Emily Dickinson wrote:
In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much — how little — is within our power
As I watched hurricanes in Texas, the Caribbean, Florida and Bangladesh, forest fires in British Columbia, heat in San Francisco, and earthquakes in Mexico, I was anxious for friends and strangers, for personal safety and about our planetary plight.
As I saw the images of terror from London and Barcelona, so similar to what happened in Paris, Ottawa and Jerusalem, I was anxious about the safety of a family from Beth Tzedec and fearful about the possibility of attacks here.
As I read of missiles flying over Japan, I remembered Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a guest scholar here 20 years ago: the threat of nuclear proliferation will come from Iran and North Korea. I am anxious about threats of war.
As I viewed the images of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching with burning torches in Charlottesville, I despaired over the renewal of public hatred, was dismayed by its migration to Canada, and outraged by efforts to downplay its significance.
This has been a summer of unease and anxiety. Disarray and despair. Natural and national.
I kept thinking of the words of Unetaneh Tokef: Who shall live and who shall die, Who in the fullness of days and who not, Who by water and who by fire, Who by sword and who by wild beast?
What makes you anxious? A mother asked her 6 year old to get a can of soup from the basement pantry. Afraid of the dark room, Joey’s mother reassured him, “Don’t worry, God will be in there with you.” Joey opened the door a bit, then closed it. He went back to his mother, “Since God is there, can I just ask God to hand me the can of soup?”
Thirty years ago, the fears of grade school children were: animals, dark rooms, high places, strangers, and loud noises. Today, kids are afraid of
divorce, nuclear war, cancer, pollution, and being attacked in the street. Our fears define our society and our lives.
What wisdom might our Torah tradition, the teachings of Tanakh and Talmud, provide us at this time to give strength and solidarity, a haven of hope to our own community and to others?
The great historian, Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi z”l, understood that one cannot explore how Jews lived with hope without examining Jewish despair. Only when we realize how anxious and fearful our ancestors were, can we begin to comprehend the significance and the method of their response.
The Bible describes the conquest of the Northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians and then the danger from the Babylonians anticipated by the southern kingdom of Judah. There were many anxious souls, uncertain what to do and where to flee. Many abandoned the covenant of Abraham and Sarah.
But in the book of Jeremiah we find a “prototypical act of hope”. As the city was to be overrun by the Babylonians, the prophet was instructed by God to buy a field on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
So I bought the field at Anatot …I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I …gave the deed of purchase to Barukh son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of …all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Barukh, saying, Thus says the Eternal of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. (Jer 32: 9-15).
Directed by God's vision of the future, Jeremiah’s purchase was an act of trust despite despair.
But even people of faith have doubts. The Rabbis of the Talmud imagine Jeremiah changing the language of prayer because of his uncertainty. Although Moses described God as “great, mighty, and awesome ~~ הא-להגדולהגבורוהנורא״” (Dt 10:17), Jeremiah said: The troops of Nebuchadnezzar are in the Sanctuary; how can I say that God is awesome? Jeremiah said only, “הא-להגדולוגבור” The great mighty God (Jeremiah 32:18).
In a prayer, recited during Selihot and on Yom Kippur, we point to Daniel who felt the support of God.מישענהלדניאלבגובהאריות… הואיעננו. Just as God answered Daniel, may God be with us in our troubles and respond to us during our challenges. Yet the Rabbis tell us that when Daniel experienced exile and enslavement, he questioned God’s might. He did not say that God was mighty, only that God was “great and awesome” — הא-להגדולוהנורא״” (Dan 9:4).
A later generation of rabbis restored the Mosaic language. They reframed the events to understand God’s strength to be patience and divine awesomeness to be demonstrated through the survival of the Jewish people. When we recite these words in the Amidah, we not only echo the language of Torah, we also affirm that despite the challenges of daily life, God will continue to be with us.
Jerry Seinfeld once observed, “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy”.
Let’s get some perspective on our fears by looking at other times in Jewish history when hope prevailed over anxiety and despair.
In the year 70, all of the major institutions of Jewish life were destroyed. Prophets — gone. Country — occupied. Revolt against Rome — crushed. Temple — destroyed. People thought that they should be permanent mourners, consuming neither wine nor meat. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Yerushalmi observed: “That was a time when the Jewish people faced… the deepest despair… many succumbed…. [saying] ‘God is totally removed from us. We have no sacrifices. We have no way of communicating with God.’”
