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Hope in the Fog of Fear

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In her new book, Hope Will Find You, Rabbi Naomi Levy, makes a startling assertion, which is actually the title of her book. The book is another remarkable personal sharing of Naomi's, following on her previous book, To Begin Again, which tells the story of her father's murder by muggers when she was a teenager, and how she has found God in the years that followed. In this new book, once again Naomi shares a very personal story, this time about how her daughter, Noa, is diagnosed with a fatal degenerative disease, but Naomi and her husband Rob, refuse to give up on her and embark on a journey to try and beat this diagnosis. I won't give away the ending, but her ability to tell a story and teach Torah at the same time is a real gift. For me, the message of the book is one that each of us can take into our lives, regardless of whether we are facing a horrible personal struggle or not; the message of the book, "hope will find you," reminds us that we are not alone in this world, that our own strength and power is not the sole arbiter of our destiny and that when things get dark, when things get scary, we are not alone. Naomi reminds us of this when she writes, based on a verse from Exodus which says, 'And Moses approached the fog where God was.' "I thought to myself, a life with God doesn't mean a life of clarity. Life is uncertain, life is unfair, life is chaotic, and God is in the fog. We don't have to search for holiness anywhere else but in the imperfect, hectic world in which we live. We all get blindsided by life, we all get stuck, we all imagine that the right life is somewhere off in the distance, but the real life we've been looking for is here in the fog...hope will find you." (Levy, p. 239) How can we apply this to ourselves? How can we increase our awareness of God's endless love and compassion for us? What happens if we are in the fog? These are questions that I believe we all face, at one time in our life or another, and questions to which I believe religion, God and prayer, offer some pathways to an answer. I want to look at personal fog, national fog and international fog.
Personal fog is actually the most appropriate for prayer and connection with God. When we face despair, loss, fear, challenge, sickness or confusion in our personal lives, God is the force of goodness and hope upon which we can lean. I am reading a book now by Father Greg Boyle, called Tattoos on the Heart, which is about Boyle's life as a priest and founder of Homeboy Industries, the amazing gang rehabilitation work center that Boyle created in the heart of gang-infested Los Angeles. Story after story that Boyle tells, and his work is solely with gangs, in prisons and with people on the margins of our society, reminds us, in Boyle's language, about the immense goodness and overwhelming love of God. How does this priest wake up every day and face the work he was called to do without some sense of desperation or despair? He tells us, in poignant and inspiring language, that the God he believes in is a God that is never disappointed with us, never doubts us and never gives up on us. It is the God of Jewish morning liturgy, which says 'rabah emunatecha, great is the faith God has in us.' What in our lives do we face that is in need of support, 'great faith in us' from a source of energy and compassion bigger than we could ever imagine? This is the end of breast cancer awareness month, and I couldn't let it completely pass without making mention of how much faith and hope play a part in the fight to survive breast cancer, or any major illness for that matter. Those who I counsel that are sick often tell me that prayer and the wellspring of God's love is a source of comfort and strength beyond anything that they could have imagined. Early detection, vigilant treatment, teaching others about it and having a community of people, along with God, help us as human beings face the great fog that is cancer. Hope will find us. As Naomi reminds us, "It's even okay to lose hope sometimes, not the end of the world, because hope won't lose you." God is with us in the personal fog.
God is also with us in the national fog. We sit this weekend on the eve of a major election in our country. And while I will not talk about specific policies, candidates or anything like that, I do think that we are facing a fog in regard to our national outlook and are in need of strength and hope. In a new campaign, launched this week with a video on YouTube, Jewish Funds for Justice and my friends Mik Moore, the creator of the Great Schlepp during the 2008 campaign, and Rabbi Sharon Brous, are seeking to remind us of the great biblical anecdote to the fog that we may encounter: Fear Not! Their initiative, called Al Tirah, Fear Not, is calling us to ward off the fog of cynicism, the fog of hateful rhetoric and hurtful attacks on innocent Americans, the fog of an economic downturn being used to close our minds and hearts to the most needy in our society. If God is in the fog, as Rabbi Levy reminds us, then we need to lean on the "radical empathy and radical compassion," that this Al Tirah initiative calls us toward. It is similar to Father Boyle's call to God's love, what we might call 'radical love' toward the 'other,' the stranger, widow and orphan, the needy, the sick, the hurting and the frightened among us. If God is in the fog of this current election cycle and the campaigns of fear, alienation, scapegoating and utter simplicity of the issues that we are witnessing around the country, then we can lean on the notion that God is bigger than us, larger than the current mess we find ourselves in and listen to the call from the fog, the call that God offered to our ancestors in times of desperation: Al Tirah, Fear Not! We are seeing fear being spread in so many different directions: fear of immigrants, fear of gays, fear of Muslims, fear of our president, fear of lies about global warming, fear of change. Through the thickness of this fear fog, we must find the Holy presence of God within; within the very fog itself and within our own hearts and souls. In his article launching the website, Al Tirah, Mik Moore quotes a famous thinker that we may not have remembered: Yoda, the Jedi Master. "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." Moore reminds us that God utters the phrase "Al Tirah, Fear Not," 122 times in the Bible. Clearly we are prone to fear. Yet, within the fog of fear is the very answer we need: God's love and compassion. We may sometimes lose hope, but hope will always find us.
