Haman Looking at Mordechai, Looking at Haman (Tetzaveh/Zachor)

“Haman Looking at Mordechai Looking at Haman”


Parashat Tetzaveh/Zachor

Neil F. Blumofe

24 February 2018


As we study this week’s Torah portion through the lenses of our anticipating the Festival of Purim, and through our experience of current events, we see that the instructions given to Aaron and his sons as they inaugurate the priesthood for the children of Israel, offer us guidance.


Very often the famous directive found in the Talmud in the name of Rava gives all of us an excuse to indulge in careless, artless – even irresponsible — behavior on Purim.  As the Talmud teaches – one should become so inebriated on Purim so that one cannot distinguish between the phrases “bless Mordechai” and “curse Haman.”  If you think about this – this moral relativity is a disturbing thought.  Our tradition is asking us to pay attention to the assumptions that we make, the narratives that we tell – and to subvert them – to interrogate them to see if they in fact are worthy of being believed in.  we are to turn our world upside down and shake it a bit – and then on the day after Purim, we are to pick up the pieces and see if they still fit together, as we ask, what reality are we living in – or more troubling – whose reality are we living in?


Sometimes when I am traveling, I see someone from a distance and think that I know the person, based on how they were dressed – their general visage is similar to one that I would know in our community, here in Austin – and for a few days at least, I assemble associations that erroneously link people in the different worlds that I transverse.  It is likely that Mordechai and Haman dressed similarly and shared similar characteristics – speech patterns, cultural references and general comportment.  It would be difficult perhaps to tell them apart immediately – that is, until they started talking – or tweeting.


Our Torah is concerned about misplaced identity and reminds us that how we dress – how we represent — must befit the work that we are doing in the world.  Aaron and his sons are to dress differently from everyone else in order to distinguish them and their particular function – as they serve as kohanim – or priests in the Tabernacle.  As they go about their sacred tasks, they are to be distinguished, prominent, and remarkable – not to be confused or mistaken as anyone else.  Contrary to Purim and Rava’s teaching, as he was officiating, no one would mistake Aaron for someone else.


Considering this — nowadays, perhaps like you, I think a lot about how our information is disseminated, and the reliability of most things.  How we photo-shop our pictures, how we embellish the stories that we tell – how we rely on imprecise memories as we construct our world – and more insidiously, how we are unwitting consumers of propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen and other means of influence that seize upon our insecurities and fears, and act to fray our already tenuous social and political threads of community.  As we are manipulated to go down a specific path, we lose perspective of a more nuanced and subtle world – and in order to accommodate our overwhelming feelings of incapacity and dread, we then perhaps tolerate and rationalize behaviors that we wouldn’t normally tolerate – just so we can keep going and not regularly feel vanquished – or comprehend that we are so often suckered.


It is as if Haman dresses up as Mordechai and in this costume, performs an automated bot swarm dumping intentional misinformation over our social media platforms– and thus, because of this impersonation, the reliability of most everything – and perhaps even reality itself is then under suspicion.  Thus, moral issues can be drowned out – and principles and the imperatives of ethical virtue and justice are swept away by the torrent of indoctrinating obfuscation.


We see a resistance to this kind of elision in both Aaron and Amalek in our Torah.  Aaron as a kohein, is to be protected from identity theft.  He is to be unique in his functionality – a walking manifestation of holiness – not to be confused with partial truths, hedged bets, or the good enoughs.  We hear him coming, because of the bells jangling on his tunic – and this is meant to prepare us to consider our unalienable rights – our most rooted truths.  Like we stand and face the Torah in the synagogue, we are not just greeting it as it passes our way – rather we are to stand – face to face in relationship with our own fundamental being and see how close or far we are living in our essentiality – are we living in bad faith, can we even locate our self?


Our Torah teaches us that somewhere in our life we are to have an intrinsic Torah – something that is not compromised by the exigencies of what we must do to stay alive – or all of the accommodate we must make in order to live through all of the gray areas.  This Torah still stands for us to locate our wonder and rectitude – even as we analyze the trajectory of our life, we still have a resolute intractable Torah that stands at attention in the core of our being like a High Priest, distinguished and removed from everyday fray, and thus spared not to be a casualty of the consequences of our decision-making.  At the end of the day, there is part of us that is still whole, and still hopeful.


And our Torah teaches us too about Amalek – remembering to not forget – a tautology, or a redundancy of propositional logic, that reminds us that most of what we see every day is already in costume.  There is no isolated Amalek that we can destroy and thus transcend the difficulties of our world – our Torah is saying that there are shades of Amalek – that like the ingredient soy lecithin, we can find Amalek in most everything – it is impossible to eradicate – and as the super hero franchises teach us, Amalek always has a sequel.


So we are aware – we cannot completely overcome the assaults on information.  So we must guard ourselves against too much Amalek.  We must resist doing another’s bidding as Amalek.  On Purim, we dress in costume to remind ourselves of this – in effect, to inoculate ourselves against believing too much in the agendas of others – to be wary of the diet that others want to create for us.  We are to retain our independent thinking and sharpen our critical faculties.  We are to practice consideration and thoughtfulness.  We are to hear and hold each other’s pain.


Here, in these days before Purim, we stand on the precipice between truth and fiction – between morality and amorality – and we resolve not to serve another in their quest for tyranny of our minds and souls – and ultimately, we stand opposed to putting our lives at risk for another’s pleasures.  We are to leverage our freedoms to work for laws that make us more secure – to advance technologies that improve our lives and not threaten them.


Between Aaron and Amalek, we are to be wise and responsible – and in pursing these qualities and mindset – we are to appreciate all of the ambiguity, and in this reality, in all of these shades of gray between black and white – we are then to shrewdly discern.  We are to cultivate the courage to know when enough is enough so we can put away our things once a week, on a day like today, so we can simply appreciate the profound pleasures that exist all around us without our need to comment, criticize, or corrupt them as we express our gratitude and as we more fully enjoy this moment, as we are.


Shabbat Shalom.


26/02/2018 at 10:25 Leave a comment

Sanhedrin as Sanctuary (Terumah)

“Sanhedrin as Sanctuary”


Parashat Terumah

Neil F. Blumofe

17 February 2018

(In loving memory of the 138 students, teachers, coaches, and staff who have been murdered in American schools, during the school day since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting).  

Today, as the Book of Exodus continues to unfold, we begin the great and detailed instructions of building the mishkan, the sanctuary in the wilderness.  In fact, the remainder of this second book of the Torah is concerned with this construction.  Also, it is instructive to learn that beginning with the teaching of the master medieval sage Rashi, there are other poskim – other commentators — who suggest that the building of this home for God was a result of the tragedy of the Golden Calf – or in Hebrew, egel hazahav.


This is to suggest, as the 16th century Italian rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno does, that the Tabernacle came into existence because of the transgressions, or the shortcomings of the people.  He contends that after the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the awareness of God was imbedded in every person – and it was only when the inherent holiness was obscured by our contravention of that experience, that a constant reminder was needed for the people to sustain such supernal realizations.  This is why the instruction to build this sacred site begins with the direction that the sanctuary shall be built, v’shchanti b’tocham – so that God’s Presence will dwell among all of the people.


I believe that we are now amid our own egel hazahav moment.  With the latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida, we have bobbled the lodestar that guides us, entreating us that we are all entitled to a pursuit of the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – which any sort of government is created in order to protect.  We are losing our children, and we seem to be trapped in a blind canyon of not prioritizing the moral imperative of protecting those who are vulnerable – those looking to shape an identity in large part based on the examples that they see each of us setting.


A significant myth of America teaches that each of us is to form our own individual character – that we are to stand out as rugged, iconoclastic, and non-conformist in a way – entrepreneurs are praised – followers are not.  Especially for males, the establishing of a mask of cool is encouraged – whether as a cowboy, private detective, an outlaw – or as some sort of rebel – and I submit that it is not exclusively a form of mental illness that energizes a young man to cultivate a school shooter persona – the modern equivalent of the outlaw.  This kind of identity construction is ingrained in our culture and a variant of it has been with us for a long time – and I think the expression of masculinity is currently in crisis.


We see these lines in the sand materialize before our very eyes.  As our own Jim Vertuno reported for the Associated Press (AP) back in 2013 after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut – that there are some influencers who consider unimpeded access to owning and operating guns as a part of a larger culture war – and the ability to use standard military firearms as important to defend against tyranny.  This belief privileges a defense of a way of life more than it cares for the well-being of elementary or high school students, movie theater-goers in Colorado, college students in Virginia, people on the campus of the Jewish community in Kansas, church-goers in Texas, or anyone gathered to enjoy a concert in Las Vegas.  Already in the seven weeks of 2018, there have already been 20 mass shooting incidents in the United States – in 2017, there were 346 – and in 2016, there were 384 – more than one a day.  How long must we suffer?  Is this just the current price of living in America, or can each of us take steps to respond with practical action?  I think it is easier to change laws than to change founding myths.


