Neil F. Blumofe
8 November 2014
On this Shabbat, as we honor our veterans, we again cultivate an appreciation for indescribable service and individual choices made in combat and in our nation’s defense, that enable all of us to gather this morning, unconcerned about an immediate threat to our life or to our way of life. As we may fret about derisive and corrosive gridlock in our political process, and as we may debate the effective deployment of our military in various theatres around the world, we recognize and honor those who put their lives in harm’s way so that we won’t have to.
When we see someone in uniform on an airplane for example, we may give them applause or siddle up to them and say thank you – or even allow them to board before us, if we are feeling generous. Still, we marvel at the suppleness of youth – the sense of confidence that exudes from a young man or woman, enchanted by ideals – we thank a returning soldier or sailor or airman for their work in battle – which we don’t want to know too much about, and then after a while, we expect them to transition right back to a regular rhythm of life, to find their way again in the advantages of living our democracy.
We don’t have time or even patience for the real effects that may occur in a battle-hardened psyche – in a young mind that witnesses or enacts the awful details of war – the grim choices that are made in the heat of conflict, and the real suffering that instantly occurs, everywhere, puncturing the bravado or the dreams of remote leaders or the expectations of a nation. We look to bury the blood. If one has the blessing to survive this, or variations of this, how does one truly transition back to a normal life, engaged in the tedious details of living our part, of upholding our tacit understanding of the fabric of civilization? We seek to sanitize that which protects us – to put it out of our mind and not look too closely at the effects or the damage or the real cost of that protection.
In our Torah, we find Abraham veering between his responsibilities at home and the comfort and attention that he receives when he is out in the world. It seems that he has difficulty engaging in deepening his relationships with his family. At the beginning of our portion, we find Abraham outside of the tent, k’chom hayom – in the heat of the day. Our traditional commentators speculate that this is because Abraham was recovering from his recent covenant-making – his circumcision – and he was simply convalescing. And yet, this detachment is part of a larger pattern – a sense of skimming the service and not taking a firm stand for his family – think back when he left Canaan to Egypt, and willingly assented that his wife go in with Pharaoh. Think back to the fractured relationship that he had with his nephew Lot – and the splitting up of his family – granted, our tradition presents Lot in unfavorable and immature light – and while that is readily supported by our sacred text, we know that Abraham was the one who ultimately disengaged, and sought the divorce.
His difficulty in his travels is exacerbated after his war with the kings, and his rescue of Lot. He returns home after the battle, and seems to live separate and apart from his family. He finds more satisfaction away from home, arguing for the welfare of the nameless, implicated residents of Sodom and Gemorah; he repeats his pattern of behavior, offering his wife to Avimelech the king of Gerar, without prompting; he expels Hagar and Ishamel out into the wilderness; and without telling his wife, he takes his son Isaac to be sacrificed in a remote location – now, he would rather suffer his recovery in the heat of day, rather than being inside of the cool, with his family – a curious choice, to say the least. As our tradition bestows the mitzvah of radical hospitality on Abraham – praising his unhesitating service to the wayfarer – his family unravels and burns.
One can make a convincing case that Abraham is suffering from PTSD – from post-traumatic stress disorder – from shell shock – and as a veteran of war, he never adjusts – he never finds his way towards a settled, dependable life. Although victorious, he suffers the horrors of war and without a safe outlet, he brings his fears and broken experiences into his home.
Let us not think that it is only the most battle-hardened soldiers that suffer from PTSD. When we endure a constant threat to life – a constant negative stimulus, when we find ourselves trapped in a place with difficult and negative personalities that cause pain and trauma, over time our interior plates, shift – or our coping mechanisms snap, and we become undone. Our ideas are undermined and the truths that we tell ourselves to get by, fly away.
Hear how a survivor, a veteran of World War I, Siegfried Sassoon, describes it in his poem, “How to Die,” which was published in 1918:
Dark clouds are smouldering into red
While down the craters morning burns.
The dying soldier shifts his head
To watch the glory that returns;
He lifts his fingers towards the skies
Where holy brightness breaks in flame;
Radiance reflected in his eyes,
And on his lips a whispered name.
You’d think, to hear some people talk
That lads go West with sobs and curses,
And sullen faces white as chalk,
Hankering for wreaths and tombs and hearses.
But they’ve been taught the way to do it
Like Christian soldiers; not with haste
And shuddering groans; but passing through it
With due regard for decent taste.
Each of us, in our own way, has fought our battles, and now must contend with our form of PTSD. To survive is to be a veteran of our previous life. Think of societies that are vulnerable to the outbreak of war – or to roving militias that kidnap and enslave your daughters, or the sudden appearance of militarized bands entering a village, seeking to exterminate – or a civilian population that endures the piercing red alert sirens, always having one eye on the miklat – the bomb shelter.
One may say that after fighting in war, Abraham never adjusted, sabotaging his family and taking out his pent up trauma on his closest relations. He tries to come to terms with witnessing death, by taking his son out for sacrifice. He lives perpetually out of the tent, looking for ways to stay out, inventing reasons not to go home. He is a shadow a temporary resident of his own life, not struggling to inhabit his good and to moderate his imperfect ones. It is as if Abraham has given up somehow – and is just living out his days, with an impairing numbness.
