“Between the Ark and the Tower”
Neil F. Blumofe
25 October 2014
As much as our tradition makes the compelling claim that the stories of Noah and his family are God’s grand experiments in trying to make this created world work – situated between the failed undertaking of the Garden of Eden and the still evolving research and open question of the efficacy and success of the descendants of Abraham – one can make an equally viable claim that as much as the Divine is trying to get it together, so are the creations of the Divine. If we look at the story of Noah’s ark as connected to the episode of the Tower of Babel, we may discover that humanity is trying to articulate a sense of meaning about the purpose of life.
In the command to build and board the ark, Noah is asked to go small – asked to move beyond the dangers of the larger world, and huddle with his people – to create a fragile, floating Garden of Eden that will be sustained, while the rest of the world disappears. All Noah is asked to do is to survive, and then simply regenerate in the proper time. There is no healing, there is no tikkun olam that Noah is able to do – the events in the world are too far gone, and rather than confront the overpowering difficulties of the day, he is asked to essentially go underground, and wait out the storm.
Conversely, the building of the city with a large tower is not so much hubris by the community, as it is confidence in belonging to this world – a contrast to the fleeing of Noah. Here, people want to be rooted to a place – to have a home, and to find meaning in engaging with each other. Here are people who are comfortable in their existence and who want to further their connection and develop their standard of living as well as their technologies.
Perhaps as humans in the scope of God’s creation, we were never meant to get it exactly right. If we sin too much, we are destroyed, and if we all get together and attempt to build a great civilization, we too, are also intimidated and dispersed. We exist eternally within the great vacillating center of ambition and catastrophe – of using our resources for good and also squandering them, immolating ourselves in our own predilections and burning passions. Many times, we overlook the holy to revel in our fright – and over time, we become alienated from our own beauty, in our coarseness.
As we study this Torah portion, we discover that the guardrails that God puts up for both God and for us, are too close to the edge – we don’t have enough space to skid on the neutral ground and come to a full stop, before hitting a wall. As we seek to navigate this world and at the same time, protect our families and ourselves from perishing – both examples offered by our Torah portion should give us pause. All of us in our way are seeking meaning, and a power to live an unobstructed life – and even those who fall, usually try to do the best that they can, at least some of the time, as we take the observation of the 19th century Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky to heart: power is given only to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up. Only one thing matters, one thing – to be able to dare.
Each of us is Noah, an ish tsadik tamim hayah bidrotav – et haElohim hithalech – each of us, in our better moments, consider ourselves righteous, blameless and walking with God. We do not consider ourselves deviants, outcasts, or fugitives doomed to wander the earth, outside of the rhythms of society. We look to both determine our environment and to blend in, have a good name, be successful and hopefully contribute a bit to the betterment of civilization. When asked to merely survive, to build an ark and survive, we will dare to do so as we comply.
And yet, we know the limits of our accomplishments – if we are too successful, if we all band together, ironically we become estranged from each other. In our own experimentation of how to live in this world, what do we do? For here’s the limit as we study the residents of Babel: it is easy to get frustrated or to find an existence that is filled with absolute certainty. To find a life that is only black and white – to find a reality that pronounces judgment on difference, and criminalizes those who aren’t us, is much easier than living with nuance and doubt. We like to identify our heroes and our villains, feeling secure in knowing that one is different from the other. Yet, this is a false security – for each of us holds the capacity for both.
It makes us feel better to condemn the drowned sinner, left in the water – to draw a distinction between someone who falls short and each of us who is calm and carrying on within the artificial boundaries of what is acceptable – each of us who is still on the ark, waiting for the storm to end. And when we disembark, when we step again onto dry land – what options lie open for us – Noah brings an offering to God and also brings shame on himself and creates dissension in his family in his intoxication. He lives his life too, between a rock and a hard place.
Each of us, in our own way, exists on our ark, hopefully unaffected by the ravages of flood – and at the same time, we are part of the citizenry of Babel, who would like to build a magnificent city in our own happy valley, in concert with each other. We are both looking to escape and to engage – and we’d like the luxury of choosing the time and space for both. We would like to name the time when we board our ark to get away from the difficulty and also when we are productive and contributing members of society. Each is necessary – and one cannot live without the other. After all of this time, we are still tinkering with the balances of our life – with our bass and our treble – with our work and home – with what we choose to present and what we’d like to hide.
God continues to send us back from our blind spots and our dead ends – to not lose ourselves in our work, and not to withdraw from our relationships to the point where we are isolationists, living with distorted or bloated meaning. To live means to strike an uneasy balance – to forge a determined recognition that we are sometimes our own worst enemies, and sometimes that we can’t fix the great difficulties of this world, and that nevertheless we persevere, pick up our broken pieces and move ahead everyday, continuing to dare.
Neil F. Blumofe
18 October 2014
It is striking that in this most majestic of Torah portions, when the human being is said to be created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, things so quickly go wrong. After the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden for listening to the machinations of a snake – Cain commits the first homicide, murdering his brother – and as the generations pass to the birth of Noah, the world is filled with violence, and God calls upon the flood to destroy the world and start again.
Our tradition wonders about this concept of betzelem Elohim. How can we be created in the image of God, if we are so flawed and if we tend to choose unwisely as we navigate our existence? We would much prefer to contrast our imperfect lives with a concept of God that is perfect, whole, and infallible. When we say baruch hagever asher yivtach baShem, we mean it – and we in kind, return that trust by saying baruch hashem, as a practice of gratitude, as we live our life. We would like to think that God is not as reckless as we, and does not make mistakes – that when we commit transgressions and have moral failures that it is not a reflection on our concept of how the universe works – that God, the ghost in the machine, is somehow awry, and primed to fail.
In our civic life, it gives us great discomfort to think that big agencies fumble the ball. As we think about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2005 reacting to the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, or as we think of the malfeasance or greed of those institutions making risky or bad loans in the real estate or banking markets leading to the Great Recession beginning in 2008, or as we have great consternation about how the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is handling this latest outbreak of Ebola in Dallas, and anticipating its spread, we quickly realize that no organization is too big to fail, and all of our assurances and reliance on a greater protector should be in doubt.
The Garden of Eden came with a fatal flaw. The snake was not an aberration – rather, it was part of paradise, and literally, part of God’s creation. As Jews, we do not think of the world Gnostically – we do not believe in separate entities of Good and Evil. Creation itself, all of creation has within it a moralizing force – a proclamation that each Day of Creation and all that was created in it, between Evening and Morning, was Good, and even on the sixth day, Very Good.
There is no lurking dark power that is ready to do battle with the forces of light. Although there are vestiges of it in our tradition, we do not think God is in a battle with Satan for this world. All difficulty, all tragedy is built into the one overpowering concept of a singular force creating this world – separating out chaos from order, and keeping destruction at bay, by barring the primordial waters from returning to ruin the rare ecosystem of our life.
When we lose the Garden of Eden, when we pollute our world and commit acts of savagery, or more commonly, when we are careless, indolent, and disregarding – all of this is a reflection on God. When we feel desperate or fearless – vindicated or attacked, and we act destructively, we weaken our claim to be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over all the animals, the whole earth, and over every creeping creature upon the earth. We exchange our birthright for a quickly cooled red lentil stew of instant gratification or satisfaction – and we become another nameless part of creation – no more unjust and selfish, as apes are mischievous, wolves savage, or vultures ravenous.
Another way to consider the concept of betzelem Elohim, is to submit that in our human, all too human actions, God is not so dissimilar from us. Like us, God is vengeful and catty – filled with gossip and sinat chinam – baseless hatred. God is overly protective, sometimes cruel, and even abusive – and sometimes altruistic, doing random acts of kindness, with no set goal – paying it forward, so to speak. God then can be moody, and impulsive flirting with strangers before returning home for the evening– constantly needing attention – and of course, always vowing to lose some weight, and thinking that tomorrow will be a better day. Like us, God is wounded, in relationship, and always digging to locate that cornerstone of love that keeps things from toppling over, day-by-day.
How can we be separate from God? Rather than denying God, what is the mystery of Free Will — a concept that gives us some space, an alibi to strive after wholeness while having anxiety, and shattering the unbroken vessels as we walk? Why do we oftentimes act against our best interests, choosing exile over homecoming, attempting to hide our baser nature in the soothing light of status and comfort? Is God truly on the sidelines, watching us bruise each other – watching us destroy the earth in front of us, before pulling us back from the edge, before the point of no return? How much suffering is too much suffering, in the estimation of God? Is our current residence with Cain, somewhere East of Eden, somewhere on the sitra achra side of what we consider to be predictable and safe? Because of our brutishness, have we never been redeemed – do we live in a parallel world of impurity, corruption and degeneracy, masquerading as a place of virtue and decency?
We are commanded to repair this world and thus, to repair God. The choice of what land we inhabit is up to us. This is more than just the facile understanding of tikkun olam – our own blood is already crying out to us from the ground – we are asked to feel obligated – not just for what we choose to do or not do as we pass by – rather, we are asked to witness, to take on the great task of staking out this world for holiness. Every step we take, every word we say challenges us to make things better.
All of the mitzvot are not stars, points, or good deeds that we collect for a reward – rather they are a key to our universe and to our survival, as we ask questions – as we drill down into the details of our life and practice caring before compassion. We are meant to show up first and then to assess how best we can practice betzelem Elohim inspiring us to rise about our baser inclinations perhaps, and to offer a blessing to God, with a gentle push, reordering the world in a way that brings healing, strength, and hope – before waiting for God, we are asked to take the Divine Position, and to trust that what we do, is for the best – baruch hagever asher yivtach baShem – may our determination to improve things, to walk a bit more softly, and to trust that our actions and our voices do matter bring blessings to this world.
We are not asking to return to Paradise – all in due time. For now we are asking to plant seeds in our desolate land, and by our efforts and our prayers, Baruch haShem, to have flowers and sustainable crops, bloom.
“The Sukkah That Isn’t There”
Shemini Atzeret – Yizkor
Neil F. Blumofe
16 October 2014
On this day, a day of assembly, we reserve this time to dwell a bit longer in the moments of the High Holydays – days perhaps long anticipated or dreaded, and now after a blink or two of our eyes, gone. We are already towards the end of this first month of the New Year, rapidly establishing our routines, and perhaps, falling into familiar patterns.
The world is again beginning to overtake us, and charge us with time-sensitive responsibilities. These precious moments of the Yamim Noraim, filled with reflection, seem muted and now compressed in this final day of gathering memory, before a long spell of winter until Yizkor again appears at the end of Pesach, in the spring. Beginning this evening, we open ourselves up to celebrate as we dance with our sifrei Torah – putting our diminishment and our brokenness behind us, falling directly into the plum blessings of our living as we appreciate these moments of being alive.
And yet, now we linger. We are invited back into our memories – to go back in time and share our deconsecrated sukkah with all of the figures, peopling our past. We ask Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Miriam and Aaron, David and Devorah to move over, as we invite Bubbie, Zayde, Uncle Nate, Aunt Fanny, Mom, Dad, and a host of others into our sukkah, into our fragile space. Today, we all sit together without a blessing of leishev basukkah – today we sit, as if we were in a palace of mourning – where we share our memories, rethink our childhood – in our pursuit of inspiration or peace. Today, we go home – and we go home, differently.
We have a bit of remove as we enter our old houses again – as we smell the smells of our childhood and as we brace for unexpected memories in front of the television, listening to the radio, out on a walk, or just living an everyday life. Our senses are to become a bit more vivid now, in this time – in these moments devoted to silence, tears, and reflection.
