The Torah is bursting with hopes over-fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah hoped for a child and gave birth to a nation. The Israelites hoped for freedom from slavery and eventually received an entire Promised Land. We understand hope and, in so many ways, we live on it, as hope has sustained us for thousands of years. Today, our hopes inspire our actions and motivate us to work for peace, justice and equality. In Jewish terms, we call this goal or vision of a better world in the here-and-now: redemption.
Yet, redemption does not just appear out of thin air or because we wish it. Redemption and the hope of it requires work and cooperation with the Source of All Life. As Deuteronomy 30:19 says, “I have put before you life and death… [therefore] choose life…” This cooperation could be a simple commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world (some times translated as social justice). For others, choosing life could mean more observant religious practice. It could also be a combination of the two. In the end, though, I think both hope and redemption require choosing life in some form or another.
Just as how we choose life depends on who we are, how we achieve this redeemed world depends on how we understand G-d’s redemptive power. Some of us think redemption will come through the moshiach (a savior), while others of us believe it is our responsibility to make the world a better place. No matter what, we all dream of a world free of hunger, disease, poverty and war and full of opportunity, equality and human flourishing. We know a better world is possible and take steps (miztvot, tzedekah, tikkun olam, etc.) towards its creation, each in our own way.
It is good to know that in all of this action and hope that we are not alone. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book The Sabbath, comments on time, humanity and action. He says, “Creation, we are taught, is not an act that happened once upon a time, once and for ever. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process. G-d called the world into being, and that call goes on. There is this present moment because G-d is present. Every instant is an act of creation (100).” In other words, we participate in creation with G-d since we are present in this moment of creation as Heschel puts it. We are in union with G-d, that essential Oneness of the universe, and in that we find hope for the future, for ourselves and for a world redeemed.
Yet, perhaps, creation is not always the right descriptive word for hopeful actions aimed toward redemption. Transformation may be better. When we partner with G-d and with each other, we are not always creating. More often, we are changing, molding, altering and refashioning what already exists into something better. G-d didn’t change Abraham, Sarah or the Israelites, but rather G-d altered G-d’s relationships with each of them. That relationship produced new opportunities for human flourishing. We operate similarly nowadays when we work with what we have been given and refashion it into systems, structures and institutions that support human life and flourishing.
In the end, then, hope and redemption are about both transformation and creation. There is a teaching in the Babylonian Talmud (Hagigah 12a) about how G-d created the heavens by holding together both esh (fire) and mayim (water) and transforming them into something new: hashamayim (the heavens). Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav elaborates on the meaning of this idea. He believes that peace is actually the union of two opposites. Therefore in the formation of the heavens, G-d is able to make peace between fire and water.
I agree with Rabbi Nachman’s interpretation of this Talmudic teaching. Peace is extremely important, something that we work towards now and will be completed in a redeemed world. Yet, just as we can’t understand how fire and water can be held together, we often struggle in the here-and-now with the basics of peace. It is helpful to know though that G-d can do miraculous things like holding together fire and water to create the heavens, and since we are created in the image of G-d (b’tzelem elohim), we too can do miraculous things. We just need to commit ourselves to the process and the journey. Marcia Falk, in her prayer “Sh’ma: Personal Declaration of Faith,” reminds me of our shared Jewish commitment to action, hope, redemption and the future.
And its mysterious source
with all my heart
all my senses and strength,
I take upon myself these promises:
to care for the earth
and those who live upon it,
to pursue justice and peace,
to love kindness and compassion,
I will teach this to our children…
And may my actions
be faithful to my words
that our children’s children
may live to know:
Truth and kindness
peace and justice have kissed
and are one.
These words encourage transformative action for us and for our children towards a world redeemed. If it is at all possible to hold fire and water together thereby transforming them into the heavens, anything is possible! It is up to us to make this a reality, and tikvah (hope) propels us forward.
Hope consists of the endless possibilities and spaces for transformation, creation and, finally, redemption. It is a very Jewish concept (although it is not unique to Judaism). Being Jewish requires a belief in and a response to hope or our redeemed world will never exist. In this way, hope is our redemption and our redemption is hope.
Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Boston College teaching in its Perspectives Program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Merrimack College. Her most recent publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).