Meaning vs. Hope

[During January, State of Formation entered into a collaboration with The Interfaith Observer to address the subject of meaning making. Eight contributors from various faith and ethical traditions were asked to describe what makes meaning within their practices and/or tradition.]

The forecast for name-your-environmental-crisis-here often looks bleak. People who follow environmental issues know it, and sustained justice work can be a challenge. When I meet with religious groups about things like pervasive toxic chemicals, environmental justice, or global warming, someone invariably asks, “Where do we find hope?” 

Here’s the truth, friends: I am done with hope. Hope hinges on outcome; it pursues a goal. Hope is illusory, transient, and insubstantial. In honestly facing life’s challenges—including the reality of human suffering, intolerance, and environmental degradation—I am likely to be disappointed if I put too much stock in hope.

To continue working for justice in a wounded world that cries out for healing, I need something more than hope. I need meaning.

In Jewish tradition, the making of meaning is a choice. We make meaning by responding fully to life and death, and God, and everything in-between, in every moment.

To illustrate, let’s look at the Sinai moment, when God gives the Torah, or Teaching, to the people and establishes the Covenant. Midrash about this encounter tells us that God first offers the Torah to all the other peoples of the world—but they refuse! And so we learn that God needs people in order to bring Divine wisdom into the world.

When God comes to the rag-tag bunch of newly-freed slaves at Sinai, something remarkable happens. Even though they don’t yet know what is expected of them, all the people say as one, “We will do and we will hear!” (Ex. 24:7) Having finally found human partners, God brings Torah into the world. And while the Torah is given before the people as a whole, tradition teaches that each person hears God’s words differently.

I am struck by the image of individuals hearing the word of God, each in their own way, while standing together as part of a larger community—a community that together as one, promises to act on God’s Teaching.

I am also struck by this promise to do. Without concern for results—hoped for, expected, or imagined—we are to respond with all our heart and soul and might.

In Jewish tradition, we pray individually as part of a group—and while many mornings I pray alone at home, there are some prayers we just cannot say on our own. This practice speaks to the reality that I am not fully complete on my own. Just as God needs people in order to create meaning in the world, I need God and a community of people with whom to stand, and walk, and act in life.

So do I hope for a better world? No. I yearn for it, and I work for it—but I live fully in this world. It is in choosing to act in each moment with all my heart and soul and might, standing with community and responding to the call of God as best I’m able, that I make meaning. And that, friends, gives me so much more than hope.

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This post originally appeared on State of Formation

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