“Shabbat Shalom” — Pinchas — 5777

“Shabbat Shalom”

 

Parashat Pinchas

Neil F. Blumofe

15 July 2017

 

Something interesting happened at the Hartman Institute this year, which is directly connected to something that happened in Austin this past October.  Perhaps you remember that Micha Goodman, a professor of philosophy and a Research Fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, visited our community this past fall and offered words of Torah in our sanctuary.  He said that he had never offered a d’var Torah in a synagogue before, and especially, in the presence of his father, who was in town, as well.

 

As Micha began to offer his Torah, he realized that there were some somber aspects to it – as he was speaking about Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judea, who encouraged the people to expand their holdings in the land and increase their security, by intentionally cultivating fields and vineyards – Gedaliah was assassinated – and once Micha began speaking about the mirrors of history and the relevancy of Gedaliah in our own day – he stopped and playfully, just said – this is an intractable situation – everything is distressing – Shabbat Shalom –– which, by its absurdity and sad truth, was funny.  The punchline is that there is no clear way forward.  Shabbat Shalom.

 

And there were many Shabbat Shaloms at Hartman in these past two weeks – it became a running joke.  Not only Micha, it became a catchphrase among many of the presenters – who, realizing the inevitable difficulties in various choices and dilemmas, tried to diffuse the bleakness by abruptly saying – Shabbat Shalom.

 

Micha, who is known as a wunderkind in Israel, was speaking this past week about his new book – a best seller in Israel – called Catch ’67 – the title is modelled on the Joseph Heller book, Catch -22, where the protagonist, Captain John Yossarian, a US Army Air Force B-25 pilot, struggles to keep his sanity, while fulfilling his requirements of service.  The Catch 22 is a paradox – Heller sets it up as people who are mentally unfit were not obligated to fly, however anyone who applied to stop flying was showing a rational concern for their safety, and therefore were sane enough to fly.  A Catch 22 is known as a double bind – or an unsolvable puzzle of logic.

 

Goodman named his book Catch 67, in order to explore the double-bind present still, after Israel’s extraordinary victory in the Six-Day War in 1967.  He hoped to open up a healthier conversation about the inner struggle present in Israeli society about the current moral and political dilemmas that exist in forging ahead with both the blessings and the curses gained from that war, and in the 50 years since.  Catch 67 is the best-selling book in Israel and its thesis?  Shabbat Shalom.

 

The paradox is that while a majority in Israel favor withdrawing from places with a Palestinian majority in order to ensure Israel’s future as an internationally accepted state, the same people realize that they cannot withdraw because they fear for the security which would then have indefensible borders – thus the Zionist project is in jeopardy – both remaining and withdrawing from Judea and Samaria are not practical.  As Micha has said – the Israelis in the center are not between the right and the left – they are both right and left – that is why we are so perplexed. 

 

Catch 67 is not yet translated into English – however, the thrust of the book charts the main, competing ideological movements of Zionism and how they have been transformed and are currently in crisis.   On one hand, there is the Zionism as imagined by Theodore Herzl – the ancient Jewish wish is to be accepted and loved.  This Zionism strives to connect the Jews to the world – where geography doesn’t matter as much as politics.  This belief purports that if there is a Jewish state, then antisemitism will disappear and Israel will enter into the family of nations, becoming an organic part of humanism.

 

The other Zionism described in the book is what Micha calls Romantic Zionism — that Jews will be brought together – that the culture of the Jews is the spirit, and that the covenanted land of the Jews is the body – that it is space that defines who we are.  This view was popularized by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, and the founder of Yeshiva Mercaz HaRav Kook – a school that teaches what is now known as Religious Zionism.  Rav Kook stated in 1920 that the land of Israel is not acquisition – rather it is inherently part of who the Jewish people are.  Ze’ev Jabotinsky, co-founder of the Jewish Legion of the British Army in World War I stated that problem lies with people who try to prove that the land belongs to us – rather, he taught – the land is us.  This position states that Zionism and the establishment of Israel is the return of the spirit to the body – where memories attach themselves to places – as the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky wrote, who we are is where we are.

 

After 1948 and the founding of the state of Israel, both of these two Zionisms took a back seat to other Zionisms that surfaced as the State of Israel struggled to survive and to flourish – and both Zionisms became animated again after the victory in the Six Day War —  for the Herzl vision, Israel now had territorial assets with diplomatic advantages – land for peace was possible; and for the followers of Romantic Judaism, Rav Kook’s vision, the promised homeland of the Jews was finally delivered into our hands – and now our task is to settle it – and it is these two ideas, perhaps utopian visions, that have been tearing Israel apart ever since.

 

Yossi Klein Halevi describes our current time as Stage Three – including two deadly intifadas which have brought about a disenchantment of both of these visions.  We are currently living in a time where the recent victory of Avi Gabbay, the new leader of the struggling Labor Party, tellingly didn’t even mention peace in his platform – for this possibility seems so distant – where peace is not even a promise of the politicians, let alone a vison of society.  In this Stage Three, Israelis can neither trust nor control the Palestinians – if Israel stays in the Disputed Territories – Israelis believe that they will lose ethically, diplomatically, and demographically – which will bring the end of Zionism.  And if Israelis leave the Disputed Territories, it will be hard for Israel to defend itself – where Israel could not survive a surprise attack – as current commenters state – the Arab Spring was like an earthquake – if ancient stable countries collapse so easily, could a new weak Palestine survive?  It would be fauda – chaos – and we have the dilemma of believing in both quandaries.  We have the trepidation of both withdrawal and of occupation.

