Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Rosh HaShanah 2023/5784
Last year at this time, I stood in front of this congregation and shared about the shame and stigma of mental illness. I spoke as a parent whose child had struggled with active thoughts of suicide, along with depression and anxiety.
When I shared this, Mint was in recovery after a year in intensive residential treatment settings. As I said last year, with a combination of access to the right care and his incredible hard work, he found confidence and a path forward. I am proud to report today that he is thriving.
To start my remarks today, I want to take us back eight months before last Rosh HaShanah, to when I dropped him off across the country for an extended stay, at a therapeutic boarding school in Utah with no particular set end date.
Nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of emotions of that moment. I had to come to terms with the harsh reality of the situation. I felt the pain of separation. I was afraid and despairing: “What if things don’t change?”
After saying goodbye, I felt like I fell into a pit. And the tears just came and kept coming. I wept on my way to the airport, in the airport, the entirety of the plane ride, in the car back home. I wept myself to sleep and I woke up and I wept more. It was the most hopeless and helpless I ever felt in my life.
While still in the pit, I found solace in a book by Dr. Brad Ready designed for parents whose children were in treatment programs. On the question of “what do I do now that my child is away” he suggests two pieces of advice:
#1: Work on yourself, Heal your own wounds
#2: Believe that your child can get better and show up in this situation with that kind of hope and faith.
The first part- that made sense. I could do that.
But the second: Believe? Have hope…Really? I had no evidence for hope, no reason to believe that things would get better.
At the same time, I recognized that crying and worrying myself to sleep were not helping the situation. So I made a decision — I took a leap of hope and put faith in a better future for my son and all of us.
That decision, to actively move from despair to possibility, may or may not have impacted the overall trajectory of Mint’s healing journey. I hope it did.
But either way, it made all the difference for me. Making a choice to believe gave me a measure of control in a situation where I had virtually none.
Instead of waking up hopeless, I woke up with purpose each day. I showed up as a partner and a parent in a profoundly different way had I stayed in a place of blame and shame. And when Mint was ready to come home, my joy exceeded my worry, because I had believed — for a long time by then — a better day would come.
I share this story with you because today I want to speak about taking a leap of hope, even and especially when things might be difficult or feel impossible.
This feels like an important conversation to have on Rosh HaShanah, which is also called HaYom HaRat Olam — the day the world is pregnant with possibility. A day of wild and hopeful dreams for the future — yet one that arrives at a moment in history or in our lives when we may not feel hopeful.
Today, I ask: what might it be like to believe in a better future, even when the evidence in the present does not support that belief? What opens up for us, as individuals or as a collective, when we make a choice to move from despair to hope?
Before I continue, I want to mention that I have been hesitant, for years, about writing a sermon that explicitly uses the word “hope.”
Because “hope,” in modern parlance, is often applied in ways that are often unhelpful and even sometimes dangerous. When someone tells a friend who is facing a dire medical diagnosis to “just have hope,” they are simply soothing their own anxiety, and in the process denying the range of emotions that friend is experiencing, leaving the person feeling alone.
When someone shrugs off the terrible things happening in the world and says, “Well, all we can do is hope,” then hope becomes an excuse for passivity and inaction, leaving the world unchanged.
This is not the hope I am talking about today. The kind of hope I want to lift up is a nuanced hope that recognizes pain and grief and nonetheless invites us to imagine a better future.
This kind of hope is expressed in the most unexpected source: in the middle of the Book of Lamentations, which was written by the prophet Jeremiah in the aftermath of the destruction of the First Temple:
יִתֵּן בֶּֽעָפָר פִּיהוּ — אוּלַי יֵשׁ תִּקְוָֽה׃
Let one put one’s mouth to the dust — Ulay- Perhaps- there is hope.
There is so much to uncover about hope in this evocative image!
While most of us, thankfully, have not experienced the kind of atrocity, violence and terror that the ancient Israelites did when their first temple was destroyed and when they were exiled from their homeland, each of us can imagine for ourselves a time in our lives — perhaps we are in that time now — when we felt we were so bent down we could taste the dust, when we could not imagine ever being able to stand up straight again.
