What is hope?

(Photo: Unsplash/Christopher Sardegna)

This question is in our minds at present as the world grapples with Covid-19 and adopts various stances, depending on culture and background.

I saw hope on Sunday when my son-in-law sent me this photo from a small town in the north of Israel. Small it may be, yet this was the first town in Israel to open her schools for the first time, everyone wearing masks of course, and practicing the social distancing so essential in combination with other measures. And to my great consternation, behind the mask, in the front row I saw my little grandson, Eitan, aged 6, among the very first Israeli pioneers in this great experiment of going back to school.

I shed a tear for my grandson, aged six, the great pioneer. Because – let's face it – no-one knows what might happen next. He is the pioneer. It is no longer my son or daughter the doctor, the lawyer, the teacher, the rabbi, the rocket scientist, the start-up maven, but my grandson the first pupil guinea pig - who would have thought it in a country of former slaves now free?

But it is pioneers such as these pupils, as much as the brilliance of Israeli medicine, discipline, love of country and love of children, which is allowing this bold reopening to take place as a symbol to the world.

So when I saw my grandson in the front row of an ordinary primary school in northern Israel on Sunday, my heart wept, and two other biblical words came into mind. The first of these is comfort.

Comfort is a word that has entered the English language through the French and doesn't mean what we think it does. It doesn't necessarily make us 'feel better'. Comfort's prime meaning is to strengthen, encourage, hearten in spirit, incite, lend support, countenance, back up and make fast and secure.

In other words, comfort gives us the strength to carry on in the best way possible. It does not allow us to indulge, lie back and allow others to take over – on the contrary comfort strengthens us to carry on by playing an active part in the scenario.

In Hebrew the word for comfort is nachum – a prophetic book is named after this concept, and Nachum is also a popular name for both boys and girls in Israel. But in the Bible, the term nachum also means 'repent'. How come? In Genesis 6:7, G-d 'repents that he made the world.' G-d sees how bad the world has become and so He changes his mind over His creation of it. It seems to G-d at that moment that allowing humanity free will simply hasn't worked. The world has gone rampant and betrayed His trust in its potential.

If G-d can change His mind, surely we can do the same. And the Hebrew Bible teaches us here that sometimes comfort involves a change of heart. Indulgence it is not.

And then a third concept struck me – and that third concept is trust. In English trust comes from the German Trost, which actually means consolation and comfort, so similar in meaning to comfort and hope. In Hebrew trust is bitachon, which has a certainty about it. Betach, people say, which means, 'of course, certainly, definitely'!

But now, having examined the concepts of comfort and trust, we come to the meaning of hope in Hebrew, and here is the rub – hope in Hebrew is the female girl's name, Tikvah. And the term 'tikvah' has also now become 'the Hope', the national anthem of the modern state of Israel – Ha-Tikvah. But it is not the Jewish way simply to accept that hope is a combination of desire and expectation, a feeling of trust and confidence in the future, or even G-d's promise – something to which we can look forward to in the future through faith in G-d. Because what on earth does all this abstraction mean?

If we analyse the word 'hope' in Hebrew, we find that the root of 'tikvah' is 'kv', which means a straight line. And what is a straight line if not the joining up of infinitesimal dots?

So for Jews, hope is the ability to join up the dots in such a way that it all makes sense in the end. Because if things don't make sense, then despair sets in – without hope, the straight line formed by joining the dots, we no longer have the strength to do anything about our situation, so comfort disappears.

And in the Jewish calendar it has all appeared to come together in the last few weeks. In early March, Purim parades were cancelled in Israel – the festival in which we wear masks for fun became the reality in which masks were now being worn for real.

One month later, Pesach as we know it was also cancelled or at least transformed into lone Seders and Zoom connections, thus causing the Jewish community a great deal of comfort through adaptation – the key meaning of the word.

Counting the Omer started immediately, during which we prepare ourselves for seven weeks later when we receive the Torah at Sinai.

And then in the last few days we have celebrated in quick succession Yom Ha-Shoah, Yom ha-Zikaron and Yom ha-Atzmaut – Israel's commemoration of the Holocaust, Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, and Israel's Independence Day, now aged 72.

And during all this time, Israel's scientists, doctors, nurses, carers, citizens' army, government and judiciary have all worked as one to enable test, track and trace apps, vaccines, strict lock-downs, compulsory mask-wearing for everyone without exception and now schools are able to reopen.

I would call this joint Israeli effort the joining of dots and the true meaning of hope – not simply an end, but a number of small steps enabling the means towards this end.