Erev Rosh Hashanah 2016/5777 – The Renewal of Hope
Shanah tovah! Welcome to this New Year 5777 that we hope will be full of sweet goodness and opportunity for everyone.
Tonight we join together to renew a journey that is timeless. It’s a journey for Jews worldwide, and a Jewish take on a universal journey for all people everywhere. These Days of Awe, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, are our journey of truth, renewal and transformation. It’s a journey that brings us back to basics – to our roots, our heritage, each other, our community and ourselves. We return again to who we are and who we hope to be.
Tonight we begin by celebrating the hope that this journey is possible at all – that the seemingly linear trajectory of our lives, the tick tock of time always pushing forward, also flows with the hope of new and better for us, our loved ones and the world.
“Hope” is this year’s theme for our Days of Awe. Together we will seek hope, stoke hope’s embers when times seem hopeless, and harness hope’s light to renew our lives. Hope is what makes the journey possible to do teshuvah – that we really can give and receive forgiveness, that we really can make better of our lives. Without hope that it’s possible, it becomes impossible. We go nowhere without hope, so hope is where we must begin.
“Hope” – in Hebrew, tikvah. Hope is a light to live by. To be Jewish is to hope: it’s why Israel’s national anthem is HaTikvah, “The Hope.” Hope is what kept history’s Jews alive. Hope is so important that it’s the one thing tradition says we must never give up, no matter what. As Talmud puts it (Berakhot 10a): “Never give up hope, even with a sword at your neck.”
And, sometimes it’s not easy. Life happens: illness and death are swords at our necks. Darkness comes. For many, hope flickers and fades. A life without hope is a life darker than night.
Look outside: it’s dark – not even a moon to light the night sky. Rosh Hashanah – which we call Yom Harat Olam, the day birthing our world – starts at night in the darkest dark of the New Moon. In Torah’s creation story, human consciousness was born from this darkness at Rosh Hashanah.
We choose this darkest night in hope of being renewed, and here’s why. In the Genesis story, after the creation of humanity, humanity’s first experience was the search for hope. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, what is re-born most of all is hope.
Please join me in the mythic Garden of Eden, that paradise of eternity beyond time and space, the mystical womb of human consciousness. You are Adam, the first human. You’re in a lush and verdant garden. Your every need is met. All is light and bright, blissful and perfect. Then, sunset: the light fades. All that you know falls into darkness. Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a) continues the story:
יום שנברא בו אדם הראשון, כיון ששקעה עליו חמה, אמר: אוי לי, שבשביל שסרחתי, עולם חשוך: בעדי ויחזור עולם לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים. היה יושב ובוכה כל הלילה … כיון שעלה עמוד השחר, אמר: מנהגו של עולם הוא.
The day the first Adam was created, as the sun set on him, he said: ‘Woe is me! Due to my foulness, the world is dark. On my account, the world returns to the void of its chaos: this is the death to which heaven sentenced me!’ He sat crying all night. At dawn he said: ‘This is the way of the world.’
We might be tempted to think, “What a narcissistic nutcase,” right? Who among us would say that the sunset is our fault, a death decreed for what we did or didn’t do? But look deeper inside: do we blame ourselves for things that aren’t our fault? Do we carry baggage that isn’t ours – put on us by others, or that we learned to put on our own backs? Go inside and ask: how different are we from Adam so quick to blame himself?
And what of hope? Adam mourned the sunset with no hope that the sun’ll come up tomorrow. Adam had no hope, because hope wasn’t created yet. Without hope, Adam had no resilience. Lacking hope and resilience, for Adam it really was darkest before dawn. Adam’s fear was the labor pang of spiritual consciousness. His dark night was the birthday of hope.
That night is this night – Eden’s womb from which hope springs eternal, the dark before dawn, Yom Harat Olam, birthing a world of hope and resilience. As Adam said, “this is the way of the world.” Hope is creation’s power that new light will rise with the dawn. Hope is creation’s resilience to roll with the dark into the light.
Tomorrow’s dawn will shine on all. On Rosh Hashanah morning, we’ll say that the Book of Life opens and reads from itself the truth of our lives. We’ll see what’s ours to forgive, and what’s ours to repent and heal. We’ll hear in Torah of the birth of Isaac, hope of Abraham and Sarah. That’s tomorrow – Yom HaDin, the day of discernment and legacy.
But tomorrow depends on tonight. Before the discernment and legacy of tomorrow’s Yom HaDin, first comes Yom Harat Olam, re-birthing hope, releasing self-blame for things not rightly ours. Like Adam, we suffer the dark when we falsely blame ourselves, when despair obscures our vision and saps our power to change those things that we truly can change. Tonight we begin re-training ourselves to see what’s truly ours, and what’s the darkness of doubt and distraction dressed up as something else. That’s tonight’s first step on our path of teshuvah – return, renewal and transformation.
So here’s our question: how do we renew hope? And that question depends on a second one: what is hope really?
Hope is three things. Hope is waiting – in Hebrew, hoping and waiting share the same root (kaveh). Hope is wanting – yearning for morning light after a dark night. But most of all, hope is knowing – an inner sense that, in fact, the sun’ll come up tomorrow.
