Nurturing Hope in a “Hopeless” World: Rosh Hashanah I Sermon

Posted on September 28, 2022

A story is told of a town where all of the clocks stopped working (1). The people did what they could to try and repair their time pieces, but despite their best efforts they could not get them going again. No one in town understood the inner workings of the springs, dials, pendulums, and gears – no one could fix their clocks.  

Years passed until one day a wanderer entered the secluded town who happened to be a watchmaker. News quickly spread, and there was much excitement about this stranger who could fix clocks. A line developed outside the inn where the man was staying as people brought their precious family timepieces in the hope that they would finally be repaired. One by one the townsfolk emerged disappointed – the years had taken their toll and the inner mechanisms had rusted beyond repair.  

But one woman emerged with a smile on her face and a ticking timepiece in her hands. The townsfolk surrounded her to find out how the watchmaker had been able to fix her clock. She explained: “When all of our clocks stopped working I did not know what to do, so each morning I wound the dial on my clock as if it worked, hoping that it would one day keep time again.” This simple act of hope ensured that it never rusted and could ultimately be repaired.  

While our clocks might be working, in so many other ways our world feels broken. It is hard to reflect on the news stories of the past twelve months without some combination of fear, sadness, disappointment, and dread. Rising antisemitism, the assault on women’s rights, the decline of the separation of Church and State, the global climate crisis, the war in Ukraine, the genocide of the Uyghurs – the list could go on. Any one of these problems would be bad enough, but the combination of events at a time when extremist voices are growing louder and the very fabric of society appears to be breaking – it is overwhelming. We could be forgiven for despairing of the state of the world, for closing our eyes to all that is wrong, for simply giving up. 

With the myriad of crises, the global scale of our problems, and the seeming lack of anyone offering a coherent solution, we might simply declare that the situation is hopeless.  

Hopeless – it’s such an interesting word. It is not simply a declaration that our current situation is bad, it is a resignation that there is no way for it to get better. It is the white flag surrendering to the forces of evil; it is the avoidance of the fight for what is right; it is the acceptance that tomorrow will be no better than today. But you know the other thing about the word hopeless – it doesn’t exist in the Hebrew language, it’s not a Jewish concept. 

Just let that sink in for a minute. From the Hebrew of the Bible to the Hebrew of today there is no word for hopeless. Look it up in the dictionary and you will find no direct translation (2), because Judaism does not accept that a situation is ever hopeless. The Jewish response to suffering, the Jewish response to moments of crisis, the Jewish response to our broken world has always been and will always be tikva – hope. It’s not just a belief that things can and will be better, it’s the faith that we have the strength to make things better – in any situation, no matter how desperate it may seem. As a people, we are the woman from the story who keep on winding our clocks, even when everyone else has given up, because we know that even something which is broken can ultimately be repaired as long as we maintain hope.   

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, has suggested that western civilization is in part the product of Israelite culture (3). Our contribution was the belief in people’s freedom and ability to determine their future, “there is no ‘evil decree’ that cannot be averted.” Our gift to the world is the idea of hope. The overarching story of Judaism whether understood through the Torah, through our laws, or through our history is the story of nurturing, maintaining, and spreading hope in the world. The Prophet Isaiah called on us to be a light unto the nations (4), I believe that call was to be a beacon of hope, even at the darkest of times. 

Jewish history is filled with moments and events when the logical response should have been to give up. Four hundred plus years of slavery in Egypt, the exile and destruction of the first and second Temples, countless pogroms and expulsions, the Holocaust, almost two thousand years of exile – take your pick. The history of countless other peoples and nations suggest that we should no longer be here. But here we are! Because Judaism is and has always been about the triumph of hope over despair, of faith over hopelessness, of perseverance over surrender. It’s not the naïve belief that things will magically get better; it’s the belief, learned from thousands of years of experience, that we can make things better.  

The author Brené Brown has written that: “Hope is a function of struggle—we develop hope not during the easy or comfortable times, but through adversity and discomfort.” (5) Small successes during challenging times develop hope, because we witness that change is possible, that there can be progress, that we have the power to affect our future – that’s all of Jewish history. And then she continues that: “hope is learned … Children with high levels of hopefulness have experience with adversity. They’ve been given the opportunity to struggle, and in doing that they learn how to believe in themselves and their abilities.” (6) Hope is something we must learn and relearn. 

I love the story of the Semmering railway in Austria (7). It is a beautiful part of the world, but it is also a mountainous part of the world with heights ranging from 400 to 900 meters above sea level. From 1848 to 1854 Carl von Ghega designed and directed 20,000 workers building bridges, viaducts, and tunnels to lay rail tracks traversing the landscape. The only problem was that when they began construction a train did not exist that could pass along those tracks. They embarked on the project with hope and faith that rail technology would ultimately catch up, and two years after the project’s completion the first train traveled along those tracks, designed as part of a competition to build a train specifically for the Semmering railway.  

We must never underestimate the importance of hope.  

