LETTERS FROM ISRAEL
Letter #1 (22 December 2012)
Shabbat Shalom – From the Holy City of Safed
We greet you from the hills of the Upper Galilee of Israel. There are thirty of us, participating in our Agudas Achim congregational trip and we are preparing for the arrival of Shabbat, in the very place where the mystics anticipated sunset, innovated the Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, and welcomed the appearance of the Shabbat Queen.
Until today we have been based in Haifa, meeting various Israelis and learning about their lives. We have visited Beit Sh’arim, a home of the ancient Sanhedrin, where our rabbinic Judaism developed and grew. We came to the edge of the Sea of Galilee, seeing the graves of two great 20th century poets, Rachel, and Naomi Shemer, and we had exceptional falafel in the town of Afula.
We visited the Yemin Orde Youth Village, where 500 at risk children learn and live, gaining confidence as they find a home, a hope for the future. We ate dinner in the Druse village Osafiya, learning about practices and the culture of the Druse people. We also came to the artist colony Ein Hod, seeing sculpture, paintings, ceramic, and metalwork of contemporary Israeli artists.
We are in Israel for another week, after Shabbat making our way to the Negev desert and then, finally to Jerusalem, where we will experience Shabbat next week and the conclusion of our tour.
We have been enjoying a refreshing rain as our diverse group gets to know each other and shares this precious time together. We are grateful and look forward to sharing more in person upon our return to Austin.
May each of our families be nourished in this time together and may our entire community continue to cultivate Ahavat Yisrael, a love for Israel, as we experience this rich, beguiling, modern, and timeless place.
As well, may this Shabbat in Austin be nourishing and filled with happiness and good health as we connect together, each of us, across time and space.
Looking forward. Shabbat Shalom.
Letter #2 (26 December 2012)
Greetings From the Negev Desert
Our intrepid group of 30 has been traveling the length and breadth of the land of Israel, visiting less traveled places and enjoying each other’s company in the enriching blessings of nature.
After Shabbat, we left the holy city of Safed and traveled southward to the ancient city of Jaffa and the bustling city of Tel Aviv. However, before we took our leave from the Upper Galilee, two in our group, Betty and Ron Vargo, stood under a huppah to celebrate their marriage – a sweet moment shared by all of us.
From Tel Aviv after seeing Rabin Square, we traveled past the town of Sederot (which has suffered many missile attacks), and near to the border of the Gaza strip, and then we journeyed a bit west from there to the desert town of Mitzpeh Ramon, which sits just atop the stunning Ramon crater. We took a jeep tour of this geological marvel and then hiked a bit – after which we enjoyed a camel ride and a traditional Bedouin lunch at Khan Hasherot. We finished the day participating in some modern dance with a member of the experimental dance company, Adama.
From here, we traveled further south to the Arava region (just north of Eliat), hiking in the famed Timnah mines and learning about two innovative kibbutzim – Kibbutz Keturah, which specializes in harnessing solar power and Ne’ot S’madar, which promotes artistic expression within a conversation of renewable energy and social responsibility.
Israel is more than 60% desert – and a dream of David Ben Gurion, the founder of the modern state of Israel, was to cultivate and populate the Negev. Im Tirtsu – we have seen the contrasting barrenness of the desert and incredible ways that Israelis are able to fulfill their dreams, making the desert bloom.
Our days have been long and filled with sunshine, and as we travel each of us is experiencing unexpected yet powerful connections that we hold and will take with us as we return to Austin.
From the Negev, we will be heading north into the Judean Hills and the region of Samaria, and then we will conclude our tour, celebrating Shabbat in the holy city of Jerusalem. One more letter will follow this one, arriving before Shabbat. We are looking forward to sharing our moments and our love of Israel directly with our cherished community.
Wishing each of you very well.
Letter #3 (29 December 2012)
Shabbat Shalom – Greetings From the Holy City of Jerusalem
I write this note now at the Kotel, the site of the Western Wall, in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. It seems like it was only yesterday when we sent our previous note, with our wonderful group of travelers representing Agudas Achim overlooking the Negev desert at S’de Boker, the home (and the final resting place) of the visionary of the Modern State of Israel, David Ben Gurion.
From S’de Boker, we traveled north into the hills of Judea, and we explored the Holy City of Hebron, including having time in the cave of Makhpelah, the place that our ancestor Abraham purchased from Ephron the Hittite in order for him to bury his wife, Sarah.
We spoke about the vexing contemporary issues of this time and place as we toured the captivating region of Samaria, and as we met residents of Itamar, a place now thriving, where the parents and three of the children of the Fogel family were murdered in 2011.
From there, we returned to Jerusalem and have walked high and low – learning about the Kotel tunnels and exploring the ancient city of David and the tunnel of King Hezekiah – the pages of our tradition have certainly come to life – in timelessness and relevance. We have also walked the bustling market of Makhne Yehuda, where we have acquired treats for our Oneg Shabbat later this evening.
In addition, we have explored the home of the the Nobel Prize winning Hebrew writer SY Agnon, in the neighborhood of Talpiyot, and we have visited the Israel Museum, located in the heart of energetic West Jerusalem, across the street from the Knesset – a museum that is filled with beautiful art exhibitions as well as the special home of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In Jerusalem, we met a representative of Women of the Wall, (an organization that I support) who determinedly spoke about the challenges and the potential dangers of women praying in the Women’s Section at the Western Wall Plaza while wearing a tallit – an issue of egalitarianism that is a flashpoint and topic of lively argument and current debate in the Conservative Jewish movement.
Now, I have just returned from placing notes in the Kotel, asking our God to have mercy on the souls that many members in our Agudas Achim Family remember in this tender time, just before Shabbat. In an hour, as a group, we will gather and pray together at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, known as Robinson’s Arch, for the joyful welcoming of the Shabbat Bride (Kabbalat Shabbat).
We will be in Jerusalem until the sun sets on Saturday night, slowly making our way back to Austin and speaking well of and spiritually moved by our adventures.
It has been a privilege to help lead this group and I am grateful to many who have helped to organize our time in Eretz Yisrael – notably Jane Weiss, Jaclyn Owusu, Joe Steinberg, and Ahuva Scharff. I very much appreciate also Rabbi Rachel Kobrin and Dr. Harvey Raben, who are my partners in supporting and leading our beloved Austin community.
May each of us be enriched in our work, as we continue to learn our stories and our traditions that can bring us awe, satisfaction, and purpose in our lives.
With love – this Shabbat in Jerusalem.
D’VAR TORAH (5 January 2013)
“In Place of Egypt”
Neil F. Blumofe
5 January 2013
During the last week of December if possible, I like to go hiking in West Texas. I appreciate the landscape and the change of pace and the opportunity to hear the wind in a different sky for a few days. Removing myself from the wider world holiday bustle for just a moment is restorative and gives me renewed appreciation regarding the importance of simplicity in relationships. When one is concentrating wholly on just taking the next step on a challenging trail, other tangential or subsidiary concerns swirling about in the head recede in importance.
In planning our recent Agudas Achim trip to Israel, it was an unforeseen personal benefit that in the last week of December, thirty of us and a devoted and enthusiastic guide found ourselves hiking for a bit in the Negev desert. In my previous eleven trips to Israel, I have not experienced any time in the desert – largely centering my locations in the centers of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Safed. One of the goals of this community trip was to get off of the beaten path for a few chosen moments and to encounter an Israel that was not produced principally for the visitor or for one just passing through. It was my hope that by participating in more ordinary experiences and everyday life in Israel would hopefully give a deeper complexion to both the land and to the inhabitants of the land. Sharing time in the country would hopefully relieve some of the media fatigue and resultant anxiety about safety suffered on this side of the world, as well.