For me, one of the saddest days of this past summer, after all of the difficulties in Israel, was reading about the three boys. Not the three kidnapped boys, who were later found dead in a field near Hebron – rather the three boys, members of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) Givati brigade, who committed suicide after fighting in Gaza.
A first rule for pastoral work is to never, ever assume that you know what happens with someone behind their closed doors – to never assume anything about a person, despite what you see – we all seek to contain our demons – and war is a terror tunnel that allows this monstrousness into the bright of day. Today we honor our veterans for their service, for us – – and beyond any conversation that we could have about the responsibility our society has to care for our veterans during and after their return from service, we offer compassion and gratitude today, with the realization of how hard it must be, to not go through the motions with nightmare – of how hard it must be, rather to just show up, looking to thrive and to make and strengthen meaningful attachments.
For all of us who are wounded within, we offer respect, faithfulness, and love. We thank you, as we see ourselves but for the grace of your service, in you.
“On the Road”
Parashat Lech Lecha
Neil F. Blumofe
1 November 2014
After wandering through the lands of Canaan and Egypt, Avram and his household disperse – Lot choosing to settle in the fertile plains of the Jordan, and Avram setting up his tent in the plains of Mamre, in Hebron, which is in the rocky and barren Hill Country. Much had passed between Avram and his nephew Lot, before they decided to split up. Moving together from Ur Kasdim, together with their family, they had walked an uncertain road, following the direction of an unfamiliar God – leaving their surety and recognizable signposts, behind.
Along the way, they had acquired riches – and rather than bringing them closer together, this wealth served to separate them further, as illustrated in the following verse: va’ya’al Avram miMitzrayim hu v’ishto v’chol asher lo, v’Lot imo hanegbah – So Avram went up from Egypt, he with his wife, and all that was his – and Lot with him, into the Negev. By placing Lot last in the list, after everything and everyone else, our tradition is showing that the relationship between Avram and Lot is off – that something is unsettled.
Indeed, one of the beautiful ways that the Torah is expressed, is in an understated style – our tradition pays attention to every word, and every nuance – as the 20th century scholar Nehama Leibowitz reminds us, the order of words in the verse is not accidental. Changes in emphasis, approval and disapproval and shades of meaning are not imparted, in the Torah, through long-winded psychological explanations or verbose analysis, but by a subtle syntactical devise or seemingly insignificant but definitely unusual turn of phrase, combination, order or choice of words.
After journeying across this new land, Avram and Lot realize that they are not good traveling companions, so Avram suggests that they split up – and despite the promise that God gives Avram that the land is his, in his self-effacing, faithful nature, Avram lets Lot choose where he would like to settle – and selfishly, Lot chooses the well-watered plain, leaving the less desirable land to his older uncle — and then Lot sets off immediately, without a farewell dinner, a going away party, and without ceremony. We realize that two distinct lines are forming – Avram and his family, and Lot, who is the antecedent of the Ammonites and the Moabites – both whom would be prohibited from entering the community of Israel, as our tradition teaches, because of a chronic ingratitude.
As we live, is our experience peopled by those with whom we were once close, and now for whatever reason or exigency, we are now living estranged, or in uneasy, fractured relationship? Like Father Avram, do we wish that we could start fresh – to reset – to really hear the voice of God, asking us to leave our land, our relatives, our ancestral home and go to a mysterious, strange land? And yet, we know that this break is not clean, and will not solve our interpersonal challenges – our baggage comes with us, no matter where we go.
When hearing God’s voice, why did Avram need to leave where he was – the traditional answer is that he was surrounded by idolatry – by people who were too far gone to support his revising version of what is holy and sacred. Avram needed to create his own life, away from that which is too familiar – and yet — we now see Avram, relinquishing part of his chosen family. Lot chooses to associate with the residents of Sodom and Gemorrah, idolaters in the their own right — folks who would be hard-pressed to accept Avram’s different way of life, as well.
The previous patterns from Avram’s homeland are again being established in Canaan. Although Avram may look to reinvent himself, who he intrinsically is, is already established. His new land is his homeland. How do we act when we are not at home, when we are on the road? Our culture may idealize road trips, as the American novelist, Jack Kerouac has written – I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility. And yet, as we travel with our people, or pick up new relationships, over time, the smallest irritants surface in these spaces, things that distract us from our frustrations at home are not present when we travel, and aggravation rises in a more compressed and destructive way, perhaps leaving us worse than before. In Avram’s case, to travel together is not to get away from it all, at all.
Avram and Lot are living apart – Avram finding his way a bit more difficult in the inferior land. Perhaps he has already set up his rationale and his defenses, adjusting his everyday pattern, knowing that his ex is out there – that previously close relationships, now impoverished, are real, just beyond the bend. We look to insulate ourselves from the casualties of our relationships – from our outstanding hurts — we withdraw, we paper over, we strut and bluster, hoping that our offensive, overcompensating position will intimidate or shut down the sting of brokenness that we carry, wherever we are.
And yet, Avram goes to bat for Lot – when the kings of Sodom and Gemorrah go out to fight their attackers and are overpowered and Lot is captured, Avram does not hesitate to redeem him, going to the far North, past Damascus and organizing nighttime raids against great odds, to bring his nephew back safely to Sodom.
