Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Exercising the "hope muscle" -- the foundation of faith

At about 5 p.m. on Monday last week you would have found me sprawled out on the grass next to the side of the road in Far Hills, NJ. I felt utterly spent after nearly two full days of riding my bicycle up and down the hills of the Delaware and Raritan river valleys. A cloud of despair began to pass over me. I couldn't imagine pedaling the 25 miles yet to go towards my planned final destination for the night. And, yet, 20 minutes later I was back on the bike diligently climbing the hill before me and a few hours later I made it (albeit in the darkness) to my goal.

This is one of the things I love most about bicycle riding -- the cycles it takes me on between despair and, often, elation, especially the elation that comes from reaching the top of one of those terrible hills on a hot day and then to be suddenly and effortlessly flying fast downhill with the roar of the wind in my ears. In effect, bicycling trains me in the process of regaining hope. It helps me exercise the muscle that we use within ourselves to restore ourselves to hope.

And we need that muscle to help us restore ourselves to hope and faith. For a life of faith -- contrary to what the popular culture might say -- is not one of uninterrupted joy and untested confidence. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes:

Since faith is a response to the Presence [of God] in life and history, this response ebbs and flows. The difference between the skeptic and the believer is frequency of faith, and not the certitude of position.
--Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, The Shoah and the legacy of anti-Semitism in Christianity in Jewish Terms (p. 27).
To maintain ourselves as believers we need to find ways to exercise our hope muscle so that it can become strong and can regularly pull us out of the despair into which we inevitably will fall. Hope, of course -- and the restoration of hope -- is a central part of Judaism and of the holiday of Rosh HaShannah that begins tomorrow evening. The Psalm we associate with these high holidays is Psalm 27, which concludes with a call for us to find hope:

קַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה: .
Hope for the Lord.

חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ;
Be strong and He will make courageous your heart.

וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה
Hope for the Lord.
The Psalm is not at all subtle in its statement of where this hope can come from -- it opens with these famous words of trust and hope:

יְהוָה, אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי
The Lord is my light and my salvation.

--מִמִּי אִירָא;
From whom would I fear?

יְהוָה מָעוֹז-חַיַּי,
The Lord is the stronghold of my life.

מִמִּי אֶפְחָד.
From whom would I be afraid?
These words are indeed an inspiring statement of trust, a picture of unbreakable faith. And, yet, a few lines later in the Psalm we find the author desperately begging and pleading. Pleading, in particular, that God would not abandon him:

שְׁמַע-יְהוָה קוֹלִי אֶקְרָא; וְחָנֵּנִי וַעֲנֵנִי.
Hear, Lord, my voice -- I call out! -- and be gracious to me and answer me.

.אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ יְהוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ.
. . . Your Presence (literally, "face"), Lord, I seek.

אַל-תַּסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ, מִמֶּנִּי--
Do not hide Your Face from me.

אַל תַּט-בְּאַף, עַבְדֶּךָ:
Do not turn Your servant away in anger.
--verses 7-9
This, then, is the great message of the Psalm: if you are to achieve the trusting faith of its opening lines, you also must be willing to fearlessly contemplate the loss of that faith -- to contemplate the possiblity that God may abandon you. And you must humble yourself and beg God. You must plead. You must beg as the Pslam's author did. This is the truest way to exercise the hope muscle. This is the way to restore yourself.

May it be the will of the blessed Holy one that you shall have the sweetest of year's ahead. And may you find the strength in your heart to be able to stand before God in humility and with repentance in your heart. And may you find hope. True hope.

Shannah Tova/שנה טובה

No comments: