Yom Kippur — Yizkor (5780) — The Minister of Loneliness

“The Minister of Loneliness Arrives at the Gate of Tears”

 

Yom Kippur – Yizkor

Neil F. Blumofe

9 October 2019

 

When I was growing up outside of Chicago, there was a kid who was part of my larger friendship circle, who sometimes burst into tears whenever there was a group gathering together. It could be when there was a birthday party, or when we were exploring the woods or the farmer’s cornfields near our suburban houses, or when we went to school.  When asked about this unusual behavior, he would sometimes be silent, and when he would respond he would say something about how not everyone had this chance to be happy, or to enjoy nature, or to learn – it was a bit strange and awkward, and usually we would leave him alone, or he would disappear for a while and then return and we would resume our activity, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

 

At that age, we didn’t know the meaning of the word empathy – we didn’t consider putting ourselves in the shoes of others to see how they experienced life, or if someone among us was struggling or having a different reaction to our shared time – we didn’t offer space for that person to feel seen, let alone safe – as little boys, with a particular easygoing and even serene shunning, we were much more severe, dismissing these feelings as bizarre – letting that other kid suffer his feelings without our support.

 

And over the many years later, as we all grew up and drifted apart, we have lived our lives, tangentially, infrequently or randomly keeping track of our trajectories on certain social media groups that scooped us back together.  From time to time, there might be a stray picture or two from a reunion that would surface that would display a person from so long ago – challenging my remembrance of him from my childhood – recognizing both the endowments and the ravages of time.

 

We mostly connect in this way, when one among us dies.  Over the years, there have been many who have done so – many from illness, some from accident, some from suicide.  And I wonder, and I have wondered for a long time, how we are afflicted inside – what we carry within us every day – as I speculate on whatever happened to that kid who burst into tears, because he was overcome — feeling the feelings of others present and not present.  Back then, among us, we didn’t know what to do with those who were different or who expressed themselves differently than what was publicly allowed – perhaps the most compassionate thing we could have done, is not done anything at all – which happened, most of the time.

 

We would simply do things together and sometimes quietly drop a kid or two from the group for a while, if it became too uncomfortable.  Everything was tacit and implied – there were no major confrontations. And all of this ceased to be an issue when we all began to drive – because then, we weren’t stuck with each other – we were much more independent in the long, pre-internet, pre-Uber, non-public transportation, suburban afternoons.

 

For many years, I have often thought about our ancestor Isaac in this context.  Isaac, the son of Abraham, who was prayed for by his parents, for so long – and then entered a dysfunctional household with an older half-brother and a sort of step mom, living alongside his mother – and after Hagar and Ishmael were kicked out of the house without careful provision, he was suddenly picked up by his father one day and brought to a mountain to be sacrificed.

 

And while his dad didn’t ultimately go through with it, it still must have been traumatic for Isaac. When Isaac gets home from this misadventure, his mom dies and his father sends one of the household staff to get him a wife, to replace the nurturing presence of his mother.  If he only had a car and could get away from home – to interrupt and even put an end to such wounding.  I have often thought about Isaac in the context of my childhood and the kid who sometimes burst into tears – and how he must have been so lonely and feeling so powerless and overwhelmed as these events happened to him.  This loneliness is a lesson our sacred texts want us to consider – and I would like us to consider our own loneliness, and how we live with and come to terms with our loneliness, as we honor this time of Yizkor, on the holiest day of the year.

 

How often do we feel out of place?  When do we feel that our circumstances and our accustomed experiences do not match what we feel inside – how estranged we are from our feelings, as we, determined or trapped, go about our daily routine?  Our heart is sometimes like a heavy stone – and those upon whom we rely – those into whom we put our trust – when they die, we feel undone – almost betrayed by their absence.

 

For in the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, it is the soul of Sarah that is unspooled.  She never gets closure with Isaac – he is taken from her without her knowledge, and the only time that she actually speaks about her son, is when he is born, as she says – God has made laughter for me – whoever hears will laugh for me – for a I have borne a son in Abraham’s old age!  These are the only words that Sarah speaks in reference to her son – in the Torah, she never actually speaks directly to her beloved son, Isaac — he is then whisked away as part of a test of her husband’s faith in God.  Her entire world has been taken away – and in the words of the Israeli poet, Binyamin Galai – and Sarah died – but truthfully, her candle was extinguished many years earlier, before her last place of rest was dust.  And the coffin in which she lay, was made all these years of the memory of the wood, split on another mountain – on another mountain, in the land of Moriah. 

 

How much are we living, like Sarah, in another space and time – imprisoned in our present day – largely inattentive to what is now – going through the motions, because our hearts are connected to crucial other moments in our past – or connected to other people in our past, who are now, gone from here?  How often does our heart feel world-weary, or even sometimes like an amputated stump, as we make our way in the world?  Like the kid from my childhood, why can’t we too just burst into tears at the difficulty and the sadness as we feel the sheer weight of the anguish – can we not feel, can we not hold, as the radio journalist, Herbert Morrison felt as he watched the Hindenburg suddenly burst into flames in 1937 — oh, the humanity!

 

A year or so ago, the United Kingdom appointed a governmental official to be a Minister of Loneliness.  Part of the press release read as follows – for far too many people loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.  In an article in the Harvard Business Review, a former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, wrote – loneliness is a growing health epidemic.  We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980’s. And here we are in 5780, at a poignant moment, deep in the center of Yom Kippur, when the gates to all of the worlds are open – and our sanctuary is filled – not only with all of us – but our space is also teeming with the specters of our recollections.  A grandmother.  A child.  A good friend, who has died too soon.  Classmates. A kid from childhood.  A mom.  A dad. A mom and a dad – and so many in our lives, that we are surprised with wonder at our own survival.  Each of us are miracles that summon other miracles as we remember.

 

And yet, these memories seem taut, as they are personal and perhaps, complicated, and held too tightly. Each of us, in our own world – scratching the surface of these precious few minutes, daring to uncrack our hearts for a moment as we remember our loved ones – and then from here, we close up our emotional shop and continue with a stiff upper lip into the rest of the Day of Atonement – keeping our tears at bay, and pushing down deep our loneliness, into ever buried places within ourselves.

 

Let us cry – let us now burst into tears — our tradition teaches that the Gates of Tears are always open.  When we pray our prayers with tears – when we remember our loved ones with tears – when we think of our own loneliness with tears, all of who we are flies straight through the Gates of Tears.  Let us cry and expect an answer – as the Kotzker Rebbe taught – the Gates of Tears, which are always open, has a Gate in the first place – to remind us that we deserve to be answered – and to not have our tears be tears of hopelessness.  Let us not sacrifice our ability, our license to weep, for without crying, what do we become?  Yehuda Amichai, wrote movingly about this when he writes about a third son of Abraham, named Yivke – which means, crying:

 

Abraham had three sons, not only two.

Abraham had three sons, Ishmael, Yitzhak and Yivke.

Nobody ever heard about Yivke, because he was the small one

The beloved son who was sacrificed on Mount Moriah.

 

Ishmael was saved by his mother Hagar, Yitzhak was rescued by the angel,

But nobody saved Yivke. When he was small

His father lovingly named him Yivke, Yivk, my lovely little Yevk.

But he sacrificed him at the Akeda.

The Torah says it was a ram, but it was Yivke.

Yishmael never again heard God in all the days of his life.

Yitzhak never laughed again, in all the days of his life.

And Sarah only laughed once, and then, never again.

Abraham had three sons,

Yishma, Yitzhak, Yivke,

Ishmael, Yitzhak-el, Yivke-El.

 

As we think today about the heartache of Isaac, the sadness of Sarah – and our own sense of loneliness and desolation – we get to have these sacred moments to reflect, to remain silent, and to share.  In a moment, I am going to ask you to close your eyes and to choose a person to think about during this time of Yizkor – someone who has died recently or long ago. Someone you can handle speaking to right now.  I am going to ask you to cry – to feel, to have a powerful moment.  This is the day for this kind of sensitivity – to have the defenses against vulnerability laid low.  Yizkor is an explicit, communally-supported, emotionally safe encounter with the memories of those we’ve loved and lost – including the grief that we inevitably feel about that loss.  Allow this time to be what it needs to be – take a deep breath, relinquish your judgment of others, or self-doubt.  What do you want the next generation to remember?  What do we wish to forget?  This is the time for us to access or recover our empathy.  You also have permission to stop this mediation at any time – or to choose a different person to think about if the feelings get too intense.  As we can, let us go on this journey – let us drop in.

