In his book, “Future Tense,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asserts that the Jews invented hope. “For the ancient Greeks, everything was fate; the future predetermined the past. But, the Jews stepped up in history – believing in freedom – rejecting determinism in favor of human agency.” Sacks says further: “The Greeks gave the world the concept of tragedy. Jews gave it the idea of hope. To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every syllable of every story, every element of Jewish law is a protest against escapism, resignation, or the blind acceptance of fate.”
Hope is a word frequently used in the English language. I hope my child will get into Harvard. I hope my airplane will depart on time. I hope the rabbi’s sermon will end before Tisha B’Av. But, this is not how hope is used in a Jewish context.
Hope is not a wish list of things we desire to happen to us. Rather, hope is an orientation towards life, a life in which we have faith in the future, a faith in the God who brings the future to be.
Sociologist Peter Berger calls hope “a signal of transcendence” – something that speaks to us from beyond where we are. In other words, hope is future-focused, forcing us to squarely face the facts of life and then see past them. Hope, therefore, is a human quality. Of all the animals on the earth, only human beings are capable of thinking in the future tense. Only we can allow our minds to inhabit a different reality than our bodies. We simultaneously dwell in the world that is and the world we aspire to – the world as it might yet be. When we say Jews have hoped for 3,000 years, that is what we mean. When we hope for something, we conceive of things turning out differently – sometimes without any evidence, and such thinking is not always easy for us. Hope is an irrational emotion because we don’t always have scientific proof to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. As the old saying goes: Sometimes things get worse before they get better. To be hopeful, like investing in the stock market, you have to take the long view. After all, the long arc of God bends toward justice.
Nonetheless, the prevailing spirit of the age encourages us to take the short view. Remember the Ashley Madison hack from a few years ago? That story opened the world’s eyes to a website for people seeking to cheat on their spouses. It told visitors: “Life is short; have an affair.” In other words, they were saying: the long view doesn’t matter.
Rabbi Rothschild of The Temple was not thinking about the short term when he spoke up for civil rights and racial integration – he was thinking about his grandchildren – despite its unpopularity in his day. He, too, took the long view.
God wants us to love our neighbor even if it requires sacrifice, and it will. God wants us to seek the best in one another, but to also be honest about the consequences of our choices. God wants us to be generous and kind and just. God wants us to pay more attention to our responsibilities than our rights. God wants us to value relationship more than power and goodness more than gain. God wants us to live in the tension between NOW and NOT YET. In this New Year 5779 that stretches out before us: God wants us to take the long view.