“Under the Sea: The Book of Jonah as a Book of Memory”
Yom Kippur – Yizkor
Neil F. Blumofe
4 October 2014
As each of us comes with our own expectations and requirements of what Yom Kippur, and indeed, what High Holydays should be and do for us – with our own memories and reports, we approach now Yizkor — this high cliff, this place in our liturgy where all comes to a screeching halt, and we carefully walk over to the edge, to peer down, far down into the deep shadowed valley below – truly the valley of the shadow of death.
Perhaps, as we look down, we see a haze – a filmy indistinctness that obscures our clearer view, and that reminds us that our turn will come, when we leave the high vantage points of clarion, confident perspective – our hale and healthy perch, and as we make our way down, down this sheer cliff, unsure of our footing, down, stumbling to the craggy shore below – where we will see that the valley is not what we thought it was – simultaneously more and less frightening as we enter its engulfing shadows.
Later this afternoon, we will experience the Book of Jonah in its entirety – a confounding story of a hesitant prophet who is pulled from his place to warn strangers of their doom. We will read of a man who tries to escape his inevitability – and at the end, has questions that are not only unanswered, but are also unaddressed. May we see the story of Jonah not so much as someone who seeks to shirk responsibility for this life – but rather as a quest to come to terms with our mortality – an attempt to hold onto the sands of time that fall out of our hands as we try to grasp the purpose of our life.
As we enter that darkened valley, or in Jonah’s case – when he was in the belly of the whale – we realize that all of our best-laid plans fall away. Our ambitions melt in the face of an unplanned reality, as we realize that what we took for granted and what we depended on is gone. We stand here, like Jonah did, asking the hardest questions of our life – our artifice stripped bear as we remember those who gave us life – as we remember squandered opportunities – as we remember, perhaps with shame, moments that we have created upon our canvas, paints that spatter, sullying with anger and staining with hot judgment.
Each of us walks into our unintended Nineveh – a place where we did not expect to go, to be of service to those who we did not seek. Where is Jonah’s family – he is a stranger in both a familiar and a strange land – cast about to fend for himself, without the security of love or belonging? As he walks in this world, thinking that he is unencumbered and commitment-free, he is astonished and surprised by how his life circles back to a sacred center – to how he proclaims himself an Ivri, a Hebrew, when his life is on the line – and how he recognizes his essence, past all of the charade and shielding that he desperately fronts.
Now, during Yizkor, our smugness, our assurance is diminished as we see the shadowed valley more closely. If we pause, we can smell the smells that we have cherished — of foods, of worn clothes, or perfumes of people whose memories we now cherish– of particular cars that we have ridden in, or homes that we have lived in – after so many years, I still remember the smell of my grandfather’s car — things that we have shared – the voices, the laughter and the tears of those who have descended before us into this eternal place. We realize that we will, before too long, be enfolded into this place as well – and perhaps in time to come, others will tell our story on Yom Kippur afternoon, as we tell Jonah’s story – or perhaps anonymous, we and our life, will just sink into the deep.
How can we cultivate an awareness of each passing day that truly informs how we live in the days that we have? How can these moments of Yizkor not just be excursions to the edge – thrill-seeking to a point, yet recreationally put into our photo albums as we trudge on, ultimately unaffected us as we see, feel, and experience now? Also, how can these moments of Yizkor not incapacitate us – not leave us feeble and unable to move by the roadside, helpless in the merciless beating sun, as we pray for some shade, any shade for our weary head?
It’s striking that the Book of Jonah ends unraveled – it is not clear that Jonah is affected by the miracle of his survival. His last words to God are: heitaiv chara li ad mavet – I do well to be so angry, even to death. What will our last moments be like – in the tatters of our mosaic, as we hold our frayed quilt of life, how will we make peace? Will we go down to our depths angry and unrepentant – stubborn in our displeasure? Will anything ever be all right?
The Book of Jonah ends with a gaping open question – with God trying to explain to Jonah, responding with reasonableness to Jonah’s righteous fury concerning the circumstances of his life. Those who do not understand – should God not have compassion on them? Those who are not reflective – who are not present and are not invested in the majesty of God, are nonetheless, part of God’s design. God even shapes the shadowed valley. Really, another name for the pit of death is the Garden of Eden. Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.
We are asked to learn from Jonah – to not be petulant and unforgiving until the end. We are to take up Jonah’s story and continue the narrative. After Nineveh, now what? Do we get back on the boat and try to disappear? Do we recede back into our everyday life, secreting away this infinite experience of accessing and celebrating memory, or do we find ourselves somehow changed, and charged to live well and humbly, even as we step carefully over the sharp glass shards of our losses.
Maybe change starts with a thank you. Maybe our texts are beckoning us to stand on Jonah’s shoulders and model consideration. There is a story told by my colleague Rabbi Michael Simon about an elderly, retired teacher who lived in a nursing home. He was lonely and often felt that the many years that he had devoted to his students were long forgotten. He was able to voracious reader, and his mind was active – and yet, the thought that no one remembered him made him sad.
His wife had died years before, and his three children lived far away and rarely visited. They did call him regularly – however, day in and day out, the thought that what he had done for so long and was not appreciated, weighed on his mind.
One day, he received a call from a former student. The student asked if it would be all right if she and some of her friends from school came to visit. The retired teacher was thrilled – “of course, it’s more than all right – I look forward to your visit.”
Over twenty students, now grown, surprised their former teacher with a gala party in his honor. Each former student got up to speak and expressed appreciation for with the teacher had done for him or her. They related that much of their success in life was because of his positive influence on them. He was remembered. He was noticed, he received attention, and he was appreciated. The work that he had done was living on. After the party, he asked them to call him every once and a while – they said that they would – and they did – and they told their friends that their calls would be appreciated, as well. Each call was a symbol of gratitude that added much light to that teacher’s life, before he died.
As we look down into the darkened valley below – we begin to see the shadows of figures – of people that we recognize — grandparents, parents, siblings, sisters, brothers, children – and ourselves. We have this moment now to appreciate and show gratitude for what we have had in our lives. We will soon move to other ground, and yet, we can be guided as we stand here during Yizkor, during this Yom Kippur towards living more meaningful, intentional lives.
When we look back at Jonah we see a man disaffected and removed, sitting with impatience under his mysterious gourd, not grateful for his abundance, not grateful for his precious moments – cantankerous until the end. And how will people look back at us? What moments will describe us – moments that we may be so desperate to promote or to conceal? How do we keep our loved ones close?
Here’s another story: a young lady in her mid-twenties received the sad news that her father had been diagnosed with a terminal disease and had less that six months to live. Ever since she was a little girl, she had dreamed about sharing a dance with her Daddy at her wedding. She now realized that this dream was not ever to be. At this time, she didn’t have a steady boyfriend – certainly not a fiancé – so moving a wedding to an earlier date was not an option. There was no wedding.
The young lady, named Rachel Wolf, conceived of a rather unconventional idea. She decided to host a groomless wedding, for the exclusive purpose of dancing with her father. Dr. James Wolf, who was losing his life to pancreatic cancer, was invited to his daughter’s wedding in Auburn, California. Rachel worn a stunning wedding dress and her Dad was decked out in his tuxedo – and they came together for a dance on that day.
Father and daughter danced together, surrounded by adoring friends and relatives – who were hugging and applauding. They danced to a song called “Cinderella,” by Steven Curtis Chapman – the lyrics go like this:
It’s been a long day and there’s still work to do
She’s pulling at me saying, Dad I need you
There’s a ball at the castle and I’ve been invited
And I need to practice my dancing, oh please, daddy, please.
So I will dance with Cinderella while she is here in my arms
‘cause I know something the prince never knew
oh, I will dance with Cinderella, I don’t want to miss even one song
‘cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight and she’ll be gone.
There will be day when Rachel Wolf does get married, for real – and her dad will not be there. However, she has shaped this future moment – she has created memories and images that will invite his spirit and his soul to her on that future day.
It is grief that frays our life’s quilt. It is our recognition that like Jonah, we are most afraid of not belonging anywhere.
We look with uncertainty
Beyond the old choices for
To a softer, more permeable aliveness
Which is every moment
At the brink of death;
For something new is being born in us
If we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
Awaiting that which comes…
Daring to be human creatures,
Vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.
