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By Rabbi Jordan Helfman.

“For out of the night of worry and terror, out of the darkness of false ideals and fallacious standards, out of the gloom of superficial pessimism and despairing hope, out of the bleak and forbidding night of the present there will be light, after the darkness will come the Dawn.”[1]

These are the words that Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath used to conclude his Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon eighty-seven years ago, from this pulpit’s Bond Street location.  In his poetic, prophetic style, he revealed his faith that at the end of this bitterly cold, and too-long night, would come the Dawn.

And here we are – eighty-seven years later, a world war and a cold war have passed. The decimation of our people in the Shoah, and the blessedly complicated political sovereignty of the State of Israel…  It is 5778, and we are still waiting for that great moment, that public celebration of life and light.  When the second horn of the Ram caught in the thicket next to Isaac’s bound body will be blown – that moment when, through the sexism, racism, personal envy and enmity, a clearing will appear, and a light supernal will fill our world.

Is now that moment? Are we even on the path?  Last year, for much of 5777, to be honest, I thought we were on the way. We had progress in politics to match that in science. We had a world signed on to the Paris Climate Accord.  When asked about progress, “because it is 2016” used to feel like an appropriate response.

And now, on this RH 5778, I know I am not alone in fearing a slow creep back to the shade.

I was speaking to one of my friends recently, Rabbi Ari Lorge- when he shared his experience on the subway on his morning commute to Central Synagogue in New York City.  He had opened his phone to do some reading, and up popped the daily news briefing.  Here it is, from July 11th:   “5 Things for Tuesday: Russia probe, military plane crash, Qatar, health care, mass extinction.”[2]

On that list, a search for optimism and hope is in vain.  For fear, anger and righteous indignation, one could click on Health care.  But on this list, well, who could help but click on the last one, Mass Extinction?

This cheery article, which Rabbi Lorge spent his commute reading through, was about how climate change and human choices are creating mass extinction events for animals around the world.  According to this article, when my youngest daughter is 22, elephants may only survive in captivity, in zoos, and many other species are worse off.[3]

What a cheery start to the day.  So much for that optimism that the Dawn of a more ideal world is just around the corner.

As an American this has been a tough year.  I have been challenged by the racist and anti-immigration rhetoric which propelled both Donald Trump and Brexit to success. I have been challenged by the Klan members and Neo-Nazis who marched through the streets and intimidated worshipers at our sister Reform congregations in this summer.  All without the unequivocal condemnation that some things are just evil.

Today, as the United States tries to exit from the Paris Climate Agreement, other congregations are struggling after the hurricanes to hold HHD services. In the World Union of Progressive Judaism, our body of Reform synagogues around the world, many leaders in Europe report anxiety over the political rise of isolationism and an anti-immigrant fervor.  All of this has made me question the direction we move in, as the setting sun moves us from 5777 to 5778 –  we move from Tishaz – a year of Strength – towards, what?

The Dawn indeed.

Rabbi Eisendrath was alive at a time when one of the greatest influences on Jewish theology was modernism – an idea that progress for the individual and for society, was inevitable.  Rooted in our willingness to experiment and learn, we couldn’t help but create a better world.

The boom of progress, which had been reducing mortality since the industrial revolution, was in full swing, and our ability to conquer the nature around us through scientific knowledge and technology was continuing unabated.  Even in the midst of the Great Depression, a belief in the ever improving future gave hope.

In my reading of Rabbi Eisendrath, I would say he was a devout modernist and a devout Jew – thus, in part, the construction of this beautiful building seating over a thousand for a congregation of a few hundred, which he was proud to say used the most modern of materials and the most modern of construction techniques available at the time.[4]

The most famous expression of this sentiment, this faith in the inevitability of progress – this fervent religious hope for the future, was actually spoken from this bimah, which Rabbi Eisendrath built, and by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He, on an invitation from our Temple Brotherhood, proclaimed, “‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”[5]

Now, as many of you who are learn-ed in art and the social sciences know – as a society, we’ve actually moved away from much of modernism.  Because of its focus on the individual instead of the community.  Because modernism as a movement was anchored in an empire-building sense of progress, ignoring the perspectives of minority communities and disadvantaged populations.[6]

And with this, has come a clouding of even the core idea of progress – progress for who? At what cost?  Modernism was not as concerned with Gender Equality, Multiculturalism and Environmentalism as we are today.

