Haftarah Reading: I Kings 2:1-12
Immune to despair, the twentieth century has been one of the greatest disappointments in human history. More people died in warfare in this century than in all others combined. Racial hatred rose to unprecedented heights. Despotism plunged to new depths of ruthlessness and efficiency. Epidemics, illiteracy and bigotry -- our inheritance from times past -- continued throughout these tragic years. Our environment began to crumble. Democracy forgot that it was to be humanity's last, greatest hope -- whether a nation conceived in liberty could long endure. The nation can endure, but liberty has taken a back seat to pleasure, ambition and possessions.
We Jews are no strangers to disappointment and tragedy. While this century witnessed the miraculous migration of Jews from eastern Europe to North American freedom and to the rebirth of the State of Israel, it also saw the murder of the largest Jewish population of its time, the savage and relentless attack against Jewish populations throughout the Middle East, and the sweet poison of indifference and assimilation in our newfound freedom in America. It is almost enough to drive a person to despair.
Yet, we Jews know that the prime commandment is never to despair, never to abandon hope. So often in our past, when our trials seemed endless and our pain unbearable, we have witnessed the miracle of hope, the resilience of our sacred purpose.
After the devastation, time and time again, we have renewed ourselves and rededicated our energies to the establishment of God's justice and love on earth. Other nations rise and fall, but the Jews remain forever vital. Other peoples give up hope and stop trying, but the Jews roll up their sleeves and work to redeem the world, to vindicate our God.
Our stubborn resistance to despair is the greatest surprise, and itself an unexplainable miracle. But then, a Jew who doesn't believe in miracles, it has been said, is not a realist. As Jacob lay on his deathbed, surrounded by his sons and daughters, he too must have been tempted by despair. In an alien land, far from his beloved Israel, surrounded by boys whose moral fiber and past behavior were hardly the pinnacle of pious living, he must have been tempted to let out a sigh, to shrug his shoulders at the hopelessness of it all, to turn his face to the wall, and to die drenched in his own tears.
Yet, in the midst of blessing his troublesome boys, what Jacob exclaims is, "I hope for Your deliverance, O LORD!" What an inspiration! Expecting despair, Jacob insists on hope.
Midrash Beresheet Rabbah recognizes the power of his hope. "Rabbi Isaac said, 'Everything is bound up with hoping. Suffering is bound up with hoping, the sanctification of God's name with hoping, the merit of our ancestors with hope, and the desire for the Coming World with hope. Grace comes through hope, and forgiveness comes through hope.' "
What Rabbi Isaac tells us is that hope is the spice that keeps life delicious. Hope is the essence that makes for courage and resilience. Hope borrows from our dreams to transform our reality. It imposes our highest aspirations on our most mundane or painful necessity. To be Jewish is to hope.
When we recite the Sh'ma, we proclaim that there is a God in the world, one who summons us in partnership to mend the world and to testify by our lives to God's love and God's holiness. By committing ourselves to Jewish living, now -- at the end of this bloody and pathetic century, we affirm the need for hope, and we channel its power, confident that the century to come can be different. It can be better. For Your deliverance, O LORD, we hope. And we work.