-Anne Hillman, “We Look with Uncertainty”
So, now, as we turn – as we think of our loved ones – those times when we connected with them. Here in this space – on a walk, in a conversation, a movie that we shared, a quiet moment – a favorite activity. What do we remember? What can we remember, past being heitaiv chara li ad mavet – so angry, even to death?
As we enter into this Yizkor, as we recognize that we are at the summit of our hill, as we are also animated in the deep of the valley, we certainly exist in both places, simultaneously, as we invite and allow our tears to fall. We are able to sing our stories, as we are inspired by Jonah, we are able to sing our imperfect stories, and for all of it, as we are able today, to say – thank you.
There is a brokenness
Out of which comes the unbroken,
A shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow beyond all grief
Which leads to joy
And a fragility
Out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space
Too vast for words
Through which we pass with each loss,
Out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound,
Whose serrated edges cut the heart as we break open
To the place inside, which is unbreakable and whole,
While learning to sing.
-The Unbroken, Sufi
May the memories of all those we remember today be for a blessing.
T’hei nishmoteihem tzrurot b’tzror hachayim –
May their souls be bound up in the bond of life.
Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre
Neil F. Blumofe
3 October 2014
I am grateful and appreciative that we are all gathered together in community this evening as we experience Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement — this Day of Forgiveness in these precious hours. Although we are now embarking on a journey that seems long and even arduous based on our time dedicated to prayer, fasting and other deprivations, this time will fly by, and in the words of Unetane Tokef, from our liturgy, upon a little reflection, kachalom ya-uf – our lives pass quickly, like a dream.
There are so many other places that we could be right now – ACL at Zilker Park – even the House of Torment at Highland Mall – anywhere where we can elude this call of the shofar, for us to gather and move out of the comfortable and familiar personae with which we identify ourselves and others – a time to climb out of the boxes that we reserve to identify and judge each other daily, and now to remake our lives as we plumb our character. In no way do we have to achieve perfection – we don’t have to solve ourselves — rather to just identify who we are and take responsibility for what we have done, may be enough for us to spur even a modicum of encouragement, change, and redirection. Again, returning – and starting tonight — may each of us experience a profound connection to our tradition, our purpose, and our community – and may we invite others to share with us the glory of having our lives matter, together.
When I was a small boy, I was afraid that there were monsters under my bed. Growing up in the suburbs north of Chicago, at night during rainstorms, I would often see the lightning dancing and flashing through my window, zigzagging across the blue walls of my room, and upholding a breathless panic, I would count the seconds until I heard the booming thunder, and then, and only then, I would exhale, in dread of what was next. Back then, I believed in superheroes, as well. I felt deeply the stories of the Golem, whose mission it was to protect his people. I yearned for a Justice League that could proclaim right from wrong and good from evil. I wanted this judgment to make things easier, neater – to offer a specific contour that shaped tolerable and intolerable – to that which needed to be preserved and that which must be destroyed. I wanted Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman to act together, not so much as mercenaries, but as dedicated champions above the pettiness and agony of human discourse and interaction.
And when I think of my childhood home, I think of the thick shadows cast by the spruces grown big, planted when we first moved in. I remember the furtive exploring walks through the tall grasses and the thickets when I was young, ultimately reaching the cornfields and the lake, my teeth sometimes chattering as my ears constantly heard the tales of the ornery, enigmatic owner of the property, armed with a bb gun, who would mercilessly shoot trespassers, no matter our age. In our beautiful Arcadian, suburban setting, rumors circulated among us in the public high school, about a story of an ill-fated school, or some say, an asylum, isolated within the dense woods – long demolished — and a gate, still standing and haunted now, after so many years, that long ago, was witness to cruel, barbarous, and still unexplained behavior – a real place called Independence Grove — and every Halloween, it was said, for I never dared to go there on that day, fresh blood would drip and the phantom heads of the victims would appear on its wrought iron gateposts, accompanied by a chorus of eerie screams and mysterious sounds.
So, even in my late teenage years, as I was driving and had a job, before going away to college, there were monsters in my mind that lurked when I came home after midnight, as I hurried past the tall spruces and put my key in the front door — turning on the lights as I passed through each room, and I would quickly make my way up the stairs, hearing the creak around stair seven, and the snoring of my father, willing my fears to dissipate, hoping that there wasn’t another rainstorm filled with lightning and thunder, as I got into bed.
In college, in New Orleans, as I was studying and beginning to connect to the larger world, in 1991, there was the First Gulf War. I read of and saw indelible images of Russian-made Scud missiles launched by Iraq exploding in the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. I saw pictures of rooms in small apartments being converted into safe rooms, fortified with plastic sheeting, and gas masks handed out and worn in frightful anticipation that the warheads of the missiles contained nerve or chemical agents.
At this time, I was preparing to study in Poland – attending the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, studying Polish and political philosophy – and I made arrangements to travel to Israel for the first time that summer, after my program ended in the spring. I wanted to be in Israel, to get beyond the editorials, and the news cycles – I wanted to walk in paths made real by my footsteps, and have the patient lessons of determined Hebrew schoolteachers come alive in astonishing ways. Somehow, I wanted to claim a narrative about Israel that was different from the supposed experts and thought leaders, who like the most seasoned advertisers, opened a reality that while appearing multifaceted and varied was in reality, quite narrow – as the English novelist and critic, George Orwell writes, political language is designed to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Living in Israel for those three months in 1991 allowed me to see that the reality that I constructed about the land and its people – and really about Judaism as a whole was, to say the least, incomplete. It is with each passing year that I realize the inferred meanings, intended indirection, and complexity of viewpoints inherent in any conversation, let alone a conversation about Israel. There truly are shiv’im panim la’Torah – seventy faces of Torah – with contingencies, incongruities, ambiguities, and multiple truths present in every telling. As Israeli cinema loves to depict for example, there are no clear-cut heroes, no pure or absolute choices as our reality unfolds – we are all implicated, all responsible – all amalgams of good and evil.
And now, as my kids grow older, and I can no longer rely on my parents for advice, I lie awake at night, gripped by these same monstrous thoughts of uncertainty. What will be? Will my family be safe? What about the harassing creepers, who follow our kids after school? When my kids couple, will their partners beat or abuse them? What kind of men will my sons be? What about those in our world who are literally, spoiling for our heads? Who really knows what evil lurks just outside of our supposedly secure places? As our Torah teaches, the heart of the human is rak ra kol hayom – is only evil, continually. As much as I wonder about monsters under my bed and the beds of my loved ones, I am certain that there are others just like me, who are striving to place those monsters of destruction there and arm them with the most sinister of weapons, as quickly as I will them away and attempt to annul their power.
And to be on the ground, amid the danger, in many ways is healthier than having our imagination run rampant, where fears can quickly compound. I quickly realized this when I was in Israel this summer, even as the lightning and thunder of the Red Alert system kept activating, that rockets were en route and Iron Dome was activated and like I did when I was small, I counted until the explosions, either in the sky or on the ground inevitably followed and then exhaled – and still, in many ways, there was no place I’d rather be – as I remembered the words of the writer, William Faulkner: Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid. And even though I was looking forward to the great Greenland kayaking adventure with my son afterwards, it was difficult, and indeed, wrenching, to take my leave from that besieged, incredible place.
And now, 23 years and 16 trips after my first travel to Israel, I feel that I belong to the people and the land, and that the land and the people belong to me. I feel, amid all of the tensions and uncertainties, that Israel is my home and that I am invested in her story, and in her past, present, and future. This realization fills we with hope, belonging, gratitude, and possibility. This connection empowers me to want to share this journey with you, and your loved ones and friends.
