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Why Hope?

May 9, 2009 | by Yisrael Rutman

We can know with certainty that there will be a better future.

With so much unraveling before our eyes, hope is often the only thing that keeps us going. It is something deep inside us that tells us to look for the better times around the corner.

What is the source of this hope?

Some would argue that it's just another tool in the survival kit of Homo sapiens, packed into our genetic code along with the instructions for fear and adrenalin. When, in his Essay on Man, Alexander Pope wrote that hope springs eternal in the human breast, he was merely poeticizing a function of blind genetic material.

Yet, as many of us know from personal experience, sometimes when everything looks bleak and hope a foolish naivete, the whole situation unexpectedly reverses itself and hope is vindicated. As the saying goes, it is darkest before the dawn.

In the macrocosm, too, the ups and downs of history itself would seem to support the contention that hope is not just an involuntary response of the human organism, but that there is indeed reason to hope for a better future. Ancient idolatry was superseded by monotheism; the Dark Ages was eventually followed by the Renaissance; Nazism was vanquished by the Allies. The light may often be slow in coming, but darkness has never been a permanent decree.

It makes sense, then, to hope, for we know from experience that things do have a way of getting better -- at least sometimes.

Of course, history is not over yet, and why should anyone believe that the final outcome will see a triumph of light over darkness? Perhaps it will turn out the other way?

Jewish thought recognizes two kinds of hope. One is a hope that things will get better, even when we know it may not come to pass as we wish. This is called in Hebrew tikvah, and it may be identified as that which springs eternal in the human breast, the natural capacity to anticipate a better future.

The other kind of hope is a yearning for the better life that we know with certainty the future does hold. This is called tocheles. (See Malbim on Psalms 130.)

The belief in the coming of the messianic era is a central pillar of Judaism.

The belief in the coming of the messianic era belongs to that latter kind of hope. No less a part of Jewish tradition than kosher food or circumcision, faith in the coming of the Messiah is a central pillar of Judaism. Down through the ages, Jews everywhere have looked forward to the coming of the messianic era, a time of the fulfillment of humanity's desires for peace and harmony on earth. It is included in the 13 Principles of Faith, compiled by Maimonides and printed in every Jewish prayer book: I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may delay, nevertheless, I anticipate every day that he will come.

What is that certainty based on?

For one thing, there are prophecies about the messianic era in the Torah. Of the ultimate homecoming it says: God will return your captivity and be merciful to you and gather you from among all the peoples where you have been scattered...and He will bring you to the land that your fathers inherited...And God will open your heart to love Him (Deut. 30:1-6).

About the Messiah himself, the prophet says: A shoot shall come forth from the stem of Yishai, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1-2).

It is more than a simple faith; a deep idea is at work here.

Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yosef, 13th century author of the classic Sefer Mitzvos Katan, explains that belief in the coming of the Messiah is a corollary to the belief in God itself. For it states in the first of the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt..." The commentators point out that this is actually the commandment to believe in God, and intrinsic to that belief is that He is the God who took us out of Egypt and redeemed us.

This belief in God is based on historical experience. The whole Jewish people themselves witnessed the miracles of the exodus from Egypt. We know that He exists because we ourselves were redeemed by Him. Not just an abstract deism; Jewish monotheism teaches that the God of Israel acts in the arena of history. We know Him as the quintessential Redeemer.

God is not a physical being. He transcends time and is eternal. Therefore if He is a redeemer, He is always a redeemer. If He redeemed the Jewish people, that redemption cannot be temporary; it cannot be bound by time. The exile of the Jewish people from our homeland and from our close relationship with God, cannot be a permanent condition, for that would be an historical contradiction, a contradiction of the essence of God who is our Redeemer.

Thus, the whole history and prophetic tradition of the Jewish people serves as the bedrock of our faith in the Messiah. A Jew cannot believe in God without also believing in ultimate redemption.

So there are two kinds of hope, with one built on the other. The first is as natural and integral to human functioning as heart and lungs; the other is a transcendent vision that demands effort to attain, and is therefore not the possession of everyone. One is an emotional endowment; the other the product of a deep knowledge of God and history.

The faith in the coming of the Messiah is the codification of the human capacity for hope. It is the affirmation that history is neither an open-ended spiral of human suffering, nor will it terminate in universal self-destruction; rather that it will culminate in the spiritual and material redemption of the Jewish people and of all humankind.

We are enjoined to await the imminent arrival of the Messiah. By anticipating his coming every day, we build up that hope. By asking God in our prayers to bring the messianic era, we strengthen ourselves, both in our belief in God and in His redemptive power, both of which are really one.

Hope is more than either a feeling or an abstract idea; it is a tangible part of the structure of creation. As the Psalmist (59:17) says: "I will sing of your kindness in the morning." God has created a world of day and night. Night symbolizes darkness, pain, destruction, exile. Morning is a time of light, healing, restoration and redemption.

Morning signifies the ever-present potential for redemption from the prison of our personal dilemmas, from our private slaveries.

In Judaism, each calendar day begins with night. Every 24-hour period consists of a night followed by a day. In Jewish thought, nothing is accidental. God created the day to follow the night to teach us that there is always something good to look forward to, something to live for. No matter how bad the night, the sun always rises.

The Talmud says that the exodus of the Jewish people from the prison house of Egypt took place in the morning. Morning is the time of redemption for the whole Jewish people. But on an individual level, too, it signifies the ever-present potential for redemption from the prison of our personal dilemmas, from our private slaveries, our compulsive desires and addictions.

One of the blessings that are customarily said upon waking in the morning is: "Blessed are You, O Lord, who gives the heart understanding to discern between night and day." Life can be so difficult that it seems there is no difference. All is night, all is darkness, and there is no hope. The Sages instituted the blessing to serve as a daily reminder that there is a world of difference, and that deep down every person knows the difference. God has imbued each one of us with a sensitivity to the possibilities that every single day carries with it. We know there is always hope, no matter how dark the night.

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