Rosh Hashana 5778 – Second Day

The overall life expectancy in the U.S. has begun to decline for the first time since the 1930’s.

Yes, despite the incredible advances in medicine and public health, overall life expectancy is declining. And it is not because of Obamacare.

Angus Deaton, a Princeton economist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the intricacies of measuring human well-being, has been following what is now a national epidemic of depression. In a recent study, he found that since 1999 there has been an alarming national increase in deaths from drugs, alcohol abuse, and self-harm, “deaths of despair.”

The former Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, spoke of the diseases that are striking more Americans than ever, diseases of self-harm; from the most dramatic and immediate, to addictions, to others. And he coined a striking phrase: “Diseases of despair driven by deficits of hope.

Diseases of despair driven by deficits of hope.

It is indeed the deficit of hope that powers the disease. As one writer on the issue noted:

Long-term studies of individuals at high risk are telling. Over a ten-year span, it turns out that the one factor most strongly predictive of harm is not how sick the person is, nor how many symptoms he exhibits, nor how much physical pain he is suffering, nor whether he is rich or poor. The most dangerous factor is a person’s sense of hopelessness. (Aron Kheriaty, Dying of Despair, First Things – August 2017)

Hope is something essential to the human condition, to the human ability to live. The psychiatrist Victor Frankl, in “Man’s Search for Meaning”, his memoir of life in the concentration camps, writes about inmates who lost hope.

A man who could not see then end of his provisional existence was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future, in contrast to a man in normal life. Therefore, the whole structure of his inner life changed, signs of decay set in.

A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts… Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life became meaningless.

The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – in his future – was doomed…. I once had a dramatic demonstration of the close link between the loss of faith in the future and this dangerous giving up…. My senior block warden confided in me one day: “I would like to tell you something, Doctor. I have had a strange dream. A strange voice told me that I could wish for something, that I should only say what I wanted to know and all my questions would be answered. What do you think I asked? I wanted to know when the war would be over – for me. I wanted to know when we, when our camp, would be liberated and our sufferings come to an end. “And when did you have this dream?” “In February 1945”, he answered. It was then the beginning of March. “What did your dream voice answer?” Furtively he whispered to me, “March 30th.”

When he told me about his dream he was still full of hope and convinced that the voice of his dream would be right. But as the promised day drew nearer, the war news which reached our camp made it appear very unlikely that we would be free on the promised date. On March 29th, he suddenly became ill and ran a high temperature. On March 30th, the day his prophesy had told him that the war and suffering would be over for him, he became delirious and lost consciousness. On March 31st, he was dead. To all outward appearances, he had died of typhus. …. But his true cause of death was his loss of faith in the future…

This is the critical ingredient of hope, of seeing beyond the present and certainly beyond the past, into a hopeful future. A future where life can be made better.

A Shofar is made from a keren, a horn that by nature is extended. The Talmud (TB Horayos 12a) notes that this represents an unfolding and extended future, a horizon. And the Shofar produces two kinds of sounds, the short, broken sounds of the Shevarim and Teruah, sounds that resemble cries of pain expressed in painful moments, and the extended, strong sound of the Tekiah, that – like the horn from which it is sounded – extends and continues, implying an unfolding future, an extended horizon.

That is our sound. The sound of a future, of hope. Because Jews never lose hope. Period. As we read in today’s Haftorah, יש תקוה לאחריתך, there is hope for our future.

We are the עם יודעי תרועה, the nation that knows and recognizes the Teruah. We know how to cry. We know that the Teruah – the sob – is sandwiched between Tekios; the moment of agonizing pain, represented by the sobbing sound of the Teruah, must always be followed by the extended and welcoming horizon, as there is always פשוטה לפניה ולאחריה, always something to hope for, to look forward to.

As Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin (Divrei Sofrim no. 16) explained:

אין ליהודי להתייאש משום דבר, בין בעניני הגוף כמו שאמרו (ברכות י’ סוף ע”א) אפילו חרב חדה על צוארו אל ימנע מהרחמים, בין בעניני הנפש אפילו נשתקע למקום שנשתקע וחטא בדבר שאמרו ז”ל (זוה”ק ח”א רי”ט ע”ב) שאין תשובה מועלת חס ושלום, או שתשובתו קשה, או שרואה עצמו משתקע והולך בענייני עולם הזה, אל יתייאש בעצמו לומר שלא יוכל לפרוש עוד, כי אין יאוש כלל אצל איש יהודי, והשם יתברך יכול לעזור בכל ענין:

וכל בנין אומה הישראלית היה אחר היאוש הגמור דאברהם ושרה זקנים ומי מלל לאברהם הניקה וגו’ (בראשית כ”א ז’), שלא עלה על דעת אדם עוד להאמין זה ואפילו אחר הבטחת המלאך ושרה הצדקת ידעה והאמינה דהשם יתברך כל יכול ועם כל זה צחקה בקרבה, שהיה רחוק אצלה להאמין זה בידעה זיקנת אברהם דטוחן ואינו פולט כמו שאמרו (בראשית רבה מ”ח י”ז) וכן זקנתה, ואם היה רצון השם יתברך לפקדם היה פוקדם מקודם דלמעט בנס עדיף ולא עביד ניסא במקום שאין צריך, אבל באמת מאת ה’ היתה זאת שיהיה בנין האומה דוקא אחר היאוש הגמור שלא האמין שום אדם ואפילו שרה שתיפקד עוד, כי זה כל האדם הישראלי להאמין שאין להתייאש כלל דלעולם השם יתברך יכול לעזור והיפלא מה’ דבר, ואין לחקור בחקירות למה עשה ה’ ככה:

וכן הישועה דלעתיד נאמר (ישעיה נ”ג א’) מי האמין לשמועתינו וגו’, וכן אמרו (סנהדרין צ”ז סוף ע”א) דאין בן דוד בא עד שיתייאשו מן הגאולה, ועל כן אמר (ישעיה נ”א ב’) הביטו אל אברהם אביכם ואל שרה תחוללכם, דגם התחלת בנינכם היה כן אחר היאוש, ושוב מצאתי בתנחומא (פרשת וירא ט”ז) על פסוק (בראשית כ”א א’) וה’ פקד דבר זה עיין שם ואהניין:

ואברהם אבינו ע”ה ראש האומה הוא שפתח דבר זה שלא להתייאש משום דבר כשנשבה לוט וכבר נתייאשו כולם מלהציל, דעל כן אמר מלך סדום הרכוש קח לך דכבר נתייאש בידי המלכים וקנייה אחר כך אברהם אבינו בשינוי רשות, ואברהם אבינו אזר עצמו עם שלוש מאות שמונה עשרה ילידי ביתו לרדוף אחר ארבעה מלכים, ובנדרים (ל”ב סוף ע”א) דהוא בגימטריא אליעזר, ומשמעות השם מפורש בתורה אצל משה רבינו ע”ה כי אלקי בעזרי ויצילני וגו’ (שמות י”ח ד’) שכבר היה חרב פרעה על צוארו והשם יתברך יכול לעזור גם אחר היאוש שאין להתייאש משום דבר, וזהו רמז מספר שלוש מאות שמונה עשרה בגימטריא יאוש עם הכולל היינו שמספר זה הוא המוציא מידי יאוש ומורה שהשם יתברך עוזר מכל דבר שהאדם חושב להתייאש:

A Jew may not despair regarding anything, be it material – even if the sword lies across his neck, or spiritual – even if he has sunken to sin in an area that seems irreparable … he must never say that he cannot break out of this, for there is no such thing as despair for a Jew, and G-d can assist in any situation. The Jewish nation was built after the total despair of Avraham and Sarah ever being able to have a child … purposely … so that this would become the essential character of the Jew, to believe that there is never room for despair.

Beyond the story of Yitzchak’s birth, our history is filled with stories of hope, against all odds.

When Moshe Rabbeinu was a young man, Pharaoh arrested him for killing an Egyptian who had beaten a Jew. He was condemned to death by the sword, and was placed in position for the execution. The sword was placed on his neck but could not penetrate it. As our Sages (TB Brachos 10a) said, “Even if the sharp sword is placed across his throat, he must not despair, he must not refrain from praying for G-d’s mercy.” He survived and eventually named his son Eliezer, expressing his gratitude to the G-d of his father Who helped him and saved him from Pharaoh’s sword. We don’t give up hope.

Avraham Avinu had a servant, also named Eliezer. When Avraham rejected the idol worship of his parents and contemporaries, Nimrod threw him into a fiery furnace. But he survived. Nimrod chased Avraham from the land, but was impressed enough to send his son along with him, to serve as his servant. Avraham would name him Eliezer, expressing his gratitude to the G-d Who helped him and saved him from Nimrod’s furnace. We don’t give up hope.