Yes, there is plague all around – Ebola in Dallas, threats of pandemic and radical, fundamentalist evil, on the move. There is no Justice League; the God that we seek is a hidden, inscrutable God – we are all, after all, merely ordinary — the monsters under the bed have come out into the brightness of day and seem to be sharpening their teeth, everywhere we turn. And even though I sometimes feel that I am still living near Independence Grove, mine is not a dusty light of wan solidarity – not a cheap, relative, fluctuating resolve. There is grit involved in my association – difficulty, angst, frustration – as well as a determination to learn more, discover more and to involve myself in navigating the inevitable difficulties. As in any invested relationship, the stakes are high, and the invitation to walk away – to divorce — is ever-present. Nevertheless, on this night of all nights, as we turn again to each other, and sit waiting for wonder – waiting for the miracle to come, I ask that we fall in love with Israel. I am asking that we do not fall in love with the idea of Israel – rather that we fall in love with the imperfect, challenging, amazing, and perplexing blood and guts that comprise the Jewish state. I ask that we immerse ourselves in possibility and not allow our proclivities to criticize to overpower our capacity for vulnerability and selfless offering. I ask that we don’t allow reports of corruption, cynicism, betrayal, ignorance, and human fallibility crowd out our belief in something lustrous still, beyond measure.
I ask that we travel to Israel together to experience an indomitable, resolute spirit among ourselves, while cultivating one with our brothers and sisters. I ask that we face our fears and immerse ourselves in something larger than ourselves – as the Israeli novelist, David Grossman, has written – you describe your reality in the highest resolution even when it’s a nightmare and in doing so, you live your own life, not a cliché others have formulated for you. I ask that we deepen our commitment to understanding the demands and the rituals of our tradition – that we grow to appreciate its delicious indeterminacy – and that we not be so quick to abandon our heritage, our synagogue community, or be willing to choose an easier, less demanding path.
I ask that we sit with and give energy to what the word sacrifice means, and not abscond with a paltry substitute or be satisfied with a feebler pretender. I ask that we don’t trade our own problems for Israel’s problems – using the manifold challenges of the Jewish state as compensation for our own sense of powerlessness, marginalization and discontent with our own elected officials and state and national policies. I ask that we not be hypocritical in our rebuking – recognizing that our castigations hold influence and that we don’t just speak for ourselves – that others have agendas far more suspicious and malevolent than our own — conflating any mistakes or dilemmas of Israelis with negative traits common to all Jews. I ask that we give the benefit of the doubt, and see our relationship with the people and the land of Israel as ever-flowering and uplifting – agreeing with Amos Oz who said: I have been a man of compromise all of my life. But even a man of compromise cannot approach Hamas and say – maybe we meet halfway and Israel only exists on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
As a community, I hope that we can travel together to Israel this coming spring, and many times thereafter. Please consider joining me on this trip for an incredible experience. The dates are 10-22 March and there is more information by your seats and online. A plus about traveling together in the spring, is that we will be in Jerusalem during the day of the Jerusalem marathon and half marathon, and any who would like to walk/run in these events with me are encouraged to do so. What an inspired way of crafting a unique relationship with our Eternal City. If you don’t feel called to participate in the race yourself, do come along, and consider sponsoring one of our students – as we explore our homeland. In many ways, we are at the beginning of a more long-term, real, and significant relationship with our brothers and sisters in Israel and I look forward to helping us engage in experiences beyond the tendentious surface area of headlines. Come travel with me as we stare down our anxieties and as we face the dynamisms of knowns and unknowns – as we make peace with what we can and cannot control.
Israel is our land too – a legacy and a place that beckons us and invites us into discovery. And like the bucolic setting of my childhood, amid the verdant foliage and the general places of safety, there lurks a destabilizing presence – an unseen negative force that either pesters us with a bb gun, or is present with rumors of insidious crimes, threatening to sap our courage and assurance, if we are not careful. There is an Independence Grove, a menace outside of our well-lit places, both seen and unseen, and yet confident and unafraid, we realize that we are all family and that we are responsible for each other.
There are many stories, some quite recent, that exemplify this as Israel received hundreds of rocket attacks this summer and threats from sophisticated terror tunnels – perhaps none as poignant as the remarks of Rachel Fraenkel, a mother of one of the three Israeli teens murdered this summer – while I saw her from afar at the funeral in Modi’in and heard her proclaim the Mourner’s Kaddish, she later spoke up, at the end of the shiva for her son, to comment on the death of the 16-year-old Mohammed Khdeir, murdered in retaliation, after the death of the three boys – she said, even in the abyss of mourning for Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali, it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem – the shedding of innocent blood is against morality, is against the Torah and Judaism, and is against the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country. Only the murderers of our sons, along with those who sent them and those who helped them and incited them to murder – and not innocent people – will be brought to justice: by the army, the police, and the judiciary – not by vigilantes. No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Mohammed’s parents. This is the people I love, who live in the land that I love.
How do we cultivate empathy? How do we speak from authority and not ape reactionary rhetoric, thus confirming our inflexibility? Do we not see how quickly things change? Must we go through tragic experiences to speak tragically? How can we understand another’s situation and convey the feelings of another? How do we feel someone’s joy, as well as their pain? And rather than us seeking shelter, thinking that we are out of harm’s way in our comfortable lives – letting others speak in our name, we must open ourselves to the larger world and turn our lives towards living in compelling ways that offers healing, respect, and love. We must give witness. We are not merely survivors, rather we are creators of this world’s Torah – we are designers and shapers of our future, and the world’s future – inspired by the Israeli writer, Etgar Keret: something out of nothing is when you make something up out of thin air, in which case it has no value. Anybody can do that. But something out of something means it was really there the whole time, inside you, and you discover it as part of something new, that’s never happened before. Let us make something out of something, together.
Va’tikvah v’dorshecha – to those who seek You, grant hope.
L’shanah ha’ba’ah b’Yerushalayim – in this coming year, let us be in Jerusalem together.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah.
OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO! (TALMUD EDITION)
Erev Rosh haShanah – ½ Tishrei
Congregation Agudas Achim
ONE WHO PRAYS, AND MAKES A MISTAKE – IT IS FOR HIM, A BAD SIGN. AND IF THE ONE WHO PRAYS IS A SHALIACH TSIBUR, THEN IT IS BAD FOR THE ENTIRE CONGREGATION, WHO SENT THE LEADER, SINCE A PERSON’S AGENT IS LIKE A PERSON. THEY SAID ABOUT RABBI CHANINA BEN DOSA – THAT HE WOULD PRAY FOR THE SICK, AND THEN HE WOULD SAY, “THIS ONE WILL LIVE AND THIS ONE WILL DIE.” THE PEOPLE ASKED HIM, “HOW DO YOU KNOW?” HE ANSWERED THEM: “IF MY PRAYER IS FLUENT IN MY MOUTH THEN I KNOW THAT MY PRAYER HAS BEEN WELL RECEIVED. HOWEVER, IF MY PRAYER IS NOT FLUENT, THEN I KNOW THAT MY PRAYER HAS BEEN REJECTED.
Q: In which of the blessings of the prayers does this Mishnah make reference (when making a mistake?)
A: Rabbi Chiya said in the name of Rav Safra, who said in the name of one who was part of the Rebbi’s academy: the Mishnah is referring to an error that is made when praying the Avot of the Amidah.
Some taught this in regard to the following Baraita: those who pray should concentrate their thoughts (heart) when praying all of the blessings. However, if one cannot concentrate when reciting all of the blessings, one should at least concentrate in praying one of them. Thus, Rabbi Chiya said in the name of Rav Safra, who said in the name of one who was part of the Rebbi’s academy: at the very least one should concentrate in reciting the Avot.
(THEY SAID ABOUT RABBI CHANINA BEN DOSA)
Q: What is the basis for this ability to tell the difference between who will live and who will die?
A: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: God creates utterances of the lips – peace, peace for those who are far and for those who are near, said haShem – and I will heal.
And Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: all of the prophets prophesied only about the reward for those who make teshuvah – but concerning the reward for the tsadikim gemurim – no eye, except Yours, O God, has seen.
Rabbi Yochanan disagrees with Rabbi Abahu! For Rabbi Abahu taught: in the place where those who make teshuvah stand, the tsadikim gemurim do not stand, as it says: shalom, shalom la’rachok v’lakarov. First, haShem extends greetings to one who was far (and made repentance) and then to the one who was near all along.
However, regarding this verse, Rabbi Yochanan would teach: what is the meaning of rachok? One who was far from sin, all along. And what is the meaning of karov? One who was near to sin and now drew away from it.
What is the reward that no eye has seen? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: This is the extraordinary thing of wine, preserved in its grapes since the six days of Creation. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani taught: this is Eden, upon which the eye of no creature has gazed. And should you ask, where was Adam, the first human, if not in Eden? The answer is that Adam lived in the Garden. And should you persist and say, but the garden is Eden. Our tradition teaches: a river issues from Eden to water the garden — this indicates that the garden is in one place, and that Eden is in another place.
