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Rosh Hashanah 5780 - The Futility of Hope

10/03/2019 12:54:49 PM


Maharat Ruth Friedman

"I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is." --- Greta Thunberg

This past June I completed a two year fellowship for early and mid-career rabbis. The purpose of this fellowship was to help the participants take a step back from the nitty gritty day to day of our rabbinate, consider the big picture of ourselves and our community, and work on establishing how we can become agents of adaptive change in our congregations. Part of this fellowship involved sessions on how we can “think outside the box” for programming and services in our synagogues. Some of this material didn’t conform to an Orthodox synagogue, but I had an open mind with it.

And then on the last night of the fellowship a smaller working group within the cohort led an experimental, embodied ritual service. They had planned it for a few months in advance under the guidance of a professor of prayer at Union Theological Seminary, who also taught at the closing retreat. The idea of deviating from the siddur and instead doing something physical is really not my thing, but again, open mind. They had us line up, single file, no talking. One by one we were instructed to walk through the door to exit the room, walk down the hall, and then stop in front of one of the leaders who stood outside the room we were entering. He instructed each of us to remove our shoes with no facial expression or other talking. And so, one by one, we silently followed orders, removing our shoes. 

We then entered the room, one by one. It was dark, save for a number of lit tealights on the floor. Each of us sat near a light and waited in silence for the next step. Once everyone was in the room, another one of the leaders started singing “kol ha olam kulo, gesher tzar meod” - the whole world is a very narrow bridge. They shared their own fear, about antisemitism and the deep anxiety over whether their synagogue would be the next targeted by an active shooter. It was raw, and powerful, and relatable. They then repeated “kol ha olam kulo, gesher tzar meod.”

When they were done, they asked all of us “what does your fear feel like?  What are you frightened of?” We had a lot of time to sit in silence and think about our answers, and then some time for those who wanted to share to do so. And then the leader started to sing kol haolam kulo again, but this time including the second half of the song “kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od/ v’haikar lo lefached klal.” They asked us a second question “What helps you get back up?  What helps you have courage in facing your fears?” They shared their own answer, and then sang ko ha olam kulo one more time, this time in a joyous, upbeat way. They concluded by saying something along the lines of affirming that there is work to be done, and while we might be afraid, we have tools and love (friends) by our side willing to walk the road with us. There is always hope. We were then free to blow out our candles, leave and put our shoes back on and gather for a reflection session on this service.

Now I’m really good at being polite and composed until I lose it, and then I really lose it. I tried to behave during this reflection session and think positively about my experience but about ten minutes in I couldn’t take it anymore. I blurted out “I HATED that session!” Everyone looked at me surprised. Why, they asked, did you hate it so much? Then, in classic Ruth form, I entered an impassioned monologue outlining all of my issues with it. The first half of the ritual - silence, moving one by one, taking off our shoes, a dark room, being asked about our deepest fears - that made me feel quite vulnerable. Out of a desire to be a team player and not a cynic, I had really tried to step into that space. I took off my shoes. I thought about my deepest fears. I gave it my all, and I was really present with my fears.

And then the response was to be told to think about one thing that gives us hope?? And then sing kol ha olam kulo gesher tzar meod v’haikar lo lefached clal, and be done with it?? You’re going to ask me to think about the thing I fear the most, then give an example of something that gives you hope, sing a cliche song I can’t stand, and then be done?? That’s not meaningful! It’s emotionally manipulative! I don’t remember what I said verbatim, but I do definitely remember telling them that if they had used this strategy in a chaplaincy visit in a hospital they would be fired. You can’t just create space for someone else’s fears and pain and then just shut it down. It felt like such a violation of my emotions and I just couldn’t take it. Luckily my colleagues didn’t allow this outburst to taint our relationship, though someone did mention that maybe next time I should try to soften my feedback a little. But I have been thinking a lot about this incident since it happened mid-June - both in terms of why the group had found it to be a meaningful service, and also why it elicited such a strong negative reaction in me.

The initial reason that I was so upset by this service was the way that they approached the notion of fear. Fear is a powerful, primal feeling that governs our behaviors probably more than any other feeling. Humans have fears induced by external stimuli, by past trauma, by other people, and by our own imagination. It is such an uncomfortable feeling that psychologists have argued that part of what creates anxiety disorders is a fear of fear, and of course there’s the famous FDR quote that “the only thing to fear is fear itself” -implying that once we conquer our fears we will be freed from anything holding us back. Personally I believe it is important to create space to validate our fears instead of dismissing them, and lean into what’s eliciting fear within us. This ranges from Ezra’s benign childhood fears of shadows when he goes to sleep - I always tell him that yes, I know they are scary, but you are safe - to a sick person’s fear of death. Whether we believe that they are trivial or serious, fears should be honored and respected.

So why did I feel so violated after this experimental prayer service? I’ve been thinking about this incident for three months, and I have come to understand that my upset is not at the fact that they deliberately created an environment to jar us out of our comfort zones - the silence, moving one by one, taking off our shoes, a dark room - and used that disruption to help us to home in on our deepest fears. I actually appreciated that; fear is real, and many of us would benefit from having a space to be present with our fears. Rather, my upset was at the proposed antidote to fear - hope.

Hope is defined as “an optimistic state of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes with respect to events and circumstances in one's life or the world at large.” It refers to the ability to transcend your current circumstances and wish for, or believe in, a future that will be better than the present. Just like fear, we can use hope in benign circumstances, like “I hope I can get out of work early today,” as well as enormously serious ones like “I hope that this treatment plan works and I am able to live.” Hope enables us to imagine a better world in which our anxieties will be alleviated, or even eradicated. Culturally, we approach hope positively in our society. I google imaged the word hope and was met with pictures of a small flower growing through a crack in a barren wasteland, of a sunset on a beach - images of natural beauty that we don’t usually see, reminding us of the potential for growth in the world.

But you know what this whole exercise made me realize? 

I don’t really like hope.

That doesn’t mean that I believe in the virtues of fear and despair; I don’t want to live my life consumed by them, and I wouldn’t want anyone else to, either. It’s more that I don’t see hope as an antidote to fear, but rather a token, somewhat meaningless phrase that we use to try to negate our own discomfort with our current circumstances. If I get up to give a drasha and I say “I hope it goes well,” it means I am trying to excuse the fact that I haven’t sufficiently prepared. Hope often serves is a naive human antidote to the discomfort of the absence of certainty, in which we deny that certainty and naively try to assure ourselves that things will work out, even when there’s a decent chance that they won’t. Once again, I am not a pessimist, nor a sadist. I am just not a fan of denying one’s circumstances and giving ourselves a false sense of security and control. I assume that this is rooted in my mother’s death at age 36, shortly after I turned 7. For my whole life I have known that the world isn’t fair, and that genuinely terrible things will happen to us no matter how hard we try to deny the world’s cruelty. And so when hope is presented as an antidote to our deepest fears, I recoil. In these circumstances I only see hope as a tool of denial and refusal to contend with the ugliness of the world by giving us a false sense of optimism and belief that the world isn’t as ugly of a place as it is.

Now I’m aware that so far this is an incredibly bleak outlook and some of you might be feeling a bit horrified at what I am sharing about myself, and, in fact, I share those concerns! I do not relish in being negative. So I found consolation in knowing that I am not alone in my perspectives on hope. If we study the history of the philosophy of hope, we see a wide range of approaches to it. To the ancient Greeks, hope was one of the evils left in Pandora’s box, and as an outgrowth of this, many early philosophers saw hope negatively - some even contending that it is a sign of laziness used to excuse us from working in the present. Hope can also be understood as an absence of faith - if you have complete faith in something, like Avraham with the akeidah, then there is no room for hesitation, which hope represents. But with the advent of Judaism and Christianity, hope got a much better rap, as both religions use hope as a means of motivation for communion with the divine - we wouldn’t strive to be closer to God if we didn’t have hope that we would succeed. You need look no further than the last verse of Psalm 27, which we have been reciting twice a day - קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל ה’ חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל ה׃
Look to the LORD; be strong and of good courage! O look to the LORD!

Amongst modern philosophers, approaches to hope are mixed. In the 19th century, Nietzche, invoking the story of Pandora, famously declared that “hope is in reality the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of Man.” But then in the 18th century Alexander Pope wrote “hope springs eternal”, a phrase that has survived until this day. In 2008 President Obama won the Presidential election by campaigning on hope, so I would venture to say that though hope has a murky past, in our contemporary society it is seen as a virtuous quality. 

