“When will I be different?” My three year old son asked me this question recently as we drove home from the synagogue. Each day as we wind our way back home after a long day of work and school, these philosophical and often theological questions emerge, as they often do from the youngest children; their minds and hearts open and curious and continually awestruck by the questions as well as the answers (or lack thereof.) A common topic for Edan, my son, is growing and changing and getting older. He often asks, “When I turn four, will I still be Edan?” My favorite question, as he contemplates how this whole “life” thing works, and thinks about growing up and all that will entail, is “Mommy, when will I get my kids?” These questions, of course, are simple yet profound, and they point to perhaps the essential Jewish understanding of the world and of what it means to be human: That we are ever-evolving works-in-progress; that we are continually growing and changing, always capable of becoming what we once were not. That we and the world around us as it is now is not what it will always be; not what it should always be. Looking at the world and ourselves in this way, the notion of working toward change and supporting the necessary work of our own evolution illuminates what originated in the ancient world as a quite radical concept: Hope.
Hope. I have been reflecting a lot lately on how we can spiritually and emotionally sustain ourselves during this moment in history when overwhelm, even desensitization and numbness about the deep brokenness of our world, threaten to take hold. I turn again and again to one of my great teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In his book Future Tense, he writes: “To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Judaism is a sustained struggle against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.”1 As we bear witness to disasters, destruction, and chaos in all parts of the world, in varying degrees of proximity to our individual lives, the urge to delve into our Jewish heritage can feel more urgent and important. We want to root ourselves as the metaphorical and literal winds howl around us. But when we look there, when we encounter our sacred texts and our people’s history, we find there not a certain faith in everything being ‘for the best’ or a happy ending. We see a continual, ancient and stubborn belief that we are free to create our world, both our internal and external realities.
This sense of possibility and transformation is so ingrained in our tradition, and by extension, in all of Western Civilization, that it is difficult to imagine that human beings ever viewed the world and the self as incapable of change, transformation, or improvement. However, in the words of historian Thomas Cahill, author of The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, this idea is “The only new idea that human beings have ever had.”2 For the ancient Greeks, time was cyclical. All events were understood simply to repeat themselves in an endless cycle. There was no sense, in the pagan culture of antiquity, of human freedom to shape ourselves or our world.
According to the Jewish perspective, reflected in even our earliest sacred texts, events move forward; they do not merely repeat themselves. The results of this utterly transformative way of understanding life? Thomas Cahill writes: “Most of our best words…such as: new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice…[these words are]… the gifts of the Jews.”3 These words emerge from the belief in an unknown future and our power to shape it.
From where in our tradition does this gift of hope emerge? There are many examples, from the earliest chapters of the Jewish story. After humanity’s first failure, resulting in the flood, God decides to begin again, with Noah. Generations later, God calls on Abraham and charges him: “Lekh Lekha: Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” Go into the unknown, God tells Abraham. Saying, essentially: What is, is not what has to be. There is a different future awaiting you. And the conclusion to God’s charge to Abraham? “V’heyeh bracha.” You shall be a blessing…all the nations of the world shall be blessed through you.” God calls Abraham to venture out from the static past to a future brimming with possibilities. And the purpose of this great venture? To bring blessing to the world. We stretch out into the world, into new possibilities, not for ourselves alone, but for the sake of the world around us. The possibility of hope and the power to transform the future is also evident in our people’s master narrative of the journey from slavery to freedom.