 If prayerful words come effortlessly from my heart and flow fluently from my mouth (Rashi).
 My prayer request has been torn up by the Heavenly Court (Rashi)
 this means not merely knowing the meaning of the words – rather it means that one is always conscious of standing before God in prayer.
 Isaiah 57:19. Borei (create) is linked to bari (strong). When prayer is “sound and sure,” there will be healing and peace.
 The ba’alei teshuvah stand in the most exalted place – in the Garden of Eden. Among other things the repentant participate in the mitzvah of repentance.
 Genesis 2:10
“Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Greenland”
Rosh haShanah – Day 1
Neil F. Blumofe
25 September 2014
This summer, after almost five hectic weeks in Israel, listening with dread to air raid sirens, explosions that were not so far off, and offering helpless comfort in the face of the tears of friends and teachers, and amid the uncertainty and the din of displacement and fear, I thought that about three weeks in Greenland, sea kayaking with my son and a handful of others would be a time of healthy respite and recovery. I thought that this time would be dedicated to listening to the silences – to appreciating the still small voice that sounds in this remote edge of the world.
I was ready for stillness – expectant to take that time, reflecting on my learning in Jerusalem – thinking about deepening connections in this community – continuing to build trust, experimentation, purpose, and hope on this day – and going forward. Taking that time too, to think about my family – the choices that I’ve made, the kids that I’m raising – the tumult and rumpus of a committed relationship – and where we’re all heading as everyone grows more independent and attaches a larger part of themselves to this world. I am conscious that none of us really can retreat to a room of our own – we are all on view in each other’s networks – and so much of what we don’t intend is either collected or exposed in a nameless public access.
I wanted to hear the wilderness calling. I wanted to see the vibrant skies at night – I wanted to hear the splashing of a seal – to have my romantic notions of the outback, validated, giving me a hallowed sense of rest and a jeweled perspective, as I strive to navigate and enhance many bustling lives here in Austin, on the Edwards Plateau. I was ready to find emptiness and serenity and leave the revelatory smoking mountain with its blaring, displacing shofar, behind – and to return to Austin refreshed with the reservoir of solitude – the still, small voice — flowing in my heart.
And while I have returned reengaged , my soul is not at rest – for my time in Greenland was not tranquil – and it opened me to the real, enduring blights that hover around us as we revel in and celebrate our abundance.
As part of this 2.5-week kayaking trip, we explored different fjords of East Greenland, hiking and portaging our way for dozens and dozens of miles, ultimately to the Knud Rasmussen glacier. Our days were stripped bare – as our worries were just three – food, water, and shelter. We would wake up, eat breakfast, break camp, painstakingly load our Feathercraft foldable kayaks, on a good day — kayak for about three hours with a break for a snack amid the icebergs and a quick dismount for lunch – and then generally paddle for three or four hours more – ultimately unloading our boats in the icy water, setting up a new camp, cooking dinner, washing dishes, and falling asleep. It was evening, and it was morning – and that was only the first day.
Non-essentials quickly went by the wayside. Electronics were unusable – as a lifeline to the world, our leader had a satellite phone, and for our protection, we had an old shotgun, equipped with two live shells. We quickly learned what we needed – because of the cold, the wind, and the ever-present mosquitoes, most everyone neither washed their clothes nor showered for the length of these days – and we tried not to change our clothes, if we could help it. There was little privacy – everyone slept in a tent with someone else – and even if there was snoring, we didn’t pitch our tents too far away from each other, after we heard the determined crying and were witness to the scavenging of the Arctic foxes – who would shamelessly enter our tents if, we were not careful.
Rather than resting and enjoying a vacation, we were part of the elements and we had to work hard to anticipate the changes in the weather and the related swells of the sea, and to not be left behind or hold back the group. While it was unspoken, we were working together and competing to not regularly be the last one – the one with the boat issue, or the stray supplies left on the hill – or the equipment that came apart or failed – or the one with the frigid water in your boots. As the days went, our voices became quieter and our words more precise and more determined — and we would look out for each other, and simply do the work that needed to be done for us to progress. Mine versus yours became secondary to shared purpose.
About a week into the trip, with a rhythm of existence essentially established, we paddled to Ikateq, which is the site of an abandoned American air base, which was built in 1942, and abandoned roughly five years later. We had negotiated a couple of hours to explore the base – the guide was not thrilled, claiming that this abandoned airbase was a scourge on what we had been seeing – breathtaking mountains, an ever-shifting cascade of icebergs and floes in the water – running rivers from which we could drink – all of that, he claimed, would take a backseat to the despoiled and derelict landscape left in the wake of this base. Frankly, we were fatigued and interested in a bit of variety, so we got our way.
And once we pulled into the softer sands of the shore, and made our way up the reedy hills to the small airstrip, we saw with our own eyes, what our guide meant. There were rusted oil drums and storage containers that had been sitting abandoned, for nearly seventy years. There were skeletons of cars, trucks, hangars, and living quarters that remained, open to the elements, struggling to decompose, but painfully rusting, instead. The water in this area was undrinkable, even now – and streams around the former airbase remain polluted.
As I walked, there were splinters of wood that held sheets of large nails, which could easily puncture your foot. There was jagged and twisted metal, old radiators and ruined refrigerators and the flotsam of material strewn about that gave shelter to nothing, creating a landscape of dystopia – and in its eerie assemblage one could see how fragile and truly how helpless nature is, when trod upon by the heavy, careless tread of human occupation.
As we begin this New Year, we enter into the seventh year – the shemitah year – a year of not doing, not planting, and not harvesting, allowing the land to replenish and take a breath. – ideally, free from our clutches and control. Many wise and well-meaning colleagues of mine have thoughtfully written about the significance of the shemittah year – and ways that we can observe it in our limited ways – borrowing books from the library instead of buying new ones – finding ways to bike to work, or carpool, or to take public transportation — making effort to eat more local foods that are grown in their appropriate season, and developing relationships with local farmers and artisans — taking more extensive social media sabbaticals – refraining from using our computers and devices for extended periods, not only on Shabbat and Festivals – keeping our voices down and being aware of how we are, and how we are communicating in public — all sorts of creative and interesting way to reduce our footprint in this world, living more intentionally in this year-of-not-doing.
We could also be a bit more ambitious. We could put our own goals for enrichment on hold. We could take the time out of our routines – to take the time to travel and see places about which we’ve only read. We could take the plunge and explore something different and wholly new – we could suspend for a little while our quest for capital gain, an increase to our nest egg – our profit margin — and we could work instead to rewire our goals and our expectations about what we need and want in this life. We could seek out those who are more in need than we – and either with our volunteer hours, or more radically, we can be of service – letting our dreams for prosperity and accrual take a back seat and lie fallow – and we can heed the words of the 19th century American author and transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau – the price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it – for what you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.
The author of Charlotte’s Web, EB White wrote: I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for humanity, if we spent less time proving that we can outwit nature, and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.
It did not take long in East Greenland to dissociate and move past all that I had considered vital in shaping the activity of my day. While I longed for the opportunity to communicate with my family, and I was anxious to keep up with the latest developments in Israel, not being able to, and opening myself fully to the elements that I was in, allowed me to begin to sense things differently, and to experience life differently.
Allowing my soul to grow a bit more wild, shifted my sense of what I needed. And as our world marches and continues to talk about climate change, and as leading philanthropists including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund prepare to sell a total of $50 billion of fossil fuel investments and reinvest these proceeds into clean energy systems, I saw how our human quest to attain resources and to advance, increasing on a vast scale, is already resulting in dramatic shifts near the Arctic Circle.
East Greenland is not a quiet place. Paddling on the water one can see and hear the icebergs cracking, melting, and turning over. The sounds are like thunder and the cracks of rifle shot. We all had maps of the region that were recorded about ten years ago, marking the edges of the glaciers that we were looking to see – we had to paddle almost two more miles to get to where their faces are now. It is the rush of the water that can keep you up at night – and the report of polar bears, who generally did not live at the latitude where we were. These polar bears, cute in pictures and in the zoo, I quickly learned, are at the top of the food chain – they have no natural enemies. If you encounter a polar bear, you have two choices – kill it, or get eaten. They do not retreat. After there were reports of polar bears near us – and rumors of a mauling and even the killing of a kayaker a few miles from us (which later turned out to be inaccurate), we traveled during the day, with the shotgun out, and at night we took shifts to go on bear watch, looking in every direction to see if a bear was approaching by sea or by land.
