God’s Marbles

June 4, 2004
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by Minna Scherlinder Morse

WHEN I WAS in my early twenties, I had a dream. It wasn’t a wish or a hope, but an actual dream — the kind one has in the midst of sleep. I’d been invited to a dinner party at the home of one of my favorite authors. At one point in the evening, the author walked over to me and handed me a tiny box. He pointed into the box — where there was a marble sitting atop a small pedestal — and said, simply, “That’s hope.”

No matter that my cynical young mind had me trip moments later, spilling the marble onto the floor. What I wonder now, particularly in my work with idealistic (and sometimes cynical) Jews in their early twenties, are the truths that that dream held about hope — and the truths that it ignored.

Like that marble, hope is often found — or received, as a gift — in fleeting moments that, God willing, stay with us and sustain us; in stories that we tell ourselves and others. Hope is often small and symbolic. It is always translucent. It distorts the light, the entirety, of reality — but in a way that makes it beautiful and inspiring. If we are not too cynical, we can hold onto it even in the midst of despair.

But the truth my dream ignored is that hope isn’t always small; it isn’t always merely symbolic. Hope can be made real when enough people, carrying enough marbles, realize that they are not alone, and that they are not only spreading and strengthening their vision, but beginning to change the realities that create the need for hope in the first place.

There is, of course, much reason for despair in the world — widespread poverty, hunger and disease, environmental degradation, baseless hatred, isolation, wanton cruelty, grave injustice. But our tradition tells us that, ultimately, our purpose — on this earth and in our brief lifetime — is to hold onto hope, to dream of a better world, and to help create it.

According to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a-b), as we face judgment at the time of our death, we will be asked four things:

1.    Were we honest and ethical in business?

2.    Did we fix times for Torah study?

3.    Did we “engage in fruitfulness and multiplication”? (A biological mitzvah, which we might understand as raising or teaching children.)

4.    Did we anticipate, or keep on the lookout for, salvation?

In other words, did we hold onto hope? Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, taught that we need to bridge the gap between “what is” and “what can be,” and see ourselves as chalutzim/pioneers for the messiah. Without our own trailblazing work — without our efforts to do what is right and just in the world, to act, even when it is difficult, even when the odds seem stacked against us — the messiah or messianic age we long for simply will not come.

By acting as partners in redemption, we not only generate hope, we are hope. By engaging in acts not only of “wild patience” (to quote the poet Adrienne Rich) but of wild impatience, we give God hope. In a way, if you can imagine it, we are all God’s marbles.

So let’s roll.

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Minna Scherlinder Morse is the Director of the Washington, D.C. program of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, which engages Jews in their twenties in front-line anti-poverty work, Jewish learning, and community building (www.avodah.net).

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