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Hope in a Challenging Time

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

I offered the following message about hope at this year’s community seder, and I wanted to share it with the entire community.

Having grown up during the Holocaust I tend to be pessimistic. Had I been one of the Israelite slaves in ancient Egypt, I probably would have despaired at ever getting out. I desperately needed some hope in my life and some forty years ago I discovered the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the 18th century Jewish renewal movement known as Hasidism.

Now what the Ba’al Shem offered the Jews of Eastern Europe was a great deal of hope. He taught his people the values of healing, joy, love, and compassion. He proclaimed God’s presence even in difficulty and suffering. The Ba’al Shem’s presence in my life has provided me with balance for my own dark broodings.

Our world is filled with gloom, and it’s easy to despair over the injustice, hatred and violence. But the Ba’al Shem Tov continues to teach me to look at events more deeply and to find the sparks of hope that might lie beneath the surface.

The Ba’al Shem thought of it this way: The Spirit can be found everywhere, giving life to everything. So the Spirit is in evil as well as good. And this evil actually has the power to bring forth goodness. The Ba’al Shem taught that because the Spirit can be found in evil, dismal situations can be transformed into encouraging situations. Sometimes the transformations happen by themselves, but they are certainly more likely to happen when forward-looking people, heroic people, catalyze the transformations through their actions. The Besht taught that every human being has the power to affect the future of the world, because each one of us contains a spark of the messiah.

Is there any evidence in the present world that the Ba’al Shem was right? Well first off, the Trump presidency has inspired the greatest movement of political resistance that we’ve seen since the 1960s. And the Bay Area and our own Kehilla Community Synagogue are staunch participants in this resistance.

Let’s look at some more evidence: Last weekend we saw young millennials staging protests against the gun lobby all over the country. And during this past year the #MeToo movement has been empowering women in remarkable ways. Did you know that the She Should Run organization reports that it’s been contacted by more than 15,000 potential women candidates from every part of America.

In 2017 coalitions of local progressive activists knocked on doors, elected scores of populist mayors, council members, legislators and other officials. And eight of the candidates who won local and state offices last year were transgender. And there were many millennial and immigrant candidates who won as well.

And there were local progressive groups all over the country that affiliated with Our Revolution, Working Families Party, Black Lives Matter, Democratic Socialists of America, Peoples’ Action, DREAMers, Progressive Democrats of America, the Movement Voter project and Democrats for America.

And in the South a movement of young African-American populists is emerging called “Reclaim the South.” Chokwa Antar Lamumba, a black 34-year old lawyer is now the mayor of Jackson, Mississipi. He won by 93% of the vote! And Randall Woodfin, an African-America attorney became mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, with a progressive agenda.

All of this is heartening, and gives us hope that a conservative America is not inevitable. But we cannot know the future. A progressive America is also not inevitable. And with a mad pharaoh at the helm of our country there’s plenty to frightened about.

Here’s my thinking: We dare not adjust to the status quo. We must not consider Trump the new normal. And since cutthroat capitalism has become the norm, we must struggle to topple its oppressive sovereignty for however long it takes. We dare not stop our resistance. As Wendell Phillips said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

We need to struggle for an America that will work for every one of its citizens and for those who seek to become citizens. Remember Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words: “The outcome of that summit meeting between Moses and Pharaoh has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but it is far from having been completed.”


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