Creating Hope

Erev Rosh Hashanah • Rosh Hashanah Eve

September 20, 2017 • 1 Tishrei 5778

Rabbi Bridget Wynne

Recently I spoke to a friend about a topic many of us have on our minds –- hope. Where do we find it in these turbulent and frightening times?

 

Here is a story about hope that she shared with me.

 

It was New Year’s Eve. I was with my husband Joe and our friend Rachel. Joe was dying of cancer. He had already lived a month and a half longer than the doctors thought he would. We were talking, enjoying being together. Then, because it was New Year’s Eve, one of us started to raise a glass to toast to the New Year, then stopped. We looked at one another. What sort of toast could any of us offer, knowing that for Joe there would be very little of that New Year, knowing that the three of us might never again be together?

 

We were quiet. Then Rachel lifted her glass and said, “How good it is to be together, here, right now.” Joe and I lifted our glasses, too, and the three of us drank to Rachel’s toast.

 

What does this story have to do with hope?

 

It is not a story about getting what we want, things working out for the best, effort and determination paying off, or escaping disaster just in the nick of time.

 

It is about a different sort of hope, the sort articulated by Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakian writer, dissident, and eventually president. He wrote:

 

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world.  …

It’s an orientation of the spirit. …

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy

that things are going well,

or willingness to invest in enterprises

that are obviously heading for success,

but rather an ability to work for something because it is good. …

It is … NOT the same as optimism. …

[it is] the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

 

The hope my friend remembers from shortly before her husband’s death came into being through a seemingly small act that had great meaning. A New Year’s Eve toast, words that made space for the pain of illness, death, and loss, for the pain of coming face-to-face with the lack of control we have over so much of life.

 

This sort of hope, that my friend experienced, that Vaclav Havel describes so well, celebrates the goodness that is in our lives and our world, and the importance of our choices and our actions, even when we do not know what impact they will have.

 

We do not find hope. We create it.

 

As Havel says, we orient our spirits. Or, as Jewish tradition puts it, we do t’shuvah –- we stop, reflect, and then turn, or return, to a path that can create hope.

 

T’shuvah, the core of these High Holidays, is itself a form of hope. It builds on the understanding that though we human beings cannot predict or control the future, no matter how hard we try, we do have the capacity to choose, moment-to-moment, how we live. This is the essence of creating hope.

 

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world.  …

 

It’s an orientation of the spirit. …

 

How might we orient ourselves in this way?

 

First, we accept that we do not know how things will work out, and that this is often frightening and painful.

 

We focus not on a future that may or may not come into being, but on the present, where our choices lie.

 

We listen to the questions these High Holidays pose, and reflect on them, with compassion for ourselves and for others.

 

Questions like:

 

What matters most in my life?

 

What gifts do I have to offer the world?

 

How can I bring more love and generosity into more places?

 

What injustices, small or large, can I take steps towards correcting?

 

And, finally, how can I focus my attention more often on the aspects of our world that take my breath away, so that I experience awe and gratitude, and hold onto it?

 

These are challenging questions, because they speak to the meaning of our lives, and for this reason they are the sorts of questions that can help us to create hope.

 

Our tradition calls on us to reflect on questions like these, and to re-orient ourselves, so our moment-to-moment choices come closer to our intentions. Our tradition also reminds us that we are not meant to do this alone.

 

It teaches us: Look to sources of wisdom –- Jewish teachings, other traditions you can draw on, lives you admire, poetry, people who will be honest and real with you.

 

It teaches us: Look for others who also want to create hope. You can discover some of them here at Jewish Gateways. You may find them among friends, acquaintances, people you meet walking the dog, planning a carpool.

 

You may find them when you are taking action, no matter how small, that helps bring your deepest values into the world. It is not always easy to find others who want to orient their spirits towards hope, but it is worth it to keep seeking.

 

Creating hope is far more possible when we do it together. That is one of the reasons we are here tonight, tomorrow, and ten days from now at Yom Kippur. It is one of the reasons that Jewish Gateways offers opportunities to come together throughout the year, so we can draw on wisdom, and on one another, to help us take meaningful actions despite not knowing how things will turn out.

 

For, as Vaclav Havel says in the words that conclude his poem:

 

It is hope … that gives us strength to live

and to continually try …

even in conditions that seem … hopeless …

[for] ... life is too precious …

[for] living pointlessly, emptily,

without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

 

I think back now to the story my friend told, about a different New Year’s Eve, the secular kind, yet a New Year’s Eve, like tonight, filled with fear and challenge, joy and hope.

 

As Rachel did that evening, I offer a toast, for all of us. It is not about the unknowable future. It is a toast that acknowledges this moment, which will lead into the next moment, for it is in the ever-changing present that we choose how to live, and it is these choices that are the essence of creating hope.

 

“How good it is to be together, here, right now.”  

 

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