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

Chayei Sarah — White Like Me (5779)

“White Like Me”


Parashat Chayei Sarah

Neil F. Blumofe

3 November 2018


A priority of mine in serving our community is visiting various parochial schools and speaking at churches – and hosting any organization or group who would like to visit our synagogue and learn more about Judaism and what we do.  Over the years, we have had a steady stream of fruitful connections – and we have built powerful partnerships and moments of understanding with administration, faculty, and students across this city, and also across counties.  I believe that many well-intentioned people are genuinely interested in learning more about Judaism – and in many cases, don’t have a lot of experience regarding our community and our practices.


A couple of years ago, I was invited to work with a high school in order to ensure that football games would not fall on Rosh haShanah or Yom Kippur.  I have spoken with various groups and educational governing bodies about our Passover – and how our practice of two-day observances is different from other ways to practice Judaism – and why Solo and Ensemble contests and other performances should not be held on certain days in the spring – and what the music content and selection could be in a clunky-named Winter Concert.  Overall, this has been a very rewarding part of what I do – and it allows me to live proudly as a Jew out in the world, without needing to conceal who and what I am.  I believe in the power of the wisdom traditions of Judaism to educate and edify, and I am honored to fulfill the rabbinic instruction, puk chazego out and see what the other people are doing, and in turn, having the people see me and my community – and to know that we exist – hinenu.


And yet, sometime these efforts felt a bit like the old Saturday Night Live skit that Eddie Murphy did in 1984.  It was called, White Like Me, and in this skit, Murphy went undercover as a white person as a spoofing satire to see how things went when there were no black people around – it’s a funny skit and it reveals too the fissures that have existed in American society and continue to exist in American society regarding race – and by extension, by religion – what we would now call in the 21st century, the differences of privilege.


One time, when I was at a parochial school leading chapel for the entire high school, we had time for questions and answers – and one curious kid asked in front of all of his classmates – why does everyone hate you, the Jews, so much?  Another time, in a church on Sunday morning, people were hesitant to ask questions – and I encouraged them to ask whatever they wanted – one man, with puzzlement, asked – why did you kill Jesus?  We were hosting a class of youngsters in the sanctuary – maybe 2nd and 3rd grade – and when I asked them what might be behind the doors in the ark, one kid innocently yet confidently said – that must be where you keep all of your money.  During Sunday services where I was invited as a guest speaker, the pastor led his community in a reading from the Christian Bible – Matthew 23 – which is a pretty tone-deaf thing to do, with a rabbi in the room.  Here’s how the chapter of Matthew begins – the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Torah – so obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do – after all, they say one thing and do something else.  Everything they do is just to show off in front of others.  You Pharisees and teachers of Torah are in for trouble.  You’re nothing but show-offs – you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven…That what you are like – outside you look good, but inside you are evil and only pretend to be good.  I tell you, it was a little awkward.


Over the years, I have read scholarship that both demonstrates how normal and commonplace hatred, antijudaism, and antisemitism are.  We should not be shocked when acts of violence take place.  Hitler (yimakh shemo) was not crazy.  He and his offspring are following a script that is old and worn – to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase – these acts are banal.  By thinking about the work of Joshua Trachtenberg – who wrote The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Antisemitism, or David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, and coupling these books to Daniel Goldhagen’s inconvenient and disturbing study called Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, we see that the precedent for hatred to be hard-wired into a culture is not unique to America.


We know too that Jews have frequently been just one step removed from fitting in – majority culture adjacent.  Jews have been used and exploited for the interests of those in power, and then discarded when their usefulness was exhausted.  In historical studies, we see this over and over again – trauma and displacement has been baked into the Jewish psyche, centuries even before the Holocaust.  I recommend Yuri Slezkine’s book called The Jewish Century, where he bold declares – The Modern Age is the Jewish Age – and we are all, to varying degrees, Jews. 


America was different – it was supposed to be different.  After the long shadow of the Holocaust, we are to have modeled to the world that we have moved past these ancient hatreds – that we have found a way to overcome these reptilian instincts and pour ourselves into a democracy that meets everyone where they are without fear.  And yet we know that in reality, this aspiration has not been met – and what we are seeing in our age – shootings in schools, nightclubs, grocery stores, synagogues, yoga studios, concert venues are hateful spasms – resistance to Slezkine’s Modern Age.


Unlike what Francis Fukiyama predicted in 1989, history has not ended, not hardly – we are all not prepared to go gently into what is next.  Technology has given us tremendous gifts and also has laid bare some of humanity’s greatest faults.  We need to distinguish ourselves and we realize that no one is listening.  How do we capture people’s attention, when most of us are bored 30 seconds into a YouTube video?  TL;DR.  In the last couple of days, a friend shared a video, exclaiming that it was 10 minutes of inspiration and importance, that these moments were uplifting and brought people together from the narrow places, out of  the tragedy – and I thought, who has 10 minutes?  When we communicate in memes, how can nuance survive?  We want simple answers now – not speeches that continue to spool out beyond our capacity – we want to be entertained, and we want to be right.  We want to have our fears acknowledged, and we want our leaders to advocate for us, as we see our world wobbling — shifting and changing.   Where is there a place for us?


