Prelude to Hope – A Yom Kippur Sermon

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It felt like it would be the last summery day of the year last weekend, as we set off as a family into London. Our children, now back at school, were in need of some good parental attention and let’s face it, I’m not at my best in these few weeks. I can’t speak for my colleagues but I don’t think it’s a rabbi’s most sociable period of the year.

We arrived in the City of London and promptly pretended to be the lady sitting on the steps of St Pauls feeding the birds in one of the girls favourite films – Mary Poppins. (I do a mean ‘Tuppence a bag’ by the way).

The World in Union?

We were actually en-route to the Millenium Bridge and the Tate Modern and so, as some of you who know the area well, we turned down Sermon Lane. I’m not a great believer in omens but without a sermon for this morning, standing beneath the imposing St Pauls Cathedral on Sermon Lane, I was hopeful inspiration would be forthcoming.

As we approached the Millenium Bridge the Salvation Army were playing, “I Vow To Thee, My Country”. I suppose it fits for the Salvation Army, but it of course tied in with the thronging rugby fans who had come for the World Cup – much more in keeping with my interests as a former scrum half (yes there was a time when I had a scrum half physique, thank you!).

As I’m sure you know, the song World in Union is sung to the same hymn, ‘Thaxted’, as I Vow to Thee My Country. And it has an undeniable optimism. Actually it verges on the point of a caricature of optimism for humanity. Here are the words:

It’s the world in union

The world as one

As we climb to reach our destiny

A new age has begun

Holst composed The Planets one hundred years ago, in the midst of the First World War and it was first performed in 1918 shortly before the end of the War. It was only in 1921 that Holst adapted the music from Jupiter to work with the lyrics of the poem by Cecil Spring Rice, I Vow to Thee, which was reworked also during the First World War. The incredible sense of positivity from the movement of Jupiter is apt for the poem which rocks us from the devastation of loss of life in warfare to the final verse and final lyric from Proverbs which is a central feature of our Torah service:

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

“Her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17).

דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבותיה שלום

Thus I found myself just off Sermon Lane, hearing the sounds of a century old piece of music. The children were enthralled as the brass band played this hopeful hymn. I discovered that Holst did not like the Planets suite to be played only partially, ending on the movement for Jupiter as sometimes requested, for a happy ending was unrealistic since, in his words, “in the real world the end is not happy at all”.

He’s right of course. And I think few amongst us today would be in any doubt of that fact. The end, well even if we just stick with the now, is not happy at all. The idea of a World in Union is patently a naïve fallacy. We have been plunged into a world in which millions of people have been displaced from their homes with nothing, the world struggles to cope with the mass movement of people through continents seeking better lives, or simply just to live, the ravages of war, hatred, religious fanaticism and corruption flood our news daily. This is not the world in union we seek.

And Yet

Optimism has almost certainly been supplanted by pessimism. We would be forgiven for thinking that things are no longer getting better and our need for escapism has never been felt to be more profound. Yet I want to shift the way we speak and think. The terminology is all wrong. For our common use of optimism suggests that things are not as bad as they seem, or perhaps will turn out right in the end.

But Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck z’l, known to many in our congregation I’m sure, writes in a very short work, “God and Man in Judaism” an idea of Jewish optimism:

“It cannot but be at times pessimistic at the thought of things as they are in the world, but what is peculiarly Jewish in this pessimism is that it never leads to resignation or indifference toward things as they are. It is only the ‘No’ that is the downstroke of the ‘Yes,’ the negative side of the optimism, the courage that is determined to ‘prepare the way.’ This optimism is the steady setting of the will toward God: it is the ‘and yet’ of faith in the meaning of life. And in it we hear the voice of the new principle that in Israel’s religion has become world history.” p.70

I rather venture to suggest that this is what we call faithful hope. Hope in humankind and in our relentless striving. Judaism is a religion of hope, not of naiveté. Within the dream of the messianic age, so often heralded in the last two millennia, we have learnt that the world will be set right, but ‘not yet’. Because it is ‘not yet’, Judaism has historically been conscious that anyone with a messiah complex is not worth listening to – whether that’s a millennia or two ago, or your rabbi! It is in our hands to deliver the world, to focus on the here, that’s why we finish planting our trees before running to the messiah when told she has arrived.

As Rabbi Dr Abraham Joshua Heschel z’l writes:

Hope is not cheerfulness, a temperamental confidence that all will turn out for the best. It is not an inclination to be guided by illusions rather than by facts. Hope is a conviction, rooted in trust, trust in Him who issued the promise; an ability to soar above the darkness that overshadows the divine.

Our people were not carried away by despair because Jewish faith is not simply faith in a supreme being called God. Our faith is trust in Him who is in need of man, involved with all of us, remembering and waiting for His promise to come to pass. (Heschel, Israel and Echo of Eternity, p.94)

Grounds for Hope

Now, I know it is verging on the precocious to talk of hope from this pulpit. I knew Jackie Gryn before coming to West Londony Synagogue through our shared interest in the Leo Baeck Education Centre in Haifa. She gave me a copy of the edited collection of materials of Rabbi Gryn z’l “Three Minutes of Hope” beautifully edited by Naomi and the piece that lends its name to the title is well known to me having read it often. It includes the advice given to him by his father after the failed attempt to light the margarine for Chanukah in Liberose in 1944:

“You and I,” he said, “have seen that it is possible to live as long as three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water. But you cannot live properly for three minutes without hope!”

So I know it’s chutzpah to speak of hope from this pulpit. I who have not experienced first-hand the depravity of man against man cannot possibly speak in the same way as my teachers. Yet now as the dark shadows settle on the world once again we must find the resources within to galvanise our hope. This will be the true test of the human spirit for my generation.

Rabbi Dr Israel Mattuck z’l one of the founders of Liberal Judaism writes in 1953, in similar fashion to Baeck, with a theism that some of us may feel uncomfortable with, about the conflicted nature of religious optimism:

“If humanity’s future depended only on men, there would be no ground for hope; on the contrary there would be too much ground for despair about the future. Men are capable of the blackest cruelty, the vilest inhumanity. Without God there is no reason, only sentimental wishing, to expect good rather than evil. The optimism of the Prophets, which has become the optimism of Judaism, issues from the faith in God’s concern for this world and this life.” (Mattuck, The Thought of the Prophets, p.166-167)

Insatiable Appetite for Hope

And so I’ve come to think that the most audacious act of all must surely be the act of prayer. What hope lies beneath the hallowed words which we repeat over and over again? I was stunned this year by the liturgical boldness that is really bubbling beneath our prayers. I’m not a theist, caste of the same mould as Rabbi Mattuck. My confidence is anything but so sure in God’s will to offer us hope. God’s intervention is, though you might argue it is difficult for a rabbinic mouth to utter, somewhat subdued. Nor do we really think our lives literally hang in the balance at this time. Far from it. Would we to even hint there is a truth in anyone dying in the next year as punishment for their sins, I would, I hope, be hounded from the bimah. It is simply not the case that we think the prayers should be read literally.

And that’s the point really. Everything points towards a renewal of life after today. We who sit together now are of the community with an insatiable appetite for hope. What else are we to think when we say repeatedly:

For all these sins, forgiving God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

It would be scandalous to go through all this ritual if there was not a hope for us and the world. Prayer is a prelude to hope, a movement of music guiding us towards a vision of a world that might be better if only we were to make ourselves a partner in making it so. Imagine praying just the words:

Our Father our King, answer us with Your grace, for we lack good deeds; deal with us in charity and love, and save us.

The hope is that we will go forwards from this moment, this sacred day to build a life of good deeds. That in asking to be treated in charity and love, we will treat others around us with charity and love. We are filled with hope: things are not great; our lives are filled with deep cracks in our relationships and our inability to be our best; yet with our work and our striving, we know it is possible to build again. We are not divine interventionists. But we are believers in human striving to make it better, even against all odds we are believers in human striving. We are faithful to humanity, faithful to our covenant with God and faithful to the triumph of the noble over the savage. Judaism does not ask us to sit and wait for salvation. It demands that we are part of the story of all nations, that in spite of adversity we will not stop seeking.

Seeking to fill our lives with good deeds. To treat others charitably. To reflect the transcendent holiness of this day tomorrow, the day after and the day after that. We can, against all odds, find hope in the possibility to restore relationships, to change our behaviour, to seek to make the world a better place. We are damned if we let anyone judge our lives and outlook by the short term naïve optimism or pessimism.

Hope of Israel

The very last sentiment of the massechet of the Mishnah on Yom Kippur (Yoma) reads:

Rabbi Akiva said, Happy are you O’ Israel!…God will cleanse you….Hope of Israel, the Holy one ever to be praised is to cleanse you. (mYomah 8:9)

It’s incredible, the hope of Israel, the words of the prophet Jeremiah, is the renewal of relationship. A sense of self, connection to the world around us, inner world of the spirit. The Hope of Israel is narrowed to a point of its ultimate intensity on this sacred day. Our atonement is a miraculous declaration of hope, powered by these words of Jeremiah (17:13).

Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck writes:

“The religion of Israel thus proclaims how the merciful pardoning God, the God of righteousness and of love, receives back man thus reconciled. But this reconciliation is not conceived as being exclusively the work of grace. It means here more than a miracle of deliverance wrought for one of the elect. It lays the emphasis on the decision made by man and on the path that he now treads. It was his sin; it is his return….A leader of Jewish thought in the early years of the second century [Rabbi Akiva] said, ‘Blessed are ye, sons of Israel! Who is He in whose sight ye purify yourselves, and who is He who purifies you? He is your heavenly Father.’ The Jewish religion was proclaimed to be the religion of reconciliation and reconciliation was proclaimed to be the ultimate meaning and goal of humanity.” (Leo Baeck, God and Man in Judaism pp.49-51).

We pray that all our ways, in the family of nations, will be ways of pleasantness, all our paths, wherever we are, the world in union, will be paths of peace. We pray for reconciliation, for ultimate meaning. We know that in faith we can bring this to pass. This is the meaning of our Hope of Israel on this holiest of days. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.


 

After I had almost finished this sermon, I read the wonderful sermon of my colleague, Rabbi Lea Muhlstein, on a similar theme. You can read it here.

Lord Rabbi Sacks has also written on the subject of optimism and hope, though I venture to suggest he and I read the optimism of Baeck and Mattuck in different ways and I’m probably more in tune with the enlightenment values than he is – for some obvious reasons.

Finally, my colleague Rabbi Charley Baginsky sent me a brilliant sermon on hope that I think may be published in due course which I also read after writing most of my sermon (she has a better reference for Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck describing Judaism as ‘ethical optimism’ in an essay entitled “Morality as the Basic Requirement of Judaism” in The Foundations of Jewish Ethics).

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