 

Close your eyes.  Imagine this person sitting alone in a chair, in a simple room as you enter.  Greet them however you would like, and then pull up a chair next to them.  In this time, you have a chance to speak with them – to ask them questions and perhaps to share with them something that has happened in your life – something that you want this person to know. 

 

When you are ready, wish them goodbye – and let them know that you may visit them again next year. This year at CAA, we have begun connecting established people in our community, with others who have recently arrived – this deepens everyone’s investment in each other and serves to strengthen our holy community.  We will apply that model today – as we reflect on the experience that we have just had – At this point, I invite you to turn to someone who did not know the person in your mediation and to share a bit together.  If you prefer, you can take a few moments of self-reflection, however, I think processing the journey that you have just been on with someone else, will help to reinforce it – and allow it to become a flowing source of healing as we continue to live through some of the loneliness of our own lives.  Allow this time to be powerful and share with each other for 3-4 minutes each.

 

I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright, no matter how gray the day may appear.

I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun even more

I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive and everlasting.

I wish you enough pain so that even the smallest of joys in life may appear bigger.

I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.

I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.

I wish you enough hellos to get through the final goodbye.

I wish you all enough as you appreciate all the love you remember at this time.

 

(NIGGUN – DREMLEN FEYGL)

07/10/2019 at 16:22 Leave a comment

Kol Nidrei (5780) — Adulting

“Adulting”

 

Yom Kippur – Kol Nidrei

Neil F. Blumofe

8 October 2019

 

Over the summer, Anne and I were cleaning up our house. I came across a box that I didn’t recognize, so I asked Anne about it – she told me to leave the box alone – it was her personal box.  However, I couldn’t help myself – I was curious – when she was out, I opened the box. Inside there were three eggs and $2000. When Anne came home I told her that I opened the box and I asked her to explain what the meaning was of what was inside the box.  She told me that any time I ever gave a bad sermon, she would put an egg in the box.

 

So, that’s great, I said – in all the time since I’ve been giving sermons, there have only been three bad ones.  That’s not bad at all.  Anne looked at me and said – yes, however, every time I got a dozen eggs, I would sell them for $1.

 

This evening, on the holiest night of the year, we are here with great expectations, hoping that something will shift within us – that we will be lifted up past the hazards and pitfalls — beyond the uncertain world that we are living in – in essence, that we will be moved.  In today’s world, the things and ideas that we value — our opinions, and even our very identities are considered malignantly partisan. It is difficult to find common ground with others, without the danger of having someone send a glare in our direction with a knife glinting in their eyes.  It seems that the mob bearing torches and pitchforks are everywhere.

 

Do y’all know my favorite joke — it’s the one about the two Jews eating dinner in the kosher delicatessen, and the waiter comes up to them during the meal and asks – “is anything alright?”  Tonight, I would like us to consider – what if it isn’t? What if anything isn’t alright, and the sky is really falling?  Our politics, our environment, our economy, the ways that we communicate with each other and feel rooted in community, that which keeps us grounded and hopeful – what if all of this is out of whack?  What if everything is undermined and destabilized – hollowed out, so we don’t have a clear direction of where to go and how to be?

 

However, there is good news.  In this fraught time as Yom Kippur begins and the Gates of Repentance and Reconciliation open, the wisdom of Judaism gives us steady guidance. As extreme as everything currently feels, we have been in a place like this before.  Tonight, I want to share with you the most radical book in the entire Tanach – the Hebrew Bible – so, let us discover what we can learn from the man called Job.

 

This semester, I am teaching an Introduction to Hebrew Bible class at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary – 38 students, who will be future pastors, four teaching assistants, and I are moving from Genesis to II Chronicles – the entire Bible in 15 weeks.  Despite our blistering pace, when we are discussing these stories and concepts – there is an appreciation among the students that the Jewish perspective is not what they had previously learned.  You see, Christian scholars typically see the Hebrew Bible as foreshadowing of people or events to come in the Christian Bible.  We call this bias, typology – and overcoming this bias is both an important and a challenging component of the class.

 

For each of us, challenging and undoing our own biases, our own typologies, is the Book of Job.  The Book of Job singlehandedly challenges the entire Hebrew Bible – one book against 23, depending how you count, by criticizing the two critical ideas or theologies, found in the Hebrew Bible.  The first is called priestly or establishment theology and is the idea that our reverence for God will spare us from the harshest decrees – As the prophet Jeremiah wrote — obey my voice and I will be your God – and you shall be my people – and walk in all the ways that I have commanded you – that it may be well with you.  The second theology is what is known as prophetic Judaism – the belief that the ethics of religion are more important than the rituals of religion.  These prophets are Biblical heroes who don’t represent the establishment.  We can see an example of this theology in tomorrow morning’s choice of Haftarah – the chapter of Isaiah that declares quite lyrically that the real fast is to get outside of the establishment to fight injustice, feeding people who are hungry.

 

According to the Book of Job, both of these theologies are wrong.  The priests are blinded by the rituals and can’t see the forest for the trees – and the prophets are naïve, because all they do is just offer an alternative reward system and theology.  The prophets fail to realize that it is the reward system itself, and not the rituals, that is the problem.  The prophets criticize the rituals, but they leave the reward system.  All they do is define good and bad differently – they redefine the ritual and promise that this set of behaviors will work better than the other set.  Job cuts both of these examples down to size, and quite subversively says that neither the priests nor the prophets — neither ritual nor what we would call now, tikkun olamJudaism does the job.  So where does that leave us?

 

Job challenges us to ask the question – if I am righteous, whether by ritual or by tikkun olam, or both – will God protect me?  It is interesting that it is Job asking this question.  Job is an extraordinary figure in the Tanach.  He took care of the most vulnerable in society – the poor, the orphan, and the widow.  He was a judge, who dutifully pursued justice, and he was the eyes for people who were blind.  He fought those who had too much power and those who abused the system for their own financial gain – in short, he was an overachiever and would have won all of the scouting merit badges by the second meeting.  He was in all of this a fantastic personification of what is called prophetic behavior – he was out in the world doing tikkun olam and he was a ritual ninja at home and in the synagogue.  In short, he was both the perfect priestly Jew and the perfect prophetic Jew.  And yet, at the end, Job tells us that this kind of noble living does not protect you from tragedy – for disaster strikes him — he loses what he hold dear in the world — his health, his kids and his wealth.

 

Job is a critique of the entire Bible.  The reward system promised by God doesn’t work – the deal that we have with God is false.  Doing good does not promise redemption.  Job is unlike any other figure in the Bible.  He is described as perfect, upright, one who reveres God – and one who never did anything wrong.  He is wholehearted in his conduct and in his faith.  We are even told that God believes in Job and in his inherent goodness and good nature.

 

God even shows Job off – bragging about Job to Satan – essentially saying to Satan, which is known in Hebrews as The Adversary, “finally – here is one who has met my standards!”  The Adversary, of course, is a cynic – a figure who believes neither in humanity nor in the intrinsic good nature of an individual human being. Satan challenges God by insinuating that Job is perfect only because his life is perfect, not because Job is perfect.  Satan maintains — when you see someone good, it is only because their surroundings are good and their life is good – they are able to fit in goodness – to schedule it in their routine of life. So, God and Satan bet on Job, to see who is right.  Satan claims that if you take away all of Job’s good things, Job will no longer be good. God takes the other side, betting that Job is intrinsically good, regardless of his good fortunes in life.  It’s a cosmic showdown – the main event at the Ultimate Fighting Championship – the UFC — between God and the Adversary – and it’s amazing that God agrees to this wager.

 

Long story short — a flood of bad things happen to Job, Job remains righteous and good, and God wins the bet – proving that human nature is inherently good and Job’s character remains intact.   But now there’s a problem that surfaces – we know that Job is good, yet maybe, God is not so good.  This is the real theological question of the Book of Job – asking the challenging question – is God good?  Job’s friends attempt to answer this saying, God is not bad.  Look, if something bad happens to you, then you obviously have done something bad to deserve it.  These so-called friends blame and judge Job, using theology to justify his misfortune, eventually abandoning Job as his life gets worse.  But Job is steadfast in his belief – stating — I am good and it is the system that is broken.  Bad things happen to good people.  I am suffering needlessly.