As Jews, we know that we are convenient, long-suffering targets, and in times of upheaval, we know that the past is not past.  As Americans, we have been here before.  We look with dread at the election in Brazil – where the candidate won after insulting minorities and women.  We see strongmen in the Philippines and in Hungary – and we see with dread, the rise in populism in Europe – and the backlash against immigration and migration.  We see a retreat into tribes – us and them.  America is still supposed to be different – we are to elect leaders who uphold the protection of the common good – and our capacity for protecting the rights of all is unstable – and with knowing a little history – especially African-American history, we see that perhaps things weren’t as secure as we thought.  We know that we haven’t moved as far as we thought — as Rev. Horton and I chillingly witnessed this summer in Montgomery at the newly opened Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration, as people, we are still grappling with who deserves life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and too – who is fully human.


When Karen Brodkin wrote about how Jews became white in American society, she was speaking about what belonging means.  Jews developed a double vision and we realize that hatred is stubborn and hard to remove – and we are to look with more compassion and solidarity to those in plain sight who are still fighting the battle for equality, before they even get to a conversation about justice.  In our open society, we possess the tool of voting – and of civic engagement – and it is crucial that we believe in it, and use it.


In this time, the solidarity and outpouring from others concerned for us is heartening.  And we have a long way to go.  We cannot scrub away difference and suspicion.  However, we can devote ourselves to living a life of significance out in the world – prepared to defend ourselves while not letting the memories of those we mourn be in vain.  We are not under siege, and we must remain vigilant.  We must continue to speak about the shifting winds of power – and what our country is to become.  We are to withstand scare-tactics and conspiracy theories – and we are to build strong bonds of respect with our neighbors, as we continue to develop pride about who we are.


This is not a time for retrenchment and for putting our heads in the sand.  The blood of those murdered calls from the ground and implores us to live – taking the good with the bad and resisting leaders who claim that they have our best interests at heart.  We are for those who have not had a voice – and we sing our revolutionary song of gathering, of minyan-making, of mitzvah-doing, of world-repairing, of door-opening, to live our pain, and every day, to consciously choose life.


As George Washington wrote to the supporters of the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790 –


If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

Let these words continue to ring.  An attack on a synagogue is an attack against the entire Jewish people.  And, we shall not be moved.  We have dear friends who show up for us in our time of need, and we will continue to show up for them.  We want you in our sacred spaces, and we want to support you, in yours.  We are so diverse – we are so unwieldy – and yet, we are strong, and resolutely so, we are still one.


[Eytz Chaim Hi]


Shabbat Shalom.

06/11/2018 at 18:46 Leave a comment

Yizkor (YK) — 5779: Eulogy w/Photographs



Yom Kippur – Yizkor

Neil F. Blumofe

19 September 2018


In the past couple of weeks, I have written three eulogies for dear community members, whom I have known for a long time, who have recently passed away.  It’s been a demanding time, and personally challenging.  I view writing a eulogy as a holy process – intensely listening to survivors at various stages of grief, acceptance, and loss – and then translating their words into a cohesive narrative that offers snapshots of a life, lived.  How is it possible to boil down the ins and outs of an individual life to a few pages – expressing only the shadowy outline of someone’s thoughts and feelings – actions and dreams?  A eulogy seems to be an inadequate resume that barely scratches the surface of a passionate life.


Eulogy in Hebrew is hesped, which comes from the root for wailing or lament.  According to the 16th century compendium of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch – the way one gives a hesped is to say things concerning the departed one that break the heart, so that there will be much crying – taking special effort to mention the person’s good deeds.  An earlier source for Jewish tradition, the Talmud, asks the important question – is the hesped for the living or the dead – and not surprisingly, concludes that the eulogy has dual aspects – benefitting both the one who has passed away, and giving comfort to the ones mourning their loss.


Speaking about eulogizing on Yom Kippur seems very appropriate, for a hesped is a means through which the living begin to achieve atonement by learning from the deeds of the dead – and thus, it is reasoned, that we as survivors are motivated to undertake the process of teshuvah.  The understanding here is that speaking about our cherished ones helps to bring the dead to life, and in recounting their praises and good deeds, now with a contrite heart, people will learn from them, and in learning how our loved ones conducted themselves, we can emulate them and thus, be motivated to be better.


Another way to think about the power of a eulogy is to state that it is a means through which we reaffirm our belief in the continued existence of the neshamah – of the soul, beyond the seen parameters of this world.  With a eulogy, as we recount the praises and good deeds of the ones we love, it is as if we are representing them and pleading their case before the Heavenly Court – as a midrash on the Book of Ecclesiastes states – when a person dies, God says to the angels – go and see what the people say about them.