 

Is there a way out of Catch 67? Are we willing to expect a lot less from what a solution looks like?  As Goodman states – are we willing to turn a fatal disease into a chronic condition?  Are we willing to think differently about our Zionism and about the dichotomies present in both the visions of Herzl and of Rav Kook?  Micha leaves us with these important considerations — are we willing just to have more peace, as opposed to wanting to bring “the peace?”  Are we willing to make some accommodations to relieve some pressure of the Catch 67, shrinking the amount of occupation without dramatically shrinking the amount of security for Israelis?

 

So we are left with a lingering dilemma which has engaged some of the politicians – Naftali Bennett, head of the pro-settlement Jewish Home Party wrote that he did not agree with everything that Micha wrote – however he said, “the truth be told, over the 50 years since the great victory in the war, we have sunk into a war of ideas in which we basically triumph over ourselves.”  The former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, wrote a long negative critique of the book in Haaretz, suggesting that Goodman was out of his depths and not qualified to speak for the generals of the army – and Micha wrote back about Barak, who was Prime Minister during the difficult second intifada, stating – it is a fascinating twist for one of the story’s heroes to offer his critique of its narrator.

 

And so the debates slouch on – as we study Pinchas and God’s granting of the Covenant of Peace to the man whose actions and rewards are hotly debated in our traditions.  Pinchas, who stopped a devastating plague by killing Zimri and Cozbi – an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who were acting badly before the Tent of Meeting — was accused of murder by the B’nei Israel and also, offered the Priesthood by God.

 

Can both be true – can the responsibilities of caring for the people and entering into the Covenant of Peace be a way to advance a moral and secure life?  Can we stop the plague – a fatal disease – and devote our dedicated efforts to managing the chronic condition?  Can all of us in our community have conversations based on mutually shared respectful values without resorting to fear, blame, resentment, or severe judgment?  Let us ask ourselves the question – who do we want to be?  What is important to us?  As good, moral, intelligent lovers of Israel, can we have different political positions about Israel and together create a place of exploration, creativity, and magnanimity as we live and struggle in these mighty predicaments together?  Let us continue these practical vital conversations on the ground, while at the same time we look for the miracle from above.  Kein Y’hi Ratzon.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

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18/07/2017 at 13:48 Leave a comment

“As Loud as Grasshoppers” – Shelach – 5777

“As Loud as Grasshoppers”

 

Parashat Shelach

Neil F. Blumofe

17 June 2017

 

At the shore of the Jordan River, Moses sends twelve spies to scout out the Promised Land, with disastrous results.  Ten of the spies return with negative reports about the chances of success for the Israelites in entering and settling this land, thus withering the spirit of the community, and leading to no confidence and terror.  There is panic among the people, which ultimately leads to a Divine decree of a forty-year exile — thereby condemning this generation of former slaves to wander in the wilderness until they die.

These extraordinary people, who have directly witnessed many miracles of God, do not get to fulfill God’s covenantal promise of entering into the Promised Land — they are obligated to live their lives outside of their purpose — their days becoming a sentence of fragmentary, exilic gestures.  This is no more tragically described in the final, unsuccessful plea of Moses at the end of his life, to enter into the land to which he has devotedly led his people.

How are we manipulated by those around us — those supposed experts who have their own motivations for injecting uncertainty and dread into our daily lives?  How do we sit, transfixed by the doomsday scenarios surrounding us — convinced that our world is on a fast track to hell in a hand basket, while we become both radicalized and desensitized, in response?  How do we regard those in our community who may have a different opinion about the current state of our world, as we stew in the juices of heaped upon frustration?  How much violence will it take for us to snap back and withstand the bilious offerings of partisan cynicism and adverse showmanship?

 

There was an important verdict handed down this week – a judge found a young woman, Michelle Carter – now 20 years old — guilty of involuntary manslaughter after she kept sending her friend, Conrad Roy III, text messages when she was 17, urging him to kill himself, which he ultimately did.  In order for this case to get to trial in the first place, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the intent and content of her text messages to Roy had a coercive quality to them.  As was described, the thousands of texts and phone calls motivated the young man to take his life – and specifically Carter was on the phone with Roy at the time of his suicide, exhorting him to get back into his truck that was filling with carbon monoxide, and then listened to him die without trying to help him – as the prosecution stated – she was in his ear, she was in his mind, she was on the phone, and she was telling him to get back in the car even though she knew he was going to die.

 

What voices are constantly in our ears?  How much do these voices guide us towards the actions that we take?  Are other really responsible for what we do?  And these spies, reporting to the Israelites gathered at the entrance to the Promised Land – how debilitating was their reportage – how much did it negatively impact the culture of the camp?

 

This decision to assign blame to someone who is not physically present, yet encourages negative behavior, will have far-reaching implications.  It determines the extent to which we think we have free will.  We realize that the opinions that we have are not ours alone – rather, that they have been formed in the refraction of other influences that we regularly encounter, digest, and assimilate.  Whose fault was it that the Israelites gave in to their fears and anxieties – according to our Torah, everyone was effected, and everyone paid the price for their unstable behavior.

 

We are what we read, what we listen to, what videos we watch, and what websites we visit.  We are a sum total of all that we read during the blaze of day, and all that whispers to us in the hush of night.

 

One of the elements in which I take a lot of pride in serving this community, is the diversity of this community.  I am proud that we have a growing, flourishing community, that is filled with strong opinions across the political spectrum.  However, as we have seen in our larger American landscape, these delicate balances are in danger of disappearing.  If someone is too sensitive to rebuttal, they might be deemed a snowflake – and there are demeaning epithets from left to right that do not admit any nuance or truth – rather, they are angry and meant to isolate and demean others – shutting down conversation.