Avraham and his wife wanted so badly to have a child together, and they finally did after they had been married for decades, when he was 100-years-old and she was 90. Then, more than thirty years later, G-d tells Avraham – as we read today – to offer that child to him. Avraham takes him, they travel the distance to Mount Moriah, he builds the altar, he arranges the wood, he binds his precious son on to the altar, he takes the slaughtering knife in hand, and the angel stops him. We don’t give up hope.

מי שענה לאברהם אבינו בהר המוריה, מי שענה ליצחק כשנעקד על גבי המזבח – הוא יעננו. Avraham continued to hope, continued to pray, as did Yitzchak. One could imagine that as Yitzchak lay on that altar he would be frozen in the moment of terror, or at most he would think back about the better times. His past life would “flash before his eyes”. One would imagine Avraham’s pain, his despair of the future, his thinking back to the good old days before the shock of G-d asking for his son back.

But no, they prayed. The sword was unsheathed, it was placed upon the neck, and they did not stop hoping. They did not stop praying. And they were not disappointed.

The story of the Jewish people is the story of defying the odds, of hoping against hope, of the revival of hope even in the valley of the dry bones, the place where the phrase “אבדה תקוותינו” comes from (Yechezkel 37:11), where lost hope is confounded by miraculous resurrection of life and of hope, becoming the key line in the song of return composed by Jews who thought themselves secular, who did not even mention G-d’s name in their anthem, but who sang “עוד לא אבדה תקוותינו”, our hopes – the hopes of 2,000 years, are indeed not lost. We don’t give up hope.

We don’t know how to give up. We are Jews. We would have to either deny or ignore our history to even think of giving up hope.

Yet, in reality, there are Jews – including some here today – who may not have a strong sense of hope. Yes, we can encourage ourselves to look back at our history as a source of hope. But what are the other essential ingredients to nurture hope?

There are two.

First, we gain hope from our faith in G-d.

In the same passage we quoted earlier, Rav Tzadok noted that the Gematria, the numerical value of the word יאוש, despair, is 317, while the name Eliezer, the name reminding us of Avraham and then Moshe’s salvation from the sword lying across the neck – that G-d was there to help and to save from the furnace of Nimrod and the sword of Pharaoh – that name has the numerical value of 318. Faith in G-d’s salvation transcends despair.

The Maharal of Prague (Be’er Hagolah 4:2) taught that word for prayer, תפילה, means hope. The Talmud (TB Brachos 7a) asserts that G-d Himself prays, ושמחתים בבית תפילתי. How can G-d pray? To whom can G-d pray? What do you get for the G-d Who has everything?

Explained Maharal that while it is true that we direct our prayers to G-d, a prayer is not a request – it is a hope. ראה פניך לא פללתי. The hope that fills our heart, that we yearn for, that we dream of and that we want and are waiting for, that is our prayer.

Yes, G-d prays. Because G-d hopes. He yearns for our well-being, for our success. And we pray, but to pray we have to hope. To pray we have to have dreams that fill our hearts. To pray we cannot despair. We must know – with all our hearts – that things can be better. We pray that He make them better. We pray that we make them better. We never stop hoping, and we never stop praying.

The Psalm of this month, לדוד ד’ אורי, ends with a phrase: קוה אל ד’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ד’. The Talmud (TB Brachos 32b) explained: If a person prayed and was not answered, what shall he do? Pray again, hope again.

Do you notice? The word for prayer is קוה, hope!

We never give up. We keep praying. How many times have we been privileged to see those prayers rewarded? Prayers that were not answered so many times, but we kept hoping, we kept praying, and then it came.

In my role as a Rabbi, as a friend, with people who face challenges that do not seem to be going away, challenges of health or of infertility, of the struggle to find a job or to find a mate, one of the things that I do – sort of predictable I guess – is to encourage people to pray. To keep praying. I have shared this passage in the Talmud, this phrase from Tehillim – קוה אל ד’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ד’ – so many times. And so many times that continued hope has proven rewarding, sometimes sooner and sometimes later. We should not give up hope.

Yes, we gain hope from our faith in G-d. But we also gain hope from each other.

Avraham and Yitzchak were able to maintain hope as they climbed that mountain because they climbed it together – וילכו שניהם יחדיו. Community, connection to others, breeds hope. Isolation breeds despair.

I will quote to you from a recent discussion of the subject.

To cite just one finding from among a growing body of medical research on this subject, Tyler VanderWeele of Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health recently published a study of 89,000 participants that found that some groups remain protected from the rising tide of despair and self-harm. Between 1996 and 2010, those who attended any religious service once a week or more were five times less likely to self-harm. There are straightforward reasons why religious practice protects. Church attendance is a social activity that protects people against loneliness and isolation. (Aron Kheriaty, Dying of Despair, First Things – August 2017)

Yes, from being in shul, from being part of community, we can gain hope. We are granted hope by each other, by the company of others, being noticed by others, being smiled at by others. This is part of the magic of community.