This is to assert that the soul continues beyond this world and which is judged, based on the acts that the deceased person performed in this world.  This is why our tradition guides us to speak eulogies in the presence of dead, in order that the dead person, the niftar in Hebrew, will be able to hear their own defense, as our Talmud states – be fervent in my hesped, for I will be present there.


Not surprisingly, there is also an approach that combines these two ideas – that hearing a eulogy motivates the living to do teshuvah and consequently uplifts and gives merit to the soul of the niftar, allowing it to ascend higher and higher to the Throne of Glory – or in the mystical understanding of God, to have the soul rejoin the infinite, the Ein Sof – returning to the One from Whom it came.


Very often, when I am teaching a class or holding an essentially Ask the Rabbi session, someone will ask about what happens to us after we die.  In answering this question, I speak about the Ein Sof and how our individual soul returns to the great cosmic force that is the energy of all.  I generally speak about the recycling, or the continuation of the spiritual genetics from one generation to the next.  Just as physical characteristics are passed on – hair color or a particular laugh — so too, our spiritual characteristics are passed on – particular traits like one’s capacity for empathy, modesty, ambition – or the deep-rooted dilemma of trauma – all of this known as epigenetic inheritance, or molecular memory.  We are more than the person that we think we are – and certainly more than meets the outward eye.


As the neuroscience journalist, Dan Hurley has written – like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten.  They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding.  The mechanisms of behavioral epigenetics underlie not only deficits and weaknesses, but strengths and resiliencies, too.  The genome has long been known as the blueprint of life – but the epigenome is life’s Etch A Sketch – shake it hard enough, and you can reset it.   


Science is trying to figure out how to better control and even reverse this epigenetic inheritance, especially in the realm of trauma, and early studies have shown that if we have an enriched environment in our lives, then the elimination of traumatic symptoms is increased.  So, what would be an enriched environment for us?  Here are some suggestions: eat more healthy food – what we put into our mouth has everything to do with what goes on in our head.  Exercise – it’s the best things we can do for our brain.  Enrich our brain by exposing it to new challenges every day.  Laugh more.  Connect with others more.


We have the power to influence our realities, and the superpower to influence future generations.  Even though we can’t control the past, we do have the ability to choose our behavior and our perspective, which can then cause different genes to express themselves – allowing us to fulfill the mandate to be a light unto this world, and at the same time to interrupt and redirect the admonition of the Torah – pokaid avon avot al banim v’al b’nei vanim al shileishim v’al ribei’im – visiting the iniquity of the ancestors upon the children, and upon the children’s children – to the third and fourth generation.


We are going to experience a bit of healing this morning.  Taking the lessons and the purpose of a eulogy to heart, I have asked three in our community to speak first about the memories and lessons learned from their loved ones, and then each of us will have a few moments to share memories together about the people whose photographs we brought with us.    


Our tradition compellingly teaches that by speaking about someone whom we have loved, we have the ability to have them remain dynamic in our lives – to keep them unstuck in our memory and for them to be a curative part of our everyday, as opposed to sitting as a weight on our souls like a burdensome, tightly wound spool of grief.  We are able to continue to energetically engage with the ones whom we love – as we continue to tell their stories, and as we offer eulogies that continue to gently and softly unspool in our own life’s discovery.


We will hear from three in our community, about the stories that they have learned and ways that they continue to put one foot in front of the other as they continue to process loss.  I hope that these three can serve as models for us this morning, and going forward – for us to articulate beauty and pliancy — beyond the sediment and the heavy sludge of our hearts.  From here, we will then have the opportunity to engage with each other – in dyads and small groups — creating constellations of engagement as we share our photographs and our stories together.


As you are sharing and during the prayers of Yizkor that follow, we are all invited to place your cherished photographs in our ark, where they will remain this Yom Kippur.  This evening, during Neilah, you are welcome to take back your pictures as you place the rose petals in the ark.


As we access memory and consequently endure the risks of our sharing about the photos that we are carrying –  here is a poem called psalm, written by Alicia Suskin Ostriker.


I endure impure periods

When I cannot touch you

Or even look at you

You are a storm I would be electrocuted

By your approach then I feel some sort of angelic laughter

Like children behind a curtain

Come, I think

You are at my fingertips my womb

You are the wild driver of my vehicle

The argument in my poem

Nothing between us

Only breath.




Marcus Shaftel 

Jonathan Silverstein

Fai Lee Steinberg 

21/09/2018 at 17:56 1 comment

Kol Nidre — 5779: Power

“Yes or No”


Yom Kippur – Kol Nidrei

Neil F. Blumofe

18 September 2018


All of us assembling this evening are like angels, expectant and hopeful that we have been redeemed from our transgressions of this past year – and we enter into this Yom Kippur refreshed and eager that we can interrupt and rehabilitate the unhelpful patterns that cause us innate pain and alienation past some momentary pleasure.  Without judgment, and with deep discernment, we are meant to mend that which is torn – to live fully in this sacred time – entering now into the 50th gate – what our mystics describe as Sha’ar Binah – or the Gate of Understanding – and as we pass through this gate, we are to recognize the true freedom and profundity that our soul possesses, detached and apart from any mortal servitude.