 

As to the disturbing question of whether God is good – we only receive a partial answer – God appears to Job in a raging storm and answers Job’s question with a question — saying to him – you know, you have really strong opinions, and yet you don’t really know anything about the world.  Job – where were you when I created the world? The secrets of the cosmos are infinite, while human intellect is finite – and you Job, or anyone else, cannot create an objective judgment with only a limited picture.

 

And while Job accepts God’s answer – we, who know more of this astonishing story than Job does, may answer differently.  We can turn to God and say, You are not just. Unlike Job, we do not make peace with the inscrutability of God’s ways.  For us, the answer is not cosmic – for we can turn to God and say – why did you make such a foolish bet with Satan, and why didn’t you tell Job about Your wager?  In all of his suffering, Job didn’t know that You did that, but we do.  There is a knowledge gap between the character of Job and us – we have a bigger perspective and thus God’s justification of a bigger truth than what we can comprehend misses the mark, at the very least.

 

The question remains — why do bad things happen to good people?   The answer given – that God possesses wisdom and perspective that we don’t have, is essentially mocking us.  We know why bad things happened to Job – and God never admits it.  God never tells Job that the Kadosh Baruch Hu made a deal with the devil to see if Job’s perfection would waver.  We see this – and we are then to ask – what the heck is the Book of Job doing in the Bible?  We have to rethink what the Bible is – in its composition, it possesses a radical pluralism that is instructive to us, in our day and age.

 

The beauty of the Tanach is that it asks us to critique it – and our questions, our critical examination is holy.  There are some, like the philosopher and public intellectual in Israel, Micah Goodman, who thinks that the Book of Job actually saves the entire Tanach – that because Job is included in the Bible then the Bible is larger than we can imagine.  Goodman states – that the Bible can then fit the world, as the world works – and knowing too that the Bible doesn’t work, is also a component of the Bible.  Can we say to God, that God is not good?  Are we allowed to criticize God? Job’s friends say, sha stil, being religious is doing the rituals.  Job states that his definition of religion is to speak truth to God – to develop an authentic voice in this matter, come what may. For Job, God wants our truth, not our praise.

 

What better day than Yom Kippur to ask this question?  To be observant of Judaism and to honor Jewish practice takes a lot of sacrifice — it is time-consuming, expensive, and a huge commitment.  Job is asking us this evening – is intellectual honesty another sacrifice that we have to make – turning on our naïveté full blast when we come to synagogue?  And the answer of the Book of Job is no – we don’t have to be willfully ignorant in our sanctuary – we must express our honesty when we want to get close to God – especially in our synagogue.

 

Today, ideology and groupthink create enemies, but not for Job. Even in his isolation, his alienation, Job prays for his friends – he prays for the people who have shunned him – and this is the lesson that we can emulate as well.  We speak our truth, without diminishing our love for God and for our friends – we are to not falter when we are tested – because, like Job, we may not have the whole picture.  Nu, what else is new?  Maybe our lives are the subject of another bet between God and Satan, seeing if we will rebuke and forsake God.  We can speculate that this is the case – knowing that we don’t know, and will never know the whole picture of why things can get so hectic for us.

 

And here we are, on Yom Kippur, with these Gates of Repentance and Reconciliation open before us.  So many pages to pray before the stars come out again tomorrow night and our fast is over.  David Hartman, the founder of the Hartman Institute in Israel wrote – the problem with the machzor is not the language. The problem is our difficulty transcending the language.  We have to move beyond the words on the page. 

 

I have a friend who is a child of Holocaust survivors – who grew up observant, and beyond the trauma of the Holocaust on her family, her son died by overdose a few years ago.  When you ask her how she is, she will look you straight in the eye and respond – Baruch haShem, lousy.  Praise God, I’m lousy.  She really means it.  Both aspects – both the gratitude and the agony.  We have inherited Job’s dilemma.  How can we pray these words, when our hearts and minds may be elsewhere? I encourage you to look away from the specific words of the liturgy and rather immerse yourself in it – to see if this experience resonates with anything currently going on in your life. If the prayer makes you more loving or opens your heart, then the prayer worked, regardless of whether the liturgy is true or even believable.  Perhaps a word or a musical phrase makes us feel more alive or connected with our depths, with the world beyond – or even with God.  Can we move from being self-absorbed to more empathic?  Are we able to live ani tefilati – to be our own prayer?

 

Tonight, we are asked to move beyond the cosmic joke of our lives, and outwit God as we become more vulnerable, confident and composed in asking, who shall live and who shall die?  We should not attempt to blindly pursue an unattainable, absurd truth – rather, let us seek understanding and discernment in these times – and not be played for a fool or a frayer– which, for those who are not familiar, is Hebrew for a sucker or a hapless schmuck.

 

Elie Wiesel tells a story that happened to him as a child in the barracks at Auschwitz.  After intense suffering, the inmates convened a din Toyre– a trial that accused God of breaking the Divine sacred covenant with the Jewish people – God was put on trial for what we would now call, crimes against humanity – and after arguments for and against this resolution, one night, after back-breaking and soul crushing work, the verdict was reached.  The Av Beit Dinread the proclamation – this Beit Dinfinds God guilty of crimes against the Jewish people.  And now it is time for the evening prayer.

 

In his writing, Wiesel sets this accounting in the Middle Ages – in a Ukrainian village in 1649.  The Book of Job sets this same trial many, many years before that. What are we to do when we have to navigate the bluster and difficulty of today’s world – when we are left wondering what we do when the system doesn’t work?  When we worry about God’s injustice – or don’t even consider that God is responsible for anything whatsoever, including justice?  In our times, consider that this is exactly why the Book of Job is in our Bible – and what that says about gaining a fresh perspective on difficult things.

 

Can we accept that God and Satan made a bet – that we are pawns in their wager?  Can this make things better for us as we withstand the sadnesses, adversities, and humiliations of our life?  The Book of Job is just 42 of the 929 chapters of the Bible, and yet it is the still small voice that penetrates past the strutting and fretting of the rest of the Bible – the flailing about and hoping that ritual, good deeds, or tikkun olamwill save us from tyranny or adversity – afraid, that all signifies nothing.

 

So many times in the next 25 hours, we will be calling on God’s merciful name to remind the Almighty to cancel the bet with Satan, to give us more information, or to leave us alone – as Tevye said – God, we know we are your chosen people – but once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?  We can walk on the narrow bridge, knowing that each step is precious. I personally believe that God regrets having made that bet, and chooses to be with us each day to give us encouragement in our confusion – especially in our unrequited love.  As our tradition teaches, know God in all of your ways — which means that we are to be a part of both theological worlds – the ritual and the tikkun olam.  We are to do both and not give up hope – I think that Job is a prototype of a Conservative Jew – not having us abandon our traditions as we look to improve the world we live in.  We continue Job’s astonishing experiment.

 

We are to recover, that beyond, or even despite God — everything that we do shall be for the sake of God, for everything that God has created was created for God’s glory.  We shall be selfless with a God who does not always reciprocate in kind. As we enter into Yom Kippur, let us be undaunted – let us be courageous, and let us be willing to love without return.  We know that the system is broken and that it also has limits.  We know that the fight was fixed.  Despite all of this, we plead for our life, and we plead for sense and integrity in a world gone mad.  This is adulting in a most profound way.  As the author, Samuel Beckett, writes — I can’t go on, I’ll go on.  Regarding God, we can say it and survive:

 

Guilty.  It is now time for the evening prayer.

 

Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah

G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

07/10/2019 at 16:17 Leave a comment

Rosh haShanah (5780) — Sweetness

“1981: 6-10; 1985: 15-1” (Sweetness)

 

Rosh haShanah – Day 1

Neil F. Blumofe

30 September 2019

 

When I was a kid, growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the dad of the family next door was the running back coach of the NFL team, the Chicago Bears. We lived on a cul-de-sac and we would see each other very often, he usually with a beer in his hand, would offer my father advice about general topics – mostly concerning landscaping and home maintenance – and he would sometimes invite us into his basement to watch films of the team, and a couple of times a year, he would give our family tickets on the 50-yard line to watch the Bears play at Solders Field.