And in those solitary hours on bear watch, shivering up on a hill, armed with a whistle – my mind was brought back to the air base at Ikateq, and I received cold comfort. How savage, how careless, and how craven the piles of abandoned junk were, and still are. This was not a small mistake that was in the process of being fixed – this was a large area of land that so many years later, is still condemned. The existence of Ikateq, in the middle of barely inhabited East Greenland jabbed at my heart, and served as a taunt to the life that I live here.
One could understand why Ikateq was built – during World War II, the allies were afraid that the Germans would capture Greenland and use it as a base to commence attacks on North America – and one can understand why it was quickly given up. Flying planes into this region is hazardous. The weather is extreme – I was there in August, and was wearing several layers of clothing – the water was right at freezing – I could only imagine living there in the winter.
And yet, why does toxicity still flow from this place? There is an ethic of the outdoors called leave no trace – something that our group religiously followed, while on our excursion. And yet Ikateq is not an isolated case – when we would arrive at small villages, the first thing we would smell would be the open garbage dump, with leaking containers and papers and trash that were blowing back into the water. We were not supposed to have open containers of alcohol out in public view – not for any moral code – but rather, because the Inuits who lived in this region looked up to Westerners and admired them – and tried to be like them – and one feature that I observed in each little place that we set foot, was the constant, public intoxication, at any time during the day. The measurement of mercury in the water is the most concentrated near the poles of the earth – so the fish that is caught for basic consumption is contaminated by the pollution in the hemispheres below. European governments have outlawed the hunting of seals – something that the people of Greenland have done for hundreds of years – the law makes no distinction between commercial hunting and subsistence living. Thus, the Inuit are subsequently forced out of their way of life into something unknown.
As a people, what standard do we set? What light do we shine? We have a golden opportunity right now, on this first day of the year, to notice that our tradition is calling us to take a break – to realize that others are watching, and if you’d like, that God is watching. How can we prevent our own Ikateqs, as we travel from place to place – not cleaning up and just imperiously leaving our waste strewn about, as we live out life and attend to our own personal dramas, as if our world was our personal tattered, worn-out, ultimately disposable sofa? How can we live and as we practice our own standards of living and justice not offer benign or even unintended domination of other people?
As Dr. Seuss writes, unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot – nothing is going to get better. It’s not. On this day – hayom harat olam – the birthday of the world, as we think about what we need, how can we hold ourselves accountable? How can we live more in harmony with the world, rather than as its master – seeing the symbiosis among all creatures? Our Torah teaches us to respect the land and to view the world as created in the image of God.
Let us endeavor to seek out places that nurture and heal our spirit – places that allow us to empty out and to flush our assumptions and the conditional acting of our mind. In this shemitah year, let us be courageous enough to look at the world differently, to take a break from our inherited worldviews and our sense of entitlements – and to see a different point of view. Let us take ourselves seriously in the context of this world, and let us be mindful of the impact that we are making in another’s life, and be open to making small incremental changes in our own.
And in this coming year, let us find some intentional time to be alone and in community – as the poet Wallace Stevens wrote in 1902, after one of his walks — in the cathedral I felt one presence; on the highway I felt another…As I sat dreaming with the congregation I felt how the glittering altar worked on my senses stimulating and consoling them; and as I went tramping through the fields and woods I beheld every leaf and blade of grass revealing or rather betokening the invisible.
Harachaman Hu yashiv el ha’aretz, l’ma’an neisheiv yachad imah beshivtah kol sh’nat hashemitah – may the Merciful One turn our hearts towards the land – so that we may dwell together with her in her shemittah, in this whole year of rest.
Shanah Tovah u’Metukah.
“Oh, the Places You’ll Go: The Sacred and the Exile”
Erev Rosh haShanah
Neil F. Blumofe
24 September 2014
Shanah Tovah, everyone!
Oh, the thinks you can think! Oh, the thinks you can think, if you’re willing to try…
Think of an elephant up in a tree, think of a person too tiny to see! Think of a bird with a one-feather tail, going on adventure down a dangerous trail! Think of a bird who flies off on a spree, think of a kangaroo, sour as can be! … An unusual story will soon be unfurled, of an elephant trying to save a small world.
You know, I’ve thought a lot about integrating the theme of Dr. Seuss into these High Holy Days – and the closest I can get to his particular lilt and rhythm of language is Yiddish:
Az di vort iz in moil, iz men a har – az me lozt zi arois, iz men a nar
While the word is still in your mouth, you are a liege, you are something special — once you utter it, you are a fool.
So, here I go – uttering the words in my mouth.
Together we journey into these just-opened gates of the New Year and we stand on the threshold of renewing possibility, remaking meaning, and rediscovering wonder. I am amazed that we are all together and I do not take our convergence for granted. There are so many other things – so many moving parts that sometimes seem to conspire in our schedules and in our world that prevent or discourage us from making the effort to be here now. I am grateful and motivated in your company this evening.
And even as we sit here, hearing the melodies unique to this season, holding these prayers and poems of inspiration and hope in our hands, are we convinced that this destination, this sacred space and experience brings us insight, gentleness, and confidence – can we be in this space without judging ourselves – without asserting our right to a premiere position, or some sort of exalted status – some sort of extra attention – rewarded because we choose to belong to this community? Can we put away our reliance on feeling like an insider, or relishing our self-proclaimed outlier-ness — our removed and removing status?
Saying at the outset, as we begin again together and each of us, to feel these Holy Days – I ask you to consider, for yourselves: what if these High Holy Day services do not meet my needs – what if I yet can’t get past my personal resentments and any discouragements that I feel when I look across this sanctuary and have my eyes fix on the unresolved other, who also inhabits this space? How can I move past any lip service – or sense of servitude or responsibility that I am here because it’s what my partner wants – or what my kids need to see? What if I like the rabbi, and yet, somehow he (or she) doesn’t inspire me – that I just want to be with my friends, doing something Jewish sometimes, that doesn’t ask too much of me and doesn’t take too much effort or time?
What if, in this space – as we are meant to be specifically laying the exquisite, secure groundwork for encountering this New Year, acknowledging the Divine Nature inherent in this world, wrapping the four corners of our memory together around our finger, like tsitsit, so we don’t forget, and participating in the power of summoning with our shofar, the opposite occurs, and we feel more isolated or estranged? Oh, the places that you’ll go – not intending to go farther away from what we are looking for and not beginning this year with a deficit of blessings, feelings of insecurity, or loneliness, even as now, we are surrounded by people. How can we allow ourselves to feel that this welcoming of the New Year is a positive and even nourishing experience – that it is a good choice in our lives? How can we cultivate powerful feelings of hope, belonging, and gratitude?
This day, this time beckons us, invites us to sit for a few moments and to unburden ourselves – to open ourselves to our colliding and competing inner truths, our complexity and to our vulnerability — this time asks us to take a deep breath, inhaling, and taking responsibility for what has been, and in the exhalation of that same breath, to let it all go. (Pause).
A traditional greeting of welcoming is shalom, shalom la’rachok v’lakarov – shalom, shalom to all of those who are far off and to all of those who happen, at this moment, to be near. This is not just a greeting about our proximity – this speaks also about all of our various yearnings – those that clash with our circumstances, those that fill us with a sense of purpose, and those that send a shiver up and down our spine. This is a time when we give permission perhaps, for all of our brokenness to be laid out – in order for us, like Humpty Dumpty, to be put back together again – to be in shalom.
Some parts of us are totally invested now – ready to be uplifted and swept up in something gloriously new – something that demands our sacrifice, our power, and even perhaps, a few tears, that are worth our effort. Other parts of us are a million miles away – listening with one ear perhaps, nodding absentmindedly, or dreaming about something else – not connected, floating free, and determined to just do what we need to do – minimally — to not be noticed and to be free to leave, as we wish. We live in this tension – both influenced by and weighed down by our choices, and by our abundance and our freedom to act, or not act, in so many ways.
