Hard-wired for Hope in the Midst of Despair

Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky

Beit Shalom Synagogue, Adelaide South Australia

A few weeks ago, just around the time that parts of Queensland and New South Wales burst into flame, the ABC reported that not a single drop of rain had fallen on Queensland in the last 24 hours. Not in the parched south, not in the tropical north, not over the Great Barrier Reef. No one could recall when this had last happened. Queensland is so vast, so varied in its climates, that rain is always falling in at least one little corner. But not on that day. To use biblical language, the heavens had closed up tight.

Nobody likes to think about climate change. By nobody, I mean me. I have studied my own behaviour enough to identify a trusty two step approach in how I tackle the many news articles on the topic that pop up on my computer screen. Step one is to read the headline. Step two is to move on to a different news story. Every once and a while, I’ve come upon an article that is compelling enough that I am persuaded to read one or even two paragraphs before I look away. It’s not that I’m in any way a climate change denialist. But I definitely spend most of my time in denial. The news on the climate is so unrelentingly grim that if I spend more than a minute thinking about it, I feel myself start to go ever-so-slightly insane. And just when it seems the news can’t get any worse, it does.

Over the last several years, I’ve done a great deal to reduce my carbon footprint. I almost never eat red meat, and at least half the meals I eat in any week are either vegetarian or vegan. Last year I was pleased to be able to buy a small home close to public transport and within easy walking distance of shopping. I ride my bicycle to the synagogue at least once each week and often use the bicycle to travel within the CBD of Adelaide. At the same time, I appreciate that absolutely nothing that I as an individual do will have any meaningful impact on reducing the galloping rate of climate change. Even if I and my one hundred closest friends were to do everything we could to reduce our impact on our environment, it would still be meaningless. Climate change is threatening our future, and I feel as if I have no ability to slow it. So I change the subject instead.

I’m confident that I am not alone in adopting what is essentially an attitude of denial towards our most pressing problem. I note that whenever I post anything climate change related on my Facebook page, nobody seems to notice. I looked at the history of several Facebook friends who often post climate change articles. No likes at all, while a family photo might draw 50 or more votes of approval. To me that indicates that the people seeing those articles are doing just what I routinely do—they’re skipping over them to look at puppy videos.

None of this is making an impact on climate change or, significantly, letting our elected officials and industrial leaders know that this issue is crucial to us. And yes, this is the most critical issue of our time. We know it, and our children really, really know it. I grew up 10 miles away from the White House, which we all knew would be Ground Zero in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The air raid siren test on the second Wednesday of each month served as a regular reminder of just how vulnerable we were, how quickly we might just blink out of existence. I wonder now about the inner life of our children and young people, who are growing into a world that they know will grow increasingly inhospitable and unpredictable. I see how frustrated and infuriated they are when adults speak condescendingly to them, telling them their fears are exaggerated. We know from the data that is coming out that they are not exaggerating in the least. I am sure one thing young people need is to talk about their worries and fears, and I can only hope that we are available to listen to them.

Over the course of the last several years, I have concluded that one reason why it is so hard for any of us to engage with this subject is because we don’t have the spiritual language to do so. We can analyse the crisis from all perspectives, lay out the facts in intricate detail, provide modelling that is increasingly accurate. What we have not yet figured out is how to speak about climate change in a way that brings in our hearts and souls. I believe part of the problem is that we have unconsciously embraced a world view in which we expect to move from darkness to light, from despair to salvation.  Either we are moving towards an increasingly perfect world, or all is lost. This is true most of all of our religious language.

We will shortly reach the Eileh Ezkerah service. This service, known in English as the martyrology service, emerged in its original form during the Middle Ages, a time of great danger and tragedy for the Jewish people. European Jews were often presented with an impossible choice by the Christian Crusaders: convert to Christianity or die. Many chose death, and many more were never even given an opportunity to choose. Poets of the time found comfort in the legend of ten rabbis, martyred by the Roman empire for their failure to abandon the teaching of Torah. The tale of their executions was retold in vivid detail and thus connected the unwilling martyrs in medieval Europe with their ancient ancestors.

The liturgical poem or piyyut that tells this story formed the core of today’s martyrology story. Sadly, there are so many more episodes in our history, so many times when Jews became victims simply because they were Jews. Our service climaxes in some way with the stirring song of the Partisans–a defiant statement in the face of the overwhelming force of the Nazis.

