All my life, I had been trying unconsciously to reclaim my connection - to the universe as a whole and to every other human. I was attempting to find my place as just one person, but one who mattered in helping the world heal.
There were many who offered me paths to this healing. Religious institutions. Political movements. Psychologies. All claiming to be able to guide me.
But again and again I found that, for all the good they did, the institutions themselves created new problems for me. Hierarchical leadership. Petty politics. Distortions that had crept in, like sexism and elitism. The lurking idea that humans are basically bad. All too often, these obstacles and distortions turned promising paths for me into dead ends.
Still, I believed what the great mystics have always told us. As part of the great miracle of life, we have the ability to advance the trend toward connection, toward empowerment - and away from despair.
The story I heard in 1984 arose from the Jewish mystical sect known as Hasidism - a tradition filled with stories of wise, gentle men who spend their lives clinging to the source of life in the universe. Yet this story went beyond the others....
I had to hear it again...
When I first heard the germ of The Soul of Hope, I never thought I would tell it. I only knew it was a story I had to hear again and again. It spoke to some deep yearning. It stimulated a dormant but eager part of myself.
I spent the next 13 years grappling with the issues the story brought up in my life, and the artistic issues of presenting this story to others.
The story, as I now tell it, is an epic. It takes place in heaven and on earth. It has dozens of characters. The main action spans seven generations, with flashbacks to the beginning of time.
But to me, The Soul of Hope is the most succinct way that I know to accurately portray the balance between two apparently contradictory truths. We are not yet all that we are meant to be; we are not fully capable of the task before us. But what we do matters enormously; and there is hope.
Building an Epic
In the beginning, back in 1984, I merely tried to repeat the story I had heard.
But telling the 20-minute "germ" of the story to helpers and audiences, I found it growing. I was merely trying to feel the human frailty and heroism of the rabbis (in what is now my second act of the story). But without consciously adding to the plot, I soon found it had become a 40-minute story.
I remember telling it to an ecumenical conference of clergy in North Carolina. I felt the "shrinking of light" in the story. I was deeply moved by the efforts of the rabbis to resist the loss of the holy sparks.
Yet at the same time, I felt a new yearning in myself. I wanted to know what came before the story I had heard. I wanted to know how the holy sparks in the story had been discovered.
In the end, I later realized, I yearned for acts of heroic accomplishment that would ennoble the losses described in the story. At the time, I only knew I was interested in the "back story" of the events I was relating. So I set about creating an Act I.
I set myself the goal of using, wherever possible, only traditional Hasidic tales of the life of the Baal Shem Tov. I wanted to choose episodes in his legendary biography that could simultaneously become the stories of his struggles to discover the holy secrets referred to in the story I had first heard - the story which soon became Act II.
Over the next years, I worked on the story and its plot. I worked on myself. In the end, I had to face my fears. My irrational desires for the audience's approval. Hardest of all, I had to face my hopes.
To face hope, I discovered, I had to face all the feelings I had accumulated about dashed hopes. I had to face grief, loneliness, disappointment. And more.
In the end, I had to grapple with the dark night of despair, to be able to come to my audiences with an honest story. Not with a light confection of unthinking reassurance. Rather, with the hard, ennobling news about what it takes to change the world.
What it takes to be our biggest selves.
What it takes to hope, not just in our thoughts, but in our souls.
Comments by reviewers and audience members
Who else has been changed by this story?
A spiritual adventure filled with humor, joy, and pathos. - Ann Hall, Boston Sunday Globe
Universal appeal...directly out of the storytelling tradition of Jewish life. - Kansas City Star
A fascinating story of Jewish spirit and myth...a Hasidic tale about combating despair, finding hope, and transforming the world. It's a spiritual adventure and a Jewish mystical epic. - Bruce McCabe, Boston Globe
This is a story which speaks to Jew and Gentile, to any listener who has sought and questioned, erred and succeeded, stayed alone in the darkness, then emerged to tell the story, whatever that story might be. - The Second Story Review
An inspirational tale. - Boston Herald
Explores the human dilemma of wanting to change the world while feeling inadequate to the task. - Boston Sunday Globe
Brilliant...Lipman takes the time necessary to develop the richness and the simplicity of the story. He uses music judiciously throughout, and manages to capture the joy and wonder of the Baal Shem Tov while maintaining an overall solemnity in keeping with the epic nature of the tale. - The Second Story Review
It will touch somewhere deep within you and leave you a slightly different person. - Lee Sonko
He deserved every second of the five minute standing ovation he received at the end. If you have never heard it, you need to. - Jim Maroon
As a Christian minister I fight the platonic idea of many of my colleagues that this world is to be forsaken for another realm. To search for the Divine sparks among us is a better way to live as humans.... I loved the image of the Messiah left standing, staff in hand, cloak over his shoulder, at the gate of heaven ready to enter into our world. That he could be so close truly is what gives hope to the story and to me personally. - Kent Busman
The first time I heard the Soul of Hope, I thought it was about the Baal Shem Tov. The second time I heard it, I thought it was about Doug Lipman. The third time I heard it, I knew it was about me. - Marni Gillard
I am grateful for your courage to bring such a work to life. I know it will continue to touch hearts & souls for it is a connector to the Divine. - Sr. Ellen Secci, csj