Reasons for Hope (Why I Am an Optimist)

Reasons for Hope (Why I Am an Optimist)

Rosh HaShanah 5779/2018

I got a phone call 3 weeks ago from Rob Brill, City Desk and Religion editor of the Times-Union.  He asked me, in words rather blunter than these: Don’t you think that things are pretty messed up right now?  Do you see any hope?

You may have seen my answer in Saturday’s “Faces of Faith” column.  Yes, I said.  Yes, to both.  Yes, things are pretty messed up.  Parts of the world appear to be descending into chaos. At home,

“It seems that the United States is disuniting. The last presidential election only made clear what many have feared – that we’re becoming two Americas, each angry with the other, and neither trusting the other’s basic humanity and good intentions. Today Americans increasingly view their political opponents not only as misguided, but also as bad people whose ways of thinking are both dangerous and incomprehensible. This degree of civic rancor threatens our democracy.”

(That’s a quote, and I’ll cite the source later.)

But I do have hope.  In fact, I am a congenital optimist.  And I am going to do my best this morning to give you an “optimism transplant,” sharing what keeps me going, with the fervent wish that you will be able to nurture hope inside yourself as well.  Because we need each one of us to be at our most hopeful in order to navigate the tricky waters we are in.

When our current president won the 2016 election, many people I spoke to were completely shocked and caught off guard.  More than once I heard someone say, “I thought we were past this.”  Past things like race-baiting, immigrant-bashing, and publicly demeaning women — or at least, past the time when those things were said in public discourse with impunity.  Past the danger of dismantling equal access to healthcare and education, protections for workers and for the environment.

It seems in many ways that a better future is receding.  Millenials — loosely defined, people who are now ages 18 to 38, born 1980-2000 — are the first generation in recent US history whose economic expectations are lower than that of their parents.  NY Times columnist David Brooks met last winter with students at top US universities and wrote about them:

Their lived experience includes the Iraq war, the financial crisis, police brutality and Donald Trump — a series of moments when the big institutions failed to provide basic security, competence and accountability. “We’re the school shooting generation,” one Harvard student told me. Another said: “Wall Street tanked the country and no one got punished.”

And yet many Millenials are dedicating their lives to social change; an overwhelming majority see it as their duty to make the world a better place.   You make doing good an integral part of how you live:  The careers you choose, the products you buy, and the ways you spend your free time.

Baby boomers — or as Madeleine Albright likes to call us, “Perennials” — have a different set of lived experiences.  The last 60 years, beginning roughly with the election of John F. Kennedy, have seen incredible progress in civil rights for African-Americans, equality between men and women, environmental protection, GLBTQ rights, and more. The mid-20th century saw US income and wealth distribution at a relatively stable level of inequality for several decades.  The expanding multiculturalism that began with the identity politics of the 1960s seemed to be leading to a future of mutual respect. We’ve had real reasons to believe our world is getting better.

Which means that it is horribly depressing if you think that all that progress may be evaporating.

And there are plenty of reasons why people of good, will regardless of age or political leaning, may be depressed and anxious.  David Brooks wrote of Millennials:

I was also struck by pervasive but subtle hunger for a change in the emotional tenor of life. “We’re more connected but we’re more apart,” one student lamented. Again and again, students expressed a hunger for social and emotional bonding, for a shift from guilt and accusation toward empathy. “How do you create relationship?” one student asked. That may be the longing that undergirds all others.

In the political arena, there is compelling evidence that Russia manipulated the outcome of the last presidential election, using social media platforms to pander to, and increase, the polarization between Americans of differing views.  That polarization continues to be exacerbated by the absolute nonsense that is spewed from the White House daily.   The lines between fact and rumor, reliable reporting and infotainment, are deliberately and routinely blurred in the service of power and profit.  Economic inequality has skyrocketed in the past 40 years.  This is not a random fluctuation of the market; laws have been changed to make this happen.

It is at this point that Jewish tradition steps in and says, “Take a deep breath and calm yourself.  ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’  (Ecclesiastes 1:9)  We have seen this before.  Setbacks are inevitable, but positive change is real.”

We are heirs to a tradition that routinely invites us to think about 3,000 years of story and history, teaching us to have a perspective that sees beyond the surface of “now.”

We are the people whose “master story” begins with a fearful Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites because we were immigrants, having forgotten or never learned how an immigrant named Joseph had once saved his nation during a famine.  We are the descendents of Abraham and Sarah, who found it hard to believe that their experiment with ethical monotheism would even survive to a second generation.  But it did, and here we are.  Our stories remind us that while individual lives meander back and forth, sustainable progress is measured over lifetimes and generations.  “Once we were enslaved, now we are free.” The way things are right now is not the way they always have been, nor always will be. 

