Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life

Rabbi’s Blog

September, 2020

 

Dear Friends,

In early March, life looked very different. As many of you know, I made an interesting professional transition in the first week of March as I left the JCC in Springfield to become the Executive Director at Camp Laurelwood in Madison, Connecticut. It was a time of real excitement and the culmination of more than a decade of professional work. I was excited about the new challenge, ready to have an incredible summer at Camp with hundreds of campers, and eager to jump right in. And then, the second week of March the world changed as COVID-19 arrived in full force. My daughters’ schools closed. My Camp closed. Our Coalition community went virtual. 

I remember speaking with Hannah and Marian that week. We were supposed to hold our monthly Shabbat service, and they wisely contacted me to reschedule. There was so much that was unknown. We said we would re-evaluate in a couple of weeks, and look ahead to Passover. And then a couple of weeks later we knew all too well how much our world had really changed. It was a time of loss, of deep concern for our world and our community. It was a time of hopelessness. Now, 6 months later and more than 200,000 deaths deep in a pandemic that is worse than anything in any of our lifetimes, I continue to search for that hope.

It has been a real slog – this seeking hope in the midst of the pandemic. I have not been looking for hope because it will make me feel better. In fact, I would argue that the search for hope impedes the consolation of acceptance. Hope, as my friend and colleague Rabbi Joshua Lesser wrote, is the refusal to settle for mere comfort or consolation. This is in fact the conclusion that I am drawing to this holiday season as I recite Unetaneh Tokef, asking who shall live and who shall die, with a more personal tone. 

Barbara Kingsolver, the NY Times bestselling novelist best known for her climate change activism, was giving a graduation speech at Duke University in 2008 as our country slid into the Great Recession. It was, for very different reasons, a similar time of hopelessness in our country. Yet, she pushed the graduates to own the hope that they were yearning for. She asked this of them not because she thought it would console them, but because she thought it would drive them. I share with you the poem she offered at the end of her address:

 

Hope: An Owner’s Manual

by Barbara Kingsolver

Look, you might as well know, this thing

is going to take endless repair: rubber bands,

crazy glue, tapioca, the square of the hypotenuse. 

Nineteenth century novels. Heartstrings, sunrise:

all of these are useful. Also, feathers.

To keep it humming, sometimes you have to stand

on an incline, where everything looks possible;

on the line you drew yourself. Or in

the grocery line, making faces at a toddler

secretly, over his mother’s shoulder.

You might have to pop the clutch and run

past all the evidence. Past everyone who is

laughing or praying for you. Definitely you don’t

want to go directly to jail, but still, here you go,

passing time, passing strange. Don’t pass this up.

In the worst of times, you will have to pass it off.

Park it and fly by the seat of your pants. With nothing

in the bank, you’ll still want to take the express.

Tiptoe past the dogs of the apocalypse that are sleeping

in the shade of your future. Pay at the window.

Pass your hope like a bad check.

You might still have just enough time. To make a deposit.

 

This invitation, this call to action is more than just a feel-good charge to folks at the beginning of their careers. It is a call to arms to make the world more just, more equitable, and more loving. And, it comes from a belief that all of us are responsible for making that vision manifest – we can’t just wish it into existence. We have to hope for it, and work to achieve it.

This vision of hope is not entirely foreign to Judaism. In fact, I would argue that this belief is central to Jewish tradition’s messianic figure. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that that the core teaching of Judaism’s Messiah is not to pray for a Messiah, but rather to work to build a world worthy of receiving the Messiah. It is what distinguishes Judaism from other world religions who have a similar messianic figure in their faiths. It is, as he argues, the difference between hope and optimism. Hope is a function of the moment, as opposed to a reading of the future.

Another teaching, by progressive activist and novelists Anne Lamott, says that, “Sometimes hope is a radical act, sometimes a quietly merciful response, sometimes a second wind, or just an increased awareness of goodness and beauty. Maybe you didn’t get what you prayed for, but what you got instead was waking to the momentousness of life, the power of loving hearts.”

My search for hope has definitely not always meant receiving what I prayed for. But, I have felt a sense of mercy in it. That search has led me to deeper relationships in the Coalition as we looked for new avenues to convene, has brought me to deeper conversations with our members as we navigated the shifting world together, and has brought me to a deeper awareness of goodness and beauty as I quarantined, spent more time on my farm, more time with my children and parents and partner, and more time building an invented future for my Camp that did not include our summer programs.

None of this has been inherently optimistic – just wishing for an outcome. In fact, what really struck me over these last months is the way in which no one is just wishing for an outcome. Everyone has taken this mantle of ownership and is actively working toward the world that we want. I see it in our Coalition as members engaged in interfaith relationships that led to a new food bank program. I see it as our leadership team, led by Marian and Hannah, work to build new opportunities to connect for our members and as Marlene lovingly led this year’s High Holiday planning process. In the broader world I see it in my children’s schools as they start the new year and teachers try to turn education on its head one more time for the betterment of my children. I see it as our government navigates voting in the midst of a continued pandemic, and as we work to educate people about their personal impact on the virus through behavior choices. 

So, while I am not necessarily optimistic, I believe that I have found the hope that I was desperately seeking over these months. And, it is there that I found my own charge – my obligation to do my part to heal our community and our world in whatever way I can. 

In that same commencement address, given at the height of the Great Recession, Kingsolver also said that, “the arc of history is longer than human vision. It bends.” She was right. Although we can’t always see where our hope will lead us, I do believe that our actions of hope – protests against the incredible suffering and injustice of our world – have real impact and make real change. As we begin the new year, looking ahead to a year that is unlike any in our lived experience, that is the core lesson I am taking into it. As we are called to remember the creative for that God had in the creation of the world, let us not lose sight of our own creative force. It is real, and collectively it is strong.

So I close with a blessing for us:

Avinu Malkeynu, our Parent and our God, please remind us lovingly of our power. 

Avinu Malkeynu, our Parent and our God, please call us to action.

Avinu Malkeynu, our Parent and our God, keep us from the patience of optimism, for we have waited long enough. Let us not fall short by simple reliance on others or fate.

Avinu Malkeynu, our Parent and our God, bring us to hope, to action, to the hard work of change. Let us build a world that is more loving, more just, more in your image. 

Avinu Malkeynu, our Parent and our God, call us to hope, and invite us to work together with our neighbors, our community, and our world to create a world that is worthy of receiving the Messiah.

 

Amen. 

Kol tuv (All best),

 

Rabbi James