In studying the profound lessons of our Torah, our sages teach that the instructions given the building of the Tabernacle and the forming of the Sanhedrin – an assembly created to establish law — are interrelated – that ritual and law are linked.  According to Ramban, the 13th century Spanish mystic and scholar, the mishkan was a central rallying point of the people – a place where everyone would go to elevate themselves spiritually.  Likewise, the Sanhedrin was created after tragedy.  So, knowing that the building of the mishkan and the foundation of the Sanhedrin were both a consequence of the egel hazahav, we can see that these laws can have a positive effect and can neutralize the deleterious effects of almost daily trauma in our lives – as provoked by the mass shooting crisis in which we are now living.


Recent studies have demonstrated that in order to insulate ourselves against such a flurry of tragedy, we have developed an accelerated processing time, before we move on.  Tragedy does not shock us as much as it used to – and for the incident that occurred this past Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, experts say that our processing time is two days.  Two days before we shrug our shoulders and we recede.  Two days before our discontent is eclipsed by our accommodation.  Two days before we numb ourselves back into a dormancy – overwhelmed by sustained engagement.


If not now, when will we get involved?  Really, what can we do?  As Rabbi Paul Kipnes suggests – we can animate the Torah injunction – lo ta’amod al dam reiacha – of not standing idly by as our neighbor bleeds – by doing two simple acts in these two days when we are still prone to act.  Beginning tonight and before the weekend is over – do two things – maybe join an organization that reflects your views, or contribute to a candidate that reflects your views, or write a letter to an elected official, or attend a rally, or make a donation, or write an article that reflects your views – keep those in positions of authority accountable, and then encourage two friends to do the same.   Also, consider running for public office.  Early voting in Texas opens this coming Tuesday and continues until just after Purim, on 2 March.  Election Day is Tuesday, 6 March.  Don’t be afraid.  Engage, because the window is closing and for self-survival we will move on – and this tragedy will join the annals of American tragedies, as our drifting youth continue to look for a voice and for lives of meaning and significance, and as people in positions of leadership twist our nuanced dilemmas of being into a zero-sum game for dominion and mythological survival, by distilling a complicated issue into depraved battle lines of war.  Blot out the noise and let us stop focusing our energy on that which and those who deplete us.  Remember our inherent worth and holiness.


As my friend, and colleague from the Hartman Institute, Rabbi Les Bronstein has written – I refuse to give comfort – or take comfort from any religious tradition that would substitute comfort for righteous action.  I refuse to acknowledge the credibility of any theology that would only pray for the souls of the victims, without beseeching our God for justice.  Let us beseech God for justice and realize that our mishkan is calling to us – entreating us to make a sanctuary of our society – to realize that we have erred, and that we can create order out of chaos, so that our children, our friends, and our neighbors will have not died in vain – and with sensible controls on the purchase and use of such powerful weapons – with effective laws that recognize the power of the tools of destruction in place, we can then concentrate even more on the vexing issues of disaffection, vainglory and self-doubt that ravages so many boys, and indeed, so many among us.


We are to turn the elaborate detail of the mishkan into a solid, dependable Sanhedrin – a place where we can heal, by practically and resolutely addressing the disaster that we are in, as we mourn our children again.  May the lives of all seventeen from this latest incident – teachers, coaches and students — be for a blessing.  May we not forget them and not just attach them to bigger lists – like this one: since Sandy Hook – December, 2012 — more than 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings, with 138 murdered.  May these lives matter, and may we have the courage to awaken again and disrupt this grim business as usual to protect all of our children and to strengthen our society with our efforts.


Baruch Dayan haEmet.


V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham

Va’anachnu n’vareich Yah, v’atah v’ad olam


[Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true, 

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, sanctuary for you.] 


Shabbat Shalom.




18/02/2018 at 16:52 Leave a comment




Parashat Va’era

Neil F. Blumofe

13 January 2018


Now, before the redemption of the Israelites and the Exodus from Egypt, we are to endure the series of plagues that befall the people of Egypt – what our rabbinic tradition calls the signs and wonders of God.  Our Torah portion presents seven of the ten, each seemingly brought on by an intractable Pharaoh and a determined God – and however we understand these to have been – and whatever we translate these to mean in our own day, and with our own theology – if we take our story of origin seriously, we see that we can celebrate these plagues only because we are on the other side of them, as we ritually fold them into our Pesach seder.


And as often as we have studied these or sung them – I am returning to the idea this year of what would it have been like to have experienced these plagues while still slaves in Egypt.  As our paradigm was shifting all around us – what actions would we take – would we be meek or heroic – afraid or lion-hearted — as we would have witnessed the blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, epidemic, boils, and hail, all around us?  Would it not have been reassuring to rationalize in our muted response, that these plagues did not directly affect us, and were ultimately for our benefit?


Our tradition states that these plagues were a result of the grappling between God and Pharaoh – to demonstrate God’s power in a strange land, and to show that with an outstretched arm, God did not forget the oppressed people on the road to freedom.  It could also be that the plagues were a test of the people Israel – to spur them into action – to dare them to stand up against that which afflicts their society and to try and curb the injustices and the tragedies that they saw all around them.


It can be asked – what kind of power did a bunch of slaves have, anyway?  How could their voices stand against the ravages all around them – and how could they gain momentum to help their suffering neighbor, and at the same time gain enough traction to be able to leave the bondage of slavery for good?


In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. while sitting in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote a letter to his fellow clergyman, answering their criticisms of his actions of protest against injustice – famously proclaiming here, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within in its bounds. 


Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps inspired by this week’s Torah portion – where the four steps for God’s redemption of the people are spelled out – writes of four steps in the campaign of nonviolent protest – (i) collection of facts to determine whether injustices exist; (ii) negotiation; (iii) self-purification; and (iv) direct action.  He was hoping that these direct actions would spur negotiations that would finally undo segregation.


And our Torah has shown us, that the protracted negotiations between Pharaoh and Moses and Aaron, ultimately did not bear fruit – rather, we see the vertiginous and conflicting responses of Pharaoh – seeming to agree that the slaves should be free, and then suddenly changing his mind with renewed zeal.


As we learn from our history – from the sacred texts of our traditions to the somber events of the 20th century concerning racial relationships in the United States, we see the plagues again this year – and are confronted with the question of what do we do?  Do we read these events with a blinking eye, determined not to connect our Torah to the events in our current world?  Do we rely on God to sort out the issues of the world, resigned to think that we will not be reading about the miracles in repose this time – rather, we will be the generation that either dies in slavery or is doomed in the wilderness – bestowing celebration to a yet unborn generation?  Martin Luther King speaks about our holy places being not thermometers that just measure and record the ideas and principles of popular opinion – but rather, thermostats – that transform the very mores of society.  How can we be more thermostatic than just recording a temperature?


Who do we see as family – how do we have conversations about our future that acknowledge that we each hold a partial truth, and that our cultivated compassion will uplift our own answers as right and just?  How do we remind ourselves that the challenge for us to contribute and innovate are greater than what we must do to resist or correct?


Currently, there is a renewed movement that takes up Martin Luther King Jr’s challenge in 1968, when he said – there can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution; that is a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution of weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapon of warfare. Then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place and there is still the voice crying the vista of time saying, “Behold, I make all things new, former things are passed away”… Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges … and new opportunities … We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses … We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists … We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that is signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic non-violent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible. This was known as the Poor People’s Campaign –a fight by capable, hard workers against dehumanization, discrimination, and poverty wages in the richest county in the world – and there are stirrings of a new Poor People’s Campaign in our country.


This renewed effort is seeking to tackle the following core issues – racism, poverty, militarism, ecological destruction and our national morality – in order to disrupt what Martin Luther King called the degenerating sense of nobodiness.


The miracle of our Exodus from Egypt is that our people found a voice – we became Am Yisrael – somebodies — ready to wander in the desert together, and to take pride in our community.  Together we were inspired to wrestle with fundamental questions and concentrate on our longer-term trajectory, for meaning, significance, and purpose.


So, how do we respond to the plagues occurring all around us?  How do we contribute and innovate – rather than tell our stories after they happen?  How do we engage any Pharaoh that does not seem disposed to negotiation?  In what ways can we have what we cherish, matter?  How far are we willing to go?  There are the questions of our Torah – and they remain the questions for each of us, as we encounter our world, and as we seek answers for the generations looking to us for guidance.  We take up the challenge of the plagues and of all of the accommodations that we make in order to live our life. I urge you to look at the information of the New Poor People’s Campaign – and in your research, find ways to get involved — https://poorpeoplescampaign.org.

At heart, our Torah is asking us to consider the question of time – when is the right time for slavery to be transformed into freedom?  As it were, how much should I let go and let God?  Let us be so challenged — as Martin Luther King writes, his inspired voice rising to us still from his jail cell in Birmingham – more and more I feel that men of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will.  We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.  Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

How much is too much – when is the right time to say, hineni?  Im lo achshav, eimatai?  If not now, when?