In this time, we practice self-restraint most notably by fasting — not to afflict ourselves, but rather as a gesture to gain a greater perspective of the world and our place in the world.  We earnestly encounter our impermanence in this world, not to freak us out and cause us heavy feelings of morbidity – but rather to appreciate this moment as a powerful moment – a moment into which we can pour our essentiality, and feel enlightened and wholly alive – come what may inevitably, tomorrow.  We are to power through our distractions, we are to sidestep our looming agendas, and we are to revel in the moments of quality that are suddenly, surprisingly made manifest amid our internal chatter and conditioned expectation.


So, welcome – it is good and sweet to walk in these hours together.  May each of us find what we seek – may we enlarge our capacity for spiritual challenge as we rewire our neurological receptors for what we think of as recognized and established.  May we dare to see the world from other vantage points – and may we venture into the more impenetrable wilderness of our interior spaces, reassured that we are not alone – as we take a chance on this holy day of atonement.


In fifth grade, I got into a fight during recess.  Well, this isn’t exactly true – to be more accurate, I was called out by a particular bruiser, as he pushed me into his sphere of domination and taunted me to throw a punch at him on the playground.  I don’t remember the exact genesis of the altercation.  I do remember that suddenly we were surrounded by the other kids, who I think were frantically chanting, “fight, fight, fight,” and I was hauled off to the principal’s office, where I indignantly claimed injustice because I was the victim.  I was the aggresse – I didn’t do anything – I didn’t throw a punch — and I meekly protested.  No matter.  I got detention.


A few years ago, one of my children, then in middle school, had someone come up to them and provoke them, spewing something vile and negative about Jews and about being a Jew.  Without hesitation, and with no words spoken, he (or she!) turned and punched the bully in the face.  That ended that, and the school authorities were never summoned, that heckler was silenced, and my child has not suffered any similar indignities to this day.  What’s the moral of this story?  It’s complicated.    


On this holiest day of the year, I ask us to consider our relationship to power.  Who are the role models that populate and confirm our sense of self?  As Jews – interconnected and diverse, how do we relate to and abide each other?  What cues do we take from culture about our positions in the larger society?  On Yom Kippur, we play both ends against the middle – offering a sacrifice to both God and Azazel – hedging our bets, giving protection money and obeisance to the aggressor.  We stand over and over again, reminding God of the Divine attributes of mercy, compassion, graciousness, truth, kindness and pardon, as we plead for our lives.   We are, each of us, possessed with considerable power.  When is the time for us to act with force and when is the time for us to act with restraint?  Inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes as it asks us next week during Sukkot – is there a time of humiliation and a time of respect?  What is the measure of our response to the difficulties and challenges that are pitted, all around us?


It is now that we feature and privilege the various forms of teshuvahselicha, mechilah, and kapparah – stances and stages of pardon.  According to the 16th-century mystical work, Tomer Devorah, written by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero about the 13 Attributes of God, the first step is selicha – or general forgiveness.  This is to say that I am sorry for what I have done – I sincerely regret it, and I will intend to never do it again – this level cracks open the door of possibility.  The next level is mechila – which can translate as “wiping away.”  This level is the aspiration that a relationship can be restored to a place it was before the treachery or bad behavior.  The deepest level is kapparah – what is known as atonement.  This level comes into play when an individual states that their conscience will not let them live with themselves, because of what they have done to assail a person and poison a relationship.  Our tradition teaches that no human can respond adequately to this – rather, it is up to God who can reach the depths of a person and say, be comforted.  It is this comfort that is hopefully gained today, on Yom Kippur.


And yet, no matter how high we ascend and how angelic we may present on this day, it is hard to release ourselves from our material world predominantly into the ethereal realm.  Yes, now we are in precious, sanctified space – and yet, our thoughts wander, we are preoccupied, some of us have had first responder training leading up to tonight, and each of us has already passed through a gauntlet of scrutiny and the various security checkpoints, ticket in hand, so we can be here, at peace – as the grim words attributed to George Orwell resound – people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.



To be candid, as we settle in, I assume like many of you, my thoughts are absorbed by the current state of our world.  To give myself over to these three stages of pardon could be construed as a quaint parlor game – an entertainment or a pastime that doesn’t adequately address the built-in pain, suffering, bigotry, inequality, and maltreatment in our world.  In reflecting upon this, it seems that I’m back in the principal’s office in 5th grade, fruitlessly advocating for my position, when I don’t even know the rules of the game.  Why can’t I be more like my kid, and punch hatred square in the face?  For those of you who were here on Rosh haShanah – this is our Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Bereditchev moment – as we argue with God and attempt to set new parameters of engagement away from unjust punishment and scorn.  Even with all of the considerable spiritual preparations that I have made in advance of this time, can I sit and access comfort from God, can I be granted kapparah, when everything around me burns?