One of the challenges of a group tour is that there are so many moving parts in insuring a successful trip – and success means something different for each of the participants as well. It is my hope that those who were on this trip will also widely share their impressions and ideas, giving voice to their encounters and building a network of momentum for expanded, upcoming first-hand experience by many others in our community. I also hope that in the years to come, we expand our journeys to Israel – making it a priority to travel with various partners in our community, or in assorted groups, or with other families, as we renew bonds with our own birthright, or discover long lost family, or create new connections as we inform our own opinions about aspects of the Jewish state, directly.
Over the last few weeks, I sent back three letters which we will post on our website, that speak of the locations and substance of our visit. This morning, as we open a new scroll of the Torah, and as we experience again our dislodging from the once comfortable spaces of Egypt and our propulsion as strangers and as a mixed multitude into wandering in the wilderness, our relationship with Israel, hopefully involved and complex, will continue to thicken and develop.
Beyond the talents of our individual travelers, our guide Raz was a perfect complement to our group. After having lead countless collegiate trips and other private tours for both Jewish and Christian groups, he told me that at the age of 39, he is retiring and he had decided even before meeting us that after our trip, he would be handpicking his tour leading to only 2-3 times a year as he concentrates on his growing family and on expanding his date farm, located near the Dead Sea.
Raz shared his love of the land and his realistic outlook about the crisis of leadership currently in Israeli politics. At the same time, he was undeterred in proudly showing us his country, his leadership blooming in the Negev as he led our hike. In a moment, I will share my personal impressions of the Negev – however, Raz told me that his favorite parts of the tour where both Shabbat related – the first Shabbat, when we were in Safed, we were singing songs at our table on Friday evening, before the Birkat haMazon (Grace after Meals), and we were joined and encouraged by another rowdy table of Israelis – who were as exuberant as we and appreciative of sharing that moment among strangers. Really, only in Israel – could we share and without embarrassment or constriction of self-awareness learn songs from each other in that precious time.
Another impressive moment that Raz shared was our Friday night service last week, at the Robinson’s Arch at the Western Wall – this is the section where egalitarian prayer is allowed, and we sang loudly, as two other small groups that came a bit later did the same – a beautiful complement to what we were doing – almost a canon of liturgical melodies – and during the individual prayers of the Amidah, our people were able to hold fast to the fallen blocks of stones, that were pushed off of the top of the wall by the Roman soldiers 1900 years ago – perhaps merging past, present, and even, future.
Raz told me that his daughter and his family would love to sing with us – and that to his surprise, he was personally uplifted by our expression and inspired by our prayer – that he was affected by it. To me, this was one of the top highlights of the entire trip – an earnest and resilient Israeli appreciating joyful egalitarian prayer that seemed so American, or at least so different, in presentation – that there is hope for different Judaisms to meet and to converse if not to flourish in each other’s light.
So, there I was on 25 December, hiking in the Negev – like I have been in Big Bend National Park in West Texas a few times before – these writings will not solve some international predicament nor will they bring peace to the Middle East – it’s just my own thirsty desire for connection and my determination to hear our world a bit differently – to move out of my own slavery in Egypt into a wilderness that will lushly bear different and unexpected fruit.
In the Negev – at the Ramon Crater, near the town of Mitzpe Ramon
As the tectonic plates shift, the F16’s fly noisily overhead dropping artillery, causing craters, and the shifting ancient sands from Saudi Arabia part to reveal a naked single germ of an idea, shimmering in the desert’s setting sun. Approaching the wilderness of Zin on foot, we can see the dream of Ben Gurion built from the ladders of crushed fossils presiding over the place. We too will melt into the sand, fodder for the covenant, star stuff on earth, retelling a recurring story of wandering – flares of effort, and then replaced. The Nabateans were able to grow grapes from an eyelash of water, and they too disappeared into the earth, as nutrients to feed the next residents.
And it is the grocery store in Mitzpe Ramon which is the most interesting of all, mingling ideas and cultures – the Haredi man with the external fringes and the twin flowing locks of hair bagging groceries for the fully clad Bedouin women, whose opening are only slits for eyes – and the Russian, and North African, and Ethiopian immigrants mingle in the exhaust of the touring buses – and the soldiers from the nearby base (Bad Echad) gather to smoke while the sudden quiet after the blasting shells is absorbed by the wadis.
The rock shale comes off in cakes, crumbling in your hand, and the cliff points straight down, with the lights of the hills of Jordan, straight across. There is no escape as the earth sinks, taking us with it, we tilt towards the east, with the flood rushing in, and then out again, to create the machtesh – the crater. We are in this one-way canyon, in the heart of what regales us, laying our ear to the ground to hear the faint pulse of the land that quickens us.
“Out of the Window”
Neil F. Blumofe
20 October 2012
It is instructive to compare the constricted and crowded spaces of the ark bobbing atop the floodwaters with the sweeping valley in the land of Shinar where the Tower of Babel was constructed, with bricks forged in fire. Our tradition imagines the rainwater and the subsequent flood and the destruction of greater humanity as a watery barrage from God, truly launching a war against God’s very creation, that is in turn escalated with the determined acts of a united society with a single purpose – as our tradition teaches – to build a tower as tall as the heavens in order to climb up to God’s residence and storm God’s home – overtaking and revolting against the Divine Presence to set up a new society, based on the ascendency and the power of the mortal.
We imagine Noah and his family in the ark, caretakers of God’s creation – improbable builders and custodians of the remnants and the outcasts of the Garden of Eden, shut up in a wooden boat, helpless to exist in the wet rage outside, biding their time until the storm subsides – as our Torah relates, hewing a window to look out upon the destruction of the land and of the world that they knew, while they float, in the utter mercy of the elements. As Noah and his family were adrift, yet safe, it was crucial going onward, that the survivors had a first hand knowledge of the devastation that was just on the other side of their tenuous shelter.
One could see the building of the Tower of Babel as a feverish release, an intense mania of wanting accomplishment, out of the trauma of the earlier catastrophe. The tower was built by the descendants of Noah as a rampart against God’s overwhelming power to dominate and determine events – it was a symbol of the frustration and the ultimate sadness of people recognizing their own condition and trying to lift themselves out of such a vulnerable and wretched state.
These descendants of Noah were uncomfortable living after the flood – perhaps possessing the guilt of survival and the guilt of success, and not knowing quite what to do with their own life – not knowing how to apply themselves to a common good – in their upset, all they could concentrate on was to bring down an eternal force – so that the tower was a blunt weapon against an everlasting windmill – and their sense of purpose – to create a name for themselves – was misplaced.
So it is for us – as my family knows well, after the devastation of Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, many families who lost their homes and all of their possessions, immediately went out to thrift stores and to Goodwill to quickly replace them, in their new cities thinking that shopping is a curative and replacement of goods would ease pain. We believe that stuff comforts us, and is insulation against the terrors and the panics of this world. If we could somehow burrow ourselves deeply enough in what we own, hide under our thick covers, we could stave off looking at and having to deal with the impossible problems that our world regularly presents.
We have an opportunity to build a window both in our ark and in our fortified tower. Beyond the commitments that we have and the regular pattern of busy-ness that keeps us afloat and gives us contour and conversation, among other things, we can adjust our eating for one week, to open awareness to the common ravages that lurk just beyond our comfort zone.