The Rabbi of my childhood, Hugo Gryn z”l, was a Holocaust survivor, and he would share stories of his teenage years living through the war and later in a concentration camp. One story, which really stuck with me, took place in the winter of 1944 when he and his father found themselves in a concentration camp grotesquely named Lieberose – Lovely Rose. His father announced that it was the eve of Chanukah and took out a homemade clay bowl. He then began to light a wick immersed in his precious, but now melted ration of margarine. Before he could recite the blessing Hugo stopped his father and protested, “We need the food. We can’t afford to waste it on a candle.” His father looked at Hugo – and then at the lamp – and responded, “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, not even for three minutes without hope (8). Hugo’s father knew that for survival hope was more important than food or water, because without hope there could be no future.  

It has been written that “We need hope like we need air. To live without hope is to risk suffocating on hopelessness and despair, risk being crushed by the belief that there is no way out.” (9) Never underestimate how important hope can be.  

And at the same time, we also shouldn’t overestimate the challenges that we are facing.  

We must develop for ourselves a hope practice to approach the wrongs, sufferings, and injustices of our world. Based on the work of the positive psychologist Charles Richard Snyder (10), I want to suggest a three-step process of goals, pathway, and agency. Nurturing hope begins by setting realistic goals for ourselves, they need to be attainable. This does not mean that our goals need to be small; they can be lofty, they can require us to reach ever higher, but they cannot be impossible fantasies. This relates to the second step because there must be a pathway to achieving the goal; we should be able to map out a route that will lead us to succeed; but we also need to maintain the flexibility to adjust course and find a new path towards achieving our goal if a pivot becomes necessary. And finally, we need to believe in our own agency, our own power and ability to achieve the goal that we are aiming for. 

We have done this as a synagogue community. The climate crisis may appear overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean we give up. The Environmental Action Committee essentially followed the three-step process; one of their goals was to “Identify and implement measures to reduce the amount of waste disposal.” (11) The pathway involved reducing the significant number of disposable dishes and silverware used at TST. And they had agency to purchase reusable products for the synagogue. We haven’t fixed the world’s climate, but we have achieved one of our goals and nurtured the hope and belief that we can and will do more.  

Rosh Hashanah is our season of renewal; it is an opportunity to take account of the world and of our lives. Imagine if everyone present took this lesson of hope and chose to address one of the problems in our society; to take one step to combat antisemitism, one step to defend women’s rights, one step to tackle the climate crisis. Hundreds of individuals making a difference, nurturing hope for ourselves and for our world that we can have a brighter new year.  

Never underestimating the importance of hope, or overestimating the challenges that we face, we should also remember that we are never alone.  

In our liturgy, at the beginning of the Shema we cover our eyes; perhaps this is a way to block out the injustice of the world, a moment to pretend that everything is alright, to ignore all of our problems. But we don’t stop there. With our eyes closed we declare: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad – Adonai is our God, Adonai is one – asserting that we are part of something greater than ourselves. And then we declare Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto – Blessed is God’s Glorious Kingdom – recognizing the potential for beauty in the world, that things can be better. We don’t close our eyes to ignore the problems of the world, rather we close our eyes to recharge the hope within to challenge them. And when we open our eyes we see that we are not alone in this struggle we are surrounded by a community of support and solidarity. The Shema is a hope practice in the midst of our liturgy, opening our eyes to see that together we can tackle any problem.  

The Jewish gift to the world is hope. And I don’t think it was any accident that our founders chose for us the name Shir Tikva – they recognized the significance of this idea for Judaism and the world. If any community should be engaged in this work of bringing hope when the world looks bleak, when people are giving up, when despair is all around – it is a community that was established to be a song of hope for all who encountered it. 

When the Israelites left Egypt they didn’t have time to bake their bread; but, as Cantor Hollis taught me, they had time to pack their timbrels. They knew that there would be moments to sing and dance again, and they recognized that the hope for a brighter future was more important than the bread they were baking. And immediately after crossing the sea, the community found the opportunity to take out their timbrels, as Miriam led them singing and dancing for joy at their freedom and escape from a seemingly desperate situation.  

We are their descendants, and while we might not feel that there is much to sing about today, we still carry our timbrels with us because we know that there will be a time for songs of praise and joy again. We keep winding our clocks even when it seems futile, because we believe that repair is always possible. And we keep hope alive, because that is our gift to the world, building a brighter future. This new year we will truly be a Shir Tikva – a song of hope for ourselves, our community, and our world.  

Shana Tova! 

1: Adapted from a story told by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in Man’s Quest for God and retold by Rabbi Marc Katz. 

2: The dictionary may suggest avud (אבוד)– which primarily means loss or yeush (יאוש) – which is really desperation.

3: This idea and quotes are taken from Rabbi Sacks’ z”l article, Future Tense: How the Jews Invented Hope

4: Isaiah 42:6

5: Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart, page 100

6: Ibid.

7: Adapted with details from “Semmering Railway” on UNESCO World Heritage Convention, “Semmering Railway” on Spotlight History, and “The Spread of Railways” on Erenow

8: The full story can be read in Chasing Shadow by Hugo Gryn, pages 236-237

9: Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart, page 97

10: These ideas are developed from: C. R. Snyder, “Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind”, Psychological Inquiry: Vol. 13, No.4 (2002)

11: “Environmental Justice”, Temple Shir Tikva (2022).