Rabbi Dr. Robert Brent Lennick,
Rosh Hashanah Evening I 2001
Delivered as Guest Rabbi in Saratoga Springs, NY
I was raised in the late 1950s and early 1960s and lived through the national traumas of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Tuesday’s attack on our nation and our people brings me back to my own childhood and my early conscious confrontations with abject evil. I remember sitting in front of our old Zenith black and white television and seeing the unfolding of national grief three times in one decade. What I felt was tremendous fear and fascination.
In those years, still in the post-World War II national consciousness, adults around me said that while these events were horrible, they were also a time when we would pull together. Americans do that, they said, and we would do it again. Yes, there was a sense of deep grief for the loss of such beloved leaders. But there was also a stoic sense that everything would turn out OK. I realize now I was being taught that Americans have built a society perhaps most of all on the pillar of hope.
Hope is so central and unique in human experience. The annals of human culture, art, literature, music, poetry and religious sentiment all express that hope exceeds so many of life’s terrors.
Until recently, we have lived optimistically. The markets were booming beyond imagination. Science has begun to crack the genome. We have made such progress in mastering our material world. Optimism is that sense of accomplishment that breeds a forward-looking anticipation of more accomplishment. Optimism is an emotion that results from our labors, our track record and our pragmatic willfulness. Hope, however, is of the spiritual realm. Hope is the feeling that no matter what happens, we have some invisible capacity for goodness, for creativity, for loving, for giving and for bringing purpose and meaning to our lives, no matter the challenge.
So let us wonder: Have we lived in recent years with as much hope as optimism? Perhaps as optimism increases as the result of the work of our own hands, hope declines. Optimism is of the ego; hope is of the spirit. Perhaps this is a time for a renewal and resurgence of hope — a return to the fundamental power of the American spirit.
What we have witnessed with this horrific assault on our homeland offers us a moment for modeling hope, especially for our children. Modeling hope includes drawing from our inner wells of trust in God (or our higher power or however else we view this) the intention that no matter what happens we will maintain our values, our compassion and our dignity.
We can share this wonderful spiritual inclination, which transcends religious boundaries, with each other and our children. How? We can turn anger into compassion. We can turn grief into understanding, and we can turn anguish into empathy. While we may feel helpless, in fact we are capable of being most helpful. The goodness which emerges out of this tragedy each minute — the unsung heroism, the unseen acts of compassion, the dignity we display in each moment of this nightmare — is the antidote to despair. Hope is the catalyst, which makes this happen.
As a religionist and psychotherapist, I see a battle raging for the world’s soul. Those who proffer terrorism also wish to impose a vision of world singularity. They oppose those of us who believe this world is created in such a way that none of us is hermetically sealed within our traditions or ways of life and that creation demands that we be interdependent.
As we go on with our lives, we must memorialize those whose lives have been treacherously snuffed out. We must reach out to each other and remind the world that we are the bearers of hope. In the Biblical Book of Zechariah, a verse (9:12) is prophetic for our nation today: “Return to the stronghold ye prisoners of hope.”
Our enemies wish to make us prisoners of terror and fear. As a nation we shall never abide to such oppression or indignity. But as I learned from my family back in the 1960s, so must I now model for my own family and community a renewed hopeful determination: I am bonded as an American and as a citizen of the civilized world to the power of hope. Hope is our American destiny, and as the founders of our nation believed, hope is ours by divine design.
The enemies who dwell in darkness will never prevail, for our strength is in our spiritual fortitude. Our future, as our past, is contained in our unparalleled national hope. Hope is our stronghold; hope is our way. No matter what language of faith we profess, no matter what house of worship we attend, no matter whether we even are connected to any organized religious community, hope binds us all. The time to model hope is now.