Shabbat Shalom.list-8-literature-jail-king-birmingham-e

14/01/2018 at 16:25 Leave a comment

Vayeshev – 5778 — Jerusalem: Beautiful Heights and the Murmuring Deep

“Jerusalem: Beautiful Heights and the Murmuring Deep”


Parashat Vayeshev

Neil F. Blumofe

9 December 2017


(Im Eshkachech)


For the past several years, I have had the honor of being part of a national rabbinic mentor team, convened by the Clergy Leadership Incubator, which is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz.  As a mentor, I get to advise and encourage other rabbis in areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation – part of an area of study which is known as adaptive leadership.  Adaptive leadership, as opposed to technical leadership, is an area of study that helps people adapt and thrive in challenging environments.  Researched by scholars such as Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky – both from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard – who have pioneered this study of how to thrive in an unpredictable marketplace with unprecedented uncertainty and new types of competitors.


This week, I greet with joy the announcement that the United States will finally honor the 1995 Jewish Embassy Act which is a public law passed by the United States Congress, in part, calling for Jerusalem to remain an undivided city and for it to be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel.  This legislation was adopted back then by the Senate 93-5, and by the House 374-37.


Is not Jerusalem at the epicenter of our yearnings?  As our Psalms proclaim – im eshkachech Yerushalayim, tishkach yimini – if I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.  We certainly have not forgotten Jerusalem through our millennium of exile.  And yet, our rabbinic tradition teaches this story in the ancient Jerusalem Talmud – when David came to dig the foundations of the Temple in Jerusalem, he dug fifteen thousand cubits, but had not reached the Deep.  Digging further, he finally uncovered a cluster of stones and was about to lift them up, when one of the rocks spoke to him and said – do not touch me…  Even so, David did not listen, and once the rock was lifted, the Deep arose, and threatened to submerge the world.  Also, the 20th century Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai writes –


Jerusalem is built on the arched foundations

of a held back scream.  If there were no reason

for the scream, the foundations would be shattered, the city would collapse,

if the scream should be screamed, Jerusalem would explode into the heavens.


These are cautionary words – one ancient and one modern — and yet, for too long in our lives and in the machinations of the world living in a precarious time – a period that the American political economist, Francis Fukuyama termed the End of History — Jerusalem, and by extension, the legitimacy of the State of Israel has been the elephant – or as some writers cheekily call it – the camel in the room.  I offer some thoughts from my own perspective this morning – in an effort for us to consider what we believe, what questions we are asking, and from where we draw our information, and how, even in an aggressive, winner-take-all culture – a culture that is primed in the opposite way of our storied traditions of Judaism, where a multiplicity of various opinions and statements are preserved in our texts — how we can continue to have respectful and nourishing conversations with each other?   


I submit to you that we, supporters of the state of Israel, are wounded.  We have been wounded by decades of feeling that the cards of public opinion have been stacked against us by agencies like the United Nations who proclaimed in 1975 in the General Assembly Resolution 3379 that Zionism is akin to racism – to be finally revoked only in 1991 – and, as I have spoken about a few months ago, agencies like UNESCO – the cultural arm of the United Nations which has consistently passed legislation that ignore Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, stating that Israel is both an occupying power and guilty of “provocative abuses that violate the sanctity and integrity” of the area.


This kind of organized activity that seeks to deny the connection between the Jewish people, the Land of Israel, and Jerusalem only entrenches extremism and an unwillingness to engage in creative thinking – in other words, this kind of provocation only encourages technical solutions and not adaptive solutions – this just furthers the problems – letting them remain status quo – without seeking to fix that which is broken.


I do believe that this week’s announcement is an adaptive change – and can help all parties seek new and fresh solutions, without thinking that they have to act according to what has already been predetermined.  In celebrating our ties to Jerusalem, we should not think that we are doing something wrong.  We are acknowledging that true shift in the Middle East will come from a position of strength, confidence, and service to our narrative – and having the world see that this is possible, gives everyone an opportunity to reframe their thinking on this issue – and not fight grueling proxy wars of delegitimization.


In other words, if we think that we are negotiating a price in a bazaar, and we see that the seller has established an exorbitant price, we do not negotiate from that place – we reset the table by establishing the price that we think we shall pay – and then we go from there.  Negotiation in a bazaar is mythic and cutthroat – and yet, ultimately it is honest brokering that will allow scrupulous people to dispense with nonsense, and finally have a conversation about power and peace.


How can this decision further peace in the Middle East?  What opportunities and which countries are being signaled in this latest pronouncement?  What are the undisclosed motivations in announcing this decision?  At this point, it is impossible to say.  Regardless, it is in our interest and in the interest of the world to establish facts on the ground that are true.  This is a starting point for adaptive change.  We then can recognize the trauma that we live within the constant shadow of history, and proudly claim that Jews have a right to have agency, self-determination, and even sovereignty in the world.  From a place of equals, we can then practice transformation – with the current state of things, it is next to impossible to work within the practice of anti-normalization – how can one engage a partner for a secure peace if they don’t see you as an equal – and in return, if we dismiss them?  One can make the case that it is actually in the interests of the Palestinians to acknowledge that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel – this can give everyone a chance to practice adaptive change and have momentum for normalization, and a quest for better rights among all residents as we seek to improve upon what has previously been regarded as an intractable situation.  This may be a light to get us out of the tunnel of what the philosopher Micah Goodman, who spoke from this pulpit last year, has proclaimed is the bane of Israel’s predicament – the Catch ’67.


I realize that all of this is toxic – when I was first in Israel during what later became known as the First Intifada in 1991, I saw the games that the children played – like previous generations would play cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians – these kids played Israelis and Palestinians, and it was as sad as you could imagine.  How do we change inherited legacies of transmission?  This may be a promising first step to interrupt what is – and to make a paradigm shift and promote a new way of thinking.


We must resist the notion that recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will bring violence.  This is not a decision that Israelis can make – rather, that is a decision for those provocateurs, themselves.  We should not infantilize others – we should encourage others to soul-search and not make decisions from a knee-jerk reaction – rather we should reward visionaries who think beyond the box that we are perilously in.  Our luxury is that we get to Monday morning quarterback history, not realizing all of the hand-wringing, wrangling, and trepidation that led up to the decisions that we now see as inevitable.  I am currently reading a book entitled 1924, which tells the story of a certain extremist leader in Bavaria who becomes the leader of Germany.  He did not accomplish his demonic work on his own – he was emboldened and his way was made clear by those in society around him – making his atrocities much more insidious, wide-reaching, and macro-complicit than we would like to admit.  We now have a potential opportunity to go beyond our languishing and suffering, with truth as the best remedy.


And speaking of truth, of course, there is much work to be done.  In our complex world, this also includes the demand that the same Chief Executive who this week implemented the Jerusalem Embassy Act also repudiate Nazis, racism, hatred, and class warfare in America – a dram of truth in a cauldron of lies quickly dissipates.  Undertaking these actions as well, will go a long way to addressing the threats and despondency so many feel, as we think about the present tilt of our country.


Many ask, what effect with this announcement have?  We can see that at the end of the day, that the sovereignty of Israel is not contingent on any statement from any place – however, I think that this announcement means a lot.   In the court of public opinion, the cards may have been reshuffled this week, just a little.  Adapting a quote from Francis Fukuyama — war is the wrong metaphor for the broader struggle, since wars are fought at full intensity and have clear beginnings and endings.  Meeting today’s challenges is more of a “long twilight struggle” whose core is not a military campaign, but a political context for the hearts and minds of ordinary people around the world. 


As our Torah portion teaches this week – we wonder about what Jacob really knew about the relationships between Joseph and his brothers.  There is a midrash that claims that Jacob did know what would transpire for Joseph as he sent him to find his brother, and with this prophetic vision, he allowed the immediate suffering to happen in order to facilitate a longer-term redemption.  Thinking that suffering leads to redemption is a core principle of an academic interest of mine – Holocaust theology – and as we search for meaning past the difficulties of our world, this may be disturbing to our ears.  As my friend and teacher, Rabbi Danny Nevins writes – thinking about this time of Hanukkah, which means dedication and shares the same root as education – he writes:  ultimately the Hanukkah story is about the willingness to suffer for the sake of a better future.  We zoom to the happy ending, the rededicated Temple and sufganiyot.  But before that there were months of hiding and fighting, or resisting and risking everything for the sake of a different reality.  It is the legacy of vision and determination and courage and sacrifice that is the ultimate inspiration.  May we be spared such suffering, and yet find the clarity, conviction, and courage to change our own reality from darkness to light – from oppression to freedom – and from sorrow to joy. 


May we – and may all of us indeed, be spared suffering – and may we find clarity, conviction, and courage to change our own reality from darkness to light – and move from sorrow to joy, as we continue to address honestly, the dilemmas of power and peace.


(Im Eshkachech)


Shabbat Shalom.

