Neil F. Blumofe
31 December 2016
Do you remember the song Tradition in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, as we are being introduced to the various inhabitants of the town Anatevka, we meet Reb Nahum the beggar – who after getting only one kopek this week from Lazar Wolf responds to him, nu, if you had a bad week – why should I suffer?
In this week of lighting our Hanukkah candles as we look to restore hope and balance in this world with our increasing lights, it has been a strange, imbalanced week – a time when we could say that there has been a disturbance in the force. Many of us traveling or on vacation, looking to take a breath and enjoy life for a few moments, were following with dread these past few days instead, the recent decision of the United Nations Security Council Resolution – the first one in 36 years – that condemned the building of housing for Israelis in the areas known as Judea and Samaria – the West Bank – what are called settlements. This was followed by a speech by the current US Secretary of State who defended the US abstention of this resolution and demanded that Israel end so-called settlement building – calling it an obstacle for peace.
I condemn this resolution and the public, one-sided nature of how the US abstention was rationalized and explained. I do believe that this action emboldens others to merge legitimate critique with anti-Jewish and anti-Israel positions. I appreciate the recent report concerning the British Prime Minister scolding Secretary of State Kerry for his focus on the settlements. And I could go on – however, I feel to analyze political posturing and to comment on the agendas of others should not be my focus – certainly in this time of teaching and inspiring with Torah – and is to fall into a trap, of not seeing the forest for the trees.
For while upsetting, this attitude from America is nothing new – back in 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker famously said to his counterparts in Israel – everybody over there should know that the telephone number of the White House is 202-456-1414. When you’re serious about peace, call us. And while we are looking for a way now to move through this current ripple in the great Israel-US alliance, we should also be reminded that we should have no illusions about what constitutes partnerships in the realm of realpolitik.
Even more than people, countries act in their own self-interest, and we celebrate when these actions may coincide with benevolence and empathy. We give our leaders too much credit if we think that they prioritize our needs before their own. As Pirkei Avot shrewdly teaches – hevu z’hirin barashut, shein m’karvin lo la’adam elah l’tzorech atzman. Nir’in k’ohavin bish’at hana’atan, v’ein omdin lo la’adam bish’at doch’ko – be wary of the authorities – they do not befriend anyone unless it servers their own needs. They appear as a friend when it is to their advantage, however, they do not stand by anyone in the hour of need. In addition, as we strive to make sense of the decisions of government — there is a method always to what is shared publically versus what is shared privately. Who people are speaking to is not always obvious. To this end, even when there aren’t organized services in this sanctuary, I like to take time and dwell in here, when it is quiet. I have had a great privilege in my time in Austin, being a part of the envisioning of this space – and the small details of its construction continue to stay with me as I share them with you, as well.
As we direct our attention to the ark doors, we see the artful zodiac – which is meant to remind us of the ancient mosaics found in the sixth-century synagogue in Beth Alpha, located in the north of Israel, near Beit She’an. In addition, the study of astronomy is meant to connect us to the once great Jewish civilization in Babylon – the place where the Talmud was codified and rabbinic Judaism flourished, establishing our Jewish practices, even today. Everytime we say mazal tov, which means, may our stars be favorable, we are evoking our legacy from Babylon.
The larger copper doors themselves were by design, manufactured in Europe, specifically in Germany, and evoke a connection to the once glorious Jewish presence in Europe – where Jews became an indispensable part of the fabric of Western civilization – and both of these civilizations of learning and leading – Babylonian and European — are long gone – there are no Jews safely living in modern day Iraq – and the majority of Jews in Germany and Poland are largely reconstituted from Russian and Israel, today. Thus, our sanctuary in its beauty is an elegant open question, and a silent referendum about our own current success. As we come here to pray and to put our trust in God – a question beneath our prayers is always — In America, as Jews, how far can we go?
We are living in a toxic and corrosive environment – where the Jewish community is battling neo-Nazis on the right and on the left. As students of history, this should surprise no one. What is more dismaying is the quick willingness of Jews to denounce other Jews – adopting the language of the fascists in declaring what is right and proper in pursuing particular political agendas – calling Jews JINOS (Jews in Name Only), unJews, Erev Rav – a mixed multitude, kapos, and the enemy within – and declaring an absolute Truth and way forward that obscures more difficult truths is most distressing. In these attacks among us, to separate the strength of Israel and liberal Judaism is a grave mistake.
Here, unfortunately, there are so many parallels to the story of Hanukkah – and the aftermath of the victory of the Maccabees. For if we read the end of the Books of the Maccabees, we see that after the defeat of the Seleucids, the Maccabees began to fight among themselves — Jews against Jews – Judah Maccabee attacking other cities around Jerusalem. The Maccabees finally lost against the Greeks in the Battle of Elasa in 160 BCE, where Judah Maccabee was killed. However, based on the political considerations of the day and negotiations and interests of the larger world powers at the time, Jonathan, Judah’s youngest brother, became High Priest and ruled an independent Judea until about 100 years later. In a disagreement then between two Hasmonean brothers, descendants of the Maccabees — the Romans were called in by the Hasmoneans themselves, to strengthen one particular side – and once the Romans entered as an interested party, this unleashed a brute, impassive force against the Jews of the region.
I would rather we get to know the great thinkers and wisdom carriers of our tradition – and there is so much to say – however, let me introduce you today to just one figure in our tradition who can help guide us in these unprecedented times – the great leader, Yitzchak ben Yehudah Abravanel – a 15th century Jewish statesman and Torah sage – and a life that reflects the fate of Jews in this world, as we can take council from our history.
Commonly known as Abravanel – he was born in Portugal in 1437 – to a family that had escaped massacre in Castile in 1391. He was appointed as treasurer to King Afonso V. After this king died, Abravanel was considered a traitor by the new king – the move to a new administration was not good for him. Eventually he moved to Toledo, Spain, and began to work for Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand – you may have heard about them – the ones who expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. I can only imagine the names Abravanel would have been called today by other Jews — Abravanel tried mightily to have the king and queen reverse their decision – offering to pay extraordinary amounts of money to have them to do so. He was unsuccessful and left Spain for Naples – working for the king there, until the French invaded and Abravanel was forced to leave again without any of his possessions. He eventually ended up in Venice where he worked in the government until his death in 1508. He was buried in Padua – and the next year, there was a Siege of Padua by the Holy Roman Empire and the subsequent destruction of the Jewish cemetery – so his grave is currently unknown.
Hopefully we can get perspective from knowing more about the story of the Maccabees and the simple biography of Don Isaac Abravanel – we should know too, as we wade through our news feeds, this quote from Niccolo Machiavelli – politics have no relation to morals.
So, let us celebrate Hanukkah and each day, excruciatingly aware of the world around us and yet not to have the world darken our spirits – we are not to be occluded — we are to find the light in dark times – amid our grim preparation for confronting what is next, we are to choose miracle out of morass. We are to deeply acknowledge the darkness – and as we dwell within this magnificent and thought-provoking sanctuary bracing for impact, to not only say – but to feel in the depth of our being – nes gadol haya po – as Hannah Arendt writes – even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost any circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth. We are, each of us, that uncertain, flickering, and weak light – and we are to persevere. As Reb Nahum from Anatevka reminds us – this belief, this perseverance, is our tradition.
