William Hamilton
William Hamilton

When hope can be harmful

“Ultimately” writes Maria Konnikova “what a confidence artist sells is hope. Hope that you’ll be happier, healthier, richer, loved, accepted, better looking, younger, smarter, a deeper, more fulfilled human being.” Con artists who traffic in false-hope, of course, give hope a bad name.

Ordinarily hope is a good thing. When despair darkens our perspective, glimmers of hope guide us to brighter places. When fatalism’s ceiling hangs too low, the spirit of possibility inspires us to believe that nothing is inevitable. Hope whispers reminders that we can make that which appears to the the end of a story into the middle of a story by generating new and more promising outcomes.

So how can we tell when hope is counterfeit? The Torah asks a similar question in effort to detect a false prophet in this week’s Torah reading. “How can we know if an oracle spoken by a prophet did not come from the Lord” (Deut.19:21)? The answer is outcomes based. In context an oracle’s authenticity depends on whether it comes to pass. But there is another way to appraise outcomes – by the kind of conduct it generates.

Consider, for example, the impact of God’s Oneness upon us. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asserts: “Oneness is the norm, the standard and the goal. If in the afterglow of a religious insight we can see a way to gather up our scattered lives, to unite what lies in strife – we know it is a guidepost on His way.” Conversely, continues Heschel: “If a thought generates pride, separation from other people’s suffering, unawareness of the dangers of evil – we know it is a deviation from His way.”

We can measure the integrity of a hopeful promise not by what comes of it, but by what comes of us because of it. We can tell if an agent of hope is false or true by the impact such an agent has upon his or her following.

This season’s Psalm (27) has the last word. Twice we pray “Hope in the Lord” in its final verse. May the hope that truly is for God’s sake prove its authenticity by inspiring generous deeds for goodness sake.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
Related Topics
Related Posts