We are all invited to participate in the Global Hunger Challenge – in our Austin community the first week of November – from Thursday, 1 November – 8 November. During this first week of November, each person is challenged to eat for a week on $31.50 – the average amount that one enrolled in the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spends for food – one in seven Americans – and nearly 25% of our children – average about $1.50 per meal – about $4.50 per day. We will pay attention to our hunger and also to the feelings of struggle and difficulty that may arise during this week. We can support each other – keeping one another accountable, speaking about how our food spending and intake tests us, and by spreading the word about our experience to call attention to the scourge of hunger around the world.
The goal of this challenge is to have us consider our obligations to each other. We are not looking to pretend that we are less fortunate than we are. We are challenged to simply contemplate our values and have this experience of paying attention to how much money we spend on food to be part of the larger groundwork for our responsible acting in our own life and in the lives around us. Something to consider: if there were only 100 people in the world, the distribution of annual income from riches to poorest is vast. The person in place 50 of 100 has an annual income of $850. The 20th place has an annual income of $1834. The 10th richest person in the world makes $25,140 – while the richest person in the world has an annual income of $231 million. How can we navigate this disparity without guilt or resentment?
We can have these conversations together, over time – we can appreciate the modest efforts that each of us put forth – and we can be patient as our feelings ebb and flow, as we find ourselves overwhelmed or as I also know, disengaged from all of this. Rather than run from ark to tower, or from project to project, or from one appointment to another, we can appreciate a sense of perspective – we can prepare for catastrophe by our mindful and careful management of our resources and by building strong relationships with our neighbors, so we can rely on each other and trust each other in times of need. To cultivate feelings of solidarity helps us to confront our feelings also of pity and indifference – above anything, this Global Hunger Challenge is an opportunity for us to learn and to refresh conversations with our loved ones about our priorities. As a community, it is an opportunity for us to think about our purpose and direction – and can spark us to a more discerning and fulfilling life.
In two weeks, we will celebrate Shabbat during this Global Hunger Challenge – we will enjoy a HAZAK sponsored Pray and Stay on Erev Shabbat, and our lively and welcoming Shabbat services on Shabbat morning. One of the hallmarks of the Pray and Stay evening, is that after services, we gather in our Social Hall for stimulating conversation and elegant desserts. We are grateful to HAZAK for helping to lead and to teach about this challenge – the dessert reception on Friday, 2 November will be consistent with our eating parameters during this time of challenge – the reception will have a bit less food, and some different food. Similarly, our much-revered Kiddush luncheon on Saturday morning, 3 November, will be different – the budget in both cases will be at $1.50 per person. The money that we typically budget for Kiddush luncheon and will not spend on this Shabbat, will be donated to the American Jewish World Service.
What is our consumption? What is our fatigue with all of this? What are our questions, and how can we live, opening ourselves to the integrity embedded in our life? May we look out at the reality of our world from our places of refuge and resolve to think and to act – to bring goodness and righteousness into the world through our steady downpour of small yet virtuous actions.
The Global Hunger Challenge is an opportunity for us to feel a bit of the toxic injustice that ravages our planet and for us to being to devise a strategy and to adjust our behavior to bring our light to this darkness. After disembarking from the ark, we can move forward by joining together and by appreciating the warnings and the lessons of our Torah, to raise our voice for reasonable accomplishment. Let us avoid the tower – and stop making war on the Unmoved Mover, and rather in the new spaces within ourselves that our participation in the Global Hunger Challenge will create, we can commit and concentrate our efforts on moderating our behaviors and easing pain among our friends and neighbors in our community and by extension, around the world.
As the poet Marge Piercy writes,
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
Has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
But you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
And a person for work that is real.
“Live Like Lance”
Neil F. Blumofe
13 October 2012
It’s been a week of trial and gloom not only for those who are linked to professional cycling, but too for all of us who hold fast to a belief in integrity and who cherish a hope that somewhere there exists a realm where cheating and corner cutting don’t support achievement. To many, especially in Austin, the home of the Livestrong Foundation, Lance Armstrong represented someone different – a survivor of cancer who redefined a sport as he popularized it. He was a tall man of talent who inspired each of us to go further than we planned – to take our limitations as a starting point, and not as an end. A few years ago, especially cycling around downtown and the lake, one would find tributes to Lance spray painted on the concrete and often on your way, you would be greeted with the playful shout, “Go Lance, Go” – a good-natured teasing for those of us obviously not in competition mode, yet too, words of support and solidarity that represented something more, and by linking the experience of one who is biking recreationally with the one who represented the highest level of cycling’s grueling demands, there was a connection offered that was inspiring, sophisticated, and cheerful, for all involved – the chant, “Go Lance, Go” offered to any cyclist passing by as if saying, here too now rides a hero in our midst.
Yet, as we are forced to rethink Tour de France rides long past as Armstrong’s seven titles have been disallowed, and the future of the sport that is implicated and indicted as it has seemed to admit, or at least for decades, look the other way, past common doping violations, we continue to identify with Armstrong in powerful ways – knowing that within each of us prowls the yetzer hara, the drive that conducts us towards satisfaction and pleasure, and if unchecked, can lead to our destruction and our perdition. As we study the beginning of the Torah again, we recognize that to exist inside and outside of the Garden of Eden are distinct and real places – and even for a moment to defy our exile, we strive to find our way back to paradise.
Jewish tradition teaches that in the Garden of Eden, the yetzer hara was the snake itself – detached from the human form, which tempted Adam and Eve to go beyond the boundaries of their world – entreating them to besmirch their limits and good sense in pursuit of something that shines, suddenly. The snake, the yetzer hara, guided Adam and Eve to add banned substances to their strictly human struggle – substances that gave them additional insights and with these new abilities, doping in the Garden of Eden, allowed them to transcend the Garden, itself.
Paradise became a bit smaller and tawdry in the glittering lights of enhanced ability. Ambition became outsized. Goal setting exceeded the capacity of the place. God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden, into a new land that could manage such boosted aspirations – it is in exile that doping to enhance performance can exist – not in the rarified confines of the Garden. Yet, the snake went with the departed couple out of the Garden, as part of the forbidden fruit. We, the legacy of these choices executed at the beginning of human existence, continue to have the snake lie in wait within each of us, intensifying the complex and multifaceted character that we each possess. We too, within the parameters our own abilities are simultaneously heroes and antiheroes – we are living just outside of paradise, each of us at once, Cain and Abel, perhaps and often, our own worst enemy. Our temptations are intact, outside the Garden of Eden, in a culture that gives them a place to thrive.
Once we acknowledge our capacity for both good and evil, how do we manage it? How do we keep our inner snake in check? With unfolding allegations that implicate professional cycling itself, how do we find ways to accept this information and continue to support those who devote their lives to it, while we still try to live within its system – and like most of us, if it’s not professional cycling that calls us to account, perhaps it’s the abuses on Wall Street and the ethics of our investments in our portfolios, or if even that doesn’t move you, even closer to home it’s the products and companies that we choose to support when we purchase things in the marketplace. Where does our money really go? Who suffers in the fabrication of our pleasure?
Halo im teitiv s’eit v’im lo teitiv lapetach hatat roveitz v’eilecha t’shukato v’atah timshol bo – surely if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. However, if you do not improve yourself, sin crouches at the door, leaning in to you with its desire – yet you can still conquer it (Genesis 4:7). So, perhaps we find ourselves not in the whirlwind of endlessly craving paradise, rather we find ourselves in the circumstances of Job, looking to adapt and survive in a cruel and unfair world, where after heartbreak, even basic aspirations are suspect. How can we limit our impact as convenient liars and daily tyrants?
What is significant about the plight of Lance Armstrong is the good work that has come out of his success. The manifesto of the Lance Armstrong Foundation begins: We believe in life. Your life. We believe in living every minute of it with every ounce of your being. And that you must not let cancer take control of it. We believe in energy: channeled and fierce. We believe in focus: getting smart and living strong. Unity is strength. Knowledge is power. Attitude is everything. This is LIVESTRONG.
We kick in the moment you’re diagnosed. We help you accept the tears. Acknowledge the rage. We believe in your right to live without pain. We believe in information. Not pity. And in straight, open talk about cancer. With husbands, wives, and partners. With kids, friends, and neighbors. Your healthcare team. And the people you live with, work with, cry and laugh with. This is no time to pull punches. You’re in the fight of your life…This is LIVESTRONG. Founded and inspired by Lance Armstrong, one of the toughest cancer survivors on the planet.
Do these most recently allegations, cheapen the great success of the Lance Armstrong Foundation? Is its very existence bankrupt, or must we look past the suspected sins of its founder and find security and recompense that this organization does good work, despite him? Can Lance Armstrong still be the face, the name, and the brand, of such an inspiring organization – or should this association dissolve and like a phoenix, spring up with another unsullied celebrity, if possible? We acknowledge to a certain degree, Lance’s story is also our story – how do we build paradise while living in exile? How do we make peace with our competing inclinations? To whom may we listen who will not cause us harm? We know that we can no more destroy the snake than ignore its incessant hiss. How to navigate our nature is a main task of our life – as we make the journey again this year, finding ourselves present in the Garden of Eden as the story begins and then rapidly leaving it, along with Adam and Eve, to embark on our life’s work: to master perspective, to refrain from brash impulsiveness, or feeding our raw desires – to find a place of peace after our fall, cultivating discernment in each of the little decisions that we make which accrue, and thus determine our very life’s work.
As Bill Strickland, a friend of Lance’s, wrote this week in Bicycling magazine:
I thought I’d stop being a fan, hate him too much to appreciate him. That’s what we’re told, that we must either admire him or alternately despise and pity him. And I do: I admire him and despise him and pity him—for the years of lying as much as the cheating—and I’m enraged and morose, and I think he owes us something and he should just disappear, and I could keep going like this and some days have. Can you imagine that? A 46-year-old guy all twisted up because of the ugly way a cyclist did beautiful things on a bike?
I don’t know how you’ll feel. I don’t know, if you’re not already there, what might lead you to believe that Lance Armstrong doped. It wasn’t Floyd Landis for me, or the federal investigation, or any public revelation. My catalyst was another one of those statements that was never said by someone I never talked with. It was not from one of Armstrong’s opponents. It was not from anyone who will gain any clemency by affirming it under oath. It was an admission that doping had occurred, one disguised so it could assume innocence but unmistakable to me in meaning. The moment I received it, it felt strangely like a relief, and after all these years unreal and apart from what was happening, like those odd instants that sometimes immediately follow the death of someone you love, when grief is eclipsed by gratitude that the suffering has ended.
And we continue, past all of it, including the silence, to build again past a wrecked world, to find renewed hope, holding both good and evil as true and present in our character and as we continue to live, not condemning or blaming all of this on the actions of one man — cutting our ties to him and what he represents and then moving on, which is too simple and fallacious and by doing so ignores core issues of complicity. What lies do we keep and disguise as rationale? Rather the task in front of us is to find a way to teach our children and remind ourselves that integrity is to be valued and sacrificed for, despite the weakness and the flaws of our heroes or our own coarser natures – that integrity has meaning, despite the contradictory signals that we get, and the rewards that we are promised, on the ledge of the world that we all narrowly inhabit.
“The Gates of Atonement”
Yom Kippur – Yizkor
Neil F. Blumofe
26 September 2012
I have always been struck by the attention our tradition gives to the challenges inherent in relationships between parents and children. On these Holy Days – these days of introspection and denial, when we are to unclutter our mind and revive a sense of sacredness and simplicity, and allow basic questions of good and evil, right and wrong, and life and death to claw their nails into the soft flesh of our weary soul, we pick up the story of Abraham, eternally walking towards Mt. Moriah, with his sacrifice, his son Isaac, on his back. We know how it will end, as it does year after year – at the last moment, Isaac is saved by the intervention of a convenient angel and then Sarah dies, most probably from a broken heart and father and son separate and live separate lives, only connecting again after Abraham’s death.
And on Yom Kippur the story is worse – the ultimate cautionary tale. Aaron the priest sees the unthinkable – two of his boys perish right in front of his eyes — consumed, as they were involved in service to the Most High – trying to emulate and continue the example of their father – trying to please their father, they fail most tragically. And perhaps it is more heartbreaking for us, we who have to relive this disaster year after year, like a penitent Sisyphus sentenced to hell. As time passes, Aaron, whose memory we honor and cherish, is swept away like his children, yet we who are living, who are here now, encounter this state of affairs as our gateway into our own atonement.
Why does our tradition keep pointing us in these directions – towards the near misses and the catastrophe of family sorrow – why does this specific sacred time beckon us to find a path amid the stinging brambles of loss — past, present and future? Psalm 27, the psalm that we include in our prayers for the entire month of Elul, preceding the High Holy Days and through the last day of Sukkot more than halfway through the month of Tishrei, reminds us everyday – avi v’imi azavuni – my father and my mother leave me. With this pounding headache of sobriety reminding us of Isaac and Nadav and Avihu, these loosenings of the bonds of generational familiarity together between parents and children, what can our tradition be urging us to consider?
As we consider the binding of Isaac every year and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, I think we are guided to think about the power and the depth to which we are willing to go to make a sacrifice. In pursuit of our dreams and our ambitions, how far are we willing to go? The traditional image is of parents sacrificing their children, or their families, while chasing the winds of achievement – time spent traveling for business, or in meetings, or taking email or calls during mealtimes, or just being vacant, or preoccupied instead of present for rising children who are urgently looking for an example. Relationships are allowed to fray through neglect, avoidance, or active disregard.
We are guided by our tradition that while our parents are away, or involved in other things, that God will ya’asfeini – will care for each of us, however this is of small relief to one who walks in an empty house, is enrolled in childcare or afterschool activities until evening, or who feels that having a parent sit down at a meal or attend a school or sports activity, is a special occasion, worthy of note.
I don’t speak about this to cast aspersions – I speak plainly this morning to name some of my own struggles – one who studies the life of Moses – a man who decides to cleave to God and lead a people at the expense of his own family, becomes Moses. Wanting to balance obligations and opportunities with the duty and the commitment of raising children is not easy – at least for me. It seems our tradition challenges us to accept this stark choice as a fact of life – either follow your goals or dutifully participate in the raising your children, and accept the consequences of whichever path your traverse.
And as our career continues and we move into the lengthening shadow of our prime, and our children grow and begin to find their own way half-listening to our pressing advice, reinforced in their distracted behavior by having lived in the fizz of the best of our intentions — and then as time passes quite often, and our health declines our roles reverse and as the saying goes, the child becomes the father of the man and our children become our caretakers – helping us to make decisions that we so proudly made before – helping us communicate and get around and if our health permits, finding us a living situation that befits our current lifestyle. We completely devour each call or text from our children, each moment shared, as we see independent lives having to constrict to admit us. As the roles reverse, we see that Isaac has gotten up from the altar and that we have changed places with him. In the passage of time, it is we who have now rested our head on the stone and are waiting for the sacrifice.
Every so often, I partner with Danielle Kaplan, an Agudas Achim Family member who works with Jewish Family service. We lead holiday gatherings throughout the year at one of the assisted living facilities in town. The staff is incredibly responsive and their chef serves an exquisite lunch and for the twenty or so folks who attend, it is a pleasant social and celebratory gathering. At our recent Rosh haShanah luncheon, I went around the table, asking each participant to name something positive in the New Year – perhaps a blessing that they enjoy, or something that brings them life, or something for which they were grateful.