I stand before you this Kol Nidre and I attempt to offer each of us inspiration – a way through this present-day morass.  Many of us are frustrated, on edge, and anxious – and I would like nothing better than to clear the road now for the sweet vehicle of comfort to arrive here, unimpeded.  I’d like nothing more than to have this d’var Torah suddenly be interrupted by the Divine Voice booming at us – “Alright, alright, alright – be comforted!  — and, go home!”


We are beseeched on Yom Kippur, with more than a knowing stare from the prophet Isaiah – because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist – your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.  We are counseled not to raise our fist – on Yom Kippur, Isaiah challenges us to manage our problems with a modicum of self-control and with a theology of nonviolence.


And yet, I am grappling at this time with our relationship to power – both our subjection to it, and the ways that we dominate others with what power we possess.  I am concerned about the increase of natural disaster declarations in our world, I am troubled by the seeming dissolution of democracy in America and around the world, I lose sleep over what it means to be Jewish this year, and who gets to define it as I grapple with the quandary of intermarriage and assimilation the work to improve the financial stability of our community, and the ever-vanishing American Jew, I am distressed by the rise of antisemitism, as it is rendered routine in organizations like the Labour Party in Britain, and also, the pervading bias against Israel in places like the United Nations – I am distressed by the fire balloons launched this summer into Israel that have caused great damage, and the continued sabotaging of any efforts for peace and normalizing relationships between Israel and her neighbors, and at the same time, I am disturbed by the increased suspicion and scrutiny of people by security representing Israel’s government as they look to enter into Israel – and I am very troubled by the pre-dawn detention and questioning of a colleague of mine – a Conservative rabbi in Haifa who performed a wedding that was neither sanctioned by nor registered with the Chief Rabbinate.


I, like you, could go on – as we see our world in these beginning days of 5779.  In the last several months, I have read books written by friends and teachers.  I recommend them to you, as well – books that include Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi, Catch-67, by Micah Goodman, and Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, by Ronen Bergman – all of which I have spoken about in this sanctuary.  (We’re open every Saturday!).  I have reread the remarkably thoughtful book by Ruth Wisse called Jews and Power, and I have read Just Mercy, the memoir of Bryan Stephenson – who is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama – the organization that has recently opened both the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, more commonly known as the United States Lynching Memorial – I had a chance to meet him this summer, as part of my road trip with Rev. Daryl Horton, and I have also just finished the last work by Martin Luther King, Jr., called Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, which was published in the months before his assassination.


The good news is that it seems that we have been here before.  The bad news is that in many ways, we are still struggling to get off the mark to maximize goodness in this world and to tamp down our most base instincts as the disconnection among us grows, and as we continue to be corrupted, even unwittingly, by the politics of fear and anger.


Our prophets give us a pathway forward.  As we sing, especially on Hanukah, as Zechariah writes – lo v’chayil, v’lo v’choach, ki im b’ruchi — not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit, says the God of Hosts.  This is inspirational – and yet this anthem is challenged by the existential fear of being in the presence of one who wants to harm you.  What then?  Wouldn’t it be more helpful to say with might and with power, and with awe of God’s spirit, as we assert our right for survival – and we’ll rely on whatever helps?  As Napoleon taught, it is crucial at all times to have an iron hand in a velvet glove.


Deeply encoded in our Jewish psyche is this sense of helplessness, or distress.  Ruth Wisse speaks persuasively about this – this sense of powerlessness engrained in our rabbinic literature for generation to generation, as Jews were a targeted and vulnerable minority in this world, moving to a muscular Judaism as the state of Israel was advocated for by Max Nordau at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898 – where Jews were encouraged to cultivate strong and healthy bodies as well as strong minds – to give us a rugged sense of somebody-ness.  This stereotype is at the core of the fissure between Diaspora Judaism, which is perceived as weak, and Israeli-ness, which is perceived as strong — something that we as a people are vigorously trying to work out and reconcile.


Think of the stereotypes of each place – in the Diaspora we have Jerry Seinfeld, and Woody Allen, and many other nebbishy figures – and in Israel?  There is the heroic Netflix series of Fauda, the hyper masculine Col. Erran Morad, portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen, and the wondrous superhero, Gal Gadot.


Do you know this one — one of my favorite jokes is about the American who is traveling to Israel on El Al – and it’s time for breakfast.  The Israeli flight attendant comes and offer a meal.  “Great, what are my choices?” asks the American.  “Yes or no,” curtly answers the flight attendant.


A recent New Republic issue features twelve perspectives from leading American-Jewish writers, including Yehuda Kurtzer, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, who will be speaking at Agudas Achim on 24 February, thanks in large part to the dedicated efforts of our Sharon Jayson.   These essays highlight the shifting relationship between the Jewish Diaspora in American and Israel.  Kurtzer claims that at root, virtually all of those living and working in the Jewish world — those who have power in America — are trying to prevent the process of distancing of the Diaspora and Israel from taking hold.   We are trying to hold us together.  Beyond different priorities and variant cultural norms and practices, past colliding political positions, and differing perspectives concerning identity, is the need to teach confidence, curiosity, knowledge, and nuance in handling complicated subjects and uncertain outcomes.


Kurtzer ends his essay with a challenge – a serious American Jewish Zionism would also articulate twin meanings of home for American Jews (here) and homeland (there), unconvinced by the arguments that the one invalidates the other.  The contemporary moment offers unparalleled possibilities for a rich Jewish future offered by two thriving Jewish civilizations, as well as the unique opportunity to improve on the legacy of the Jewish past.  Neither abandoning the project of Israel, nor slavish loyalty to it, does service to who we are as morally, historically, or politically serious Jews…The simultaneous births of the state of Israel and a thriving Diaspora may be the most interesting, possibly the most valuable transformation in Jewish history.  Israel changes the very meaning of Judaism…and presents an opportunity to the Jewish people, not to be squandered to shape that meaning.   


Despite the absurdity and the potential malpractice of the principal’s office, do we still believe in the authority and power that it wields, or do we rely more on playground justice – a belief that might makes right, and everything and everyone should fall in line from there – as the fittest and most wily survive?  I didn’t reprimand my kid.  Nevertheless, let us resist Maslow’s law of the instrument which states that everything looks like a nail, when all you have is a hammer.  As both Superman and Spiderman say — with great power comes great responsibility.  We need additional tools.  We need moral power along with military power.  We must work towards moral progress as well as technological progress.  Beyond our technological abundance we must address the poverty of the spirit.


As Martin Luther King writes, power is not a specific birthright.  It will not be legislated and deliver in neat packages.  It is a social force that any group can utilize by accumulating its elements in a planned deliberate campaign to organize it under its own control.  Tonight, as we move more deeply into Yom Kippur, let us rescue the words of President George HW Bush – words that he said as he accepted his path towards power – words that seem downright adorable and so precious thirty years later – let us be a kinder, gentler community.  Let us listen well so we can hear God’s voice proclaiming, “be comforted” – so we can get kapparah — and if we don’t hear it, let us proclaim this comfort in God’s stead.  Let us gather power by together being a social force, each of us granting each other comfort.  If we can’t hear God say it, let us say it ourselves – Be Comforted!


Towards this end, I would like us to offer a meditation about power and comfort for us to consider – as we struggle past our own expectations of this time, and our own image of ourselves.  To me, Ana beKoach, this mystical prayer regarding power speaks about love and the truth and reconciliation work that is open to us in this time of atonement, as we navigate our way.  It is a perfect partner to the 13 Attributes of God as we go on our journey.  We can take our instinct to punch someone and instead, channel it differently — possessed by both strength and boundaries — as expressed when praying God’s name.  Let us hold this prayer as we venture forth into Yom Kippur and as we pray the 13 Atrtributes over and over.  Together, we can move from slavery to freedom – we can enact teshuvah – we can do selicha and mechilah and thus, hear the Divine voice from within our own murmuring deep – kapparah – Yom Kippur — Be Comforted.  And as we receive this comfort, each of us in this journey, we can unravel our internal emotional and spiritual knots and find our place tonight, each of us as angels among angels.


Ana b’choach g’dulat yeh’mincha, tatir tz’rurah – if you would God, may your powerful hand undo the knots that tie us up.  Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto l’Olam va’Ed – through time and space, Your glory shines, Majestic One. 


May our power be respected, may our soul be comforted and may our bodies be refreshed, as Yom Kippur begins.


Yasher Ko’ach!  Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah — G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

21/09/2018 at 17:52 Leave a comment

Rosh haShanah – 5779: Witness

“Wish You Were Here”


Rosh haShanah – Day 1

Neil F. Blumofe

10 September 2018


As we seek meaning and significance in our lives – as we aspire to renew ourselves in this New Year — our tradition shakes us, jarring us awake, exclaiming that it’s not that easy – to just show up for a few hours, pray a few prayers, see and be seen, and with a lingering sweetness of apples and honey on our satisfied breath, be good until next time.  Right there, hiding in plain sight are the themes of these days, demonstrated in our holy texts – the cries of our children and the sobbing of parents.


In this time when rabbis are beseeched not to be political or are alternatively accused of shirking their responsibility if they are not doubling down on a particular, contemporary hot button issue or two, the ancient wisdom of our liturgy makes it quite clear that we are to see the vulnerability and the burden of those squarely in front of us before we can optimistically write ourselves into the Book of Life for the New Year.


As we are to personalize and own the experience of being a slave freed from Egypt during Passover, here in this time, we are to actualize the sufferings of Ishmael and Isaac – and Hagar, Sarah, Hannah, and Rachel – and we are to implore God to remember us, to show us mercy and to love us, as God remembered our ancestors.  And beyond relying exclusively on God for respite, we see that it is the adults in these stories that put their children at risk and who are deficient in protecting their children.  Both Sarah and Abraham are seen here as broken parents – and the accusation then is clear – that on Rosh haShanah, we stand with the 19th century Hasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev to accuse God for failing us, as God’s children.