32ND ANNUAL IACT THANKSGIVING SERVICE: Words of Wisdom and Welcome
Rabbi Neil F. Blumofe, President, Interfaith Action of Central Texas (IACT)
Good afternoon. We thank Rev. McClendon and the St. James community for their gracious hosting of our moments together this afternoon. My name is Rabbi Neil Blumofe, and I am honored to serve as the president of Interfaith Action of Central Texas (IACT). Throughout our celebration together, I invite you to explore your program in hand, and see the many wonderful ways that you can get involved and deepen your connection to our larger Austin community through IACT. And while we are privileged to be here – I must say that today, many of us are weary – many of us are just tired.
I’ve been thinking — it was 153 years ago yesterday, at a dedication of a cemetery in Gettysburg, PA, in one of the lowest moments of this nation’s history, that President Abraham Lincoln reminded a fractured nation that we shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.
We must show up for each other. We must continue our work. We are called upon to offer spiritual resistance – to stem the tide of suspicion, fear and hate-mongering. Let us cherish facts and the truths that we hold to be self-evident — that all people are entitled to a chance in a system that supports them. That we have a moral obligation to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and visit the sick, and comfort the mourner – and stand up for those oppressed, and stand with those who are victimized – and stand up for those in danger – and to know that we are not alone. We must not be alone.
For we are at a moment where uncertainty is rising.
We must rise to recommit ourselves to common core values and we must awaken to promote enduring soul values in this world – to accept the challenge of our holy Scripture and to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord. Our prophets teach us – awake, awake, ye slumberers – rise up from our sleep. Let each of us find common ground to protect the defenseless, to comfort those in fear, to work for justice for all, to be more loving and attentive in every aspect of our daily lives. Amen.
We are called into service as our ancestors were called into service. We listen to the hearts all around us that have been broken open.
We can see the world as half full or half empty. We can choose. The power that is stored up within each of us is exceedingly great. Let each of us go forth and joyfully meet our God – let our spirit soar to the very heavens – for we – each of us — is created in God’s image – let us now act.
I have just come to this magnetic place after a concert earlier this afternoon in my own synagogue – Congregation Agudas Achim. We hosted the Holocaust Survivor Band – a group that plays music with defiant joy, in the wake of terror. Two men lead that band – one who is 89 and one who is 91. Each undaunted – and let us too say to our neighbor — walk with me awhile, for we have been here before. We have been here before. We need each other – for our dignity, grace, and self-respect.
Today we have come to dedicate a portion of our field – let us awaken and yet act in ways – morally, ethically, honorably, and virtuously that is befitting of our stature and our claim to be truly free.
May we be blessed in each other’s light – to live a life of fullness and significance.
And may God bless us and all of our efforts.
INVOCATION FOR THE AUSTIN CITY COUNCIL MEETING – 3 NOVEMBER 2016
Honorable Mayor, Distinguished Council, Respected Guests:
You don’t have to love baseball to have appreciated such a magnificent game last night. From both the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians, the athletic ability of the players, the decision-making of the managers, and the vision of the executives all converged to deliver a grandeur and a grace that somehow illuminates our own efforts as we think now about the significance and the meaning of our own actions. As we look to move forward next Wednesday after the election results are in, both in our miracles and in our challenges, we admit that we are living in unprecedented times.
We like to think of Austin as a radiant example – a place where our good ideas are hotly and respectfully debated. A place where our imagination and our dreams are implemented for the good of all of our citizens – as we grapple with transportation, demographics, inevitable growth, affordability – and so much more.
And now, inspired by this World Series, we can rekindle our hope as we see that there are always new and creative ways to solve seemingly intractable issues. We can see that there is always a third way – day by day, or if you will, inning by inning — a way forward that is respectful, compassionate and tolerant of our errors and appreciative of our unique talents. Another doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right.
May you and your loved ones be granted good health and the inspiration to cultivate wisdom as you conduct yourselves – may you be blessed to see the good in what you do, especially in the most difficult of days – and may your inspiration offer direct benefit to others so that they may cheer you on. We need each other — players, managers, and executives — and with positive actions around us, we may continue to prosper our beloved city of Austin.
Y’hi Ratzon – May this truly be God’s will.
Neil F. Blumofe
Congregation Agudas Achim, Austin, Texas
3 November 2016/2 Heshvan 5777
“Mr. and Mrs. October”
Neil F. Blumofe
29 October 2016
Each day, as I was growing up in suburban Chicago, when I would come home from school in the afternoon, it seemed that I would return home and the Chicago Cubs game would be on television – WGN, channel 9. These were the days before there were lights in Wrigley Field, so each home game would start in the afternoon, just after 1:00. I would tune in around the 6th inning or so, and invariably would hear Jack Brickhouse, Steve Stone, and of course, Harry Caray – call another Cubs defeat – trying their best to make it interesting, as the last pitches were thrown. I knew the entire roster of these teams, and in between my own Little League games, I would be outside for hours, hitting tennis balls against the house, imagining I was each player in the Cubs starting lineup, and having a catch with my father, my brother, some of my neighborhood friends, or anyone else who would take the time to throw a baseball with me.
The bones of these afternoon and early evening rituals, lasted through high school – it was only when I was leaving for college – in August of 1988, that Wrigley Field installed lights and that the Cubs began playing night games at home. At that point, I was through playing serious baseball – I could neither see well in the stadium lights nor hit a curve ball — plus — I had other activities to which I was devoted – and the Cubs were so bad, year after year.
As I went on to live in other cities – New Orleans, New York, and Austin – I picked up other teams that I could celebrate – I remember living in New York when the Yankees won the World Series, in 1996 – I had a newborn at the time and I remember thinking that this is what it feels like when a team becomes a champion. Elijah and I rooted for the Yankees as they won in 1998, 1999 and 2000 – and my oldest son became a Yankees fan – the Cubs were honored, but were talked about essentially, in past tense.
So, this is a strange year. To say the “Chicago Cubs” and “late October” in the same sentence is a bit surreal – as Jack Brickhouse has said, “any tem can have a bad century.” And, to be completely honest, and I know that this is a bit treacherous to say publicly, my interests are not locked in on sports. I am glad for the Spurs when they win – I would be happy if the Rangers made it back to the World Series, I am happy for the Blackhawks fans – and of course, I would be delighted to celebrate another Longhorn winning season, someday soon. However, it was with the Saints winning the Super Bowl in the 2009 season – a triumph after Hurricane Katrina, that I thought I reached an apotheosis in my sports rooting career.
And now that the Cubs are playing in the World Series this year, I not going to argue now who’s a more devoted fan – and who is a Johnny-come-lately in these final games of the season. For me, this last series has more to do with honoring all of the past seasons – and particularly, honoring the memories of my parents, who having lived in Chicago their entire lives, watched or listened to a losing team each year of their lives – speaking in hushed tones about the demise of the Cubs and the rise of the Miracle Mets in 1969. In connecting with this series, I have experienced a very powerful feeling of sharing these days with my parents (OBM). As the recent Yizkor prayers of Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret ask us to do – it is in these games that I quite unexpectedly feel their presence, and I realize that for all of my adult years – since 1988 – I have made do with surrogates.