Now, there is a group of thinkers and authors called the ‘New Optimists’ who still see progress in the world- and in the face of the blips of war and terror and evil, still feel that history has no choice but to keep on arcing towards justice.  Their works with titles like, “The Better Angels of our Nature”[7], “The Moral Arc[8]”, and “Progress[9]” point out that a large majority of us, when surveyed, think the world is going downhill.  Which, on a global scale of human living, is demonstrably just not true:  After all, violence and human caused suffering are at an incredible low.[10]  Global poverty has dropped below 10%, global infectious diseases including leprosy, are in massive retreat, child mortality is massively down.[11]  They ask, “How can we not see that we will just continue going the way we are going, and that we are arcing quickly towards a day when the sun will peak through the clouds for a greater tomorrow?”

As one of the New Optimists remarks, “Optimism, after all, means more than just believing that things aren’t as bad as you imagined: it means having justified confidence that they will be getting even better soon.”[12]

Yet, there is a point where ‘justified confidence’ is just fantasy.  According to one critic this pure optomism seems to “describe a world in which human agency doesn’t seem to matter, because there are these evolved forces that are moving us in the right direction, but human agency does still matter … human beings still have the capacity to mess it all up. And it may be that our capacity to mess it up is growing.”[13]

If anything, this is the lesson of our New Year: Human agency does still matter.

As Jews, our tradition is clear: optimism and hope are not enough.

On Yom Kippur just before the Yizkor service, we will read the words of the Prophet Ezekiel:

Then God said unto me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the house of Israel, and the House of Israel are saying, “ Our bones are dried up, and אָבְדָה תִקְוָתֵנוּ our hope is lost.”

And God replies – therefore give them prophecy.  Speak to them. I did. And then – They moved.

Not that God makes them move – but that THEY moved.[14]

The prophet gives the people hope.  But then, not by an outside force, but by effort, the people move.

Rabbi Splansky taught this past Shabbat, this same message in a different way, discussing the difference between fantasy – pure optimism – and faith.  She said, “Fantasy and faith may even be exact opposites. Fantasy is fooling yourself into believing that what is, isn’t and what isn’t, is. Faith is knowing what is; seeing it, understanding it, claiming it, and committing yourself to take what is with you as YOU rise above and beyond it.”[15]

As Jews – we must have faith – we must have hope – we must have optimism.  But our optimism is different, because for us, Hope requires human action.

“‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”  The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said this as a statement of faith – a religious statement.  He spoke of it in the context of protest against an evil.  He spoke those words with the implication that it takes us to bend the arc.

Our Rabbi Eisendrath, who marched with Dr. King, knew that it was us – individually, but especially through our strength as a community, we who keep the Hope alive, we who cause that dawn to break through.

Rabbi Eisendrath believed in a better day, not because he was a foolish optimist, a hopeful dreamer, but because he was a faithful Jew who had faith that we, as a congregation, can bring that light into a darkened world.

These High Holidays, some of us will make resolutions.  That is good.

This is what I ask of you – to make this resolution different than one around the secular New Year – to make this a Jewish resolution, an action which actualizes hope in our world.

Resolve to take an action which will bring light and life to others. To volunteer, to protest, to donate for whatever cause you hold dear. Even if it doesn’t fix the whole world, it can help one person, or two or three people that important little bit and brings more light to their lives.

“For [then,] out of the night of worry and terror, out of the darkness of false ideals and fallacious standards, out of the gloom of superficial pessimism and despairing hope, out of the bleak and forbidding night of the present there will be light, after the darkness will come the Dawn.”

Shanah Tovah


This is our charge at this late hour, Adonai Mikveh Yisrael[16], God is the Hope of Israel.  May we bring that Hope to life in this year of 5778.  Shanah Tovah.

[1] “Darkness and Dawn: A Sermon for New Year’s Eve” Holy Blossom – 1930 by Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath. Typed and provided by the Holy Blossom Temple Archives.  Handed to me by Michael Cole.



[4] “This Temple, as designed after painstaking study and wide research by Messrs. Chapman and Oxley, with Mr. Maurice D. Klein, as associate, is built entirely of monolithic concrete, perhaps one of the most impressive, and certainly the most modern, medium of construction … Thus the new Holy Blossom Temple, although reared in the most modern of media and made to meet the most contemporary of requirements, is architecturally rooted in the distant past…” – Dedication Souvenir, distributed on May 21st, 1938 upon the completion of our physical renewal.

[5] [v]Bulletin Vol. xxxvii, No. 28, Mar. 13, 1962 – copy is the archives, HB10 F 13 40260 , words recorded in an article by Rabbi Plaut.

[6] Clifford G. Christians – Ethics and Politics in Qualitative Research in the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research

[7] Steven Pinker, 2011.

[8] Michael Shermer, 2016

[9] Johan Norberg, 2017

[10] This is Pinker’s thesis.


[12] Matt Ridley

[13] David Runciman

[14] Ezekiel 37


[16] Jer. 17:13

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