The New Shul

Rabbi Wasserman’s Message on Rosh Hashanah

[This drashah was given on Sept. 26, 2022]

In the cycle of Jewish time, we mark different seasons of the year by adding different readings to the prayer service. The special reading that marks the month of Elul and the High Holiday season is Psalm 27, which we recite every morning and evening during this time. That psalm ends with a call for hope. Its final words are: “Kaveh el Adonai hazak v’ya’ametz libekha, v’kaveh el Adonai. Hope in God, let your heart be strong and tough, and hope in God.” Or we might translate it: “Hope for a more godly world, for a world with more of God in it. Let your heart be strong and tough, and hope for a more godly world.”

5782 has been a difficult year for hope. We have endured a flood of bad news this past year, news that makes us question humanity’s capacity to learn from its mistakes. Even as the Covid pandemic winds down, tens of thousands of people still died unnecessarily from Covid this past year, all because we have allowed ourselves to politicize public health. Mass shootings have continued this past year – and, what may be even worse, we have continued on the path to normalizing them, to getting used to them. Democracy and the rule of law, which are among the greatest blessings of modernity – and particularly blessings for us Jews – remained under attack during this past year, both from within our own society by those who fear majority rule and individual freedoms, and also from the outside by authoritarian regimes who want to roll back western values and ideals. And the natural world has continued to send us warning signals this past year about the damage that we are doing to the planet, in particular the warming of the atmosphere.

So it has been a hard year for hope. We human beings have a hard time learning from experience. And that makes it easy to give in to cynicism and despair.  Our tradition teaches us that we are called upon l’taken olam b’malkhut shadai – to repair the world under the kingship of God, to work to bring the oneness of God into this fragmented, broken world. But sometimes that just seems like a pipe dream, an empty slogan.

In our more cynical moments, we think of those who still hold fast to hope, who resist despair even in the midst of unremitting bad news, as naïve and sentimental, as PollyAnnish figures who avert their eyes from reality and refuse to see how bad things really are. But Psalm 27 teaches something very different about hope. It speaks of hope, not as sentimentality and naivete but as the very opposite: a form of toughness and courage. Its message is that hope is about being strong, not weak. Hope is about courage and persistence, not denial and avoidance. “Hope for a more godly world, strengthen and toughen your heart, and hope for a more godly world.”

The truth is that, in the face of bad news, despair is the easy way out. Despair is passive. It doesn’t demand anything of us. When you despair, you surrender. You throw your hands up and say that there is nothing that I can do, and therefore there is nothing that I need to do.

But hope is harder.  Hope makes demands. Hope asks something of us. Hope challenges us to get to work, to struggle for a better future. And therefore it requires strength and courage and toughness. To hope is not to put on rose-colored glasses, which distort reality. It is to search, within reality as it is, for possible paths forward. It is to look for sparks of light amidst the gloom, knowing that to find those sparks of light is to accept our own responsibility for helping to fan them into a greater flame. Despair is lazy because it looks no deeper than the surfaces of things. But hope looks deeper, beneath the surface, for hidden possibilities. And it accepts the moral obligation, the obligation to act, that comes with seeing those possibilities. That requires strength.

For one thing, it requires the strength to cut through our own excuses. In the face of more and more bad news, it’s easy to say “I’m not feeling hopeful.” Not only is it easy, but it often happens to be true. Often we’re not feeling hopeful. But to say that is as much a cop-out as to say  “I’m not feeling generous.” When we come face to face with other human beings who need our help, we don’t get off the hook by saying “I’m not feeling generous.” That is because generosity is not a feeling. It’s a choice. And the same is true of hope. In the end, hope is not something that we either have or don’t have, that we either feel or don’t feel. It is a decision. And as Psalm 27 reminds us, it’s a decision that requires courage and resolve. It requires strengthening and toughening our heart.

So part of what the psalm is teaching us is that to hope, in the face of continuing bad news, is a form of moral courage, moral strength.