In the context of this week’s Torah portion – with this perspective I can more readily understand the difficulties that surface between the brothers, Cain and Abel. They are living as second best – trying to adjust to life outside of the Garden of Eden – they were born in exile, and all they know are the stories that their parents have told them of the good old days – and without having witnessed Paradise first hand, knowing that they are not part of a championship life – they bicker and ultimately come to dastardly ends. Defeats begets iniquity – and as Cain has his children, each farther removed from the stories of winning, the moniker of losing becomes more hotly imprinted in their psyche – perhaps even as we get to the later generations of Cain’s descendants – and see the tragedy of Lamech, who, our tradition teaches, was blind and accidently killed his ancestor Cain and his son Tubal-Cain, we may wonder as the study of genetics is currently teaching us, if trauma is actually encoded into our genetic material.
To postulate this in the context of the legacy of the Chicago Cubs, may be overreaching. However, I cannot explain to you the rush of déjà vu when I think about this baseball season – and rooting for a team now in a place where it seems that they do not belong. Our mystics talk about a concept in Judaism called tikkun – which is to repair something, beginning at the granular level – this is not just to apply a coat of paint to something and proclaim it better. Rather, to fix something is to do the work to bring about systemic change – to reroute the thing you would like to fix, for the better.
And here, as I have struggled with my memories of my parents – living in a sea of what I feel are missed opportunities – for we never fully engaged as adults – when I left for college, I essentially left – the Cubs are giving me a direct access to a time before I left home – and the opportunity for tikkun, for it seems that I can more easily relate to my parents now in a language that we both understand. For me, Aroldis Chapman is today’s Bruce Sutter. At second base, Ben Zobrist holds a place for Ryne Sandberg – and the possibilities that have opened within me recently as I connect differently to my parents, are a tremendous blessing. With the Cubs in the World Series, it is as if Adam and Eve took their family into the Garden of Eden for a day and said, “this is where we grew up. By seeing this today, you may know us better, and consequently then, cause less harm while being better to each other.”
So, it’s not so much the pride I would have in the Cubs themselves, if the Cubs win the World Series this year. Rather, in their victory there is the beginning of tikkun – for it’s the pride that I already have for thinking that my parents are part of the starting roster too, and I will be acutely wistful when that feeling ends. So, I hope that we can keep flying the W this week and that the series goes to seven – and then inevitably, we will turn our attention to other things, as we see the election looming – and so many other issues and dilemmas with which we must grapple — yet this moment has inexplicably become magical for me and it is with pleasure and a bit of surprise that I honor the memories of my parents each night as each championship game begins, and I root for the Cubs as I once rooted for the Saints in 2009 – to deliver this moment so we can continue to repair the past and concentrate on the essential yet difficult things that we must, to make a more brilliant and enduring future.
Yom Kippur – Yizkor
Neil F. Blumofe
12 October 2016
Good morning – as we enter into these Gates of Memory – as we consider the personal stories that bind our lives together from generation to generation, this year we also remember three Jewish notables who exemplify Jewish thought, peoplehood, and conscience in our challenging world. It is their writing, leadership, and example that encourages us to continue their work, in our own humble way – to allow our lives to resonate – as guarantors for those who are looking to us for inspiration and direction.
To begin, I will offer a few remarks about Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner, who died this past Shabbat Shuvah, and I will also share about Shimon Peres, who passed away just before Rosh haShanah. In addition, I’ve asked Marc Winkelman to speak about Elie Wiesel this morning. Marc is the Secretary/Treasurer of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization founded by Elie and his beloved Marion shortly after he received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986. The Foundation is dedicated to combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice, through international dialogues and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding, and equality. Marc and Elie enjoyed a strong friendship for more than a decade.
[JACOB NEUSNER] – (1932-2016) – NIFTAR — SHABBAT SHUVAH, 5777
Rabbi Jacob Neusner was an American academic scholar of Judaism who is regarded as the most published author in history, having written or edited more than 950 books. He received his rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary and concentrated his research on the study of rabbinic Judaism in the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras, claiming that there were in fact several Judaisms that coalesced into what we now know as rabbinic Judaism. His great importance to us is that Neusner translated into English nearly the entire rabbinic canon, thus opening up this world to the greater world. He was an engaged scholar and with his connections to the past, with the publication of one of his books, Fellowship in Judaism: The First Century and Today (1963), helped to shape what became known as the Havurah Movement which continues to have a significant impact on American Jewish life. As Shaul Magid writes about Neusner, “he was a believer in the flourishing of Judaism and the Jewish people, but was a critic of confessional Judaic scholarship and Jewishness not based in religion.” He was one of the most influential Jewish intellectuals in America in the past fifty years – as we continue to try to find our way and place in 21st century America.
[SHIMON PERES] (1923-2016)
He had a political career that spanned almost 70 years, serving twice as the Prime Minister of Israel, twice as the Interim Prime Minister, a member of twelve cabinets and ninth President of Israel, Peres was considered to be the last link to Israel’s founding generation. He was mentored by David Ben Gurion, and was an architect of Israel’s nuclear program, understanding that Jewish innovation and Jewish achievement were all predicated on Jewish survival. Together with Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres helped to organized the daring Entebbe rescue operation in Uganda in 1976. The Book of Proverbs teaches that when there is no vision – we will perish. Throughout his long and distinguished career in building the people and the State of Israel, Shimon Peres did not lose his capacity to dream and through even the darkest times to imagine a better tomorrow. In 1996, he founded the Peres Center for Peace and in 2016, he founded the Israel innovation center, encouraging young people from around the world to be inspired by technology. In 2014, when receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, Peres concluded his remarks before Congress with these words before Congress: “I leave you today with one piece of advice. It is the advice of a boy who dreamed on a kibbutz who never imagined where his blessed life would take him. When Theodore Herzl said, “im tirzu ain zo agadah – if you will it, it is no dream,” he was right. Looking back on the life of Israel, our dreams proved – not to be too big, but rather, too small. Because Israel achieved much more than I could have ever imagined. So I ask only one thing of you – the United States of America – this mighty nation of dreamers. Don’t dream small. You are great. Dream big. And work to will those dreams into a new reality, for you and all humanity.”
[ELIE WIESEL] – Marc Winkelman
Thank you, Marc. As we take these intentional moments for Yizkor this morning, and encounter ourselves anew, in the space between life and death, we see our flame flicker as we remember those in our lives who have made an impact – in the stories that we tell, in the genetics that we share, and most tragically, in the hopes and dreams suddenly broken by lives ended much too soon. What a terrible burden we now hold. If we had a few more moments, what would we say – how full would be our embrace of those whom we know we will not see again?