Each person gave a general answer – the wedding of a grandchild, a small visit from a friend, a recent outing – until the turn passed to a particular resident who was silent for a moment and then stated with obvious pain – “you know, I’m ready to die. I have nothing to look forward to, there is no meaning for me.” I gently tried to engage her, offering possible positive openings, however, compared to her forcefulness, mine was a weak attempt and with burning tears in her eyes, she left the table. There was a pall that crept across the table at that point, eventually dissipated, however, her empty chair stood for the rest of the meal, like a seat where an agitated and heartbroken Elijah the prophet once sat but left, not able to bear the insipid conversation about positive thinking, appreciation of little things and hope.
Amid all of the videos that enjoy a flare of popularity on You Tube, there was one that a colleague recently shared that I had not heard of. It is a short video made by a filmmaker named Jeremiah McDonald, who when he was 12 years old made a video of himself interviewing his future self – and now, twenty years later, using that footage, he created a conversation between his 12 year old self and his 32 year old self. While the video is entertaining, it is also thought-provoking – as my colleague writes, “he is both dismissive of his younger self’s immaturity and general cluelessness about so much in the world, and also inspired by his younger self’s drive, creativity, and vision.”
It is now time for Yizkor – a time when we collapse lifetimes into a single moment. Beyond the relationships that we both invest in and withdraw from over our lifetime – beyond the closeness that we feel with our parents and the inscrutable distance and alienation that ebbs and flows throughout the years, what would it be like to meet ourselves twenty years in the future, or thirty years in the past? What would it be like to have a conversation with either our older or younger self?
What would we talk about – what encouragements would we offer? What hardships would we speak about avoiding? What would we want to know – what reassurances would we seek? Looking from the past into the future, would we be proud of what we saw today? Would we be inspired by who we used to be? Would our life be cleanly divided into chapters that neatly built, were neatly stacked on each other, or would we revisit disorder? Would we find some sort of consistency regarding our values, commitments and desired life direction? How much of it would we fast forward through? Would we laugh at perceived wrong, or offer encouragement for our past self as it struggles to emerge from a dark night of the soul?
Yizkor is our opportunity to explore all of these ideas – to have a conversation both with our timeless self and also with those who have shaped us – our origins. We are entering an almost enchanted time, when we do not exist here – rather when we occupy an incredible vantage point from which to gain perspective and offer forgiveness – both in our role as Isaac and as Abraham. As we see the dreadful action of Nadav and Avihu – trying with all of their might to be like their father, to please him — and failing – perhaps trying to gain approval and sacrificing their life for this illusive approval. As Rabbi Jill Hammer writes,
The binding of Isaac is not the lesson; it’s the sacrifice of the ram that is the lesson. The ram is life, and we have to kill and eat other lives; we sacrifice them in place of ourselves. Our contemplation of this is the beginning of our knowledge of tragedy… In the face of this truth, we try to make our lives valuable; how else can we deserve the countless sheep, plants, and ecosystems sacrificed for our need? We are all Isaac staring into the eyes of the dying ram. To deserve this gift, what must we become?
Yizkor is a time to take a breath – to move out from under the heavy rings of sadness and loss that we feel and to link our diminishment to remembrance and blessing. At the end, I was present as my father lay dying. I was with him in the hospice facility and as I listened to his breathing becoming more labored overnight, all of these thoughts began to come to the surface. The spirit-presence of my dead mother joined us in the room and truly another force was also there – a particular aspect of God – the malach hamavet – the angel of death entered as well – and it seemed that all were waiting for something, that they needed something from me. And in the small hours of the morning, I began to speak, as if in front of an ethereal beit din, an assembled court — the departing soul of my father joined by the other two and at a certain point my words stopped and seamlessly I began to sing a wordless niggun that is important to me – that is part of my soul’s soundtrack (Reb Nachman’s nign). And in that full room, in the whispering hush of the hallway as the melody carried forward, that court sat in judgment until I felt that I was released and then it was just my father and me again – and after being wide awake and apprehensive of these boundary-crossing guests for the night, I fell asleep and awoke with the sun streaming through the wooden slats. I went to my father and he looked at me and I told him that I would be right back after I put a change of my night clothes back in my car, which took just a moment – and then rapidly I returned to my father’s room, where in my brief absence, he had just died.
In some capacity, I felt that peace had come. Lives were not ironed out – however, being present and speaking my truth, I felt that even in that last moment, as we looked at each other and the last words he said to me that morning were, “I’m in pain,” I was ready to accept that and take some bit of responsibility for it, as well – as the son Isaac holding the knife above his father’s head, or both of us looking at each other as rams from underneath the thicket, each waiting to be recognized and in our sacrifice, each waiting to be loved.
“Entering the Iron Gates of Life”
Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre
Neil F. Blumofe
25 September 2012
It continues to be a privilege to stand with you on this evening, as the Gates of our Lives are flung open and receptive to admit so much possibility. We gather here from our different places, perhaps looking for something or only to inhabit this space for a while, confirming what we already know. It is with reticence that I address each of you at this time, asking that as we experience Yom Kippur and as we examine our lives and probe the significance of our deeds in this precious time that we are now sharing, that we commit ourselves to engagement and responsibility. I request that we leave here this evening, somehow different from when we entered this place. Somehow, let the words and the melodies — this experience — penetrate our expectant hearts and souls and may we feel something different begin to take root in places and thoughts that we frequent and that we hold most dear.
In these past few months, I have given much thought about the trajectory and the purpose of my life – and as much time as I devote to counseling others and modeling mindfulness and reflective listening as one grieves, there is nothing that could have prepared me for the death of my father this past July, so closely following on the heels of my mother’s death, just last year. Standing on the far side of this abyss, I can feel the hollow, thudding silence of their absence still reverberating – it is a palpable sensation as it remains, this void not dislodging from the centerpiece of my heart.
And as I continue to do the work in our community that I love to do, the phrase from the Metaphysical English poet Andrew Marvell, resounds in my ears – at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near; And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity. How do I know if I’m on the right path – and even with all of the mitzvot, all of the commandments to act nobly and morally that I cherish and privilege, pangs of uncertainty and hesitation haunt my days.
Am I doing all that I can? Is what I am doing enough? What am I doing anyway, and what is the meaning of all that is laid out before me? I often speak about the tolerance that we must give ourselves – the permission for us to be imperfect – the need for us to act honorably through our limitations – to grant ourselves the gift of patience, as we are often our own worst critics.
Since the death of my parents, I feel in ways that I could not have imagined the void of exemption. As the oldest now of the generations in my family, I feel that I have no pass to rely on another to take care of things and make things right. There is a responsibility that gnaws at me to seize the day before it is too late, to make the most of every moment, to not let opportunity pass me by. This feeling of responsibility is not now a burden, rather it is something that I lean into and find reassurance with as I press my shoulder into the squalling winds of our difficult world. This sense of responsibility is not a mere feeling – examining how we make our mark in the world – what we choose to consume, and how we choose to expend our time are all activated in the ramifications of feeling accountable.
This is not something someone could have told me, before I was ready to hear it. It’s like the example of the parents who have been blessed with young, exuberant, sweet, and wonder-filled children find themselves in conversation another parent who has older children and who remarks, knowingly – “just wait until they’re teenagers.” And yes, years later, those same young parents now see what you mean.
Tonight, I am not here to convince you of anything. Each of you knows your own score and can decide for yourselves your own priorities and concerns. I too, often inhabit a space where I think I am right and it takes quite a discordant blow for me to unclench my stubbornness and to make a move off of what I believe is working for me.
