The Twisty Road Towards Hope, Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5782
A brand new word—to most of us outside the gymnastics’ arena, anyway—was introduced into the broader human lexicon this summer at the Olympics. We came to know this new word—“twisties”—through the devastating experience of four-time gold medalist in gymnastics, Simone Biles. The “twisties” caused her to drop out of some of the most prominent gymnastic competitions in the Olympics. So severe were the possible consequences of continuing that Simone had no choice but to make the difficult decision to sideline herself. As Biles describes it, the “twisties” cause a profound disorientation where you can’t tell up from down and you lose all sense of where your body is in space. This, of course, would be very dangerous for anyone, but even more so for a gyrating gymnast flying through the air with great speed and trying to land safely back on the ground.
In a strange twist of life mirroring sports, Simon Biles’ experience of the “twisties” has become emblematic of how many of us are feeling these days! Who among us can’t identify with her profound sense of disorientation and loss of balance? All of us have been experiencing our own version of the “twisties,” in some way! Not because we’ve all attempted complicated gymnastic routines under great pressure to go for the gold! But because of the deep emotional upheaval many of us are feeling as we encounter an unfamiliar world with dizzying new challenges, disorienting uncertainty about what the future holds, and a real loss of our bearings in a world most of us thought that we knew and had a handle on.
Just think of all the “twisty” challenges that we are collectively facing…a pandemic that continues to rage with new variants, racial upheaval still rampant across the land, and, now, newly emerging threats to long-protected women’s reproductive rights. More violence and turmoil are bubbling up in hotspots around the world. Environmental crises threaten, in far corners of our planet and very close to home, bringing increasingly intense floods, fires, droughts and smoke. And that is just on the world stage! Personally and communally, we have our own unique challenges as we contemplate how we will “land” in this new year. We are relaunching our kids back to school. We are retooling our work/family life balance. Here at CBH, we are re-navigating how to gather safely as a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community, so we can continue to study and pray together, celebrate with one another, and comfort each other at times of loss. We are “re” doing so much! No wonder our heads are spinning! On a very personal level, we are also moving toward a major change in the treasured relationship that we have shared with each over the last nearly 27 years, stirring up feelings of the “twisties” in our “kishkes” for me and, perhaps, for you, too. The normal uncertainties of every year… certainly appear… to be getting more decidedly… uncertain!
Our Jewish tradition, however, has long acknowledged our natural anxiety and dread that arise in response to these vagaries of life, to the lack of control we often have over many things that might happen to us. Every High Holy Days, we recite the ominous words of the U’netaneh Tokef, which powerfully articulate our communal fear as we face an uncertain new year and ponder: Who will live and who will die? Who will thrive and who will struggle? Who will be satisfied and who will go hungry? This year, these questions somehow feel more real, more personal, more dire. What will life be like, we wonder, as we enter this coming year? How can we regroup and reground to move forward with confidence? Will I and those I love stay healthy and safe? How will we adapt with resilience? And how will we “untwist” ourselves and regain our footing so that we can move into this new year of 5782 with a renewed sense of joy, purpose and, most of all, hope?
My friend and colleague, Rabbi George Gittleman, recently commented that on the very beginning of the Jewish New Year the new moon is hidden, holding a symbolic lesson for us all. We do not know what will be revealed in the year to come! It is shrouded from us and, for good or for bad, this is the reality of life for us. No matter how hard we try, we cannot change this fact. We are stuck with uncertainty as our constant companion! The question is how will we choose to live with that uncertainty? What might it mean to lean into the unknown and to live with hope even when we can’t see where the twisty road before us is leading?
