“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.
Rosh haShanah –Day 1 — 5774
Neil F. Blumofe
5 September 2013
A rabbi friend tells me the story about a funeral he once officiated for a woman in his community – a woman who lived a full life and enjoyed children and grandchildren. This woman had what could be called a good death – not subject to a prolonged illness, or a tragic or accidental death – she was blessed with a long and fulfilling life. My friend met with the family ahead of time – gathering memories from the children and the grandchildren, and they sat together before the funeral service in quiet and respectful conversation.
Just before the funeral was to begin, one of the sons came over and handed my friend a sealed envelope labeled, “Rabbi,” and said that his mother had instructed him to give it to the rabbi to read during the service. The service began – filled with reminiscences of the children and the grandchildren – and sweet memories of friends – a crowd of a few hundred who nodded their heads approvingly as the woman was lovingly remembered.
After my friend finished speaking, he pulled out the envelope and announced that this was a message that he had just received, unopened and unread from the family – now to be shared in this company — a last request of the woman who passed away. The note read as follows: Shalom. You all came to visit me often — my family and friends. You brought me joy and satisfaction throughout my life, and among my many pleasures, it was my true pleasure to bake for you my now famous chocolate cake. Many of you asked for the recipe, and I always obliged you. You would call and ask questions, because somehow the cake never came out like mine. Perhaps it was the oven temperature, of the precise sifting of the flour, or perhaps it was the amount of cocoa, you all often wondered. None of these was it – now I can tell you – here are the missing three ingredients that I left out. I just didn’t want you to forget me.
We want to be essential and vital to others. We want to receive attention and be recognized for our efforts. We would like to participate and have our contributions matter. What are our essential three ingredients? What is our offering that is our exclusive quality, which cannot be replicated by others? How do we go about demonstrating our gifts? And why would we wait until it is too late to reveal the ingredients that make us who we are? Why would we squander such talents and knowledge, revealing our heart and soul only after it is too late?
As you may expect, our tradition asks us to consider these questions and provides for us a helpful if troubling example – the besieged figure of Job, standing provoked in our Hebrew Bible. It is telling that we don’t ever chant from the Book of Job, however it is a Sephardic custom to chant the story of Job during Tisha b’Av – the saddest day of the Jewish year, when we revisit our heartbreaks, mourn our shattered aspirations, and inhabit our brokenness. Job is vouched for and promoted by God – as God gambles on this man who is tam v’yashar – blameless and upright – showing him off in a challenge proffered by Satan – known as the Adversary in Jewish Tradition.
Our tradition does not give us the terms of the wager – only that God offers Job as the paragon of righteousness and reverence in this world – and then seems to withdraw, permitting The Adversary to test, torment, and afflict Job from a seemingly bottomless cup. There is no rainbow to be had here to provide hope or guidance – for when reading about the difficulties of Job, we drift rapidly and directly into a deep and dark squall of a storm.
Throughout the generations, a question is asked – why Job? Of all people, how did this singular man get boxed into a corner by God, seemingly sold out, and brought into a cauldron of acute suffering? A key to answering this question is comparing how Job is described and how Noah is described – both are characterized as tam – as blameless – not as especially holy or virtuous – just simply blameless. And indeed, many of us get through life dodging blame and taking the easier and more direct road to pursue our wants. We consider this to be rational behavior – and it is to be admired, in many respects. We are loving people who are dedicated to noble causes – we put others first and we are dutiful. We are known as good people and we have a respectable code for living. We consider ourselves to be innocent, and we will generally respond, if asked to give or do something.
Yet there is something more. We live as reactionaries, content to not mix in, if we don’t have to. We are satisfied with our portion, and while we pursue tikkun olam with an admirable sense of determination for fairness and equitability, it is more rare that our good works penetrate our souls and shape us differently. We may appreciate and in fact empathize with the story of the woman who chose to withhold her special three ingredients until she was eulogized – she seems like a good sport and one who has a zest for life – and ultimately, even with her favorable and delightful acts she did not stand out – and as I see it, with the passage of time, one invariably ceases to be remembered — even with a most delectable chocolate cake recipe. hevel havalim – all is vanity and as Elazar haKappar teaches: hayilodim lamut – those who are born are destined to die.
We are comfortable doing just enough and not too much. We would feel at home with Noah and Job, enjoying our accomplishments, titillated by our perfect amount of counter-culturalism and activism, without having to sacrifice too much. And this is precisely why Job is chosen – to shake him out of his sense of well-being, to lay the shofar right next to his ear and have God blow, with all of God’s might, waking Job up to the urgency and consequence of opening his hands, as well as his head and his heart, before his life is over.