But I have to say that I really don’t identify with that sentiment. As I said, I’ve never loved the idea of hope. But this year it has felt particularly challenging for me, because fear has felt particularly present. 

This retreat I was on in June was less than 2 weeks after an Australian think tank released a report forecasting devastating global climate destruction by 2050 if we do not majorly curb climate change. There were discussions of 10s if not 100s of millions of climate refugees - people who will have to flee their homes to escape climate destruction. That is scary in and of itself, but what really got to me was the realization that God-willing in 2050 my children will be roughly the same age that I am now. It terrifies me to think about what the world might look like for them when they are my age, and I wonder if I should feel guilty for even bringing them into this world. And so when two weeks later I found myself sitting on the floor of this dark room being invited to think about my deepest fear, I leaned into what had been floating in the back of my mind since I had seen those headlines and said to myself “I am completely terrified that my children will not be able to live full and complete lives because of the effects of climate change.”

Sitting with this fear was deeply uncomfortable, as all fear is, but I find it especially paralyzing because I don’t feel like there is anything I can do about it. Sure I turn the lights off when I leave the room and I try to teach my kids not to waste water but we all know that that isn’t really going to do anything. I don’t have any influence on global policy. And I can’t make any radical lifestyle changes like living off the grid and only riding bicycles. All I can do is live with my fear, try to suppress it enough so that it doesn’t consume me, and pray that the powers that be are able to agree to significant changes. To me, hope has no role in this fear other than serving as a distraction. Hope implies that there is a possibility of another ending if we just believe in it. But in that respect, hope is futile. The writing is on the wall, and cannot be denied. And so, when the prayer service turned to hope and then ended, I felt like the sanctity of my fears had been betrayed. 

But then, something changed. A few weeks ago the Board of Rabbis held a high holiday sermon nugget session for local rabbis. Five of us, myself included, taught some material for ten minutes. It was there that Rabbi Rachel Ackerman of Temple Shalom just up the street, introduced me to a text that has shifted my focus and given me a new perspective. 

Now I’ve already told you that I didn’t like the prayer service, and that I don’t like hope, so I reallyyy hesitate to say that I don’t like one more thing, but I will anyway. I REALLY don’t like that song “kol ha olam kulo gesher tzar meod, vahaikar lo lefached clal.” The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important part is not to be afraid. It’s one of those things that sounds poetic and beautiful until you think about it and realize that that doesn’t make any sense. What does it mean that the whole world is a narrow bridge? What are you crossing over? Where are you going? What if you need to turn around and go a different direction? Are you only allowed to move forward? 

And why don’t we have to be afraid? What would we be afraid of? Does that mean that in order to survive life we need to deny all of our fears? Does anyone really think you can just make your fears go away? To me that song is emblematic of my wariness of hope - it’s cliche, and doesn’t really make any sense, and it serves to further the misleading role of hope in our society.

But as Rabbi Ackerman taught me a few weeks ago, that statement is not the original Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. 
The original teaching, found in the Likutei Moharan, is
וְדַע, שֶׁהָאָדָם צָרִיךְ לַעֲבֹר עַל גֶּשֶׁר צַר מְאֹד מְאֹד, וְהַכְּלָל וְהָעִקָּר – שֶׁלֹּא יִתְפַּחֵד כְּלָל:
Know, too! a person must cross a very, very narrow bridge. The main rule is: Do not succumb to fear!

I see two main differences here. First, the whole world isn’t a narrow bridge, it’s just that sometimes you’ll have to pass over a very narrow bridge. I find that much more relatable - we’ve all gone through experiences in our lives when we felt like we could fall at any minute, and that there was no room to stray from the path or look back. But as the original states, this narrow bridge is not the totality of human existence, it is merely a piece of it.
The second notable difference is the word יתפחד. In the song that we all know, the Hebrew is לא לפחד כלל - you should not be afraid - words that I don’t even tell my 4 year old.  The original is לא יתפחד כלל - you should not succumb to the fear. You cannot let it consume you. 

