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In Praise of Hopelessness - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Back in June, as I began musing about what I might say during the High Holydays, I imagined a talk along the lines of, “Seven Things I have Learned from the Covid-19 Pandemic,” with the thought that while the pandemic wouldn’t be entirely over, its disruption of our lives would be largely in the rearview mirror.  With that distance, I could begin to discern useful lessons for the new year.  Alas. Instead, here we are, dealing with the delta variant, and wary of whichever new Greek letter might be on the horizon, the pandemic very much still with us. 

So I do want to reflect on the situation we are in tonight, from a slightly different angle. 

First, I want to acknowledge that, in technical, rabbinic terms, this situation sucks.  It just does.  I am deeply sad that we can’t gather in the way so many of us yearn for, to be together in one room, adults and children, teens and little ones, the way we were at the High Holydays just two years ago. 

I want to acknowledge the losses that so many in our community have experienced since the beginning of the pandemic:  the deaths of loved ones; the loss of employment and income; the inability to see family and friends; the celebrations postponed or cancelled.  And there are ongoing challenges to our mental health, to the mental health of our children and others that we care for; there is the way that nervousness, wariness and fear have become constant companions.  If we add to all of this the ravages of climate change, ongoing political struggles, all of  the uncertainty in our lives – I think it is safe to say that to varying degrees, we are all exhausted and depleted. This is really hard, and I want to commend all of us for making it this far, for adapting, for being resilient. 

And at the same time, I want to lift up the gifts from this time of pandemic.  For some in our community, gathering physically together has always been either impossible or challenging, for reasons of health or physical distance, and now we are able to come together in a multitude of ways. As a community we’ve capitalized on the wonders of Zoom, connecting electronically in ways that have been far more successful than I would have ever imagined. We have collectively learned the importance of accessibility, and we will carry the fruits of this learning with us, through the pandemic and beyond. 

This time has also brought, for me, gifts of awareness and gratitude.  Experiences that I used to completely take for granted – being together with friends around a Shabbat table, going out to a restaurant, being able to visit far-off family – I now experience as nearly miraculous.  Earlier this summer, I was sitting outdoors at a restaurant on Moody Street with a dear friend from out of town and her family. All of a sudden, I felt awash in happiness.  It was just so simple – being with friends,  going out to a restaurant, good food.  Last summer, I couldn’t share a meal with anyone but my immediate family.  This moment at the restaurant felt somehow simple and miraculous, all at the same time. 

I imagine that each of us can name at least one or two gifts from this past year, things that might not have happened if not for the pandemic—perhaps a new appreciation for bird calls and other sights and sounds in nature; maybe Zoom reunions with old classmates or friends; maybe a new skill or hobby learned; maybe the opportunity to wear comfortable clothing every single day of the week.  Whatever the gifts, I hope we can continue to appreciate them, and perhaps bring them with us into whatever lies ahead. 

So this is a bit of the harvest of the year that has passed, 5781, a Jewish year lived entirely during the pandemic.  A year of loss and of challenges, a year of unexpected gifts; a year of difficulty and uncertainty and many different kinds of ups and downs. 

And here we are, stepping into 5782. What greets us at the doorway to this new year?  At first glance, the view is not so good.  There’s the deep disappointment brought on by the delta variant, the realization that “normal” isn’t coming back any time soon.  And even when we get this pandemic under control, there is much greater awareness that for too many people in too many places, what is “normal” has never been so great. The pandemic has exposed just how challenging “normal” is for those who are on the wrong side of the inequality divide.  And even for those of us who were buffered from the worst of the pandemic by our relative wealth and privilege – even for us, the truth is that this is probably not the last pandemic we’ll be dealing with in our lifetimes.  The truth is that it’s very possible that all that we’ve experienced this year was just a dry run for the climate crisis we’re facing.  On so many fronts, it’s very possible that things are going to get worse, not better. 

