Hope is a thread, however elusive, that links us to a possible future. It
demands that we take hold of it; otherwise, it is just a loose thread.
Illustration by Michael
The late Hugo Gryn, a Reform rabbi who spent most of his career in Britain,
was in Auschwitz as a child along with his father. In his memoir he recounts:
The Jewish prisoners in our barracks—Block 4—decided that we would
celebrate [Chanukah] by lighting a menorah every night.
Bits of wood and metal were collected and shaped into light-holders and everyone
agreed to save the week’s meager ration of margarine that would be used for
fuel. It was my job to take apart an abandoned prison cap and fashion wicks from
[On] the first night of Chanukah...most of Block 4 gathered around the
menorah—including some Roman Catholic Poles, several Protestant Norwegians
and...a German count who was implicated in the attempt on Hitler’s life. Two
portions of margarine were melted down—my wicks in place. We chanted the
blessing, praising God who “performed miracles for our ancestors in those days
and at this time,” and as...I tried to light the wick, there was only a bit of
spluttering and no flame.... What the “scientists” in our midst failed to point
out was that margarine does not burn!
As we dispersed and made our way to the bunk beds I turned not so much to
my father, but on him, upset at the fiasco and bemoaning this waste of precious
calories. Patiently, he taught me one of the most lasting lessons of my life and
I believe that he made my survival possible.
“Don’t be so angry,” he said to me. “You know that this festival
celebrates the victory of the spirit over tyranny and might. You and I have had
to go once for over a week without proper food and another time almost three
days without water, but you cannot live for three minutes without hope!”
(Chasing Shadows: Memories of a Vanished World, 2000).
Indeed, in Jewish culture and tradition hope is perceived as a central and
indispensable aspect of life. But the following story illustrates a different
At the height of his power...when it appeared that all of Europe was at
his feet, Napoleon ordered three POWs to be brought to him: a Russian, a Pole,
and a Jew. Before their release, he said they could ask anything of him and he
would see that their wish was fulfilled. The Russian asked that the czar be
deposed. The Pole called for the creation of a free and independent Poland. The
Jew asked for some schmaltz herring. Napoleon granted all three requests,
leaving the Russian and the Pole enthralled by the prospect of having brought
salvation to their nations. When the story of the meeting became known, members
of the Jew’s congregation asked him why he had not made better use of the
opportunity. Why didn’t he ask for a homeland for the Jews, or for guarantees of
security? The Jewish soldier answered: “Do you think Napoleon will really topple
the czar or free Poland? I, on the other hand, at least received some good
To some, this second story might appear as nothing but a joke. But I believe
it has something significant to tell us about the way Jews hope, and what we
First, it is important to make a distinction between hope and optimism. The
two are often confused, but they are profoundly different. To be optimistic
means to believe that everything is heading towards a happy ending. To have hope
means to believe that whatever happens, a way of coping and building towards the
future may be found. Some of us seem to be hard-wired for optimism, convinced
that things will work out well, and others for pessimism. Some folks wake up in
the morning with a wow! and others with an oy!
That said, while optimism is a matter of personality or disposition, hope is
a matter of faith.
Perhaps that is why hope is often expressed during times of communal worship,
especially when we’re facing hardship. During last year’s High Holy Days we may
have turned our hearts to the Wall in Jerusalem, but many an attention wandered
in the direction of Wall Street, wondering what would become of earnings,
savings, pensions, jobs. At Sukkot, as our tradition encouraged us to think
about living in temporary shelters, many around the world worried about keeping
roofs over their heads.
What are the origins of the Hebrew word for hope, tikvah? One
tradition suggests a link to the word kav, meaning cord. In the second
chapter of the Book of Joshua, a Jericho prostitute named Rahab offers shelter
to the Hebrew spies, and as a reward, she is instructed to hang a scarlet cord
from her window so that when the Israelites come through, her home will be left
unscathed. The term for the red thread, tikvat hashani, uses the same
word, tikvah, hope.
This idea of hope as a cord was also suggested by Moses Haim Luzzatto, the
18th-century Italian Jewish mystic and poet, who likened hope to a line capable
of spanning to the upper reaches of heaven, indeed to God.
