In Spite of It All, I Still Believe in Hope

Congregation Mishkan Israel
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781, September 18, 2020

Life is filled with ups and downs, as our wise ruler King Solomon knew well. “One day King Solomon decided to humble his most trusted minister Benaiah Ben Yehoyada,. He said to him, “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. It has magic powers: If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy. You have until Sukkot.” Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility.

For six months Benaiah searched, and on the day before Sukkot he passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet. Now desperate to find the ring, he asked the woman, “Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?”

He watched the woman take a plain wooden ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile. That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity.

“Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you after?” All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled. To everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a small wooden ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!” As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweler had written on the ring “Gam zeh ya’avor” — “This too shall pass.” At that moment Solomon realized that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust.”

Gam Ze Ya’avor – this too shall pass. We will be together again to pray together, celebrate together, mourn together, and to hug each other. And when times are great again, we will also remember, gam ze ya’avor, this will pass. Life is a journey of mountains and valleys, a combination of good and bad, of joys and sorrows. From a simple phrase, we learn to hold onto what matters most in our lives, that whenever we look to the future we must do so with hope.

Hope is an essential Jewish value that allows us embrace the possibility of a brighter future. We must always hold on to hope – hope in ourselves, hope in our community, hope in our country, and hope that one day our children will only know shalom, wholeness and peace.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the past chief rabbi of the UK, teaches that Jews invented hope[1]. The Torah, he notes, is a story with a beginning but no end, containing stories about the possibility of the future. “At the heart of Judaism….is the belief in human freedom. We are what we choose to be. Society is what we choose to make it. The future is open. There is nothing inevitable in the affairs of humankind…The whole of Judaism… is a set of laws and narratives designed to create in people, families, communities and a nation, habits that defeat despair. Judaism is the voice of hope in the conversation of mankind.”

As Rabbi Sacks considers the many tragedies of the Jewish people, he always turns to hope as the reason why Jews ultimately persevere. Our history is filled with reasons for despair, yet time and again we embrace hope and move forward together. This time is no different – a time when we as a human race are confronted with a horrific enemy. It is easy to let despair overtake us –we can’t see our children or grandchildren, we can’t embrace those that we love, we can’t visit loved ones in nursing homes, we postpone weddings, we limit the size of b’nai mitzvah services and celebrations, and we cannot gather in our most sacred space on the holiest days of the year. But we will not let despair win. Like the generations of Jews before us, we will find reasons to embrace hope and continue to dream about the future.

Our community can find one of those reasons on most shabbat mornings when we celebrate the newest members of CMI as they become b’nai mitzvah. This fall, may of these students have had their ceremonies postponed, are not having parties of course, and have been studying twice as long as their peers. And yet when they finish reading from our 400 year old Czek Torah scroll, saved from the ashes of the Holocaust, we see the same proud smile erupt on their faces, sometimes the first smiles that their parents have seen in months. We embrace hope for their future.

The essential nature of hope is embodied by one of Maimonides thirteen principles of faith. Writing in the 13th century, our great sage declares: “Ani maamin, be’emunah, shleima,” “I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and although she may delay, I will wait for the day that she will arrive.[2]” These words in Hebrew have been set to music throughout the Jewish world as words of hope. Even in the Reform movement, where we often eschew mentions of the messiah, we still sing these words to a song written in 70’s by Debbie Friedman. (sing?) I remember sitting in the dining hall at Goldman Union Camp Institute, GUCI, the Reform summer camp at which I fell in love with Judaism, singing this song over and over, the song of hope.

Some Jews believe that the messiah is a divine being who will come and bring perfection to our world, while others, especially in the Reform Movement, believe that if we work together, we can bring perfection in our world. Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, z’l, one of the great Jewish philosophers of the 20-21st century, teaches that the early Reformers “saw that democracy and political action [bring] more benefits than prayers for the Messiah had ever done. So they looked to humanity to change itself: if ignorance, superstition, thoughtless habit, and self-serving power were what stood in the way of true peace, then if only everyone were educated, they might join one another to transform the world…. Jewish people could serve all humanity by teaching others…that all people….could bring God’s Kingdom into being by working together.”[3]

The difference in waiting for perfection and working toward perfection illustrates the difference between optimism and hope. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also makes this distinction: “Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope.[4]

Most of us can only remain optimistic about the end to COVID as we wait for scientists and doctors to create a safe and effective vaccine, but that doesn’t mean we sit idle. We actively embrace hope when we connect with friends, family and community in whatever safe way we choose. We embrace the idea that by logging into High Holy Day services, whether you are joining us via Zoom, the Livestream or watching this days later, our sacred traditions and rituals bring us calm and comfort.

One of our sacred rituals occurs every week, on Saturday night when we separate Shabbat from the rest of the week in a ceremony called Havdalah. Throughout the High Holy Days, tomorrow night, at the end of Yom Kippur, and on Simchat Torah, all at 6:00pm, please join Cantor Giglio and I outside in the CMI parking to hear the shofar and to make Havdalah as a community. One of the last songs we sing during Havdalah is Eliyahu Hanavi, a prayer for messianic hope. “Elijah,” we ask, “may you come speedily and tell us that the Messiah has arrived,” that our world is perfect and whole. One day these words will come true.

Ani maamin be’emunah shleima, I believe with complete faith that through love, joy and hope, gam ze ya’avor – this too shall pass.

Shanah Tova u’metukah u’v’tikvah, May you have a sweet, happy and hopeful new year.

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, How the Jewish People Invented Hope. accessed 8/3/2020

[2] Siddur, Yigdal, RAMBAM’s 13 principles of faith

[3] Borowitz, Eugene. Explaining Reform Judaism. 1985, pg 174

[4] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference p. 206,