A small group, just beginning to call themselves rabbis, did not succumb. No Temple, no sacrifices. But Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, says: You still have prayer. He tells Jews of the generation of destruction and future generations: Prayer. Tzedakah. Teshuvah. Kindness. He reframed the Biblical form of divine-human contact to teach that other actions would maintain a connection with God. He and other rabbis built a structure of prayer, ritual and ethics that would sustain the people of Israel without the Temple.
Yerushalmi observed: “This… ability to rise from the ruins, to recreate, to transpose values into new channels, to achieve a future where no future seems possible any more … fascinates my mind and … tugs at my heart….This is one of the themes… that run through Jewish history. In this period… you find it at its most intense. …This capacity to sustain hope… is an extraordinary and mysterious thing.”
In medieval Spain, Jews played important roles as advisors to Christian royalty. Despite influence and power they were subject to popular anger and religious resentment. In March 1391, anti-Jewish rioting broke out in Seville. It spread to other parts of Spain. Thousands were killed, neighbourhoods were torched and a wave of conversions began — estimates range up to 200,000 individuals. In 1480, after almost 100 years of oppressive laws and papal decrees, an Inquisition was instituted to investigate crypto-Jews. In 1492, all Jews were expelled from Spain.
Rabbi Yitzhak Arama reported that he and other Jews were compelled to listen to Christian sermons. He learned from that experience and shifted his sermons from an emphasis on the mind to the heart, stressing faith and fidelity, deed over doctrine. This approach, which was adopted by other Spanish rabbis in the mid-1400s became a pathway to internal strength and subsequent survival.
Solomon ibn Verga recounts a remarkable story that anticipates the reaction of Elie Wiesel to the Holocaust:
I heard from elders who left Spain that the captain of a ship threw people onto land [in Africa]. Most died of starvation. One Jew … sought shelter. During the journey, his wife and children died from hunger. He stood and said: "Lord of the Universe! You have done much to have me abandon my faith. I want you to know that, in spite of the forces of Heaven, I am a Jew and I will remain a Jew, and whatever you have brought or will yet bring against me will be to no avail!" He then buried his sons, and went on to look for a settlement.
Despite anguish and anger, he found a way to continue.
Analysing the political situation, Ibn Verga noted that Christian sovereignty covers up many [flaws], like the veil on the woman covers up many imperfections. Diaspora is the opposite, for it uncovers and makes a stain as small as a mustard grain seem as large as the orb of the sun. Without their own country, Jews would have to carefully find a way to forge what Pierre Birnbaum called a “geography of hope”.
Spanish and Portuguese Jews who made their way from Exile to Amsterdam contributed to the establishment a new world of freedom of commerce and conscience. Sephardic refugees made their way to Poland, which became known as “heaven for the Jews.” Others became traders in the Ottoman Empire. Migrants who reached the Land of Israel helped to develop a world of mystical ritual and faith, law and practice, homilies and holiness. Jews responded to loss by the daily mechanisms of adaptation and affirmations of life.
Pierre Birnbaum calls this the "geography of hope”. Jewish migration was not only to find economic opportunities. We sought societies that were tolerant — a "geography of hope” — and we framed the conditions of life to give our dispersion and defeat meaning. That is why so many of us are disturbed by contemporary developments. International instability and bellicose nationalism have never been good for the Jews — or anyone else.
Yerushalmi says that Jews developed a "midrash of history” that allowed us to burrow “beneath the surface of events to find inner meaning or even invisible triumphs in the wake of what otherwise might seem to be examples of defeat.” Although the Mashi’ah didn’t arrive, we were able to foster “interim Jewish hopes” to sustain us. While enduring the tension of waiting to reach the Land of Promise, our liturgy and ritual were “sources and salves” allowing for continued resilience.
In our Museum is a shoe liner made from a Torah scroll. During the Holocaust, Jews whose shoes had holes were forced to use sacred parchment to protect themselves from snow and ice. The Nazi "logic of destruction" was designed to crush the soul of the Jew, to produce self-disgust and self-destruction.
Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum of the Warsaw Ghetto reframed the traditional ideal of martyrdom, Kiddush Hashem. Under the Nazis, he stressed that Jews should seek kiddush hahayyim, sanctification of life. Previously our enemies sought Jewish souls and we gave our bodies. The Nazis wanted body and soul. We resisted by preserving, as much as possible, life and dignity.
