“Finders keepers, losers weepers” is a well known (if morally questionable) children’s adage. But while this argument might win a dispute on the playground, it’s not a very Jewish approach to lost objects. In fact, according to the Talmud, if I find an object that appears to be lost, even if I make every effort to identify the owner and return the object—well, it’s still not finders keepers. I can’t legally claim the object until a particular conceptual moment occurs.
This moment is called ye-ush (יאוש), or despair, and the halakhah states that a person cannot keep a found object until the original owner—the one who lost it—despairs of ever getting it back. Once the owner goes through the emotional experience of ye-ush, the object becomes ownerless, and anyone who finds it can legitimately take possession of it. In other words, once we have entered into a state of ye-ush, of having lost hope that we will never get the object back, we have severed our attachment to it, such that it is no longer considered ours.
The act of despair is an act that severs all claims.
I’ve found myself on the brink of ye-ush many times in recent months as I follow the news from Israel—a place to which I have a strong attachment. I know I am not alone in feeling that today’s Israel, under the current far-right government, is not the Israel I know and love. Has that Israel been lost? Is it hopeless? Many people I know are approaching this state of despair.
But allowing ourselves to enter into ye-ush is perhaps the most dangerous thing we can do. If we despair that the Israel we are attached to—the Israel that holds promise for equality and justice and Jewish vitality—is lost forever, we will sever our attachment to it. And in doing so, we will lose any claim to Israel. We will abandon Israel and allow her to be “found” and “owned” by someone else.
For me, I cannot accept this as a possibility. I want Israel to be a thriving, democratic, progressive, just, multicultural, and expansively Jewish country. Israel is not, and cannot be, “owned” by people whose vision is one of religious hegemony and Jewish political supremacy.
I will not despair.
How can we prevent ourselves from falling into ye-ush? There are many possibilities; let me offer three.
Look for seeds of hope. Hundreds of thousands of people, including a demonstration of 100,000 people at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday, have been taking to the streets in recent weeks, protesting the effort to overhaul and weaken the independence of Israel’s judiciary. Voices of critique from unlikely places, including Orthodox religious leadership and settlements in the West Bank, show how the commitment to democracy is transcending some of the political and religious divides in the country.
Pray. Jews have always turned to prayer in times of great upheaval. Prayer can bring nourishment, strength, rest, resilience. One of the most powerful prayers for me, in my longing for Israel, is one we sing at services on Shabbat morning, during the kedushah section of the Amidah (standing silent prayer):
:מִמְּקומְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ תופִיעַ. וְתִמְלוךְ עָלֵינוּ כִּי מְחַכִּים אֲנַחְנוּ לָךְ. …תִּתְגַּדֵּל וְתִתְקַדֵּשׁ בְּתוךְ יְרוּשָׁלַיִם עִירְךָ…
Reveal Yourself to us, and reign over us, because we are waiting for You. …Your holiness and splendor will be apparent in Jerusalem, Your city.
Every week I sing these words: God, we are waiting for You; the reality we hope for seems entirely out of reach. God, reveal Yourself to us, because we are waiting. It is a simple, somewhat unsophisticated theology, I know, but I have found that sometimes it gives me hope to believe that God might intervene to set things right.
Speak out. Israel must hear what Jews around the world think of its actions. Speaking out is an act of hope, of belief that things can change. We cannot submit to the silence of despair. We must, in fact, protest. All are invited to join me and others from the BJ community on Tuesday, February 21, in front of the Israeli Consulate to affirm our attachment to and love of Israel by raising up our voices in support of a democratic and just country.
Let us remember the religious dangers of despair. May the restorative power of Shabbat fuel our ability to act for the Israel we’re attached to, the Israel that has not yet been lost.