Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
QUESTION: In a recent column on deism, you said that hope is far more important to you than truth, which I liked. A story: My mother, a nonsmoker, died of lung cancer. After her priest offered her last rites, he asked if she had anything else that she'd like. This woman, with no remaining lung strength, loudly and clearly said, "Yes. I'd like my family to have hope." So as I go through the years, I often think about the word. How would you define hope?
-- C., via email
ANSWER: Hope is more important to me than truth because it's easy to be wrong about truth, but it's impossible to be wrong about hope. Cynics might say that this is because hope can't be disproved. No matter how bad things are, there's always the hope that they could become better.
However, hope endures and grounds my faith and my life not because it can't be refuted but because it can't be surpassed. It is the core part of my answer to life's meaning: Do good things and hope that you can do more good things tomorrow. Hope is my spiritual blood.
So that's how hope functions in me. As for a definition of hope, I'd start with the simplest meaning of hope as the belief that tomorrow will be better than today.
Why do we believe that? Why do we hope when we know that tomorrow may well be worse than today? Well, we could as easily ask, why do we love when we know that our loved one could die?
Why do we hunger when we know that sometimes we will not be fed? There are certain primal desires in our species and hope is one of them. We can't live without hope, so even calling it a belief makes it seem far too volitional.Hope is the way purpose and goodness propel us into the future. Hope sustains us because it sustains the need we have to believe that something good is on its way, and that's hardly an optional belief.
Religion without hope is not religion because life without hope is not life, and religion is the way we weave hope into our lives. I'm hopeful because I believe that God has made us in God's image and has laid up for us in the world to come/heaven a life for our souls after the death of our bodies.
To me, God, even without the promise of heaven, is the indispensable source of my hope. Even without the promise of heaven, God's compassionate creation of us as moral beings made in God's image makes my hope not just a naive expectation, but a certain gift.
The best biblical text on hope is from the Book of Proverbs (10:28): "The hope of the righteous is joy, but the hope of the wicked shall perish."
From this luminous verse we learn that the reward of our hope is a joyous life and the punishment of evil is the destruction of hope. Hope and righteousness are connected and connect us to joy and God. Cruelty deprives us of that connection and makes our hope vanish like dust in the wind.
Christianity took this Jewish teaching and built a glorious religion upon hope. The hope for a return of Jesus as the Christ is the most powerful religious belief in the world. It is not my belief, nor is it my hope, but it inspires me greatly. Jesus was able to give people who saw no hope in this life a hope for a glorious future in heaven with him. I can't think of any other Judeo-Christian belief that has transformed our lives and our world more than hope.
The most beautiful meditation on hope I know is Emily Dickinson's poem, "Hope is the Thing with Feathers":
"Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard; And sore must be the storm That could abash the little bird That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land And on the strangest sea; Yet, never, in extremity, It asked a crumb of me."