The Torah does not record a reunion or even a note of gratitude between Avram and Lot. Once saved, Lot disappears back to his well-watered life in the lush fields of the Jordan Valley. Any hopes for reconciliation within the family dry up. What compelled Avram to risk his life, to rescue his nephew? Was this daring mission, part of God’s unfolding plan of Avram’s inheritance?
In any healing work that we may do, what rewards do we expect? Do we expect our work to be lauded, or even noticed? How do we prove ourselves when we look to establish ties? What is simply ours for the taking, and what must we fight for? In our daily lives, are we on a journey, past the familiar, always looking to remake ourselves, and yet obligated to address busted relationships, finding a way to rescue that which is held captive and which we would not otherwise engage?
Avram saving Lot is the deepest lesson of his journey. Withstanding the stings of insult and impertinence are secondary to his commitment to manage his hurt and disappointment, and to show up for one in his past who is threatened and vulnerable. In hearing the directive of God to go, Avram in fact did not walk out on his home – he brought his home with him, and in difficult, transitory circumstances, issued a repair that allowed his home to flourish, in its dissolution. As John Steinbeck writes — a journey is a person in itself; no two are alike and all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip – a trip takes us.
“Between the Ark and the Tower”
Neil F. Blumofe
25 October 2014
As much as our tradition makes the compelling claim that the stories of Noah and his family are God’s grand experiments in trying to make this created world work – situated between the failed undertaking of the Garden of Eden and the still evolving research and open question of the efficacy and success of the descendants of Abraham – one can make an equally viable claim that as much as the Divine is trying to get it together, so are the creations of the Divine. If we look at the story of Noah’s ark as connected to the episode of the Tower of Babel, we may discover that humanity is trying to articulate a sense of meaning about the purpose of life.
In the command to build and board the ark, Noah is asked to go small – asked to move beyond the dangers of the larger world, and huddle with his people – to create a fragile, floating Garden of Eden that will be sustained, while the rest of the world disappears. All Noah is asked to do is to survive, and then simply regenerate in the proper time. There is no healing, there is no tikkun olam that Noah is able to do – the events in the world are too far gone, and rather than confront the overpowering difficulties of the day, he is asked to essentially go underground, and wait out the storm.
Conversely, the building of the city with a large tower is not so much hubris by the community, as it is confidence in belonging to this world – a contrast to the fleeing of Noah. Here, people want to be rooted to a place – to have a home, and to find meaning in engaging with each other. Here are people who are comfortable in their existence and who want to further their connection and develop their standard of living as well as their technologies.
Perhaps as humans in the scope of God’s creation, we were never meant to get it exactly right. If we sin too much, we are destroyed, and if we all get together and attempt to build a great civilization, we too, are also intimidated and dispersed. We exist eternally within the great vacillating center of ambition and catastrophe – of using our resources for good and also squandering them, immolating ourselves in our own predilections and burning passions. Many times, we overlook the holy to revel in our fright – and over time, we become alienated from our own beauty, in our coarseness.
As we study this Torah portion, we discover that the guardrails that God puts up for both God and for us, are too close to the edge – we don’t have enough space to skid on the neutral ground and come to a full stop, before hitting a wall. As we seek to navigate this world and at the same time, protect our families and ourselves from perishing – both examples offered by our Torah portion should give us pause. All of us in our way are seeking meaning, and a power to live an unobstructed life – and even those who fall, usually try to do the best that they can, at least some of the time, as we take the observation of the 19th century Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky to heart: power is given only to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up. Only one thing matters, one thing – to be able to dare.
Each of us is Noah, an ish tsadik tamim hayah bidrotav – et haElohim hithalech – each of us, in our better moments, consider ourselves righteous, blameless and walking with God. We do not consider ourselves deviants, outcasts, or fugitives doomed to wander the earth, outside of the rhythms of society. We look to both determine our environment and to blend in, have a good name, be successful and hopefully contribute a bit to the betterment of civilization. When asked to merely survive, to build an ark and survive, we will dare to do so as we comply.
And yet, we know the limits of our accomplishments – if we are too successful, if we all band together, ironically we become estranged from each other. In our own experimentation of how to live in this world, what do we do? For here’s the limit as we study the residents of Babel: it is easy to get frustrated or to find an existence that is filled with absolute certainty. To find a life that is only black and white – to find a reality that pronounces judgment on difference, and criminalizes those who aren’t us, is much easier than living with nuance and doubt. We like to identify our heroes and our villains, feeling secure in knowing that one is different from the other. Yet, this is a false security – for each of us holds the capacity for both.
It makes us feel better to condemn the drowned sinner, left in the water – to draw a distinction between someone who falls short and each of us who is calm and carrying on within the artificial boundaries of what is acceptable – each of us who is still on the ark, waiting for the storm to end. And when we disembark, when we step again onto dry land – what options lie open for us – Noah brings an offering to God and also brings shame on himself and creates dissension in his family in his intoxication. He lives his life too, between a rock and a hard place.
Each of us, in our own way, exists on our ark, hopefully unaffected by the ravages of flood – and at the same time, we are part of the citizenry of Babel, who would like to build a magnificent city in our own happy valley, in concert with each other. We are both looking to escape and to engage – and we’d like the luxury of choosing the time and space for both. We would like to name the time when we board our ark to get away from the difficulty and also when we are productive and contributing members of society. Each is necessary – and one cannot live without the other. After all of this time, we are still tinkering with the balances of our life – with our bass and our treble – with our work and home – with what we choose to present and what we’d like to hide.
God continues to send us back from our blind spots and our dead ends – to not lose ourselves in our work, and not to withdraw from our relationships to the point where we are isolationists, living with distorted or bloated meaning. To live means to strike an uneasy balance – to forge a determined recognition that we are sometimes our own worst enemies, and sometimes that we can’t fix the great difficulties of this world, and that nevertheless we persevere, pick up our broken pieces and move ahead everyday, continuing to dare.
Neil F. Blumofe
18 October 2014
It is striking that in this most majestic of Torah portions, when the human being is said to be created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, things so quickly go wrong. After the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden for listening to the machinations of a snake – Cain commits the first homicide, murdering his brother – and as the generations pass to the birth of Noah, the world is filled with violence, and God calls upon the flood to destroy the world and start again.
Our tradition wonders about this concept of betzelem Elohim. How can we be created in the image of God, if we are so flawed and if we tend to choose unwisely as we navigate our existence? We would much prefer to contrast our imperfect lives with a concept of God that is perfect, whole, and infallible. When we say baruch hagever asher yivtach baShem, we mean it – and we in kind, return that trust by saying baruch hashem, as a practice of gratitude, as we live our life. We would like to think that God is not as reckless as we, and does not make mistakes – that when we commit transgressions and have moral failures that it is not a reflection on our concept of how the universe works – that God, the ghost in the machine, is somehow awry, and primed to fail.
In our civic life, it gives us great discomfort to think that big agencies fumble the ball. As we think about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2005 reacting to the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, or as we think of the malfeasance or greed of those institutions making risky or bad loans in the real estate or banking markets leading to the Great Recession beginning in 2008, or as we have great consternation about how the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is handling this latest outbreak of Ebola in Dallas, and anticipating its spread, we quickly realize that no organization is too big to fail, and all of our assurances and reliance on a greater protector should be in doubt.
The Garden of Eden came with a fatal flaw. The snake was not an aberration – rather, it was part of paradise, and literally, part of God’s creation. As Jews, we do not think of the world Gnostically – we do not believe in separate entities of Good and Evil. Creation itself, all of creation has within it a moralizing force – a proclamation that each Day of Creation and all that was created in it, between Evening and Morning, was Good, and even on the sixth day, Very Good.
There is no lurking dark power that is ready to do battle with the forces of light. Although there are vestiges of it in our tradition, we do not think God is in a battle with Satan for this world. All difficulty, all tragedy is built into the one overpowering concept of a singular force creating this world – separating out chaos from order, and keeping destruction at bay, by barring the primordial waters from returning to ruin the rare ecosystem of our life.
When we lose the Garden of Eden, when we pollute our world and commit acts of savagery, or more commonly, when we are careless, indolent, and disregarding – all of this is a reflection on God. When we feel desperate or fearless – vindicated or attacked, and we act destructively, we weaken our claim to be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over all the animals, the whole earth, and over every creeping creature upon the earth. We exchange our birthright for a quickly cooled red lentil stew of instant gratification or satisfaction – and we become another nameless part of creation – no more unjust and selfish, as apes are mischievous, wolves savage, or vultures ravenous.
Another way to consider the concept of betzelem Elohim, is to submit that in our human, all too human actions, God is not so dissimilar from us. Like us, God is vengeful and catty – filled with gossip and sinat chinam – baseless hatred. God is overly protective, sometimes cruel, and even abusive – and sometimes altruistic, doing random acts of kindness, with no set goal – paying it forward, so to speak. God then can be moody, and impulsive flirting with strangers before returning home for the evening– constantly needing attention – and of course, always vowing to lose some weight, and thinking that tomorrow will be a better day. Like us, God is wounded, in relationship, and always digging to locate that cornerstone of love that keeps things from toppling over, day-by-day.
How can we be separate from God? Rather than denying God, what is the mystery of Free Will — a concept that gives us some space, an alibi to strive after wholeness while having anxiety, and shattering the unbroken vessels as we walk? Why do we oftentimes act against our best interests, choosing exile over homecoming, attempting to hide our baser nature in the soothing light of status and comfort? Is God truly on the sidelines, watching us bruise each other – watching us destroy the earth in front of us, before pulling us back from the edge, before the point of no return? How much suffering is too much suffering, in the estimation of God? Is our current residence with Cain, somewhere East of Eden, somewhere on the sitra achra side of what we consider to be predictable and safe? Because of our brutishness, have we never been redeemed – do we live in a parallel world of impurity, corruption and degeneracy, masquerading as a place of virtue and decency?
We are commanded to repair this world and thus, to repair God. The choice of what land we inhabit is up to us. This is more than just the facile understanding of tikkun olam – our own blood is already crying out to us from the ground – we are asked to feel obligated – not just for what we choose to do or not do as we pass by – rather, we are asked to witness, to take on the great task of staking out this world for holiness. Every step we take, every word we say challenges us to make things better.
All of the mitzvot are not stars, points, or good deeds that we collect for a reward – rather they are a key to our universe and to our survival, as we ask questions – as we drill down into the details of our life and practice caring before compassion. We are meant to show up first and then to assess how best we can practice betzelem Elohim inspiring us to rise about our baser inclinations perhaps, and to offer a blessing to God, with a gentle push, reordering the world in a way that brings healing, strength, and hope – before waiting for God, we are asked to take the Divine Position, and to trust that what we do, is for the best – baruch hagever asher yivtach baShem – may our determination to improve things, to walk a bit more softly, and to trust that our actions and our voices do matter bring blessings to this world.
We are not asking to return to Paradise – all in due time. For now we are asking to plant seeds in our desolate land, and by our efforts and our prayers, Baruch haShem, to have flowers and sustainable crops, bloom.
“The Sukkah That Isn’t There”
Shemini Atzeret – Yizkor
Neil F. Blumofe
16 October 2014
On this day, a day of assembly, we reserve this time to dwell a bit longer in the moments of the High Holydays – days perhaps long anticipated or dreaded, and now after a blink or two of our eyes, gone. We are already towards the end of this first month of the New Year, rapidly establishing our routines, and perhaps, falling into familiar patterns.
The world is again beginning to overtake us, and charge us with time-sensitive responsibilities. These precious moments of the Yamim Noraim, filled with reflection, seem muted and now compressed in this final day of gathering memory, before a long spell of winter until Yizkor again appears at the end of Pesach, in the spring. Beginning this evening, we open ourselves up to celebrate as we dance with our sifrei Torah – putting our diminishment and our brokenness behind us, falling directly into the plum blessings of our living as we appreciate these moments of being alive.
And yet, now we linger. We are invited back into our memories – to go back in time and share our deconsecrated sukkah with all of the figures, peopling our past. We ask Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Miriam and Aaron, David and Devorah to move over, as we invite Bubbie, Zayde, Uncle Nate, Aunt Fanny, Mom, Dad, and a host of others into our sukkah, into our fragile space. Today, we all sit together without a blessing of leishev basukkah – today we sit, as if we were in a palace of mourning – where we share our memories, rethink our childhood – in our pursuit of inspiration or peace. Today, we go home – and we go home, differently.
We have a bit of remove as we enter our old houses again – as we smell the smells of our childhood and as we brace for unexpected memories in front of the television, listening to the radio, out on a walk, or just living an everyday life. Our senses are to become a bit more vivid now, in this time – in these moments devoted to silence, tears, and reflection.
A well-known rabbi of a previous generation, Hillel Silverman tells the following story:
Mamaroneck, New York is just 20 minutes from Greenwich, Connecticut – and yet this is a journey that took me 30 years to complete. Because my parents of blessed memory lived back East, and I at the time, was young rabbi in Dallas, we were not able to visit each other very often during the year.
One summer, 30 years ago, we rented a home together in Mamaroneck. It was a beautiful, white stucco house directly on the Sound at Orient Point. We had a wonderful summer together – six incredible weeks – sharing all meals together as a family. We were able to step out of the back door and swim in the ocean. We watched the boats going back and forth, and in the distance we were able to see the skyline of Manhattan. Included in our summer rental was a car, housekeeping, and golf privileges.
In these 30 years, I had not been back. For 30 years I have been reminiscing about that memorable summer with my parents. Little did I dream that I would settle in Greenwich, so close to Mamaroneck.
A few years ago, my daughter, Gila, and her two-year-old son, Matthew, visited us. “Gila, do you remember the wonderful summer we had with Saba and Savtah?” “Yes, I do,” she replied. “How can you remember it – you were five years old.” “I remember it, dad,” she exclaimed. “I remember the house, and the cliffs nearby – I remember the avenue we drove down, and the guardhouse, and the beach.”
“Wow! Do you think if we got into our car with Matthew right now, we would be able to find it?” “I know we will,” she quickly responded. We were a bit farblundget, because 30 years ago, there was no I-95 – and yet, somehow we found our way to Mamaroneck Avenue and then, to Orient Point.
All of a sudden, my daughter screamed out, “Dad, there it is! There’s the house!” Sure enough, there it was — she cried, “Here’s the beach, there’s the greenhouse, and the yard!” It looked just like yesterday.
As we drove back to Greenwich, we tried to recapture the memories since that long-ago summer. We fondly recalled a Bar Mitzvah and two B’not Mitzvah – confirmations, weddings, funerals, vacations, trips, celebrations, new cities, summer camps, college, engagements. We thought about all the things that happened in the last 30 years – the assassination of President Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, Martin Luther King, and so much more.
And for us, what do we remember in these last 30 years in our lives and in the lives of our civilization – the Challenger Explosion, the First Gulf War, Monica Lewinsky, 9/11, Afghanistan, the election of President Obama, SARS? As we take these moments together, and we all climb into our respective cars for a trip down memory lane – avoiding the interstate, of course – what memories do we have in common – what would we like to share with others – what would we like to get rid of, and erase – what is sweetness, and what is a nightmare. What would we like to do differently, and say, before time gets too late?
A few weeks later, Rabbi Silverman called his daughter and said, “our recent trip has inspired me to write – I’ll write about a father and a daughter and a grandson searching for a home, where they had a lovely summer, long ago – replete with memories and our conversations – and eventually the family will find the house and will go up to the front door – a place that seems unchanged from 30 years ago – and they will ring the doorbell, hoping to see the home once more. And the door will open, and there will be Rabbi Silverman’s mother, who is long dead – she will be standing there in the front room, holding a cake and inviting them to enter.
As we knock on the front doors of our memory houses – or as we sneak in a window in the back, whom do we bring with us, to reminiscence and to tell our stories? As we tell our stories, how accurate are we in our rendering? What details do we highlight, gloss over, or make up?
As Miranda Lambert sings,
I know they say you can’t go home again
I just had to come back one last time.
Ma’am, in know you don’t know me from Adam,
But those handprints on the front steps are mine.
And up those stairs, in that little back bedroom,
Is where I did my homework and I learned to play guitar,
And I bet you didn’t’ know under that live oak,
My favorite dog is buried in the yard.
I thought if I could touch this place or feel it,
This brokenness inside me might start healing.
Out here it’s like I’m someone else,
I thought that maybe I could find myself,
If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave.
Won’t take nothing but a memory,
From the house that built me.
We are here now in our sukkah that once existed – a time to enter and see that the sukkah will continue in our heart and mind. We will trod these places again next week, and we will have just our memories to direct us, to the places that we hold sacred – to the times where we felt vital – to the friendships that we shared, and the mistakes that we made. This is the moment of entry into this place, as we say goodbye, and change the Torah covers — white back to purple – as we clean out the rose petals from the ark, and put away our shofar for another year.
We begin our stories again this evening, in a time of merriment – knowing that 30 years is but a stitch in time, and all that we ever do is not forgotten and our intentions are known – our smiles, our sweetness, and our bad days too. May our memories inspire us – and provide us with health to not survive this day, rather to dance, to dance with all that we hold sacred and important in one hand, and in our other, the hands of those whom we hold so dear.
“In the Clouds”
Parashat Hol haMoed Sukkot
Neil F. Blumofe
11 October 2014
Among the many special ways that we observe and celebrate Sukkot, in our Birkat haMazon, our Grace After Meals, there is a particular line that has perplexed me. Among the few prayers beseeching God, on Sukkot we add the line, Harachaman Hu yakim lanu et sukkat David hanofelet – May the Merciful One raise up the fallen sukkat of David. This image is connected to the prophetic book of Amos, which states that in that day I will raise up the sukkah, the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and I will repair its breaches, and I will raise up his ruins and I will rebuilt it as in the days of old (Amos 9:11).
Our traditional commentaries link this connection to the building of the Temple in Jerusalem — and that our dwelling in the sukkah is akin to witnessing God’s Presence, or the Clouds of Glory. This idea is linked to a teaching in the Talmud, which states that the clouds of glory originated at the time of the creation of the world, when aid ya’aleh min ha’aretz – when a mist rose from the earth. (Sukkah 11b), forming the clouds above that watered the whole face of the ground. This is to mean that the clouds in the sky date from the original mist from the earth – which is why our sukkot covering, our skackh, is to made from items from the earth that cannot contract impurity. We are thus building our sukkah with the same material that existed at the time of creation – connecting our experiences to the first urges that shaped our universe.
Another idea about raising up the fallen sukkah – is about the resilience of the Jewish people – that no matter the time or place, even if blown down or damaged by a strong wind, we will constitute ourselves anew and we will find a way to reconstruct our essence. We are but a fragile sukkah in the whirlwind of the world – and yet we will endure. Building on this idea — the concept of truly appreciating permanence while recognizing impermanence is a core meditation when dwelling in the sukkah. According to the Maharal, a 16th century Ashkenazi sage, the sukkah is impervious to the physical permanence of this world. When we dwell in the sukkah, we are free from the shackles of our regular physical houses – and we can yearn for a better time to come – to invite not only our wonderful guests – our teachers and our fathers and mothers from yesteryear into the sukkah as part of our ushpizin – we can invite the legacy of David into our sukkah as well – a hope that by our efforts, what we might call the World-to-Come is activated.
We are thus reminded that what appears permanent in this world is only fleeting, and that which seems ephemeral in this world – spiritual growth – is what has eternal significance – haolam hazeh domeh laprozdor bifnei haolam habah – this world is compared to a corridor that leads to the World-to-Come (Avot 4:21).
Another idea that is compelling to me this year is the idea that the sukkah represents our life – at a certain age we go out into the world and we are buffeted by the elements – we are sheared by the wind, we are pummeled by the rain, and over time, despite our best efforts, we sink and sag. No matter our successes we eventually relinquish to the next generation – our doctors, our clergy – authority figures — will be younger than we are, thus giving us a sense of discomfiture.
I have been holding onto a quote from Frederick Douglass, the 19th century orator, statesman, and abolitionist, who said – it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. In the context of the Festival of Sukkot, the sukkah, rather than being seen as something that is fragile and easily destroyed, can be seen as a symbol of a well-lived life – one that endures, before finally being swept away. Seeing Sukkot as a meditation about the meaning of our life, we can counter-intuitively hold the sukkah as a strong child – how we celebrate our Festivals, how we approach our responsibilities, how we live – all effects those who are watching and using us as examples.
It is so easy to be a broken man – and so hard to repair. As we build our sukkot, may we say that we are building strong children – that we are watering the ground, preparing for planting for the future — overcoming our own imperfections and imperfect proclivities – we are surpassing our tendencies for hypocrisy and negativity – and in the simple acts of showing up, construction, and dwelling, we are teaching powerful lessons about living.
As the journalist, Murray Kempton has written: there are new endeavors and fresh disasters, for they are the way of life. And the art of life is to save enough from each disaster to be able to begin again in something like your old image.
May our celebration of Sukkot, bring us joy and strength in this New Year. Rain or shine, may we have the opportunity to enjoy the moments that we have, the time that is presented to us and stand courageously and unafraid, raising ourselves up from where we have fallen – for, nothing’s impossible, I have found/for when my chin is on the ground/I pick myself up, dust myself off/And start all over again.
Especially in this time of shemitah, this year of pause – we do well to consider the sukkat David hanofelet – and see that we are gifted with opportunity to consider, to build, to improve, and ultimately, to take down – appreciative in the rushing of time — of what was, what we have done, and what will never be again.
“Under the Sea: The Book of Jonah as a Book of Memory”
Yom Kippur – Yizkor
Neil F. Blumofe
4 October 2014
As each of us comes with our own expectations and requirements of what Yom Kippur, and indeed, what High Holydays should be and do for us – with our own memories and reports, we approach now Yizkor — this high cliff, this place in our liturgy where all comes to a screeching halt, and we carefully walk over to the edge, to peer down, far down into the deep shadowed valley below – truly the valley of the shadow of death.
Perhaps, as we look down, we see a haze – a filmy indistinctness that obscures our clearer view, and that reminds us that our turn will come, when we leave the high vantage points of clarion, confident perspective – our hale and healthy perch, and as we make our way down, down this sheer cliff, unsure of our footing, down, stumbling to the craggy shore below – where we will see that the valley is not what we thought it was – simultaneously more and less frightening as we enter its engulfing shadows.
Later this afternoon, we will experience the Book of Jonah in its entirety – a confounding story of a hesitant prophet who is pulled from his place to warn strangers of their doom. We will read of a man who tries to escape his inevitability – and at the end, has questions that are not only unanswered, but are also unaddressed. May we see the story of Jonah not so much as someone who seeks to shirk responsibility for this life – but rather as a quest to come to terms with our mortality – an attempt to hold onto the sands of time that fall out of our hands as we try to grasp the purpose of our life.
As we enter that darkened valley, or in Jonah’s case – when he was in the belly of the whale – we realize that all of our best-laid plans fall away. Our ambitions melt in the face of an unplanned reality, as we realize that what we took for granted and what we depended on is gone. We stand here, like Jonah did, asking the hardest questions of our life – our artifice stripped bear as we remember those who gave us life – as we remember squandered opportunities – as we remember, perhaps with shame, moments that we have created upon our canvas, paints that spatter, sullying with anger and staining with hot judgment.
Each of us walks into our unintended Nineveh – a place where we did not expect to go, to be of service to those who we did not seek. Where is Jonah’s family – he is a stranger in both a familiar and a strange land – cast about to fend for himself, without the security of love or belonging? As he walks in this world, thinking that he is unencumbered and commitment-free, he is astonished and surprised by how his life circles back to a sacred center – to how he proclaims himself an Ivri, a Hebrew, when his life is on the line – and how he recognizes his essence, past all of the charade and shielding that he desperately fronts.
Now, during Yizkor, our smugness, our assurance is diminished as we see the shadowed valley more closely. If we pause, we can smell the smells that we have cherished — of foods, of worn clothes, or perfumes of people whose memories we now cherish– of particular cars that we have ridden in, or homes that we have lived in – after so many years, I still remember the smell of my grandfather’s car — things that we have shared – the voices, the laughter and the tears of those who have descended before us into this eternal place. We realize that we will, before too long, be enfolded into this place as well – and perhaps in time to come, others will tell our story on Yom Kippur afternoon, as we tell Jonah’s story – or perhaps anonymous, we and our life, will just sink into the deep.
How can we cultivate an awareness of each passing day that truly informs how we live in the days that we have? How can these moments of Yizkor not just be excursions to the edge – thrill-seeking to a point, yet recreationally put into our photo albums as we trudge on, ultimately unaffected us as we see, feel, and experience now? Also, how can these moments of Yizkor not incapacitate us – not leave us feeble and unable to move by the roadside, helpless in the merciless beating sun, as we pray for some shade, any shade for our weary head?
It’s striking that the Book of Jonah ends unraveled – it is not clear that Jonah is affected by the miracle of his survival. His last words to God are: heitaiv chara li ad mavet – I do well to be so angry, even to death. What will our last moments be like – in the tatters of our mosaic, as we hold our frayed quilt of life, how will we make peace? Will we go down to our depths angry and unrepentant – stubborn in our displeasure? Will anything ever be all right?
The Book of Jonah ends with a gaping open question – with God trying to explain to Jonah, responding with reasonableness to Jonah’s righteous fury concerning the circumstances of his life. Those who do not understand – should God not have compassion on them? Those who are not reflective – who are not present and are not invested in the majesty of God, are nonetheless, part of God’s design. God even shapes the shadowed valley. Really, another name for the pit of death is the Garden of Eden. Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.
We are asked to learn from Jonah – to not be petulant and unforgiving until the end. We are to take up Jonah’s story and continue the narrative. After Nineveh, now what? Do we get back on the boat and try to disappear? Do we recede back into our everyday life, secreting away this infinite experience of accessing and celebrating memory, or do we find ourselves somehow changed, and charged to live well and humbly, even as we step carefully over the sharp glass shards of our losses.
Maybe change starts with a thank you. Maybe our texts are beckoning us to stand on Jonah’s shoulders and model consideration. There is a story told by my colleague Rabbi Michael Simon about an elderly, retired teacher who lived in a nursing home. He was lonely and often felt that the many years that he had devoted to his students were long forgotten. He was able to voracious reader, and his mind was active – and yet, the thought that no one remembered him made him sad.
His wife had died years before, and his three children lived far away and rarely visited. They did call him regularly – however, day in and day out, the thought that what he had done for so long and was not appreciated, weighed on his mind.
One day, he received a call from a former student. The student asked if it would be all right if she and some of her friends from school came to visit. The retired teacher was thrilled – “of course, it’s more than all right – I look forward to your visit.”
Over twenty students, now grown, surprised their former teacher with a gala party in his honor. Each former student got up to speak and expressed appreciation for with the teacher had done for him or her. They related that much of their success in life was because of his positive influence on them. He was remembered. He was noticed, he received attention, and he was appreciated. The work that he had done was living on. After the party, he asked them to call him every once and a while – they said that they would – and they did – and they told their friends that their calls would be appreciated, as well. Each call was a symbol of gratitude that added much light to that teacher’s life, before he died.
As we look down into the darkened valley below – we begin to see the shadows of figures – of people that we recognize — grandparents, parents, siblings, sisters, brothers, children – and ourselves. We have this moment now to appreciate and show gratitude for what we have had in our lives. We will soon move to other ground, and yet, we can be guided as we stand here during Yizkor, during this Yom Kippur towards living more meaningful, intentional lives.
When we look back at Jonah we see a man disaffected and removed, sitting with impatience under his mysterious gourd, not grateful for his abundance, not grateful for his precious moments – cantankerous until the end. And how will people look back at us? What moments will describe us – moments that we may be so desperate to promote or to conceal? How do we keep our loved ones close?
Here’s another story: a young lady in her mid-twenties received the sad news that her father had been diagnosed with a terminal disease and had less that six months to live. Ever since she was a little girl, she had dreamed about sharing a dance with her Daddy at her wedding. She now realized that this dream was not ever to be. At this time, she didn’t have a steady boyfriend – certainly not a fiancé – so moving a wedding to an earlier date was not an option. There was no wedding.
The young lady, named Rachel Wolf, conceived of a rather unconventional idea. She decided to host a groomless wedding, for the exclusive purpose of dancing with her father. Dr. James Wolf, who was losing his life to pancreatic cancer, was invited to his daughter’s wedding in Auburn, California. Rachel worn a stunning wedding dress and her Dad was decked out in his tuxedo – and they came together for a dance on that day.
Father and daughter danced together, surrounded by adoring friends and relatives – who were hugging and applauding. They danced to a song called “Cinderella,” by Steven Curtis Chapman – the lyrics go like this:
It’s been a long day and there’s still work to do
She’s pulling at me saying, Dad I need you
There’s a ball at the castle and I’ve been invited
And I need to practice my dancing, oh please, daddy, please.
So I will dance with Cinderella while she is here in my arms
‘cause I know something the prince never knew
oh, I will dance with Cinderella, I don’t want to miss even one song
‘cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight and she’ll be gone.
There will be day when Rachel Wolf does get married, for real – and her dad will not be there. However, she has shaped this future moment – she has created memories and images that will invite his spirit and his soul to her on that future day.
It is grief that frays our life’s quilt. It is our recognition that like Jonah, we are most afraid of not belonging anywhere.
We look with uncertainty
Beyond the old choices for
To a softer, more permeable aliveness
Which is every moment
At the brink of death;
For something new is being born in us
If we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
Awaiting that which comes…
Daring to be human creatures,
Vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.
-Anne Hillman, “We Look with Uncertainty”
So, now, as we turn – as we think of our loved ones – those times when we connected with them. Here in this space – on a walk, in a conversation, a movie that we shared, a quiet moment – a favorite activity. What do we remember? What can we remember, past being heitaiv chara li ad mavet – so angry, even to death?
As we enter into this Yizkor, as we recognize that we are at the summit of our hill, as we are also animated in the deep of the valley, we certainly exist in both places, simultaneously, as we invite and allow our tears to fall. We are able to sing our stories, as we are inspired by Jonah, we are able to sing our imperfect stories, and for all of it, as we are able today, to say – thank you.
There is a brokenness
Out of which comes the unbroken,
A shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow beyond all grief
Which leads to joy
And a fragility
Out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space
Too vast for words
Through which we pass with each loss,
Out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound,
Whose serrated edges cut the heart as we break open
To the place inside, which is unbreakable and whole,
While learning to sing.
-The Unbroken, Sufi
May the memories of all those we remember today be for a blessing.
T’hei nishmoteihem tzrurot b’tzror hachayim –
May their souls be bound up in the bond of life.