Perhaps There is Hope
On the first day of Elul, I heard a beautiful teaching from Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie on a webinar with a group of local rabbis. Rabbi Lau-Lavie told us that ever since Tish’a B’Av, he has been reflecting on the evocative verse from the book of Eicha (Lamentations).
יִתֵּ֤ן בֶּֽעָפָר֙ פִּ֔יהוּ אוּלַ֖י יֵ֥שׁ תִּקְוָֽה׃
Let one put one’s mouth to the dust — Perhaps there is hope. (Eicha 3:29)
Ibn Ezra wrote that the first words of the verse mean that we should prostrate ourselves before God, our faces on the ground in our abject grief. The Talmud tells us that several Rabbis cried when they recited these words. (Hagigah 4b)
The second half of the verse, three short words in Hebrew (“ulay yesh tikvah” - “perhaps there is hope”), conveys a world of meaning that is profoundly relevant to our Elul reflections and powerfully resonant with the historical moment in which we live.
Ulay/Perhaps: These past 18 months, since the onset of the pandemic, have been completely suffused with “ulay” - with uncertainty, with not-knowing, with humble awareness breaking through our usual certitudes. Will the virus afflict us or the ones we love? What will happen to the synagogues, organizations and businesses in our community? When will it be safe to travel, to hug our loved ones without concern? And then, just when we thought the pandemic was waning, the Delta variant arrived and all the old questions returned.
In the strange, otherworldly time of COVID, many of us were forced to face other dimensions of “ulay” in our collective lives. Even in the presence of wide-spread suffering, American political culture grew increasingly coarse and contentious. Many of us awakened to the horrors of racial injustice in our country. A series of natural disasters all around the world have finally convinced many that the climate emergency is here. What is certain anymore? What is there to stand on? Maybe we’ll be OK, and maybe we won’t.
And then come the beautiful words “yesh tikvah.” Perhaps there is hope. Perhaps the pandemic will give rise to unprecedented global collaboration among scientists to find a way to defeat the virus. Maybe a tipping point will come at which Americans will choose conversation and cooperation rather than mutual blame and shame, concern for the common good rather than self-interest. We may imagine that the human family will awaken to the interconnected nature of all of our lives. And somehow, the world may awaken to the desperate need for drastic, coordinated action to save our children and grandchildren from a life of climate-induced suffering.
It has often been said that the Jews are a people of hope, without which we would not have survived our many trials. In truth, I believe that hope is built into the human psyche, placed there by a God who desires our well-being. We humans have the mysterious and transformational capacity to turn from sorrow and trauma to hope that life can be better, that healing can come to broken hearts and to a broken world. We have the ability to turn our mourning into dance, our despair into determination to do our part to make the world better. This quality is hard-wired in us as a species, and can surface at the most unexpected times.
This Elul, as we begin the journey toward another High Holy Day season filled with uncertainty, we may use these sacred words to guide us. Ulay: yes, much as we wish it were otherwise, life is filled with uncertainty, risk and vulnerability. And yet even in our state of “ulay,” we may find that there is hope. Joy, love and kindness may break through and lift our hearts. People in our lives and around the world may act out of their best, highest selves. The very unknowability of life means that things may well turn out far better than we fear.
May this be a month of deep awareness of our own fragility and vulnerability, but also of our capacities for interconnection, for wisdom and for love.