In his difficulty, Job begins to question everything – his motivations, his sense of entitlement and privilege, and his list of priorities. He realizes that he is implicated and that there is a truth behind the stated truths and as the veil is lifted from his eyes – he stares at the Divine mirror and the Divine void in front of him and makes peace with the infinite. He states – l’sheimah ozen sh’maticha, v’atach eini ra’atcha – I had heard about You with my ears, But now I see You with my own eyes.
What happens to our gifts if our life is not what we expect? It’s one thing to speak of a special chocolate cake recipe – it’s quite another to distinguish ourselves in adversity or when we are challenged by the unexpected surges of life. How can we be prepared for anything – and more than keeping calm and carrying on – who are we when the chips are down? Noah receives the promise of the rainbow and the everlasting covenant, and then drinks overmuch and passes out, responding awkwardly to his survival, rescued imperfectly by his sons. His coping mechanism comes up a little short. Yet Job, who suffers severe reversal of fortunes and the ultimate personal woes, does not take the advice of his wife who urges her husband to be done with it all – to curse God and just die. He steadfastly endures, asking questions, determined to feel something and to make a change.
We can’t legislate change –we can demand it and assent to it and then not do it. All of the many words and concepts and moments that we will experience over these High Holy Days attempt to connect us to the feelings of vitality and drive as we give our prayers and our practices another go round. All we have is this moment and I suggest that we do not withhold our most precious ingredients as we participate in this mix. There is only so much that I can adjure and try to convince that we can be the change that we seek.
It is a blink of an eye. Kids that I have named have become Bar and Bat Mitzvah. I am now naming the kids born to those who became Bar Mitzvah fifteen years ago. My eldest son, who now lives in Brooklyn, is the same age that I was when I met Anne. As we celebrate our neighbors at Beth Shalom, who will be dedicating a new building this fall, we look at our extraordinary home built twelve years ago – a centerpiece for vibrant community and outreach. We are launching our Centennial this year – one hundred years of Agudas Achim helping to determine Jewish life in this city, and beyond.
We must not be Job – who was complacent and satisfied. We must not wait for both shoes to drop for us to be taken out of our hebetude and then spring into a secondary, reflexive action. We know that God makes suspect deals with The Adversary. Nevertheless, how will each of us be able to bound out of this sanctuary, determined to stand in the breach – to recognize how relative our lives are and yet, how so profoundly holy and to not be dissuaded by the sheer immensity of it all? As Leonard Cohen writes, everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/Everybody knows that the war is over/Everybody knows that the good guys lost./Everybody know that the boat is leaking/Everybody knows that the captain lied/Everybody got this broken feeling/Like their father or their dog just died.
How do we concentrate and maintain our attention on what is most important in life? It is difficult to do so, and exhausting – and there are no guarantees of success in whatever terms we define as success. How can we not only lean into – how can we fall willingly into a life of service, with our own traditions as hardy guides? The claim that Judaism does not respond to real needs is a dodge – and our own scattered beliefs should not determine our commitment to utilizing our subtle and intelligent tradition for good and for significance. Let us not merely be blameless – let us be heroic, everyday.
We are launching an initiative this year, in honor of our 100 years, called Making Minutes Matter. It is a modest attempt for our engagement to be habituated in this year and in the years to come. The idea is to take 100 minutes or just over an hour and a half and immerse in different aspects of Jewish activism throughout the year. We are looking for each of us not to just be blameless – we are looking for each of us to proactively lend talents and presence for learning, building, and strengthening – for its own sake — without precondition or expectation of a reward. Even if you do have a habit of study, or action, or attendance at prayer services – we are asking you to go beyond and volunteer to continue to make this community a place of indispensability, based on your involvement. As the author Charles Duhigg writes in his book, The Power of Habit, every [human] habit, not matter its complexity is malleable.” If we truly believe that we can change – then we can change. Belief is the ingredient that makes a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
Earlier this week, at the funeral of his father, the Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, Michael Heaney revealed that his father’s last words, sent as a text message to his wife Marie minutes before he died, were nolle timere, which is Latin meaning, “don’t be afraid.” This last thought is in stark contrast to the withheld ingredients. Identify what you can bring – and take a risk – accept responsibility and also, a share of the blame. Move past the avoidances of Noah and the hard lessons of Job – let us open ourselves to accountability and let us share the best of who we are as we dig for our deepest truths – handling our blade past the crust and through the mantle so it scrapes against the inner core of our terrain.
Va’ya’an haShem et Iyov min hasa’rah vayomer – And then God answered Job from the whirlwind saying — perhaps the answer – the extremely loud and incredibly close shofar blast is witnessed in this poem written by Seamus Heaney, published in his last collection called Human Chain, in 2010.
Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Patterned with quick leaves off the sycamore
And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake, I would have missed it
It came and went so unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously,
Returning like an animal to the house,
A courier blast that there and then
Lapsed ordinary. But not ever
Afterwards. And not now.
Shanah Tovah u’Metukah.
“Bending Our Eyes”
Erev Rosh haShanah — 5774
Neil F. Blumofe
4 September 2012
I love to be outside in the dry mountains of West Texas. Before the thick heat that immediately appears with the rise of a brilliant daybreak, I have a practice to wake long before, in the declining dark cooling of the expanding morning and sit in stillness – preparing — silent meditations and written reflections, interlaced with my daily morning prayers.
Before we are overpowered by the intensity of the unremitting heat of daylight, there is a moment of quietude, a moment of soft exhalation that opens our senses and encourages our enduring dreams considering the moon as it still shines, yet knowing that it will soon be displaced and overwhelmed by the rowdy boisterousness of the entering sun. In this sweet and precious early time, I appreciate my eyes getting used to the first emergence of the day – before small glimpses and discrete moments are lost in the searing glare of an all-encompassing swelter. I try to receive each day deliberately, appreciating it for the flimsy yet wonderful moment that it is, as it invariably opens and closes.
We are here now in the fledgling, opening moments of the New Year. No matter the insecurities, difficulties, and shortcomings that we have carried over across the borderline into this reset of sacred time – no matter the glaring headlines that may trouble us the moment we reactivate our phones, or the news stories that jolt us into a creeping unease of the day the instant we open a paper, there is no denying that at this moment, in the freshness of time, before our new Books of Life become mottled and blotchy and damaged, all things are possible.
How quickly do we forgo the majesty of our intentions in the hectic navigation of each day? When the sun rises and the heat is on – how soon do we put intentional deliberations and preparations behind us and bury ourselves in getting done what needs to get done, racing exhaustion to the end of our to do lists. When do we look at our moments of vacation or days of rest, not even certain that they were once real, and that if they did once exist, that we were even there?
There is a teaching in our Jerusalem Talmud of a great sage named Shimon bar Yochai, who became one of the greatest mystics of our tradition. It is said about Shimon bar Yochai that in his generation, no one ever saw a rainbow (YT Berachot 65a). We may know about rainbows from the story of Noah, which we will learn in our community in a few short weeks. After the deluge, God presents a rainbow to Noah as an everlasting sign that the world will not be destroyed by flood again. The rainbow represents a covenant – a promise – that no matter how base the world again descends, that water will not spell its end. Our tradition guides us to believe that because of the strong merit of Shimon bar Yochai, this warning of the rainbow was unnecessary – that in his time, the world did not come close to needing that natural phenomenon to draw attention to even the remote possibility that God was considering our destruction again, albeit by different means.
As we read closely about the rainbow in Noah’s time, we discover that the rainbow is not primarily for us to marvel – rather, the rainbow is for God to remember the covenant – v’haytah hakeshet beanan ur’itiha lizkor b’rit olam bein Elokim u’vein kol nefesh chayah b’chol basar asher al ha’aretz – that God will look upon the rainbow to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature – of all flesh that is upon the earth.
According to this reading, God presents the rainbow in our midst, when there is a reason for God to check the Divine action and for our preservation, slowly count to ten. According to this idea, the rainbow appears when our world is in peril. The rainbow, as beautiful as it may be for us to see, is really a mechanism for God as a self-reminder that everything is not lost and that there is still a chance for us – not only to survive, but to thrive. As Rabbi Yehudah Loew wrote in Prague in the 16th century – “everything exists not so much by virtue of God desiring that it exist, but more so by the virtue of God not desiring that it be destroyed.”
However, counter to this idea, when we see the rainbow, we are reminded of kindness and of love and ultimately, of our lives cradled in God’s grace. There is a blessing to be said when we happen to see a rainbow – our words reflecting our desires – reminding God that God has promised to be faithful to the covenant of safeguarding us as God’s creation and that we will not ever arrive at the end of the rainbow, knowing that at that moment, in our quest for a pot of gold, most often ending up as mere fools at the end – we are always connected to God and an integral partner in the covenant.
For we know that our demise could happen at any time. Yet, today our thoughts are renewed for this world – hayom harat olam – today is our celebration of this spectrum of light, this multicolored reflection of light in drops of water that exists, just for a moment. As we gaze on this miracle of our lives, we know that nothing sustains and that we are blessed just to witness today before we too evaporate and disappear. Our texts call out to us – hayom, hayom – today is the day that we have – let us be full within in it, even if we are not leading the lives that we once thought we would – even if we feel distant from our dreams and don’t recognize our essential purpose in this world.