 

As a community, we must recognize who is in the room – are we still able to engage with each other?  Can we encourage those in different political parties to pray together, and to support our community together – or shall we ignore the political firestorms raging outside, and double down on this being a sanctuary – limiting opinions that can lead to controversy – and just smile, hoping that people don’t quit, as we leave the world outside?  How far is too far, before the pegs fracture, and our big tent comes crashing down – and are there principles more important than people?  As we exercise our passions, how do we engage others, without driving them away?

 

Van’hi v’eineinu ka’chagavim — vechein, hayinu b’eineihem – as we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and we also appeared to them as grasshoppers.  Grasshoppers make a lot of noise – always in our ears, and in our minds.  As our mystics teach, we are always on the shores of our Promised Land – always ready to enter.  What sounds constantly rustle in our ears, like an incessant typewriter, that prevents our going forward?  How can we limit that which depreciates and dehumanizes us, that which has a coercive quality – and pushes our buttons and coarsens our approach to life?

 

And as our Proverbs teach — “a happy heart is as healing as medicine.”  Learning the sobering lessons of this week’s Torah, let us rise up to respond differently than our Torah ancestors did, tested by the import of the challenges and the uncharted territory that we now face.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

22/06/2017 at 17:25 Leave a comment

Lego Land

“Lego Land”

 

Parashat Terumah

Neil F. Blumofe

4 March 2017

 

Earlier this week, as part of our 10,000 Faces of Torah initiative, I was leading a Torah study on this week’s Torah portion in a house filled with wonderfully engaged participants.  Most folks there had not really studied in a concerted way – and as we spoke together, introducing the topic of building the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, out of very rich materials gained in Egypt as the Israelites were leaving slavery – the people assembled were now in the desert learning how to relate to each other in their newly discovered freedom.

 

As we learned about the ancient rabbinic concept of — ein haKadosh Baruch Hu makeh et Yisrael eleh im kein borei lahem refuah techilah – or in other words, threats and danger do not appear to Israel unless God has set up a remedy for them first.  This is a concept central to our understanding of Purim – where the machinations of the villain Haman have already been mitigated by the presence of Esther, who has previously been chosen to be the queen to King Achashverosh – and this concept is also relevant to our Torah portion, as understood by the great medieval sage, Rashi – the Tabernacle exists — it is already in place to neutralize the damage of the orgiastic insurgency of the Golden Calf.  While the episode of the Golden Calf is yet to come in our linear reading of the Torah – according to our teaching, this difficult episode of impatience and betrayal was already anticipated in the scheme of things and the antidote to its potential harm – the building of the Mishkan — has already been injected into the world.

 

While we were studying, the realization that the Jews are often their own worst enemies, surfaced.  Very often, our tendency not to give our neighbor the benefit of the doubt degrades our relationships – and our tendency to be unduly influenced by antagonism and disapproval coarsens the fabric of our delicate community.  We were speaking about this a few days ago as we were all affected by the grim, ironic realization that over the past several weeks, over 100 Jewish community centers, schools, synagogues, and cemeteries have been threatened by bomb threats, vandalism, and violence.  We have seen picture after picture of the gravestones of our loved ones toppled over and we have seen our most vulnerable – children and seniors — being evacuated from places that are meant to serve as places of refuge – that are meant to serve as sanctuaries from the ever-present, creeping indignities of everyday life – the places that are currently threatened are the very places build by Jews as buttresses against such insidious antisemitism.

 

These baleful events exacerbate the apprehension that many feel as we all struggle to recalibrate and respond to a whirlwind of new national leadership and a perceived breakdown of the previously organized signposts of our media and of our culture.  The boundaries between fact and fiction are more porous than ever – and our ability to customize our own worldview while at the same time being manipulated by the viewpoints of others, seems to be unprecedented.

 

And here we are, in the specter of this disquiet, finding the common thread of our own difficulties with each other.  It seems, that in reaction to the difficulties of this world, we take out our stress by struggling against those with whom we are meant to find common ground and shared experiences.  As Jews, we attack each other – as the easiest, softest targets.  This congregation is not immune from this affliction.  As we find ourselves in a clash of ideals, we discover perhaps to our surprise, our own inherent trigger warnings attached to our staked-out political positions – and we compensate for our unease by disengaging from each other, and even boycotting or badmouthing this community, sacrificing it to our so-called higher ideals or prevailing priorities.  I think that this is a grave mistake.

 

In a time such as this, such behavior underscores that many of us are truly alone – unwilling to invest in a Jewish community that at times may cause some turbulence and friction – and at the same time knowing that out in the larger world, there are those who have already dehumanized us and who don’t think twice about threatening our children and grandparents.

 

And however difficult it may be to affirm, we do have the principle that even in the darkening hours, there are remedies already in place that provide a cure.  I welcome all of us to cultivate the gifts of perseverance and resilience as we move in this community – allowing for civil disagreement without turning everything into a zero-sum game.  I ask us to make our synagogue life a higher priority, knowing that our potential disbeliefs and distrusts – and certainly the ills of this world will not be solved by our disengagement.  I am confident that this community will long outlast current political alliances and will thrive beyond specific administrations.

 

Also this week, we were privileged to have in Austin a world-renowned scholar of Jewish Mysticism and Zohar, which is the foundational work of the Kabbalah.  As Melila was visiting, she taught that this world is linked together in a unified oneness, as the Kabbalah states – [our lives] constitute a chain linking everything from the highest to the lowest, extending from the upper pool to the edge of the universe.  There is nothing – not even the tiniest thing – that is not fastened to the link of this chain…Down to the last link, everything is linked with everything else – so divine essence is below as well as above – in heaven and on earth.  There is nothing else. 