Given this less than rosy scenario, a lot of my rabbinic colleagues are addressing the topic of “hope” this High Holydays.  Where do we find hope?  How do we cultivate it?  What does it mean to be hopeful in difficult times? 

In my own preparation, I returned to a book that’s been really helpful to me since the pandemic began - When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times – by the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (Shambhala Publications, 1997).  You can tell by the title why I was drawn to it in this particular moment.  As I was rereading it recently, this sentence stopped me short: 

“If we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives” (p. 45). 

Wow.  This sounds crazy.  “If we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives.”  Yet somehow, this strange sentence made more sense to me than almost anything else I had been thinking about.  I felt a sense of release in the prospect of “giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment.”  No more searching to figure out how to think about the pandemic, how to stay hopeful in the face of climate change, how to be positive in those moments when I am not feeling positive.  This sentence made me happy. 

So what, exactly, is Chodron saying? 

Most importantly, she is not counseling despair.  Rather, she is inviting us into a state of mind that, if we can cultivate it, will lessen our anguish, our anxiety, our frustration.  Chodron goes on to invite us to “withdraw from always thinking that there’s a problem, and that someone, somewhere, needs to fix it” (p. 54).  Needing to endlessly fix things is exhausting and, ultimately, unproductive.  Because at the base of the urge to fix things is an oppositional quality, a desire for what is actually happening to not be happening. The present moment becomes our enemy, and we find ourselves in constant contention with our own reality.  But reality has a way of… staying real.  It just isn’t going anywhere, no matter my preferences or opinions.

The alternative is to embrace this moment, however difficult it may be, with a kind of friendliness.  It’s a gesture towards, rather than a pushing away.  It’s a commitment to staying in relationship with whatever is happening. It doesn’t mean accepting that things will be terrible forever, that change is impossible.  Quite the opposite. When I can stop struggling with the present moment, I can experience a release from a lot of pain and constriction. What is left is a sense of calm, a spaciousness and a clarity that is necessary for whatever helpful action I might want to take. 

So, how might we practice “giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment” as a pathway to joy? What does this actually mean? 

The first step is acknowledging the reality that the conditions of our lives are changing and uncertain, all of the time. However much time and effort we might spend pretending otherwise, this is the truth – a truth that we all know much better since the coronavirus entered our lives. Every new year – every new moment – contains both possibility and uncertainty. This Rosh Hashanah is not really different than any other Rosh Hashanah: we have no idea what is coming next. 

Sometime last summer, as I was thinking about the upcoming year and realizing I had no clue how anything was going to play out, I remembered a teaching from the Talmud:  Lamed leshon’cha lomar ‘aini yode’a’ - Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’ (Brachot 4a).  I decided that “I don’t know” would become my mantra.  I made signs with the words “Aini Yode’ah/I don’t’ know” on them, and put them up all over my office space.  When I would find myself getting anxious as I started thinking about planning the High Holydays or the congregational calendar for the coming year, I would say to myself, “I don’t know.” 

The effects of this simple practice were quite amazing.  I went from feeling almost constantly anxious and constricted to feeling open and even happy.  Those words, “I don’t know,” were like a get-out-of-jail free card, releasing me from the responsibility of being certain about anything.  Affirming and embracing my own uncertainty was a step on the path towards what Chodron calls “having a joyful relationship with my life.” 

A few years ago, I came across a wonderful essay by the science fiction writer and critic Martha Bartter, called “Living in Radical Uncertainty,” where she says this: 

“So how can we manage to live in a world that keeps changing around us? For that matter, how can we manage to live with our own continually-changing selves?  We must use our senses in a new way: to detect what goes on in and around us now, without expecting it to seem ‘the same’ as it did before.  We should approach life as a continual surprise, and remember that though some surprises feel unpleasant, some surprises please us immensely.” 