We can even see the idea of hope in God’s very name. When God calls to Moses from the burning bush and urges him to return to Egypt to set the Israelites free, Moses has the chutzpah to ask God what God’s true name is. God replies: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.” While often translated as “I am that I am,” or “I am: that is Who I am,” a close reader of the biblical Hebrew will notice that in fact, these words are unmistakably in the future tense. Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh is properly translated as: “I will be what I will be.” As Rabbi Sacks notes: “God’s name belongs to the future tense. His call is to that which is not yet. If we fail to understand this, we will miss the very thing that makes Judaism unique.”4
The centrality of hope to our tradition is movingly illustrated in this story told by Rabbi Hugo Gryn: In Auschwitz, he recalls, “My father took me and some friends to a corner in the barracks. He announced that it was the eve of Chanukah and produced a small clay bowl. Then he began to light a wick immersed in his precious but now melted margarine ration. Before he could recite the blessing, I protested at this waste of food. He looked at me, then the lamp, and finally said, ‘You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water. But you cannot live properly for three minutes without hope.’”5 It is impossible to imagine how the Jewish people could have survived without the core capacity to look beyond present circumstances. To understand a future to come, even if that future is beyond the scope of our individual lives. When Moses learns that he will die before reaching the Promised Land after his 40 years of none-too-easy leadership of the Jewish people through the desert wilderness, he is granted a glimpse of the land from afar. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. drew out this image in his final speech, saying: “I’ve been to the mountaintop…Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
A people of hope is a people who believes in a future, and that our actions in this world today circle outward and forward for those who will come after us; we are commanded to live a life of mitzvot – a life of building a world of justice, love, and peace, not merely so that we may experience it ourselves but so that the generations who come after us will, and will continue to build for those who come after them.
Hope is not an easy thing to hold on to; it is not an easy worldview. Like everything about being Jewish, it demands something of us. And it is not the same thing as optimism. It is a perspective that believes in the possibility of change for the good. Dr. Jerome Groopman, who practices medicine here in Brookline, wrote in The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness: “Many of us confuse hope with optimism, a prevailing attitude that “things turn out for the best.” But hope…unlike optimism, is rooted in unalloyed reality…Hope is the elevating feeling we experience when we see – in the mind’s eye- a path to a better future. Hope acknowledges the significant obstacles and deep pitfalls along that path. True hope has no room for delusion.”6 Krista Tippett, the host of the radio program On Being, has learned from her thousands of conversations: “…[Hope] has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholeheartedly with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it.”7
This evening we have come together at the most hopeful moment in the Jewish year. We stand at the open gate, beckoning us to walk into a future, a “not yet,” empowered to make choices in every moment which will build up or tear down our world. We chant and sing and hear the message of teshuvah, of repentance, of return to our best selves; we remind ourselves and one another that who we have been is not who we need to be, that we are growing and changing, learning and evolving, in every moment. Until our dying breath, every human being has the capacity for change. Though during this High Holy Day season, the Days of Awe, our focus turns toward teshuvah, return/repentance, our tradition tells us that the possibility of teshuvah exists in every moment. In the Talmud we read: “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of teshuvah are always open.” Every relationship, every experience, every moment is an opportunity for growth and transformation.
The belief that we are always in process, always opening and unfolding, is a thread woven throughout the millennia of the Jewish people. To be human is to be continuously stepping forward into the unknown, going to the place that we don’t see yet, but that we will be shown. That is the gift of this season. We are called to remember that the future is unknown, but that we have the freedom to shape it, if we have the courage to step into it.
When I hear my three year old son ask: “when will I be different?” I remember that he is heir to a great tradition of a profound belief in possibility. We are all in process of transformation. If we live mindfully and authentically and intentionally, we build the future, starting with ourselves, and it is in this continual transformation that we become whole. May this Rosh Hashanah, and this season of teshuvah, remind us of the call that resounds throughout the ages, from the dawn of our people, to go forth into the unknown future, to let ourselves unfold, to believe always in what is “not yet” and strive to make it so. Then, our new year will be good indeed. Shana tova, a good year, to all of us.
1 Sacks, Jonathan. Future Tense: Jews, Judaism and Israel in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Schocken, 2009
2 Cahill, Thomas. The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. New York. Doubleday, 1998.
4 Sacks, 2009
5 Wolpe, Rabbi David J. Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World. Springfield, NJ. Behrman House, 2004.
6 Groopman, Jerome. The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness. New York. Random House, 2004.
7 Tipett, Krista. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. New York. Penguin Press, 2016,