I am concerned for our world. I am concerned for our students and for all of us who are not engaged, or perhaps do not have a principled center from which to make just decisions. I am afraid that we are swimming in so much information, that we are adrift in the agendas of others – I am troubled because I think that we are exhausted – that we are so constantly caught up in the currents of progress, or driving to achieve what is possible, that in our competition against each other, we are reinforcing fatigue and perpetual breathlessness in our life. The way that we scan and process information pushes us to leap from one happiness to another more quickly, leaving us less time to appreciate and to savor even a momentary pleasure.
This summer, just a few weeks after my father died, I chose to travel to the West African country of Ghana, as part of a rabbinic delegation, sponsored by the American Jewish World Service. The seventeen of us worked for two weeks in a school called Challenging Heights — a school that is dedicated to rescuing children, mostly boys, from the plague of current slave trade practices in this West African country. I wasn’t sure of what to expect – and in fact, kept my expectations minimal and was resolved to just experience something different from my everyday life.
Each day, after we would finish working on various construction projects, we would all gather together for a meal. Often, students and some of the younger neighbors of the school sat with us – and as we were eating, we would be asked to share our food. The American Jewish World Service employs a strict policy of not sharing food or giving gifts to anyone that we are serving or with whom we are working – for fear of promoting inequality, unreasonable expectations, and discord among those with whom we briefly interact. And yet, there is the adorable five-year old boy who is looking at you with the widest of eyes and the faint turn of a smile as he puts his fingers to his lips and beseeches you to – share with him. What do you say then?
On this day, our prophet asks us, hakhazeh yihiyeh tsom evkhoreihu – is this your fast that I desire? It is as if God is saying – am I really going to dwell before you and see you go through your motions, trying so hard in such sanctified space to get it right, or to sit obediently for a proscribed amount of time until you’re done, and then leave? Fantastic! Yet what happens when you leave this space – after you breathe deeply mentally make a check and say, well, that Yom Kippur is behind us? What patterns of our lives do we return to – the real dilemma of teshuvah that we encounter – not dutifully chipping away at our transgressions, rather anxiously greeting our transgressions again, after this Yom Kippur, turning back to them and welcoming them again like a dependable friend.
The great paradox of this day is just before us – we who tumble into synagogue now are encouraged, once we are finally here, to go from here and do good work – v’shalach r’tsutsim chofshim — to let the oppressed go free; halo paros la’raeiv lakhmecha – to share our bread with the hungry; to take the wretched poor into our home; to clothe the naked, and all the while, not ignoring our kin, those who are closest to us. This is the teshuvah prescription – if we cease to be menacing and hegemonic, and stop speaking ill of others, even if we don’t like them – all the while as we feed those who are famished, then we will find a purpose, then our truest prayers will be answered and we will walk in this world with a light and humble step.
Yet, we know, with all of our good intentions, that the world is not this responsive. It’s not as simple as our acting and the world getting better — there is plenty of complexity with thorny, complicated issues that implicate all of us at deeper levels. On one hand, helping to improve a school so that it can better fulfill its mission is one thing – revolutionizing events so that the vicious cycles of dire poverty are curbed, is impossibly overwhelming – as Franz Kafka, the influential 20th century Jewish writer states, by imposing too great a responsibility, or rather all responsibility on yourself, you crush yourself. Yet, I do feel responsible.
I can look to my Social Action committee here at Agudas Achim and I can choose to get involved in a project with Cindy Zieve or think of a new one to begin. I can get involved in various good works in Austin – delivering meals for Meals on Wheels or being available to give rides and other support services to those who are sixty years or older and in need, as part of Faith in Action Caregivers – a worthy organization where Agudas Achim is loyally represented by Ester Smith and Terry Milman. I can make a donation to A Glimmer of Hope, I can choose to support extraordinary organizations like Hospice Austin, who care for the needy, gently walking with them into death and together, we can continue to transform the world through work that we can do through our synagogue community in ways that we today can only barely envision.
And the question that I ask is how can we sustain our efforts? We can be instantly inspired – by the starving smile of a child, or the immediate needs of our parents – yet our ardor will burn away, eventually – how can we take Isaiah’s words to heart, recognizing that the fast that we choose even if challenging, is not always the fast the God asks of us – for tomorrow, we can choose again to have dessert and go back to our accustomed ways. How can we interrupt our own cycle of living to be more sensitive and aware of the world around us? How can we always carry empathy on our backs, to be held in conjunction with all other choices that we make?
As a holy community, how can we promote this kind of discerning behavior? What if we took our noticing of our own hunger with us, past Yom Kippur and out into the world? Last year Dr. Raben, Rabbi Kobrin, and I participated in a Global Hunger challenge – the goal of the initiative was to live for a week on $31.50 – the average amount that one enrolled in the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spends for food – one in seven Americans – and nearly 25% of our children – averaging about $1.50 per meal, per day. To do this was indeed a challenge last year – and I wasn’t always successful — and this year, I ask that each of us take this on – we will devote the first week of November – Thursday, November 1st through Thursday, November 8th to being a part of this challenge, paying attention to not only our hunger, but too – the feelings of struggle and difficulty that may arise. I ask that our community get involved in this challenge – helping each other by keeping each other accountable, speaking about how limiting our food spending and intake tests us, and by spreading the word about our experience, calling attention to the scourge of hunger around the world. Keep a record of your work and of your observations as our community enters into this awareness together.
As we share these valuable moments together and as we move together through Yom Kippur — into the heart of our day through towards the closing of these gates tomorrow evening, let us continue to be inspired, long after we exchange again these special white covers for our sifrei Torah back to our everyday shades. Even as sensitive and engaged as we think we are, let not the passing of cherished family, or the scare of an illness propel us to accountability and action. I am asking for your help and your partnership in realizing and sharing the astonishing blessings that each of us have in this world.
We have an obligation to bring justice to this world, all the while, not ignoring our brothers and sisters. When asked what we should do – whether to make Israel a priority in our life by keeping up with current events and lending our voice and resources as we can, or helping feed and stabilize some of the world’s most vulnerable and at risk people, the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel answered, yes and yes.
Where do we sit this year? Ayenu? Where are we? What kind of a jolt do we need to wake up and run towards the issues that affect us as a people — issues that will demand our full and sustained attention — issues that will challenge us and our assumptions – that will ask us to honestly and with integrity face our worldviews?
Back in Ghana, every morning, before we began working, the 400+ students in this school had a daily assembly – after working to carry heavy water jugs on their heads and laboriously preparing for the demands of the day, all of the kids would stand together and sing with a full voice and with pride about the independence of Ghana and how wonderful their school was. The kids had a sweet self-assurance in where they were and it seemed that they took nothing for granted – and even when they weren’t before us, shyly getting to know us, they looked happy – even happier than most of our children regularly seem. A friend of mine relates that he saw a girl, who was about nine years old, with her three-year-old brother strapped to her back, as she was walking up a big hill for about a half-mile. He turned to her and asked, “Isn’t it hard to carry your brother?” And she looked up at him with an expression that seemed to say, “I don’t understand what you are asking me. Carrying my brother is neither hard nor easy – it just is my responsibility – it is what needs to happen now.”
I ask that we take an inventory of what we need, and like this day demands we do an accounting of our soul, we do an accounting of our stuff. What is our philanthropic practice – what can we live without? What of our stuff makes us better? What stuff of ours allows us to insulate ourselves or to escape?
Ruth Messinger, the head of American Jewish World Service, who was with us in Ghana, shared a story about an adult farmer in Uganda who told a college student volunteer that he had decided that he was Jewish. When the volunteer asked him what he meant he said that he had seen the Jews come and that he is Jewish because he wants to leave the world better than he found it – that is what Jews do.