11/12/2017 at 08:21 2 comments

“Joys Over Oys” — YK Yizkor — 5778

“Joys Over Oys”


Yom Kippur – Yizkor

Neil F. Blumofe

30 September 2017


In our tradition, counterintuitively for us perhaps, Yom Kippur is considered to be a joyous day – our sages deriving this meaning from the Song of Songs which teaches – go forth on this day – may it be a day of gladness of the heart.  These joyful moments are consistently celebrated today among the Mizrahim – Jews who derive from local Jewish communities in the Middle East.  In their prayers and in their poetry, known as piyyutim, on this day, there is an abiding confidence that Av haRahaman, and Av haSelichot – The Merciful God, and The Forgiving God — will forgive all of their sins – so they stand before God in this time with gratitude and hope.  In the Mizrahi tradition, the foundation – the basic understanding — is that the petitioners, these supplicants on the most awe-inspiring day of all, do not feel abandoned – but rather, are uplifted and reassured by praying their prayers and singing their piyyutim.


This is not an easy pivot for many of us, who are suspicious of faith and vulnerability.  Many of us have been conditioned that pretending is advantageous to us, as we go through the motions of our lives.  Many of us hold at arm’s length this classic idea that Yom Kippur is a corresponding hue of Purim – a time of absolute celebration.  Whereas Purim is a time of disguise and concealment, Yom Kippur is a time of exposure and honesty – today is a day when we have nothing up our sleeves – when we don’t compensate for our deficiencies with other activity.  We are to show up now wearing white to see the arc of the sun as it set and rises and sets again – and we are here, with our thoughts, baggage, and overall perplexity, without a distraction, without an escape route – as our defenses, offenses, illusions, collusions, deceptions, exceptions, truths, and untruths are laid bare — and this can be maddening.


How can we find joy in such a fraught time?  To stand here in joy sounds illogical.  The author Susan Piver writes in defense of holding onto sadness, stating – when you look out at this world, what you will see will make you very, very sad.  This is good.  You are seeing clearly.  Genuine sadness gives rise, spontaneously, naturally, completely, to the wish – the longing – to be a benefit to others…Despair is what happens when you fight sadness.  Compassion is what happens when you don’t. 


Perhaps the one who recognized this sense of sadness most deeply in our tradition was Rebbe Nahman of Breslov, an 18th-century rabbi.  I spoke about him a few weeks ago, when I introduced the concept of hitbodedut, a spiritual practice of unburdening ourselves with the goal of freeing ourselves from all negative traits which obstruct our spiritual transformation.  Essentially, this is stream-of-consciousness expression – what Freud developed into what became known in the salons of Vienna, as the talking cure.


Hitbodedut is the articulation of whatever may come to us as we go about our way, oftentimes surprising us in our revelation – as we give permission for words and ideas to just fall from our lips.  Rebbe Nahman would regularly practice hitbodedut as he walked in the fields and the woods outside of his home in the Ukraine.  This is an intensely personal practice – where the rawness of what we keep buried within us – again, what became known later as the subconscious that bubbles up – and then, is hopefully released, which then allows space for something new to open.  Friends of mine who regularly practice hitbodedut see it something akin to how other people practice mediation or yoga – this being a method steeped in a Jewish oeuvre — a private time to release all that is pent up, sublimated, or repressed.


To casually look at Reb Nahman’s writings, one would not readily think that he was one who knew sadness, intimately.  In fact, his legacy is one that leverages joy.  He is regularly quoted as saying, it is a great mitzvah to be happy always – and, always remember, joy is not incidental to spiritual quest.  It is vital.  However, beneath these determined, sunny quotes of uplift – we can see that Reb Nahman, like we do, very often speak about and concern ourselves with that which we are most needing to hear.


Rebbe Nahman writes movingly about the power of kvetching – or, as he calls it, the krechtz.  This is the sound we make when deeply sighing – and he teaches us to honor all of our sighs and our groans, stating that sighing is an extension of our breath, which is the vital force of human life.  Reb Nahman says that sighing is holy – and as we recognize what we lack, through the sigh, the lack is made whole.


There is a well-known joke about a man who goes to a world-renowned therapist and says that he is depressed – saying that it is hard to keep everything together, all of the balls in the air, all of the plates spinning.  He tells the therapist that he feels alone, alienated, and isolated – and the world is too overwhelming for him.  The therapist responds, saying, “I know something that will cheer you up – there happens to be a great entertainer in town this evening – the clown Pagliacci – with his antics, and his humor, he will definitely make you feel better.”  And the man burst into tears, and he cries, “O doctor, what can I do – I am Pagliacci.”


In the tragic opera Pagliacci, composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo in 1892 — before performing, the miserable clown Canio sings – ridi del duol, che t’avvelena il cor!  Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart.  And in Yiddish, there are many colorful phrases that highlight the gulf between how we truly feel, and the face that we feel that we must show in public – such as these two — Az oif dem hartsen iz bitter, helft nit in moil kain tusker – if there’s bitterness in the heart, sugar in the mouth won’t make life sweeter.  Nit yeder harts vos lacht iz frailech – not every heart that laughs is really cheerful. 


Reb Nahman, and in fact, many of us, strive to wield a determined positive attitude against darkness – not because we underestimate darkness, but because we know darkness all too well, and know how unbearable it can be.  We would much rather be entertained than have to confront our fears of mortality, our melancholy, and our tedium.


What do we need to hear, now?  Can we create our own space, as we stand for Yizkor and cry – not only for the memories that we keep – but also for all that we mourn within ourselves?  Can we take this timeout – this moment when we don’t have to be brave, when we don’t have to be calm and carry on — so we can crumple into ourselves for these precious moments, supported by the gravity of our tradition?  Can we let the laughter die away for a moment, so we can see and celebrate the sadness – thus enabling us to open and cleanse our hurts?  Let’s try it now – each of us in our own way, to heave a kvetch – or to give a mighty krechtz – a holy oy.  Let’s give voice to the lack within us – and through our oy, we can be made more whole — [OY}.


Throughout the year, sometimes we may feel like we have a duty to perform – that our role and our task is similar to the one performed by the boy made popular by the American author, Mary Maples Dodge in her novel Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates – the story of the boy who kept his finger in a leaking dam, in order to stave off a flood.  This is how we may go about many of our days – keeping the flood in, coping as best we can.  However, now is the time when we remove our finger for a moment, to let the gushing out – the primordial water – the tears that acknowledges our pain and in their release, relieves our discomfort.


In our tradition, Yizkor is the moment when we even call on God to move the Holy Throne of Mercy from atop the firmament that protects us – in order for us to taste the salt of the original floodwaters that will come rushing in – those very same waters that overwhelmed the generation of Noah.


And too, like Jonah, we are in the depths – this is not even a time for mercy – for that Holy

Throne has been removed in this time — this is just a time to acknowledge the dull thud of what is.  When in the belly of the fish, Jonah merely states what is – he doesn’t ask for mercy – he prays – l’kitzvei harim yarad’ti, ha’aretz b’riche’ha va’adi l’olam, va’ta’al mishachat cha’yai haShem Elokai – I went down to the bottoms of the mountains – the earth with her bars closed on me forever – yet you have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. 


We are here now as Jonah, dwelling in the bottom of the pit – trying to reassure ourselves by looking hopefully towards a Divine Mirror that only offers opaque-ness, in return.  We ourselves must walk this narrow bridge for this moment, until breads and circuses return, and we have our liturgy, our ritual and our drama with each other and our disputes with God to keep us busy.  All of that is silent now.  We recognize too that as much as we miss our loved ones – the sadness that we feel, the depth of longing that is pressurized within us – we can let go of it now – and we can feel the power of the name of God first revealed to Moses at the burning bush – ehyeh asher ehyeh – we can summon the pool of tears that is within us up and out – as we acknowledge, what is.


At this moment our prayers of supplication, our prayers for mercy cease, and a quiet acknowledgment of this unfortunate, yet very affecting aspect of life – our knowledge of death is seen and shivering, felt by each of us in this sanctuary.  This no longer translates as theory – this is no longer a prayer that we pray in the plural, so we can be absorbed into the larger whole.  This isn’t Ashamnu – we have sinned.  Here, it is just each one of us, weeping alone into the Divine Void.


Our tradition imagines God as standing closer to us now, as if an accessible shape in a field.  Ani l’dodi v’dodi li.  It is not until Sukkot that we go out into that same field, actively looking for this more exposed God.  Here at Yizkor, in the belly of the fish, we are asked to see reality for what it really is – for each of us in this honest moment, to gaze behind the curtain.  To see this, to perceive this moment, is difficult – as Plato writes – to see the light of what is really real would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning away to the things which he was actually able to look at – and these he would believe to be clearer than what was now being shown to him. 


