I once heard a story about a town far from here where one day all the clocks stopped working. Despite the people’s best efforts, they could not get them to start again. Through many in the village were handy, there wasn’t anyone who understood the inner workings of the apparatus, the springs and dials, the gears and pendulum. Because they were secluded, years passed until a wander who entered the village was discovered to be a watchmaker.
Quickly the town became abuzz, each bringing him their own clocks, hoping this stranger could fix them. One after another lined up, hoping that their most important family heirlooms could be returned to working order. But soon, each of the villagers met disappointment. After many long winters and wet summers, their clocks were too rusted to salvage.
Yet, among all the heartache and sadness, there was one person who did get good news; the watchmaker could fix his clock. Soon everyone was gathered around this lucky time teller, asking his secret. Why could the watchmaker salvage his clock and no other? “When our clocks stopped, I didn’t know what else to do” the man said, “so I kept winding my clock each morning as if it worked.” And that simple act of hope and faith had kept it from rusting over.
For many of us, this past year has been a tough one. Some of us have faced personal hardships. Some have lost loved ones. Others have encountered illness. Some have struggled with difficulties at work, while others have faced challenges at home. Many have looked at insurmountable hurdles and have felt the pull of despair.
Others of us have faced national tragedies. We have looked at a world filled with suffering and felt our helplessness. We have stared into the fury of nature and felt utterly exposed, amidst flood and fire, wind and earthquake. We have felt powerless to stop anti-semitism, racism, bigotry, and hate. We have looked at our political leadership and wondered how we got here.
Many of us carry fear. We wear it on our shoulders. We bare it on our backs. Many worry about tomorrow. Staring into a bleak and uncertain future, the path of least resistance is to give up hope.
Yet, hope is precisely what we need in the darkest of times. As it was for the townspeople, despair is the pathway to ruin. When we give up hope, we allow our hearts to rust over. But when we keep hope alive, when we wind our clocks expectantly we make possible the future for which we yearn.
But what exactly is hope? It’s not exactly optimism, which is the belief that everything will turn out fine. And it’s not confidence, which is a certainty that you can achieve what you seek. No. Hope is much more elusive. Hope is the belief that through our efforts, we might get closer and even reach our goals.
As my teacher, Rabbi Michael Marmur once wrote, “Optimism is passive; hope is active. Unlike optimism or pessimism, which are qualities we are often born with, hope is something we can embrace...while optimism is a matter of personality or disposition, hope is a matter of faith."
As surprising as it might sound, many great thinkers through history have not embraced the idea of hope. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides scoffed at those with hope; one could look at the future expectantly but all the hope in the world will not help them when armies appear on their doorstep. He feared that hope would delay action and in his world, action is what mattered most.
Likewise Seneca and his fellow stoic philosophers dismissed hope. For them, a person’s chief task is to learn to live in the present. Hope may seem useful but it teaches us to look to the future and when we begin to leave the present we open the door for other less helpful future-dependent emotional outlooks like fear and anxiety. If I hope for an outcome, I will also fear not achieving it. As he writes, “Widely different though they are, [hope and fear] they march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to.” (Seneca, Letter 5.7–8)
Yet, history has proven that hope is indispensable to our lives. The Jewish people knew this early on. We are a religion built on the idea of hope. Our ancestors are paragons of hope in their personal struggles. Our Bible is filled with stories of women who are too old to have children, holding on to the dream of motherhood and finding it. It contains stories of lovers, searching for companionships and one day achieving it. It contains the story of King Hezekiah, who the Bible tells us was sick and one day received word that he was going to die. Unwilling to accept this degree, he turned his face toward the wall and prayed with fervor to be revived. God heard his prayer and because Hezekiah had not given up hope, added more than a decade to his life.
Yet as inspiring as these stories may be, it is in our national story that the power of hope truly shines through. Jewish history is not an easy one. We’ve faced enemies stronger than us who seek our destruction. We have lived in exile for two thousand years away from our homeland. We have gained and lost power, attained agency and watched it disappear. In each of these moments, it has been our communal hope that has kept us alive.
We are a people whose great heros are not warriors but prophets who dance between words of rebuke and messages of hope and comfort. After the first Temple is destroyed, they warn against despair: build houses, plant vineyards, live in the present while working for the future. And in every generation, this message of hope rings forth. It was with us as we wandered throughout Europe from expulsion to expulsion. It held us after pogroms broke out in Eastern Europe. It found its voice among the great Zionist thinkers of old. It was in the hands and hearts of those who painted the sign above the Breslav synagogue in Warsaw during the Holocaust that read "Gevalt Jews! Don't give up."