So why do we know a version different than the original? I find this history of it fascinating because the song was a direct response to a specific fear. The song version that we all know was written by Rabbi Baruch Chait in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. This was a war of deep fear and vulnerability. Israel had been attacked by surprised, and many were dying. Soldiers needed chizuk to go to battle, and so Rabbi Chait wrote it. The story is that it was broadcast to Israeli soldiers in Ariel Sharon’s tank command as they approached the Suez Canal. The song was never intended to be a song about life and its challenges; it was a battle hymn written to inspire and comfort young soldiers as they entered war. 
Knowing this gave me a sense of peace and has redeemed that song. It has also given me new tools with which to think about my fear. I appreciate the song because I now understand that it was written for a specific group of people in specific circumstances - in this case a group of soldiers entering a deadly and uncertain war. It was not intended to be taught as a general approach to life, which is how we mistakenly treat it today. Rather, what Rebbe Nachman wanted us to know is that we will all encounter challenges in our life in which we feel that we are walking on a narrow bridge. Challenges where we can’t look down, or else we’ll fall. Challenges where we can’t turn around and go back to where we came from. And challenges where we can’t be paralyzed by fear, or else we will be stuck in that same spot forever. Challenges where you have no choice but to move forward, even if it is really scary. And in those moments of challenge we should not try to deny our fears, or naively think we can make it disappear; rather, our job is to learn how to carry that fear with us without letting it paralyze us. Because if it does, we will not make it to the other side of that bridge. We will remain there, paralyzed.

But there is still one thing missing. Ok, you live with the fear. You embrace it, but you don’t let it consume you. But there’s still an unanswered question - what is the motivation for getting to the other side of the bridge? Rebbe Nachman teaches us that in order to survive moments of fear and despair we have to find a way not to let our fear consume is. But why? If things are so bad, where do we get the desire and strength to even try to make it to the other side? 

After thinking about it this week, I now realize that this is where that dreaded concept of hope comes in. I have spent the week reading articles and listening to podcasts about how people are approaching our planet’s bleak outlooks. (My intention is not to opine about the details of climate change - I know that some are debated. I just want to use it as an interesting model for how people confront their fears differently and relate to the idea of hope in the face of these fears.) 

Multiple outlets have reported on people who have made the conscious choice not to have children because they do not want to bring children into a world of uncertainty and destruction. It is devastating to listen to, though I respect that decision as I live with my own guilt of bringing my children into the world. But it also represents the absence of hope. It is radical acceptance of one’s current situation without a drop of hope for the future (and fascinatingly, multiple climate scientists have discouraged this approach, which itself gives me hope!)

There are also plenty of people and leaders who are expressing hope but aren’t changing their actions, and young activists are pushing back at them, saying that they don’t want their hope, they want action. That brings me to another fascinating group getting a lot of attention this week - young teenage climate activists. I have been reading about them, and listening to interviews with them. These teens are unbelievable. They are witnesses to our rapidly eroding planet, and rather than be paralyzed by their fear like so many of us, they have chosen to act. They campaign, they protest, they skip school. They are dedicated, they are passionate, and they are resolved to win. Their maturity amazes me. They are not stuck on the bridge or trying to turn around and go back the way they came. They are leaning into their fear and fighting to move forward.

At the end of one of the interviews the host asked one of the students what gave her hope, a word that had not been mentioned much until that point. She responded that the only thing that gave her hope was believing that her efforts would be successful. Her hope wasn’t an abstract optimism hinged on something unrelated; it wasn’t disconnected from reality. She was fighting for something, and she was fighting so hard that her hope was rooted in the belief that she would be successful. 
That young woman redeemed hope for me this week. She demonstrated that it is possible to hope while also being realistic about your current reality. That hope is more than a tool of denial. And, when coupled with realism and perseverance, hope becomes can enormously powerful tool capable of motivating change.

Humanity is currently on a very narrow bridge. Though some are still trying, we can no longer turn around and look back to where we came from. Nor can we afford to stand still, paralyzed with fear. Rather, we must confront our fear and learn to live with it if we want to be able to keep moving. There is still hope for a better future, but only the kind of hope that is grounded in an acceptance of reality, and of action. As our sages have taught, the sound of the shofar is supposed to awaken us to action; it is not enough to listen to it passively and then leave. This year I wish us all the presence of mind to honor our fears while we move to act. May we all merit to reach the other side of the bridge. Shana tova.

Mon, February 24 2020 29 Shevat 5780