|Temple Sinai Yom Kippur Morning 5775 – Hope Not Hate –
How the state of the world should not make us descend into the abyss
Sarah and I faced a dilemma this Summer. We were in Paris alone, having persuaded our parents to take the kids for a few nights. It should have been a care free trip but we were felling on edge because the same week we were in Paris there were large scale, violent anti-Jewish riots nearby. On one Parisian street we were calmly sipping our hot chocolate and croissant, one neighborhood down, total chaos. We were able to read on our phones what was happening and it seemed totally at odds with our surroundings at the time. We knew that we would be in the city for Shabbat. The natural thing would be to go to services, meet some French Jews and to show solidarity with them, to show that they were not alone in their struggles, to show that hope and goodness still existed in the world. The dilemma was, what if we get caught up in riots? Could we get hurt? Was it worth the risk? We decided to go.
On the Friday night we took the Metro to a Reform shul quite near to the center. I felt myself getting annoyed that Jews like me could not walk along with a kippah on their head without the possibility of attracting negative attention. As we approached the front of the shul we looked around us furtively as if there might be an ambush. At the door, a security guard appeared and I explained, in fragments of French vaguely preserved from my school days, that we had come to pray. He did not ask for ID or any other form of proof that we were who we said we were and ushered us into the sanctuary. Then and for the rest of our time there, it was totally serene, not a hint of trouble. Down the road, all hell had been breaking loose.
We could all be forgiven if, having watched and read recent news reports, we believed that humanity was descending into the abyss, into oblivion, the point of no return. We saw the news when three Israelis were kidnapped then murdered. Subsequently we read about a Palestinian teenager being killed by Jews and then rockets coming over from Gaza. The next stage was that the Jewish people, went to fight in Gaza. We all read newspapers and Facebook and general internet chatter and saw it become a deafening roar. When friends started to turn away from each other, when virtually, and in reality, abuse was hurled. In addition to the anti-Jewish riots occurring in Paris, we had the racial maelstrom in Ferguson, Missouri and a deepening crisis in the Ukraine, not to mention the entry on the world stage of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, particularly nightmarish for Christians and other minorities there; journalists James Foley’s and Steven Sotloff’s and aid worker David Haines’ beheadings being one of many crimes against humanity emanating from the Middle East.
We have all seen those images, right? Images of the journalists before their beheadings, images of small children walking down the street carrying someone’s head, stories of atrocities. You must have been affected by it, like me. Sarah and I walked down that street in Paris, clasping hands, emotions of anger, fear and loathing boiling up, knowing that those who are bringing evil to our planet wanted us to have those emotions but also that their actions demand a response from us.
What kind of world has this become, we are all asking? If we were to believe the images and stories we see on our television and computer screens, we would say that the human race is in a permanent state of war, of hate, of spiraling chaos. Those such as the so-called Islamic State want to bring this message to humanity. They want us to dance to their tune, to set the agenda, to haul us into the abyss. Anti-semitism has reared its head worldwide. Particularly, in Europe it has fundamentally changed what it means to be a Jew in the modern world.
There are those in this congregation who have lost friendships or at least had them strained because of their support for the Israeli army fighting in Gaza. There are those who have been worrying about friends or acquaintances or simply fellow members of the Jewish people residing in Europe because of the rise of anti-semitic attacks. There are those of you who look at your children, their innocence, their playfulness, and wonder what kind of world they might grow up in. Others of you will have watched with concern the rise of Islamic extremism and thought about how long it might be before its effects are felt on a much larger scale in this country. The darkness is rising and it seems to be a matter of time before it engulfs us.
There is one fundamental problem with that whole story of death, destruction and darkness. Nowhere does it include room for hope. Nowhere does it include room for a promise of a better day. Nowhere does it include room for some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. Ladies and gentlemen. We are in the middle of a war. Yes there is a war between Israel and Hamas, between Islamic fundamentalism and the West, between Russia and Ukraine but that is not the war of which I am speaking. I speaking about the war between hope and hate. Between aspiration and pessimism, between light at the end of the tunnel and the deep, dark abyss.
Now let me just make a disclaimer about hope for a second. When you have an attitude of hope, it does not mean that you ignore the brutal reality around you but it does allow you to look for a practical solution. An attitude of hope does not mean that evil does not exist, merely that you can also see the good in the world. An attitude of hope makes us powerful and believe something can be done whereas being engulfed in hate makes us impotent, it allows anger to rule us. Saying I believe in hope not hate does not mean I don’t think people should fight for what they believe, militarily speaking. I don’t imagine that armies in America, Israel or elsewhere bring the exclusive solution to the world’s problems but they have a place in the world. Sometimes, people are trying to kill us and we have to kill them first. It’s a horrible reality but one which I am willing to accept. Ultimately, without hope though, we might as well give up, because hate brings us to a dead and final end.