 

The Bears were terrible. We would sit in the stands, wrapped in Hefty garbage bags for warmth and watch the team lose as the quarterback Bob Avellini would throw incomplete passes or get intercepted – and the defense, even with the future Hall of Famer linebacker Mike Singletary, had not yet come into their own.  The silver lining in these dreadful seasons was watching the running back, Walter Payton, in action.  Walter Payton is considered to be the greatest running back of all time.  He was graceful and quick – and it seemed that every time he had the football, something exciting would happen – that transcendent magic was an inherent part of his play.  His nickname was Sweetness – and he was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection – and was a long-time record holder for career rushing yards in the NFL.  A later head coach of the Bears, Mike Ditka, called Walter Payton the greatest football player that he had ever seen – and an even greater human being.

 

Back in 1981, one afternoon, I was in my backyard and saw my next-door neighbor’s patio – there were no fences separating yards in those days.  He was hosting a barbecue with the three main running backs on the Bears roster, at that time – Roland Harper, Matt Suhey, and Walter Payton.  Walter Payton, the greatest running back of all time, was next door, just a few hundred feet away.  I ran inside and told my parents – and thinking quickly, my mom carefully wrapped some of her homemade mandelbrot in wax paper, and told me to bring it over, so I could say hello.

 

At age ten, I wasn’t really thinking of the interesting and particular suburban pairing of BBQ pork ribs and mandelbrot.  I walked over and long story short – stayed for a bit.  The players were incredibly friendly and the coach, Hank Kuhlmann, was gracious – tolerating both me and my brother, and then eventually my mom and dad who came by to gawk – or as they would have said – to kvell — at this incredible stroke of fortune.  After saying goodbye, we returned back to our yard, floating a bit in the air – and still hungry – for we had missed dinner – having politely refused the BBQ.

 

Over the years, I have wondered – what was Walter Payton doing on that team?  Sure, the Bears won the Super Bowl in 1985 – however, in his twelve-year career, beginning in 1975, he was only with the Bears — and with the exception of that incredible year – especially in the first decade of his career, the team had several losing seasons.  Throughout his career, he only missed one game.

 

In the Jewish tradition, a comparison between Walter Payton and Aaron, the brother of Moses, is instructive.  Aaron was a superstar among a stiff-necked, undistinguished people whose playbook was to complain – up and down the field.  If the Torah gave out nicknames, Aaron’s would certainly have been Sweetness, as well. He was known as one who cherished his teammates – he could understand and effectively appeal to the children of Israel – one who was a lover and pursuer of peace.  Legends are told about his caring for community – that Aaron loved to bring peace between people, fulfilling the statement found in our prophets – the law of Truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found on his lips – he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and he turned away from iniquity.

 

Our tradition teaches that any time Aaron met a surly or negative person, he would always greet them warmly, thus helping to improve that person’s attitude and sense of self-worth. Also, when two people were arguing, Aaron would go and sit with one of them and say – look, the other person with whom you argued is mortified right now – they are embarrassed because they have offended you.  And then Aaron, would make a beeline, past any defenders, to sit with the other person and say that the first person also was sorry and wanted to get past the argument and repair the relationship – he would do this back and forth, investing the time, until the rancor in each of their hearts was removed.   When the two previously warring parties finally met – they were temperate and would embrace and kiss each other – each made whole by Aaron’s tireless efforts.

 

In addition, after negotiating with Pharaoh in Egypt for the release of the slaves, Aaron essentially took himself out of the narrative after the deaths of two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu – who in the presence of the people, when God’s Glory descended to earth, offered what the Torah describes as strange fire, and they perished immediately.  Aaron was silent thereafter, and doesn’t have a central role going forward – in that he is not described speaking to God – and God does not speak to him.  God and Aaron are estranged, and Aaron finds meaning in serving his community.

 

This non-relationship between Aaron and God can be illustrative of our modern crisis of finding meaning in this world – especially after the horrors of the Holocaust and the creeping rise of today’s antisemitism.  Like the Book of Esther, where God is not mentioned at all, tracing the arc of this seeming abandonment of faith by Aaron, if not certain crisis of significance and purpose, can be helpful for us as we look to navigate our way in this world.  Our lack of enthusiasm, our fear, our events devoid of verve, add up to create a melancholy and a world-weariness in all that we do as we search for purpose and meaning.

 

And because of this, Aaron turns his energy and his talents towards the people.  When the people were faced with the great challenge of survival – when it seemed that the Divinely inspired plague was going to wipe out the people, Aaron, in his wounded-ness, leaps forward and stands bein hameitim u’vein hahayim – he stands between the dead and the living, and offers incense – this incense that once offered, killed his sons – and because he did so, this deadly plague is checked.  The people are not without casualty – over 14,000 people die before Aaron steps into the breach.  And yet, what is it about Aaron deciding to fight the plague that is so powerful, and that stops its onslaught?

 

And after this – God begins to speak to Aaron again – charging him with care of the Tabernacle and holy places.  Our tradition elevates Aaron after the debacle of Korah, another Levite. According to the 15thcentury sage Abarbanel, Aaron was to stand not only in the breach among the people – he was to stand in the liminal space between sacred and secular – helping the people and protecting them from the dangers of getting too close to the Divine. Aaron was able to overcome his own post-traumatic stress and rework his life in order that his actions in community were again meaningful, every day.  He was devoted to doing his work – for the community and after a while, for God as well. This is a very powerful lesson for us – by his singular action, he shows us a path away from easy complaining.  He shows us that progress is possible after loss and disappointment – and he shows us that a love, or at least a respect for the people – even the people on a not-so-great team – that loyalty and steady effort weighs more than our grievances against God.  This is sweetness, personified.

 

Aaron is a helpful guide for us, as we seek to make sense of our world.  We too are to hold something positive amid difficulty.  We too are to love each other, despite our all-too-human foibles.  We are to take a risk on this world — to “step out of line,” to face the challenges of this world with a steady and present spirit.

 

What is supposed to happen in these awesome days?  What are we supposed to do?  We turn the pages of our machzor, reacquainting ourselves with the themes of this Holy Day, to what effect?  What does our tradition demand of us – what does our world demand of us?  Each of us maybe tries to be like Walter Payton or Aaron the High Priest, standing between the Books of Life and Death, trying to find an opening to run the ball to the goal line, working with a mediocre offense and against superior odds.  We are to play for the love of the game – caring primarily about our community – with God to join us, as a happy fan, supportive of our efforts.

 

We are to be spiritual activists – raising up our teammates – not trash talking or trolling them.  We are not here to get in the last word – rather let us use our silence gracefully, and let our noble and virtuous actions speak louder than any words can.  We are to do the work to elevate everyone – from nervous rookies to grizzled veterans.  We are to love our friends, and we are to love our enemies in this time when every person on every team seems to play for a zero-sum game – quick to take personal umbrage and to spread claptrap or dreary gloom.

 

The author and social scientist, Arthur Brooks, challenges us to take steps to subvert the current culture of contempt in our world.  Like Aaron, we are to be present for different points of view, to excel in a competition of ideas.  And like Aaron, we are to validate these opposing ideas standing in the breach against bitterness.  We are to assemble a supportive team of rivals to succeed, to learn, and ultimately – to grow.  As Walter Payton inspired his teammates – as Aaron strengthened the children of Israel we can build shared objectives together without insult, negativity – and against extremism, contempt, and disgust.

 

As Brooks asks of us – let us stop eye rolling when we hear something that bothers us – or when we are with someone we don’t like.  As one who does much pastoral counseling, I have learned long ago, that we don’t know what is really going on inside of a person – we can never know what they really think or what powers someone else.  Someone’s motives are never to be assumed.

 

In this New Year, let us engage in our relationships and communities – building a team in good faith. Let us resist coerciveness, and instead be kind, aspirational, and civil.  For ourselves, let us earn the nickname, Sweetness.  By our own example, let us inspire each person to take responsibility – and let us affirm each person to articulate a unifying and aspirational vision for our team.  Who are we going to pay attention to – Korah, Aaron’s cousin, who wanted to overthrow Moses and Aaron, and was looking for his own advantage in a tough situation, or Aaron, who like Walter Payton, knew his skills and was consistently positive, confident that better days were ahead?

