This past week we finally, finally introduced our son to Fiddler on The Roof. I know, I know, we are failing as Jewish Parents. Maybe you love it, maybe you’ve seen too many middle school productions of it, but it is an essential piece of Jewish film. We’re watching it in stages and even though I’ve seen it umpteen times, I was struck by the Sabbath scene right at the beginning. Part of it was Elishai realizing where the song Sabbath Prayer came from—they sing it at camp every Friday night—but some of it is also Tevye and the family’s approach to Shabbat. In the first several minutes of the film you get a sense of Tevye’s family’s poverty, their sense of lack, Tevye’s piety but also his ignorance (“as the good book says…”), the low hum of disagreement between Tevye and Golda and the rest of the family. And then Shabbat comes, and it becomes this moment of peace, this moment of blessing, this moment of hope. Hope for a better future. Hope for their children. Hope for holiness.
This past high holidays I talked about Hope as a radical act, an urgent act, a prophetic act. Hope, as I said back in September, is not optimism: hope demands something of us, challenges us to push against the status quo, the injustice in the world, the sacrifice of the vulnerable to our own desires, as so many people are protesting to do. Optimism is a delusion, a sense that it isn’t that bad, that we can go back to the way things were, and that will happen any day now. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of optimism, what we need is hope.
Reflecting on this week’s parsha, and our experience, the film makers got Shabbat right in that one little scene. Shabbat is a time of hope. We are taught that Shabbat is a taste of the world to come, and that isn’t just a reference to challah. Shabbat is a time for us to be hopeful, to yearn for the world that ought to be, to reaffirm that we are not doomed, but that there is a better world that we could imagine for ourselves and each other. Through prayer, and study, and music, and worship, we lift up our own spirits and we are hopeful. And through experiencing Shabbat, experiencing real hope, we’re able to turn again to our daily task during the work week. Our real daily task. Not just the toil we do striving to make a living, but the work we do making our world God’s world, a place of holiness and justice. Tevye may make his deliveries before the Sabbath to earn his living, but it is the cheese and milk he gives freely to the destitute—the beggar, the mendicant student from Kiev—that is his real task. And he knows it.
It’s hard to be hopeful right now. It’s hard to not feel mired in the daily impoverishment of connection that we are experiencing, personally and in the news. It is hard to see how we can fulfill our real task, never mind continue to provide for our families and ourselves How do we find hope in this moment that seems so dark?
Part of the wisdom of our ancient worthies was the understanding that Shabbat is best celebrated through poetry and song, not just study or discourse. When we think of Shabbat, often we think of the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat and the zmirot of the Shabbat table. I have been a fan of Wendell Berry since college, first reading his novels, but recently someone shared a poem of his called “A Poem of Hope” that I think speaks to this moment, and any troubling and difficult moment, and I’d like to share part of it with you.
A Poem on Hope
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there’s the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
anymore than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields, eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains, overturned. Hope
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place is, and by
your caring for it, as you care for no other place, this
knowledge cannot be taken from you by power or by wealth.
It will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask
for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land
and your work. Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the stream banks and the trees and the open fields.
Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot.
The world is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.
May we find a place of hope this Shabbat and every Shabbat, find and brighten the light within ourselves and each other. Amen.