Outside of Lublin, a Nazi officer, Glowoznik, rounded up a group of Hasidim and ordered them to sing and dance. The terrified victims began a song that the pious sing in the face of death: לומירזיךאובערבעטעןאבינושבשמים~ Let us be reconciled, Father in Heaven.
Their voices quavered. Glowznik ordered them to sing more heartily. A voice broke out: מירוועלעןסייאובערלעבןאבינושבשמים ~ We shall outlive them, Father in heaven. Silence. The song took hold. The Hasidim began to dance. Glowoznik screamed at them to stop. In those few moments, the Hasidim had prevailed, sanctifying life, kiddush hahayyim.
Following the Shoah, the determination of Zionists to establish a Jewish state became more imperative. Again, this was an instance of sanctifying life. Israel is not a messianic kingdom. It is a nation-state with acclaimed accomplishments and constant challenges. Its creation and continued existence is a kiddush hahayyim.
Yerushalmi noted that in modern times, the Jewish experience has, in many ways, anticipated the experience of [humanity] in a larger context. … Jews have experienced genocide…. [and] annihilation and now… the world can conceive of the possibility of annihilation [of an entire people]. As we have seen, terror directed against Israelis has now migrated to all of Europe. And Europeans are learning from Israelis how to protect themselves, maintain an open society, and go about daily life.
Jews [do not] have a monopoly on persecution. … But the history of the Jews is longer… more ubiquitous than the history of other peoples.… [Usually] we read history of the victors. Jews… were defeated; in their defeat, were able to articulate what they felt and how they responded. And …in their defeat, did not admit to being inferior. On the contrary, felt superior to those who had defeated them.
In his poem, “And What is My Lifespan,” Yehudah Amichai writes of Jewish anxiety and of the way we can support each other:
wasn’t one of the six million who died in the Shoah,
I wasn’t even among the survivors.
And I wasn’t one of the six hundred thousand who went out of Egypt.
I came to the Promised Land by sea.
No, I was not in that number,
though I still have the fire and the smoke within me,
pillars of fire and pillars of smoke that guide me
by night and by day. I still have inside me the mad search
for emergency exits, for soft places, for the nakedness
of the land, for the escape into weakness and hope…
believe with perfect faith that at this very moment
millions of human beings are standing at crossroads
and intersections, in jungles and deserts,
showing each other where to turn, what the right way is,
which direction. They explain exactly where to go,
what is the quickest way to get there, when to stop
and ask again. There, over there. The second
turnoff, not the first, and from there left or right,
near the white house, by the oak tree.
They explain with excited voices, with a wave of the hand
and a nod of the head:
There, over there, not that there, the other there,
as in some ancient rite. This too is a new religion.
I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment.
Amichai offers a deeply Jewish response to natural disasters and human evil. It is not to attempt to transform the world. It is a much smaller project: Accompany others. Give direction and support. Be with the healers and helpers, not with the haters.
Howard Zinn observed in The Optimism of Uncertainty:
Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysm moment …but …moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in process of change.
In a similar way, Atul Gwande recently wrote about the challenge of incremental medicine — long-term care and support of patients — in distinction to intensive, one-off medical procedures. Each has value, but we often valorise the one-off, forgetting how significant the slow and steady medical care can be.
Chris Turner, an environmental activist, also directed his attention away from large-scale solutions to climate change to seek out small-scale pioneers of environmental sustainability. Interestingly, he called his search The Geography of Hope.
As we face the reality of increased anti-semitism and racism, we must acknowledge our personal anxiety and fear. But we cannot succumb. We must stand with dignity and self-respect. If necessary, seek legal redress. Always demonstrate moral principle. In the face of those who would exclude, speak up. Say simply, “I don’t want to be in this conversation.”
Don’t despair, dig in and find projects that can make a difference. Join Rav Adam and me on October 24 or 25 to build affordable housing with Faith in Canada 150 and Habitat for Humanity. Let political leaders who stand for values of inclusion and tolerance know of your support. Encourage the best of us.
Zinn writes: To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. …Human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness…. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places… where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act…. We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. … To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
Do what you can do, again and again, like ritual, and you will accomplish more than you can imagine. That is a Jewish response to despair.
Shana tovah u’metukah.
The Faith of Fallen Jews: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and the Writing of Jewish History. David N. Myers, Alexander Kaye (2013, University Press New England)
Geography of Hope: Exile, the Enlightenment, Disassimilation, Pierre Birnbaum. Translator Charlotte Mandell (2008, Stanford)
The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, Chris Turner (Vintage, 2008)