The year 2019 began with assaults on Jewish men in Brooklyn and ended with a deadly shooting attack on a kosher grocery in Jersey City that claimed the lives of four. A white supremacist killed a woman at a Chabad synagogue in Poway, Calif., and on Yom Kippur, a terrorist shot and killed two people when he was turned away from his first target: a synagogue in Halle, Germany. Here in the United States, the president has been impeached on credible charges of abusing his power and obstructing congressional investigations, while in Israel, the prime minister remains under a cloud of corruption charges and was unable to form a government after two inconclusive elections.
That’s a grim tally for any year; throw in the evidence that climate change is not only here, but its effects may already be permanent and devastating, and the case for despair is strong. Psychologists have begun to talk about “climate grief” — the experience of loss people experience out of fear that the environment is beyond repair. Many Jews are also feeling something similar when it comes to anti-Semitism: a fear that old hatreds never die.
It’s tempting to succumb to this sense of hopelessness. And yet, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, “To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair.”
It might help, then, to consider the kinds of things that give us hope and inspire us to be agents of a better world. Like the thousands of people of all faiths who have expressed solidarity after the killings in Poway and Jersey City. The politicians who put aside partisanship to craft legislation or boost funding to fight anti-Semitism and promote tolerance. The Jews and Arabs here and in Israel who dare to imagine coexistence in a bitterly divided land. Activists who continue to call the powerful to account, from the White House to the workplace. Young people who demand that adults do something about the scourge of gun violence.
Angels who perform acts of chesed, large and small, for people who are in need. Politicians who seek systemic change to attack homelessness, addiction, hunger, and environmental degradation; and philanthropists who tackle these same issues through their private fortunes.
You probably have your own list of people and things that give you hope in a troubled world. (A Dallas rabbi, Andrew Paley, recently wrote that he takes hope in his relationships with others. “Community, the antidote to loneliness, gives me hope,” he wrote.) It’s not just an exercise, but an act of defiance in a world where cynics thrive on hopelessness.
This year, Chanukah ends on the cusp of a (Gregorian) New Year. The whole point of Chanukah is to bring light to a dark world. It allows us to enter 2020 and a new decade with the reminder, as Sacks puts it, that “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.”