A rabbinical colleague of mine, Ken Berger, once wrote about the astronauts of the Challenger rocket, and how after the explosion in 1986, they had five minutes to contemplate their lives as they were plummeting to the ground from 65,000 feet up. He called his sermon, “Five Minutes to Live.” Terribly, almost three years later, Rabbi Berger and his family were on a commercial airplane flight when the tail engine exploded, crippling the controls. As the plane lost altitude Rabbi Berger and his wife had about 40 minutes to contemplate their lives before they were killed – his two children miraculously survived. If we truly considered our mortality, what thoughts would enter into our minds? What actions would we take? How deeply might we painfully dwell in the idea of, “if only.”
It is in these moments that quiet stories are shared – inspiration that may strum a soft chord – anecdotes of resilience and encouragement that serve to cushion our encountering these bleak moments and acknowledging our mortality. How can we make peace with this, when all ultimately crumbles, like brittle matzah?
Our tradition teaches that King Solomon, a son of King David, and a most wise and discerning king in his own right, at important junctures of his life, wrote three sacred books in his lifetime. When he was young and filled with zest for life, he wrote Shir haShirim – The Song of Songs – a passion-filled reverie that celebrates both spiritual and physical intimacy in the guise of young lovers. When he was older – middle aged, and established, he wrote the Book of Proverbs – known in Hebrew as Mishlei — a testament to wisdom and the pursuit of ethical values and moral behavior. When Solomon was looking at his last days – and he was able to assess the impact that he had in life, he wrote Kohelet, or the Book of Ecclesiastes – a book that interrogates the lessons that we are supposed to draw from our experiences in life. Far from making peace with what we have accomplished and what we have left to do, Kohelet postulates that most of what we do is hevel – or futile – and that the impact that we make in the world before we die is blunter than we imagine.
Along with the Book of Job, Kohelet is considered radical and controversial in its challenging depictions of life’s difficulties. When we see our life as a grand drama in the fullness of time, with each point connected, as opposed to singular events, broken up in the fragmentation of our own development – our life becomes filled with timeless understanding. We are able to review everything we have done without cherry-picking that which we are most proud – or that which will play well in the restless scrutiny of the public – we see an uninterrupted precious offering of our years – rather than isolated incidents executed haphazardly here and there.
As we age, we get to see all that we have been, without concealer or makeup. We gaze upon our blemishes and our frayed state plainly, yet gaining strength and vitality from seeing in our mind’s eye, who we once were, as well. Yes, this is frightening – to see the landscape of who we have been and to see too that we are both a shadow of who we once were – and a shadow of who we were yet to become. We are a totality of our actions – and the best teshuvah we can make is to not ignore what we have done, or write it out of our narrative that we tell ourselves, but rather to own all of it, even in its unpleasantness, and realize that we have not only survived our challenges and our bad choices, we have lived and continue to live to reset our judgments, by living with a radical sense of forgiveness or at least acceptance, before we die.
In the Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer teaches – shuv yom echad lifnei mita’tach—repent one day before your death, and our tradition takes this as a potent lesson for expanding our perspective and broadening our awareness – allowing each moment to be sacred, for we do not know what will come next. We look to cultivate presence in all that we are, now – and if you are like me, in all of the years, you find music to match your mood.
As I dwell in my life, I notice its soundtrack – the songs that were once so central to specific experiences or time periods of my life, and how subsequent songs that have come on the scene have been informed by what was – and are richer because of these juxtapositions, irrespective of song genre or category. As my life’s soundtrack is being created, it plays like a mixtape – some Led Zeppelin, Arnold Schoenberg, John Coltrane, Chopin’s Nocturnes, and the discography of Leonard Cohen.
As we move back and forth among our memories – from our foundational remembrances to those that have just formed – to the ones that are effervescent to the ones that keep returning, to our dismay, to fill our slumber or to inhabit too, even our waking hours – to the ones that are marginally true, to the ones that have brought us to where we are now, from the intensely private memories to the public ones that serve as a great narrative of our collective purpose and status in this world, it is hard to think that our soundtrack will someday end.
To others will we just leave our studio recordings — what will happen to the live sessions – to the tape that continues to run, recording our non-manufactured, more candid moments? We have seen, most embarrassingly and tellingly in our times, that these recordings, once forgotten and again resurfaced, can be destructive to the image of who we would like to think that we are.
To protect against this is to live the challenge of Rabbi Eliezer. The best way to not have our previous images or comments come back to bite us, is to not create them in the first place. In this time of year, I typically listen to a good bit of Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen has been recording music for slightly longer than I have been alive, and in the chapters of his life, his songs correlate with the three main stages outlined by King Solomon. And each of us, as we collect our own writings, postings, photos, or memories, know too that we create a collage of our collected works, as well.
How do we transform our shames and our regrets? I have been intrigued with the more recent recordings of Leonard Cohen. In 2012, at the age of 78, he released a song entitled, “Going Home.” The lyrics as Cohen sings them:
I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit.
But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube.
This album is produced with his trademark sparse sound, backed by tightly harmonized female voices, urging along the messages of this song – and of our lives – love, desire, faith, and redemption – knowing that our time is limited.
And last month, on his 82nd birthday, he released a new song, “You Want It Darker,” in advance of the forthcoming album. This song is a radical departure from his more established work – the themes of longing and inevitable loss are still present, yet the arrangement has changed. For this song, Cohen connected again with the synagogue of his youth – Shaare Shomayim — a place in Montreal where his grandfather and great-grandfather served as congregational presidents, and where Leonard himself became Bar Mitzvah in 1947.
As he sings the lyrics which can be read as a challenge and a sober examination of God, he employs the haunting sounds of the male choir. This is not a challenge from the thrilling remove of a coffee house or concert stage – this is an indictment of God and an assessment of his life emanating squarely from the sanctuary itself in the tradition of the founder of Hasidic mysticism, the 18th century Baal Shem Tov, who used to pray – Tateinu – today is Kol Nidre, when everyone forgives and is forgiven. Let us put the past behind us. I didn’t always do what was asked of me and you didn’t always do what was asked of You. So, I forgive You and You forgive me – and we’ll call it even. And Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Beredichev who wrangled with God on behalf of his community in the 19th century, daring God to choose another people, already, or as Elie Wiesel recounts in 2008, happened in Auschwitz, when a group in his barracks put God on trial for Crimes against Humanity – and found God guilty, and then they went to pray. In addition, as Cohen sings in an inscrutable bass voice – he intones in English the opening words of the Mourner’s Kaddish as he also asserts –
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame.
And then he switches into Hebrew – singing Hineni, Hineni – I’m ready, my Lord – the watchword of the High Holydays. At the end of the song, the cantor of the synagogue has the last word, singing Hineni – seemingly to advocate on Leonard’s behalf, to plead with God and to help him get to where he wants to go.
I find this utilization of a traditional Jewish sound to be enlivening. From our far distant places, we are called back to the experiences that we once have had, or are currently endowing, as we contemplate our last chapters. Often, I walk in the hallway of our own Religious School, looking at the pictures of the Confirmation classes on the wall and imagining the trajectory of the students who I did not have the privilege to know, and wondering too about those who used to sit with me as they studied for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah – how they are and where they are. This is the greatest benefit of being so long in our community – having such a long-term investment with so many of our families.
