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Tikvah? Tikvah. Hope for 5781

Shana Tovah. 

It gives me great comfort to imagine each of you right now, at home--- joining together with me on this first day of the new year. I begin with words of prayer that each of you will be sealed for goodness, health, and peace in this new year of 5781. 

There’s a story in Toni Morrison’s book “Beloved” that calls out to me today. It’s a story of love, and grace, and hope--- the story begins with the character Baby Suggs in a clearing in the woods, summoning and calling forth her community: first the children, then the men, and then the women. 

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. 
In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart...She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.
‘Here,' she said, 'in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard...  

In life, in history, in the stories of our people, in the stories of this land and how each of us came to be here--- “the only grace we can have is the grace we can imagine. If we can’t see it, we can’t have it”. 

That story of laughing, dancing, crying, men, women and children is the story of what it means to be a person in the world. The heaving sobs of grief, the lung expanding laughter of joy, the effervescence of rowdy children--- all of it--- those are the sounds and images that spiral through time, true in times of injustice and oppression, true in times of plenty and abundance, and true in times of fear and despair. 

And we have done it all together in this past year, haven’t we?

The poet Mary Oliver writes: 

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

This morning, my greatest prayer is that we might find a softer place to rest our minds as we enter into the new year: a place where hope is a pillow upon which to lay our heads, and grace is a soft blanket to cover and protect us. To find this softer, quieter place to rest would indeed be a gift. 

I know that for many of us, this has been an exceedingly hard time, and that deserves more than mere mention, on this day of new beginnings. This past year has been marked by loss for so many of us: we have lost people we love, we have lost jobs and routine. We have lost time to spend close to the ones we love. That loss matters. It is real, and by virtue of the ties that bind us together, those losses matter very much to me.  In a year where we have grappled with grief on a global scale, I am reminded of the words of bell hooks, who teaches that grief is really just despair rooted in the fear that love does not exist. 

And so on this first morning of a new year, I want to offer you a reminder that love does exist. It is the very foundation on which this world is built. The poet Morgan Nichols Harper writes “Sometimes love is just learning how to stay. It’s not always a grand gesture, but an inward posture” 

Let this year be a year in which love is our inward posture--- the way we hold our hearts out to the world.

This morning, we heard the story of Creation chanted--- calling us back to the very beginning. 

Before the earth was formed, it was tohu v’vahu: unformed. Void. Empty. 

And then, God speaks. 

The Divine One utters all that we know to be true in the world into being: 

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.

God called the light “day,” and the darkness , God called “night.” 

And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

The very first truth we know about this world we inhabit is that out of the chaotic, empty void came both the light, and the darkness.  We don’t get one without the other. 

Our world was created on a sturdy foundation of possibility---

Pirkei Avot - the teachings of our ancestors

Offers us a list of many other things created 

Upon the first twilight of creation.

Among them - 

“the mouth of the well 

[that accompanied the Israelites through the parched desert wilderness]’

the mouth of the earth 

[that swallowed Korach’s rebellion against Moses]

the mouth of the talking donkey [that led Bilaam to praise and not curse the Israelites;

the manna [that God provided the hungering Israelites in the wilderness…

And the rainbow [that served as a covenant with Noah after the flood…

Each was created to counter the possibility of curse or destruction. 

What Pirkei Avot doesn’t say - 

but is implicit, too, in each of these examples

Is that amid all these things 

that also came into being

With the creation of the world - 

Was the creation of hope. [1]

Hope can be hard to grab hold of. Anat Hoffman from the Israel Religious Action Center is fond of teaching that the Hebrew word for hope, tikvah, comes from the same root as the word kav--- the word for thread, or string. It also comes from the same root as the word mikveh- that ritual bath for immersion. What a dichotomy!

On the one hand, hope is a thread- a thin string, that we hold on to, trying not to let it slip through our fingers. On the other hand, hope, like a mikveh, is something to immerse ourselves in. To let our whole selves slip beneath the surface of, and float in. 

If we imagine the sweeping span of our peoples’ history, it’s hard not to see hope as the ultimate Jewish value, encoded in our DNA, built into the blueprint of our covenant with God. 

As I have made my way back into my office over these last few weeks, I have found myself gazing at my semikhah--- the certificate of my rabbinic ordination, and staring at the words: 

Torah? Torah.

Tadin? Tadin. 

Can she teach? She can teach. 

Can she judge? She can judge. 

Looking at the work that I, and countless others in positions of communal leadership have done in the last six months, I wonder if there isn’t a line missing. 

Tikvah? Tikvah. 

Can she hope? She can sure try. 

Now more than ever, to be rodfei tikvah, pursuers of hope, feels like the essential task of living. 

And so I want to share with you some very real stories that give me hope

I want to tell you about my friends, Ilana and Shaun. 

Some of you may know Ilana Steinhauer--- as Executive Director of Volunteers in Medicine, and a member of our Hevreh community.  

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “if you want something done, ask the busiest person in the room”- well, that’s Ilana. 

