Welcoming the New Year with Hope

One of my favorite authors, Jonathan Safran Foer, writes that to be a Jew is to have a sixth sense—sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch, and memory. To experience the world as a Jew is to forever ask the question, “What does this moment remember like?”

What does this new year remember like? If you are like me, probably a lot like the beginning of last year, or the year before that. We are in yet another wave of pandemic uncertainty, which “remembers like” every surge before. One of my children is not yet old enough to be vaccinated, and when I say goodbye to her at school, it remembers like that horribly uncertain time when there were no vaccines. Every time something important is in stock, or isn’t, it remembers like those early days of lockdown. Most of us are in a different stage of this pandemic, thank God, but with a new variant racing around the planet, this new year is shrouded in memory.

Since the pandemic started, I have found myself over-indexing memory, especially negative memory, under the illusion of being helpful. I’m sure we all have. By looking for patterns in our past, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we can predict the future. Maybe this is why there is always something to worry about—your health, your job security, your children’s happiness, your parents’ well-being, not to mention the litany of geopolitical dramas that fill a 24-hour news cycle. We have less control over life than we would like. So we worry, thinking that maybe if we worry, we can at least be prepared.

There will always be something to worry about, and unless we are careful, worry very well could be the lasting legacy of this surreal time. “What does this remember like?” is a question that could haunt us until the end. We know this because to be a Jew is, on the one hand, to remember thousands of years of worry. But in the middle of what might feel like uncertainty, or even chaos, to be a Jew is to ask a different question at the same time, “What am I hopeful for?” You cannot be a Jew without hope.

The miracle of uncertainty is that it can also lead to hope. Dr. Wendy Zierler, professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, put it this way, “A strange paradox runs through modern Hebrew literature: The most enduring and iconic expressions of hope depend, at their core, on despair. Or is it the reverse, that the most serious expressions of despair yield the most profound articulations of hope?”

As we begin the new year, I keep going back to Psalm 112, which has guided me through much of this uncertain chapter:

Light dawns in the darkness for the upright;
for the one who is gracious, compassionate, and just.
He is not afraid of evil tidings;
his mind is firm, trusting in God.
His heart is steady.
He will not be afraid.

Light can still shine through the darkness. Your heart is strong enough to hold steady, even when it feels like the ground is shifting beneath your feet. 2022 might be a difficult year. But Jewish wisdom in this season tells us, also, that it might not. This might be a good year. A very good year. And if goodness does not come this year, then we hold out hope for next year, or the following year, or the year after that.

In this new year, we hope. We hope because we are a people for whom there is no pattern other than that every certain prediction for our demise has been wrong. In spite of every memory, in the face of such uncertainty, to be a Jew is to look ahead with hope in our hearts for a better year.