We are now in a moment when we perceive the harrowing reality in the Garden of Eden – a place where we cannot sustain our human gaze and live.  So, we are trekking together, for an instant, and as we emerge from this alarming experience – from this love and terror in the God encounter, joy will come.  When we behold the depth of our pain, when we allow ourselves the wailing groan of unrestrained tears – when we do not put any constrictions on this Yizkor, then in turn, we can appreciate a fuller joy – a joy that is a truth underneath the grief of our heart.


Beyond sadness, it is in the compassion where we are able to cultivate joy, no matter the state of our soul.  As the author, Brene Brown writes – I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite – black and white – good and bad.  My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty – love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity.  We are now guided into an important experience that in considering mortality, is wrought with uncertainty.


Freud reputedly wrote that the reason we think and talk about sex all of the time, is because we are petrified to talk about what lies behind sex itself, about that which defines the human condition itself, which is death.  In this moment – during Yizkor, we are back in the womb – hayom harat olam — a time for appreciating our origins, for lamenting our wasted time, and for keening for those whom we miss, so dearly.  This moment is an oy that we allow ourselves – so we don’t have to pretend.  And the art of this – what stops this from becoming an absurdist, existentialist play – is that from here, now in the belly of the fish, before we are again released back out onto dry land, that we are to make our peace with uncertainty – and we are able to live daily with gratitude in the light that makes the shadows on our cave.  The reality, that happens after we present our elemental tears – the moment after the oy, is enough.


We dispense with the gnawing feeling that existence is horrifying, and that our lives are perpetually in the throes of a bad joke; and instead, we emulate Reb Nahman, and our Mizrahi brothers and sisters, and nurture joy in every moment – convinced that we live by the grace of God and that as the great Talmudic sage, Akiva, teaches us – all that is, is kol man d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid – that nothing happens by accident or by chance – that nothing happens without God’s decree – and that ultimately, all that God does will ultimately lead to good – and we live in a perpetual state of simcha, of joy.


If we in fact can take care of this sentiment, believe it and enact it, we will be granted the power to actually influence events in this world, so that the good that was originally decreed, and that sometimes gets lost in translation and exchange, can be seen and felt by us every day as well.  This is the power of Yom Kippur – and it is for this reason that our tradition considers this time to be a time of great joy.  Indeed, Judaism teaches that in Hebrew, the word for thought – machshava, is comprised of the same letters as b’simcha – in joy – that it is with declaring joy, that even our thoughts themselves are transformed into simchah. 


During Yom Kippur, we are given the gift of sensing the different dimensions of our existence – that we are on just one plane of reality, and that we are locked in relationship with generations past and future.  It is here that we stand at the intersection of past and future – we see that our sadness is unique and belongs to us – and yet we see that we can yet return it to that which exists well beyond us.  It is this, which is the sustaining joy – that ultimately our hurts don’t belong to us – we are here just to realize them, clean them and then return them transformed to the worlds beyond us.  Surely, we too belong to that which is greater than ourselves – as we ask ourselves, what really do we need, anyway – and what really do we need to hold on to – and most difficult for us, can we reshape our perspective and our relationship concerning death, itself?


It is in the considering of this, that we are able to sing in joy – as we swiftly move into and out of this Yizkor moment – eyes open in it, and then blinking the moment will gone – and in its wake, we are then able to feel gratitude for the breath, the krechtz, that we take, now.  And while we may not yet be fluent in the sacred poems of the Mizrahi tradition, let us take a page from their machzor now and apply the idea of existing in joy to our own songs and inherited musical references, as we prepare for our individual tears flood this sacred space – and let us hold fast that there is joy just behind our sorrow.


The community that oys together joys together.  To remind us of the joy that is in the silence after the oy, before we begin Yizkor, let us first sing this song of joy together – and in this singing let our burdens be lightened – and let us feel, truly feel, the festive majesty of this day – let us feel the resounding b’simchah that is continually within us, let us feel our barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, as we proclaim — kol man d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid – all that happens will ultimately lead to good – as we  each of us, yet together, assuredly remove our finger from the dam in this moment.  So, are you ready? …


One, two, three, four —


I Just Want to Celebrate (1971)

Rare Earth

I just want to celebrate another day of livin’
I just want to celebrate another day of life
I put my faith in the people
But the people let me down

So, I turned the other way
And I carry on, anyhow

That’s why I’m telling you
I just want to celebrate, yeah, yeah
Another day of living, yeah
I just want to celebrate another day of life
Had my hand on the dollar bill
And the dollar bill flew away
But the sun is shining down on me
And it’s here to stay

That’s why I’m telling you
I just want to celebrate, yeah, yeah
Another day of living, yeah
I just want to celebrate another day of livin’
I just want to celebrate another day of life…


Don’t let it all get you down, no, no
Don’t let it turn you around and around and around, no


Well, I can’t be bothered with sorrow
And I can’t be bothered with hate, no, no

I’m using up the time but feeling fine, every day

That’s why I’m telling you I just want to celebrate
Oh, yeah
I just want to celebrate another day


Oh, I just want to celebrate another day of livin’
I just want to celebrate another day of life…


Don’t let it all get you down, no, no
Don’t let it turn you around and around, and around, and around
And around, and round, and round
Round, round, round, round
Don’t go round


I just want to celebrate
I just want to celebrate
Well, I just want to celebrate
Said I just want to celebrate (celebrate)
I just want to celebrate (I want to celebrate)
I just want to celebrate (I got to celebrate)
I just want to celebrate


G’mar Hatimah Tovah.


02/10/2017 at 14:08 1 comment

“Movers and Shakers” — Kol Nidre, 5778

“Movers and Shakers”


Yom Kippur – Kol Nidrei

Neil F. Blumofe

29 September 2017


I hope that this Kol Nidrei evening finds you and your families well.  Anne and I and our family wish each of you and your loved ones a year filled with good health, courage, gratitude, and generosity.  It is heartening to be together here, gaining strength from each other and offering mutual inspiration in our presence together — each of us out of the daily activities of our lives privileging this time now as a community to gather to recharge our connection, grow our spirit, and gain insight.  This really is the most special time of year – each from our places, giving of our time and attention – setting forth our expectation to have Yom Kippur do something – to have it change or improve us somehow – as we dare to articulate our core questions of purpose and identity, all the while, forestalling our dread and keeping us from the edge of despair.


Yom Kippur is a time when we summon joy – when our spirit is to grow, as we take active steps to develop resilience in what very often appears to be a rootless world – now, when we can feel that our Judaism is both a counteracting agent to self-medication and that it gives us wisdom to encounter the intractable issues that afflict our soul – things that keep us up at night – or that it allows us to question why certain problems in our world and the suffering of others don’t affect us as much as they should.  As we gain strength in our community – as we wish each other l’chaim – another year of robustness and life, let us take these moments to confront the questions in our life that require the most courage to ask – the abundance of heartbreak that we have, the chill in the realization that we don’t feel as much as we think that we should, and the distance that is sometimes present in even our closest relationships.


We see our lives, and we see how much we are sated with detachment – as an insulant – to protect ourselves from risk, disappointment, and too much involvement.  We see too how much we double down on certain things – and from those places that we are most right, we strive to have our world make sense, realizing only vaguely that as the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote, it is doubt and love that dig up the world – not absolute conviction.


Have we made the right decisions as parents or caregivers?  Do we have the staying power to have conversations with people that we care about, especially when we know that we will disagree – all the while, acknowledging the mistakes that we have made?  Do we think that participating in Kol Nidrei tonight will add value to our life?  Are we committed to building this community, as others and other organizations, and other things vie for our attention?  When Yom Kippur ends and we move back into our routine, will we encounter the world differently – will we see how we are sometimes manipulated and played by connivance – and resistance to this is at root, a spiritual practice – a practice that demands that we continue to ask questions, rather than rely on facile answers?


Whether we stand proudly, or take a knee proudly, can we live with dissonance and inconsistency in our lives, knowing that each of us are the frayed ends of a timeworn tapestry that still possesses profound beauty – that each of us, like the raggedy tsitsit on a beloved tallit, represent aspects of action and belief and that we — like the tallit is made whole – is activated – only when we are together – not in agreement, but rather in conviction that we belong together?  What are immovable certainties in our lives, and what can easily yield?


This summer I had the opportunity to visit my oldest son, while he was studying German, music history, and performance in Vienna.  I had previously not been to Vienna, and I was looking forward to seeing The Imperial City through the eyes of my son, who had been there for several weeks already.  We attended the Staatsoper, enjoyed the Prater, explored the Jewish Museum, and had time to walk about the city – seeing places and experiencing things – like Sigmund Freud’s rooms where he saw patients and established the practice of psychoanalysis — that had only previously been alive for me in my study of history and literature.


I had long wondered what kind of a place Vienna is — I have been acutely aware of the darkness and the beauty of fin de siècle Vienna for many years – the institutional tolerance of antisemitism and largely as a response, Theodor Herzl’s founding of modern Zionism—as well as the birth of modern music, art, and philosophy – and because of this opportunity to be together with my son, I overcame my chill of being in Vienna itself.  And I was bracing myself as we walked within the Ringstrasse – inside the boulevard that serves as a ring road around the Old Town district of Vienna, which contains Austria’s parliament, the university, the Burgtheater, the town hall, and the Volksgarten – I knew it was there — and then I saw it — the monument, the statue to Karl Lueger.


