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How can we pray when we have no hope? 2020’s Yom Kippur paradox

“Even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he should not cease praying for mercy.” -Talmud (Brachot 10b)

How can we pray when we have no hope?

Yom Kippur is a holiday predicated on hope. We come to this holy day with the promise that this year can be better, and that each one of us can be better. It’s a holiday that asks us to leave the sins of the past year behind, and to focus on what the new year can bring. We come to Yom Kippur full of honey and wishes for a sweet and good new year. Shanah tovah u’metukah.

And that is why I am finding it so hard to pray: Who among us believes the upcoming year will be sweet or good?

Right now, it feels like the best we can hope for is a year where the world does not get even worse, or where the absolute worst case scenario we might imagine is thwarted. There is so much at stake, and all of it feels so out of our control that to pray in this moment feels about as useful as casting a ballot in New York City. This does not feel like the year in which forgiveness is needed; it feels like a year for justice, for organization, for restitution and change.

In this moment, I keep coming back to a strange story told in one of the earliest pages of the Talmud, on Brachot 10b, which recounts a story about King Hezekiah, the beloved and righteous king of Judea, who saw a vision that his children would all be wicked. As a result, Hezekiah refused to marry, afraid that he would bring wicked children into the world. One day he fell ill, and was visited by the prophet Isaiah, who told him that his illness was punishment for refusing to have children. Hezekiah considered the matter and asked to marry Isaiah’s own daughter, reasoning that “perhaps my merit and your merit together will result in virtuous children from me.” Isaiah rebuffed this flight of fancy, explaining that “the decree has already been decreed against you.”

In other words, there was no hope.

But King Hezekiah, who was totally willing to accept Isaiah’s words when pertaining to the will of God, was not interested in his opinion on the limits of God’s mercy. Instead, he kicked Isaiah out of his home, saying, “The tradition I have received from the house of my father’s father is that even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he should not cease praying for mercy.”

In other words, there is always hope.

I keep coming back to this story because I know that the way of Hezekiah is the only way forward. We cannot go through the motions of life if we believe that all of our actions will bring evil, and we are powerless to change the course of fate.

The Talmud upholds this view: No matter how dire the circumstances, we are not allowed to see fate as a thing already sealed. The tradition we have received from the parents of our parents, and which we carry forth, is that we are obligated to keep praying, keep hoping, even as the sharp edge of a sword presses on our necks, and the neck of our nation.

Forget the prophets and the pollsters: The game is not over until it is over.

And yet, I wonder if Hezekiah himself believed in his own hope. First, he tries to avoid his fate by not having children entirely, and then he tries to mitigate the situation with a virtue-laden wife, and when told this option too was flawed he refuses to listen. His proclamation of hope seems not unlike the paltry offering of thoughts and prayers that is usually evoked when somebody has nothing more useful to say: strained and suspiciously pat.

But what are we supposed to do?

There is a global pandemic, the ongoing reality of police brutality in a country that knows no accountability, absolute chaos for our schoolchildren and working parents, stubborn resistance to addressing horrific immigration detention policies, and a looming election that is less about making the country a better place and more about saving the country from unprecedented abuses of power.

We must not choose Isaiah, with his decrees already decreed. We must believe in Hezekiah’s hope.

The thing about thoughts and prayers is that while the phrase is so often evoked, the actual prayers are so rarely said.

When was the last time you actually closed your eyes, directed your heart towards whatever power animates your core, and prayed? Prayed like your prayer really mattered? Like everything was at stake? Or, for that matter, went forth in the world with the conviction that your actions could actually change the world?

When was the last time you really believed you could avert the harsh decree? And what might happen if we lived inside a faith so strong?

They say that pessimists might more often be right, but only optimists can change the world.

We need to come to Yom Kippur this year with more faith, however crazy it might seem, in our own power to enact change. There is no other way forward. There is no Yom Kippur without hope.

The sword is sharp, but the game is not over.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.

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