What I do not accept is that religious extremism, political fundamentalism, violence of words and deeds can take away our hope and a desire to work for a better world. No. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever. I do not accept it. Yes, there is Islam v. the West, Ukraine v. Russia, Israel v. Hamas, Isis v. everyone who is not Isis. But hope v. hate is the ultimate struggle we have to win. Hope v. hate.
So, having stated the tension I see existing in the world, let me now set out the different ways that the human spirit can respond to nightmarish people and events. Let me tell you about two British Rabbis and an Israeli pop star.
First, a story about hope. It comes from Rabbi Hugo Gryn. He was the Rabbi for my wife Sarah as she grew up in London. Hugo Gryn was a survivor of the Shoah, the Holocaust. Aside from being a wonderful, compassionate, congregational Rabbi, he was better known for reaching out other faiths in Britain and bringing people together. In the foreward of one of his books, he is described as having an, “unquenchable faith in humanity”1. He told and retold the following story:
“The Jewish prisoners in our barracks—Block 4—decided that we would celebrate [Chanukah] by lighting a menorah every night. Bits of wood and metal were collected and shaped into light-holders and everyone agreed to save the week’s meager ration of margarine that would be used for fuel. It was my job to take apart an abandoned prison cap and fashion wicks from its threads.
[On] the first night of Chanukah...most of Block 4 gathered around the menorah—including some Roman Catholic Poles, several Protestant Norwegians and...a German count who was implicated in the attempt on Hitler’s life. Two portions of margarine were melted down—my wicks in place. We chanted the blessing, praising God who “performed miracles for our ancestors in those days and at this time,” and as...I tried to light the wick, there was only a bit of spluttering and no flame.... What the “scientists” in our midst failed to point out was that margarine does not burn!
As we dispersed and made our way to the bunk beds I turned not so much to my father, but on him, upset at the fiasco and bemoaning this waste of precious calories. Patiently, he taught me one of the most lasting lessons of my life and I believe that he made my survival possible.
“Don’t be so angry,” he said to me. “You know that this festival celebrates the victory of the spirit over tyranny and might. You and I have had to go once for over a week without proper food and another time almost three days without water, but you cannot live for three minutes without hope!”2
Rabbi Hugo Gryn, knew, having faced the worst set of circumstances imaginable, having faced the dark heart of humanity that hope was something that could nourish his soul and even his body. Having witnessed the excruciating Nazi machine’s attempts to suck everyone into the abyss he never lost his stance of hope, not for a second. He could have succumbed to hate, to despising the other, to Jewish isolationism. But he chose another way. His family and friends were murdered by the Nazis. He did not give in to hate, despair or loathing. He paid back the Nazis a thousandfold by using the abstract emotion of hope and actually breathing practical life into it, devoting the rest of his existence to creating a world against bigotry, violence and hatred. He showed that apathy and hate can only be overcome by spiritual resistance, by force of the spirit, of the will, of the soul, by building inside of ourselves the emotion of hope, brick by difficult brick. This stance of hope takes effort, both intellectual and emotional for any of us and for Hugo Gryn, it allowed him to regain his faith in G and humanity.
That brings us to our second Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. Until recently, he was the Chief Rabbi of British Jews. He explains why hope not hate is part of the Jewish world view3, why we are the great religion of, “not yet”.
What do I mean by not yet? Well partly this can be explained by one of our congregants Jaime Pollack. Jaime, put your hand up. Jaime works for UFC, Ultimate Fighting Champion, starting UFC franchises in new countries. In Brazil, he sometimes has a hard time because of the philosophy which is, shall we say, slightly less structured than he is used to in America. His Brazilian colleagues always reassure him that things will work out in the end. When Jaime responds, “But we seem to be bogged down in an avalanche of bureaucracy, we were meant to have been up and running months ago, we need to get this project off the ground. And you are telling me things will work out in the end?! This seems like the end”. The Brazilians nod, smile and explain, “Not yet”.
Rabbi Sacks sets out how Jews are the inventors of “not yet” because they are the inventors of the idea of the Messiah. Now the idea of the Messiah comes in different forms. Some believe it will be an end to war and the beginning of a reign of peace, others say it will be a righting of the wrongs of history, still more think it will be the death of death. In any case, the only thing Jews do not claim is that the Messiah has already come, not yet. The most important idea of Messiah is that people should not sit around and hope that Messiah will come but that they should get their hands dirty, do everything in their power, second by second, day by day, and bring the Messianic Era, an era of peace and goodness, in partnership with G, not just leaving it to G. Not sitting around, throwing up our hands and saying, we can’t do anything, there’s no point. This hopeful, practical stance on human history means that it is impossible for Jews not to see light in the dark because, built into our DNA is the concept that things will get better, if it doesn’t seem like things will work out in the end, it’s not yet the end and, ultimately, in Sacks’ words, “the golden age is always in the future”4.
