse to bring children into a world that they perceive to be doomed. This was indeed the attitude of some of our ancestors in Egypt, including Amram, father of Moshe. But Miriam, his daughter, had hope. She encouraged her parents and the rest of her society to have hope too, and to continue building the Jewish nation, even in the midst of slavery. (Shemot Raba 1:13)
Expressing hope is packing tambourines whilst fleeing Egypt, believing that the time will come to sing and dance and thank G-d for redemption with joy and music. (Rashi on Shemot 15:20)
Expressing hope is transforming pain into beauty and music.
Expressing hope is building, even, and especially, in the face of loss and destruction.
Expressing hope is planting seeds, even as tanks roll into battle mere kilometres away.
Expressing hope is the ultimate revenge.
* * *
Hope is a particularly personal subject for me. My youngest daughter was born on 9 Av last year, and we thought Tikva Bat-Tzion (‘Jerusalem’s Hope’) would be a suitable name for her. I could never have imagined how fitting Tikva’s name would prove to be, and how much comfort she would give us during this difficult time. I hope and pray that she will grow up to inherit a better world.
“I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the mashiach, and though he may tarry, still I await him every day.” (12th of Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith)
Hope is being okay with waiting.