But then perhaps a voice inside of us or a voice of a loved one, or perhaps even a sense of the Divine motivating us, uttered the words “ulay” — perhaps. And we knew that while we do not have to deny grief or despair, we also do not need to let those things immobilize us.
“Ulay” — There is so much power in that one word “ulay”- perhaps. “Ulay” is the possibility, not the guarantee, that things can improve. “Ulay” comes from a stance of humility, a recognition that we don’t know — we cannot predict the future. And that this “ulay” — this possibility can help us to get unstuck and find the wherewithal to act, even if those actions lead us to something very different than we had imagined for ourselves.
And the power of emerging from the face to the ground to “Yesh Tikvah”! There is hope! With these words, Jeremiah is not only speaking to his community but to everyone in every generation, reminding us of the human capacity to transform despair into hope. Reminding us that no matter how terrible things seem to be, we should not give up.
“Yesh Tikvah” also is not specific — hope is not a wishlist or a specific image of how things are “meant to turn out.” It simply means: tomorrow can be better than today.
Today, I want to invite us to grow this kind of hope for the New Year — for our own sake, for the sake of others, and for the sake of our world and our planet. To do so, I want to offer three tools to help us say “Ulay! Yesh Tikvah” in the coming year:
-Acknowledge what is
-Turn to our ancestors
-Envision a New World
Acknowledge what is
A few months ago, I was working with a thoughtful B*Mitzvah student in preparation for her d’var torah. We started talking about hope as related to some aspects of the torah portion. This near thirteen year old said to me: “Rabbi, I don’t really have hope because I see all the terrible things that are happening in the world right now…so much hatred, racism and homophobia.”
I nodded, also appreciating her age-appropriate cynicism, and responded: “That makes a lot of sense and you are right. You are not supposed to have hope based on what is happening right now. That would be ludicrous and impossible! Hope comes not from the world as it is but in our belief in what the world can be.”
See, we as Jews, are not meant to accept the status quo. To see injustice and marginalization, devastation of natural resources, and to tacitly accept that this is the way of the world. We are the people of the Exodus, of thwarting evil dictatorships and freeing the innocent: These are not one-time events but models for all of civilization. We believe that the world has yet to be redeemed.
According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, this is the very essence of Judaism, to offer hope in a future not yet realized. Our rituals, our traditions, our texts — all are designed to help us reject compacency and “blind acceptance of fate.” “Judaism,” Sacks says, “is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.”
Let’s think for a moment: What might change if we stopped looking to the world as a barometer for hope? What if we considered that our mitzvot and our actions are for the sake of the world that could and should be?
Turning to our Ancestors
When our Israelite ancestors left their terrible life of slavery behind and marched toward an uncertain future, they brought with them the bones of their ancestor Joseph.
This simple act symbolizes the way that we are truly never alone, especially in times of profound fear and uncertainty — we are always accompanied and strengthened by those ancestors who came before us.
When taking a leap of hope, it can help to pack our ancestors along for the ride.
We bring along those Jews in every timeline of Jewish history and in every place who have had their mouths to the ground, and yet found the strength to say: “ulay” “perhaps” “yesh tikvah” “there is hope.”
Those who, despite the attempts to silence and erase us, have stubbornly refused to give up on the vision of a better world.
We can call on the memories of Victor Frankl who witnessed the atrocities of the Shoah and affirmed that life had meaning; Hannah Senesh who risked and lost her life while aiding anti-Nazi forces, of Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose dissent offered a model for all of us, and countless others. I invite you to take a moment to bring to mind an ancestor of your own (Jewish or not) who in big or small ways affirmed life and hope, despite it all.
The poet Yehudah Amichai uses a beautiful phrase in his poem “In the Old City” — that the Jewish people are negu’ay tikvah — “infected” with hope. “Infected with hope!” Hope is not something we can escape or shake. It’s who we are. It’s in our bones.
Envision a New World
How did our ancestors find the strength to say “yesh tikvah”? A midrash, a rabbinical commentary, that I learned from Barbara Breitman, a former teacher of mine, answers that question.