And now, we are not to trade one service for another – one year for another, giving the old one back as if we were leasing it. We are to create our successes on what has already been – unable to strike much from our memory, while making peace with it. This is the job of Yom Kippur – not forgetting; rather, learning how to move into all that we are as we look to imagine who we may yet become.
It has been said that in cultivating awareness, we realize that we live our lives as gravediggers trapped in a gold mine — marveling at the exquisite beauty all around us, yet knowing that our days are numbered. What will this year bring as we consider the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer? Can our lives still be unexpected and extraordinary? Beyond our good days and bad days — right now, we are at the summit of our powers that are left to us. Can we yet still be healed by coming to terms with our past?
On his first album, released in 1967, Leonard Cohen sang a song called, “So Long, Marianne,” a paean to a woman with whom he lived and who he had mightily loved – and with whom it ultimately did not work out. He kept in touch with her intermittently throughout the years, and earlier this year he received word that she was dying. This woman, who had helped Leonard discover his voice, and was a most powerful influence on him at one time, was in her final days. This past July, he wrote to her saying:
“Well, Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye, old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.
All we have is the song we can sing now – the Torah that we write in this moment that joins all of our previous chapters. Like King Solomon throughout our lives, in our times, we have written our books, reflecting on who we have been. Like Leonard Cohen, we can still offer vibrancy even as we may think that death may come later than it should. We always have but five minutes to live – it’s always the day before our death – and if we outlive our connections that we have, we become lost souls, pining away for our end – exclaiming Hineni – that we are ready, my Lord. Why not surrender the illusion that we have any control – and as we argue with God about our present circumstances, we can look to draw meaning and strength from the investments that we have already made in our years, that are always ripe for rediscovery.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah – Shanah Tovah Tikateivu vTeichateimu
Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre
Neil F. Blumofe
11 October 2016
Good evening, everyone. L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu – May we and our loved ones be sealed in the Book of Life for a good New Year. I am hoping that each of us is feeling uplifted in these opening days of 5777, and that we have had ample opportunity in these days to reinvest and sustain our friendships and bonds of family and community. I have been consistently struck by this precise moment over the years – each year as we gather on the evening of Kol Nidre – each of us present for our different reasons as Yom Kippur begins – a time which carries its own rhythm of reflection, reverie, and reconstitution – as we notice each other and draw strength from each other, even as we notice who is missing or who is no longer here.
We are not here merely to rehash our former deeds and to hold ourselves accountable, moved as we may be by our guilt, hurt feelings, and determination to try harder next time. We are here to break free from the hardened hearts that steer us directly into ruts and bad behavior. I believe we are here to reacquaint ourselves with the honest, baseline patterns that our tradition offers in this Day of Atonement, and to not look to discover who we are, but rather, to imagine who we may yet become.
In a sense, we fast and bow and speak and sing so many words on Yom Kippur, because we don’t really know what else to do. We are uncomfortable with contemplative silences, and the sheets of sound that we produce, page after page – the time that we spend in this sanctuary, looking for sanctuary, is to compensate for our helplessness and to stave off our apprehensive, yet ambiguous feelings of mortality. Perhaps we feel that we can assuage any menacing dread in our lives, and forestall bad news, if we suffer a bit this day, putting a down payment on more life as we use our tradition as collateral. We will tell our stories, bundling our messages together, and then relieved when the stars come out tomorrow night, we can each return to our lives, maybe recognizing some internal shift, heartened for another year.
We are not so unlike the ancient priests in our story, hedging their bets – sacrificing their goods to both the Sovereign and the Shadow – to God and to Azazel — attempting to keep an even keel – an equilibrium — not wanting lives in the community to go sideways and events in their world to boil over into a savage, uncontrollable bloodshed. They want to keep things status quo. We too think that if we can keep chaos at bay, appeasing all parties and allaying our more baleful impulses, we will avert the evil decree that lurks just outside of our own door. We recognize that this is uncomfortable to think about, and yet here we are, arriving now again, to stare into the void.
Last week, many of your heard me speak about a series of unfortunate events called my Bar Mitzvah – and how that experience distanced me from appreciating the efficacy of organized religion. Subsequently, between the ages of thirteen and twenty, I went to Friday night services, only sparingly – mainly to have time with my father alone in the car for the twenty-minute commute, talking some and listening to the classical radio station. When it did happen, I cherished that time. In college, at Tulane University, I promised my parents that I would go to Hillel now and then – and upon discovering that I knew a few of the Erev Shabbat congregational melodies, the organizers arranged that I would lead services sometimes – each time, in exchange for a free meal.
In 1990, when Anne decided to take a year and study in Paris in a Junior Year Abroad program, I thought that instead of graduating early, I would take a semester and study abroad too. I was majoring in English and Political Economy, and through American University in Washington DC, I arranged to study in Poland for the 1991 spring semester. I arrived in Poznan, Poland in January, 1991 and enrolled at Adam Mickiewicz University, ostensibly to study the democratic transition of the country and the founding of the Third Polish Republic. I was housed in the Dom Studencki Jowita – the international dormitory, which accommodated both international and Polish students.
Just before I arrived, Lech Walesa was elected as the President of Poland, and the government was engaged in achieving a democratic government, a market economy, and expanding the scope of private enterprise — the first fully free and democratic Polish government since 1926. These were exhilarating times – and I enjoyed my studies and research very much – in the mornings, attending Polish Ulpan, and in the afternoons, learning and exploring. On the weekends, we had ample time to travel, and while many of my friends went to Berlin and points west, something in my subconscious prevented me from ever considering a visit to Germany. Instead, a few friends and I would hop on the train and go to Warsaw for dinner, eating at the finest restaurants, accoutered with our American privilege and our disposable Polish student stipends.
And everywhere I went, I saw the renewed flickering hopes of a country coming back from the dead. With fresh coats of paint on the buildings and daring art and bold political conversations that seemed to be in the air all around me, nevertheless, I could not shake visiting places that my gauzy understanding of Judaism presented – I felt magnetized to do so — and that is how I found myself one weekend on an overnight train from Poznan to Oswiecim.
This town is infamous – known in Yiddish as Oshpitzin and in German as Auschwitz, I staggered before dawn, from the overnight train car that was filled with overpowering, unfiltered cigarette smoke, and alone, began to try to find my way to the gates of the death camp. On the roadside I met a couple of nuns – for at the time, there was a convent housing Carmelite nuns near what is known as Auschwitz I. I asked them – przepraszam pani – gdzie jest oboz smierci – excuse me, where is the death camp? Maybe it was my rudimentary Polish, but at first they didn’t seem to understand – and then suddenly, their faces illuminated with joy and I was given orders – ah, Auschwitz! Lewy, prawy, prosty – left straight, then right. Their satisfaction in giving me directions remains chilling to me, 25 years later.
