We are not alone in struggling for hope, as the great German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin wrote before taking his own life at the French-Spanish border in 1940 as the Nazis were on his trail.
There is even an opera by Elliott Sharp about the tragedy of this Jewish literary hero, who fled France and hoped to immigrate to America via Spain and Portugal, but whose plans were thwarted when the Franco government denied transit visas and ordered his group of refugees to return to Nazi-occupied France.
Unable to overcome the hopelessness with this reality of deportation back to France, Benjamin overdosed on morphine pills that night in his hotel room.
I cannot let go of these words that Benjamin wrote: “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.” So how does Yom Kippur inspire us all to recover hope, and remain hopelessly hopeful?
In August, I was asked to join a convening in Berkeley for rabbis across the country headed by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. I was invited to participate and teach colleagues in a section called “Torah of Hope.”
I was, of course, honored, but my first response was What could I possibly teach about hope? The situation, as I’m sure many if not most of us are experiencing it, appears to be beyond hopeless.
But I agreed to challenge myself, because God only knows how much we need hope. I felt no matter how hopeless things seems, still, perhaps there must be hope.
At that moment, I discovered something remarkable. I’m not alone in feeling hopeless. And in this state of momentary hopelessness, a bold, new hope emerged. It was actually there in plain sight and I didn’t even notice.
Just weeks before, during the Ninth of Av, when we sprawled on the chapel floor lamenting the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples and our Jewish communities throughout history, we recited in the candlelit room these words: “Perhaps there still is hope” (Lamentations 3:26).
Traditionally we understand this verse to be a recognition that the divine is sovereign and free — it’s the voice of piety not of doubt. But not quite that simple — no! There remains a trace of the Ninth of Av in the prophet Jonah’s hopeful cry at the tail end of Yom Kippur (Jonah 3:9) —“perhaps!”
Perhaps. But there is no guarantee from our vantage point that the fatal decree will be revoked. “Who knows and who can tell?” Don’t forget. That’s what the captain of the ship Jonah has stowed away on says: Perhaps, exclaims the cautious captain (Jonah 1:6), allowing for his hopeless hope that there is a deity who has not yet been approached that might just help out in the eleventh hour!
Perhaps. Perhaps some glimmer of hope may yet emerge. But at that moment of doubt, deep depression and darkness, when we feel there is nothing left, words fail us and we feel mute. That is precisely the moment to bring our awareness to our silence.
Those who wait for hope receive the gift of authentic words, teaches Reb Nachman of Breslav.
When I joined a line of 30 clergy, from all faiths, who had also been waiting hopefully for God on the Friday night of Aug. 25 — for the Love Thy Neighbor prayer vigil — I truly felt we were gathered in a moment of solidarity, in true speechlessness that seeded a deeper wellspring of creative capacity.
By entrusting our co-creativity to speechlessness, holding in that silent space before reacting, we each were able to respond more thoughtfully, with deeper words of hope than any of us had ever imagined possible alone.