I feel tremendous hope when I talk with and learn from people a generation younger than I am — Millennials, again. The 1960s were a time of radical change, but there’s one pervasive word today that wasn’t part of the conversation in the ’60s: sustainability.  Sustainability in food and farms, in the economy, in urban planning and social networks.  I believe that what’s being built today has a good chance of lasting, but that means it’s growing more slowly.  That growth continues quietly even during times when the only thing that’s obviously increasing is discord and divisiveness.  Millenials tend to trust people who are local, on the ground, rather than big institutions.  This, too, is part of growing sustainable change.  And it’s one reason that communities like Berith Sholom have an important part to play.  We are an ecosystem in which relationships can flourish, in which hope and optimism can be nurtured (and, when necessary, resurrected.  Like this morning).

On a more personal level, I have seen changes in my lifetime that I never imagined I would live to see.  Judy and I had a civil union in Vermont 18 years ago, which was unexpected enough.  Now we’re legally married, and over two dozen countries have legalized same-sex marriage.  Could I have dreamed of that when I first came out over three decades ago?  Never!  I have hopes that, like slavery which once was almost universal and is now almost universally condemned, this is a change that will not be rolled back.

This is my 22nd High Holy Days in Troy, and I’ve watched this city go from mostly-empty storefronts to new restaurants opening faster than I can keep track of them.  People are walking their dogs in all weather, and there’s a veterinarian on River Street.  I now keep a spare bicycle helmet in my office so that I can use the Bikeshare bicycles when I’m having coffee with someone.  The people who are moving in downtown are young and old, multicultural and multiethnic.

My optimism also grows from having had the privilege of over two decades in this congregation sharing people’s joys and sorrows.  I have been present at or heard the stories of turning points in many people’s lives, and my experience tells me that, given a chance, most humans are caring and compassionate.  Fear and anger can mess up anyone’s perspective, but they are (thank God) not the reality that defines most lives.  Bad things happen.  But more good things do.  Most of the time, most things go right for most people.

Remaining aware of this is terribly important because it supports gratitude and resilience.  There’s all kinds of wonderful research about the power of gratitude to keep our lives on a positive track.  Actively cultivating an awareness of what’s good shifts not only our mind-set but our behavior, our feelings as well as our thoughts.  In Judaism this is the principle of Hakarat HaTov, “Recognizing the Goodness” in our lives.  It underlies many mitzvot.  For instance, when we say HaMotzi or another blessing before eating, we are reminding ourselves that, with our help, healthy food grows from the earth!  Furthermore, that food is in front of us and we are about to eat it!  What a wonderful thing to notice!  Another example: the traditional Jewish prayer for starting the day is Modah ani l’fanecha... I am grateful that I have woken up today and I am still breathing.  Thank you, God, for keeping faith with me through another night.   And toward the end of the Amidah, the Standing Prayer we just finished, is the prayer that begins Modim anachnu lach — We thank You, God, for all your gifts, morning, noon and night, from generation to generation, l’dor va-dor.  We are surrounded by everyday miracles.

An “attitude of gratitude” doesn’t mean you’ve stopped caring about what’s wrong with the world.  What it does is give you the strength and energy and resilience to actually do something about it.

A Protestant colleague once asked me why it seemed so easy to get members of Berith Sholom involved in social justice work, compared to her experience with her congregation.  In addition to our perspective of hope, I think it’s because the basic building block of Judaism is the mitzvah — technically “commandment,” often used to mean “good deed,” and perhaps best understood today as an obligation or responsibility as seen through a Jewish lens.  Of the traditional 613 mitzvot, all but a few are actions: Things you do, or don’t do.  I think religions tend to have an area in which they specialize, and Judaism’s specialty is action.  There are ritual actions to support you in your own life and to bring community together, and there are practical actions to nurture that community and to leave this world better than we found it.  Hakarat HaTov, recognizing the good, find expression in action, in Judaism; and action supports us in recognizing the good.

All this is not to say that suffering isn’t real or that oppression can be ignored.  Things do get better, but that’s largely because people stand up and make a difference.  The escape from Egypt became our Jewish “master story” in order to teach us:  “Once we were enslaved, now we’re free — now go out and make that true for everyone.”  In other words, leave the world better than you found it.

Part of the challenge of maintaining hope and optimism is to focus on action at a scale where you can make a difference, rather than being overwhelmed by the magnitude of all the things that need to be done.  A couple of millenia ago, Rabbi Tarfone declared one of my favorite quotations of all time.  It begins: Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor — The responsibility is not all sitting on your shoulders.  It’s not your job to complete the work.  You simply can’t.

Take that in.  You and I, and all people of good will, can not and will not accomplish everything that is needed.  That’s not a good thing or a bad thing.  It’s just reality.

But Rabbi Tarfone went on: V’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah.  But you are absolutely required to keep trying.  We have no permission to quit!  Because you and I, and all people of good will, can and will accomplish something.

Sometimes it seems like we are getting nowhere.  When that happens, please stop and think about how much worse off the world would be if we all simply quit trying.  Your efforts matter.

Judaism offers us hope tempered with realism.  Ani ma’amin, wrote Rabbi Moses Maimonides, 800 years ago.  Ani ma’amin be-emunah shleymah — I believe with wholehearted, complete faith — b’vi’at haMashiach.  In the coming of the Messiah.  For him, it was a Redeemer, a go’el, a descendent of King David riding in on a white horse.  (Or maybe there’s no horse.)  For the modern Reform Movement, for me, I daresay for most of you, it’s not an individual, a go’el, but g’ulah, a time of redemption, the “Days of the Messiah” as they are called in Jewish tradition — that time of perfect peace and justice that we can imagine but have never seen.

