Despair and Hope

Jews are a people of hope, not despair. The eternal people is not afraid of a long journey.
February 15, 2024
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It is hard not to despair when one reads about the billions of dollars poured into Gaza, where a “Singapore on the Mediterranean” could have been created, but instead the funds were used to purchase weapons and build tunnels in an attempt to destroy Israel.

It is hard not to despair when, eighty years after the Holocaust, antisemitism has returned with a vengeance and spread within Canada and the United States, including on the campuses of many universities.

It is hard not to despair when political correctness—the movement to be inclusive and non-discriminatory—has morphed into woke culture that is militant for rights for everyone except Jews and Israel.

It is hard not to despair when history and facts are rewritten to exclude Jews. Revisionists claim that there were no Jewish kingdoms in ancient Israel and even that Jesus was Palestinian, not Jewish.

The word “despair” is related to the French word “désespoir,” which means a loss of hope. When we despair, we lose all hope, which is a very great danger. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks used to say that, given our history, Jews have no right to be optimists but every right to be hopeful. But how to hope in a time of true and present danger?

My friend’s in-laws went through the worst of the Holocaust and the mother-in-law was cheerful. Cheerful! He asked her how she could be so positive after all she saw and experienced. She answered: “I tried the alternative.” She had discovered that abandoning all hope is the worst possible option.

Albert Einstein wrote that “we cannot despair of humanity, since we ourselves are human beings.” Einstein wisely discerned that we must not give up on ourselves because we are all we have. Religious people beseech God but also feel fear, and even despair, and must be nourished by hope.

We, as Jews, dare not give up on the world or on ourselves. We have invested too much over 3,000 years. We have given the world monotheism and the moral and intellectual framework of western civilization. We have enriched, intellectually and materially, every society in which we settled in our 2,000-year diaspora and the best of the world knows it.

We, as Jews, dare not give up on the world or on ourselves.

I find hope and inspiration in two thoughts, one ancient, the other modern. Rabbi David Forman and Immanuel Shalev of Aleph Beta discuss the role of Moses’s sister, Miriam. The time was dark and foreboding: The Jews were enslaved in Egypt and Pharaoh had ordered all male babies be killed in childbirth. The present was bleak, and the future looked bleaker. Miriam observes Moses being placed in the Nile in a basket to escape Pharaoh’s decree. Instead of giving in to despair, she follows the basket and sees Pharaoh’s daughter retrieve it. In a luminous, history-changing act, she dares approach Pharaoh’s daughter and offers to find a Hebrew nursemaid for the baby (Exodus 2: 3-7) and ends up saving the life of the one who would lead the Jews out of slavery to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and to the Promised Land.

Although she had no control over the decrees that Pharaoh made against the Jews, she did not withdraw. She chose to engage. With all the odds against her, she acted and changed Jewish history. She was not distracted by what she could not control; instead, she focused on what she could control.

Miriam is the answer, says Rabbi Forman, to the question: “When all the odds are against you, will you be there?”

The other source of inspiration is a contemporary effort. Rabbi Yakov Nagen has dedicated himself to outreach to moderate Muslim leaders throughout the world. His aim is to create the equivalent of Nostra Aetate for the Muslim world. Just as Pope John Paul VI signed that historic document in 1965, repudiating antisemitism, Rabbi Nagen seeks a similar understanding with Muslims. His close associate and friend is an imam in Indonesia, Yahya Cholil Staquf, with a following of a hundred million Muslims.

Pope John Paul II visited the main synagogue in Rome in 1986 and called Jews “beloved elder brothers.” He said that “Jews are beloved of God who has called them with an irrevocable calling.” Our grandparents would have said that such events could never occur. Rabbi Nagen refuses to abandon hope. He dreams of a religious version of the Abraham Accords, one that emphasizes the shared values of monotheistic faiths. Is he delusional or one who will be there when all the odds are against him, ready to change the world?

Jews are a people of hope, not despair. The eternal people is not afraid of a long journey.

Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo.

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