Just six months into the dark days of WWI, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” Adding her own commentary to Woolf’s observation, Rebecca Solnit points out in her book, Hope In The Dark, that Woolf is using the word “dark” “as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfillment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward. But again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.” (Solnit, p. 32) Sometimes it is easier for us humans to live in dread and fear, I think, than in uncertainty. But there is another choice: Hope! Of course, hope is not simply a pollyanna-ish optimism, but it is a muscle that we can exercise and develop that will allow us to proceed with our lives with confidence, despite not quite having all the answers. Hope is a way in which we can begin to look at the world and our lives, that provides for unseen possibilities, and opportunities that may seem to remain cloaked in the shadows. Solnit observes, “Hope is not a door, but a sense that there might be a door at some point, some way out of the problems of the present moment even before that way is found or followed.” (ibid p. 58) Thus, we can choose to go forward, despite everything, with hope and with determination, with promise and with blessings; always remembering to keep our eyes open for that doorway that will lead to something better, more sustainable, more just.
While the U’netaneh Tokef prayer gives voice to our deep-seated anxieties in the face of uncertainty, this very same prayer also provides the classic Jewish response to our fears of the unknown. Teshuvah (Returning to our best selves, as a priority), Tefillah (Reflecting with prayerful perspective on the world) and Tzedakah (Responding with a generous sense of purpose to life’s challenges), these are the three great, guiding lights of Judaism. They can’t remove the “twisties” from our lives, but together they help us navigate with faithfulness and hope the twists and turns that may await us. Today’s world and today’s challenges offer us an opportunity to put a new spin on these important traditional paths to healing, holiness and hope.
What can Teshuvah mean for us today? We tend to think about teshuvah as a return; a going back to some innocent time when we existed in some unsullied, pure state. But Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a chasidic master of the early 20th century in Poland, provides us with an insightful teaching that flips this notion on its head. He taught us that, through teshuvah, “we return to who we are meant to be, but have not yet achieved!” Teshuvah now becomes a drive and commitment to moving forward, not backward; to aspiring toward who we could yet become! Teshuvah is our personal pursuit of our very best selves. Along the way, we recognize there are many external forces tugging at us for our attention. We become distracted from our essential pursuit; we are thrown off balance. Sometimes personal situations or world events may divert our focus, as well. Then we are often kept from paying attention to that most important voice; the voice that is uniquely our own, that speaks from deep within us, our soul.
Simone Biles’ courageous response to her “twisties” has much to teach us about teshuvah and how we might engage with our own “twisties” by listening with compassion to our own inner voice. Ultimately, Simone’s lesson for us all is that we must hold, at our core, a deep commitment to caring for ourselves, even at the expense of pursuing external goals. If we desire to become our most successful selves—not measured by gold medals we’ve won, but by the values and ideals, by the humanity, that we exemplify through our actions in our daily lives—we must begin with taking care of ourselves. Rabbi Hillel said it best over two thousand years ago when he taught: “Im ein ani li, mi li?/If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Pirke Avot)
Caring for ourselves and listening deeply to our souls are the foundation stones for building a path of hope toward the future. Rebecca Solnit quotes the theologian Walter Brueggeman, in her book, Hope In The Dark:
“Memory produces hope in the same way amnesia produces despair.” (p. 22) Solnit then goes on to share that, in her words, “though hope is about the future, grounds for hope lie in the records and recollections of the past…. A memory that includes our power, produces that forward-directed energy called hope.” (ibid) Here’s the important lesson that we need to hear as we work to build and develop our “hope” muscles: We need to be sure that we are reviewing and celebrating our successes and accomplishments, our assets. We need not focus solely nor primarily on our misdeeds and missteps. We must call to mind those moments where we acted with kindness and grace, times where we touched people’s lives with love and care. These powerful and positive memories empower us. We should forgive ourselves as we would others, and remember our strengths, drawing upon them to help guide our vision forward with that energy we call hope.
Inward reflection and self-assessment are only starting points in our journey to landing with hope in the new year. The second part of Rabbi Hillel’s famous dictum is “Uch’she ani l’atzmi, mah ani?/And if I am only for myself, what am I?” In a recent webinar, with over 1,000 rabbis from across the Jewish landscape, President Joe Biden reminded us that we have a responsibility not only to look inward, but at..each..other, and outward at the challenges that exist in the world. This is the stirring call of tzedakah for our time; like the blasts of the shofar, an urgent summons to respond with righteousness to the cries of suffering all around us. Tzedakah inspires us to move forward with our commitment to doing good for each other, and acting with compassion and justice in the world. The path of tzedakah is key to anchoring ourselves and finding our bearings in today’s new reality. Commitment to repairing the world provides us with a clear and powerful reason to get up out of bed every day. And, God knows, there are more than enough worthy challenges in the world to keep us up, such that we might not ever get back to bed!