But the words “strengthen and toughen your heart,” I think, refer to other kinds of strength and toughness as well. Hope is not only about moral strength but other kinds of strength as well. The authors of the Bible did not distinguish as sharply as we do between the head and the heart. They believed that thoughts and feelings come from the same place in us. And so, when the psalmist spoke of toughening the heart, I think he was referring to what we would call a toughness of the mind as well. Because holding fast to hope requires, not only moral toughness, but intellectual toughness too. It requires us to think more critically and independently than we often do, to resist simplistic fallacies and biases that often muddy up our thinking.

When we throw up our hands in despair because the world looks irredeemably bleak, we may think that we are being more realistic, more hard-headed than those who refuse to give up hope. We may think that they’re the ones who aren’t thinking clearly. But usually it’s exactly the opposite. Despair is sign, not only of moral laziness, but of intellectual laziness as well. Most often, it is based on a fallacy, the fallacy of what we might call presentism.  The human mind is biased toward assuming that whatever is now is bound to continue. Since we can’t see into the future, since we can’t foresee how things will change, we assume that they won’t, that whatever trend lines we observe now will continue on indefinitely, like a highway with no off-ramps. Since we can’t foresee how we will ever solve our current problems – how humanity will ever get better at handling epidemics, or how democracy will ever emerge from its present crisis, or how we can cut carbon emissions quickly enough to save the planet – we assume that those things won’t happen, that current trends will continue on forever.

But just because we can’t see the future off-ramps, it doesn’t mean that they won’t be there. And to assume that they won’t be there, just because we can’t see them now, is lazy – and a little arrogant as well. That’s because, if there is one thing that we do know about the future, it is that things always change in ways that no one can foresee. History never moves in straight lines for long. It oscillates, it twists and turns, in ways that may seem obvious in retrospect, but are impossible to see before the fact. There are always turning points, though we can’t see them in advance. Usually, we can’t see them even when we’re in the middle of them, but only in hindsight, years after the fact. Many miles down the road, we look back and realize: Oh, that was an off-ramp that we were on way back there. We didn’t know it at the time because there was no sign, but we were actually in the process of making a turn. That’s how historical change always is. You can see it only after the fact.

Of course there’s no guarantee that change will always be for the better. Things can also get worse. We don’t know. But what we do know is that things will change in ways that no one can see now.  

The Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna spoke about the fallacy of thinking we can predict the future based on current trends. He poked fun at the pundits who always preface their prognostications about the future with the words, “If present trends hold. . . , then x, y, and z.” The only problem with those prognostications, Sarna said, is that present trends never hold. History zigs and zags, and then it zigs and zags again, and it is pure silliness to think that any of us knows what will happen fifty years from now, or even ten or twenty, based solely on the present.

Sarna was speaking about Jewish history in particular. He was criticizing those who argue that Jewish life in America is in an irreversible decline based on current statistics on intermarriage and disaffiliation. He pointed out that, almost a century ago, in the 1920s and 30s, American Jews were saying the exact same thing. In the era between the two world wars, American Jews were drifting away from Judaism en masse. Synagogue affiliation was in free-fall, Jewish education was in an abysmal state, much worse than today. At the same time, Anti-Semitism was on the rise in this country, which made many people doubt that Jews could ever be truly at home in America. Many Jewish leaders predicted that, if current trends continued, American Judaism was doomed.

But in ways that no one could have foreseen, American Judaism reconstituted itself after the Second World War. The post-war era was a boom time for the American Jewish community. Synagogues sprung up all over the country. Anti-Semitism became socially unacceptable. Young Jews began to feel at home in this country in a way that their parents never had – at home, not only as Americans, but specifically as Jews. Today we remember that post-war period with great nostalgia, as a golden age of American Judaism. But we forget the time of pessimism that preceded it, when no one could have imagined what the future would hold.

What is true of Jewish history is true of history in general. To give up hope when things are bad, based on the assumption that current trends will hold indefinitely, is not only a moral failure, but failure in our thinking. The only thing we really know for sure is that current trends won’t continue indefinitely, because they never do. Values change. Priorities evolve. Technology leaps. Political and cultural winds shifts, in ways that one can never see in advance.