A well-known rabbi of a previous generation, Hillel Silverman tells the following story:
Mamaroneck, New York is just 20 minutes from Greenwich, Connecticut – and yet this is a journey that took me 30 years to complete. Because my parents of blessed memory lived back East, and I at the time, was young rabbi in Dallas, we were not able to visit each other very often during the year.
One summer, 30 years ago, we rented a home together in Mamaroneck. It was a beautiful, white stucco house directly on the Sound at Orient Point. We had a wonderful summer together – six incredible weeks – sharing all meals together as a family. We were able to step out of the back door and swim in the ocean. We watched the boats going back and forth, and in the distance we were able to see the skyline of Manhattan. Included in our summer rental was a car, housekeeping, and golf privileges.
In these 30 years, I had not been back. For 30 years I have been reminiscing about that memorable summer with my parents. Little did I dream that I would settle in Greenwich, so close to Mamaroneck.
A few years ago, my daughter, Gila, and her two-year-old son, Matthew, visited us. “Gila, do you remember the wonderful summer we had with Saba and Savtah?” “Yes, I do,” she replied. “How can you remember it – you were five years old.” “I remember it, dad,” she exclaimed. “I remember the house, and the cliffs nearby – I remember the avenue we drove down, and the guardhouse, and the beach.”
“Wow! Do you think if we got into our car with Matthew right now, we would be able to find it?” “I know we will,” she quickly responded. We were a bit farblundget, because 30 years ago, there was no I-95 – and yet, somehow we found our way to Mamaroneck Avenue and then, to Orient Point.
All of a sudden, my daughter screamed out, “Dad, there it is! There’s the house!” Sure enough, there it was — she cried, “Here’s the beach, there’s the greenhouse, and the yard!” It looked just like yesterday.
As we drove back to Greenwich, we tried to recapture the memories since that long-ago summer. We fondly recalled a Bar Mitzvah and two B’not Mitzvah – confirmations, weddings, funerals, vacations, trips, celebrations, new cities, summer camps, college, engagements. We thought about all the things that happened in the last 30 years – the assassination of President Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, Martin Luther King, and so much more.
And for us, what do we remember in these last 30 years in our lives and in the lives of our civilization – the Challenger Explosion, the First Gulf War, Monica Lewinsky, 9/11, Afghanistan, the election of President Obama, SARS? As we take these moments together, and we all climb into our respective cars for a trip down memory lane – avoiding the interstate, of course – what memories do we have in common – what would we like to share with others – what would we like to get rid of, and erase – what is sweetness, and what is a nightmare. What would we like to do differently, and say, before time gets too late?
A few weeks later, Rabbi Silverman called his daughter and said, “our recent trip has inspired me to write – I’ll write about a father and a daughter and a grandson searching for a home, where they had a lovely summer, long ago – replete with memories and our conversations – and eventually the family will find the house and will go up to the front door – a place that seems unchanged from 30 years ago – and they will ring the doorbell, hoping to see the home once more. And the door will open, and there will be Rabbi Silverman’s mother, who is long dead – she will be standing there in the front room, holding a cake and inviting them to enter.
As we knock on the front doors of our memory houses – or as we sneak in a window in the back, whom do we bring with us, to reminiscence and to tell our stories? As we tell our stories, how accurate are we in our rendering? What details do we highlight, gloss over, or make up?
As Miranda Lambert sings,
I know they say you can’t go home again
I just had to come back one last time.
Ma’am, in know you don’t know me from Adam,
But those handprints on the front steps are mine.
And up those stairs, in that little back bedroom,
Is where I did my homework and I learned to play guitar,
And I bet you didn’t’ know under that live oak,
My favorite dog is buried in the yard.
I thought if I could touch this place or feel it,
This brokenness inside me might start healing.
Out here it’s like I’m someone else,
I thought that maybe I could find myself,
If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave.
Won’t take nothing but a memory,
From the house that built me.
We are here now in our sukkah that once existed – a time to enter and see that the sukkah will continue in our heart and mind. We will trod these places again next week, and we will have just our memories to direct us, to the places that we hold sacred – to the times where we felt vital – to the friendships that we shared, and the mistakes that we made. This is the moment of entry into this place, as we say goodbye, and change the Torah covers — white back to purple – as we clean out the rose petals from the ark, and put away our shofar for another year.
We begin our stories again this evening, in a time of merriment – knowing that 30 years is but a stitch in time, and all that we ever do is not forgotten and our intentions are known – our smiles, our sweetness, and our bad days too. May our memories inspire us – and provide us with health to not survive this day, rather to dance, to dance with all that we hold sacred and important in one hand, and in our other, the hands of those whom we hold so dear.
“In the Clouds”
Parashat Hol haMoed Sukkot
Neil F. Blumofe
11 October 2014
Among the many special ways that we observe and celebrate Sukkot, in our Birkat haMazon, our Grace After Meals, there is a particular line that has perplexed me. Among the few prayers beseeching God, on Sukkot we add the line, Harachaman Hu yakim lanu et sukkat David hanofelet – May the Merciful One raise up the fallen sukkat of David. This image is connected to the prophetic book of Amos, which states that in that day I will raise up the sukkah, the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and I will repair its breaches, and I will raise up his ruins and I will rebuilt it as in the days of old (Amos 9:11).
Our traditional commentaries link this connection to the building of the Temple in Jerusalem — and that our dwelling in the sukkah is akin to witnessing God’s Presence, or the Clouds of Glory. This idea is linked to a teaching in the Talmud, which states that the clouds of glory originated at the time of the creation of the world, when aid ya’aleh min ha’aretz – when a mist rose from the earth. (Sukkah 11b), forming the clouds above that watered the whole face of the ground. This is to mean that the clouds in the sky date from the original mist from the earth – which is why our sukkot covering, our skackh, is to made from items from the earth that cannot contract impurity. We are thus building our sukkah with the same material that existed at the time of creation – connecting our experiences to the first urges that shaped our universe.
