The Torah of leadership

Harnessing hope on Rosh Hashanah

In Short

Rosh Hashanah affirms that when we have a vision worth living for and goals to achieve it, we will see better, more hopeful days ahead.

In an effort to enhance the meaning of the Ten Days of Repentance, the Aseret Yemei Teshuva between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University has prepared “Ten Days of Growth,” a guide of everyday challenges to help you grow spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and even aesthetically. The divrei Torah were composed by our new Sacks Graduate Research Scholars and the Center’s staff. Enjoy more insightful essays on timely themes like this one, accompanied by thought-provoking daily questions inspired by Rabbi Sacks, here. Wishing you a Shana Tova! — Erica Brown

Rosh Hashanah invites us into a perplexing emotional paradox. 

On the one hand, Rosh Hashanah precipitates fear and anxiety and is traditionally known as the Day of Judgment. God scrutinizes our actions over the course of the past year. It is also the day our fates are decided, as hauntingly portrayed in the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer: “who will live and who will die.” 

Yet, despite the gravity of the holiday, many of the rituals of these days put us into a notably positive mood. Most of us have the custom, based on sources dating back to the Second Temple period, of enjoying festive meals and wearing our finest clothing. When we walk into synagogue, we’re greeted with bright smiles, upright postures and enthusiastic blessings of “Shana Tova.” We believe that these are solemn Days of Judgement, yet we are inexplicably confident and hopeful. On this holiday, we celebrate. We do not cower in crippling fear for what may become of our transient lives. 

In a world with increasing rates of anxiety and fear of an uncertain future, how do we remain so confident on Rosh Hashanah and embrace the uncertainty of our fate with happiness and joy? 

One answer lies in a body of psychological research that describes hope in a way that also embraces difficult truths. “Grounded hope,” as it is called in this literature, calls upon us to be rooted in reality but with a hopeful eye towards the future.

Hopeful people generally experience greater psychological and physical well-being than non-hopeful people, according to hope researcher, C.R. Snyder. Snyder conducted a study in which community leaders were asked to name the most hopeful people they knew. The results showed three commonalities: goals, pathways (or plans), and a belief in human agency.

Hopeful people aren’t those dealt a more favorable deck of cards. They are the people who are able to withstand the most difficulty because their goals and their belief in human agency propel them to focus on their suffering less. Because they keep their eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel and have a strategy to get there, they do not live with constant worry.

These three components of hope – goals, pathways and agency – align with a framework of the 18th-century Kabbalist Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzatto. In a novel observation about language, Rabbi Luzzato observed that the Hebrew word for hope, tikvah, shares the same Hebrew root as the words kav, a line or path, and mikvah, a purification bath. The mekaveh (the person with hope) creates his own kav (path), which turns out to be his mikvah (purification bath), explains Rabbi Luzzatto.

Grounded hope is not the same as magical thinking. It motivates people to act because they feel empowered to traverse the pathways that exist to accomplish their goals. It is no coincidence that the national anthem of the State of Israel, the country that continues to innovate and thrive despite the constant presence of both internal and external threats, is “Hatikvah.” 

The purification of tikvah is the purification of Rosh Hashanah. We are not oblivious to the harsh realities of the Day of Judgment, but we are able to live with them because we know that we can create a different path forward with our own agency. Rosh Hashanah affirms that when we have a vision worth living for and goals to achieve it, we will see better, more hopeful days ahead.

Rabbi Marc Eichenbaum is a research associate for Yeshiva University’s Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.