Of course, sunrise is a trivial example: modern science confirms that the sun’ll come up tomorrow at 6:55 a.m. So let’s try something else. Take a moment to go inside. Call up a yearning – something big enough to matter but just a bit out of reach. Feel it near but beyond your grasp. Now, can you bring in hope – not just waiting and wanting, but also an inner knowing that it’s possible to bring that out-of-reach yearning closer to the reality of your life?
Hope can be difficult because it’s risky: yearning exposes our vulnerability. Our soft and tender hearts hurt when we lack. Often we expend great effort to avoid hurt, and then hide that effort from ourselves and the world. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal and teacher of my teachers, poignantly taught about this. He taught that the yearnings of our hearts can feel like spiritually we’re far from God. Like Adam felt when the sun set, subconsciously our hurts alienate us from the God we link with light and love. In the dark of our fear and pain, we don’t sense that the yearnings of our hearts are one way that the holy voice calls us.
Hope is how we hear that call and then heed that call – not a fantasy but a kavvanah, an inner intention, that helps us grow. We all want to win the lottery, or bring a lost loved one back to life, or vanquish social prejudice with the flick of a magic wand – but that’s not hope. Hope is that inner voice telling us that it’s possible to heal what hurts, turbo-charged with the power to help make it so.
That’s why Jewish life testifies to the miracle of HaTikvah – “The Hope” – how even long odds can’t kill hope without our consent, how hope literally can keep us alive and give new life. That’s the hope whose light we kindle at Chanukkah. That’s the hope of resilience, to turn long odds into “maybe,” then “yes.” That’s why Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said this about hope: “One who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist.”
Hope says, “Yes we can!” Hope knows that better can come by our own hands and hearts, that what we call miracles are real. And this is key, because the miracle we call hope makes teshuvah possible. We need hope to forgive ourselves, to forgive each other, to change our lives – to do better for ourselves, our loved ones and the world. Hope is the holy fuel that powers our High Holy Day journey of renewal. Without hope, we go nowhere.
So where do we get this holy fuel? Some of us might look to mysticism, and some of us might look to rationalism. Here we do both, because both pathways tap the same source of power.
For mystics, the gates of hope open this very night, Yom Harat Olam – the womb of creation, the fresh flow of spirit amidst the New Moon dark, eternity’s light shining from Eden, calling us to reflect holy light by how we act in the world. For some, hope is much as Adam saw at his first fateful dawn: “This is the way of the world.”
But maybe that’s not the way of your world. Maybe you’re a rationalist more than a mystic. Maybe you’re bored and ready to bolt out of here as soon as it’s socially acceptable. Maybe these words mean nothing to you – or, worse, maybe they seem like delusions or lies. Maybe that’s not how you feel. Maybe you tried hope but it got you nowhere. Maybe someone hurt you, or you hurt someone, and you despair that it’ll ever be better. Maybe you never felt inner hope ever before in your life.
If that’s you, then you came to the right place. Here we don’t believe in pretending dogma. Real spirituality asks real truth, and sometimes real truth is inconvenient.
So where can we find hope when hope seems most missing? None other than Elie Wiesel – the great Holocaust survivor who suffered the tortures of the damned and died three months ago today – said this about hope: “Hope is like peace. It’s not a gift from God: it’s a gift only we can give one another.” Hope is what we make together, in community, precisely in the full and radical acceptance of however we are right now – with all our inconvenient truths, all our sighing and trying and striving, just as we are. Hope is the updraft we can create together, lifting us to do teshuvah and transform our lives, starting exactly where we are right now – because there is nowhere else.
And this kind of hope is catchy. Michelle Obama put it this way: “Don’t underestimate the importance you can have, for history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.” Hope is alive. And it’s okay if you don’t feel it right now. The fact that you’re here means at least that you hope for hope – that you can be open to the possibility.
And tonight, that’s enough. Tonight you’re part of a Judaism relevant enough to open the heart and power the spirit, because it starts exactly where we are right now. Relevance, says Art Green, is the key to Jewish renewal – a spiritual Judaism we make real with our presence, our hope, our honesty and our flaws. How much we bring our real selves forward will shape the kind of Jews we are and the kind of people we are. How much we actively invest our full selves will shape how much we renew ourselves in the days ahead.
That’s the call of this night. It’s the call to re-birth hope – to harness the power of this moment, the power of this community, as holy fuel to turbo-charge these days of meaning and renew our lives. The gates open to HaTikvah – “The Hope” – of our legacy, this community, this season of meaning, this season ofteshuvah.
That’s why we’re here, joining tonight as a community linked with others around the world, to harness the power of this time, our sacred places, music, liturgy and the words of our hearts. We tap all of that power to fuel our journey, to open us – one layer at a time – to the hope and renewal awaiting us in our very core.
In that merit, I bless us to allow these days of meaning to open us deeply to the hope that teshuvah and renewal really are possible, and so very close. May each of us feel this hope like that first fateful sunrise was for Adam: “This is the way of the world.” May each of us feel a new light of hope flowing in us and among us for a shanah tovah um’tukah – a good and sweet new year.
Keep hope! Keep hope!
Find your true hope in the One hope.
Find your true hope in the One.