But of course the service does not end on that note. It ends on a note of hope. Within our Jewish tradition, all roads lead to hope. Jews had the ability to hold on to hope even when hope seemed far away. Of course, our ultimate hope was to return to our own land–a hope of 2000 years. If we could see a Jewish state brought back to life, perhaps nothing was impossible.

Judaism speaks of hope not only as a community value but as an individual aspiration. Today, Yom Kippur, is the ultimate day of hope. Many of you will know that I treasure Yom Kippur above all other days of the year. On this day, we affirm our conviction that each of us has the potential to become our best possible selves. Despite or perhaps because of all of the disappointments and failures that lie behind us, we embrace the possibility for a better future for ourselves and for the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are essentially hard-wired for hope.

Climate change has made me feel hopeless, but in recent weeks I’ve gotten back just a little bit of my hope. I participated in the climate strike on September 21. I know this demonstration was controversial; not everyone thought it was appropriate for students to miss classes a few weeks away from the end of the term. For me, our local event—which was small in comparison with other capitals around the word—was incredibly inspiring. The rally in Adelaide was by far the largest I’ve attended in my 13 years in the country. But what was really striking to me was the variety of people who showed up, brought signs, shouted slogans and marched jauntily up King William Street to Parliament House. There were lots of students—some in school uniforms, and a few even lugging their school backpacks. There were children in prams and pushers, teens participating enthusiastically, but also grandparents and great-grandparents. There were people of every imaginable ethnic background, people with a diversity of political views, people in three-piece suits, people in platform heels, people with wild hair colour, and people in hijabs. One memory that has stayed with me is of two girls in Pembroke uniforms, yelling themselves hoarse as they led the crowd in rallying cries. Another memory is of the signs, homemade by children and teens, exhorting those in charge to listen to them, to save the world before it was too late. Our time together felt like a bit of a watershed—it was that moment when disparate people who have felt isolated in their views join together to act. By the end of the rally, nothing had actually changed in the world. But something momentous had happened: we had begun to move together towards hope.

It would be a great error to mistake the hope that I felt on that day for a solution to the global challenge that is Climate Change. But as I’ve seen in recent years, an absence of hope is paralyzing. We can only move forward if we hold on to hope while remaining realistic at the same time.

I take inspiration in this work from the prophet we know by the name Deutero-Isaiah, whom I’m now going to call DI. DI is the mystery author of the last 26 chapters of the book of Isaiah, including the thunderous exhortation we heard earlier. That passionate call to righteousness is actually uncharacteristic of DI. Much of his message is focused on a single idea: hope in a time of darkness.

DI addresses a Jewish people who have survived a horrific trauma: they’ve seen their beloved Temple, built by King Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonian army, and the beautiful city of Jerusalem lying in ruins. The Jewish leadership has been exiled to Babylon, where they now sit in their hopelessness. In the midst of this darkness, DI brings them light. Among his most famous words are those found at the start of his prophecy in Isaiah chapter 40, words that we heard just a short time ago as part of this service: Comfort, oh comfort My people, Says your God. Here is another passage from chapter 60: “No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the moon for radiance [by night]; For the Adonai shall be your light everlasting, Your God shall be your glory. Your sun shall set no more, Your moon no more withdraw; For  Adonaishall be a light to you forever, And your days of mourning shall be ended.”

DI has no ability to change anything tangible in the people’s lives. He has no more actual power than any of the other exiled Jews. But he shows us the amazing impact that words have to kindle hope where hope had been lost.

For several months, I asked colleagues both Jewish and Christian the same question: how do we find a spiritual language for climate change? Some people fled from the question, others pondered it deeply. No one felt that they had the perfect answer. Ultimately, I believe our challenge is to hold tight on to hope and to let that hope drive us to action. We cannot have one without the other.

On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about some of the ways we find meaning and purpose in our lives. At this point in our history, I believe there can be no higher purpose than making sure we preserve this beautiful world for our children and for all the generations after them. Each of us will need to find our own paths to action, whether it be acting in our own lives to reduce our climate footprint or joining in larger political movements to try to bring about change. All the while, let us hold on to our great Jewish gift—the gift of hope. Our Torah reading calls us to choose life–let us choose life for us and for those who come after us. May this new year be one of joy for us and all the world, and may hope inspire all we do. Shana tova!

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