While his name may not mean much to us now – he is largely considered the architect of what later became Nazism, based on his reliance and his use of antisemitism to stoke fears, to cause dissension, and to conscientiously unweave the thin threads of the fabric of civilization.  As mayor of Vienna he is credited with transforming Vienna into a modern city – and at the same time, he is praised as an inspiration in Mein Kampf as “the most formidable German mayor of all time,” Lueger having said in 1890 – that “the Jewish problem would be solved and service to the world achieved, if all Jews were placed on a large ship to be sunk on the high seas.”


The statue was dedicated in 1926.  In part, the later explanation of the significance of the statue reads – as mayor he promoted the expansion of a modern municipal infrastructure…among his achievements were the municipalization of public transport, as well as water, gas, and electricity supplies.  He was also responsible for the protection of the woods and meadows surrounding Vienna.  During the conflict between the nationalities in the late Habsburg Monarchy, Karl Lueger reinforced the anti-Semitic and nationalist trends of his time.  He was a legend in his own time and is still a controversial figure today. 


What potency does a statue have?  What statement does a statue project in a city or a country – what story does it tell, from the prominent places in which it is placed?  How does such an enduring representation both begin and end a conversation about power, priority and privilege?  Since July, I have been thinking about my abstract, disjointed feelings about the sinister legacy of Karl Lueger and Vienna, as my feelings coalesced into the tangible feelings of alienation, unease, and second-class status, all these years later, after bearing witness to the accommodations and the permutations of history.  It is nothing that is explicitly said as people walked on the paths in the park – it is just the values that are on display as communities decide to honor and preserve their values in stone and metal – ultimately making demonstrable, calculated choices out of complicated history.


The rise of modern Vienna is inseparable from the accomplishment and rhetoric of Karl Lueger.  As successful and majestic as the city is, its contemporary bedrock is hate and the othering of Jews.  What he sanctioned served as fertile ground – thus, normalizing dehumanization so a young, disaffected man looking for meaning was able to be elected as Chancellor of Germany a few decades later and to implement the mechanized extermination of Jews and other so-called undesirables.


Connecting these dots exposes a cautionary tale concerning the stories that we tell about ourselves, and about our founding myths that can be uncomfortable, as we give it some thought.  Would we like to imagine that we had as much conviction and zeal as our ancestor — young Abraham — who, as the well-known Midrash teaches us, while his father was out, destroyed all of the statues in his father’s idol shop?  We too could plead atzabeihem kesef v’zahav ma’asei y’dei adam – that all of these idols are silver and gold – mortal work.  Our beliefs, our narrative is more sanctified – more lustrate than his father’s business.


And, short of taking down all of the statues, who gets to decide which stories are the stories worth retaining?  In each life or episode so commemorated, how much of the surface are we willing not to scratch in order to retain our myths?  Last week, a statue to Mikhail Kalashnikov was unveiled in Moscow – Kalashnikov is the inventor of the famous rifle that bears his name.  The AK47, is responsible for more than 250,000 deaths per year – more than all other modern weapons combined.


What we choose to lionize is not about a person’s life – it is about our own sense of self – an existential line in the sand, so to speak, that proclaims — the idea of this person and what he or she stood for is important to me and adds value to my life; and whether it is Karl Lueger, Andrew Jackson, Harriet Tubman, George Washington, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Woodrow Wilson, Christopher Columbus, Indigenous Peoples, Barbara Jordan, or Albert Sidney Johnston, as we represent ourselves in our public, municipal academic, or even private settings — what stories do we want to tell – what aspects of our identity – American, or otherwise, do we wish to emphasize, and what stories do we wish to conceal?  What behaviors or permissions do we want to sanction – by stating that this statue represents me – and proudly displays to all what I am about and the values important to me?  How are each of us implicated in the stories that we tell or that represent us around this city, in this country, or in the world?


All of these lives, and so many more have contributed to our being here, imperfectly, today.  Each of them, and each of us, notes in a holy nign – a holy melody – those who built our railroads, those who established our infrastructure – all of the unsung heroes – those who have served us and sacrificed for us — the mothers raising their children – our lives are peopled with their unseen influence and their constant presence.  Each of these figures warrants a dance – and in our history, they all dance together – it is time to see those who are concealed – and those aspects of our culture that we don’t readily see.  It is time for us to study and to recognize the searing truth of the truths that we hold to be self-evident.


The Roman coliseum was constructed by Vespasian Augustus and finished by his son Titus, with the use of 20,000 Jewish slaves, and with the spoils taken after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and burnt Jerusalem to the ground in the year 70.  Will each of us privilege the expansion of a modern municipal infrastructure over the dignity of someone else’s life?  As society is built on the back of slaves, the expulsion of others, on seized or stolen property, or on the hatred that is institutionalized and taught, generation after generation, do we continue to lionize our leaders and visit the structures that represent dominant societies?  Do the ends justify the means?


What conversations are we willing to have together about the systemic injustices that prowl in our everyday decision making, as we go about our lives?  We should not hide our history – even if it is hidden in plain sight – we should see our shortcomings and move together to correct them.  We would do well to cultivate the teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote that the sin of idolatry is that it is static, and is contrary to demonstrating the gift of our lives.  We are always in motion – we are betzelem Elohim – created in the image of God – therefore, like fashion, we are always changing – and our stories, like God are always in flux.  The only way we can fashion an image of God then, is through the medium of each of our lives.  We are to make ourselves a worthy image of God – and to not seek images of God in that which we strive to create.  Once we commit to something in stone, we are stuck with it – and all of the irony in the world – like the pictures that many travelers, including me, have taken of the giant disembodied head of Vladimir Lenin that still sits in the main city square of Ulan-Ude, in Russia, do not chip away at the statement that is plainly being made.


Have you ever seen the imposing statue of Christ the Redeemer that sits atop the Corcovado mountain overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro – a statue that was both consecrated and proclaimed as one the New Seven Wonders of the World, ten years ago?   As Jews, can we live with the everyday recognition of being the other — can we understand the many-sided nature of living under the shadow of such a statement of Christ the Redeemer – at once, loving and threatening?  How can we even begin such conversations in our American society about representation, as we hear the various, valid sides of the pros and cons of remembering and forgetting?


So, while we may not possess the ancient hammer that Abraham had to destroy what he found most objectionable, we can have the mental fortitude to realize where exactly we stand and how we are represented in the story of a nation or society.  Are we willing to have patience – to wait out the efficacy of a name, or the clout of a particular statue – can we be content like the traveler in Percy Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias who reports that the once great king has now sunk into the sand – that this once bold and intimidating figure is now a colossal wreck – alone and decaying as the lone and level sands stretch far away?  Can we wait that long?  Should we?  As Martin Luther King has said – wait has almost always meant never.


As Yom Kippur begins, we have choices in what we choose to represent in our community – including if we choose to feel left out or included.  I humbly suggest that we begin our New Year by simply asking why, if there is an opinion or a position with which we don’t agree.  Rather than rely on a strategy of insult and brutalization of others – rather than reflexively resorting to violence or a cheap tweet that coarsens our culture and ultimately encourages others to work around the people in the exalted positions exhibiting such belittling attitudes, can we not engage each other – and especially those with whom we disagree, in reasoned conversation?


Perhaps I am being naïve.  My Karl Lueger, who represents the perilous nature of casual hostility and the creeping specter of legitimized, state-sponsored antisemitism, is another person’s Karl Lueger, who represents progress, modernization, and innovation – and who wasn’t really antisemitic, but was just shoring up his base, using his political means to assert his political will.  Do we not both possess versions of the truth?  Would we ever have the opportunity to agree to disagree without resentment and acrimony?  In our country, we must strive to live in relationship, not secure in separating ourselves in our particular neighborhoods, while peopling our particular agendas of narrative and representation across public spaces.


And as we live in such dissonance, who can claim victory?  Are we so sure of ourselves?  In this time, our holy rituals of Yom Kippur hedge their bets – as we read of an equal offering to God and to the mysterious power of Azazel.  As we experience these moments of teshuvah, may our hearts of stone be remade into hearts of flesh – may we drop deeply into our empathy as we wrestle with our inheritance – as we whisper the quivering, piteous words of Esau, as he realizes that his family’s history has already been proclaimed – barcheini gam ani, avi – bless me too, father – and let us weep, as we see ourselves as the other, out in the world.  And let us weep, as we see our brothers and sisters of color put down and marginalized in each generation – and let us not be named as conspirators to such conduct.