And too, we know that this world is bone chilling, unrelenting, and ferocious, and if we open to it, too much, the gale force winds will overpower us and cause us to buckle under – personally, professionally, or otherwise. So, we have choices to make – for the world is too much with us. How do we receive these High Holy Days — this imperfect message, this incomplete experience of starting again – and be able to take what we need, and dedicate ourselves to living in the graciously cupped Divine hand of this subtle presence? How can it be enough for us to appreciate that which is now and will be no longer – to make peace with those mistakes which crowd our spirit, with the shame that bruises our character, and guides us to second guess the entire enterprise of our living?
How do we move on, knowing that the God in the world, and even the God in the Torah does not match our God – and that we might not have seen either God in years? We search for a solution that remains hidden – and we take solace in the prayer: mir Gott un mentsch – lamer teshuveh tun tsuzamen. A der einef der ardem tsveit. Un fargeb un zer zind. Azoy v’mir fergeben dine – we – God, and humans, let us return, all together – each of us for each other — and let us forgive each other our own sins, the way we God, forgive You, Yours.
In our concerns, we can accuse, forget and distort – we can photo shop, dissemble and escape from what bothers us so much, and yet we are here – all of us, identified, as those who have the privilege and the responsibility of entering into the New Year.
We are looking – and we are poised. This synagogue is not just a gathering place, or a convenient point of meeting – or an insurance policy for our tougher times. This synagogue is a laboratory that promotes spiritual health – this is a place that asserts itself, against great odds sometimes, to become a precious sanctuary of welcoming and transformation. This is a place that offers meaning, and depth, and concept beyond headlines and talking points. I will not parrot a political position, or promote another’s agenda – I will offer inconclusiveness –- polysemy — as life does, and depend on you to help teach me – I ask you to be reasonable, and patient, and to fall in love with the power of standing and learning and achieving, a little at a time – all of us, as one.
What would it be like – whether in relationship or in exile – if we showed up together to accomplish our goals – if we showed up regularly — if we took our individual responsibility seriously and generously supported and gently yet firmly upbraided each other to be our best selves, as appropriate? Shalom, shalom la’rachok v’lakarov. You have brains in your head – you have feet in your shoes – you can steer yourself any direction you choose. (Pause).
What a year it’s been – and as we prepare to let go, and allow space for something different, something positive – I offer a prayer written by my friend, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, which I have adapted, slightly:
For those who say “good riddance” to 5774
And those who weep because endings are too much to bear and beginnings too frightening to encounter,
For those ready to crack open their hearts to a more compassionate world,
And eager to roll up their sleeves to end needless suffering,
And for those exhausted because it seems we’re fighting the same battles over again;
For those eager to dip our apples into honey,
And hear the words of Torah inspire us into being our best, most holy selves,
And for those who pray the rabbi might say something inspiring and authentic and heartfelt and relevant;
For those dreading the sermon about Israel
And for those demanding the sermon about Israel,
And for those who find the music soaring
And those who experience the liturgy wanting,
For those who are certain why they show up
And love bending for the Great Aleinu
And tremble at the Binding of Isaac
And feel history in their guts at the close of Neilah,
And for those who aren’t at all certain why on earth they show up, but believe, somewhere in the veins where blood flows to their heart and head
That they need to show up
For some cosmological, theological, unexplainable reason,
And for those suffering in exile – not knowing quite how to get along,
Or disenchanted, or in pain – chronic, metaphysical pain
For those afflicted and unable to be here
For those whose lives we enfold into our own
For each of us – as we hold and recognize the space of each other
Time to listen to the shofar’s call.
Why will our presence matter in the year ahead?
Let’s get to work.
So, truly – from all of our places — shalom, shalom la’rachok v’lakarov – all young and old – all there or here – all big and small – all far or near. The shofar sounds and today, you are you. That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you. So let’s go forward without a delay, our hearts are alive, and today is the day.
May we have ample opportunity to dedicate ourselves to moments beyond what we need – may we have the gift of realizing how much we get to do, as opposed to what we think we have to do. And may we think what we do can make a difference – if not for us, then for someone we love – and if not for someone we love, then for a small investment in the future. It is delightful that we are here this evening. Thank you. May this evening be enough.
Oh, the thinks you can think – think and wonder and dream – far and wide as you dare.
Men ken machen dem cholem, grosser vi di nacht.
You can make a dream bigger than the night.
Tichleh shanah v’kil’loteha
Tacheil shanah u’virchote’ha
May the troubles of this year, end – and may a year of blessings, begin.
“Between Dreaming and Dying”
Yom Kippur – Yizkor
Neil F. Blumofe
14 September 2013
We live in between our dreams and what often are our disappointments. We imagine worlds in front of us where we succeed and where others will magically take on our point of view – where we are heroes and where life is perfect and the temperature outside is always exactly right and never too hot — we cry when we see the big-eyed wonder of a small child celebrating existence and the open-ended efforts of others helping those more vulnerable.
We watch movies to be taken away – to enter into a world that is more lively, more thrilling, and perhaps more significant than the one that we live everyday. We dream so that we don’t wilt inside – so that we may yet envision a world where we may live as one, or where our fantasies are safely given room to roam and we are encouraged from within, to live another day.
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and called for an end to racism in the United States. He wrote: now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. And fifty years later, while we walk along this path, it continues to be a long and winding road.
For example, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were incremental changes, compromises that were toughed out in the hard terrain of bleak reality, with the gritty, detailed hand of forceful politicians who were determined to see these bills through – champions who deftly handled divergent and competing interests to make even these imperfect bills, law – these efforts that were steps along the way, to realize the remaining dream to end racial injustice.
There is a world of difference between the high flown rhetoric in that moment on that summer day in 1963 and the endless, committee meetings, assurances, and deals that happened – pulling leverage on relationships in anonymous rooms that insured the implementation of some aspects of these grandiose dreams – and that left the door open for more conversation and more legislation. We dream and we see the world how it is – our dream a drop of water in a dry ocean, as we see how much is left undone.
Our liturgy, especially on Yom Kippur, also sets up dreams and urges us to participate in these dreams even as we see the difficulty and the treachery of our reality. The influential American rabbi, Avi Weiss, teaches that the call and response of the Avodah service and the Eleh Ezkerah service, both within the Musaf service of Yom Kippur represent the resplendent dream and the coarse reality. The Avodah reveals the highest reaches of the possible to us – the sweetest dream — that in this moment we summon the holiest person – the High Priest (called the Kohen Gadol) and place him in the holiest place – the Kodesh Kodashim, on the holiest day (Yom Kippur), speaking the holiest word – which is the name of God.
Avi Weiss speaks about this moment as a dream-like moment – where all are lifted up and regarded as one would regard a Kohen Gadol – where every moment was appreciated as we would appreciate being in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur – and where every word that came forth from our lips was considered as much as we would consider proclaiming the ineffable name of God.
And then we turn the page – and with the next service, Eleh Ezkerah, reality sets in, and we see the broken landscape of our unrealized dreams all around us – we see the organized murders, we see the pogroms, and the destruction of civilizations – we see the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent citizens, and we see victims of jealousy and hate. We are pained by those killed because of religious belief or sexual orientation – or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – a victim of an enraged pursuer armed with guns. We see how difficult life is anyway as we fret for the innocent in a perilous world – who for any number of circumstances are cut off at the roots, too soon.
And we, the survivors – at least today, hold the weight of both – the responsibility of dreaming how the world could be, and too, the rude dull heft of the world as it is. We hear the words that we say just before waking from the Avodah – ashrei ayin ra’atah kol eileh, halo l’mishma ozen da’ava nafsheinu – blessed were those who saw these things – sadly, we can only hear about them. And then we wake and try to remember – and grasp again for the elusive happiness that we may have held in the ether of the night.
So too, our memories – we may dream of one whom we love – and for a split second think that they again walk the earth – that, is it possible – that the dead awaken? And then the blunt thud of realizing that we are living without them and our struggles and our sorrows begin again, across the landscape of the day.
