Choosing Hope in Times of Trial

December 6, 2021David Arnow

From Covid and climate change to the erosion of democratic norms and the decline of a shared sense of truth (and the list could go on), two things are clear. First, we are living in an age that tests our ability to sustain hope. Second, if despair dominates hope, we will be unable to meet the challenges that beset us.

French philosopher and theologian Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) defined hope as an individual's or a society's response to a time of trial. Hope fuels the capacity to envision the outcome we want and supplies us with the energy to build it, even when the odds of success appear slim.

So, how do we strengthen hope? For me, finishing up a book on Judaism and hope during the pandemic was like a vaccine against hopelessness. I was immersed in the deep reservoir of resources -- ideas, texts, practices, and stories -- that have helped the Jewish people over the ages to choose hope over despair.

In "A Meditation on Hope" Elie Wiesel reflected:

Created in the image of [God] who has no image, it is incumbent upon
our contemporaries to invoke and create hope where there is none.
For just as only human beings can push me to despair, only they can
help me vanquish it and call it hope.
(Inaugural May Smith Lecture on Post-Holocaust Christian/Jewish Dialogue, Florida Atlantic University, March 10, 2003)

Creation in the image of God affirms the fundamental goodness of human beings and supports our ability to form trusting relationships and to work with others to create the future we want.

In previous eras, we may have looked to God, our senior covenantal partner, to fulfill our deepest hopes. But in a post-Holocaust world, theologian Irving Greenberg argues that God has turned complete responsibility for managing the world over to us. Now, we, created in God's image, must bring our hopes to fruition. No longer an actor of the stage of history, God cheers us on when we act to realize our most worthy hopes.

In moments of prayer or inspiration, we may yet sense God's "still, small voice" encouraging us to work harder, to reach higher, to pursue a particular hope with a new strategy, and to never give despair the last word.

Jewish tradition provides us with other ways to sustain hope as well:

T'shuvah (Repentance)

The process of t'shuvah sustains the hope that with work we can allow our inner divine image to shine forth more brightly. God tells Moses that God's name is "I will be what I will be"-which means that we too can change and develop.

Working in Community

Religious communities (and other communities as well) give us opportunities to work together to realize shared visions of the future. Jews call this Tikkun Olam, repairing the world as we seek to fulfill Isaiah's call to "let the oppressed go free," to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Every step in this direction embodies hope and every success strengthens our hope to continue further down the road.

Sharing Narratives of Hope

The late Shane Lopez, an important researcher on the psychology of hope and author of Making Hope Happen, explained what happens when a community shares narratives of hope.

We draw on our memories of the most hopeful people we know, of our own hopeful pursuits, and of our successes at getting out of tight spots in the past. These thoughts and feelings may help us see pathways where others see brick walls. We persevere when others give up; we work harder when it would be easier to quit. And the whole time, we are carried along on a current of energy to a better place in the future... Hopeful narratives steeped with meaning provide survival tools for the storyteller and for the audience… The most hopeful stories trigger positive emotions in others, making them feel lifted up, joyful, or curious, and ultimately drawing them closer to us.

Judaism's Key Narratives tell stories of hope.

Abraham and Sarah have a longed-for child at a seemingly impossible age.

God orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but Isaac survives.

After centuries of enslavement, the Israelites exit Egypt, crossing the sea on foot to escape Pharaoh's army.

Job plunges into near suicidal despair after losing almost everything but claws his way back to life and hope.

Haman schemes to destroy the Jews of Persia but Esther saves them.

The outnumbered Maccabees defeat the Seleucid Greek armies, and a tiny flask of oil burns for 8 days instead of one.

And after 2,000 years of statelessness, the Jewish people create the State of Israel with Hatikvah, "The Hope," as its anthem.

When we conclude reading one of the Five Books of Moses we say, Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik, "Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another!" Because hope gives us strength, we might well add these words in our hearts: Kavei, kavei, v'nitkavei, "Hope, hope, and we will build one another's hope!"

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