I am recently retired. Up until a few weeks ago I was enjoying all the time off. Now I feel like I have too much time on my hands. I sit and stare at the television and watch my retirement account sinking and anxiety over the health crisis rising.
It’s been a tough couple of weeks. Lots of bad news. I don’t need to recount now how we have been battered. I don’t want to talk about the news so much as how we respond to the news; how we face each day despite the the pandemic and crashing markets; how we give children the feeling of the world as a wonderful place; how we remain hopeful at a time of such dreadful news.
I don’t think religion can answer the question why God allows such horror (my Jewish faith tells me that’s a misplaced question); but religion can help us stay alive and live with integrity, good values, and most of all, with hope.
My faith is chiefly a religion of hope. The Hebrew bible introduced hope into the world; the idea that things can get better; that we are not destined to live forever in a dark and scary world. Life need not be, as Hobbes said, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
That is why Jews are the children of hope. We were trapped in Egypt. The whole world was ruled by pagan power and pagan propaganda, which proclaimed that there is only what the gods decree, what nature ordains, what the Greeks called “fate.” When the Jews managed to leave Egypt, they discovered the God of possibility, the God of surprise, the God of hope.
Throughout history Jews faced the spiritual challenge to live with hope when the rest of the world hoped for our demise. Now I think the entire world faces this challenge: how do we carry on when there is no hope? In America we are the land of the quick fix, the land of solutions, the land where everything can be made right and quickly.
But, with this current threat hanging over us, the only message we’re getting is that the virus will not go away or be conquered soon. The threat continues to hang over all our heads. It’s downright depressing. What do we do? How do we respond when hope is crashing down all around us.
The first thing you have to do when hope is lost is that you just hang in there. You have to put one foot in front of the other. You don’t surrender. You keep going. You don’t have the stomach to hang in there? Then you just get your stomach ready for a long haul. Today that could mean paying attention to what you can do to contribute to the effort to defeat this virus — all the recommendations you are familiar with that not only protect you but also everyone you come in contact with.
The second thing you have to do when hope is waning is you change your focus. You engage in small deeds, nothing glamorous or heroic, but deeds which nonetheless provide some respite from just worrying about the crisis. Reach out to friends and family. Make sure people you care about are staying calm and taking care of themselves. Help yourself and others avoid the loneliness that can result from all this “social distancing.”
The third thing you do when hope is in trouble is that you hang on to your values. Don’t forget to be kind and generous and sensitive, let alone helpful and caring. Don’t horde. Share as much as you can. Don’t become a racist and blame others.
The fourth thing you have to do when hope seems lost is to find a way to do what the angel tells Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden in the Bible, when Sarah wants to expel her out of her jealousy for birthing Ishamael while Sarah remained barren. God says to Hagar, “don’t you be afraid.”
When the facts are grim, it’s time to dredge out some hope from the Rock, the ultimate source of hope, from the Creator of the Universe. There is nothing theological about this virus; God has not sent a plague. God is not abandoning us, but is here for us to help us dig inward for the strength to keep going under the heavy duress of this pandemic.
In the long struggle we face in the weeks ahead, may we have the stomach to hang in there, to continue to take small un-heroic steps when hope is not on the horizon. May we hang on to our values. May we draw strength from one another, and may we look deep inside to discover our inner spiritual strength — the strength to live with dark days. And may we have the courage of the 23rd Psalm — “I will fear no evil.”
May we learn from the prophet Isaiah, who taught a defeated nation how to survive amid despair: “those who hope in God shall renew their strength.”
Michael Berk is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, the largest Jewish congregation in San Diego and the oldest in Southern California.