In a recent episode of the Human Brain on NPR, Dr. Anthony Burrow, Associate Professor in Human Development at Cornell, talked about the value of cultivating purpose in our lives. He has investigated why having a sense of purpose in life serves as a psychological resource for those who cultivate it. Specifically, he has explored the extent to which purpose contributes to a positive adjustment and serves as a source of protection in the face of stress and challenge. Purpose, he has shown, provides us with valuable tools for the resilience and hope we need to overcome the “twisties” of today. Dr. Burrow differentiates the notion of “meaning” from “purpose.” Meaning, he says, is about looking back and making sense of the world. Purpose, on the other hand, is about looking forward and aspiring to accomplish the goals that lay in front of us.
Tzedakah—acting with justice and compassion—not only offers us a vital path to purpose in this new year, but will also serve as a source of stability in our lives and help ensure that our bearings, in an upside down world, remain on course. So, when we feel lost, let us focus our attention on the particular gifts and skills that we have to offer the world. Decide what your passions are and where you are drawn to get involved and then just do it! Whether your concerns are for protecting the environment, undoing the systemic racism entrenched in our country, or striving to guard the rights of women, immigrants or those in the LGBTQ+ community, these are ways we can feel that we have something important to contribute. These provide us with a meaningful sense of purpose. When we are looking for hope, the best place to discover it is through tzedakah, in giving of ourselves and helping others.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? We must begin to prioritize self-care with Teshuvah, a return to our best selves. And if I am only for myself, what am I? We will surely find our purpose in caring for others and the world through Tzedakah. And, finally, Rabbi Hillel concludes his famous aphorism with the challenge: “Im lo achshav, eimatai? If not now, when?” Our last pathway to hope in the new year is T’fillah, a prayerful perspective on the world. The path of t’fillah does not only take place in the sanctuary, as we might imagine, but is a way of seeing the world at every moment with fresh eyes! T’fillah is just what we need now, in this moment, to provide us with a powerful lens for looking at our lives today so that we can actually see the hope and the power of possibility waiting in potentia before us, and inspiring us to work to make it real.
In another surprising twist, the most compelling teaching about discovering the power of hope comes not from one of our many inspiring Jewish stories of victory or redemption, but from perhaps our most depressing and forlorn account in the whole Bible, the Book of Lamentations. I’m grateful to Rabbi Amichai Lau Lavie for the wisdom he recently imparted to us in a webinar with the Northern California Board of Rabbis, which gave rise to the insights I want to share with you in this last section. The Book of Lamentations, attributed to Jeremiah the prophet, bewails the utter destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. With our heads in the ashes of abject ruin, in the midst of overwhelming despair, Jeremiah declares, after recounting every horrible event and indignity that has occurred: “Oolai yesh tikvah!, Perhaps there is hope!” (Lam. 3:29) How is that even possible?! Even there, in the midst of misery and decimation, can hope still take root?! Surely, then, there is hope for us! Let’s see what lessons we can derive from Jeremiah’s startling declaration of the possible existence of hope for our own lives?
We’ll need to dig a bit deeper into his three words: Oolai, Yesh, Tikvah! Perhaps, There is, Hope! First, let’s explore the word, oolai, perhaps. Oolai is a word that, by its very nature, opens up the possibility of possibility! Will it happen for sure? Maybe! Can we expect it? Perhaps! Not yes, but not no! What does it mean for us to live in this place of “oolai,” without the need for certainty, not closing the door on any eventuality? To be in such a mindset requires of us an openness and humility, acceptance and trust. What would happen if we began to approach the uncertainties, the “twisties” of today with this sense of oolai? We don’t know a lot about what the future will bring or how things will turn out, so maybe we will have to just be here now! Perhaps we can all ask ourselves, “What can I do today? How can I do what I do with more presence?” Oolai moves us away from the simple dichotomy of black and white, either/or, into the indefinite blur of an open middle ground of multiple possibilities. Will this perspective of possibility solve all of our problems? Perhaps! Will we experience a liberating sense of promise and hope? Most likely! Is it worth trying? Absolutely!
