Dovid M. Cohen
Rabbi Congregation Ohr Torah-N. Woodmere

The Audacity of Hope

Yedidya Cohen (15), 10th grader Yeshiva Bonim LeMakom in Brooklyn, NY

I admit stealing my title from President Barack Obama.  That’s because the title fits what I’m feeling on the last days of 5780.

Fifteen years ago, my life took a detour.  I was married for fifteen months and my first child was born.  For most people this is one of the greatest days of their life.  For me, in that moment, it was tragic.  Our son was diagnosed with Down Syndrome.  There was no advance warning.  I thought my life was over.  I didn’t know if my marriage would survive.  I was gripped by fear and hopelessness.

A central tenet of the Jewish faith is the commandment of circumcision.  It is tradition to invite a distinguished Rabbi or relative to hold the baby on their lap for the circumcision.

In baseball, the pitcher and catcher are referred to as the “Battery.”

Similarly, in our tradition we have a Mohel, or circumciser who serves as pitcher and a catcher or Sandek, who holds the baby.

They comprise the Jewish battery and we strive for an all-star lineup.

I invited one of the greatest living Rabbis of the generation ( R’ Moshe Shapiro zt’l) to ‘catch’ and a distinguished Mohel, who strikingly was childless, to pitch.

The great Rabbi approached me and grabbed me firmly.  He stated unequivocally that my son would be healthy and complete. He promised me that he will be a typical child.

This Rabbi passed away a few years ago but as I write these words on this paper, I can still hear him whispering those words into my ears.

At the time I thought he was crazy. I thought he had known my child was handicapped!

It was brazened to tell a crestfallen father that he need not worry, that all would be fine.

Recently, I was interviewed on a podcast. I was asked for an event in my life that gave me permission to hope.  I shared this story about my son.

Fast forward fifteen years.

I’m still married and live a pretty typical life. Although my son still has a disability, he is a very typical kid. He didn’t interfere with me fulfilling my dreams or aspirations. There are many great opportunities that await both of us and he brings me great joy each day.

I don’t know if the Rabbi was prophetic or not. Maybe he saw into the future or maybe he was being encouraging in a difficult time. It’s not really important. What he did was stop me in my tracks and give permission to hope.

The Jewish New Year is rapidly approaching.  We read in the Torah on a Sabbath before the New Year a section of curses or foreboding.  It is symbolic of our hope that the present year and its negative aspects leave and be replaced with a new one filled with blessings.

We do this every year.  Not just in a year highlighted by a pandemic.

Implicit in the practice is that every year has aspects we prefer to leave behind.

This unique portion of Ki Savoh in Devarim is read as an inflection point.

Every year throws us curve balls.  Maybe this one had a little more break on the ball than usual.  Still there is always hope of a better tomorrow.

The Jewish New Year is filled with various symbols as expressions of aspiration for blessing and bounty.

The most well-known is dipping the apple in honey, connected to the original sin of Adam and Eve violating G-d’s command and eating from the Tree of Knowledge.  We want to sweeten the judgements and missteps.

Our practices leading into the festival and on the festival are what that great Rabbi did for me so many years ago.

There is always hope.  We have to give ourselves the permission to believe things will improve.

It is essential in the darkest moments to pause and remember that we are in but a moment of time.  Things change and can get better.

Another great leader, the Rebbe of Lubavitch, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory, often remarked “if you think good it will be good.”

As the clock ticks away on the Jewish year, in one of the most challenging times in modern history on multiple fronts, the opportunity is clear.

We must honor ourselves with the audacity of hope for a better 5781.

About the Author
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is the Rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in North Woodmere, NY. He is also a Senior Relationship Officer at Yachad. His book “We’re Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose” (Mosaica Press 2016) is available at www.rabbidovidmcohen.com. Check out his Podcast The JPP: Jewish Philanthropy Podcast http://jewishphilantropypodcast.libsyn.com/ and his lectures at https://www.torahanytime.com/#/speaker?l=1081.
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