And, past our nightmares and our nostalgia – past our fears and our understanding that dreams never translate well in real life – that we keep dreaming – that today, we keep installing the High Priest to proclaim the normally unspoken name of God – on a day when we plead with our very lives and offer ourselves into the breach, as Aaron did, carrying only the surety that we do not know. Today, we offer our repentance to God as well as to Azazel – dreaming that the possibility of atonement is possible. We invest our hopes in making peace with the living – even though we may not feel called to turn towards one who has offended us and offer expiation. We allow the dead to move on – we recognize how much we are holding that is to our detriment – and we give ourselves permission to let it go, finding new openings and possibilities for ourselves in the process.
We must have dreams to alleviate the difficulties of living, growing older, and ultimately dying, in this world. We are taught that in dreams begin responsibilities – and our Avodah service, as alien as it may be to us today, beckons us to explore our stories and encourages us to move past our dreams and to nurture our visions. Martin Luther King Jr. has also written – that the difference between a dreamer and a visionary is that dreamers have their eyes closed and that visionaries have their eyes open.
So, let us open our eyes – not just to solving a piece of technology or a puzzle or a game – let us open our eyes and envision, without illusion, how we may turn our dreams into a form of reality. We realize that it is not possible to have our perfections turn up – however, if we visualize what could be, as outlandish as it appears, some semblance of it may in fact emerge.
Our tradition imagines ten miracles that occurred when the Beit haMikdash was standing – that there were never any flies present during the sacrifices – the rains never put out the fires of the woodpiles; no scorpion or serpent ever harmed anyone in Jerusalem – and no one ever complained – that it was too crowded – or too hot or cold – or that things went on too long.
This is a form of wishful thinking – a form or positive visualization that is so necessary. Yom Kippur asks us to find a moment of mystical perfection that to us, would bring enduring value and hope to our life. So, we can take a moment and visualize something that seems preposterous and be radical dreamers. What are we willing to work for? So often, I hear from members of our community about your grandparents or great-grandparents who came from another land with hardly anything – little education, basic skills, and certainly no knowledge of the language or the ways and means of a new land – and then, two or three generations later – we or our children are doing vanguard work, with degrees from the most prized university of higher learning – determining advances in technology and conversations in culture just in everyday living.
In our lives, who is the High Priest, doing rarified work on the holiest day of the year? The historian, Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, reminds us that we are repeatedly urged by God in our Torah to remember our past – and we responded not by recording events, but by ritually re-enacted them – by understanding the present through the lens of the past.
So the Avodah service and the Eleh Ezkerah service are not just about those things, in themselves. They are about our own needs – our own visions and dashed hopes, together, today. We live in between our dreams and our nightmares – and for us to not bump against either edge – to open our eyes to both the glories and the ignobleness of this world, fashioning a persevering vision is what our tradition guides us to do – and yes, this is a mixture of fantasy and a desire for transcendence – as Yerushalmi writes in his book, Zakhor: what was suddenly drawn up from the past was not a series of facts to be contemplated at a distance, but a series of situations into which one could somehow be existentially drawn. So let us fall into our prayers of Yizkor – and I am asking you to participate in the Avodah service and the Eleh Ezkerah service – not so I can brag on you to my colleagues and say that my community is one who stays all day – rather, because this ritual and this liturgy can be helpful.
In preparing for our High Holydays together, one of the saddest things that I ran across – something that gave me chills – perhaps because it hits so close to home — is an entry from the diary of Samuel Pepys, who lived in London in the 17th century. Pepys picked up his practice of journaling everyday from his father – and there are records kept from both father and son – one episode in particular, has captured rightful attention – one day that was shared together and described in the differing perspectives of both father and son – Samuel Pepys, the son describes a day when his father took him fishing – going into great detail about the time that he got out of bed, what both of them ate for breakfast, the preparation of the fishing gear and bait, the trip to the fishing hole, the time that they spent together, what they caught, and what a wonderful day it was. The parallel entry in his father’s journey reads: day wasted. Took the boy fishing.
And each of us has some version of this story too – perhaps even right now. What glories resources are contained within ourselves, mirrored too in the machzor – what abilities we have to get involved in something and to learn and be changed by our past. The Avodah and Eleh Ezkerah are short stories in our canon of literature. As Henry James exhorts – try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.
Let us be both uncanny and eternal, for what happens to our days once they disappear? Do they return to a dreamland – or are they preserved in our memory, even our collective memory to be dreamed and returned to again – becoming a vision for the future for us and for our people?
Im Tirzu Ein Zo Aggadah – if you will it, it is no dream
If we act on our dreams and work for them – they become visions. Let us continue to become a people of vision, with eyes open, standing in the breach between what we’d like and what is – and continue to work for a world – or for a nation – or for a people, or community, family, or self – undeterred from those who would bring us down our convince us otherwise. Let us enter into Yizkor knowing that we stand on the precipice between this world and others – between what we think we know and things we can’t even imagine, and let us be gentle, opening our mouths to the words that stimulate our memories – and let us cry, and resolve, and learn, overcome, and grow.
Niggun: We Shall Overcome/Im Tirzu
Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre
Neil F. Blumofe
13 September 2013
Menachem Rosensaft, the Founding Chair of the International Network of Children of Jewish Survivors, tells the story about his father, who was an inmate in the Birkenau death camp – one evening during Sukkot in 1943 my father and a group of Jews from the Polish city of Zawiercie were sitting in their barrack when the Zawiercier Rov suddenly said in Yiddish – you know, der Rebboine shel-oilm ken zein a ligner – the Master of the Universe can be a liar. He was asked how this could possibly be – the rabbi explained – if God were to open a window now and look down and see us here, God would immediately turn away and say, Ikh hob dos nisht geton – I did not do this – and this would be the lie.
My parents, of blessed memory, loved Israel. They traveled there just one time, meeting me as I journeyed there for the first time, in 1991. They participated in a program called Volunteers for Israel, working for two weeks in supporting roles alongside Israelis young and old – learning diverse and compelling stories and imbibing powerful yet mundane experiences that gave them permission to stand and say that they too, in their own way, were participants in the flowering and the progress of a Jewish state.
They returned home from the trip swelled with pride and a newfound commitment to reawaken their discovery of Jewish life. My mother started taking Hebrew classes at their synagogue for the first time, leading to her adult bat mitzvah – and my father became a para-chaplain, leading Friday evening services for those in assisted living and nursing homes – bringing joy and a warm human connection in simple Shabbat observances to many for whom contact and basic rapport was lacking and yet, so desired.
They blew up one of their pictures taken on that trip, to a ridiculous size – a photo of the three of us standing near the kotel, the Western Wall, in the heart of the Old City – and you could feel their pleasure and their joy (and based on the expression on my face, my dutiful cantankerousness), as they stood in the place where all streams flow, from the beginning of time – as they were present in the thriving home of the Jewish people – and I know that they thought of their parents and grandparents who never saw that place, as they touched their souls in gentle kisses, beyond this world as their voice resounded throughout the generations saying, hineni – miracles of miracles, we are now here.
After they left then, I stayed in Israel for a few months – working in the chicken coops and the grape fields on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights and then learning in a yeshiva in Jerusalem – each of these experiences new, and highly prized, as I too began to turn towards and willingly choose the gifts of my birthright and inheritance.
I was a neophyte – really unschooled in the intricacies of identity and the blessings and the curses of history – the thick soup of remembering and forgetting. I knew that Iraq had launched Scud missiles against Tel Aviv and Haifa earlier that year and that left me unsettled and somehow connected to a people that I called my brothers and sisters, and yet, did not yet know.
And now, 22 years later and after 13 subsequent trips that I have made to Israel, I stand humbly before you, enthusiastic to share my most recent learning and adventures with you, my beloved community. In your graciousness and generosity, I have been able to accept a three-year appointment as part of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative, sponsored by the Hartman Institute, which is based in Jerusalem. For the next three years, I will be able to learn in Jerusalem for a week each winter and for a few weeks in each of the summers, and also throughout the year, the 27 rabbis in our cohort participating in weekly study together, connected by technology, bringing us collective wisdom and shared experiences – and in turn, sharing our learning in our respective communities – hopefully broadening awareness and deepening a desire in each of us, to discover unexplored wildernesses yet within us.