The Reform Jewish theologian Eugene Borowitz points to another dimension of
hope when he notes in his essay, “Hope Jewish and Hope Secular,” that in the
Bible, k-v-h refers not just to a state of soul, but an expectation of
According to Borowitz, the only mention of this k-v-h root in the
Pentateuch is found in the Book of Genesis (49.18), translated (in the JPS
edition) as “I wait for Your deliverance, O Lord.” To hope is to close the gap
between our present condition and a more desirable one in the future.
Linking Luzzatto’s formulation to Borowitz’s, one can imagine hope as taking
hold of the cord, be it ever so flimsy, and using it as a bridge to a future
still unrealized. If all you do is fantasize about a happy ending, then it’s not
hope in the above sense, but wishful thinking. Hope is a thread, however
elusive, that links us to a possible future. It demands that we take hold
of it; otherwise, it is just a loose thread.
The Prophet Jeremiah offers yet another perspective on hope in his
description of God as Mikveh Yisrael, which is usually translated as The
Hope of Israel (14.8, 17.13). The sages linked this word to the identical term
mikveh, meaning sacred pool or bath. Playing on the dual meaning, Rabbi
Akiva commented: “Just as a mikveh purifies the impure, so does the Holy
One of Blessing purify Israel.”
Hope, then, is not only a cord that reaches back to us from a future still
unrealized; it is also a comforting pool providing solace, purification, and
regeneration. Think of the times when we face adversity—grave illness, economic
setbacks, personal uncertainty. Holding onto a rope is not enough. We also need
to be immersed in love, support, and friendship. Just as hope can inspire and
enlighten, it can also warm and soothe. Our families and friends, colleagues and
neighbors can constitute a huge reservoir of hope.
But what happens when hope is nowhere to be found, when it may seem as
nothing more than delusion? In a highly suggestive passage, Job says:
For a tree there is hope, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again and
that its tender shoots will not cease. / Even though its root grow old in the
earth, and its stump die in the dust, / Yet at the first whiff of water it may
flourish again and put forth branches like a young plant. / But when a man dies,
all vigor leaves him; when man expires, where then is he? / As when the waters
of a lake fail, or a stream grows dry and parches, / So men lie down and rise
not again. Till the heavens are no more, they shall not awake, nor be roused out
of their sleep. (Job 14.12-17)
True, as mortals we have no hope of physical regeneration. That is why in
Jewish tradition hope takes us beyond ourselves, placing us in a communal
context. It is precisely this consolation that is offered by the people Israel.
While I may not live to see a withered stump renewed, I know that as one ring on
the tree of life that is the Jewish people, I am part of something much greater
Identity and belonging have a crucial role to play here, for they help us to
see that even if our own situation seems desperate, we are part of a larger
organism which may yet grow again and flourish. “Hope,” wrote Luzzatto, “is the
very start of creation.”
How, then, is a Jew to respond to the complex business of living in our post-
9/11, post-economic meltdown world? One way is to remember what Barack Obama
declared on election night in his acceptance speech: “While we breathe, we
As we breathe, I suggest we search for tangible, incremental acts of
reaffirmation and hope that can be found within the realms of family and
community. Let us be part of initiatives for good. Let us be open to new
encounters with people inside and outside our circle of acquaintance, if only to
remind ourselves how much good there is in humanity. Let us remember that the
alternative to hope is either despair or absolute certainty, and neither of them
will get us to the possible future awaiting all of us just out of view. Let us
seek out the thread and take hold of it.
As I write these words, hope for a meaningful breakthrough in the Middle East
conflict seems very distant. Hope that the world’s economies will soon
strengthen is unlikely, as is hope that the developing world will receive the
support and attention it needs. Nor is it easy to hope that the people we love
who are gravely ill or deeply troubled will find comfort. But just when the
temptation to despair seems overpowering, a glimmer of hope emerges: a hug, a
word spoken in love, an object of beauty, an act of kindness.
There is a thin line between hope and delusion, between hope and
self-distraction. In that thin line is the very thread I seek, my hope suspended
precariously between a slab of margarine and a serving of schmaltz herring.
Rabbi Michael Marmur is Vice-President for Academic Affairs at