Again, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks is not talking about a vague emotion of hope, some abstract sense that things might get better. He has the heart, the soul and the hands to do the dirty work. He knows that religion is being used and abused as a tool of hate when it can be grasped and lifted up as a tool of hope. Listen to the words from his recent speech in the House of Lords: “That people in the 21st century are being murdered, terrorised, victimised, intimidated and robbed of their liberties because of the way they worship God is a moral outrage, a political scandal and a desecration of faith itself. I believe that God himself weeps at the evils being committed in His name. Let us urge, as strongly as we can, the worldwide implementation of Article 18 as one of the great challenges of our time so that we can all exercise our fundamental right to live our faith without fear”5. Article 18 refers to part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights about religious freedom. So religion can be a weapon for hate but also a tool for hope.
One of the voices I listen to when the world is in such a mess as now is not a Rabbi, but a pop star. Achinoam Nini, otherwise known as Noa, is one of the most famous, Israeli musical and societal voices. It is her analysis which has made me think most, recently6. In an article written in August she points out one salient fact. We spending too much time, not just in the Middle East but all over the world thinking about how to finger point at the other side. I must have read over a hundred articles about how this group is to blame or that group is at fault. Many of them are totally true. The only problem, says Noa, is that if we concentrate on the blame game it, once again, gives us an excuse to throw our hands up in despair, to say, “there’s no point”, it encourages us to avoid looking for an actual way of moving forward, it kills hope at its source.
So these two Rabbis and a pop star give us very concrete reasons why we have to choose hope rather than hate. Three reasons which would make religious extremists, war-mongers and blood shedders of all stripes and colors shudder. First, that even three minutes of hope in a difficult situation are more helpful to human survival than anything else. Hope even in the heart of darkness is possible from sheer force of will and that this abstract emotion of hope can have perfectly practical consequences. Second, Judaism, through the concrete idea of working with G to bring about the Messianic era, actually brings the voice of hope to the conversation of humankind. It makes that idea of “not yet” fundamental to who we are. Lastly, no amount of finger pointing and blame allocation, even if true, will actually bring a solution. We have to avoid the blame game to ensure our hope is not D.O.A. We can’t survive without hope, Judaism supports this idea of “not yet” and playing the blame game kills hope for a solution.
On the afternoon of May 22nd, 2013, two men drove a car at a British Army soldier, Lee Rigby, in London. They knocked him over and proceeded to hack him to death with knives and a meat cleaver. They shouted about the British army killing people in the Middle East and that this was their revenge. While they shouted, they proudly displayed the blood on their hands. They did not know Rigby, had never met him in their lives. The two of them were quickly apprehended by police and sentenced to life in prison. If this was the end of the story then you could see it as just another reason to give in to hate. But it was not the end. The newspapers also reported how passersby lay over Rigby’s body to stop the attackers continuing, how a girl scout leader got off a passing bus, calmly walked over to the men and asked them to hand over their weapons. There were many people that day who showed that human beings, when faced with the worst examples of their fellow humans, do not necessarily give into hate. Often, very often, they respond with hope, with kindness, with love.
We have a decision to make about hope or hate as a global community. America is at the forefront of the decision. Many of the countries around the world have been metaphorically throwing up their hands in despair in the face of forces such as the so-called Islamic State. But American has said, using a stance of hope that, “yes, it is hard, it’s a long struggle, a dirty fight, but we can do something. We will not give in to despair, we will not allow the world to descend into chaos. We refuse”. We will take a stand as individuals, as the Jewish people, as a nation, as a world community.
They can try and persuade us to hate all Muslims, all Palestinians, all Russians, all Republicans, all Democrats, all Police Officers, all Black people, all White people, all Southerners, all Yankees, everyone who is not us. We will refuse. We will refuse. No, we do not accept those who attempt to suck us into the dark abyss. Not for a second. We stand unbowed by hate, unbowed by animosity, unbowed by antagonism. We know that we have to be prepared to go without water but never without hope. Judaism is the religion of light at the end of the tunnel, of possibility, of not-yet, of never ending, unquenchable, everlasting, continuous, incessant, eternal, limitless hope. No amount of antagonists will destroy our future. No amount of provocation will dent our determination. No amount of darkness or chaos or violence will erode our hope. Hope not hate, hope not hate, hope not hate. Shana tova.
Let us stand and sing the Israeli National Anthem, HaTikvah, The Hope at the foot of page 533.