There is personal fog, there is national fog, and of course, there is international or global fog. Many of you know that I was supposed to be returning from Israel late yesterday, attending a 10-day mission with Rabbis for Human Rights. I am sad that I was not able to go on the mission, but I am conscious of the Middle East and the situation right now and want to apply our metaphor of God in the fog to Israel and Palestine. One thing that we can say for sure: it is pretty darn foggy over there right now. While it is true that it is never very clear in that part of the world, we are witnessing a fog that is dense and scary at the moment. After hopes of a restart to talks, after the light of face-to-face negotiations beginning, after the reengagement with the idea of a final peace accord emerging, we have returned to the densest part of the fog, with both sides ramping up their rhetoric, with American leadership unable to move either side closer to one another, at least publicly, and with the rest of the world anxiously waiting to see what will happen when the month-long hold on talks expires in the next few days. Just as we spoke of finding God in the midst of the pain, of leaning on hope in our personal lives, of leaning on hope in our national lives, we must also lean on God's hope and larger than life love when it comes to making peace in the Middle East. And where might we find some of this hope and love? While the leaders are not making much progress in peace and reconciliation, many of the people on the ground are. On Monday I finally got a chance to see my close friend Ronit Avni's new film, Budrus, which documents one Palestinian village's quest to not have the security barrier cut their land in half by using nonviolent, peaceful resistance tactics, and succeeding. It is a heart wrenching film, one not easy to watch as a Jew and lover of Israel, but it gave me hope that the fog of hatred and animosity between the two peoples is not as thick as we are led to believe. Following the Morrar family in Budrus, we learn about Ayed Morrar and his courageous daughter Iltezam, 16, who lead a nonviolent movement in the West Bank, along with dozens of Israeli supporters. I left the film with hope that one person, one small group of people, can make a difference. That within the fog of hate, fear, mistrust and despair, there emerged a different vision, a new vision, a just vision. We must not relegate what Budrus teaches us to the sideline of wishful thinking, for God is calling us to peace, calling us to resolve conflict, calling us to change our world, and these folks are doing just that. Ronit is showing the world that what we are being fed by our media and our leaders are not the full story; in fact, that is why she created her organization in the first place. Visit www.justvision.org and learn about hundreds of Jews and Arabs engaged, on the ground, in this very moment, in making peace. Hope has found them, and hope will find us.
In a fascinating new book, The Watchman's Rattle, sociobiologist Rebecca Costa, offers us another angle on hope. While I have been calling on God, the Source of life and love, Costa comes to help those of you for whom rationality, science, the mind, are the drivers of hope in our world. And what is so great, is that we don't disagree -- we both feel that hope and optimism are fully justified today, even in the face of such demanding challenges. Near the end of her book, Costa writes, "No other civilization before us had such command over its environment and so many tools at its disposal to alter the course of human ascension and collapse. And, therefore, no other civilization has had so much cause for optimism." (The Watchman's Rattle, pg. 268) She goes on to quote poet Adrienne Rich, who wrote, "So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world." Costa asks us, "Will we restore the balance of knowledge and beliefs and allow uncommon insights to cure what ails humanity?" Rabbi Levy, Father Boyle, Rebecca Costa, Mik Moore, Ronit Avni, the breast cancer survivors, the Israelis and Palestinians joining hands, you and me: together we are the hope of God in the fog of our lives. Hope will find us and we can emerge from darkness to light. That is the message of the sociobiologist and that is the message of God, both paths leading to one conclusion: Al Tirah, Fear Not. Hope will find us.