Sermon: On Hope
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 2 August 2014
A quiz question for you this Shabbat morning:
What, according to the Talmud are the questions that you will be asked when you die and arrive in the world-to-come for judgement?
It’s a famous text, and actually a very important text. The underlying meaning of the text is:
‘What are the really fundamental things, the things that will, ultimately define our lives?’
As a result it is one of those texts that get partially quoted a lot – mainly by rabbis trying to show that the subject they are teaching is very important.
So you might know some of the six questions:
You might have heard that you will be asked: Were you honest in business?
You may have heard this text quoted about the centrality of family life – though the Talmud itself says the question – did you engage in ‘pru urvu’ – in procreation?’
Another famous one – Did you set aside fixed times for study?
But there are three others which you might not know:
Another one is ‘Did you delve into wisdom?’ Which is really study again. And another ‘Did you infer one thing from another’ – that is, did you engage in rabbinic hermeneutics? So, well, study (or a form of study) again.
So, in case there was any doubt, we now know that the rabbis thought study was important.
And there is one other that you rarely hear – especially in our part of the Jewish world:
Literally, “Did you anticipate salvation?”
What does that mean?
In Orthodox Jewish culture it comes to have a particular meaning, a particular dogmatic association – did you believe in a particular eschatological vision? You most often hear it around this time of year, as we approach Tisha B’Av – because Tzipita li’yeshua comes to be associated with the belief in and yearning for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Classically, Tzipita li’yeshua means the belief that, as Maimonides put it in the Mishneh Torah: “In the future, a Messianic king will arise and renew the Davidic dynasty, restoring it to its initial sovereignty. He will build the Temple and gather the dispersed of Israel. Then, in his days, the observance of all the statutes will return to their previous state. We will offer sacrifices, observe the Sabbatical and Jubilee years according to all their particulars as described by the Torah.” In fact, Tzipita li’yeshua which has the sense of ‘longing’ means not merely the belief in this, but the yearning for it. The desire that this be the case.
Which, of course, would mean that the answer to “Tzipita li’yeshua?” at that moment of judgement, for most of us, will probably be no.
Fortunately in our wonderful rich multi-meaning tradition, this is not what it means, or not all that it can mean.
That is just one vision of redemption imposed onto the text.
What Tzipita li’yeshua can actually mean is something much more accessible…
What it really means is: did you believe in the possibility of redemption?
Did you fall into despair, or did you still yearn for a better future?
Did you still hope?
Ultimately, this is a pretty fundamental religious question. Did you have hope?
The meaning of all the salvation, redemption language we find repeatedly in our texts, especially in the poetry of our liturgy – think geulah, al ken n’kaveh and so on – the purpose of it all is to express one idea, that betterness is possible, that it can come.
Importantly, not for us as individuals – not saving our souls – but in the world.
Our shared story, with its powerful theme of redemption; our shared understanding of a covenantal relationship with God and each other; the promise of a messianic age to be made by us in partnership with God – all of these ultimately articulate an ideology of communal hope.
Now, this is not the same as naïve optimism. How could it be with our historical experiences? Ours is not a childish wishful thinking that everything will be ok.
Jewish hope, in the words of theologian Eugene Borowitz, is one that ‘encompasses of necessity the reality of pain, even of incredible, inexplicable suffering”. Yet even living with this reality, to be Jewish is to believe in the possibility of a better future.
Every down, Jewishly, is followed by an up – or the possibility of an up. Every Haftarah, however miserable, according to the tradition of the lectionary, has to end on a positive verse. very period of mourning ends with a celebration.
Every Shabbat morning over the last few weeks we have read haftarot of rebuke – warnings of sufferings to come as we approach Tisha B’Av, the fast of the ninth of Av, which takes place tomorrow evening. And, having stopped for a day to mourn and to recognise our suffering what will we do? Our haftarot will transform into ones of comfort; our eyes will turn towards Tu B’Av – traditionally one of the most joyful days of the year. Hopefulness despite, out of, suffering, not despair.
Why does hope matter?
In part, hope is a necessity of the reality of human existence. The possibility of better is a necessity because of the reality of suffering. Without it we perish.
This importance of hope is nowhere expressed more powerfully than in the autobiography of our teacher Rabbi Hugo Gryn, in which he describes a Chanukah in Auschwitz. Having failed to get margarine to light, the young Gryn turned angrily to his father, upset by the waste of food, and effort.
‘Don’t be so angry,’ he said to me. ‘You know that this festival celebrates the victory of the spirit over tyranny and might. You and I have had to go once for over a week without proper food and another time almost three days without water, but you cannot live for three minutes without hope!’
But hope is not only a necessity but also a purpose. It is what makes it worth acting in the world.
The rabbi and scholar David Hartman distinguished between two types of hope in Jewish tradition – what he called radical hope and halachic hope. Radical hope is ultimately a waiting game – to quote Hartman, this “form of hope need not address itself to action. It is a kind of messianic anticipation, or belief in redemption, which lends itself to waiting for…”
Halachic hope, by contrast, ‘liberates action’. It is the ‘prospect of attainment’ that ‘generates strength, while despair incapacitates’.
Hartman sees this distinction in the classical debates between rabbis about whether human beings have to do anything to bring about the coming of a Messiah. So, for example, the duelling pair of Rav and Shmuel – the former saying “the matter depends on repentance and good deeds”, while the latter states “it is enough for the mourner to remain in his mourning” (Sanhedrin 97b).
Hartman exists within a halachic paradigm in which halachic action is the ultimate action – but his distinction is really between passive hope and active hope. It is between two visions of a messianic future – waiting for messiah to come and doing something to contribute to the coming of a messianic age. Good Jewish hope, certainly good Progressive Jewish hope is not ‘waiting’ hope, but ‘doing’ hope.
According to one tradition, when we are asked the question ‘Tzipita li’yeshua?’ we will be able to answer ‘yes’ as long as we daven regularly. In the fifteenth blessing of the weekday Amidah, we say ki lishuat’cha kivinu kol hayom – translated as “we long for Your salvation every day”. Job done.
Now this text has a message of waiting hope;
The tradition that all you need to do is say it is a kind of halachic hope;
And in our Siddur it is given the greater meaning of active hope. In our siddur it is “we wait, and work, for Your salvation”.
It is a beautiful mistranslation – utterly disingenuous, but beautiful – giving true meaning to this phrase for us in our lives. Progressive Jewish hope is to wait, and to work.
A story in Kohelet Rabbah describes a group of robbers who are stuck in prison. The prisoners dig a tunnel and escape, all except one who remains behind, frozen in time. When the guard comes, he beats the prisoner with a stick, saying to him, “Ill-starred and hapless wretch! There was an opening before you, and you did not escape!”
We are cautioned not to be the prisoner who stayed behind – paralysed into inaction by despair, by absence of hope, by lack of belief in the possibility of better, but to do something about it.
So, back to the great quiz in the world to come. To those fundamental, life-defining questions about ethics, family, study.
Fundamental to our Jewishness, is our ability to hope.
Even at times when we feel most despairing, even when the world seems at its most useless, as it has over the last few weeks…
To be Jewish is to believe in the possibility of something better.
And not only to wait for that better, but to act, in ways however small, to bring that messianic age about.
Can you say that you hoped?
And what did you do about it?