Rabbis are supposed to offer hope on the High Holidays. What if I can’t?


(JTA) — I was a writer before I became a rabbi and High Holiday sermons usually come easily to me. Some years I have so many ideas and teachings and hopes to share that I accidentally write more sermons than I need to give.

Not this year. This year I haven’t felt able to begin writing at all.

The enormity of what’s broken in the world feels paralyzing. In recent weeks we’ve seen unprecedented heat and wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, a flaming oil spill turning part of the Gulf of Mexico into an inferno, and extreme flooding across Europe. “Who by fire, who by water,” the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer,  land differently this year. Dayenu, that could be enough to still my pen — but there’s more.

Last year, leading High Holiday services via Zoom from home, I spoke about our obligation to take care of each other by staying apart. I turned to the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto for his teachings about hope during adversity. I imagined Rosh Hashanah 5782: Surely we would be vaccinated and safely back together!

The past 18 months of pandemic were hard even for those of us who have it easy (a job, a place to live, no illness). For many the isolation of sheltering in place was crushing, or numbing. For many without stable income or a roof overhead, the pandemic has been unimaginably worse. So, too, for frontline workers and those whose jobs are “essential” and often unseen.

When vaccines became available, my heart soared on wings of hope. But I hadn’t reckoned with the power of social media influencers lying about the putative risks of the vaccine, or claiming the virus is a hoax or “not that bad.” The simple truth that vaccines save lives became perversely inverted — and weaponized. Now vast numbers of my fellow Americans are refusing vaccination, claiming “personal freedom” at the expense of the collective good.

I keep thinking of the parable of the guy in the boat drilling a hole under his own seat. He doesn’t seem to notice that his personal freedom is going to drown everyone else. As a parable, it’s tart and a little bit funny. In real life, it’s horrifying. Dayenu: that too could be enough to spark despair. But there’s more.

The governor of Texas recently made it illegal for municipalities to require masks. To many, masks have become a symbol of government control. To me, a mask is literally the least we can do to protect the immunocompromised (and all children under the age of 12.) Refusing to wear a mask during this pandemic is like leaving your lights on during the London Blitz.

Combine the anti-maskers, and the anti-vaxxers, and the new Delta variant (more contagious than chicken pox, and vaccinated people can spread it), and cases are rising again. We’re facing another long winter of isolation and mounting death counts — and it didn’t have to be this way.

Between what we’re doing to our planet (which disproportionately harms those who are most vulnerable), and the impact of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers on public health (ditto), and the persistence of the Big Lie that the presidential election was “stolen,” and the lack of accountability around the Jan. 6 insurrection, it’s hard not to despair. How can I write sermons from this place? I’m pretty sure no one comes to High Holiday services to hear their rabbi admit that she’s given up hope.

I poured out my heart about this to my hevruta partner, who reminded me that in Torah even God sometimes despaired of humanity. When God despaired of us, it was our ancestors’ job to push back and remind God of reasons to hope for humanity’s future. This is part of why we live (and learn!) in community: to help each other find hope when our hearts despair.

Indeed, the Torah readings most of us will encounter on Rosh Hashanah cue up that inner journey. On the first day we read about the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael. On the second day, the stakes may feel even higher with the binding of Isaac. Yet these same Torah stories also remind us of the hope to be found in tough times. An angel opens Hagar’s eyes to a flowing spring, and she and her son are saved. An angel opens Abraham’s eyes to the ram caught in the thicket, and Isaac’s life is spared.

Our task is to see the traumas of this moment clearly — and also to cultivate the ability to look beyond our own despair. The Days of Awe open the door to new beginnings, even when (or especially when) we can’t see our own way back to hope for change. We just have to be like those biblical angels for each other: helping each other see the hope we can’t find alone.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt
a founding builder at Bayit: Building Jewish, is rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA. Since 2003 she has blogged as the Velveteen Rabbi.