Some time in my 40s, my spouse Gina organized a surprise birthday party for me.  I thought that we were going to one of my favorite restaurants with our kids and my brother’s family.  About an hour before we were supposed to head out, people started mysteriously arriving at our house. First it was my nieces and nephew, telling me they’d decided to come down a little early.  Then it was Gina’s sister, saying she wanted to bring me a little birthday gift.  Then it was a good friend, suggesting she was in the neighborhood for work and just wanted to come by and tell me “happy birthday.”  By the time the tenth person “dropped in,” I finally realized what was up.  It was a sneak surprise party! 

The thing is, I don’t cope well with sudden changes, to put it mildly. I was really looking forward to dinner at that restaurant.  All of a sudden, I was in the midst of a birthday party I hadn’t planned for.  I never told Gina any of this, and it was a lovely evening, but I always felt a bit guilty that I wasn’t as appreciative of her organizing this birthday gathering as I should have been.  Now I wonder, if I had been practicing what Bartter preaches—living with an expectation of “continual surprise”—if I might have enjoyed myself a lot more that night, and been far more appreciative of my loving spouse in that moment.  In clinging to something that hadn’t even happened, I created an obstacle to my own joy. 

Pema Chodron writes: ‘Somehow, in the process of trying to deny that things are always changing, we lose our sense of the sacredness of life. We tend to forget that we are part of the natural scheme of things.” 

A Jewish version of this teaching says that all of creation, all of existence, is Divinity Itself.  The Jewish mystics teach that there isn’t any real distinction between you and me and the trees and rocks outside and all the rest of the beings on this planet; it is all God, in a vast and magnificent disguise. 

In the daily Shema we say v’ahavta et Adonai eloheicha – “And you shall love YHVH your God.”  If God is the source and substance of everything, then this instruction means that I need to approach the totality of my experience with love. In practice, this means bringing compassion, a simple friendliness, to all parts of my experience.  When anxiety arises, I don’t push it away; I welcome it, maybe give it a little hug, and then I can let it go.  Not because it’s bad, but because it’s a good practice to let every moment go, since that is the nature of moments.  They come, they go.  If a moment of joy arises, say hello.  If a moment of sadness arises, say hello.  Bring a little curiosity to the moment, see what’s here.  Remember there is Godliness in there somewhere, even if it’s not immediately obvious. 

In the words of our morning liturgy, Adonai is yotzer or u’voreh choshech, oseh shalom u’vorei et hakol – Creator of light and dark, Maker of peace, Source of everything.  EVERYTHING.  My joy and my fear, my sorrow and my delight.  It all comes from the same Godly place, and it is all sacred – it is all, in Chodron’s words, part of the natural scheme of things.  If I could live in this awareness, I wouldn’t be battling my own thoughts so much of the time.  I wouldn’t be running away from my fear, I’d be kind to it, acknowledging the Godliness within it.  I wouldn’t try to deny my sadness; I’d realize that my ability to be present with my own sorrow allows me to be present to the sorrow of others. 

This practice of greeting whatever arises with compassion is what allows us to “give up all hope of alternatives to the present moment.”  Not because hope is bad, but because true hopefulness is not about wishing things were different.  True hopefulness lies in seeing what we have, right here: the vast capacity of our hearts for compassion.  The reality that change is the one constant in life, and we can be a part of change for the better.  The real possibility that we can connect to the joy that lives deep within us, regardless of the winds that buffet us. 

The pandemic has brought loss and challenge and gifts.  It also brings opportunities. We can learn to say “I don’t know.”  We can really sit with our sadness, and send blessings and compassion to ourselves and to all those in the world who are also feeling sad.  We can appreciate the daily miracles we discover and never take them for granted again. 

I’d like to give the final word to the Indian author, Arundhati Roy, from a piece she published last year called “The Pandemic Is Portal”: 

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. 

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. 

“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.” 

May our imagining begin, and may this year bring some delightful surprises to us all. 

L’shanah tovah tikateivu!


Rabbi Toba Spitzer 
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784