There is little wonder then, that when Israel became a state and they sought out a national anthem, they chose to call it Hatikvah, The Hope.
Though important, hope is not easy. It takes courage to hope. True courage is not running into a battle knowing the outcome. It is entering a struggle knowing you could fail but doing it anyway. Senica was right. It’s a scary thing to hope because there’s a good chance you will greet disappointment. Early on with plenty of time before us, it seems our hope is infinite. But when time passes and we have not come closer to our dreams it’s much easier to give up. Francis Bacon was right when he quipped, ““Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.” But just because hope takes fortitude and bravery doesn’t mean we should avoid it. As psychologist Brene Brown once taught, “you can choose courage and you can choose comfort but you cannot choose both.” Knowing you have helped to build the future you have hoped for, makes it all the more meaningful when you do.
But even if we fall short, even if we never reach our dream, hope still matters. In the 1990s a group of researchers tracked down nearly 700 nuns who took their vows during the 1930s. These nuns were special, because their mother superior had asked them when entering their service to write an autobiographical statement of their lives. The researchers compared these statements with the health of these nuns, now in their 80s, 90s, and 100s. What they found was the nuns who had fared better were the ones who early on displayed many of the foundational positive emotions of good living: contentment, gratitude, happiness, love and chief among these hope!
In other words, hope doesn’t just sustain our dreams, it keeps us healthy, body and soul.
For these reasons, among others, our ancient Rabbis understood the true risks of turning toward despair. For them, despair was a legal category called yeush, and it was an important linchpin in civil law.
The Torah teaches that when one finds a lost object, it is our obligation to return it to the owner. If we fail to do this, if we pocket it rather than bring it back, we are liable for stealing. Yet, not every item can be returned. Some don’t have an identifying mark. Others, like a dollar bill, are lost too often and the people who find it are too excited to ever give it back.
Up to this point, all of this makes sense. But the revolution of Jewish law is that if one finds a lost object, he cannot keep an item unless the owner has given up hope of getting it back. Unless the owner has been through this process of yeush, unless he has resigned himself to a life without his wallet or hat or backpack, it is not yours to take. Jewish legal codes are filled with the parameters of this problematic law. How can we tell is someone has given up hope? What if we know they will in the future? Can we hold on to the object while we wait for them to despair?
What is important are not the specifics of the law but the overarching message: when we give up hope, when we despair, we relinquish agency and control to that which is most important to us. Without hope, others get the things, live the life, make the choices that should have been ours!
If we give up our vision for the future, others have the right to forge a path without us.
A few weeks ago, I was discussing the laws of found objects and the role of despair with someone who pointed out to me that when she was single and traveling in Israel, she ended up in Meah Shearim, the most ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Israel at the home of a rebbetzin. She was there because she wanted to find a prayer that she could say that would help her find love. Needless to say, she was completely surprised when she was given a slip of paper that said nothing of husbands and families. Instead, she was instructed to offer a prayer for “finding a lost object.”
This prayer helped her keep her hope alive. It reminded her that the thing that was most important to her at that moment was not gone. And if she held out hope, if she resisted the urge of yeush, if she avoided despair, she might still find love.
If these days are dark for you, your light is not gone. Instead, you have simply misplaced it. Have hope you will find it again.
On Rosh Hashanah, I often think of the mystical notion of the lost light of the universe. According to legend, when God created the world God created a special kind of light. This was the light that God spoke into being when God said the words, “let there be light.” But this light is not the same light we see today. It is not the sun, the moon, or the stars. Those primordial beams were too powerful and dangerous and after Adam and Eve left the garden of Eden, God hid it away from us. We lost the light.
Our goal, through acts of love and faith, is to uncover the or hangauz, humanity’s misplaced light which will shine forth for us. Though the world may seem chaotic and bleak, as long as we hold out hope that we will once again bask in this Divine light, we will someday find it. It is only when we stop the search, that the light disappears.
We are clock winders, defiantly ignoring the urge to stop.
We are searchers, unable to give up hope of finding that which seems lost to us.
We are pioneers, making a path toward light in a dark and unsteady world.
Alfred Tennyson once wrote:
Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering 'it will be happier'...”
Whatever last year brought for you, let hope in. Let it wash away any semblance of despair. This year is a new year. You have made it this far. Your future may be uncertain, but it need not continue your past. When life seems overwhelming, when you feel out of control, there is one thing that no one can take from you: your stubborn, audacious, courageous, and resilient hope.