Judaism teaches that in encountering our legacy, we name all narratives – our stance is countercultural.  There is no winner take all attitude – we acknowledge rather that we are all in it together, as Hillel and Shammai dance and Rav and Shmuel dance – dissenting opinions are also given pride of place in the Jewish intersections of imagination.  All is contained within the page – and our narratives are constantly unstable and shimmering – as Heschel teaches us – for we are betzelem Elohim in our relationships – we are like God — not static – like an idol.


We have a choice again this year.  Can we thwart the growing momentum of polarization, and turn away from the tactics of trolling and undercutting each other from our isolated places in the netherworld of the wilderness?  We see with alarm the rise of the AfD party (Alternative for Germany), that has been elected to the Bundestag, the antisemitism that is festering in the Labour Party in Britain, and we see the ratcheting up of brazen rhetoric between the leader of our country and the leader of North Korea.


Can we walk in the night, like Robert Frost’s unnamed hero – outwalking the furthest city light – and can we keep walking – marching for justice and outspoken in what we hold dear, unalienable, and everlasting – that all of us are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – no matter what stories the statues or self-proclaimed idols around us are trying to tell?  What stories do we want our children to hear?  That we can move past that which is unmoving and our living soul can in fact be the hammer that breaks the bonds of unyielding narrative – for as we have come to expect from our technology, our narratives too are in dire need of an upgrade.


For as Frost writes, this time is neither wrong nor right for all of us acquainted with the night.  In this time, we are to emulate King David, who in the darkest hour, put his harp in the window, for the midnight breeze to play music for him – and woke and alert, he would write his Psalms – his impassioned pleas for discernment and awareness.  Let us set our table in this new year to shine encouragement, inspiration, and hope in the darkness – let us open to a steady recognition that everyone, including our adversaries, deserve dreams of limitless potential – and not a stunted constant reminder of a haunted past.  Here and now, we are able to choose a better future, together – indivisible, with liberty and justice for all – no matter if we stand, sit, prostrate ourselves, or kneel.


Let us write our Psalms – let us share our history and not erase our stories – as we frame public memory, we would do well to devote this year to vigorous Talmud study – or at least for us to begin to explore the shakla v’tarya, the give and take, of Jewish thought, so we can see how Judaism works and how it can help us to understand the swirl of accounts, opinions and nostalgia all around us.  Let us begin there, recognizing that we can take all of what we know with a grain of salt – as we enter into this most Holy Day knowing that we don’t know – and in our unknowing, we are secure – as we see that the safety net we thought was under us, does not exist – so we move, and keep moving to be like God – and we dance with Hillel and Shammai, and we dance with Rav and Shmuel, who have been dancing for a long time – and as we dance we sing –


Sha! Shtil!

Un az der rebe tantst

Tantst dokh mit der tish

Lomir ale klapn mit di fis.

Un az der rebe zingt

Dem heylign nign

Blaybt der sotn a toyter lign.

And when the Rebbe dances

The table dances too

Let’s all stomp our feet


And when the Rebbe sings

A holy melody –

Satan lies dead. 

May each of us have a significant and meaningful fast – as dancers – as movers and shakers.  Let us not remain static.  Let us keep moving, as God keeps moving.  May we be Sealed in the Book of Life – unafraid, energized, and refreshed as Yom Kippur begins.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

02/10/2017 at 13:57 Leave a comment

“The Theory of Gravity” — RH – 5778

“The Theory of Gravity”


Rosh haShanah – Day 1

Neil F. Blumofe

21 September 2017


When I was twelve years old, I wanted to be president of the United States.  In retrospect, this was a goal that I pursued with some determination – volunteering with my congressman for seven years, through Middle School and High School, and thinking that I wanted to go to West Point — the United States Military Academy — even quitting my first chair saxophone position in our state ranked jazz band, in order to try and get a varsity letter in track, which held practice at the same time as rehearsal.  Based on the posted criteria for West Point, I thought receiving a varsity letter would improve my chances of admission – it would check another box.


During the summer of 1987, I was able to intern in Washington DC for my congressman – this was a time when database networks were just coming on line, and the Iran-Contra scandal was raging, and I was so enthusiastic to participate in the everyday business of government, that I would arrive very early every morning at the Longworth House Office Building and sort the mail, so that by the time the full-time staff arrived, I was ready to help them with whatever tasks they were doing.  They didn’t know quite what to do with me – I was eager and enthusiastic, and sixteen – so when they invited me to their weekend parties a couple of times, where there was drinking and casual drug use, which I vetoed, it was off putting to me, and pretty awkward for them – and after one or two, the invitations ceased.


I was staying in a basement apartment on 16th St, in the Mt. Pleasant area, and after my roommate found out I was Jewish, he immediately moved out.  For the most part, I was lonely that summer, and I sought to take solace in the work that I was doing and in the constituency that I was serving.  I was assigned to research various bills under consideration and I wrote the letters describing the congressman’s position concerning the contentious debate about the Supreme Court nominee who was up for consideration that summer.  Even though as a member of the House of Representatives, he did not vote in the confirmation, which fell to the Senators, nevertheless, we drafted two letters for those who wrote to the congressman expressing their views – one that made it appear that he supported the nominee, and one that skewed more towards critique.


All in all, I returned to high school that fall, a bit unsettled about all that I had witnessed.  My childish naiveté was upended as I realized that the world was more complicated that I thought – and that even then, I realized that there were so many things moving below the surface, and beyond the presenting face of what I was experiencing, of which I was not, and would not ever be aware.


Had I known of it at the time, this Midrash, this teaching from Bereshit Rabbah would have resonated –


Rabbi Yose ben Rabbi Hanina said – whoever elevates themselves at the cost of another’s degradation has no share in the World to Come.  How much more so when one seeks to elevate themselves at the expense of the Glory of God.  However, our Torah teaches – v’ha’aretz hayitah tohu va’vohu – the earth was unformed, waste, and void – and God made the earth out of this – that is to say, tohu va’vohu — out of garbage, sewers, and dunghills.  Rav Huna says in Bar Kappara’s name – if this was not written, it would be impossible and heretical to teach it. 


I didn’t feel that I belonged in that world — as I saw it, I was not willing to give over my life, chasing various approvals, in order to create a persona that was worthy only of conditional acceptance and belonging.  These summer experiences cured me too of any inclination to submit to peer pressure.  I let my West Point dreams fade, never completing the final step towards admission, and I voluntarily let my political work languish.  Instead, I moved to New Orleans to go to college, where I began to explore what it meant to be an American, not through government work, but rather through the gumbo traditions of jazz, particular to New Orleans.   It was also in New Orleans where I began to practice, study and be nurtured in my Judaism with more intent.


Like many of us gathered in this sanctuary this morning, for many years, I have been trying to square my Jewishness as I live in America.  In many wonderful ways, I think that these fresh streams being both Jewish and American — complement each other, and give mutual, beneficial confluence, creating fertile, Edenic land between the two as they flow together and separately.  Over the years, for the most part, I have seen the disappearance of, or the ironic reclaiming by insiders, of the tropes of weakness and deficiency, and the growing acceptance of Jews and Judaism in the wider community.  I have deliberately dedicated my career in Austin to develop it into a place where connections and expectations can be positively wired time and time again, and in the nineteen years that I have been blessed to serve our community, I have been often rewarded in my hunch – that with purposeful work, initial, skeptical curiosity can lead to genuine respect among neighbors, and a close-knit caring and trusting network can be created one relationship at a time – as Judaism is utilized both as a responsive way of life for all of us as practitioners, as well as an informed wisdom tradition more generally, out in the public square.


And now as I reflect on the odd, syncopated rhythm of this past year — as a nation, we are undergoing a certain rancorous spasm of chauvinism that across the political spectrum, has tried many of us and filled us with trepidation and unease.  Especially after the debacle at Charlottesville, where it seemed that those who brazenly chanted threats about us were not sufficiently neutralized, the nowhere quality of being Jewish seems suddenly front and center again.  Where do we belong?  Where can we consider home?  I was recently eating dinner with my son, and we were speaking about my childhood political experiences and Charlottesville – and he said, with great acumen – “dad, if you ran for office, you would never beat any other politician, because you’re a Jew.”  It’s significant that as I strive to raise my kids with a sweet, positive pride and a bit of knowledge about their identity, at the same time undeterred, the world makes itself known.  My idyllic place, watered between my being American, and my being Jewish, is not as impervious to cultural climate change, as I perhaps thought.


It’s Rosh haShanah.  This is a good time to speak generally about the reactivation of hope, and with broad brushstrokes, assert the promise and the successful propulsion into the New Year.  We choose life yet again, and look for our name to be written yet again into the ledger of the Book of Life – with each day precious and accounted for.  What else can we expect, and what else do we want?  To me, while calming, this message seems a bit like me writing a general constituent letter or two for my congressman that has lots of good words, is generally reassuring, and yet doesn’t really say much.