Yet many come out to join community and still feel alone.

I will tell you the saddest story.

A few years ago, a man in his thirties took his own life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. After his death, his psychiatrist went with the medical examiner to the man’s apartment, where they found his diary. The last entry, written just hours before he died, said, “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.”  

Does this story surprise you? Do we realize the power we hold in our faces, in our smile, in our eye contact? וילכו שניהם יחדיו. The power of togetherness creates and sustains hope and life. It is no wonder that Rav Yisrael Salanter was known to teach that a person should consider his face as a רשות הרבים, public property, as his facial expression impacts everyone he encounters.

Years ago, I developed a conscious and simple habit. When I visit hospitals and nursing homes, grim and busy places, I try to make a point to smile at everyone I see in the halls. It is amazing how that affects the people I walk by. They often very readily crack their own smile, sometimes with a look on their faces as if they just discovered a world of possibility.

It is tragic that nobody smiled at that person walking to the bridge. How I wish I would have a chance to speak to that person. I would have told him – as I would urge all of us – don’t wait from someone to smile at you. Smile first. Break your isolation.

And do not wait for that one particular person to return your smile, the busy person, the ‘important’ person, the popular person. I can tell you, those people – when I pass them in the hospital corridors – they don’t notice my smile. They are too busy to notice. Maybe they are speaking on their Bluetooth and oblivious to me smiling at them, or maybe they have had their social needs met by the many people reaching out to them, and so they find no need or space to offer a smile to another. Don’t wait for them to notice, to smile back. Find the person who will notice, who will readily respond and appreciate your friendship.

Break your own isolation. Create your own world of hope.

I turn especially to our younger people. This need for company, for human contact, for a real smile – not an emoji – is life-giving. An article appeared in this month’s issue of the Atlantic titled – “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The article chronicles the same trend we described above, this rise in despair, the growing deficit of hope, and traces it quite compellingly to the isolation created by the false connectedness of technology.

We need to be with people, to look at them, smile at them, and experience their company. We give each other hope.

Hope is essential. In our drive to “make things better”, we need to see the horizon, the possibility of better things. Faith nurtures that hope. Community and friendship nurture that hope. Considering our history as a people, and the stories of many individuals, can nurture that hope.

Let’s conclude with a remarkable story of hope built on faith and connection.

Dr. David Pelcovitz tells the story of the time he sat at a Chai Lifeline Retreat. A man was on the stage, an alumnus of the early days of Camp Simcha – when it was still co-ed – and was telling his story. He had met a girl in camp, and they fell in love with each other. They had both been sick with cancer, but were doing better, and – over the objections of their families – they decided to marry. The date was approaching, when he got a call that his bride had taken a turn for the worse and she was critically ill in the hospital. He flew from his home on the East Coast to her bedside in California, and arrived at the hospital to find her deathly ill, bloated and hardly recognizable. He was beside himself in anguish and pain, seeing his dear bride and his dreams of a life with her essentially over.

Eventually, he realized he had not yet davened, and he decided to daven right there in the room. He davened, and he davened hard. As he was approaching the last blessing of the Amidah, and the request that G-d bless us with the light of his face, all he could think of was the beautiful and radiant face of his kallah, the face that he knew and that was now unrecognizable. He summoned all his concentration and prayed to G-d – “Please let me see the light of her face one last time.” He had faith, and he had – and yearned for – connection. And lo and behold, he reported, shortly thereafter her situation changed dramatically. His prayer was answered.

As he finished telling his story, two children bounded up to the stage. They were his children. Not only did he get to see the glow of her face, but she came home, they married, and these were their children. Dr. Pelcovitz reports that the person next to him at the speech whispered to him – “I was her physician. I never saw such a dramatic turnaround in my career.”

He did not stop hoping. We should never stop hoping. We should never stop praying.

As we prepare to blow the Shofar, we should recall how Avraham and Yitzchak – with the knife at the throat – continued to hope, continued to pray. Together they held on to hope.

מי שענה לאברהם אבינו בהר המוריה, מי שענה ליצחק כשנעקד על גבי המזבח – הוא יעננו. May G-d who responded to the prayers, to the undying hopes of Avraham and of Yitzchak even as the sword lay across their throats, may He respond to us, may He grant us the ability to always hope, to always yearn for better, and to never stop praying.