 

According to our Torah, this is the way that we fix our Golden Calf moments.  As we construct our Mishkan, we make kerashim – vertical planks that were held flush by two tenons that inserted into two mortises and were made strong by their mutual support – like legos.  We realize that in our study of the Mishkan we can frame our perspective, and realize that ultimately, we gain support from being in relationship with each other – also like legos.  In learning about this sacred architecture of the Torah, and in our hopes of bringing meaning into our world, we can recast our hardening perspectives with a modicum of gentleness.  The world will not readily offer inherent safety and security – we must forge those bonds of kinship and commonality in the hard work that we do by finding common ground all around us, and linking ourselves to the circumstances of our neighbors – this kind of work begins within this sacred structure – if we are finding our motivations and rationale beyond these sacred kerashim, then we are failing each other and absconding from our responsibility – we are then unwittingly allowing the ascendancy of those who wish us harm.

 

In response, we are to give each other the benefit of the doubt – as we try mightily to make sense of what is around us.  We must do so with generosity and an increased tolerance that none of us really know what we are doing and none of us knows what is coming – and that we must not operate from exclusive self-interest.  We know and we take solace that there are remedies awaiting our discovery – already built into our world – so, let us not fixate on the ailments themselves and the deliberate misdirection of our politicians – but rather let us concentrate on these positive, powerful countermeasures of blessing, grace, and mercy that are previously God-given – and let these be the ways — the tenons — that hold us together.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

06/03/2017 at 11:23 Leave a comment

The Great Society

“The Great Society”

 

Parashat Mishpatim

Neil F. Blumofe

25 February 2017

 

In the spring of 1964, addressing the students at Ohio University, President Lyndon Johnson declaimed, “and with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society.  It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.”  In this time, the American people needed direction, and they needed help.

 

After the ravages of World War II, and in the thick of the Cold War – and most immediately after the assassination of the president, John F. Kennedy in 1963, it seemed that economic and social conditions for the people were not stable and it seemed too that America was adrift.  The vision of the Great Society called for dealing with some of the most difficult areas that hampered the progress and the promise of America.  After Roosevelt’s New Deal, after Kennedy’s New Frontier, Johnson’s Great Society was meant to address the inequality of civil rights, was supposed to tackle the blight of poverty, and was geared to improve education, lower medical costs for older Americans, and improve access to healthy living for millions of Americans.  In addition, the Great Society established the National Foundation for the Arts and the National Foundation for the Humanities – in addition to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – which includes the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.

 

Improvements were sought too in transportation, consumer protection, environment, housing, rural development, and labor.  Before Johnson left office, giving way to President Nixon – 226 out of 252 major legislative requests had been met, federal aid to the poor had risen from $9.9 billion in 1960 to $30 billion in 1968, 1 million Americans had been retrained under previously non-existent federal programs and 2 million children had participated in the Head Start program.  Federal expenditures on education rose from $4 billion to $12 billion and spending on health rose from $5 billion to $16 billion.

 

To seed the dramatic oratory of 1964, there were practical if not controversial plans and policies drafted.  More than any rhetoric, it was the details and the commitment to work with various coalitions on the finer, specific points, that determined the implementation of much of Johnson’s vision of the Great Society.

 

And here we stand, just after the giving of the Aseret haDibrot, the 10 Commandments, after the revelation of the people, and after the shaking, smoking mountain again comes to rest – and after our experience of slavery and not having an effective voice to advocate for our rights, we are now guided to fill out the broader vision of a trajectory of and purpose to our lives, guided by Divine inspiration, in the exquisite cellular detail of what we do, every day.

 

Our Torah now launches into great design in order to shape and give understanding to a principled order for the Israelites to thrive in their newly-experienced freedom.  With these standards of behavior, each person is meant to struggle to overcome their baser nature, and to develop an internalized social conscience as a bulwark against selfishness, arrogance, entitlement, greed, and consolidated privilege.  As each of these laws rolls past the Israelites in dazzling detail, they are energized, and as an extension of the revelation itself, the people as one exclaim, “kol asher diber haShem, na’aseh v’nishma – all the words that God has spoken, we will do and we will obey.”  Nothing will get stuck in subcommittee, there will be no Executive Order signed to subvert a reasonable process of debate among lawmakers – all have access to the same information – and all have found a shared spirit of cooperation — common ground to work together to improve their lives through individual restraint, accountability, and governance.

 

If we had a sustained conversation about the greatest ills and challenges of our community, what would we decide were our highest priorities?  How have things changed from the challenges that the Great Society was trying to address 50 years ago?  How have things changed since the giving of the Torah?  If we were able to restrain ourselves and not speak about specific personalities – dreaming that things will only improve if Moses or Aaron were relieved of their power — rather, if we could identify not superficial solutions but rather, moral and ethical resolutions worth fighting for to address our common maladies, how can we forestall a possible implosion of what we hold dear, and how can we advance from our narrow-minded positions inherited after the trauma of slavery?

 

Our sages have given this much thought – and they teach that the scaffolding of society debuted in our Torah this week stems from a commitment to reduce jealousy and avarice among us.  We are to care for those most degraded among us, for they too are created in the image of God.  Rambam and Sforno – two medieval commentators, suggest that we cannot truly know ourselves until we humanize our neighbor.  Until we see our neighbor as an extension of who we are, our self-interest will overshadow any attempts that we make to improve the condition of the world around us – as the mystics teach us, tikkun olam starts within ourselves – if we can put ourselves into perspective, then we can find a way to reach out to others.

 

No one will deny the wisdom of our tradition – I think that the sticking point is for all of us to admit to ourselves and each other who exactly our neighbors are.  Is this moral code applicable to everyone who desires it?  The difficult question for us to consider is – who do we feel belongs in our world, and who does not?  What rights do we give the outsider, or our enemy juxtaposed to the rights that we reserve for our close circle, our family?  Where is the boundary, and where is the cut off?  What are the rights and privileges of membership into our conception of the world, and what are the consequences of not belonging?

 

Are human rights truly universal – and if so, by what measuring stick are they assessed?  How much hypocrisy and injustice can we live with, as we make our decisions and as we enjoy the lives that we pursue?  How much effort, or sweat-equity do we want to invest in these questions in order for us to have comfort and feel satisfied that we have done something – how far are we willing to go to fight for the principles and standards in which we believe?  Are we even willing to have this conversation among people that we call our friends?

 

How much are the principles that we seek problematized by competing, contingent interests?  How fast can we hold onto nuance, thus increasing our risk for misunderstanding, censure, or condemnation?  After all of this, can we still feel that we have a community?

 

Mishpatim teaches us to start with the world around us – to cultivate respectful or at least cheerfully tolerable relationships among all of the people that we encounter.  From this place, expanding outward, we can create formidable bastions of justice that can withstand and curb the inevitable trespasses of wrongdoing and draconian presumption – and we can realize that this quest for integrity is no different than the challenges presented at the foot of Mt. Sinai so long ago.  Like the villain Amalek, the affliction of poverty and injustice will never depart from our midst.  As inheritors of our great Jewish tradition and the decisions of our American republic, it is now our decision of how comprehensively we are willing to address these issues with our courage, compassion, and desire, to keep hardship and suffering at bay.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

06/03/2017 at 11:18 Leave a comment

Fantasy Football

“Fantasy Football”

 

Parashat Beshallach

Neil F. Blumofe

11 February 2017

 

To mix it up a bit – here is a sports sermon – I figure that I would offer one, once in a while.
This morning, I’m going to speak about last week’s Super Bowl game.  For those of you who saw it, at first it was not much of a contest, with the Atlanta Falcons dominating the game through the first 45 minutes or so.  However the last quarter belonged to the New England Patriots and specifically to their quarterback, Tom Brady, who almost preternaturally, marched his team up and down the playing field to ultimately come from behind and win the game in overtime.

 

I am not the biggest fan of football – I grew up cheering for the Chicago Bears – rejoicing in their extraordinary 1985 championship season – and then later on, became a New Orleans Saints fan, enjoying their Super Bowl victory in 2010 – however, in the last couple of years, I’ve seen a few more games and while it was thrilling to have watched my youngest play football on his middle school A team – and really, it was grosse naches to see him, the rabbi’s son, successfully navigate a version of Texas football culture — it pained me each time a game was delayed as one young man after another experienced an injury over the course of a season – and it was eerie to be one of the parents cheering as our team made a vicious tackle, or made a big play, at the expense of the other team.

 

For Hanukkah last year we gave my son the movie, Concussion, starring Will Smith – and he rolled his eyes, and watched it in adolescent silence without me – however, a few months ago, we both watched the ESPN show “The ’85 Bears,” which took me for a nostalgic ride until we got to the chilling scene where the famed quarterback Jim McMahon was interviewed – and he could barely speak in sentences that were not laced with pain.  The thrill of victory – the agony of defeat.  For both of us, it was a sobering reminder of the damage that playing football does – and it tempered my adoring childhood images of the confident, electrifying young men who sacrificed their bodies to their athletic pursuits.  And after a few years of negotiations in our family, coupled with the recent announcement from sports legend Bo Jackson, that neither he nor his children would have played football had he known then what he knows now, my son has retired from football – looking to enter into high school next year strengthening and continuing to develop skillsets for different sports and activities.

 

However, Tom Brady did me no favors last Sunday night.  His is a quintessential success story.  In high school, Brady was a backup quarterback on a winless team – and eventually he made his way onto the Patriots as a sixth-round draft pick, becoming the greatest quarterback in NFL history.  This quote from the owner of the Patriots, Robert Kraft, is illustrative:

 

I still have the image of Tom Brady coming down the old Foxboro stadium steps with that pizza box under his arm – a skinny beanpole – and when he introduced himself to me and said, “Hi, Mr. Kraft,” he was about to say who he was – but I said, “I know who you are – you’re Tom Brady.  You’re our sixth-round draft choice.  And he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.”  “It looks like he could be right.”

 

As we study the Torah portion Beshallach this week, I look to explore this idea of self-confidence.  In college, at the University of Michigan, Brady was a backup quarterback for two years – and for most of his undergraduate days, he had an intense struggle to get some playing time.  It is written that during college, Brady hired a sports psychologist to help him cope with frustration and anxiety – and he met with a member of the athletic staff every week to build Brady’s confidence – and during his senior year, he led his team to multiple 4th-quarter comebacks, earning him the nickname – “The Comeback Kid.”

 

What gives a person grace under pressure – to keep calm and carry on, even though there is chaos and distraction all around?  When is it confidence and swagger – and when is it haughtiness, bordering on contempt?  To use a Jewish example – the great pitcher Sandy Koufax was once asked by a reporter – what his favorite pitch was to throw when he had the bases loaded behind him – Koufax’s answer?  “My boy, I don’t recall every having to pitch with the bases loaded.”

 

What lessons can we learn as we see an athlete inspire his team to take calculated chances, to step up their game – as we see Moses between the sea and the pursuing Egyptian army, with little time left on the clock and no timeouts, make an appeal to God to intervene and provide some direction?  Responding, God deflects Moses and redirects him to lead the people in a version of a hurry up offense – daber el b’nei Yisrael v’yisa’u – speak to the children of Israel and let them journey forth.  In other words – get back into the game – trust yourself, and you will not wade directionless in the water – instead, you will walk confidently between the split sea on dry ground – v’yavo’u v’nei Yisrael b’toch hayam bayabasha.

 

A famous midrash has Nachshon ben Aminadav walk headlong into the raging sea until the water was just beneath his nose – it was only at that moment that the sea parted, and enabled everyone to go through safely on dry ground.  His action was not desperation – he was not banking on an official time out — rather he was calm, cool, and collected – doing what he had to do to change the balance of the situation and inspire others to step up.  How do we handle pressure and develop mental toughness?  So much of what we do is a mind game – how we react to the world around us, to the people around us – we can easily get sucked into someone else’s drama and lose our footing – how do we keep our surety and our balance?  What would Tom Brady do?  What would Nachshon ben Aminadav do?  What do we do?

 

Our experts would tell us to dwell on the moment and not worry so much about the outcome.  We should be mindful of what is right in front of us – and be aware that as our mind races, there is nothing we can do about its harrowing flights – we are to readjust our expectations to do what is next, each time.  Also, if we can’t move past the pressure that we are feeling, then we are to adapt it into our outlook.  We are to drop into hard work – and not rely on miracles to bring us victory.  We should adjust our focus – not wondering how we can win, rather to concentrate on how we can offer a solid, consistent approach to each of our encounters.  To me, this response and strategy is similar to how I approach taking care of a mourner, who is the depths of pain.  We can use this technique in the rest of our lives, as well.

 

I realize that we don’t have to emulate Tom Brady as a quarterback as we develop our own skills – in all that we do, we can separate our identity from any results that we achieve – both positive and negative.  This is so important — in no cases, should we let the results of our actions define us – it’s so seductive to get a boost from something good that we do – and to crave this kind of recognition, and have it compound our self-worth.  However to resist that urge gives us a chance to routinely show up to offer the best of who we are without having to compare our efforts, day after day, and sink so very low when we inevitably make a mistake – and are called out for our less than stellar performance.

 

In addition, we should know what we can and what we can’t control – and we should realize what stories we tell ourselves daily that can affect our mindset.  What would we hear if we recorded that inner voice that constantly critiqued our decisions every day?  Oftentimes, we are our own worst critics.  And, if we make minor adjustments to what we are doing – small changes that can boost our performance, we receive a powerful lesson from our Torah portion and from thinking about the most recent Super Bowl game – we do what we must do to serve the greatest need of the present circumstances.

 

I actually don’t think Tom Brady is so extraordinary.  With discipline and awareness, we too can deepen our mental toughness and resilience.  As we fantasize about our life – about the dreams that we have and the honors and accolades that we think we deserve, we can actually achieve our goals by taking one small step at a time.  We know that we are not alone – we know that we are not perfect – we know that others are willing to help us – and that our failures are not a referendum on our character.  We can actually lose a battle, while winning the war, as we capitalize on what is important in each moment, and live to try another day – without giving up hope and by honing our physical efforts and our mental abilities, each day.  Rather than thinking we must improve the things that give us the greatest challenge, we can concentrate on upgrading they things in which we excel – magnifying our signature strengths.

 

Life often reveals that we are going to be perennially losing late in the 4th quarter.  In response, we can shrug and say that’s how God made me – always a victim, always behind the eight ball, so to speak, to mix my sports analogies – always succumbing to the pressure.  Or, we can bring our skillsets to bear to always push back against defeat, using our grit, knowing that many times, by our efforts, and by joining our efforts to others, all of us inspiring each other, if not winning the actual game, winning itself will fairly often, actually go our way – and regardless of the specific game, our life will be successful.

 

Shabbat Shalom

17/02/2017 at 17:17 Leave a comment

Gaslight

“Gaslight”

 

Parashat Bo

Neil F. Blumofe

4 February 2017

 

In this most extraordinary of moments, the Israelites are able to collectively move from the narrow confines of slavery, to the uncharted wilderness of freedom—breaking free of their bonds of servitude.  Our tradition asks, in order for this to occur, what had really changed?  How were the conditions in their lives different, in order to enable the Israelites to finally confidently organize and take these transformational, dramatic steps?  In truth, not much had really changed – even the most terrible of the plagues – darkness and the death of the first born — had ultimately failed to move Pharaoh to a place of resignation and acceptance that his subjugation of the people was over.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

As my kids get older, I am more painfully aware of how out of step I am in keeping current with their cultural and linguistic signposts.  To be diplomatic, I am always a couple of days late in recognizing the latest music, technologies, and language that define their experiences as they move through life.  Heaven help me, if I try to employ their language.  Especially as much of their enjoyment of things is through earbuds or in the privacy of more intimate communication with their internet machines held close to their faces, I do not always have the luxury of learning in real time, how their sense of self and the world develops – and I take cold comfort in at least knowing how to access what was popular about a decade or so ago – much to the chagrin and rolled eyes of whoever might be present when I do so.

 

In addition, I have long wondered about the inscrutable description of Pharaoh repeatedly hardening his heart in response to the requests from Moses and Aaron to release the Israelites.  In one moment Pharaoh acts as if this liberation was the new policy, and then all of a sudden, he reverses course – so that the situation is destabilized, and we do not know where he stands in any given moment.  Not being able to trust or rely on someone’s word or rational behavior – especially if it’s cruel behavior — causes us an extreme case of vertigo – as we internalize the sinking feeling of not being secure in what a new day will bring.

 

I have recently learned that there is a term for this – it’s called gaslighting, which is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in someone or in a group of people.  The goal of gaslighting is to use persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and deceit to make the intended targets question their own memory, perception, and ultimately, sanity.  The term itself comes from a 1938 play by the same name – the play was later made into a movie in 1944 – and this term gaslighting has entered into our vernacular to describe an attempt to destroy another person’s perception of reality.

 

In psychiatry, it is argued that gaslighting involves the projection and introjection of psychic conflicts from the perpetrator to the victim, breaking down our reliance on our own free agency and ultimately causing us to consider ourselves crazy.  In short, gaslighting is a tactic of abuse – and it is chilling to think about the dilemma of the Israelites in such a toxic environment.  How does one know when to move, or how to act – what opinions are to be expressed and what others are to be concealed – out of fear and disquiet?  What is real?  Ultimately, as Judaism teaches, our hardships are magnified by our own bad behavior – this is the central message of the rabbis as they describe sinat chinam – baseless hatred — as the core reason why the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed by a foreign power.  Earlier, the prophets also express a similar view – as Ezekiel maintains for example, the invasion of the Babylonians into Judea was because of the instability and mutual loathing of the Jews among themselves.

 

To think of the Pharaoh as a gaslighter profoundly changes this narrative – and we realize that we are doing the best we can in uncertain, bleak circumstances, when we can’t believe the news that we read, or when we know we are missing crucial pieces of the story, or that we are deliberately being deceived.  As Pharaoh continues to machinate, and as his word is unreliable, we can break the spell in thinking that we are crazy, by holding onto not the latest in expression as delivered or determined by social media or in the fleeting currency of pop culture – rather we can take a lesson from a day like today and realize as we gather to celebrate Shabbat and the efforts of an extraordinary young girl who is becoming Bat Mitzvah, that we are participating in resistance to our own manipulation.

 

It is an extremely powerful statement that this family has a family Torah that travels the world and shows up at the various family simchas.  This family Torah, like Tiresias has seen it all – today it stands resolutely as a silent witness – surviving the travails of this world and the bleakest of times – and it is this long view – this withstanding of what is in and what is out in this season – it is the independence that is fostered in not gaining an identity from the constructions all around us.  As we celebrate Shabbat, we are reminded to be independent actors and to think critically when someone tries to negatively influence us, or to make us doubt our values or to acquiesce to what they need us to be.  As Sun Tzu writes in the ancient Chinese treatise, the Art of Warthe art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him – not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.  So, for example, if I need a bit of assistance or I feel out of touch with whatever my children happen to be into today – I counter with having them sing the Shema Yisrael with me.  That’s not compensation – that’s heavy-duty strategy.

 

I am finding my way past my need to be hip – and there is a bit of solace in my aging – I can find meaning and identification in joining the tribe that privileges dad jokes and a dad bod and that lives with an ever-receding hairline.  And yet, I am empowered by the non-negotiables in the Jewish tradition that allow us to outlast a Pharaoh that rises and gaslights his constituency.  Even though the conditions didn’t change, the Israelites were able to operate beyond the narrowness of reacting to every little thing the Pharaoh did – and they were able to take agency for themselves.  There easily could have been ten more plagues – and then many after that.

 

For a moment, the Israelites were able to say stop the madness – and find a sense of self-worth and relevance beyond the Pharaoh.  They were able to thrive in difficult circumstances which allowed them to pass beyond their dire straits and wade into the water that floated them in its own magnificent current to vulnerable, exposed, unexperienced freedom upon a savage dry land.  This morning, we are there, exquisitely and safely there — between the two columns of ever-rising water.  Let us ground ourselves in coming regularly to shul – let it be your practice — I don’t get commission – let us seen the value in the constant cultivation of our spiritual life.

 

A life of loving Shabbat, of exploring Judaism is a bulwark against looming disaster.  We can change our mindset, we can deepen our spirit – and then no matter what – we can be free, which then gives us the position and the strength to more effectively neutralize the edicts of slavery that cynically exist and continue to expand, all around us.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

05/02/2017 at 18:52 1 comment

Becoming Abravanel

“Becoming Abravanel”

 

Parashat Miketz

Neil F. Blumofe

31 December 2016

 

Do you remember the song Tradition in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, as we are being introduced to the various inhabitants of the town Anatevka, we meet Reb Nahum the beggar – who after getting only one kopek this week from Lazar Wolf responds to him, nu, if you had a bad week – why should I suffer?

 

In this week of lighting our Hanukkah candles as we look to restore hope and balance in this world with our increasing lights, it has been a strange, imbalanced week – a time when we could say that there has been a disturbance in the force.  Many of us traveling or on vacation, looking to take a breath and enjoy life for a few moments, were following with dread these past few days instead, the recent decision of the United Nations Security Council Resolution – the first one in 36 years – that condemned the building of housing for Israelis in the areas known as Judea and Samaria – the West Bank – what are called settlements.  This was followed by a speech by the current US Secretary of State who defended the US abstention of this resolution and demanded that Israel end so-called settlement building – calling it an obstacle for peace.

 

I condemn this resolution and the public, one-sided nature of how the US abstention was rationalized and explained.  I do believe that this action emboldens others to merge legitimate critique with anti-Jewish and anti-Israel positions.  I appreciate the recent report concerning the British Prime Minister scolding Secretary of State Kerry for his focus on the settlements.  And I could go on – however, I feel to analyze political posturing and to comment on the agendas of others should not be my focus – certainly in this time of teaching and inspiring with Torah – and is to fall into a trap, of not seeing the forest for the trees.

 

For while upsetting, this attitude from America is nothing new – back in 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker famously said to his counterparts in Israel – everybody over there should know that the telephone number of the White House is 202-456-1414.  When you’re serious about peace, call us.  And while we are looking for a way now to move through this current ripple in the great Israel-US alliance, we should also be reminded that we should have no illusions about what constitutes partnerships in the realm of realpolitik.

 

Even more than people, countries act in their own self-interest, and we celebrate when these actions may coincide with benevolence and empathy.  We give our leaders too much credit if we think that they prioritize our needs before their own.  As Pirkei Avot shrewdly teaches – hevu z’hirin barashut, shein m’karvin lo la’adam elah l’tzorech atzman.  Nir’in k’ohavin bish’at hana’atan, v’ein omdin lo la’adam bish’at doch’ko – be wary of the authorities – they do not befriend anyone unless it servers their own needs.  They appear as a friend when it is to their advantage, however, they do not stand by anyone in the hour of need.  In addition, as we strive to make sense of the decisions of government — there is a method always to what is shared publically versus what is shared privately.  Who people are speaking to is not always obvious.  To this end, even when there aren’t organized services in this sanctuary, I like to take time and dwell in here, when it is quiet.  I have had a great privilege in my time in Austin, being a part of the envisioning of this space – and the small details of its construction continue to stay with me as I share them with you, as well.

 

As we direct our attention to the ark doors, we see the artful zodiac – which is meant to remind us of the ancient mosaics found in the sixth-century synagogue in Beth Alpha, located in the north of Israel, near Beit She’an.  In addition, the study of astronomy is meant to connect us to the once great Jewish civilization in Babylon – the place where the Talmud was codified and rabbinic Judaism flourished, establishing our Jewish practices, even today.  Everytime we say mazal tov, which means, may our stars be favorable, we are evoking our legacy from Babylon.

 

The larger copper doors themselves were by design, manufactured in Europe, specifically in Germany, and evoke a connection to the once glorious Jewish presence in Europe – where Jews became an indispensable part of the fabric of Western civilization – and both of these civilizations of learning and leading – Babylonian and European — are long gone – there are no Jews safely living in modern day Iraq – and the majority of Jews in Germany and Poland are largely reconstituted from Russian and Israel, today.  Thus, our sanctuary in its beauty is an elegant open question, and a silent referendum about our own current success. As we come here to pray and to put our trust in God – a question beneath our prayers is always — In America, as Jews, how far can we go?

 

We are living in a toxic and corrosive environment – where the Jewish community is battling neo-Nazis on the right and on the left.  As students of history, this should surprise no one.  What is more dismaying is the quick willingness of Jews to denounce other Jews – adopting the language of the fascists in declaring what is right and proper in pursuing particular political agendas – calling Jews JINOS (Jews in Name Only), unJews, Erev Rav – a mixed multitude, kapos, and the enemy within – and declaring an absolute Truth and way forward that obscures more difficult truths is most distressing.  In these attacks among us, to separate the strength of Israel and liberal Judaism is a grave mistake.

 

Here, unfortunately, there are so many parallels to the story of Hanukkah – and the aftermath of the victory of the Maccabees.  For if we read the end of the Books of the Maccabees, we see that after the defeat of the Seleucids, the Maccabees began to fight among themselves — Jews against Jews – Judah Maccabee attacking other cities around Jerusalem.  The Maccabees finally lost against the Greeks in the Battle of Elasa in 160 BCE, where Judah Maccabee was killed.  However, based on the political considerations of the day and negotiations and interests of the larger world powers at the time, Jonathan, Judah’s youngest brother, became High Priest and ruled an independent Judea until about 100 years later.  In a disagreement then between two Hasmonean brothers, descendants of the Maccabees — the Romans were called in by the Hasmoneans themselves, to strengthen one particular side  – and once the Romans entered as an interested party, this unleashed a brute, impassive force against the Jews of the region.

 

I would rather we get to know the great thinkers and wisdom carriers of our tradition – and there is so much to say – however, let me introduce you today to just one figure in our tradition who can help guide us in these unprecedented times – the great leader, Yitzchak ben Yehudah Abravanel – a 15th century Jewish statesman and Torah sage – and a life that reflects the fate of Jews in this world, as we can take council from our history.

 

Commonly known as Abravanel – he was born in Portugal in 1437 – to a family that had escaped massacre in Castile in 1391.  He was appointed as treasurer to King Afonso V.  After this king died, Abravanel was considered a traitor by the new king – the move to a new administration was not good for him.  Eventually he moved to Toledo, Spain, and began to work for Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand – you may have heard about them – the ones who expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492.  I can only imagine the names Abravanel would have been called today by other Jews — Abravanel tried mightily to have the king and queen reverse their decision – offering to pay extraordinary amounts of money to have them to do so.  He was unsuccessful and left Spain for Naples – working for the king there, until the French invaded and Abravanel was forced to leave again without any of his possessions.  He eventually ended up in Venice where he worked in the government until his death in 1508.  He was buried in Padua – and the next year, there was a Siege of Padua by the Holy Roman Empire and the subsequent destruction of the Jewish cemetery – so his grave is currently unknown.

 

Hopefully we can get perspective from knowing more about the story of the Maccabees and the simple biography of Don Isaac Abravanel – we should know too, as we wade through our news feeds, this quote from Niccolo Machiavelli – politics have no relation to morals. 

 

So, let us celebrate Hanukkah and each day, excruciatingly aware of the world around us and yet not to have the world darken our spirits – we are not to be occluded —  we are to find the light in dark times – amid our grim preparation for confronting what is next, we are  to choose miracle out of morass.  We are to deeply acknowledge the darkness – and as we dwell within  this magnificent and thought-provoking sanctuary bracing for impact, to not only say – but to feel in the depth of our being – nes gadol haya po ­– as Hannah Arendt writes – even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost any circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.  We are, each of us, that uncertain, flickering, and weak light – and we are to persevere.  As Reb Nahum from Anatevka reminds us – this belief, this perseverance, is our tradition.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

02/01/2017 at 11:05 Leave a comment

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