When we designed this sanctuary roughly seventeen years ago, we decided to link our sacred space with the Jewish civilizations that have come and gone in history.  As you may have noticed our coppers doors are highlighted by a calendar akin to a zodiac, which is meant to evoke the birth of the study of astronomy and astrology in the ancient Babylonian civilization – a place where our ancestors once thrived and produced the multi-volume Babylonian Talmud – a rich compendium of rabbinic civilization that we continue to study today.  Any time that we say mazal tov – we are channeling our ancestors from Babylon – a saying that we know as good work, or congratulations – yet which has its origins in the constellations of the sky – mazal are stars in alignment – so it literally means, may you have good fortune, may your stars be in alignment.  And yet, we know that today, Babylon does not exist – in its place, Iraq does, and the once great Jewish community that existed now numbers a handful.


The big doors that we commissioned for our sanctuary were fabricated in Germany – so that every time we open these doors as we are honored to read from our sifrei Torah, we remember those who were murdered in the Holocaust – that which once existed and is now no more.  We can remember how European Jewry was once so culturally diverse and how it once flourished and was violently cut off at the shoots – even as we see over seventy years later how European Jewry is struggling to blossom again with newly arrived Jews from Russia and Israel.


And we exist now in this charmed space as we create our reality day after day, realizing too that we have been living in a bit of a Golden Age.  We are to be reminded as we live in this majestic place that no matter how hard we try to insulate ourselves, we are still nisht ahin un nisht aher – that we are insecure; we are still in limbo.  Our mystics might say, that from our beautiful places, when the winds blows a certain way, try as we might to mask it, sometimes we can smell the tohu va’vohu – the garbage heap onto which we have constructed our palace.  In darker moments I wonder — what might future generations put on their ark doors to commemorate what we have accomplished in our Jewish-American civilization?


And yet, we are privileged not to live in an either/or world.  As Jews, we have the tremendous gift of the State of Israel – a place that by its very existence, gives credence and strength to the lives that we are living in Austin.  No matter where we are, we are not alone – and in connecting to Israel we can feel more at home.


However, in our current dilemmas, as politics, opinion, and even language itself can be weaponized, we must develop a discipline not to passively rely on that which gives us credence and strength.  Both in America and in Israel, we must actively and persistently advocate for the visions that we support as we choose to live our life.  Let us not settle for mere gesture, and let us focus instead, on acting with intentionality, purpose and authenticity.  Each day, we thread the needle regarding our identity – very often, we tolerate immediate accommodation, trading the here and now for the promise of improving our position tomorrow.  We try to develop good faith.  We regularly do not raise our voice in order to keep peace and to prevent disruption to the pattern of life that we are desiring to have, sated by small reward and the luxury to not fill our time with an outsized, troublesome noise with which we would then have to deal.


And yet, we do not realize how much power we actually do have.  We can readily see that we are not mere reactionaries, ricocheting from headline to headline and from current event to current event.  These days of the Yamim Noraim are for gaining perspective – for seeing that if we do assert ourselves, we have an almost unlimited ability to increase our influence.  We are not for just kicking the can from one generation to the next – for just going through the motions – sleepwalking from one year to the next.  We are currently being taught that our most successful politicians are the ones who buck the system – and as counterintuitive as it sounds, we can learn from their example by applying our own creativity to intractable issues and to systemic injustice or bias.  We can develop our entrepreneurial skills as we increase our courage to steadily invest in the improvement of our lot and of our world.


The Mishnah teaches us that today, the entire world passes before the Creator’s tearful eyes.  Who do we yet want to be in this world?  When our levels of comfort are removed – when we see how we can be manipulated — what is most important to us?  How much risk are we willing to take to support those who work for the life that we hold dear?


We can’t just make “Fighting Nazis,” our catchphrase for this year.  While so engaged, we must uphold that which makes us whole and successful.  If we succumb to responding to antagonism exclusively with gallows humor, or by pouring our time into dilatory activities, or events or meetups that serve just to make us feel better, we miss the chance to truly use our power.  Let us not be reactionaries – rather, let us respond positively, by building those networks that we do support, with some sweat and dollar equity – and let us develop agendas together that can change laws, attitudes, and culture, and at the same time, enshrine justice.


On Yom Kippur, we will speak more about ways to more fully exercise our rights and privileges as Americans.  This morning, I want us to shore up our support and deepen our relationship with Israel.  I am a proud supporter of Israel, visiting as often as I can, and eagerly contributing to strengthening the security and well-being of the Jewish State – supporting JNF and AIPAC.  And I also see the great need for encouraging the normative practices of Judaism that I uphold here, also in the land that is my birthright – so I contribute to the Masorti Movement in Israel – an organization that like Conservative Judaism here, upholds and encourages pathways into traditional Judaism for all who are interested.  I do this both because I believe with all of my heart in the flourishing of Israel, and I recognize that I am summoned – that we are all summoned – to recognize the vexing political issues on the ground there at this very moment, that inform what kind of Jewish State the Jewish State will be.  From each of our places, we have an uncanny ability to influence this trajectory.


After Charlottesville, it is an unsettling feeling to not feel at home in this country, in a place that you have always thought is your own.  Even today, as we inaugurate 5778, we still feel the pains, uncertainty, and insecurity of exile.  We are asked to defy gravity – to recognize our place here as both more and less than home.  After so many years of thinking otherwise, it is ominous to think of ourselves again as orphans and immigrants.


And we know too that in Israel, in this space and time, we would have an uphill climb to express ourselves Jewishly in the same way that we have come to cherish our Jewish observances in this community. And as we support Israel, how poised are we to enact and advocate for our pluralistic stance in a deep-rooted, longstanding way – helping to influence society and religious norms in Israel — even more than when we are on vacation, touring, appreciating, and celebrating for a day or two at Robinson’s Arch and across the Jewish State?


From time to time I think, what would it be like to make aliyah to Israel.  Pursuing a religious life that is consonant with my current practices, what values and examples would I assert?  In Israel, how would I be encouraged and how would I be disaffected – how would I gain influence and how would I be crushed?  From my position of leadership and influence in Austin, how can I work to empower and legitimize those same values and examples?  In this place, what is standing in my way?


Perhaps we are living now in a time when the veil of ignorance has been pulled back a bit, exposing the waste, void, and primeval animus that is flowing just beneath our civilizing accommodations.   Let us live our lives, determined not to be rubes in someone else’s game.  Let us inaugurate this year with the best of what our American and Jewish identities grant us – to question, and not to rely on answers – and to not be a cog in someone else’s machine.   The Book of Proverbs warns – b’ein chazon yipara am – where there is no vision, the people perish. 


Let us not ask the question, who are we willing to fight – rather let us ask ourselves, what are we willing to fight for?  When the rubber hits the road, what are our priorities?  We cannot leave our investments half-attended to.  Who we are at home needs to be who we are out in the street – as we carry our values, principles, and morality wherever we go.  We learn in our current climate, that we cannot take anything for granted – our beloved Agudas Achim needs our support, as do those places in Israel and around the world that give us a real sense of home and belonging – and it is from these places that we are then poised to engage in all of the other ways we need to both protect and assert ourselves in our world.


Together, we can support each other and give each other strength that our way of life is valued and matters.  Together, we can realize that while shalom bayit in our Jewish family has its place, we must see the long view of what is important and devote our lives to its constant upkeep.  In our present security, let us not squander our shot.  It is easy to get tired and yet the world demands both our attention and our engagement.  And while the luster of wanting to be president has since waned for me – the idea of why I wanted to be, all these years later, remains as strong as ever.  I have learned in wrestling with my identity that it is Judaism that calls us every day to make a difference – to offer our very lives as a holy down payment for the future.  We are to emulate our prophets who wanted to make something that is already amazing, miraculous.  As we study our texts that make no bones about the state of our world – we have no better option to drown out the cynicism, mendacity, and carnival barker brinksmanship around us than by our commitment to good deeds and righteous living.  We can do so in Israel, strengthening an egalitarian, traditional, non-judgmental religious life that has already embraced us and the choices that we have already made by being here.


So long ago, I chose to hold my Judaism fast, in order to better reflect that which I hold to be important.  I have found a home in this pursuit, as we live today in Austin.  Do you feel at home in this place and time?  How can you further express this feeling?  While we don’t know what tomorrow will bring – and we see in this very space, manifested in the ark doors themselves, the rise and fall and rise again of Jewish civilizations, I think in this time and in this space, it is important to have an egalitarian, pluralistic, traditional synagogue in Austin from which we can give our devoted support to our brothers and sisters in Israel.  Pluralism in Israel is perhaps one of the most important issues of our time, and will help insure the extravagant vision of the Zionist dreamers as they worked steadily to establish the Jewish State.  Before Yom Kippur, I will be sending out more information so you can get to know better what the Masorti Movement is and what it stands for in Israel.  Like our Zionist forebears, I choose to support our community and the Masorti community in Israel. I hope that you will care to join me.


Am Yisrael Chai

Medinat Yisrael Chai


Shanah Tovah u’Metukah

Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah

29/09/2017 at 08:21 Leave a comment

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