Oolai Yesh Tikvah: Let’s take a closer look, now, at this next word, Yesh! There is! How often in our lives do we focus on Ain, what there isn’t, what we are lacking? Yesh invites us to concentrate instead on what is here, what we do have! Though there is no doubt about the losses we’ve experienced during COVID—the emotional and physical, and the very human losses, missed opportunities for sharing special or significant moments in our lives, the small pleasures that we often took for granted—and these losses are real and painful, but we are also blessed by so much yesh! As we go into this year, where we are worried about so much that could go wrong, about so much suffering that does exist, about so much destruction that might happen, let us also remember to seek out the yesh that is all around us, and, perhaps, therein we will find stepping stones leading to a path taking us to the possibility of a doorway that opens onto hope.
Which leads us to Oolai yesh tikvah: the final word, Tikvah! Hope! R’ Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l teaches that optimism is passive, but hope is active. Optimism is simply the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that together we can make things better. I love this idea that hope animates and motivates us to realize our dreams, not by sitting around complaining and whining, but by getting busy and into “good trouble,” as John Lewis would say. Rabbi Anat Hoffman, of the Israel Religious Action Center and Women of the Wall, is fond of reminding us that you can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time. So the best way to rustle up some hope is to make it happen through our own agency. Only we can bring hope into the world! Solnit, writes: “Authentic hope requires clarity—seeing the troubles in the world—and imagination, seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable.” (Solnit p. 55) We can best strengthen and activate our hope muscles as we move toward this new year by becoming our best selves yet and building on our past achievements, by having a clear sense of purpose, and being able to see beyond the limiting binary options in front of us and choosing to live in hope. Then, oolai, just maybe, we will succeed in working together to realize our dreams of a better world for all.
Time and again, our people have emerged from tragedy, disaster and incredible challenges with even greater strength, wisdom and hope. We will emerge from these days stronger and more hopeful, too! Why? Because, when it comes right down to it, hope depends on us and what we are prepared to carry into the world. We can choose to bring hope, if we so desire, as is beautifully captured in this parable of “Spilling Coffee from the Cup,” adapted by my friends, Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Atlas Weisz, from a story by Ashish Bhav-nani:
A young woman was holding a cup of coffee at the synagogue when someone came along and accidentally hit her arm, making her spill the coffee everywhere.
The rabbi saw what happened, rushed over to make sure she was okay, and then, sensing an opportunity for a life lesson asked:
“Why do you think you spilled the coffee?”
The woman answered, “Well, of course, because someone bumped into me!”
The rabbi shook her head and said, “Not exactly….
You spilled the coffee because the coffee was in the cup.
If tea had been in it, you would have spilled tea.
Whatever is inside the cup is what will come out.
Therefore, when life comes along and shakes you, which will happen,
whatever is inside of you will come out. It’s easy to fake it until you get rattled.”
“So we have to ask ourselves…,” said the Rabbi:
What’s inside our cups?
When life gets tough, what spills over?
Anger, bitterness, harsh words and actions?
Or joy, gratefulness, peace and humility?
With what will we fill ourselves,
When it sometimes feels like our cups are being drained?
The choice is ours!”
As we welcome this new year with a deep sense of purpose and promise, let us intentionally choose to fill ourselves up, all the way up, with self-care, with justice and compassion, with full awareness of our blessings, and with faith and hope in hidden possibilities so that we can face all of the transitions, the turmoil, and the “twisties;” so that we can meet all the challenges and the opportunities that await us with that most treasured gift….hope! Hope for what, perhaps, can be; hope for who we can be, if only we will it! For then it is no dream! ken y’hi ratzon!