In this year, let us begin our conversation together about our purpose and how we can sustain our work as we remain steadfastly dedicated to discovering our purpose. Our purpose may have nothing to do with what we think we want or what we think we’re about.
40% of all food produced in America is thrown away. Let this not be our fast – let us not shunt this day aside and quickly move to what’s next for us. Let us pause and anticipate the real needs that we see around us – let us lift each other out of our pain – let us strive to be like Abraham, and be on the hunt, respectfully looking for others to help.
The theme of the Challenging Heights School in Ghana is “to whom much is given, much is expected.” This theme is chanted repeatedly every morning at assembly as a call and response, building in volume and fervor each time – so at the end, the leader and the children both are shouting their respective parts – “to whom much is given – much is expected – and then the day resumes. And at any time during the day, if one begins this cheer, whatever activity that anyone is doing is put aside for a moment and joins in – words that exist to help shape expectation and truly act as a testament of faith – to whom much is given, much is expected.
To Whom Much is Given – Much is Expected.
Hearing the children eventually scream out the words – “much is expected” – was cute, however, our group of seventeen rabbis soon realized that these interchanges were not merely a game – they were a daily intention and reminder that this in fact, is how the world was to be within the rarefied confines of Challenging Heights – an expectation that demanded honesty, forthrightness, integrity, and fair dealings. The culture of the place needed no security cameras, x ray scanners, or hallway monitors – often doors were not locked, demonstrating faith in safety and setting up this small school as an island of safety within a larger, more hazardous district, where kids and the rights of the kids, the teachers, and the visitors as a given, are respected.
“To whom much is given, much is expected.” This is a powerful way to start a day.
We have a sacred responsibility to offer thanks and then to step out and shine our light as we look to emulate the fast that God wants from us. Let us fling wide open the gates that inhibit us from acting – let us move our sadnesses into works that heal. “To Whom Much is Given, Much is Expected.” U’vimkom she’ain anashim histadeil, lihiyot ish – in a place where there are no leaders, be a leader. Let us feel the weight of our words and apply them to our actions to resonate in our personal life, and in the marketplace – and let us start here, in this place – by making our time within these sacred walls meaningful, non-judgmental, important and precious, to accomplish the beginning of something better – and no matter how we anticipate this year, or the damage that will be done – let us unafraid, encourage and help and re-imagine this world differently, come what may.
Let us roll all our strength, and all/Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasure with rough strife/Through the iron gates of life.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah – May Each of Us and All of Us be Sealed in the Book of Life in this Year and Always.
“Before the Gate of Peace”
Neil F. Blumofe
22 September 2012
As we stand today, a couple of days before Yom Kippur, we look to Moses, who is standing a couple of days before his call to judgment. Our commentators imagine him circulating among the people, connecting with them for the final time as he consoles them, offering closure as he prepares to die. As dramatic as this may sound, our tradition guides us towards similar actions as this Day of Atonement approaches.
We are to consider our death in these days between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur – as we call it teshuvah, or the process of making things right with people — the underlying idea is that we are presently getting our affairs in order, looking to patch disagreements and saying things that need to be said, that belie our honesty, as we stand in particular, intimate relationships. We decide what we can live with and who we can live with, and what we can discard – we ponder what matters in our life, what is inseparable from who we are – and what is mere furnishing – a garnish that decorates our plate.
As Moses prepares for his final speech – we too organize what we would say, if these are our final days – and rather than think that this exercise is too ghastly, if we regard our own death without fetish, but rather with objectivity and perspective, these days of making teshuvah can be incredibly powerful and if we are blessed to live for another year, transformative.
At this time, the gates are wide open – the gates of our life, for us to walk through – beckoning us to cultivate confidence and an honest appraisal of who we are today. Our Talmud teaches, woe to the person who makes a gate for the courtyard, yet who has no courtyard (Shabbat 31a). On this Shabbat Shuvah, we consider how we present ourselves in practice, as an exterior handiwork, as contrasted to the worth of the individual threads that weave together our character. What is the portrait that we show to others – our profile, or our timeline, as opposed to the persistent thoughts that we carry and never share, or the qualities or the concerns that we have that never rise to the surface? What if we could engage the most important people in our life and patiently, and without malice, confide in them exactly what we think – and we were listened to without judgment or condemnation? What if, as we described ourselves plainly, we were received with patience – and if not approval, than indispensible consideration and comprehension?
And what is we offered the same, in return — our method of teshuvah would be more limited and more valuable. If we lived by these actions, we wouldn’t have to squeeze a perfunctory attempt at reconciliation into a few brief moments in a hectic week. I am not speaking of confiding in a trusted counselor or therapist only – I am suggesting that, like Moses, we go among our tribes in these days and make time for this work. Find one person or two who are partners in your life and sit together — open up, show the inside seams of our glorious outer work – get beneath the surface, go past the gates that we publicly construct and show another our inner courtyard.
Over the days of Rosh haShanah, I spoke about particular gates – the Golden Gate, which is the eastern entrance to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem – the entrance, our tradition teaches, where the Divine Presence, the shechinah, comes and goes – the entrance that will be used by Elijah the Prophet when the hearts of the parents and the children are again in harmony and turned towards each other. And in our day and age, this Golden Gate is shut up tight. Our tradition also teaches that as there is a Jerusalem with all of its gates leading to the Temple that exists in our physical world, there is an exact reconstruction of this eternal city both in heaven and in our soul. To begin, let us be moved to try and unseal this Golden Gate, as it exists within our soul.
What is in our inner courtyard? Do we have an interior life that we can track and are we willing to share aspect of it with chosen others? If we are merely part of a mixed multitude that storms these open gates of life – of justice and mercy – without reflection, then we have not yet lived up to the responsibilities of this time. Each of us has our individual gate – that we must first recognize before we can enter. There are many gates that we build throughout our lifetime — gates that can bring us to exceptional places and towards extraordinary things, yet there is this one gate that is located in our core that can bring us to our greatest meaning – that many of us spend our lives running away from in consternation and fear.
One may argue that in this week’s Torah portion, this is the gate that Moses finally enters. Speaking from the heart allows him to finally make peace – and making peace is our ultimate and greatest task. On this Shabbat Shuvah, we move from the gates into our city, past the Golden Gate and discover the entrance into the Holy of Holies – the Gate of Peace that leads into our inner courtyard. It is here that we can engage our deepest truths and acknowledge our challenges that linger due to our upbringing and our environment. It is through this gate that we can explore our emotional genetics and all of the influences that inform who we are in the moment.
Let our journeys be both earnest and safe. Let us stand together next Tuesday evening, having made peace with our present circumstances as we stand in our peaceful community, ready to embrace this next great encounter of standing alone before God, ready to take responsibility for not only our deeds, but too, our very lives. May we be privileged to stand together this year and in the years to come – with encouragement and with ease as we shoulder this great work together – confronting our mortality without a safety net and because of all of our preparation now and throughout our years, with a sliver of joy and the inner light of contentment.
Shabbat Shalom – G’mar Hatimah Tovah.
“Shouting While Standing at the Gate of the City”
Rosh haShanah –Day 1 — 5773
Neil F. Blumofe
17 September 2012
There is a story told in our tradition of Rabbi Alexandrei who would stand in the gate at the entrance to the city, and as people passed by he would shout at them, “man ba’ei hayei, man ba’ei hayei?” — who wants to live, who wants to live? And the people would crowd around and they would answer, hav lan chayei – give us life! And then Rabbi Alexandrei would say to them – so, you want to live? Sur meira va’asei tov – turn from evil and do good – (Sanhedrin 19b).
