Hazon Detroit: Tragic Hope & Meaningful Action

by Rebecca Levy


Dear Friends,

Since the summer, we have had the incredible fortune of having six wonderful interns supporting and enriching our work. Much gratitude to Repair the World Serve the Moment, the Applebaum Internship Program, JOIN, and the Hornstein Program For Jewish Professional Leadership at Brandeis University. One of these interns, Rebecca Levy, has written the piece below and we are thrilled to be able to share her words with you.

In loving community,

Wren, Rabbi Nate, Marla, and Hannah


When sitting in shul, my favorite part of most sermons is the speaker’s call to action, which typically comes towards the end. Yes, it is important to learn and the lessons that we draw from the Torah and from life are beneficial, but as one of my English-teachers always said, “so what – who cares?” – English-teacher code for “why is this important and what can we take away from it?” Especially in days like these, when the feeling of loss and uncertainty can be overwhelming, I like to know what I can do moving forward. Do not get me wrong, I love to learn and learning is necessary if you want to act meaningfully, but I find it discouraging to spend so much time learning about all of the problems that we face only to leave the shul feeling like I just need to learn to live with it. There is no hope in that – there is only tragedy.

Unfortunately, I cannot provide you a handbook on how to accomplish your goals. I cannot tell you what to do for the simple reason that I do not know you yet. I do not know what your aspirations are, what causes are important to you, or what you want your mark on this world to be. Whatever situation you are in right now guides your priorities in this moment and those priorities probably differ from mine. So instead of telling you what to do, I want to equip you with some tools on how you can, at the very least, begin your work.

In the news and even casual conversations between friends, I find that we sometimes get stuck. We read horrifying facts and gloomy statistics, and we absolutely should be talking about them. When tragedy strikes, those who suffered or are still suffering deserve respect in our acknowledgment of their loss and hardship. At the same time, we should not merely be accepting that this is how it is always going to be. Instead, we should admit that we are in an awful situation and that people are hurting, and then use it as motivation to create change. It is with this in mind that Panu Pihkala, a Finnish expert on eco-anxiety, discusses the concept of “tragic hope” in his work titled, “Eco-Anxiety, Tragedy, and Hope: Psychological and Spiritual Dimensions of Climate Change”. Eco-anxiety is a term used to describe the various difficult emotions and mental states that arise from the environmental conditions and knowledge about them. We can cope with this form of anxiety, according to Pihkala, using tragic hope. That is, we can cope through admission that a situation is tragic but still have hope for a better future.

Just recently we read Parashat Toldot, in which Esau gives away his birthright to his brother, Jacob, for a bowl of stew. We read, “וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת; וְלָמָּה-זֶּה לִי, בְּכֹרָה” – “And Esau said: ‘Behold, I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?’” (Genesis 25:32). Esau trades something so spiritually and monetarily precious for a bowl of stew and his justification for it is that he is going to die eventually anyway. Instinctually, having read this story many times, I assume that Esau is thoughtless. However, when I really think about it, his choice is not dissimilar from how many of us behave in similar situations.

Despite urgent warnings from environmental scientists about the collapse of the world as we know it, many people choose to do nothing. A lot of people justify this reaction by saying that they will die before this affects them, so they pass off the burden of change to the next generation. The truth of the matter, though, is that these effects are already devastating populations of people, and it probably has already affected you. People are dying from natural disasters that have only become more intense due to climate change: wildfires are rampant, heat waves are worsening, and water access is becoming unreliable as droughts and floods become more severe. Sadly, the list goes on. In Parashat Toldot, Esau takes the path of instant gratification and his mistake serves as a reminder to think about others and about our collective future.

Even more often, though, I think that people do nothing because they feel paralyzed. Whether you are sad because a local forest was decimated in your area or, more commonly, because you are afraid that climate change is taking away your future, eco-anxiety can be debilitating. We often mistake this paralysis for apathy when it is not a lack of concern at all, but rather caring so much and not knowing what to do about it that you end up doing nothing instead. When it comes to the enormity of the environmental crisis, people do not feel as though they, individually, can make a difference. Unfortunately, this socially constructed silence is not saving us, or our planet and it will not help us cope with the looming fear that many people have for themselves and their future generations.

What I just described is a lack of action in the face of tragedy but let us look at how this narrative can change if you mix hope with tragedy. It is no secret that the Jewish people have had to overcome many tragedies throughout our long history. We escaped slavery in Egypt, suffered exile and persecution, survived the Holocaust, and continue to battle anti-semitism globally. Yet, we are still a people full of hope and how fitting that “Hope” is the literal title of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah”.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) claims that hope is “one of the very greatest Jewish contributions to Western civilization.” He continues saying that, “to be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.”

I would argue that Rabbi Sacks is describing how Jewish law and history teaches us that “tragic hope” as a coping mechanism gives rise to action and meaningful change. In the face of overwhelming tragedy, the Jewish people always held hope and look how we have thrived in spite of the tragedies we have suffered. This is exactly what “tragic hope” hope means – to admit loss without surrender, to persevere despite devastation. Yet, having seen and lived the successes of tragic hope, we never teach the practice of tragic hope as a means to a greater end nor do we provide instructions on how to achieve tragic hope.

So here it is everyone, the moment you have been waiting for, my call to action: no matter what issue you decide to tackle, I urge you to put tragic hope into practice to do it. In order for tragic hope to take effect, though, we need to create an atmosphere that does not only champion community, but also collaboration. To create the atmosphere that tragic hope requires, we need to form a space where people feel comfortable sharing that which afflicts them without fear of rejection. Until recently eco-anxiety has not been taken seriously as a source of genuine anxiety. Particularly with younger generations, people have suppressed their fear of their futures because it was not considered legitimate; however, we cannot fix a problem if we cannot admit that it exists. To create the atmosphere that tragic hope requires, we need to form a space where failure is merely a steppingstone to success. Think of how many beneficial innovations could exist right now if people were not afraid to try something different. To create the atmosphere that tragic hope requires, we need to form a space where diverse backgrounds and opinions are welcomed because having a variety of experts will no doubt create more comprehensive solutions, especially when we are against complex problems. This collaboration cannot happen in a silo and yet, it is not lost upon me that we are in a period of isolation. It is essential that we use this time reaching out and listening to one another.

We are beginning the process of bringing tragic hope into action starting now. I encourage you to confront your difficulties and start having difficult conversations without being overly optimistic or overly pessimistic because either one alone is counterproductive. We need to acknowledge people’s pain while also creating conditions in which people envision positive changes occurring because it is only when you combine both that meaningful action can occur. Even when tragedy seems unavoidable, we can band together to hope and to act – to protect our environment, beat this pandemic, and face whatever future challenges lie ahead.

Rebecca Levy is an intern with Hazon Detroit.