Only Hope Can Extract Jews and Palestinians From the Destruction of Despair

Israel’s war with Gaza coincided with the anniversary of the destruction of the Holy Temple, Judaism’s most sacred shrine. What the rabbis did in the wake of that historical crisis teaches us how we can cope with the current one.

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A photo taken on July 12, 2014 of a home destroyed in Be'er Sheva the previous evening.
A photo taken on July 12, 2014 of a home destroyed in Be'er Sheva the previous evening. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Widespread despair. If nothing else, that has been one result of the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas. After all, there have been two seemingly identical wars in the past six years. This cycle of hostility has begun to feel inevitable and unbreakable. Beyond that, the unrelenting conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has made many feel there may never be a just peace between them, that our fate may be perpetual war with – when we are lucky – brief interludes of quiet.

But more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict breeds despair, despair perpetuates and deepens the conflict. As Peter Beinart recently wrote, “Hamas’ great ally is despair. It grows stronger when Palestinians decide that settlement growth has made the two-state solution impossible. It gains strength when Palestinians decide that leaders like (Mahmoud) Abbas and Salam Fayyad are fools.” Similarly, the Israeli belief that security can only be accomplished through military action, as opposed to diplomacy, often seems to wax when we feel convinced that there is no Palestinian partner for peace, or that Palestinian aggression is inevitable.

The only antidote to this destruction of despair is hope. Only through hope, the belief that peace is possible despite the pervasive and stubborn nature of this conflict, can both sides remain committed to doing what is necessary to pursue it.

Since ancient times, the Jewish tradition has intuited and institutionalized hope’s transformative power.

Take, for example, the Tisha B’Av season, which we began commemorating a few weeks ago with the Fast of the 17th of Tamuz, and which will culminate this weekend with “Shabbat Nahamu,” the Sabbath of Comfort. Incidentally, this year these somber weeks have coincided with the news of war in Israel, which itself evokes the history we are commemorating.

Nearly two millennia ago, at this time of year, the Jewish community in the land of Israel experienced an almost devastating calamity: Roman forces demolished the Holy Temple, Judaism’s most sacred shrine, raising questions about whether Judaism had a future. Moreover, they destroyed Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest city and at the time its most populous, killing thousands and turning thousands more into refugees.

It was a dark time, to say the least, for the Jewish people. Given that reality, it is not surprising that the rabbis of the time would have decided to commemorate the destruction with a day of fasting, mourning and somber prayer, Tisha B’Av.

At the same time, however, those rabbis made another religious decision that was shocking, radical and profoundly instructive: They decreed that each and every year, the Sabbath immediately following Tisha B’Av would be known as Shabbat Nahamu, named for the opening words of a passage from chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah, which the rabbis established as the day’s liturgical centerpiece.

The passage begins, “Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God!” (Isaiah 40:1), and continues with a prophecy of national and spiritual restoration. The prophet declares that God is personally coming to overturn Israel’s current state of humiliation, destruction and powerlessness, rebuild her to her former glory, and return to her midst: “Every valley will be raised, every hill and mountain will be made low, the rugged ground will become level, and the ridges will become a plain, and the Presence of the Lord will be revealed” (Isaiah 40:4-5).

Biblical scholars believe Isaiah wrote those words after 538 B.C.E., when the Persian emperor Cyrus I allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple that the Babylonians had destroyed half a century earlier. If they are right, Isaiah’s words were less prophecy than current events. When Isaiah preached about restoration, he wasn’t dreaming some fantastical vision of an unfulfilled future, he was describing the here-and-now: the valleys being raised, the mountains being leveled. The term of Israel’s subjugation was indeed over; the time of its return had begun.

Unlike Isaiah himself, the rabbis of second-century Palestine had no reason to believe Isaiah’s words were true for their situation. Indeed, all the available evidence seemed to lead toward the opposite conclusion: Not only the Jews, but, perhaps, Judaism itself had been defeated. Few could envision a Jewish future without the land of Israel, Jerusalem, or a Temple. Few could see the prospect of rebuilding a vibrant and flourishing Jewish community with a hostile sovereign power in control.

And yet, despite all indications to the contrary, the rabbis deliberately placed Isaiah’s message of comfort immediately after Tisha B’Av. Why? To make a statement about hope. In placing Shabbat Nahamu immediately after Tisha B’Av, they declared that when the world gives you every reason to despair, the Jewish response is to recommit to hope. That fateful decision helped the rabbis enshrine hope as a fundamental Jewish emotional posture. Indeed, hope has remained so central to the Jewish consciousness that Israel’s founders made a song called “The Hope” the Jewish state’s national anthem.

So often, it can feel that there is too much brokenness in our world to repair. War and injustice are ubiquitous around the globe. Without hope, without the belief that our world can and will be better, people will inevitably give up working to improve it. Why would we waste our time and energy laboring on the futile?

But if the essence of Judaism is, as the Bible and rabbinic literature repeatedly avow, to make our world a more compassionate, just, and peaceful place, nothing is more important than hope. Only through hope, only through believing that our world can be repaired despite its prevalent and stubborn brokenness, will we remain committed to doing what is necessary to fix it. “Our hope is not yet lost,” we sing in “Hatikvah.” For the sake of our people and our planet, may it never be.

Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, and an alumnus of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. You can follow him on Facebook.

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