“On Hope” – Rosh haShanah Eve 2016/5777


“Once in the dream of a night I stood

Lone in the light of a magical wood,

Soul deep in visions that poppy like sprang;

And spirits of Truth were birds that sang.

And spirits of love were the stars that glowed,

And spirits of Peace were the streams that flowed

In that magical wood in the land of sleep…”

From “Song of Peace” by Sarojino Naidu, a late 19th and early 20th-century independence activist, feminist, poet-writer (called the “Nightingale of India”), First woman governor of an Indian state.


I’ve been working hard to sort out my dreams, goals and aspirations.  We often use these terms interchangeably, but I believe there are (sometimes) subtle differences.

“To what do we aspire?” and “To what do we dare dream as individuals and as a community?” are mighty questions.

According to my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, our tradition seems to tell us that at a certain point in life, we cease having visions and reduce our sights to mere dreams.  The prophet Joel tells us “Your old shall dream dreams, your youth shall see visions” (Joel 3:1)

Rabbi Hoffman teaches that visions are more powerful than dreams.  He wrote on his blog:

“Visionaries see promise beyond our present that the old dismiss as just a dream.  (The prophet) Joel calls visons chezyonot (the singular of which is chizayon). A chizayon, says the midrash, is one of ten names by which the holy spirit (Itself) is known.”

Rabbi Hoffman goes on to differentiate between this word for vision, chizayon, and another very similar word that also means vision, chazon, which he notes is sometimes used in a very negative sense, as is in an ominous premonition. Hoffman cites a medieval commentator Redak who says that versus a chizayon, a chazon “designates our failures, our sin, our historical nadirs.”

In our time, punctuated by criminal acts that terrorize, we vacillate between chazon and chizayon, between visions and dreams of a future bright with promise or a vision of desolation and chaos.  We turn on the TV and get advice from a “panel of experts” who pontificate about the world’s affairs.  They tell us whether we should be filled with hope or filled with fear.

For the prophet Joel, it was God who decided what kind of visions we should have.  In his most positive articulation, which I mentioned earlier, he uses three nouns, prophecy, dreams and visions, in parallel with one another to underscore how a better day will arrive.

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men shall see visions…”

In order to bring about that better day, we need them all; the divine inspiration of prophecy, the youthful exuberance and limitlessness of visions and the wisdom that produces dreams.

Prophecy, visions and dreams are powerful elements in ourselves, with their potential woven into everything around us. Still, I feel we need something more, something more immediate. We need something else; we need hope.

There are some wonderful approaches from our Torah that gives us perspective about hope. One is a commentary on the Torah portion called Netzavim which we read yesterday morning and will read again on Yom Kippur morning.

“I call heaven and earth to witness for you this day that I set before you life or death, blessing or curse.  Choose life, that you and your children might live,” (Deut. 30:19).

Even though it puts forth a portentous choice, the verse is seen as being ultimate positive. As the commentator Rashi asks:

“Why does Torah portion Netzavim occur just after [the 98 curses against the Jewish people that are listed] in the [last] Torah portion…? Because when Israel heard the 98 curses, they were dismayed [lit. their faces turned green or greenish-yellow] and they said: ‘Who can withstand these curses?’ Moses placated them and said ‘You are standing today; you have angered God [in the past] but you are still standing before God [and you have not been destroyed]!’

In other words, the message to our people is, you’ve screwed up, but even so, God hasn’t invoked those 98 curses yet! There’s still hope! We can hope things are going to be ok.

Still, we should always be aware that how those things play out is up to us, not God. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov comments on Deuteronomy 28:8, which begins with the phrase: “The Eternal will command the blessing upon you…” The phrase “upon you” in the translation is conveyed by the Hebrew word itcha/ אתך. Rabbi Menachem urges us a different translation:

“… [Do not read, ‘The Eternal will command the blessing upon you…’ Read instead] ‘Blessing takes effect only itcha/ אתך – [with you,] with your participation, when you have done everything you can do… It is not for you to sit with folded hands and hope for God’s blessing without your active participation…”

Despite our best efforts, we sometimes lose hope, dreams and visions.  And worse than losing hope, we find ourselves mired in pessimism, blame, tension and fear.  Rabbi Israel Salanter calls a lack of hope a health problem, a disease.  He says, “there is no sickness more dangerous than the loss of hope….”

Hope is “lost” for us, not in the sense that it is gone. If hope exists in the larger universe but no one is courageous enough to hold on to it, it is as if hope is not there at all

Fear is the greatest threat to hope. Fear is the easy way.  Fear defines divisions as to whom we can trust, whom we can and should hate, whom we should doubt, what we can do and not do.  Fear can define what we can try and what we should never even think of trying.  Boundaries and walls built on fears make the world safer and easier to understand for many of us.  Fear only allows us to know what we think we know and to stop the challenge of questioning.  Fear is effortless and simple.

Fear is NOT what our traditions teaches.  In the face of our history that has nearly constantly tried to persuade us otherwise, we are a people of hope. For Jews, hope is vision, chizayon. For Jews, hope is an active verb. Hope is always there. Hope can be our reality – if we will it.  Hope is waiting for us to ACT.

We challenge ourselves to see hope and act in all aspects of our lives.  We can see hope when we act to end the hunger and diseases that dominate the lives of millions, we see hope when we act to eliminate the easy access to weapons that enable one person to destroy many. We can see hope when we act so that religion isn’t prostituted as an instrument of hate. We can see hope when we act to keep our planet healthy. We can see hope when we act in ways that let one another know that we care about each other and ourselves.

Fear is limiting.  Hope, dreams and visions open us to the world and opens the world to us. Abraham Joshua Heschel said….

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.  Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

The poem with which I began, the words of a woman from India who lived in times and circumstances that did not exude hope, were words that came to her in a magical forest, in a dream, as she says, “in the land of sleep” and when she was awake, she made her words real.

My friends, it’s time for us to be awake, too, in the real world, and not asleep in a “magical wood”. Let’s wake up dream, create visions, and be amazed! Let us not give into the walls and boundaries that fear and fear mongers create. Let us climb out of doubt. Together and individually let us be hopefull, hope-filled, and hope-enabling. Now, November 8th and always…Amen.

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