And tonight we gather and I will speak about a moment that I do not remember – an event that happened forty years ago today. On this precious day, when we give our tradition the benefit of the doubt and stand if not open and expectant, we stand present nevertheless and each of us opine, hineni – we are here, hoping beyond hope, past our prior experiences, perhaps, now as ever, waiting for the miracle, the miracle to come. We are entering a time out of time, a bit removed from a normal rhythm – a mythic time, when we can even for an instant, shed our gloom and our fretfulness and our restlessness, and cast aside our harried and shoddy ways that we speak throughout the year – as we often tell each other words perhaps close to Leonard Cohen’s upon entering the synagogue at Yom Kippur – I don’t believe you’d like it, you wouldn’t like it here. There ain’t no entertainment and the judgments are severe.
All of this business as usual can be overturned for one treasured moment and on Yom Kippur, we can lose our inhibitions and relearn how to care and how to express ourselves earnestly and with intention – we are here, ready to receive — and forty years ago, on Yom Kippur, 6 October 1973, when many were in synagogues or with their families, a coordinated coalition of Egyptian and Syrian forces crossed negotiated ceasefire lines and attacked positions held by Israel. A ceasefire was imposed almost three weeks later, on 25 October – and even though at that point the Israeli armies had recovered from this attack and not without small casualties over 2800), had advanced and were just 25 miles from Damascus and 63 miles from Cairo, this war is known to be a defeat of prestige and advantage for the Jewish state — based on the findings of the Agranat Comission, reflecting the shortcomings of some strategic decisions and the lack of preparation leading up to the war, the Prime Minister, Defense Minister and Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff were forced to resign and other IDF commanders were relieved of their duties – the aftermath of this war punctured the sense of invincibility gained six years earlier in the victory of the Six Day War in 1967, and raised hard questions of maintaining advantage in a volatile region and provoking feelings of insecurity and existential crisis that many believe are still extant in considering the trajectory and development of the enterprise of Israel.
Indeed, these feelings of anxiety have become mythic, in themselves. As in any deeply committed relationship, we find the triggers of our partners – and we intimately know tender areas, and even certain words that if said, can quickly reduce our so called intimates to watery piles on the floor or can instantly change a momentary disagreeable conversation into a long-standing, seething feud. We can be mindfully cruel – and on this Day of Atonement – this day of openness and honesty, it seems too, in the course of this world, that God doesn’t want us to get too close or too comfortable.
Throughout history, in our own quest for acceptance for a normalized life, free from harassment and violence because of our religion, and even in the periods of our exclusions, we crave the approval of others. Scholars speak about this tension between security and endangerment in the Jewish experience, as the tautness between a Sinai outlook and a Holocaust outlook.
At our experience at Sinai as a people, we received Torah and established a covenant with God – our future was bright and open before us and even with the merciless and pitiless strikes by Amalek against our weakest members during our journey out of Egypt, we were able to withstand such assault and move beyond the immediate trauma of such a gut-wrenching episode with aplomb and with inspiring measures of confidence and trust. In our search for God and for a meaningful life in this world, we were not to be deterred – and our undertaking, towards freedom and revelation, were both insistent and eternal. Everyday, blessed with life, we choose life and with munificent intentions, we shine a mirror into the world and see the holy work that is ours to do — hayom katzar, v’hamlacha m’rubah. We build a sukkah out in the world and whatever winds and rain may come, we dwell secure and unafraid, knowing that there is a rainbow, after.
By contrast, the Holocaust and the slaughter of our people and of many millions of others – and the smooth efficiency and upgrades in the mechanisms of war and the advent of the atomic age, brought our walk on the path to significance and value to a grinding halt. We were both shocked and benumbed to the damage and brutality that humans could inflict on one another – and as part of a reflexive response, we spent a generation in the desert, calling this genocidal behavior maniacal and crazy – and yet we know, underneath our rationale that it is not – that murder and warfare is part of the human condition and that we cannot distance ourselves from knowing that this vortex of evil has existed and does exist perpetually among us – va’yar haShem kol yetzer machsh’vot libo rak ra kol hayom – and God realized that the inclinations and the thoughts of the human were always evil, everyday.
To develop a Sinai consciousness means that a little danger is tolerable and manageable and that regardless, we have a higher purpose than conflict or stooping to the banal level of any tormentor – to have a Holocaust consciousness means that we are never secure – that there is always a creeping danger and that we must always be vigilant and prepared for the worst, as old demons never die.
At varying times, I would think that each of us possesses a little Sinai and a little Holocaust within us – both boundless hope and chasms of apprehension. I believe that an implication of the Yom Kippur War is that it became the delta where these two distinct rivers flowed, becoming an integral part of the ethos of the Israeli – the Sinai and the Holocaust – each pouring into each other in real time, merging currents and sediments and taking on a larger, mutual, muddy meaning – each becoming one, defined by the other – inseparable in their confluence – neutralized, and yet maintaining – optimistic and despairing, at the same time.
And bound up in any peace process, in any new initiative or agreement, in any flickering moment of greatness, is the creeping feeling that the specter of the Holocaust is nearby, snickering, ready to strut again and make itself known upon the world’s stage, to the secret delight, or the apathetic or exhausted shrug of the dominant world powers.
And how seductive is it to proclaim like the former speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg does, that the Holocaust is over and that we must rise from its ashes. How reassuring is it that we can proclaim our own destiny – that we can determine a paradigm shift – a pivot away from menace and towards the ethical imperatives of justice, fairness, equitability and common individual and human rights – a universal Torah of Wisdom, given at Sinai. With the triumph of Sinai, we are able to proclaim an authentic prophetic voice and work towards goals that bring us together – all nations flowing towards the house of God – in an expandable and unsparing covenant.
And the difficulty is that both positions are valid, real, and present – both waters flow into and out of each other simultaneously. And for us to recognize this, to hold onto both Sinai and the Holocaust, gam v’gam, we can rediscover the complex simplicity – the wonder of the mundane that brings us engagement and witness to all that develops in the wake of Sinai and the Holocaust. We live with both, everyday – and our heightened experiences tonight too sound in the chamber of echoes of forty years ago – of past conflict, and ill preparation, and sneak attack. Tonight, we pray openly and yearn for real meaning, protected by a cadre of security, on vigilant watch on our behalf. And in our online footprint and as we travel, we are allowed to be credulous as we put our trust in unseen forces to encrypt our most sensitive information and keep us safe. And we stand here, as if we were at the kotel 2000 years ago opening our hearts to something greater – we create myths within our mythic time. We choose to believe in this moment – reclaiming Yom Kippur in gratitude to all those who perished in order for us to live and imagine and dream — for we would be churlish ingrates in freefall if we did not.
A number of years ago, an Israeli author whom I admire, Haim Sabato, wrote a novel about his experiences in the 1973 Yom Kippur war – the book is called Tiyum Kavanot or in English – Adjusting Sights. It is the story of Hayim who lost his friend Dov in the opening days of the war as they served together in a tank battalion.
No one talked. Everyone looked depressed. I went off and said an early afternoon prayer. There may not be time later. We had become used to that. We prayed when we could. You never knew when you would have another chance. I tried to focus my prayers. It was hopeless. As soon as I shut my eyes, I began to see things… I couldn’t concentrate. And the war had taught me what concentration in prayer was in the ambush, with no radio and unadjusted gun sights and the missiles coming closer and the tanks around us bursting into flames. Gidi had shouted, “Gunner, pray! We’re taking fire!” I prayed. There wasn’t a hair’s breadth then between my heart and my lips.
And at the end we turn back to God, for ultimately God is all we have – past our Iron Domes and our trust in a shared justice and the advance of successive civilizations – past our prickly hold on both the paradigms of Sinai and the Holocaust. Tonight let us let go and pose for a picture together in our sacred space and blow it up to a ridiculous size, framed in our hearts, as we hold space for our beloveds and each other, past the rush and the sting of cruel reality, past the intellectual deflection and existential crisis, past our uncertainties, let us say, with full knowledge of the many dilemmas that we face and the imperfections that will always exist, and the history that may have happened differently, and the struggles that remain, that through it all, we are here – by some incredible miracle, we have momentarily dispensed with our wanderings and managed to find ourselves here. Hineni – like a rainbow in the blink of an eye – we are here.
As the English Romantic poet, Lord Byron wrote in 1814:
Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life.
The evening beam that smiles the clouds away,
And tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah – May Each of Us and All of Us be Sealed in the Book of Life in this Year and Always.