Another idea about raising up the fallen sukkah – is about the resilience of the Jewish people – that no matter the time or place, even if blown down or damaged by a strong wind, we will constitute ourselves anew and we will find a way to reconstruct our essence. We are but a fragile sukkah in the whirlwind of the world – and yet we will endure. Building on this idea — the concept of truly appreciating permanence while recognizing impermanence is a core meditation when dwelling in the sukkah. According to the Maharal, a 16th century Ashkenazi sage, the sukkah is impervious to the physical permanence of this world. When we dwell in the sukkah, we are free from the shackles of our regular physical houses – and we can yearn for a better time to come – to invite not only our wonderful guests – our teachers and our fathers and mothers from yesteryear into the sukkah as part of our ushpizin – we can invite the legacy of David into our sukkah as well – a hope that by our efforts, what we might call the World-to-Come is activated.
We are thus reminded that what appears permanent in this world is only fleeting, and that which seems ephemeral in this world – spiritual growth – is what has eternal significance – haolam hazeh domeh laprozdor bifnei haolam habah – this world is compared to a corridor that leads to the World-to-Come (Avot 4:21).
Another idea that is compelling to me this year is the idea that the sukkah represents our life – at a certain age we go out into the world and we are buffeted by the elements – we are sheared by the wind, we are pummeled by the rain, and over time, despite our best efforts, we sink and sag. No matter our successes we eventually relinquish to the next generation – our doctors, our clergy – authority figures — will be younger than we are, thus giving us a sense of discomfiture.
I have been holding onto a quote from Frederick Douglass, the 19th century orator, statesman, and abolitionist, who said – it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. In the context of the Festival of Sukkot, the sukkah, rather than being seen as something that is fragile and easily destroyed, can be seen as a symbol of a well-lived life – one that endures, before finally being swept away. Seeing Sukkot as a meditation about the meaning of our life, we can counter-intuitively hold the sukkah as a strong child – how we celebrate our Festivals, how we approach our responsibilities, how we live – all effects those who are watching and using us as examples.
It is so easy to be a broken man – and so hard to repair. As we build our sukkot, may we say that we are building strong children – that we are watering the ground, preparing for planting for the future — overcoming our own imperfections and imperfect proclivities – we are surpassing our tendencies for hypocrisy and negativity – and in the simple acts of showing up, construction, and dwelling, we are teaching powerful lessons about living.
As the journalist, Murray Kempton has written: there are new endeavors and fresh disasters, for they are the way of life. And the art of life is to save enough from each disaster to be able to begin again in something like your old image.
May our celebration of Sukkot, bring us joy and strength in this New Year. Rain or shine, may we have the opportunity to enjoy the moments that we have, the time that is presented to us and stand courageously and unafraid, raising ourselves up from where we have fallen – for, nothing’s impossible, I have found/for when my chin is on the ground/I pick myself up, dust myself off/And start all over again.
Especially in this time of shemitah, this year of pause – we do well to consider the sukkat David hanofelet – and see that we are gifted with opportunity to consider, to build, to improve, and ultimately, to take down – appreciative in the rushing of time — of what was, what we have done, and what will never be again.
“Under the Sea: The Book of Jonah as a Book of Memory”
Yom Kippur – Yizkor
Neil F. Blumofe
4 October 2014
As each of us comes with our own expectations and requirements of what Yom Kippur, and indeed, what High Holydays should be and do for us – with our own memories and reports, we approach now Yizkor — this high cliff, this place in our liturgy where all comes to a screeching halt, and we carefully walk over to the edge, to peer down, far down into the deep shadowed valley below – truly the valley of the shadow of death.
Perhaps, as we look down, we see a haze – a filmy indistinctness that obscures our clearer view, and that reminds us that our turn will come, when we leave the high vantage points of clarion, confident perspective – our hale and healthy perch, and as we make our way down, down this sheer cliff, unsure of our footing, down, stumbling to the craggy shore below – where we will see that the valley is not what we thought it was – simultaneously more and less frightening as we enter its engulfing shadows.
Later this afternoon, we will experience the Book of Jonah in its entirety – a confounding story of a hesitant prophet who is pulled from his place to warn strangers of their doom. We will read of a man who tries to escape his inevitability – and at the end, has questions that are not only unanswered, but are also unaddressed. May we see the story of Jonah not so much as someone who seeks to shirk responsibility for this life – but rather as a quest to come to terms with our mortality – an attempt to hold onto the sands of time that fall out of our hands as we try to grasp the purpose of our life.
As we enter that darkened valley, or in Jonah’s case – when he was in the belly of the whale – we realize that all of our best-laid plans fall away. Our ambitions melt in the face of an unplanned reality, as we realize that what we took for granted and what we depended on is gone. We stand here, like Jonah did, asking the hardest questions of our life – our artifice stripped bear as we remember those who gave us life – as we remember squandered opportunities – as we remember, perhaps with shame, moments that we have created upon our canvas, paints that spatter, sullying with anger and staining with hot judgment.
Each of us walks into our unintended Nineveh – a place where we did not expect to go, to be of service to those who we did not seek. Where is Jonah’s family – he is a stranger in both a familiar and a strange land – cast about to fend for himself, without the security of love or belonging? As he walks in this world, thinking that he is unencumbered and commitment-free, he is astonished and surprised by how his life circles back to a sacred center – to how he proclaims himself an Ivri, a Hebrew, when his life is on the line – and how he recognizes his essence, past all of the charade and shielding that he desperately fronts.
Now, during Yizkor, our smugness, our assurance is diminished as we see the shadowed valley more closely. If we pause, we can smell the smells that we have cherished — of foods, of worn clothes, or perfumes of people whose memories we now cherish– of particular cars that we have ridden in, or homes that we have lived in – after so many years, I still remember the smell of my grandfather’s car — things that we have shared – the voices, the laughter and the tears of those who have descended before us into this eternal place. We realize that we will, before too long, be enfolded into this place as well – and perhaps in time to come, others will tell our story on Yom Kippur afternoon, as we tell Jonah’s story – or perhaps anonymous, we and our life, will just sink into the deep.
How can we cultivate an awareness of each passing day that truly informs how we live in the days that we have? How can these moments of Yizkor not just be excursions to the edge – thrill-seeking to a point, yet recreationally put into our photo albums as we trudge on, ultimately unaffected us as we see, feel, and experience now? Also, how can these moments of Yizkor not incapacitate us – not leave us feeble and unable to move by the roadside, helpless in the merciless beating sun, as we pray for some shade, any shade for our weary head?
It’s striking that the Book of Jonah ends unraveled – it is not clear that Jonah is affected by the miracle of his survival. His last words to God are: heitaiv chara li ad mavet – I do well to be so angry, even to death. What will our last moments be like – in the tatters of our mosaic, as we hold our frayed quilt of life, how will we make peace? Will we go down to our depths angry and unrepentant – stubborn in our displeasure? Will anything ever be all right?
The Book of Jonah ends with a gaping open question – with God trying to explain to Jonah, responding with reasonableness to Jonah’s righteous fury concerning the circumstances of his life. Those who do not understand – should God not have compassion on them? Those who are not reflective – who are not present and are not invested in the majesty of God, are nonetheless, part of God’s design. God even shapes the shadowed valley. Really, another name for the pit of death is the Garden of Eden. Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.
We are asked to learn from Jonah – to not be petulant and unforgiving until the end. We are to take up Jonah’s story and continue the narrative. After Nineveh, now what? Do we get back on the boat and try to disappear? Do we recede back into our everyday life, secreting away this infinite experience of accessing and celebrating memory, or do we find ourselves somehow changed, and charged to live well and humbly, even as we step carefully over the sharp glass shards of our losses.
Maybe change starts with a thank you. Maybe our texts are beckoning us to stand on Jonah’s shoulders and model consideration. There is a story told by my colleague Rabbi Michael Simon about an elderly, retired teacher who lived in a nursing home. He was lonely and often felt that the many years that he had devoted to his students were long forgotten. He was able to voracious reader, and his mind was active – and yet, the thought that no one remembered him made him sad.
His wife had died years before, and his three children lived far away and rarely visited. They did call him regularly – however, day in and day out, the thought that what he had done for so long and was not appreciated, weighed on his mind.
One day, he received a call from a former student. The student asked if it would be all right if she and some of her friends from school came to visit. The retired teacher was thrilled – “of course, it’s more than all right – I look forward to your visit.”
Over twenty students, now grown, surprised their former teacher with a gala party in his honor. Each former student got up to speak and expressed appreciation for with the teacher had done for him or her. They related that much of their success in life was because of his positive influence on them. He was remembered. He was noticed, he received attention, and he was appreciated. The work that he had done was living on. After the party, he asked them to call him every once and a while – they said that they would – and they did – and they told their friends that their calls would be appreciated, as well. Each call was a symbol of gratitude that added much light to that teacher’s life, before he died.
As we look down into the darkened valley below – we begin to see the shadows of figures – of people that we recognize — grandparents, parents, siblings, sisters, brothers, children – and ourselves. We have this moment now to appreciate and show gratitude for what we have had in our lives. We will soon move to other ground, and yet, we can be guided as we stand here during Yizkor, during this Yom Kippur towards living more meaningful, intentional lives.
When we look back at Jonah we see a man disaffected and removed, sitting with impatience under his mysterious gourd, not grateful for his abundance, not grateful for his precious moments – cantankerous until the end. And how will people look back at us? What moments will describe us – moments that we may be so desperate to promote or to conceal? How do we keep our loved ones close?
Here’s another story: a young lady in her mid-twenties received the sad news that her father had been diagnosed with a terminal disease and had less that six months to live. Ever since she was a little girl, she had dreamed about sharing a dance with her Daddy at her wedding. She now realized that this dream was not ever to be. At this time, she didn’t have a steady boyfriend – certainly not a fiancé – so moving a wedding to an earlier date was not an option. There was no wedding.
The young lady, named Rachel Wolf, conceived of a rather unconventional idea. She decided to host a groomless wedding, for the exclusive purpose of dancing with her father. Dr. James Wolf, who was losing his life to pancreatic cancer, was invited to his daughter’s wedding in Auburn, California. Rachel worn a stunning wedding dress and her Dad was decked out in his tuxedo – and they came together for a dance on that day.
Father and daughter danced together, surrounded by adoring friends and relatives – who were hugging and applauding. They danced to a song called “Cinderella,” by Steven Curtis Chapman – the lyrics go like this:
It’s been a long day and there’s still work to do
She’s pulling at me saying, Dad I need you
There’s a ball at the castle and I’ve been invited
And I need to practice my dancing, oh please, daddy, please.
So I will dance with Cinderella while she is here in my arms
‘cause I know something the prince never knew
oh, I will dance with Cinderella, I don’t want to miss even one song
‘cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight and she’ll be gone.
There will be day when Rachel Wolf does get married, for real – and her dad will not be there. However, she has shaped this future moment – she has created memories and images that will invite his spirit and his soul to her on that future day.
It is grief that frays our life’s quilt. It is our recognition that like Jonah, we are most afraid of not belonging anywhere.
We look with uncertainty
Beyond the old choices for
To a softer, more permeable aliveness
Which is every moment
At the brink of death;
For something new is being born in us
If we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
Awaiting that which comes…
Daring to be human creatures,
Vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.
-Anne Hillman, “We Look with Uncertainty”
So, now, as we turn – as we think of our loved ones – those times when we connected with them. Here in this space – on a walk, in a conversation, a movie that we shared, a quiet moment – a favorite activity. What do we remember? What can we remember, past being heitaiv chara li ad mavet – so angry, even to death?
As we enter into this Yizkor, as we recognize that we are at the summit of our hill, as we are also animated in the deep of the valley, we certainly exist in both places, simultaneously, as we invite and allow our tears to fall. We are able to sing our stories, as we are inspired by Jonah, we are able to sing our imperfect stories, and for all of it, as we are able today, to say – thank you.
There is a brokenness
Out of which comes the unbroken,
A shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow beyond all grief
Which leads to joy
And a fragility
Out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space
Too vast for words
Through which we pass with each loss,
Out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound,
Whose serrated edges cut the heart as we break open
To the place inside, which is unbreakable and whole,
While learning to sing.
-The Unbroken, Sufi
May the memories of all those we remember today be for a blessing.
T’hei nishmoteihem tzrurot b’tzror hachayim –
May their souls be bound up in the bond of life.
Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre
Neil F. Blumofe
3 October 2014
I am grateful and appreciative that we are all gathered together in community this evening as we experience Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement — this Day of Forgiveness in these precious hours. Although we are now embarking on a journey that seems long and even arduous based on our time dedicated to prayer, fasting and other deprivations, this time will fly by, and in the words of Unetane Tokef, from our liturgy, upon a little reflection, kachalom ya-uf – our lives pass quickly, like a dream.
There are so many other places that we could be right now – ACL at Zilker Park – even the House of Torment at Highland Mall – anywhere where we can elude this call of the shofar, for us to gather and move out of the comfortable and familiar personae with which we identify ourselves and others – a time to climb out of the boxes that we reserve to identify and judge each other daily, and now to remake our lives as we plumb our character. In no way do we have to achieve perfection – we don’t have to solve ourselves — rather to just identify who we are and take responsibility for what we have done, may be enough for us to spur even a modicum of encouragement, change, and redirection. Again, returning – and starting tonight — may each of us experience a profound connection to our tradition, our purpose, and our community – and may we invite others to share with us the glory of having our lives matter, together.
When I was a small boy, I was afraid that there were monsters under my bed. Growing up in the suburbs north of Chicago, at night during rainstorms, I would often see the lightning dancing and flashing through my window, zigzagging across the blue walls of my room, and upholding a breathless panic, I would count the seconds until I heard the booming thunder, and then, and only then, I would exhale, in dread of what was next. Back then, I believed in superheroes, as well. I felt deeply the stories of the Golem, whose mission it was to protect his people. I yearned for a Justice League that could proclaim right from wrong and good from evil. I wanted this judgment to make things easier, neater – to offer a specific contour that shaped tolerable and intolerable – to that which needed to be preserved and that which must be destroyed. I wanted Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman to act together, not so much as mercenaries, but as dedicated champions above the pettiness and agony of human discourse and interaction.
And when I think of my childhood home, I think of the thick shadows cast by the spruces grown big, planted when we first moved in. I remember the furtive exploring walks through the tall grasses and the thickets when I was young, ultimately reaching the cornfields and the lake, my teeth sometimes chattering as my ears constantly heard the tales of the ornery, enigmatic owner of the property, armed with a bb gun, who would mercilessly shoot trespassers, no matter our age. In our beautiful Arcadian, suburban setting, rumors circulated among us in the public high school, about a story of an ill-fated school, or some say, an asylum, isolated within the dense woods – long demolished — and a gate, still standing and haunted now, after so many years, that long ago, was witness to cruel, barbarous, and still unexplained behavior – a real place called Independence Grove — and every Halloween, it was said, for I never dared to go there on that day, fresh blood would drip and the phantom heads of the victims would appear on its wrought iron gateposts, accompanied by a chorus of eerie screams and mysterious sounds.
So, even in my late teenage years, as I was driving and had a job, before going away to college, there were monsters in my mind that lurked when I came home after midnight, as I hurried past the tall spruces and put my key in the front door — turning on the lights as I passed through each room, and I would quickly make my way up the stairs, hearing the creak around stair seven, and the snoring of my father, willing my fears to dissipate, hoping that there wasn’t another rainstorm filled with lightning and thunder, as I got into bed.
In college, in New Orleans, as I was studying and beginning to connect to the larger world, in 1991, there was the First Gulf War. I read of and saw indelible images of Russian-made Scud missiles launched by Iraq exploding in the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. I saw pictures of rooms in small apartments being converted into safe rooms, fortified with plastic sheeting, and gas masks handed out and worn in frightful anticipation that the warheads of the missiles contained nerve or chemical agents.
At this time, I was preparing to study in Poland – attending the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, studying Polish and political philosophy – and I made arrangements to travel to Israel for the first time that summer, after my program ended in the spring. I wanted to be in Israel, to get beyond the editorials, and the news cycles – I wanted to walk in paths made real by my footsteps, and have the patient lessons of determined Hebrew schoolteachers come alive in astonishing ways. Somehow, I wanted to claim a narrative about Israel that was different from the supposed experts and thought leaders, who like the most seasoned advertisers, opened a reality that while appearing multifaceted and varied was in reality, quite narrow – as the English novelist and critic, George Orwell writes, political language is designed to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Living in Israel for those three months in 1991 allowed me to see that the reality that I constructed about the land and its people – and really about Judaism as a whole was, to say the least, incomplete. It is with each passing year that I realize the inferred meanings, intended indirection, and complexity of viewpoints inherent in any conversation, let alone a conversation about Israel. There truly are shiv’im panim la’Torah – seventy faces of Torah – with contingencies, incongruities, ambiguities, and multiple truths present in every telling. As Israeli cinema loves to depict for example, there are no clear-cut heroes, no pure or absolute choices as our reality unfolds – we are all implicated, all responsible – all amalgams of good and evil.
And now, as my kids grow older, and I can no longer rely on my parents for advice, I lie awake at night, gripped by these same monstrous thoughts of uncertainty. What will be? Will my family be safe? What about the harassing creepers, who follow our kids after school? When my kids couple, will their partners beat or abuse them? What kind of men will my sons be? What about those in our world who are literally, spoiling for our heads? Who really knows what evil lurks just outside of our supposedly secure places? As our Torah teaches, the heart of the human is rak ra kol hayom – is only evil, continually. As much as I wonder about monsters under my bed and the beds of my loved ones, I am certain that there are others just like me, who are striving to place those monsters of destruction there and arm them with the most sinister of weapons, as quickly as I will them away and attempt to annul their power.
And to be on the ground, amid the danger, in many ways is healthier than having our imagination run rampant, where fears can quickly compound. I quickly realized this when I was in Israel this summer, even as the lightning and thunder of the Red Alert system kept activating, that rockets were en route and Iron Dome was activated and like I did when I was small, I counted until the explosions, either in the sky or on the ground inevitably followed and then exhaled – and still, in many ways, there was no place I’d rather be – as I remembered the words of the writer, William Faulkner: Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid. And even though I was looking forward to the great Greenland kayaking adventure with my son afterwards, it was difficult, and indeed, wrenching, to take my leave from that besieged, incredible place.
And now, 23 years and 16 trips after my first travel to Israel, I feel that I belong to the people and the land, and that the land and the people belong to me. I feel, amid all of the tensions and uncertainties, that Israel is my home and that I am invested in her story, and in her past, present, and future. This realization fills we with hope, belonging, gratitude, and possibility. This connection empowers me to want to share this journey with you, and your loved ones and friends.
Yes, there is plague all around – Ebola in Dallas, threats of pandemic and radical, fundamentalist evil, on the move. There is no Justice League; the God that we seek is a hidden, inscrutable God – we are all, after all, merely ordinary — the monsters under the bed have come out into the brightness of day and seem to be sharpening their teeth, everywhere we turn. And even though I sometimes feel that I am still living near Independence Grove, mine is not a dusty light of wan solidarity – not a cheap, relative, fluctuating resolve. There is grit involved in my association – difficulty, angst, frustration – as well as a determination to learn more, discover more and to involve myself in navigating the inevitable difficulties. As in any invested relationship, the stakes are high, and the invitation to walk away – to divorce — is ever-present. Nevertheless, on this night of all nights, as we turn again to each other, and sit waiting for wonder – waiting for the miracle to come, I ask that we fall in love with Israel. I am asking that we do not fall in love with the idea of Israel – rather that we fall in love with the imperfect, challenging, amazing, and perplexing blood and guts that comprise the Jewish state. I ask that we immerse ourselves in possibility and not allow our proclivities to criticize to overpower our capacity for vulnerability and selfless offering. I ask that we don’t allow reports of corruption, cynicism, betrayal, ignorance, and human fallibility crowd out our belief in something lustrous still, beyond measure.
I ask that we travel to Israel together to experience an indomitable, resolute spirit among ourselves, while cultivating one with our brothers and sisters. I ask that we face our fears and immerse ourselves in something larger than ourselves – as the Israeli novelist, David Grossman, has written – you describe your reality in the highest resolution even when it’s a nightmare and in doing so, you live your own life, not a cliché others have formulated for you. I ask that we deepen our commitment to understanding the demands and the rituals of our tradition – that we grow to appreciate its delicious indeterminacy – and that we not be so quick to abandon our heritage, our synagogue community, or be willing to choose an easier, less demanding path.
I ask that we sit with and give energy to what the word sacrifice means, and not abscond with a paltry substitute or be satisfied with a feebler pretender. I ask that we don’t trade our own problems for Israel’s problems – using the manifold challenges of the Jewish state as compensation for our own sense of powerlessness, marginalization and discontent with our own elected officials and state and national policies. I ask that we not be hypocritical in our rebuking – recognizing that our castigations hold influence and that we don’t just speak for ourselves – that others have agendas far more suspicious and malevolent than our own — conflating any mistakes or dilemmas of Israelis with negative traits common to all Jews. I ask that we give the benefit of the doubt, and see our relationship with the people and the land of Israel as ever-flowering and uplifting – agreeing with Amos Oz who said: I have been a man of compromise all of my life. But even a man of compromise cannot approach Hamas and say – maybe we meet halfway and Israel only exists on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
As a community, I hope that we can travel together to Israel this coming spring, and many times thereafter. Please consider joining me on this trip for an incredible experience. The dates are 10-22 March and there is more information by your seats and online. A plus about traveling together in the spring, is that we will be in Jerusalem during the day of the Jerusalem marathon and half marathon, and any who would like to walk/run in these events with me are encouraged to do so. What an inspired way of crafting a unique relationship with our Eternal City. If you don’t feel called to participate in the race yourself, do come along, and consider sponsoring one of our students – as we explore our homeland. In many ways, we are at the beginning of a more long-term, real, and significant relationship with our brothers and sisters in Israel and I look forward to helping us engage in experiences beyond the tendentious surface area of headlines. Come travel with me as we stare down our anxieties and as we face the dynamisms of knowns and unknowns – as we make peace with what we can and cannot control.
Israel is our land too – a legacy and a place that beckons us and invites us into discovery. And like the bucolic setting of my childhood, amid the verdant foliage and the general places of safety, there lurks a destabilizing presence – an unseen negative force that either pesters us with a bb gun, or is present with rumors of insidious crimes, threatening to sap our courage and assurance, if we are not careful. There is an Independence Grove, a menace outside of our well-lit places, both seen and unseen, and yet confident and unafraid, we realize that we are all family and that we are responsible for each other.
There are many stories, some quite recent, that exemplify this as Israel received hundreds of rocket attacks this summer and threats from sophisticated terror tunnels – perhaps none as poignant as the remarks of Rachel Fraenkel, a mother of one of the three Israeli teens murdered this summer – while I saw her from afar at the funeral in Modi’in and heard her proclaim the Mourner’s Kaddish, she later spoke up, at the end of the shiva for her son, to comment on the death of the 16-year-old Mohammed Khdeir, murdered in retaliation, after the death of the three boys – she said, even in the abyss of mourning for Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali, it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem – the shedding of innocent blood is against morality, is against the Torah and Judaism, and is against the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country. Only the murderers of our sons, along with those who sent them and those who helped them and incited them to murder – and not innocent people – will be brought to justice: by the army, the police, and the judiciary – not by vigilantes. No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Mohammed’s parents. This is the people I love, who live in the land that I love.
How do we cultivate empathy? How do we speak from authority and not ape reactionary rhetoric, thus confirming our inflexibility? Do we not see how quickly things change? Must we go through tragic experiences to speak tragically? How can we understand another’s situation and convey the feelings of another? How do we feel someone’s joy, as well as their pain? And rather than us seeking shelter, thinking that we are out of harm’s way in our comfortable lives – letting others speak in our name, we must open ourselves to the larger world and turn our lives towards living in compelling ways that offers healing, respect, and love. We must give witness. We are not merely survivors, rather we are creators of this world’s Torah – we are designers and shapers of our future, and the world’s future – inspired by the Israeli writer, Etgar Keret: something out of nothing is when you make something up out of thin air, in which case it has no value. Anybody can do that. But something out of something means it was really there the whole time, inside you, and you discover it as part of something new, that’s never happened before. Let us make something out of something, together.
Va’tikvah v’dorshecha – to those who seek You, grant hope.
L’shanah ha’ba’ah b’Yerushalayim – in this coming year, let us be in Jerusalem together.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah.
OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO! (TALMUD EDITION)
Erev Rosh haShanah – ½ Tishrei
Congregation Agudas Achim
ONE WHO PRAYS, AND MAKES A MISTAKE – IT IS FOR HIM, A BAD SIGN. AND IF THE ONE WHO PRAYS IS A SHALIACH TSIBUR, THEN IT IS BAD FOR THE ENTIRE CONGREGATION, WHO SENT THE LEADER, SINCE A PERSON’S AGENT IS LIKE A PERSON. THEY SAID ABOUT RABBI CHANINA BEN DOSA – THAT HE WOULD PRAY FOR THE SICK, AND THEN HE WOULD SAY, “THIS ONE WILL LIVE AND THIS ONE WILL DIE.” THE PEOPLE ASKED HIM, “HOW DO YOU KNOW?” HE ANSWERED THEM: “IF MY PRAYER IS FLUENT IN MY MOUTH THEN I KNOW THAT MY PRAYER HAS BEEN WELL RECEIVED. HOWEVER, IF MY PRAYER IS NOT FLUENT, THEN I KNOW THAT MY PRAYER HAS BEEN REJECTED.
Q: In which of the blessings of the prayers does this Mishnah make reference (when making a mistake?)
A: Rabbi Chiya said in the name of Rav Safra, who said in the name of one who was part of the Rebbi’s academy: the Mishnah is referring to an error that is made when praying the Avot of the Amidah.
Some taught this in regard to the following Baraita: those who pray should concentrate their thoughts (heart) when praying all of the blessings. However, if one cannot concentrate when reciting all of the blessings, one should at least concentrate in praying one of them. Thus, Rabbi Chiya said in the name of Rav Safra, who said in the name of one who was part of the Rebbi’s academy: at the very least one should concentrate in reciting the Avot.
(THEY SAID ABOUT RABBI CHANINA BEN DOSA)
Q: What is the basis for this ability to tell the difference between who will live and who will die?
A: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: God creates utterances of the lips – peace, peace for those who are far and for those who are near, said haShem – and I will heal.
And Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: all of the prophets prophesied only about the reward for those who make teshuvah – but concerning the reward for the tsadikim gemurim – no eye, except Yours, O God, has seen.
Rabbi Yochanan disagrees with Rabbi Abahu! For Rabbi Abahu taught: in the place where those who make teshuvah stand, the tsadikim gemurim do not stand, as it says: shalom, shalom la’rachok v’lakarov. First, haShem extends greetings to one who was far (and made repentance) and then to the one who was near all along.
However, regarding this verse, Rabbi Yochanan would teach: what is the meaning of rachok? One who was far from sin, all along. And what is the meaning of karov? One who was near to sin and now drew away from it.
What is the reward that no eye has seen? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: This is the extraordinary thing of wine, preserved in its grapes since the six days of Creation. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani taught: this is Eden, upon which the eye of no creature has gazed. And should you ask, where was Adam, the first human, if not in Eden? The answer is that Adam lived in the Garden. And should you persist and say, but the garden is Eden. Our tradition teaches: a river issues from Eden to water the garden — this indicates that the garden is in one place, and that Eden is in another place.
 If prayerful words come effortlessly from my heart and flow fluently from my mouth (Rashi).
 My prayer request has been torn up by the Heavenly Court (Rashi)
 this means not merely knowing the meaning of the words – rather it means that one is always conscious of standing before God in prayer.
 Isaiah 57:19. Borei (create) is linked to bari (strong). When prayer is “sound and sure,” there will be healing and peace.
 The ba’alei teshuvah stand in the most exalted place – in the Garden of Eden. Among other things the repentant participate in the mitzvah of repentance.
 Genesis 2:10