In order to live, we are to construct the world in the likeness of our good work – how we apply ourselves, is how the world will be. Quality of life is right in front of us – it is the Torah that is the source for goodness – if we learn Torah and endeavor to walk in her ways, we will be assured that we have chosen life. Throughout the generations, many have found comfort in this conviction – if we act well, then we will merit living a worthy life. Our Torah is a divine document that teaches virtue – and it is with virtue that our life takes on purpose and meaning. Done. Problem solved.
Except when it doesn’t. This neat syllogism about life doesn’t necessarily follow – there are no guarantees linking a life steeped in Torah, a career of committing acts of goodness and lovingkindness – a constant display of concern, consideration, and care — with anything good. We may feel gratified by our altruism and our ever-growing tally of helpful deeds, yet at the end of the day, we may not have improved our lot in this world – the ancient Jewish Wisdom teacher Ben Sira reminds us that we are all destined to die. We share it with all who have ever lived, and with all who ever will be. How then do good deeds give us life – how then does turning away from evil turn the tide in our favor?
We are here this morning to celebrate the birthday of the world – to inaugurate another year together – even perhaps to set an intention together – an intention that stays with us and links us together and holds us accountable collectively as we bear witness to each other throughout the year, sharing our life — with many exceptional moments of routine joy, most probably punctuated by sporadic bursts of sadness, fear, and insecurity that can linger for the length of our days. In this sanctuary, we pledge to do the best that we can as we enter this New Year together. We pledge to give others to benefit of the doubt as we, in our limited and imperfect ways try as hard as we can, hopefully melting our inflexible ceaseless grudges down into puddles that beget new beginnings, and beating our swords of conflict into ploughshares of accord.
Let our refreshed intention allow us to scratch beneath the surface of doing what we think has to be done publicly to get us underneath all of that, past put upon and invented sentiment spurred by peer pressure or aimlessness, to a place of a true flowering of our soul. “Man ba’ei hayei, man ba’ei hayei?” — who wants to live, who wants to live?
Al tirah mipachad pitom — let us not be afraid. Let us realize the power that this day has – unleashing a wholly new energy into the world – a flood of vitality, a volcanic day – a cosmic eruption of dynamism that washes over and enters into all creatures giving us new life and purpose – a force that gives us fresh inspiration from which to develop new perspectives and improved aptitude as we encounter the challenges in our life. Let us not be cowed by the brokenness that we see all around us – let us not be shaken by the violence that comes without warning, let us neither be deflated by cynicism nor defeated by the corruption that seems to seep into our daily life.
Let us stand here this morning and in these opening days of this New Year, and collect this new life as it rains down – let us cup our hands in front of us and open up our souls like rain buckets to collect this renewed might that will overflow our borders and enliven us and our actions in this coming year.
The significant 19th century Hasidic mystic Reb Levi Yitzchak of Beredichev teaches that this great life force that is released on Rosh haShanah fills the mold of our character based on what our character is, at this moment – if we are prone to despondency or negativity, then this great influx of energy will only fortify these qualities. If we are open to channeling this new inspiration in positive and productive ways – in living without panic, in cultivating restraint, in seeking wisdom – then this will be the New Year’s endowment that we will receive – God is the source of life and we are responsible for choosing how this life force will be applied. As the 20th century philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, the image of the person is larger than the frame into which they have been compressed.
When we sit in the city gates like Rabbi Alexandrei, what do we shout at people when they pass? By the way, we shouldn’t shout – that’s annoying. Can we be more gentle? How do we connect with others – are we positive and encouraging, or are we needlessly harsh and overly critical? Beyond the painful doses of image and rhetoric that we ingest every time we check out current events, how can we admit life that comes to us now, like a yearly influx of nourishing manna from heaven?
We can be confident that the world is not as reasonable as we hope – that if we invest our deeds with a positive and upbeat demeanor, then we will not necessarily receive cheerfulness and optimism in return. We are living beyond the consistent logic of Maimonides – we exist in a post-rational age where randomness is the norm and where we cannot depend upon our mathematical proofs to locate God. We may feel that we live in a state of aginut, a state of abandonment, in which it is impossible for us to overcome the breach between us and God – where turning away from evil and towards good is not a guarantee of anything.
Yet, can we feel that today is a new start? Can we feel emptied of our derisions and the sludge of our previous blunders and are we ready to capture a new and buoyant inspiration as it washes into our healthy containers of body and spirit, regardless of our age and our ability?
Who wants to live? Who wants to live?
Are we willing to live a full nuanced life, despite those who agitate for destruction – even our destruction? Despite everything can we turn towards the good, and feel the good and know as the 20th century philosopher and Talmudic commentator Emmanuel Levinas writes, that the good is higher than the truth?
Can this Rosh haShanah inspire us to connect more deeply, can it reduce our vexations and can it meet our needs – will we be open to finding harmony together past our selfish desires and violent impulses? Will we be able to live with contentment as we find a way to cope with shocking and recurrent degrees of pain stemming from our vulnerability to professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of our loved ones, and our own inevitable decay and demise?
To heal ourselves – to contest our loneliness and our isolation, can we notice each other? As Alain de Botton writes in a recent book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion — whereas the Bedouin whose tent surveys a hundred kilometers of desolate sand has the psychological wherewithal to offer each stranger a warm welcome, his urban contemporaries…in order to preserve a modicum of inner serenity – give no sign of even noticing the millions of humans who are eating, sleeping, arguing, copulating, and dying only centimeters away from them on all sides.
It once happened that members of the synagogue were puzzled about a section of the Talmud where it says that we must thank God as much for the bad days, as for the good ones. They wondered, “How can this be?” For what would our gratitude be worth if we gave it equally for the bad as well as for the good? After consulting with their teacher the Maggid of Mezritch, he recommended that they travel a far distance and god see Reb Zusya who would have the answer to their question.
The students went and looking for Reb Zusya, found his home in the poorest section of the city, on a derelict street – crowded between two small house, they found his tiny shack, ready to fall apart. When they entered, they say Reb Zusya sitting at a bare table, reading by the light of the only small window in the place. He looked up and said – welcome strangers – please pardon me for not getting up, for I have hurt my leg. However, would you like some food? I have bread and I also have some water.
The students refused and said that they arrived only to ask a question. Their teacher, the Maggid of Mezritch said that you, Reb Zusya, would know the answer to the question – why do our sages tell us to thank God as much for our bad days as well as for our good days? Reb Zusya laughed as he shook his head and said, “Ask me that? I have no idea why the Maggid sent you to me. You see, I never have a bad day – every day God has given to me has been filled with miracles.”
May we appreciate the power of this setting and the people in our midst – of what surrounds us and who could so easily, fill us with affection. May we crown the mystery of existence in charge and especially in our uncertainty, leap forward to begin this year with zest and prospect – may we hold wide open our vessels to collect this plentiful rain, these blessings, that fall in this particular moment of the year. May we find an enthusiasm in our being together and may we make the most of our freedoms as we attach ourselves to moral and humane action. May we rediscover our own integrity.
Tonight, let us take a chance and hold God up high and proclaim that we want to live and find a way towards good that infuses us with purpose and yet, not necessarily with assurance. Let us stand in the entrance to the gates of the city and not shout at people as they pass – rather let us demonstrate by example how we live – with insight, compassion, celebration, and honorableness. May we find a sanctifying vulnerability that leads us away from shame and exuberantly escorts us directly to these gates through which we can boldly climb in confidence, into the promise of this New Year.
Shanah Tovah u”Metukah.