 

Let us refuse to be used as we practice warm-heartedness and we can also take a page from the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who before going to bed, prays that his enemies have a good and happy life.  Here’s how we can emulate Aaron – for every criticism that we speak or write – bring five encouraging comments as well.  Practice empathy – and stand up for those not in the room.  Let us think of who we have treated with disgust, or contempt, or at whom we have rolled our eyes – and let us apologize, or if that is too uncomfortable at this point, let us at least stop that toxic behavior.

 

Walter Payton is considered the greatest running back of all time – not only because of his skills, but because of his character, and how he inspired others to be their best.  Aaron is known as a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace – an ohev shalom v’rodeif shalom– and rather than complain – let us mobilize ourselves to be like them and run and stand into the breach, when the situation calls, using what once brought us so very low now as our super-power.  We are to be felled neither by our disappointments nor by our fears.  In this sense, Payton and Aaron are both post-modern heroes – in Payton’s losing and in Aaron’s brokenness, saving the people from the God inspired plague – and then entering into the role as the gatekeeper, mediating between God and all of us.

 

I think that this is actually what Judaism demands from each of us – if we are up to accepting this challenge.  While overcoming our own predicaments to stand in the breach is a radical and massive responsibility, it beats dying in the wilderness as a stiff-necked people, with another losing season.  As we open the gates of possibility, as lovers of peace, and with sweetness on our hands and hearts, we can endure another losing season and with the right motivation and example – as we build up our teammates, we can transform our offense and defense, and in unmatched fashion, we can go all the way this year, to win the Super Bowl, as the best team the league – and this world — has ever seen.

 

Shanah Tovah u’Metukah/Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah.

07/10/2019 at 15:50 Leave a comment

Erev Rosh haShanah – 5780 (Halley’s Comet)

“1986: Halley’s Comet”

 

Erev Rosh haShanah

Neil F. Blumofe

29 September 2019

 

Shanah Tovah!  May each of us and our friends and loved ones have a sweet year – blessed with good health, joy, possibility, and with the inclination to bring our whole selves into every situation.  As we celebrate 5780, we wonder at how fast the years are going – and yet, everything old is new again.  The 80’s are back!  Time to get out our koosh balls and hacky sacks, and play Pac-Man – dress code for the coming High Holy Days is parachute pants and leg warmers, and accessorize each day (not Shabbat!) with your Walkman, Cabbage Patch and Teddy Ruxpin dolls. It’s customary to get haircuts before the New Year – mullets for everyone!  As our tradition teaches – it is good to remember and to invite our memories into our present – where we can live with them — and not be mortified by them.

 

This evening and again tomorrow, I will be sharing ideas through the lens of the 1980’s.  Now, I want to speak about overcoming disappointment. As a fifteen-year-old, I remember sitting in my backyard in 1986, trying to catch a glimpse of Halley’s Comet when it raced through the sky.  I don’t think I was so well prepared at that time – my friends and I may or may not have had some binoculars among us – and I think we had our rusting, metal lawn chairs set up in spots, upon reflection, that were not so strategic.  Our perspective was terrible and with the excitement of knowing that we were looking to experience a phenomenon that appeared only every 75 years or so – it was also cold, and uncomfortable and there was a sense of dreaded obligation and requirement, that if I didn’t try to do this – to see the streak of a comet briefly pass by – what guilt would I accrue and how would I judge myself later, plagued by self-criticism – what we now call FOMO – fear of missing out?  Suffice it to say – I don’t remember seeing the comet – and I even think I convinced myself that I saw it, when deep down, I know that I didn’t.  I blew it.  We weren’t prepared and it was a missed opportunity.

 

And I have wondered since – knowing that in all likelihood, I will not see Halley’s Comet pass by again — if this is our last day on earth – what would we do?  How are we known – when facing a tough or tense situation, what is our instinct – how do we act – and, what is our reputation, out in the world, when we are most disappointed and feeling dissatisfied?

 

In thinking about all of this, I am struck anew by the Biblical story of Jacob who, in the house of his uncle Laban, is attracted to Rachel, but ultimately ends up marrying Leah. The traditional version of the story has Laban substituting his older daughter for his younger one, in an act of trickery.  Upon being confronted in this deception, Laban matter-of-factly tells Jacob about the customs of the place – that the younger sister is not married before the older sister is.  It is very interesting how our tradition puts it – as Jacob sought to upturn the order of things by seizing his older brother’s birthright, he finds himself tripped up by the maneuverings of Laban – who sought to protect his eldest daughter – thus, requiring an older sister to have the rights of marriage before a younger. As Jacob is also wedded to Rachel and agrees to work seven more years – the Torah tells us that Jacob loved Rachel and that Leah was unloved, taken for granted, used for bearing children, and then, cast aside.

 

Jacob, the man who gains the name Israel, is a complex figure.  His life is to reflect our life that is filled with contradictions and inconsistencies.  After fleeing his home as his mother Rebecca feared for his life, absconding with the first-born blessing that was stolen from his brother Esau, and bestowed upon him by his father Isaac, Jacob rests for the night and as a spiritual fugitive, has a dream about a ladder and angels.  His dream prompts him to remark – achein yeish haShem bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati – surely God is present in this place, and I did not know.  And now, awakening from his marital bed, he realizes that he is not dreaming – this is a moment of utter disappointment.  A moment lived, after which, everything changes.  His life has taken an unexpected turn, and that he is now united to both of Laban’s daughters – Leah and Rachel – and he doesn’t speak in wonder – he speaks with bitter resentment – the deceiver has been deceived.

 

And yet, this is not all — our tradition goes deeper than this – there is a modern Hasidic perspective that seem to be from the pages of psychology that claims that actually, Leah and Rachel are paradigms – particular forms – that Rachel and Leah are actually one — internal aspects of Jacob, himself.  Before Jacob wrestles with the angel and becomes Israel, Jacob has to come to terms with how to handle disappointment and restlessness. This approach is to deny neither the obvious meaning of the story – that the father switched his daughters for his own advantage — nor the agency of the women – rather this quasi-mystical viewpoint is taught to teach a powerful lesson — illuminating a deeper character of Jacob and instructing us in the importance of balancing our perspectives.

 

How often does it happen that the moment we get what we think we want, we don’t want it anymore? Jacob desired Rachel and when he woke up from a night of intense lovemaking his desires turned to stone – and in the morning after, Rachel became the antithesis of desire – she immediately became Leah in Jacob’s eyes – taken for granted, ignored, and disassociated.  It’s as if the humorist Helen Rowland was thinking of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah when she quipped – after marriage, a woman’s sight becomes so keen that she can see right through her husband without looking at him, and a man’s so dull that he can look right through his wife without seeing her. 

 

Our Torah was teaching us that Jacob had shade on his heart – his inside was chilly, and he was still not adept at recognizing the blessings that he possessed.  At this point in his life, he was chained to the hamster wheel – for acquisition, appetite, and ambition – he did not yet possess yishuv daat – a settled mind. Rachel and Leah are aspects that represent this unsettledness within him – and really, within each of us, as well – the desire and the yearning on one hand, the hazards of actually getting what we want, and struggling with acknowledging the blessings of living in the imperfect circumstances, on the other.  Among other things, Jacob was afflicted with constant searching without satisfaction.

 

What would it be like to decouple from this pursuit of attainment, from this unsettled wandering – to give permission to let the different desires that we have within us become one – to not let the hopes that we have regarding Rachel turn to ash in our hearts – for perpetual disappointment in living with Leah?  We have these binaries on Yom Kippur – as we offer sacrifice to both God and to the mysterious Azazel – which represent both our good and bad inclinations.  Now, on Rosh haShanah, as we begin the New Year, we inaugurate the world again with fresh possibility, we pay attention to our shape-shifting, unformed selves – and how prone we are for disappointment – as we grapple with both desire and the self-imposed misfortune of fulfilling our desires.  We are not yet ready for good or bad – that’s coming on Yom Kippur – now, we are still trying to figure out what has happened to us – and how we got to this place, and why many of us have a chronic sense of unnerving dread within us.