To go back to the 1920s and 1930s: At that time, western democracy was also on the defensive. It was under pressure from within and from without. It was being squeezed by fascism on the right and communism on the left. And it was not at all clear that democracy would survive that struggle. At that time, no one knew that, after the second world war, western values and ideals would reassert themselves with new strength and new confidence.

In the middle of the twentieth century, American cities were being choked with smog, and our waterways were being poisoned. No one knew at the time that an environmental movement was beginning to emerge that, in the decades that followed, would make the cleaning up of our water and air a mainstream political priority.

The same is true now. We can’t foresee today if or how we will solve the terrible problems that we face. Maybe we won’t solve those problems. But it’s lazy thinking to assume that we won’t just because we can’t see the solutions now. No one ever knows what the future will hold. And we shouldn’t act as if we did.

What should we do, then, given what we can’t know? What is the most honest way to proceed? Since we can’t see turning points in advance, and we often cannot see them even when we’re in them, we ought to act as if the most important turning point is now – because, for all we know, it might be. We ought to work as if our efforts now will make all the difference –because, for all we know, they might. That’s not naïve or sentimental. It’s not soft-minded. It’s not about refusing to accept hard facts. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s a form of intellectual honesty and toughness, a refusal to be fooled by the fallacy of presentism. Cynicism is lazy because it leaves out all the variables that we cannot foresee. Hope is harder because it demands that we be honest about what we cannot know. In that sense, it requires a toughness of the mind. I think that’s also what the psalmist was talking about when he said “Let you’re your heart be strong and tough, and hope for a more godly world.”

So hope requires, not only moral strength, but strength of mind as well. And it also requires a third kind of strength, a kind of spiritual toughness. By spiritual toughness, I mean the refusal to stop seeing, at the heart of our humanity, the image of the divine. It is the refusal to give up our commitment to see ourselves, as human beings, as likenesses of God.

The ancient rabbis taught that Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world. Today we say, “Hayom Harat Olam – Today the world is born.” We remind ourselves of the very first story that the Torah tells, the story of creation, and what that story teaches us about ourselves.

God’s creation of the world, as the Torah tells it, was an act of pure freedom. There was nothing that determined it in advance. There was nothing that could have determined it in advance, since there was nothing that preceded it at all. The world did not come into being because all the trend lines pointed in that direction. No pundit could have predicted it. It wasn’t a forseeable result of what had happened before. The creation of the world came out of nowhere – that is, nowhere except God’s freedom.

That is the first thing that the story of creation tells us. Later on, near the end of the first chapter of Genesis, the story tells us something else. It teaches us that we human being were created in God’s image, as likenesses of the divine. What does that mean? I think that part of what it means is that we too – like God –have the potential to do things that cannot be foreseen, that no pundit could predict. We too are free. We are not prisoners of the past. We can make choices. We can re-create ourselves, both individually and collectively. In that sense, we are likenesses of God.

That is one of the central messages of these Days of Awe – that we can choose. Human history is not entirely predictable, because it is human history, the history of images of God. We, like God, have the power to change course.

And so hope, the faith that the future does not have to be just an extension of the past and present – that it can be something different – is a spiritual commitment as well. In fact it is a very first spiritual commitment that the Torah asks us to make. It is the first thing that the Torah teaches us about ourselves. And it is the commitment at the heart of what these Days of Awe are all about, these days that mark the start of each new year. We are free.

Again, that doesn’t guarantee anything. It shouldn’t give us false hope. After all, we are just as free to mess things up as we are to fix them. But the faith that we are free should give us honest hope. Though we cannot say for sure that the future will be better, the future can be better, and therefore we must work to make it better. I think that’s why we recite psalm 27 twice a day during this time of year. That is why we say “Kaveh el Adonai, hazak v’ya’ametz libekha, v’kaveh el Adonai – Hope for a more godly world, strengthen and toughen your heart, and hope for a more godly world.” In times that try our faith, we need to summon all our moral, intellectual and spiritual toughness, so that we can continue to hope, so that we can continue to commit ourselves to that most fundamental mitzvah, which makes it possible for us to do the work that we were put here on this earth to do.