A song, attributed to Reb Levi Yitzchak, is called A din Toyre mit Gott – The Lawsuit, or the Kaddish of Rebbe Levi Yizchak, which mixes the liturgical Aramaic words of the Kaddish with the vernacular Yiddish of the rebbe’s time.  In this song, Reb Levi Yitzchak pleads with God – what do you want of Your people Israel?  What have you demanded of Your people Israel?  All the other nations have set up a king or a sovereign for themselves and are living in prosperity – and what do I say?  Hamelech hayoishev al kisei rom veniso — You are God who sits upon the throne.


Un ikh, Levi Yizchok ben Sore Sashe m’Berditchev zog – Ikh vel zikh fun mayn ort nit rirn!  Un a sof zol dos zayn!  Un an ek zol dos nemen! – And I, Levi Yitzchak, son of Sara from Berditchev say – I will not be moved – there must be an end to all of this suffering!  It all must stop!  And the song closes most powerfully with the words of the Kaddish — Yisgadal, v’yiskadash shmei rabo – hallowed and magnified be the name of God.  Rebbe Levi Yizchak of Bereditchev puts God on trial, and reminds each of us that while it is possible to argue against God, it is impossible to live without God.


What kind of a world do we live in, and how entitled or disenfranchised do we feel to stand before God with our concerns?  For some of us – perhaps many in this sanctuary this morning – even the concept of standing before God is challenging to contemplate and may feel disingenuous.  Part of our task in these Holy Days is to remind God to show us mercy – to not forget us – and we sound the shofar, not just to wake ourselves up, but to wake up God from a Divine repose.  As our tradition boldly asks, as an open question – if we cannot show mercy upon children, then what right do we have to claim God’s love?  Before accusing God, our children depend on our responsible behavior.


And how are we to be?  How do we decide to act in this world – we can’t possibly dwell on every issue that concerns us – for much of our everyday lives already leaves us exhausted.  We cannot be an authority on many things – so how do we sharpen what time and energy we do have to make an effective difference in the comportment of our lives?


As we chant the Shema Yisrael, we are centered in the idea of God’s sovereignty.  We realize that all of us have come from our diverse places – from our different perspectives and views – and have agreed to proclaim together that God is one.  We also know that the last letter of the word shema and the last letter of the word echad are often highlighted, spelling out another word that is embodied within this assertion – that word is aid, or witness.


We are to bear witness to God’s unity as we make our way in the world.  Indeed, bound up in the idea of God’s wholeness is our life – our proclamation that this is so – and we offer this awareness at least twice a day, and most intensely on our deathbed, when the final confession, or viddui is chanted, which concludes with the Shema.


To witness means to state that we are here – that we see what is going on.  To witness gives credence to someone else’s experience, and unlike the viewpoint of the early Christian writer Tertullian, who states that one of the chief pleasures of heaven is watching the tortures of the damned, a Jewish perspective on witnessing is that it is a religious act — a giving of agency and investment in someone else.  To witness is not to offer a chance gaze – rather presence is constructed with intentionality – magnifying our investment in someone else’s well-being and their creation in Divine image.


Further, to witness is to publicly enact our values and communicate deep convictions – and to hear and feel the suffering of others.  We are asked to do this on these days of renewal – as we bear witness to the hapless children and the broken parents of our sacred texts – and it is the shofar, rousing God awake as it expresses pain and wailing – as, according to the Talmud, the shofar conveys a mother’s shattered heart for her son who will not return – and it voices the suffering of all human beings – and reminds us that God will startle if we startle awake – so it is a spiritual imperative to expose ourselves to the pain – especially in this time when we grapple with meaning and the significance of our own lives.


Our tradition wonders about someone on Rosh haShanah, who happens to pass by a synagogue on that Holy Day and hears the shofar – do they fulfill their obligations of listening, even if they didn’t intend to do so?  The Mishnah concludes by stating that two people can hear the identical sound with only one having done the mitzvah – because only the one who has the intent of heart to hear what was being sounded, does so – the other person heard, but did not listen.


Our Talmud teaches that Joseph left his Egyptian prison on Rosh haShanah, based on a beautiful reading of Psalms 81 – the shofar is sounded at the New Moon… — when Joseph went out through the land of Egypt.  The idea is that Joseph noticed the sounding of the shofar – he recognized the suffering in the world – he heard it and took it to heart, and even in the knowing of this fracture, the wounds in the center of our existence and that populate our relationships – in acknowledging the dark beauty of an imperfect spirit – he was able to cultivate empathy, sensitivity, joy, and generosity as he acted on behalf of the weeping children and the distraught adults.  He was freed as he witnessed and realized what the world was really like.