 

How do we respond to unruly or difficult situations?  How many different aspects of our being are we acknowledging as we sail on the seemingly glassy seas, with all of our multiplicity churning, just underneath – with all of the selves that we are?  When the going gets tough — when are we selfless, and when are we self-interested, in response? As we name our experiences – let us bring our whole self into a shimmering presence as Rosh haShanah begins. Our outward practices should reflect our inward journey, and vice versa.  This year, let us not regret our reality as we accommodate and make peace with our adequacies and our inadequacies.  Let us be in alignment.  Let God be what we need God to be, because we know that we can’t always get what we want – but we hope that we at least get what we need.  Let us fill this new year with holy surprise and wonder as we continue to manage our expectations and appreciate what we have, even if the desire to have it as we live with it, has dimmed in our eyes. Let us overcome any defeatist attitude, and let us not be too quick to abandon the field.

 

Every day, a version of Halley’s comet streaks across our life – maybe to reappear in 70 years or so – or maybe to never reappear again.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  When these opportunities occur – peak moments and sadly too, when tragedy strikes, let it not neutralize us – let us learn from our missed opportunities, and our disappointments and learn from our setbacks.  Let us live with ever-expanding imagination and a sense of composed reality, knowing that our time on earth is fleeting, and as we look around this sanctuary this evening, without sounding melodramatic, we don’t know who of us will be present again next year, in 5781.

 

Also, my wish for each of us is to ask us to be quick to offer gratitude, inspired perhaps by a prayer from the Breslov Hasidic tradition – a prayer that is said in times of revealed and hidden goodness:

 

Melech Malchei haMelachim, Master of the Universe, Hashem – Thank You! Thank You that I am standing hereand thanking You! Thank You for the infinite times that You have helped me, supported me, rescued me, encouraged me, healed me, guarded over me and made me happy. Thank You for always being with me.  Thank You for giving me the strength to observe Your commandments, to do good deeds and pray – thank You for everything! Thank You for all the times You helped me when I didn’t know how to say “Thank You”.

 

Thank You for all the loving kindnesses You do for me each and every moment. Thank You for every breath I breathe.  Thank You Hashem for all the things that I do have, and thank You Hashem even for all the things I don’t have.   Thank You for my periodic difficulties, my occasional setbacks, and for the times when I don’t feel happy, because everything is for my ultimate benefit. Even if I don’t see that it’s always for my best, deep in my heart, I know that everything that comes from You is the very best for me and designed especially for me in precision and exacting Divine Providence, of which only You – the Sovereign of Sovereigns — is capable.

Thank You for my difficulties, for only through them I know how to appreciate the good.  Only after being in darkness can one appreciate the light. Thank You for the wonderful life You have given me. Thank You for every little thing I have, for everything comes from You and from no one else. Thank You for always listening to my prayers. Creator of The World,
I apologize from the bottom of my heart for all the times that I didn’t appreciate what You gave me and instead of thanking You I only complained. I am dust and ashes and You are the entire universe. Please never cast me away.

 

Amen.

 

There is a story told about how we can make our disappointments our joys.  Adam and Eve, cast out of the Garden of Eden, were living together, east of Eden, tilling the earth and raising children, and struggling to stay afloat.  After years of struggle, when their children were grown, and they were empty nesters, they decided to see the world.  They journeyed to each of the four corners of the world, and in the course of their wandering journeys – they found the entrance to the Garden of Eden, that was still guarded by an angel with a flaming sword.

 

They were frightened and remembered their exile – and they began to flee, when the voice of God spoke to them.  Adam and Eve!  You have lived in exile for so many years – the punishment is over – you may now return, back to the Garden.  The angel with the fiery sword disappeared and the Gates to the Garden opened. Enter, Adam – enter, Eve.

 

Adam spoke up – God, it’s been so many years – I can’t remember – what is it like in the Garden?    God answered – the Garden is Paradise – in the Garden there is no work, not struggle, no pain, no suffering, no disappointment – in the Garden, there is no death.  Day after day, life goes on forever – Adam and Eve – enter through these open Gates and return to the Garden.

 

Adam listened to the words of God – and thought of this invitation – no work, no struggle, no disappointment, no death – just ease – and endless life of ease.  He turned and looked at Eve – he saw again this woman with whom he had struggled to make a life – to take bread from the earth, to raise children, to build a home. He thought of the tragedies that had overcome together and the joys that they had cherished together.  And Adam shook his head and said – no thank you, God – this is not our life anymore.  Eve, let us return home.  And Adam and Eve turned their backs on Paradise and walked home.    

 

These precious moments are charged with our capacity to change.  We don’t have to stay incarcerated in our own disappointments.  Our generations are linked to Jacob who becomes Israel because he was willing to learn, modify, and adapt.  May our choices not define us – and may we learn to live well with the hard truths that lay before us.  May this year open to us with joy and with fresh possibility as we bring our whole selves forward – seeing Rachel and Leah together – our desires and our decision — and living with both of them in the same moments of discernment, insight, and gratitude.  The Gates are open – and like Adam and Eve, in their real-world considerations, let us decide where we are to go from here.

 

Shanah Tovah u’Metukah

Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah

07/10/2019 at 15:44 Leave a comment

Vayikra — World History (5779)

“World History”

 

Parashat Vayikra

Neil F. Blumofe

16 March 2019

 

It is said that a great teacher is one who learns most from their students.  As we move into the Book of Leviticus, we see that the project of the Jewish people is secure – that the Tabernacle is built and that the Glory of God has rested there and among the people.  Now, the Tabernacle must be employed – used to distinguish and process individual actions within that larger community, as relationships between and among people are mediated and improved before God.  Each moment matters.  As holiness is expressed as a value in the Torah, we see that trust and love are expanded not exclusively in the big moments when God’s Glory happens to hover – but rather in the everyday relationships that ebb and flow, accruing in ordinary time.  This is the sacred messiness of life.

 

At the Seminary of the Southwest, I am co-teaching a course this semester.  It is called Undoing Anti-Judaism in the Church – the class is comprised of about 14 students, most of whom are pursuing work that will lead to the priesthood, and leadership in the church.  They students come from divergent backgrounds – growing up in the American South, in urban centers, in different countries.  There are some students from other programs and other schools – including some non-Episcopalians, and a Muslim student. This is the first time that this course is co-taught, inviting Jews into the conversation — and sharing weekly conversations about internal, ingrained bias contained in the founding texts of Christianity – the Gospels, the Church Fathers, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther – continuing unabated into the Modern Period – and how anti-Judaism is expanded to antisemitism in the poetry of TS Eliot and the German theologians before World War II, is quite revealing.  We will continue our exploration as we study attempts to reconcile and repair and how current theology in the Episcopal church can be applied to confront chronic, troublesome liturgical issues of worship, Holy Week, and regular preaching.   In the light of our learning, we will end the semester as we talk about the importance of Israel in the world – and the narrative, practical, and political challenges that this Jewish state brings to others.

 

Each week, the students have been exposed to the enduring negative images of Jews – and how these images have been employed in all that we are encountering.  Our conversations as we confront this material are sobering, supportive, and revelatory – as the students realize how hard-wired suspicion, contempt, and repugnance of the Jews are in the material that they revere.  I admire and appreciate each student as they wrestle with this material and look to break down narratives, and build up new ones with the understanding that the truths that they hold as foundational texts for spiritual direction and inspiration are smudged.

 

I walk a fine line in that class – steadily navigating away from the rocky shoals of Jews as constant victims.  To portray oneself as a perpetual victim is a trap.  As we are learning together, my goal is not to make the students feel terrible, week after week – that would lead to resentment.  Rather, I favor the idea that the mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher, explains, the superior teacher demonstrates, and the great teacher inspires.  To inspire requires some give and take – to meet each student where they are, appreciating their value system, gently interrogating their position, volunteering new information and perspective, and building a relationship built on trust and mutual discovery.  If the goal was just to score points, my position would be weak.

 

And yet, after weeks of seeing the tropes of anti-Judaism baked into every text we have read – how Jews hypnotize, mesmerize, financially influence, are clannish, and are untrustworthy in their commitments to common causes – what can be called dual loyalty – we had an important discussion regarding the recent remarks of Representative Ilhan Omar, who is serving the 5thcongressional district from Minnesota, who in successive communications in recent weeks seemed to hit on this unholy trifecta – that Jews or Israel hypnotize others, have lots of money to bring to the table to buy influence, and can’t really be trusted because of dual loyalty to Israel.

