Parshat Lech Lecha
October 23, 2004
Rabbi Joseph Albo, the 15th century moral philosopher, posed an interesting but disturbing question in his opus, Sefer Haikkarim (The Book of Principles, 4:49). We normally think of the act of “hoping” as a positive mental activity. Albo, however, asserts that “hope” and “expectation” are unhealthy human expressions since people are bound to be overcome by the worry caused by anticipating the realization of their “hope”. Since their expectation is never a certainty, he claims that “hope” will distort a person’s judgment and not permit him or her to think clearly. Moreover, Albo supports this hypothesis with a quotation from the book of Proverbs (13:12): “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
If Albo’s assertion that “hope” causes a person to become despondent is correct, then how is it possible for the Jewish tradition to lay claim that “hope” is a worthy expression? Albo finds the answer to this question in this week’s haftarah: “Even the youth shall faint and be weary and the young men shall utterly fall but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings of eagles. They shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:30-31) According to Albo, these two verses illustrate two different types of “hope”: one which saps a person of his or her strength and the other which is a constant source of strength. Hope or anticipation where the source of trust is uncertain will cause a person to despair while hope that in rooted is the ultimate source of trust will provide a person with strength and joy. The prophet Isaiah teaches us that God is the source of this later kind of trust.
Albo captures philosophically the essence of what Isaiah expresses poetically. Albo’s insight is even more discernable when we note the verse which precedes these two verses. There God, Himself, is described as indefatigable using the very same words – “not weary” and “not faint” used afterward to describe those who trust in Him: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, Lord, the Creator of the world, neither faints nor becomes weary, His discernment is beyond comprehension.” (verse 28).
Ultimately, the message of both the prophet and the philosopher is the same. Spiritual strength can only come from trust in God.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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