I am afraid.  I ponder what I choose to do with my life as I lead this congregation.  Not this congregation in particular, but as I dwell on the trajectory of organized Jewish life in America.  I yearn for everyone’s life to overflow with the wonder and delight of Judaism.  I want everyone to learn and pray and eat and sing and teach and laugh and cry and show up here, again and again.  I want this place to matter, and I want everyone to matter in this place.  I want both/and.  I wince when I think that I am falling short of my potential and letting this community languish in a chummy coterie of comfort and self-satisfaction, without engaging the existential issues of our sacred texts and of our responsibilities to act in this world, which includes a mature and committed relationship with the state of Israel.


I don’t want us to be content as we happen to hear the shofar sounding as we walk on by, or as we drift in and out.  I want us to have skin in the game and to stay on the field – and all of the other clichés —  to stand like Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and plead not only for our lives and for the lives of Jews around the world, but for the lives of waylaid children and parents out in the world, who are crushed by the legacy of racism, hate, fear, and all kinds of oppression.  This is not a political stance – this is the cultivation of a Jewish heart.


So what can we do?  First, let us not be distracted.  Let us not seize upon some spicy morsel of salacious information or gossip in some news cycle that distances us from our commitment and adjuration to pursue holiness.  Yes, let’s keep our eye on the ball.  Second, who lives around us – who are our neighbors, and what is their experience?  Can we see suffering?  Do we know the hopes and dreams of others?  How do they intersect with our own?  Together, let us not be lost souls swimming in fish bowls, year after year.  Third, do we know where we come from?  As the American historian, Jill Lepore, writes – to study our past is to unlock the prison of the present.  Each of us is Joseph, and our release date is today.  We are free, and on Rosh haShanah as the shofar is sounded, we come home.


This summer, with the talents of many in our community, we led an asylum witness trip to Laredo, which included seeing detention facilities that are run by for-profit industries, one piece of a multibillion dollar business of immigration enforcement – we witnessed procedures in Federal Court taken against those who are undocumented in this country and also conditions in various unincorporated areas on the US-Mexico border, where communities are rallying and helping those recently arrived.  Many on the trip have written movingly about this – these observations are collected on


It is my hope that this is but one of the acts that we will take together as a community.  So many of us are already involved individually in particular causes – and there is a power for our community to continue to witness and experience together, in order for us to bring strength down from the supernal realm so we can together address the questions of why we are here and what we are doing with our lives.  The authorities in Laredo – the bishop and the Border Patrol each beseeched us to change the laws if we want different results from what are presently occurring.  Register to vote, and then vote.


In a moment, my friend, Rev. Daryl Horton, from Mt. Zion Baptist Church, is going to share his observations about the road trip that we took together, about six weeks ago – we recorded our experiences on social media – in a Facebook group called Rev and Rabbi Road trip – Summer, 2018, which you are most welcome to view, as we witnessed the Holocaust Museum in Houston, and visited place after place, museum after museum, and met with different people, trying to unlock and be present to the stories and the trauma that are imprisoned there – history and human experience that is also integral in the founding and building of our extraordinary country – with the bleak realization that we are still living in the long shadow of our shortcomings — for a nation borne in revolution will forever struggle against chaos.  As our Torah teaches, some things are just ingrained in our society – and as we continue to work towards decency, honesty, and affinity, we will forever struggle against the plagues of poverty, suspicion, and systemic inequality – and thus we will confront anger, conflict, antagonism – and chillingly, the most bitter proclivities of our own nature.  On this day, in this time – how do we sear our souls?  How can our tradition keep us aware?  In this New Year, how do we effectively witness, to hear and concentrate on the shofar sounding, in order for the gates of our prison to melt away?


[Daryl Horton]


Thank you, Rev. Horton.  We will be sharing further on Tuesday evening, 9 October at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden – as part of the Interfaith Action of Central Texas event, Night Under One Sky.  Most regrettably, this is the same night as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, will be speaking in this sanctuary.  This night is a cornucopia of riches – and as we learned in our time together, trying to fit everything in – we’ll make it work – and we hope everyone here does, as well.


There is a midrash that states that the wise men of Sodom were pleading for their salvation before God – and God told them that their city will be destroyed because they attempted to justify the evil – not because of the evil, itself.  We must do the work to lift us up from the inclination to do whatever makes us happy in the moment and just to accept what has been.  We must constantly negotiate good and bad in community to see what animates us and how we can and cannot be moved.  This year, let us take Reb Levi Yitzchak of Bereditchev as our example – and that doesn’t mean that we all have to learn Yiddish to do so.


May the Book of Life remain open for us to add our names, and the names of those seen and unseen – those who determine our path, and those who have disappeared from the world’s view.  May we see that this Book of Life is not exclusive – it’s not an A-list — there are not a certain number of reserved spaces.  May bountiful hearts match the bountiful time in which we live, and when we are held to account for our actions, can we speak about how we lifted the burden – how we mollified the cries of our children and the sobbing of the parents?  And may we carry on, in the words of the poet Dylan Thomas, may our words be as forked lightning, and as we face the long goodnight, rather than rant and rave, may we be proud of how we have lived.


Shanah Tovah u’Metukah

Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah

21/09/2018 at 17:33 Leave a comment

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