By Rabbi Betsy Forester
This feels like a strange time to celebrate the creation of the world and our place of honor as human beings in the world. Our world, our country, and Madison, in particular, are mired in despair. The pandemic, and the entrenched, structural, and global problems it has exposed and exacerbated, seem intractable. We could succumb to a sense of powerlessness and resign ourselves to the world as it is, but the coming of Rosh Hashanah calls us to take a different approach. The Jewish way is to drill down on hope.
Hope is a challenging spiritual practice. It is not the same thing as optimism, which is a belief that things will work themselves out on their own. Our tradition tends not to be optimistic; our Bible is anything but optimistic. But it is deeply hopeful.
Hope is a deeply rooted Jewish practice. In order to hope, we must believe in the possibility of change. We must be able to see ourselves and other people as change agents. Practicing hope requires vulnerability, putting ourselves on the line, taking a risk. Hope requires truth and honesty. False hope only masks anxiety. Real hope is a commitment. Ultimately, hope is an act of faith. A great thing about it, though, is that we can practice hope even when faith is difficult.
Our sages teach that when we are called to judgment for how we lived, we will be asked a series of questions. Did you transact business in good faith? Did you engage in family life? Did you seek knowledge and understanding of the world and the people around you? Did you build a relationship with the Divine? Did you anticipate redemption? Did you attempt to understand things from different perspectives (Bavli Shabbat 31a)? Against a backdrop of so many personal questions, the query about redemption stands out. It takes an individual beyond themself and links them with a much broader vision.
With regard to anticipating redemption, one medieval commentator adds that each person must live in creative tension between what is in front of them in the world as it is, and the possibility of how much better it could be, and take responsibility for moving their corner of the world a bit closer to perfection (Chidushei Ha’RaN).
The Slonimer Rebbe puts a sharper point on this. He says that we are to be like scouts, looking out from a high tower. From that vantage, we can see both the suffering around us while grasping the broader reality that God did not create the world to be a place of pain and suffering. Rather, the world is good, and our lives have purpose. Although we do not know how to transform the world, our task is to trust that our efforts to make a difference will be supported and aided by a God Who seeks our help to move the world toward healing. Each person, he teaches, has a purpose in creation. Our purpose is to refine our own character and take steps to fix what lies broken before us. We were created to take part in the ongoing creation of the world (Netivot Shalom, Vayechi, Siman Bet). We practice hope when we refuse to accept the world as it is, trust in a vision of what it should be, and commit to doing our small part to make it so.
Surely, it is understandable that we should grieve the holy days that we cannot celebrate this year as we wish. There is much to grieve at this time. But let us not neglect that we are also blessed with a wired-in capacity to practice hope. Hope is active and empowering. Practicing hope is our human link and sacred task in the process of redemption.
On behalf of the entire Beth Israel Center family, I wish the entire Madison Jewish community a Shanah Tovah Um’tukah, a good and sweet year. I hope that together, we will make it so.
Rabbi Betsy Forester joined Beth Israel Center as their spiritual leader in 2018. She is a master teacher and religious leader skilled at helping people build meaningful lives through transformative Jewish experiences rich in authenticity, depth, empowerment, intellectual rigor, sacredness, and joy.