Hope in a Prison of Despair; Evelyn de Morgan, 1887
On the last edition of BBC Radio Four’s Moral Maze before the holidays, my co-panellists and I discussed whether there was a right to Christmas.
This was before the crisis over the new strain of the virus. At that stage, the tightening restrictions and fear that “Christmas might be cancelled” were causing some outrage.
I confessed I found this whole row rather strange. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others have stoically put up with having their equivalent celebrations all but cancelled at various points during this horrible plague year.
What’s more, Jews have a large family meal with all the trimmings every Friday night, with more observant households knackering themselves to get not just one but two or even three such meals all safely in the oven or fridge before sunset on Friday.
So what makes Christmas such a big deal? Obviously, for some people its importance lies in its religious significance.
That aside, though, the common complaint during this uproar has been “Christmas is the one thing we have to look forward to and now it’s being taken away from us”.
Really? They normally find life that dismal? Is that why depression so often sets in after this one annual binge-fest is over?
The more I thought about it, the more I was struck by how different all this is from Judaism — and over far more than just the Jesus thing.
First of all, we Jews have one festival after another. Now that Chanukah is over, we’re thinking about Purim and Pesach; then it’s on to Shavuot, then the High Holydays and then Sukkot, and so on. It’s one ceaseless round, isn’t it?
And we don’t generally emerge from these festivals feeling depressed, just a bit wobbly from preparing and eating all those enormous meals.
And that’s the point (no, not the wobbliness). Judaism is a religion that looks forward. It’s programmed to create one good thing after another. It is quintessentially a religion of hope.
This was the great theme of the late and much lamented Rabbi Lord Sacks. As he said in the many books, articles and talks he devoted to the subject, the Jews invented hope.
With its belief in the messianic era to come, he wrote in one such piece, “Judaism is the only civilisation whose golden age is in the future”.
It doesn’t hold that our fate is determined by forces beyond our control, whether economic, psychological or genetic. Teaching that people must take their destiny into their own hands, it denies the sense of personal helplessness which leads to hopelessness.
“The whole of Judaism”, he wrote, “is a set of laws and narratives designed to create in people, families, communities and a nation, habits that defeat despair… To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair”.
This is surely why so many non-Jews were so entranced by Jonathan Sacks — because in a society which has told itself that existence is meaningless and individual fate unavoidable, he preached a message of empowerment and hope.
Spending much of my time these days in Israel, I am particularly struck by a phrase Israelis often use. “Hakol yihye beseder”, they say, which means “everything will be ok”.
Is it not extraordinary that, in a country that exists under permanent threat of destruction, where thousands run to bomb shelters or see their fields and crops burn under regular onslaught from missiles or arson balloons, and where families have to send their 17-year-old children into harm’s way as army conscripts to defend the state against genocidal attack, people still routinely say “everything will be ok”?
You might think that’s the only way anyone can survive in such a crazy country. But it’s surely because, even among secular Israelis, the culture has Judaism’s signature message of hope encoded in its DNA.
As readers may know, I enjoy a reputation as a constantly beaming little ray of sunshine. Glass always half-full rather than half-empty? Yup, that’s me.
So in that spirit of hope, here are some things we can all look forward to in 2021. A Joe Biden presidency aka Barack Obama’s third term! A productive and imaginative new relationship with our EU friends, particularly in the English Channel and North Sea! The British economy going gangbusters after a speedy and seamlessly efficient process of mass vaccination!
What could go wrong? Here’s to a better year for all of us.
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