Ilana gives me hope, because she reminds me of the astounding depths of human capacity to love, and to do. This summer, as the reality of the school year ahead became obvious, a new problem emerged. With school beginning remotely, what would happen to the children of working parents, without the means or support networks to have another adult at home with their children?  These are not imaginary children--- these are our neighbors. As Sheela Clary wrote this past week, “If you are not the parent of a young child, I will let you in on a terrible secret. Households all around you are operating at an unsustainable, emergency setting. Families are in trouble.”

Ilana shared with me a vision, for what it would look like for the entire South County community to put their heads, hearts, hands, and wallets together to solve this very real, and yet- solvable problem. Ilana gives me hope because she intuitively understands how much stronger we are when we work together in coalition, and don’t allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the world. 

To give you a small taste of that hope: in the next few weeks, as the Community Learning in the Berkshires program launches,  close to 200 local children won’t have to be home alone, navigating online learning by themselves. They’ll be outside, with other children, with supportive, responsible adults there to help them manage their remote learning. This is because of the effort of a coalition of local leaders who together with Ilana, put their hands up to solve a problem.  

That gives me hope. 

Ilana shared with me that for her, there was no question when adding yet another big-ticket item to her to-do list. Helping to make CluB- Community Learning in the Berkshires a reality was just what had to happen, because, as Ilana said “I feel a responsibility. I can’t just watch people struggle when there are solutions at hand. My draw to Judaism has always been about what our community stands for, and how much more powerful we are as a community. As we have grappled with covid, and the importance of the Black Lives Matters movement right now, it would be against all of my values to just sit back.”  

Ilana gives me hope. 

I want to tell you Shaun’s story. Shaun Barcavage has been a nurse for the last decade.  Before that, he spent more than 20 years in the field of democracy building in post-conflict zones, primarily in the Balkans after the fall of Yugoslavia. 

Today, he works at the “Amazing Things Happen Here”, Weill Cornell/New York Presbyterian Clinical Trials Unit.   Shaun worked on the front lines of the pandemic, treating COVID positive patients throughout the spring at New York Presbyterian. His primary work is as Research Nurse Practitioner in Infectious Diseases. Before the pandemic hit, his work had been centered on HIV and Hepatitis C treatments and cure studies. Over the last six months, his work rapidly shifted to explore drugs to treat covid-19. Today, he is focused on novel monoclonal antibody infusions for early intervention as well as the Moderna Phase 3 vaccine trial.  

I’ve known Shaun for about 15 years, and knowing what he has experienced this year, I asked him what gives him hope. He wrote: 

“I spent the spring treating hundreds of very sick hospitalized people fighting for their lives. It made the threat of the virus very real and very scary for all of us on the frontline.  But experiencing the dedication of my esteemed research colleagues and the 24/7 passion of fellow health workers, filled me with hope in the often-consuming darkness--grieving the losses, but also watching as one person recovering became two, became three...uncovering new therapies and seeing people respond to new treatments - this keeps you going and renews your faith in humanity and the power of science.”

Shaun gives me hope. 

There are countless others like Shaun and Ilana here in our very own community, whose stories give me hope. People like Mark Lefenfeld and Jay Weintraub who have built an incredible infrastructure for Berkshire Bounty, ensuring that the one out of ten people in Berkshire County who suffer food insecurity, don’t go hungry. People like Gwendolyn Hampton Van Sant and her team at Multicultural Bridge who have built durable partnerships, and helped our Berkshire community stay accountable to the work of racial justice. People like Ellen Marcus and the ECC teachers at Hevreh, who have opened an early childhood center, during a pandemic, allowing parents and caregivers to work, knowing their children are safe and cared for. 

These people and their stories give me hope. 

I can’t think of more prophetic stories for us to consider on this first day of this new year. 

This summer, I read a book called “Humankind: A hopeful history”--- in which author Rutger Bregman makes the radical assertion that maybe human beings aren’t so bad after all, and that given the opportunity, more of us are inclined to do right.

In it, Bregman offers a few rules to live by- to aid you in your work of seeking hope. There is one that stands out to me as exceedingly wise for the moment we are living in: 

“Temper your empathy, train your compassion.”

Instead of the Golden Rule, Bregman asserts, we would be better prepared for the work of being hopeful humans if we followed  “Platinum Rule”. The Platinum Rule, he says, teaches us to feel for others but not necessarily with them. Empathy drains, and so instead, he suggests, we harness compassion--- summoning feelings of warmth, concern and care for others, rather than taking on their suffering as our own. 

Today, my prayer for each of you, for your family, for our community, is that you will know hope. 

You will hold onto it like a thread to the future, and immerse yourself in it like a mikvah. 

May the words of the Psalmist land softly in your heart: 

קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃ 

Hope to the Eternal; be strong, and let your heart take courage

May you awaken each day and think to yourself “Today can be better than yesterday” and may that carry you through your hardest days.

May you know that you are not a burden, even if you have burdens that you carry. 

May you have the grace that you imagine, and may you know that you are loved. 

[1] Thanks, Jen Gubitz, for this lovely rendering of Pirke Avot 5:6 

[2] Bregman, Rutger. Humankind: A Hopeful History. 

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