The midrash looks at four biblical characters and asks these rhetorical questions:
How did Noah survive the flood and live to see his children exit the ark, thus enabling a new generation of humanity?
How did Moses go from fleeing Pharaoh to defeating him at the sea?
How did Joseph go from being a prisoner to a governor in Pharaoh’s court?
How did Mordecai (from the Purim story) go from being ready for a death sentence to being on the other side of the story?
In other words, how did these leaders, who confronted terrifying situations, end up transcending their fate and triumphing?
Then, in classic midrash form, the text answers its own question. And for each of the examples, they offer this same simple and profound reason:
אֶלָּא רָאָה עוֹלָם חָדָשׁ
Each of them could see an “olam hadash,” a new world.
The rabbis who wrote this midrash were not writing it for the generations of Noah, Joseph, Moses or Mordecai — rather through their words are instructions for us, and all who came before us and will come after.
They were saying: it is aleynu, upon each of us, to be visionaries for a new and better world. It is our sacred duty to imagine a world at peace, a world where all are free, a world in which we live in harmony with the earth and all living creatures. It is our sacred obligation to never give up on a messianic dream, even if we will not be alive to see it fulfilled.
This is a far cry from our modus operandi. It is so easy to be cynical in the world we live in. We have even evolved as a species to focus on the negative as a survival mechanism.
Yet, we know that cynicism and negativity are not practical or helpful in moving us towards the lives we want to live and the world we wish to see.
The writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit says, “To hope is to give yourself to the future.” That’s the work.
We will need chutzpah (verve) to craft a vision for the world you want future generations to inherit.
We will need the spiritual discipline to refuse to abandon that vision, in the face of floods, evil dictators — in our ancestors’ time, and our own.
And, we will need tenacity to act every day, in big and small ways, to bring us just that much closer to that olam hadash, the new world.
I know the power of this kind of imagination first-hand — how much can change when we make a decision to imagine a better tomorrow.
As I shared at the beginning, this is how I picked myself up from the lowest, most despairing I ever felt in my life — mouth to the dust — stood up straight with eyes looking onto the horizon and started living into the better future I was dreaming of for my son and family.
Envisioning an Olam Hadash, a world different from our own is no small thing. It is a spiritual necessity. It gives us a future.
I conclude my remarks today with a story I learned from Rabbi David Wolpe about the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who was a child in Auschwitz.
When Rabbi Gryn was a young boy in the concentration camp, Hugo’s father fashioned a makeshift menorah for the holiday of Hanukkah. On the night of the first candle, his father took their precious margarine ration and lit a wick to bring in the first light of Hanukkah.
Seeing this, young Hugo was filled with anger. Outraged, he protested to his father: “How could you use the food which we need to survive, just to observe a holiday?!”
At that moment, his father spoke words he would never forget. He said: “My child, it is true that a human being cannot live three days without water. And we cannot live more than three weeks without food. But we cannot live for three minutes without hope.”
יִתֵּן בֶּֽעָפָר פִּיהוּ — אוּלַי יֵשׁ תִּקְוָֽה׃
Let’s put our mouths to the ground- ulay, there is hope.
It’s 586 BCE. It’s 1945. It’s 2023, today, the first day of 5784. Amidst the pain, the despair, the struggle, we can still transform despair into hope, despondency into action.
This coming year, may we acknowledge what is and is not, be emboldened by the strength of our ancestors, and imagine a new world. May we have the courage to shout from the rooftops- yesh tikvah, we have hope- because we choose it — for the sake of ourselves, our loved ones and community, and for the sake of the generations yet to come.
-Ulay Yesh Tikvah — Lamentations 3:29
-Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, https://www.rabbisacks.org/archive/future-tense-how-the-jews-invented-hope/
-Carrying the Bones of Joseph — Exodus 13:19
-Olam Hadash — Genesis Rabbah 30:8
-Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark. I have been influenced over the years by Rebecca Solnit’s description of hope as possibility, not promise. I commend her works, including Hope in the Dark and this excellent piece in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/15/rebecca-solnit-hope-in-the-dark-new-essay-embrace-unknown