And so I entered under the gate that proclaims in German, Arbeit macht frei – Work sets you free. It was still before the sun rose, and it was cold and gloomy. I walked slowly around the site, on grounds that were well manicured and with buildings that looked like a college campus, putting my fingers in the bullet holes in the walls, and just drifting across the expanse. I saw the mountains of confiscated luggage – including the bag of Otto Frank – Anne Frank’s father — and the heaps of human hair and eyeglasses, displayed behind plastic – and I was cold and numb. And I entered into another barrack building and read the placards, and then suddenly saw a wall emerge right in front of me – towering in its sight. A wall that was filled with pictures – pictures of Jewish life from before the war. Scenes of youngsters laughing in the park with their grandparents, of adults socializing in homes and synagogues, of couples and individuals carousing, studying, gambling, dancing, praying, masquerading, celebrating, mugging and ignoring the gaze of the camera.
This wall filled with pictures and vitality took my breath away, and the bottom dropped out of my heart. This was a normal community – Jews involved every day in the inquiry and intrigue – wrapped up in the importance of their precious lives – unaware of what was coming — and I realized, all of them killed in this place, or two miles up the road at Auschwitz II – Birkenau.
I stood rooted in that spot, shuddering – realizing how close I was to passing Judaism by. I didn’t have any of this. I had run from organized Jewish life, marking time in unremarkable Hebrew school and not participating in what I thought were sketchy and awkward youth activities – I did not have Jewish friends. For so many years, I felt out of place – not at home with a group of people who pronounced short-sighted judgments and caustic attitudes about others who did not happen to fit into a particular way of acting or being. Throughout my teen years, I felt confounded by what I saw among some relatives in my own family — the holding of a presumptuous, overbearing Jewish identity — thus preempting a more well-rounded and elegant wisdom of what Judaism could be.
And this cascade of pictures on this wall — of people in everyday situations, seemingly enjoying life gripped me and emblazoned their images onto my heart, which persist until this day. The day grew colder and rainier and as morning rose, the skies grew darker. I walked from Auschwitz to Birkenau as the roosters crowed in the yards of the houses around me. As I rounded a hill, I saw the spidery rails of train tracks emerge out of the grasses from all directions and surround me. The main entrance of the camp was in view and this steel web work beneath my feet suddenly coalesced into one main railway that led directly into the extermination camp. Walking into Birkenau on this singular track, knowing that it was the terminus from points all across Europe – that Jews who disembarked onto these platforms were immediately marked for death – chilled my bones in ways that the weather could not.
Tomorrow morning, and anytime that the ark is open, you will see the Torah cover for our Holocaust Torah – both in the High Holyday white and the everyday purple – which was designed specifically for our community by the artist Mark Podwal in 2001, after I told him parts of this story.
Upon returning to my dorm room in Poznan, I got sick and stayed in bed for a number of days, nursed back to health by a few of the outcast Africans, who were regularly avoided by the Polish students. After my semester in Poland ended, I traveled some and was able to spend much of the summer in Israel, working on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights and studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. I returned to college in the fall, and was reunited with Anne – and we both started to regularly attend Shabbat services at one of the synagogues in New Orleans.
And although I don’t remember the finer details of the pictures on that barrack wall, those pictures are regularly with me. And tonight, as we clamor for something greater – for our needs to be met, for our defenses to be melted, just a little bit – and to let in the possibility of something bigger than ourselves — I speak to you with these images permanently encasing my heart. Who were these people? I am not content to go through the motions for all of us to observe just another Yom Kippur, without challenging us to consider our role in this community. Yes, we are all welcome – and what, then?
I ask us to consider the personalities that we will encounter in our sacred texts in the arc of this day and how they collectively guide us in our own decision-making and in our relationship to our traditions and to the people in our community. I ask each of us to form these depictions and to see to whom we relate as these figures speak to each other today. Our tradition is peopled with divergent personalities all searching for a comparable truth. With whom do we identify, this year?
Tomorrow morning, we will again meet Aaron, the High Priest, who endeavors to balance and satisfy the various needs of the diverse community, all the while as he strives to walk with God. He exists at the intersection of public and private – between God and Azazel – Soverign and Shadow – between serving the community based on his call to do so, and based on the various and contrasting expectations of all of the people. He is a consummate politician – giving to both parties — simultaneously an agent and a visionary.
What he believes is subordinate to who he must be – and he is only as good as his last act. He regularly puts his family second and he shows up time and time again to be present with people as they quest for God and for meaning. He is the focal point for things, sometimes beyond his control – he is the champion – or the scapegoat — for the pains and the triumphs of the assembled people. He is Willy Loman – a person who as he ages, leverages his popularity against the symbolic representation of all who will inevitably outlive their usefulness.
We will meet Isaiah – a firebrand who shows up, despite himself. While he performs the rituals, he upends them – implicating them and critical of them — and advocating for a more practical justice in the community. He asks us to consider why we are doing what we are doing – to move beyond the niceties and the formalities of wishing each other an easy fast, and to consider the sickly, and the weak, and the vulnerable among us. He would gladly move beyond the pages of the Machzor for doing work with the Joint Distribution Committee, for example – humanitarian work, deep in the anonymous furrows of helping another — where a life of meaning happens — showing in our deeds that all Jews are responsible for each other.
Isaiah asks – how do we find redemption – and he answering resoundingly — by providing for the well-being of those among us who need food, clothing, and shelter, by isolating our hypocrisy, by joyfully and fully celebrating Shabbat – by putting your money where your mouth is – this is how we summon God to listen to what we need, in turn. Yes, we should wholeheartedly attend and cheerfully support our synagogue – and we should be leaders in Jewish philanthropy – out on the ramparts, making noise and pursuing just justice.
And Jonah – the one who tries to escape – who hears the call of the shofar summoning us to the High Holydays and with dread, tries to slink away, unnoticed – and yet, shows up in time for Minchah. He watches what transpires with a bemused eye – recognizing the futility, the absurdity, and the irony of what we involve ourselves in. He sees how awkward it all is. He is the one possessed by profound doubt about the potency of all of it – of our prayers and our efforts for justice. He flees and yet discovers that he can’t run away. His escape route to Tarshish, always ends at Nineveh, decidedly non-Jewish city, where he most reluctantly proclaims himself as part of the tribe – part of the Jewish people, despite himself.
He continues to ask questions and to be critical – he doesn’t really get the rituals, and his audience with God fails to impress. He wears the moniker that echoes my favorite joke – the one about the two Jewish diners in the deli, and the waiter comes up to them and asks, is anything alright? Jonah wears this, “is anything alright,” status like a proud, abstract badge. He revels in the randomness and he doesn’t want to feel too much or too deeply.
For each of these Biblical figures, God is elusive. There is no certainty in any of these modes of life – and Aaron, Isaiah, and Jonah can never be sure that they are doing it right. For each of them – and for each of us – God remains hidden. When I think of the photos before me – involving Jews of all ages, from all walks of life – I realize that without speaking to each other, Judaism devolves into factions – and not following Aaron or Isaiah or Jonah specifically puts you on the outs with the others. We become separate tributaries that trickle without a main source.
The fact that this awareness was made plain for me in a barrack in Auschwitz is not lost on me. In the ashes of Auschwitz, each approach, all of the nuance, and all of the distinction of alternative paths was eliminated. I call all of us — the Aaron’s, Isaiah’s, and Jonah’s — to assemble in our community to work together to promote an elastic, creative, dynamic, and robust response to monochromatic appraisal. As we do on Passover, when we invite children with various perspectives into the conversation to speak together and to create something bigger than themselves – today on Yom Kippur, we need each of us together from our own places of unyielding truth to see each other and welcome each other into our own raw and private conversations without eye-rolling, sabotage, or derision. It is in linking our conversations – cross-pollinating our ideas and dreaming together — that we can inform and magnify our Judaism, and thereby protect each other.