Then Maimonides goes on to say:  V’af al pi she-yitmameyah, im kol zeh, ani ma’amin.  “And even though he tarry” — even though that day, that perfection, remains in the future; “even so, I believe.”  It’s not going to happen today or tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up.  In fact, I may not give up.

On the other end of the scale, our tradition also cautions us to be wary of declaring that the (metaphorical) Messiah has arrived.  (I’m going to keep using the language of “messiah” but it’s a metaphor, alright?)

There is a teaching in the name of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who lived through the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70:  “If you have a sapling in your hand and someone comes and tells you that the Messiah has arrived, first finish planting the tree and then go and welcome the Messiah.”  (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 31b)

Carry out the practical, physical act of redeeming the world that is already in your hand, no matter what wild stories are circulating.  This tree still needs to get into the ground; nobody else will do it for you, not even the messiah.

Some even say, “And then go and see if it really is the Messiah.”  Don’t stop doing good work because a rumor has reached you that it might no longer be necessary.

And be patient.  Trees don’t reach maturity overnight.  Neither does humanity.

Jewish tradition even teaches us to temper our expectations of what a Messianic Era will look like.  You may actually have to keep planting trees even after the Messiah arrives.  One of the most famous descriptions is found in the book of Isaiah (2:2-4) and repeated in the book of Micah (4:1-3):

And it shall come to pass in the end of days, That the mountain of the Eternal’s house shall be established as the head of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all nations shall flow toward it.

And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Eternal, to the house of the God of Jacob, Who will teach us God’s ways, And we will walk in God’s paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, And the word of the Eternal One from Jerusalem.

And God will judge between the nations, and will settle disputes between many peoples.  Then they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

In this imagined future world, when all people recognize Eternal truths, the reason that the nations to be able to beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning shears is simply this: “God will judge between the nations, and will settle disputes between many peoples.”  It’s not that human nature will radically change, so that people have no more disputes.  It’s that we will have learned to use non-violent means of resolving them. 

That’s a rather tall order.  But it is far more realistic, in my eyes, than to imagine that we will no longer ever get into conflicts.

Then, as the version in Micah continues, “everyone will sit beneath their vine or fig tree, and no one will frighten them.”  (Micah 4:4)  Each person will be treated with dignity and respect.  One of the areas today where we can make a difference is rebuilding a society which respects everyone’s basic humanity and intrinsic worth.  This concept is embedded in Judaism in the words b’tselem Elohim, the idea that each person is created “in God’s image.”

I’ve gotten involved with Better Angels, an organization founded in 2016 to bring together members of the “Red Tribe” and members of the “Blue Tribe” to really hear each other.  In the face of the “disunity” I quoted at the beginning (it’s Better Angels’ description of what’s going on in our country right now), Better Angels is  “a bipartisan citizen’s movement to unify our divided nation. … we’re building new ways to talk to one another, participate together in public life, and influence the direction of the nation.”

The point of Better Angels is not to change anybody’s political views but to re-humanize the other side: To understand why someone else sees the world the way they do, to help us begin to trust again in each other’s basic humanity and good intentions.  To recognize and act on the idea that we are all created B’tselem Elohim.

And you know what?  It works.  There’s actually research-based evidence that when you listen to someone to try to understand where they’re coming from (as opposed to listening in order to argue), they are more able to listen to you the same way.   This makes me really happy, because it’s what I’ve believed for years based on anecdotal evidence.  Better Angels is just getting organized in the Capital District and I intend to volunteer with it during my upcoming sabbatical.

We stand here in the doorway of a new year.  HaYom Harat Olam, our prayers say after each shofar blowing: Today the universe is conceived.  Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur offer us a powerful “spiritual technology” that is urgently needed in the world today.  They celebrate the ability to “re-conceive,” to re-tune our perspective.  They affirm that change is possible, that relationships can be repaired, that human beings can move our lives in new and positive directions.   They come every year, not once in a lifetime, because we will never arrive at perfection, as individuals or a society or as a world.  There will always be work to do.  But they also come every year to renew in us ancient wisdom:  We are not stuck in yesterday.  Tomorrow can be different.

We need you.  We need your effort.  We need your hope, and your optimism, and your energy.  I believe you have not given up, but it is grinding and tiring to constantly feel worried about what’s happening and what’s going to happen.

So you have to take care of yourself.  And that’s part of why you’re here today, right?  To drink from the well of community, and tradition, and hope.  To refresh our faith.  Not faith in a certain predictable outcome, and not faith that God, or the messiah, or anyone else, is automatically going to make it come out all right.  Rather, our faith that this struggle, this process, this work, is the holiest thing we can be engaged in, and it is worthwhile to continue.

“What I found for myself I try to tell you:

Redemption and salvation are very near,

And the taste of them is in the world

That God created and laid before us.”

Ruth Brin

Let’s go plant a tree.