The English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, wrote in 1802 –
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
Out in West Texas, I appreciate the moments that I have in the morning’s cool stillness, when the moon is still prominent in the sky, because I don’t see rainbows on a regular basis — for if I just invested my hope every time I saw a rainbow, I would be caught off guard, and ill-prepared to respond in a timely way to its message. We know that our world is at risk and yet, we can be motivated to not run from what scares us and to not escape the hard work that we must do in order to move one foot ahead of the next. The serenity before the blaze of the day is essentially my regular rainbow – my recognition that all time is borrowed and that every action of ours is a trial and a test and a way to counterbalance atrocity and evil.
Our sages teach that Shimon bar Yochai and his son escaped to a cave to flee the deadly Roman authorities. They lived in hiding for twelve years, until Elijah the Prophet came to the entrance of the cave and announced that the coast was clear. When they left the cave, they found the state of the world intolerable to them – manichin chaiyei olam v’oskim b’chayei sh’ah. Shimon bar Yochai could not withhold his judgmental gaze, as our Talmud records, “every place that they cast they eyes, was immediately incinerated.” Their world was collapsed into black and white, and right and wrong – there was no leeway in their consideration – there was no room for a rainbow to form (BT Shabbat 33b).
In our lives, we take ourselves way too seriously. We too, do not leave room for a rainbow – for a marvel of hope to form for us in the lonely wilderness in which we walk. We are more like Shimon bar Yochai than we care to admit – our penetrating stares and our fiery judgments jumping quickly from our lips – our motto consistently “ready, fire, aim.” In our deserts, we constantly walk into blind canyons, unwilling to temper our hot and brash dispositions and our negative attitudes, and we go through life beaten down by the high temperatures, and beating others down, not seeing the momentary beauty that exists, as elusive as it might be.
Beyond the issues in our land and in Africa and the Middle East and throughout the world – past a calculated response or a non-specific red line, tonight begins Rosh haShanah, and a rainbow of a day that appears in our world – before we take on teshuvah and the Day of Yom Kippur, we have this moment, where we can look around at the glory that surrounds us and we can renew our covenant with all that is meaningful. We can step away from the dark perplexing clouds that have settled immediately on our horizon. We can proclaim the wonder of our soul as we find a moment to come to calmness. The sun has yet to rise – and here we are underneath the starry sky, preparing for the intensity of what will surely be. Rather than Shimon bar Yochai, we can be like Moses, after he came down off of the mountain – not with conflagrant eyes that incinerate – rather with a luminous face that glows, telling the story of our renewed connection to the ineffable and describing our moment in the timelessness of the Divine Encounter, come what may.
And even if we find ourselves amid the ruthless warriors of bad faith, we can look at another and reflect tenderness. Let us consider another idea: there were no rainbows in Shimon bar Yochai’s time because his absolute positions prevented them from forming. Shimon bar Yochai refused to give the others the benefit of the doubt – he walked around with a chip on his shoulder, always right, unwilling to have the patience for the messy imperfections that we find in our friendships and in our relationships. If we allow ourselves a chance to unclench our hearts and unlock our minds for even a moment, we can then behold the multivalent and vivid colors that are all around us – the colors of the rainbow, teach our mystics, which represent the shechinah, or the presence of God — the colors that surround us, the shechinah, which pleasantly beckon discipline and prospect within us while creating a temperate climate around us. The colors of each of our temperaments – the magnificent array that we each are, in this time, before we fade away.
As I have written in West Texas: From different corners of the basin, the hooting owls announce the rising of the sun, and the twittering answers in kind, and we climb to the top of the hillside to sound our useful shofar in alternating blasts to join with the trajectory of the morning – and next door the man snores, unaware of our moment to communicate what we know to those standing expectant, instruments held high, in the west.
When I wake, I witness the boundless bird in the sky, ebbing and flowing over brush and then dancing with ease over the glistening strings of gossamer, into the bright reaches – and I passed an advanced scout already this morning, a grasshopper in my eyes, overturned and lifeless outside of my thick wooden door. I hear the noises of the camp, just on the other side, and as the sun rises, I prepare to meet them – I, a giant of this land – transversing this broad colorful circle that has no end — this ring of time that admits drops of an eternal promise through a celestial prism. .
And as Kermit the Frog sings: I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it/It’s something that I’m supposed to be./Someday we’ll find it. The rainbow connection. The lovers, the dreamers, and me. – la da da di da da do, da di da da di da da dooh.
Shanah Tovah – may we see the miracle of the rainbows all around us. May we pledge ourselves to an exceptional existence, fighting back hot embarrassment that flows from our past mistakes, or the burning judgment of others that allows us to avert our own responsibility. May we be kind as we are present, offering shelter and shade to one another, as we stand exposed in the fierce gaze of this moment’s light.
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.