 

Perhaps, most disturbingly, a couple of the students hadn’t heard of this controversy.  The rest of the class discussed, with some equivocating and explaining that her writing was taken out of context – and that the resolution passed by the House of Representatives condemning, “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and other forms of bigotry – including against African Americans, Latinos, Native American, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders and other people of color, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and others,” was sufficient to quell the crisis.  Not surprisingly, this situation gave rise to a political backlash, where Republicans have proposed another resolution that specifically calls out the representative for her language and anti-Israel bias, and condemns the Democrats for how they handled all of this.  Our conversation ended awkwardly – as the students realized that what we have been learning does have real world implications – and how in many ways, we have not moved so far from the insidiousness of anti-Judaism – and how the Jews and Israel are still a political football when discussing identity politics.  I maintained simply that Jews have the inherent right to call out anti-Judaism and antisemitism, ourselves – according to our own definitions.

 

As we see how complicated the world is – how we use a broad brush to try to make sense of things, it takes concerted effort to steer between the monsters of Scylla and Charybdis, as we see and have to deal with the over-textured agendas of presenting truths that entice us and seduce us as we make our journey – we are to be reminded that all truths, being truths, are smudged.

 

It is with this perspective that I see the Book of Leviticus with fresh eyes.  I think that it is telling us to resist becoming part of someone else’s agenda – and to remember for ourselves, what is most important for our lives.  Ultimately too, we are most responsible for our actions – and how apology and making amends is hard-wired into our understanding of how life goes.  Giving a sacrifice or making an offering before God is only the first step of the teshuvah process.  To keep Amalek at bay – to not slip into group-think or to become a partisan reactionary hack, we are encouraged to think for ourselves, using our tradition to hold fast to holiness.

 

From our Torah portion, we are encouraged to immediately stop our destructive action and then express regret for what we have done – both before God and before those whom we have wronged.  And then, we are to change our actions – finding a way to learn from and to neither repeat our inclinations nor our patterns of behavior.  We are to privilege this concept of teshuvah gamurah– complete returning – it is this that we seek – for ourselves, and for our elected leaders.  Each of us has the responsibility to call out again and again, where this is not done – as we strive for more peace in our world and safety for everyone to worship.  All of this should be a baseline – and with hard work, we can then enter into an incredibly valuable laboratory, where we meet others and their truths, as we patiently and with sensitive resolve work together to preserve meaning and with inspiration to literally, have the ability to change history.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

16/05/2019 at 06:34 Leave a comment

Vayechi — Boy, Interrupted (5779)

“Boy, Interrupted”

 

Parashat Vayechi

Neil F. Blumofe

22 December 2018

 

As we prepare now to close out the Book of Genesis, after the death of Jacob the patriarch, with the reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers, and then finally with the death of Joseph – we will pivot to a new generation in the land of Goshen, and new Pharaonic leadership that passes its own reactionary decrees, and that will ultimately land the people of Israel into slavery.  Indeed, the Book of Exodus – and much of the Jewish story — is to find and practice freedom within the confines of restriction.  We are to find the way forward in a bounded, even hostile path – making the most of our opportunities as we improvise our lives, each day – living not for the sake of the rewards of this world, but rather for the uplift of God’s name and the ability to bring holiness into this world, which is often a cheerless place.

 

While we remember Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah in our prayers – it is Joseph who is the important figure as we make our way from one book to another.  Joseph and his brothers, who live out their lives comfortably in Egypt – riding on the successes of Joseph who ascended out of prison to become Tsafnat Paneach, the vizier – the second-most powerful in Egypt, seemingly unthinking about what another Pharaoh, and how another administration would affect their positive situation – as they live and thrive in a strange land.

 

The scene, where the entire Jewish entourage returns to the Promised Land, to the Cave of Machpaleh in Hebron, to bury Jacob is alarming in its simplicity.  In a way, you want to stop the movie and say – “stay in this land that God promised your ancestors, going back to Egypt is a trap!  Your children and your children’s children will not be free!”  Nevertheless, the Torah tells us plainly – vayashov Yosef Mitzrayimah, hu v’echav, v’chol haolim eto – that Joseph and his brothers and who went out to bury Jacob, returned to Egypt. 

 

And yet, Joseph did not return directly to Egypt.  He took a side trip before returning to his home.  The Midrash relates it like this – Joseph’s brothers saw that their father died – and what did they see now that they were so frightened?  When they returned from the burial of their father, they saw that Joseph had gone to the pit, into which they had originally thrown him – and that Joseph pronounced the blessing that one is required to utter after they experience a miracle – Baruch haShem – thank God for performing a miracle for me in this place. 

 

Joseph does not strike me as a sentimental type.  Why would he return to the place where his life was interrupted?  What power does this place hold over him?  Have any of you returned to a foreboding place – a place where God forbid, you had an accident, or where you encountered some difficulty or trouble?  What do you do there – perhaps feel vindicated that you have survived, or maybe offer a prayer of gratitude, that our Midrash envisages Joseph doing?  Or maybe we feel that the place is not as powerful in real life as it looms in our imagination – that we can then process our nostalgia – a word which is derived from two Greek words that mean homecoming and pain.

 

Our tradition teaches that Joseph went out of his way to stand at the mouth of the pit again.  The pit, this anti-altar, was located in Dotan, which is near Shechem, which is north, and not on any road between Egypt and Hebron.  What would Joseph be thinking about – about his lost youth?  Abducted by his brothers when he was seventeen, he didn’t emerge from slavery until years later – and then in a strange new land.  And now he was a ruler of this land – and his brothers were accounted for and even alive because of his largesse.  His emotions must have been swirling together – mixing and tumbling between gratitude and loss – between anger and appreciation – and the trauma and even absurdity of his life would return to him, full force – as he stands at the site of his slavery, 39 years later.

 

Reb Nachman of Breslov calls this place a chalal hapanui – a place that was existentially empty – an anti-altar; a place that was empty even of God.  We know that the Torah describes the pit — raik, ein bo mayim — as empty, with no water.  Our mystics speak about a moment like this as staring either into a void or a mirror.  How do we perceive the pit?  A void is a black hole, confirming our negativity, and enflaming our anger – while a mirror reflects other ways to move forward, out of pain.

 

Perhaps Joseph could see the future – that the pit became like a crystal ball, or a place where he could prophesy – and if he is to suffer slavery, he would in turn, punish the generations of his brothers with the ultimate revenge – that all of them would have to endure the slavery that he endured.  This is not only revenge served cold – this is revenge served frozen.  He encourages all of them to return to Egypt to live in the choicest land under his influence and protection – not thinking all the while about to whom tomorrow might belong.

 

That’s pretty dark – to imagine Joseph sabotaging the future of the Jewish people, or at least allowing them back into the trap set for them, without speaking out.  Another, more positive answer may come from an early 20th century rabbi, Yehudah Leib Ginsburg who postulates – only Joseph and Benjamin cried [when encountering the brothers again] – and not the [other] brothers.  This is because when the heart is filled with sadness and pain, one is beyond tears.  The brothers were mired in tremendous suffering and pains of guilt over what they had done to Joseph.  Only Joseph and Benjamin, who were free of such pain, were free to cry. 

 

So, we can say that Joseph returned to this pit, to dump all of his pain into it.  This is why it was empty in the first place – it was waiting for him to one day, return.  After Joseph walked away from it the second time, it was brimming with the briny water of his tears.  He then could rejoin his brothers, reconciled with all that has happened and wish neither them nor their offspring any ill-will.

 

Sometimes we need to travel to a place of our hurts to release them.  Knowing the future of Jacob’s family does not preclude Joseph from figuring out how to go forward now – in a more whole and healthy way.  Most likely he was proud of what he had accomplished with God’s help – and rather than navigate his feelings of jealousy that lay buried in the pits, inside of him – he wisely decided to unburden himself in the very place of pain, to literally leave it on the field, as it were, so he could return to his life.  Perhaps the future slavery was unpreventable, at least in the time of Joseph and his family – that this slavery described in the Book of Exodus, was a future test for those who inhabit a more comfortable life, albeit still in a strange land.

