D’var Torah: Parshat Bechukotai – Judaism is Built on Hope

I found myself thinking about Star Wars today. OK, truthfully, I am often thinking about Star Wars!  But I was particularly thinking about Star Wars today, reading parshat Bechukotai, which is the final parshah of the book of Vayikra.  (This Shabbat, we read a double-portion of Behar and Bechukotai.)  There is a lengthy stretch in Bechukotai in which we read what’s known as the Tochechah.  It is a series of curses, describing the catastrophes that will befall the Israelites if they turn away from Hashem.  I find this to be a disturbing and difficult passage of Torah to read.

But I love that this section ends with a U-turn.  After reading all of these curses, in Vayikra 26:44-45 we read that “even then” Hashem “will not reject” the Israelites “or spurn them”, because “My covenant is with them; for I the Lord am their God.”  I love this simple and powerful statement of God’s eternal connection with the Jewish people.  And even more than that, I love it as a beautiful moment of hope, even in the darkness painted by that chapter of a world gone wrong.

This is what made me think about Star Wars: specifically Rogue One, my favorite of the modern Star Wars films.  That film identifies hope as a critical value.  With the rebels on the verge of defeat and despair based on the seemingly insurmountable darkness that surrounds them, the heroine Jyn Erso rallies her comrades around her with the simple but memorable declaration: “Rebellions are built on hope.”  The final line of the film is “hope,” spoken by Leia as she holds the stolen Death Star plans in her hands.  It’s a beautiful segue into the opening of the original Star Wars which of course is subtitled (ever since its 1981 re-release to theaters, a year after The Empire Strikes Back came out) A New Hope.

Hope is central to Judaism.  The national anthem of the State of Israel is ha-Tikvah: the hope.   At camp each summer we commemorate Tisha B’av, a day that marks the terrible tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the exile that followed.  But Judaism doesn’t let us stay in mourning.  The Shabbat that follows Tisha B’Av is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of comfort. (Hearing our chanichim sing “nachamu” in the chorsha (grove) at camp on that Shabbat is always one of my favorite camp moments each kayitz!)

I have often been inspired by Elie Wiesel’s statements on the importance of hope.  Here’s one of my favorites: “One must wager on the future.  I believe it is possible, in spite of everything, to believe in friendship in a world without friendship, and even to believe in God in a world where there has been an eclipse of God’s face…we must not give in to cynicism.  To save the life of a single child, no effort is too much.  To make a tired old man smile is to perform an essential task.  To defeat injustice and misfortune, if only for one instant, for a single victim, is to invent a new reason to hope.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has described hope as “one of the very greatest Jewish contributions to Western civilization.”  He writes: “to be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair.  Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate.  Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.  There is no more challenging vocation.  Throughout history, when human beings have sought hope they have found it in the Jewish story.  Judaism is the religion, and Israel the home, of hope.”

This is a thought that brings me great comfort, and also profound inspiration, as I prepare to enter this ShabbatShabbat Shalom.