In our efforts not only to welcome each other, but to consider our political, prophetic, and dissimulating approaches each as legitimate — honors the memories offered by the pictures on that wall, and proclaims that for the sake of heaven it takes all of us to honor the many faces of our one living God. Aaron, Isaiah, Jonah, and each of us in our shortcomings and idiosyncrasies are forever linked together.
With our long eye on history, we know what may occur when we spin apart from each other and build walls of resentment that block us from seeing each other. We can bring meaning to meaninglessness. We can keep evil in check, without being our own worst enemies. With our efforts, we can improve our luck. I ask that we discover our voice. Bring your disbelief, bring your reluctance, bring your scorching passion – and of course as always, bring your personal responsibility. Invest your thoughts and actions into the part of Judaism that speaks to you – over the course of this Day of Atonement, see with whom you identify – Aaron, Isaiah, or Jonah – it is this path that has a claim on you – and share all that you are.
We don’t have a perfect offering – bring your imperfect offering, instead. Make this community better, because you are a part of it. As God asks Jonah, haheiteiv charah lach – are you so greatly vexed, all the time? Where are you? Excuse me, is anything alright? For God’s sake, strive to act like a person who has been chosen.
Just before a Beit Din welcomes someone into the covenant for the first time, the last question before the final affirmation is – do you bind your personal destiny to the destiny of the Jewish people? All of us do well to consider this challenge for ourselves – as this day of considering our mortality unfolds before our very eyes.
May each of us have a significant and meaningful fast – as politicians, prophets, and potential escape artists. May we be Sealed in the Book of Life – unafraid and energized as Yom Kippur begins.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah.
Good morning, beloved friends and community. My family and I wish you a sweet New Year, filled with powerful blessings of love, sustenance, prosperity, and of course, good health – above all. You and your loved ones are all most welcome in this sacred space – today and every day — and I hope that this New Year brings you many moments of inquiry, satisfaction in engaging study, and the ability to express yourself wholly in prayer and petition, beyond self-consciousness, in a quest for meaning and significance. Blessed be the longing that brought you here.
As I have been reflecting on the changes in my life and in our Agudas Achim community from last year to this year, I have been thinking about the stories that we tell ourselves that allow us to justify our attitudes and our behavior. This morning, as we honor the birthday and the renewal of this world, I would like to share my rationale and reasoning that informs the kind of person and rabbi that I strive to be – one who honors the aphorism of our sages which teaches – hafoch ba v’hafoch ba d’chola ba—never be satisfied in the answer – to keep turning the questions, holding them up like diamonds, their various aspects sparkling in the light.
This morning, I would like to share some memories of my Bar Mitzvah with you – perhaps one of the worst experiences of my younger life – and certainly one of the most impressionable. My Bar Mitzvah was celebrated on Labor Day – 5 September 1983. I was 12 years old. Based on a compromise with certain quarters of my family who would not travel from their homes to my synagogue on Shabbat, my parents rented a tent and held the service in our backyard in a decidedly non-Jewish suburb of Chicago – a northern town called Libertyville, on that Monday morning. That particular Monday was very windy – blustery – and the flaps of the tent were shaking mightily as we began the morning prayers.
Much of that day was a blur – I don’t remember if I wore tefillin – and I do remember that I was presented with a tallit by my parents (OBM) and a Chumash by the president of the Sisterhood. This date was also near my father’s 50th birthday – so there was a combined party – and many of his long-time friends were in attendance, in addition to my relatives. I had about three friends that I invited from my public school. It seemed like there was a lot of preparation that led up to this event – my father was in the wholesale plumbing business, so he knew folks who designed kitchens and did woodworking and cabinetry.
As a present to my father on this occasion, and also to our synagogue, one of his friends designed and built a portable ark – meant to hold the Torah in rituals that were held outside of the synagogue. I remember it being made of dark wood, with panes of glass in the front – we were very proud of this and it had a place of honor on our simple deck in our backyard. I remember too that my Bar Mitzvah was videoed – we had a neighbor who was big into technology, and he had purchased the top of the line JVC VHS-C camcorder that was just released that year – the iPhone 7 of its time – and despite the whipping of the wind into the microphone, he went around filming and asking people to comment on what they saw around them.
Generally, when I meet with Bar and Bat Mitzvah families in our community, to give perspective and to offer empathy for our kids – the following is the story that I tell:
I did not have much study time with the rabbi. He recorded a cassette tape of my Torah portions in the late spring and he told me to come back to see him when I had learned them. I had never had any formal training in service leading or chanting Torah, and like a typical 12-year old, I didn’t do much work over the summer. I remember that the rabbi called our house about two weeks before my Bar Mitzvah asking about my progress, and my mother, seeing that I hadn’t really started – made that a priority of my life – and in a matter of days I memorized the three Torah readings, without knowing what or why I was doing what I was doing.
As the big day arrived, I felt awkward, dressed in my polyester suit – and very out of place as a gawky 7th grader, surrounded by observant cousins whom I didn’t know, or barely knew. So, the service was happening and I was going through the motions – there, but not really present. What I know is that suddenly the fierce wind knocked over the portable ark, and the front glass smashed, and the Torah hit the deck hard, unfurling underneath the broken wood. Needless to say, the services were interrupted.
When I speak to our kids – this is where I end the story – with a chuckle about how their Bar or Bat Mitzvah experience will already be inherently better than what mine was – even with the Torah falling, I became a Bar Mitzvah – and I offer some encouraging words about how the support of rabbis, teachers, and family in their lives makes all the difference in the world. And all of this is true – and there is a second part to the story, which I share now.
After the Torah fell, in my mind’s eye, I next remember having many of the guests gathered in my parent’s unfinished basement – a place that collected old newspapers, spiders, mildew, and the flotsam and jetsam collected from the various chapters of my parents lives. My knowledgeable relatives were standing tightly together, discussing how we were to address this calamity – as our custom teaches, were all of the men to fast for 40 days, or should each person fast for a day or two – with the sum totaling 40 days? Should we start today, or after this simcha – should we start tomorrow? What about the approaching High Holydays? Should we fast on Rosh haShanah? On Sukkot? I was already mortified – and my many non-Jewish neighbors were standing around my relatives – and after listening intently, one of them said, “We would like to fast too – we want to help.”
My heart lifted – these were the people with whom I shared my everyday life – playing baseball and going to school – having sleepovers and playing Atari — they were not imported for my family’s special simchas, when yarmulkes suddenly appeared for us to wear, for appearance’s sake – and my father’s old, rejected yeshiva background came once again to the fore. And my hope was dashed in an instant, when one of my relatives suddenly turned to this curious, accommodating neighbor and curtly responded, “How could you help – you’re not Jewish, you don’t matter.”