 

And while we deal with our own anger and difficulty in an uncertain time that seems to be led at times by a raving Pharaoh, we do well to remember Joseph, responsibly using his own agency, who invites us to go to the empty pits in our life to fill them without casualty –  allowing us to free ourselves of pain so we can cry, and then continue.

 

Also, as we turn to the Book of Exodus, Joseph’s example encourages us to redouble our efforts to do the holy work of learning from our ancestors and stand up not only to the impresarios of slavery in authority, but rather so we can recognize the bigger picture – the root causes of our imprisonment, the confining chains of our unhappiness, and the bilious streams that pollute our covenantal concepts of bringing holiness and morality into this world.  Therefore, on whatever treacherous road we travel, and whatever shady character we may meet there, we can uplift God’s holy name, and proclaim and sustain freedom – as we loosen ourselves from our difficulties, in order to continue to seek the paths of healing.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

23/12/2018 at 11:42 Leave a comment

Vayigash – Take Your Parents to Work Day (5779)

“Take Your Parents to Work Day”

 

Parashat Vayigash

Neil F. Blumofe

15 December 2018

 

Tsafnat Paneach, the powerful vizier in Egypt, sheds his concealment before his brothers, and reveals to them his essential nature — that he is in fact Joseph, their long-lost brother.  This reunion is a joyful one and the brothers leave Egypt together to bring their father Jacob back with them.  Once in Egypt, Jacob meets Pharaoh, and he and his family settle in the Egyptian region called Goshen, where they thrive.

 

It would be easy to attribute this story to “all’s well that ends well” — that the travails of Jacob and his family are vindicated in the end by the royal treatment that everyone receives due to Joseph’s influential position once everyone is together.  However, emotional cuts run deep — and this quick pivot towards acceptance and material success does not undo the damage done by the years of difficulty.  When with Pharaoh, Jacob states – m’at v’raim hayu y’mei shnei chayai — few and difficult have been the days of the years of my life.

 

I have a friend who has had a successful material life – however, she is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, who lost the bulk of her family in Buchenwald and other death camps in Europe.  She has had a difficult life – almost in the Job-ian sense of things.  Her father-in-law died on the dance floor on her wedding night; after her divorce, her youngest child died from an overdose – and through it all, she has tried to find a through-line through the tragedy – a ray of sunshine in the absurdity.  At the right moment, when you ask her how she is, she replies – Baruch haShem, lousy.  And that about sums it up.

 

According to the Midrash, when Pharaoh first saw Jacob, he was struck by how old Jacob looked — which is why he inquired about his age.  The Midrash describes Jacob in various terms – one description of him is as a shrunken, wizened old man – almost Yoda-like in appearance.  Another describes him as stooped over, his skin heavy and sagging, and his hair thin and white – a person who looks like he has struggled the majority of his life.

 

What has Jacob learned after he has arrived in Egypt – settling in a choice place, and seeing with wonder what Joseph, his favorite son, has accomplished, and his multiplying progeny?  There is an aspect of our tradition that rewards Jacob’s silence.  Inspired by the Torah’s terse account of the reunion between father and son as it describes – Joseph went up to meet Israel his father, and presented himself to him – and he fell on his neck and wept on his neck for a long time.  And Israel said to Joseph – now let me die, since I have seen your face, because you are still alive.  After twenty-two years of not seeing his son, this is all that the Torah says.

 

Would you not have questions for your child?  Would you not want to know what happened in-between?  In fact, Jacob never mentions what his sons did to Joseph – it doesn’t come up and it is not referenced in the blessings that he gives his boys before he dies – which we will study in next week’s Torah portion.  Through his sufferings, Jacob has learned the value of silence – and that knowing everything about a situation can be destructive and asking too many questions can bring a life of pain.

 

However, this perspective does not take into account why Jacob felt his life was so difficult.  He was meeting Pharaoh for the first time – and Jacob diplomatically blessed him at the beginning of their meeting and when he took his leave.  In fact, the only interaction that the Torah records between Jacob and Pharaoh consists of this single question posed by Pharaoh.  It reminds me of waiting in a reception line to see a head of state – and when they finally get to you, after initial pleasantries, you are asked a simple question – and you respond with too real of a response – and with way too much information, much to the consternation of all present.  Diplomacy would demand that you nod politely and give a non-descript, swift and neutral answer that doesn’t disturb the tenor of the occasion.  Jacob goes all in with his single line – I’m 130 and my life has been very hard.  He tells Pharaoh and anyone else who would listen, exactly what he is thinking and how he is feeling.  It would be funny, if it wasn’t so sad.

 

Why does Jacob choose to open up to Pharaoh and not engage with his kids?  Perhaps there is a valuable lesson to be learned.  Rather than catching up and processing every bit of information – that there is a nobility, a valor and a healing property in not divulging everything that you are thinking.  For the sake of shalom bayit, Jacob was quiet.  The past was allowed to dissipate in this respect.

 

However, according to our sages, there is a difference between how long we live and how productive, full, and rewarding those days actually are.  At the end of 2018, we ask ourselves — with what are we still struggling?  What unresolved difficulties or bitterness still flow beneath our successes?  Even when amends have been made — or we have decided to move on — what remains unsettled?  Even though the past was not verbalized and processed among the family members, Jacob was obviously suffering and carried a negative attitude that he felt he could blurt out in front of Pharaoh – his son’s boss – the only one who could interdict what his son was to decide.  It was actually quite a risky move.

 

There’s a phenomenon that is relatively new in the American workplace in which companies participate – about 1% of companies – led by the tech industry.  It’s called, Take Your Parents to Work Day – this is a real thing – and it was originally geared to connect with those employees who may not yet be partnered and have children.  People bring their parents to work with them, to meet the team, to chat up the boss, to use the amenities and to post about it on social media.  It was as if Egypt was celebrating Bring Your Parents to Work Day, and Jacob marched right up to Pharaoh’s corner office, wearing a nametag that said, ask me how old I am – and as parents do, he proceeded to tell him about it, exactly, while Joseph looked on with a lot of unease.

 

We see with chagrin that this acrimony is perpetuated in Joseph and also in his brothers — in the new generation.  For William Faulkner wrote – the past is never dead – it is not even past.  Slavery and suffering for this family is just ahead.  Beyond the fractures and the fragments of our life — beyond our ability to keep silent and to grin and bear it — as we learn from our ancestors on the brink of their slavery, we too seek wholeness and healing and ways to break the cycle of sadness and hurt that we even unconsciously bestow upon the next generation.

 

Jacob did the best that he could – and most likely so did his sons, after the reunion.  They modelled good behavior.  However, the cracks in our psyche are present – and we must find a positive way of how to deal with the difficulties that we keep.

 

One criticism of my divrei Torah is that I ask too many questions, without providing great, scalable answers.  I could encourage everyone to study our tradition – with the hopes of seeing that the nuance and the ambiguity in this practice can help us put our own lives into perspective.  I think it helpful if we read more books and if we were on social media less.

 

However, if I had the answer that would help each of us for what we need, of course I would have shared it by now.  Here are things that I try to do.  For starters, show up here, regularly – I think synagogue life and in-person community is a value added to all that we carry.  Also, know when to keep silent, ask better questions, practice diplomacy, and cultivate a small band of friends, like-minded people or professional or spiritual counselors who you trust, with whom you can discreetly process and download your disappointments, as opposed to wearing them on so self-evidently on your sleeve.  Celebrate regular moments, immerse in the everyday without needing to record it for posterity, while acknowledging our vulnerability and our brokenness.  Practice kindness and empathy and have more patience and capacity for the Jacob’s in our life who are so plainly suffering.  Thank people more, appreciate each day more – and the effort to be present, and the money that we earn and spend.  And above all, have gratitude for the abundance that we have – for past all of the unimaginable difficulty my friend, regularly shows up and keeps up her search for meaning.  For in her own Torah study, she is to tell Jacob – so, nu, you’re 130.  So, nu, it can be lousy.  But nu, get out there and see what healing and blessing today may bring.  Baruch haShem!

 

Shabbat Shalom.

23/12/2018 at 11:23 Leave a comment

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