Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Utter Audacity of Jewish Hope


The Utter Audacity of Jewish Hope

True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings;
Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.
                              --William Shakespeare

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm-
                             --Emily Dickinson

Those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.
                              -- Isaiah 40:31

As a child growing up in New York, the month of December was always a time that I would feel within a tinge of collective jealousy. Seeing the dazzling, colorful array of lights and decorations that many houses displayed so prominently in honor of Christmas often left me crestfallen and convinced that the Jewish people were gypped because the Channukah candles seemed just so…wimpy. Even those that would get more creative and hang up a multi-colored “Happy Hannukah!” sign, trying to liven things up a bit, or the truly adventurous families that would really go all out and actually hang up a machete dreidel with a smiley face…didn’t quite match the excitement and aesthetic allure that shined from the surrounding houses’ walls and rooftops covered with lights, sleighs, and other fascinating decorations.

My consternation was further compounded when I got a little older and learned that Channukah is not only climatically a winter holiday. The military victory and subsequent miracle of the oil were actually the last national triumphs that the Jewish people enjoyed as a nation before the beginning of the long, winter night of the exile that we are still presently enduring. It was almost as if God gave us one last going-away present at the time of the Second Temple before its destruction and the ensuing Diaspora. Knowing that we would have miles and miles of suffering to go before we could finally sleep again as a totally sovereign nation, He gave us the Channukah candles to illuminate Jewish homes wherever they might be on the globe, and they were to shine even during the times of all the horrors we suffered over the centuries. They were to warm us, and lead the way. (This is the reason why many have the custom to sing the Ma’oz Tzur song, which recounts all the exiles and the future Messianic redemption, by the lit candles. It is as if we are proclaiming that just as the Jews were granted this previous redemption of Channukah, we believe that we will soon reach the final, utopian Messianic redemption.)

Why then just a few measly candles? If this holiday’s commemoration was to insure our survival in exile, why did He not leave us with a real bang, a really exciting, eye-opening, show-stopping, loud, lively and sparkling display of lights and colors and heat? 

He did.

But we need to stare deeply at the resounding elegance of the candles to see it and hear their message. All the power and vigor needed to surmount any challenge is conveyed and displayed in the deceptively small flames of the Channukah candles. They might not be apparent immediately; one needs to listen to what the candles are whispering. For their message is too profound to be accessible without effort.


President Obama titled his book about reclaiming the American dream, “The Audacity of Hope” based on a sermon he had heard from Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The beautiful idea that Wright delivered in that sermon was actually a comment on a painting by the great Victorian artist George Frederic Watts called “Hope”.  The

 “painting depicts a female allegorical figure of Hope…sitting on a globe, blindfolded, clutching a wooden lyre with only one string left intact. She sits in a hunched position, with her head leaning towards the instrument, perhaps so she can hear the faint music she can make with the sole remaining string”.

"With her clothes in rags, her body scarred and bruised and bleeding, her harp all but destroyed and with only one string left, she had the audacity to make music... To take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope… that's the real word God will have us hear… from Watt's painting,"

said Wright. The painting is indeed quite austere, and the melancholy state of the figure so dire, that G.K. Chesterton cynically scoffed that a more accurate name for the painting would have been Despair. Watts defended his work, however, and explained that,

"Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord".

What an extraordinarily powerful message! Hope need not mean expectancy. To hope is simply to grab tightly that last string and play on. No matter what. Keep making the music even though one is certain that the future shall not yield any real positivity. It is the music itself, the hope for better, that is the end itself, and not just the means to reach a rosier reality. That is the audacity of hope. Living with a vision of a better tomorrow, utterly inspired by that vision, letting its melody carry you, while knowing full well that the pictured tomorrow shall probably never arrive.

 As the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti explained his inspiration from Virgil’s timeless hero,

“Aeneas is beauty, youth, ingenuousness ever in search of a promised Land, where, in the contemplated, fleeting beauty, his own beauty smiles and enchants...”

As Moses viewed with bliss the Promised Land from the distant peak of Mount Nebo, it is the contemplation alone of visions of hope that elicits radiant beauty and enchantment from within. They are not at all dependent on actually crossing the Jordan.  Because

“It is the place where one’s will and thoughts are directed that is the true location of a person”.
                   --Ba’al Shem Tov

That is the hauntingly inspiring and surprisingly audacious music of hope. It is beautiful music; it is transforming music. Hope allows one found in the most despondent situation to be lifted up, to transcend the bitter reality within which one might be trapped, to see new vistas of a Promised Land, shimmering with an expansive aura of goodness, serenity, and peace, totally independent of actual empirical circumstances.

I think that is why the great singers of the human condition, Isaiah, Shakespeare, and Dickinson all compared hope to a bird. A “mean creature” caught in a “sore storm” that Chesterton would have termed desolate despair can soar and fly out with the swift, mighty wings of hope that “never grow weary… not be faint.” Hold dear that last string of hope! Pluck at it with your whole being and allow that music to reshape your internal landscape, though you know that the external one might never get better… "Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests…rather the music which can come from the remaining chord". Because it’s the music, the hope itself, regardless of any actual outcome, that will make present reality smile and enchant.


But let us go deeper. Come, let’s get the sweet music of the lone string to resonate louder…

At the same time that Watts was painting, there lived in Russia an intensely passionate, mystical rabbi, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneerson of Lubavitch. He was not content with this understanding of hope. He declared hope to be much more daring.

 For since the beginning of the world men have not… perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen… what He hath prepared for him that waiteth for Him.

                                                  --Isaiah 64:3

 “The meaning of “him that waiteth for Him” is one who has hope. Hope is necessary only for something that one does not know if it will be. For something expected, hope is not needed... Our souls await God; we therefore hope for something that might be radically distant, something that can never be rationally conceived to occur, something that we cannot even fathom how it can ever happen and indeed seems impossible that it will. Yet hope is the ardent belief that it shall, indeed, come to pass.” 

To hope is not just to picture with no expectancy a permanently elusive state. Judaism exhorts us to hope, but not a hope that is only a wistful dream, a fantasy that might serve to raise one out of despondency though quite possibly lacking any eventual fruition. We hope...with expectancy. To hope is really to await. Because our hopes grow out of a trust in God. We hope with expectancy because we do wait for Him, and therefore know to expect a better future. 

Sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm-

Do you understand that this is why no storm has ever silenced the bird of Jewish hope? Throughout the centuries, the song of Jewish hope was sung during pogroms, crusades, and even in concentration camps.

 Because we do expect. And wait. And trust. And therefore never, ever stop hoping. That things will actually change and get better. 

Nothing the Jews faced caused us to stop plucking at the one string left on the harp. 

And the little, forlorn bottle of oil that the Maccabees found... was that one remaining string of the harp. It proved that hope should truly be expectancy. The priests in the Temple lit the menorah with it, they had the utter audacity of Jewish hope and dared to play a melody with the small, solitary string...and it indeed burned for eight days. And the candles are still today whispering that secret, telling us to hope for and expect the impossible.


But their message is not only the inspiration to continue “to take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope.” The Channukah candles are also explaining to us how we can do it- how in the face of any sorrow or adversity, we can so persistently “never stop - at all-” living with the trust and hope for the concrete actualization of better times.

 "The candle of G-d is the soul of man” (Proverbs) means that souls…are, by way of illustration, like the flame of the candle, whose nature it is always to scintillate upwards… In like manner does the soul of man…naturally desire and yearn to separate itself and depart from the body in order to unite with its origin and source in God, the fountain-head of all life.”
     –Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya

There are many scientific opinions about the nature of hope. From where in the soul does it come? Which aspect of the psyche allows a vulnerable, tender victim of fate to refuse to surrender to the challenges it's facing and continuously retain the yearning for a better life? Some claim hope to be an emotion, others consider it a state of mind.  In truth, neither is correct. The mighty pinions of ascending hope are manifestations of the inherent essence of the soul, the candle of God, His lover with an unquenchable passion for Him, ever striving to fuse with Him. As a flame perpetually rises, refusing to yield to any force that tries to bind it, the soul is constantly trying to soar up to its Beloved, the source of all positivity and goodness, the Infinite Light of God. Expectant hope results from the soul’s essential, innate striving towards God taking the specific form of a confident lens through which to evaluate and perceive reality.

The road is long; there are mountains in our way
But we climb a step every day
Love lift us up where we belong
Where the eagles cry on a mountain high
Love lift us up where we belong
Far from the world we know, up where the clear winds blow.
                      –Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes

The graceful persistence of the Channukah flames are demonstrating and reminding us that the soul’s constant love and yearning for God can indeed lift us up from the harrowing, vanquishing, hurtful world we know to the place of winds of clarity and serenity, the place where the soul belongs, His embrace. Hope is the soul’s wings.

We need to recognize the source of the positivity we often are blessed to feel within, to fathom what it really is. It is not naïveté. It's your soul striving to unite with God, trusting that it will, and hence having the utter audacity to unshakably hope for a better future…
And especially our expectancy for the greatest bird of history. As all Jews of Hungarian descent know, Rebbe Isaac Taub of Kalov’s song about the Messiah, “Sol a kokosh mar”, gave all of our ancestors much hope for a brighter future. And now we understand its meaning…
 The sun is rising now... Near a green forest, is a wide field, where a bird walks around. 

What sort of bird is this? What sort of bird is this? 

With yellow feet, and a pearl-white beak, he is waiting to go home. With yellow feet, and blue-green wings, he is waiting to go home. 

birdy, wait! Wait, birdy, wait! 
God decides it is the right time, then you will go home. 

But when will it be? But when will it be? 
When "The Temple is rebuilt and then the city of Zion will be filled" - that is when it will be. 

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