I remember too turning many shades of red, as embarrassment spilled over my face and shame pulsed through my body. I went upstairs to my room and I’m sorry to say, hid under my bed, for what seemed to be a long time – not sure what to do with my feelings of anger, alienation, and what could only be termed as exile from my identity — until I came back down and finished the service and lurched through the rest of the day, feeling smaller and smaller – a stranger in a strange land.
Rosh haShanah was three days later that year – and I remember going to services then, and then not really returning to the synagogue for another eight years — until I was 20 and had a chance to come to terms with becoming Jewish on my own terms. Had it not been for later transformative experiences as a college student in Poland — being able to walk in the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau to look directly into the void, and encounter the dire consequences of not taking my Judaism seriously — and then visiting Israel in the summer of 1991 after the First Gulf War, there is virtually no chance that we would be together today. I think I would have disappeared – fully assimilated into the larger, enticing American culture.
I keep returning to that episode in my parent’s basement on that windy day – when in my memory, my friends and my way of life were indicted and my soul was torn. I think I watched the video with my parents once, a few years later – and then finding it again, when I was cleaning out my parent’s home after their deaths, I threw it away. Feeling that I scrabbled intentionally in the decades that followed to become who I am instills me with vigor in not only encouraging the children of our community – but to continue to find ways to welcome anyone who is interested in learning about or connecting themselves to our traditions.
And yes, according to the letter of the law, my relatives were right to not involve my neighbors in fasting for a fallen Torah. However, it was how they did it – tactlessly with a maladroit spirit – with a presumption of superiority, with a churlish narrowmindedness — that cut me to the quick, and drove me away. As I have since learned, when making a decision, it is much easier to say no then to say yes – however, actually saying no – with immediate and cocksure self-righteousness – which builds impenetrable walls, what is lost – how many disenchanted ones have abandoned the search for Judaism because of such reflexive intolerance?
Our children ask, what is the value added in being Jewish – not only by binge-watching Seinfeld or Transparent episodes, absorbing and applying Jewish cultural cues and learning a Jewish lexicon – but also, immersing oneself in the practice of spiritual discovery with the efforts of discernment and difficult questions. Our youth are asking to be inspired – not to be furnished with inherited truths, which reveal flaws even in dim light. We have the examples of Job – who struggled with faith and meaning – and Ruth who sacrificed much to be with Naomi – we have the wily Jacob, and Joseph, who lives fully in two separate worlds. We have the rabbis of the Talmud who navigate their own feelings of belonging and distance to create the Talmud – a most extraordinary creative and wise riff on Judaism, tweaking an establishment that seems so sure of itself as it staggers unsteadily forward. And so many poets, sages, philosophers, mathematicians, doctors, inventors, workers, politicians, dreamers, and merchants over the ages – who were able to negotiate Judaism in their own contemporary society.
We have tremendous challenges currently in front of us. College campuses that are to serve as laboratories for inquiry and critical thought, are instead breeding grounds for vicious and absolute anti-Israel condemnation. Increasingly, young Jews are singled out and isolated, and repugnant movements like BDS – Boycott, Divest, and Sanction encourage a diminution of free-ranging thought and obstruct the ability for kids who had a bland or negative childhood experience of Judaism, to recover pride and propulsion to think for themselves and to be Jewish again, on their own terms. And if we in the home communities live a binary life, steeped in groupthink and the poor choices of political correctness – clinging to how we think things should be because of how they have been, our Jewish lives will become arid, and our sanctuaries, that should be filled the vibrancy of give and take – with dreaming and imagination — will be covered in dust. As our synagogues look to remain places of inspiration and refuge, we must ask the vital question – who belongs? Who is allowed to support and love our community?
The prophet Isaiah teaches – harchivi m’kom aholeich – enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of your habitations—do not spare your cords – rather, lengthen them, and spread out wide your stakes. I am committed to broadening our conversations, increasing our accessibility and our visibility, and welcoming all those who want to show up and contribute as a part of our sacred community.
I think our community could benefit from deep and wide ranging conversations about the meaning of membership, belonging and attachment to our synagogue. I think our conception of who can be and even who is a member of our community should be reconsidered. It is important that we encourage serious and thoughtful conversations that are not commandeered by embittered and unreasonable bias, and indurated, preexisting lines in the sand. Let others lead groups of short-sighted reactionaries who define themselves by who they are not – rather, I want to inspire and be inspired by those who recognize both the dilemmas and the consequences of participating in our revered debates, b’shem shamayim – for the sake of heaven. I ask all of our entrepreneurs of the spirit to gather to think about how our community can meet the challenges of organized Jewish life in these times – I issue a call to action for all those who would like to be engaged in meaningful study of our texts to host me and any of your friends for times of study in your home. Let us speak about our unabashed connection to, or profound distance from God – and yes, let us speak about our multi-complexioned support and love for Israel without penalty.
I realize that many of us are wounded and lack for strength by throwing shade and talking smack haphazardly about other people. I ask us to be better than that. I ask that our community be made holy by your presence – let us take our subterranean conversations out into the sunlight, and say yes – or say no, at least, with more compassion and examination.
The themes of Rosh haShanah are misunderstanding, resentment, and sending others away – we are asked to step into the story and to change the endings – to find a way for Sarah and Hagar to live together, to speak more compassionately to Hannah as she prays for her life in the sacred precinct, as she has been ostracized by Peninnah because of her infertility – and to resist sacrificing our children in the heat of the moment, just because God calls us to – or because that’s how we grew up.
At times, I marvel at the long and winding road that has brought each of us to this vital, sacred place – each of us with the potential to share the stoked fire burning deep within our souls. I think of what a miracle it is that I feel with all of my heart, soul, and might the importance of the work that I do. We are not called to mark time, in the turning of the New Year, content to be written in the Book of Life until we are not. We must find ways to upgrade and call home again all who recognize the wisdom of our timeless texts and the worth of supporting a synagogue – we are to be ambassadors of our legacy, proud of how we find ways to live in formidable circumstances – we are to take the words of Shimon Peres (z”l) to heart – when you have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is to look for the third that you didn’t think about, that doesn’t exist.
What would I have done back in the basement, in 1983 – most likely, I would have partnered with my earnest non-Jewish neighbors. I would have chosen certain days to fast alongside them while offering guidance about why honoring a fallen Torah is important in our tradition. And now — our beloved Agudas Achim community can become much more than we are – it will take your ingenuity, your imagination, intention, and your resourcefulness – it will mean for us to break free from our zero sum gamesmanship to find a calmness and serenity, even on windy days – in short, it means that each of us needs to fall in love with our texts and our community again and again. We have an extraordinary opportunity to do this with our newly commissioned Torah project – which you will hear more about on Yom Kippur.
The shofar summons us to refresh our behavior, and our sacred texts dare us to dream differently, about who we yet can be. Let us continue to learn together as we continue to demystify our prejudices, and let us invite all who are willing to gather – to sit together to speak, as we continue to build bonds of affiliation, deeper connections, mutual respect, and love, everyday. In this year, some of which will be windy inside our tents – let us craft a different ending to the stories that we know – and truly make a conscious decision to choose life.
Shanah Tovah u’Metukah
Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah