Neil F. Blumofe
27 August 2016
Yesterday afternoon, I called my oldest son who lives in Brooklyn to offer him the Shabbat blessings a parent offers to a child – as I usually do, every week. As many of you may remember, he has just returned from leading a Birthright Trip to Israel and he has begun his fall semester at college, and we hadn’t yet had an opportunity to catch up.
He was telling me how over the journey, he led two Shabbat experiences for the Birthright contingent – 40 young people, ages 18-26. The first Shabbat coincided with Tisha b’Av – so he also chanted a chapter of the Book of Lamentation and spoke to the travelers about how to live with both tragedy and joy, together. After that first Shabbat, the Israeli guides took him aside and mentioned that while they appreciated his depth and intensity and they admired his passion, that in their experience the groups that they had seen were not yet ready for such intense moments. They asked that he consider a longer runway for bringing the people into the richness and the complexity of what Judaism and being Jewish offered – especially while in Israel.
With his usual levelheadedness, he took their advice and in that next Shabbat in the context of the prayers and themes of the day, was asking the group to think about what emotions usually surface for each of them when they feel uncomfortable, disappointed, or overwhelmed. What were their go to responses? Did they each take responsibility for how they themselves felt, or did they lash out at another and seek to pin blame, fault, and inadequacy on someone else?
After an initial backlash from one or two of the participants who felt annoyed by this exercise, once each of them allowed this to be a legitimate exploration, my son mentioned that the group was able to grow in connection and in respect for each other and in what motivated each of them as they looked to flourish and move through life. In the context of their experiences together – even the Israeli guides whose opinions my son respected and heeded – were able to fully participate in this work, trusting that the intense moments shared with the group on the 10-day journey offset their own concerns of what could be the ramifications of too honest a conversation.
Our Torah, in profound wisdom, prepares us nicely for to do this similar work as we anticipate the new Hebrew month of Elul. Our tradition teaches that this month, just before the turning of the New Year, is when God is closest to us – and offers us the chance to be most vulnerable and ready to move past our own familiar stories and truths that we hold to be immutable – past the limits of our own assumptions, as we seek to improve our lives.
The concept of teshuvah is ascendant now – a time, not when we wipe our slates clean with each other, but rather, when we realize that our relationships together continue in the brokenness that has been and in the fresh hopes that still await us.
Moses is addressing the people on the banks of the Jordan River, just before they enter into the Promised Land without him. In his own processing of his disappointment that he will be left on the Eastern bank of the Jordan, while the people move forward – he reminds the people of their baser qualities as he prepares them for the journey and ultimately, for confrontation with those others who are already living in cities across the river.
Moses reminds them that they have been constantly coarse and reckless with each other – and because of their behavior, have disrespected God all along their journey. Moses reminds them of their building a Golden Calf – and how Moses broke the original tablets and went back to Mount Sinai to get a replacement – and here the Torah provides an exquisite detail – that both the new Tablets and the original ones that Moses smashed would together be contained in the ark that the people carried.
Moses is reminding the people of their mistakes – and rather than focus exclusively on them, having them become the centerpiece of all future interactions with the people – rather than having these mistakes become the only topic of conversation – and the only defining action that describes the people forevermore, the Torah takes this brokenness and puts it in a box – allowing it to coexist with a restorative future.
Our sages speculate on this instruction and offer creative ideas of why now the group is actually more whole in assimilating what disappointments have been, rather than casting them aside. What is the value in knowing ourselves and how we react to mistakes? How can this knowledge prepare us for the confrontations that we will inevitably have with others who are hostile to us? How can true forgiveness not be a trite – forgive and forget, but rather a commitment to live again and again in relationship together – always communicating and acknowledging the scars that surely come after living in relationship. What is the value of the brokenness?
As Jews, we mark the period of mourning with a tear of a ribbon or of our clothing – we project to the world that we are broken and diminished – and after a period of time the external kria goes away and we are expected to immerse again in the world. And yet, those of us who have been mourners – we realize that the internal tearing never fully heals. Our hearts, once wounded, remember the wound. Are we able to live fully with tragedy and joy in the same place? Can we carry both the second tablets and the broken ones in the same box together, as people expect us to eventually move on?
The Talmud sage Reish Lakish teaches – p’amim shebitulah shel Torah z’hu y’suda — that there are times when the nullification of Torah may be its foundation (Menachot 99b). As the New Year approaches, seeing, collecting, and carrying the breaking may give us a new way forward – and allow us to engage each other wakefully and compassionately. If we realize that we are all mourners to some degree – carrying a broken heart inside of us, we can engage differently – allowing us to really explore what emotions usually surface for each of us when we feel uncomfortable, disappointed, or overwhelmed – and we can modulate.
Together, can we not be stronger as a coalition of the willing? Are each of us ready to embark upon this journey of transformation – proactively applying the gifts of our tradition, rather than reactively avoiding them or paying lip service to them? In these intense moments, can we allow ourselves to move beyond our initial emotional defense mechanisms – accepting this gift — a new day, in a new month dedicated to teshuvah — with new tablets that are more valuable to us precisely because they are joined wherever we go — in our tragedy and in joy — in the constant reminder of our brokenness.
Neil F. Blumofe
20 August 2016
As we experience this day of Shabbat – called Nachamu in our tradition – a Shabbat particularly shaded by the wishes for comfort – an internal comfort that promotes equanimity, and a comfort to be reassured that our world will not implode on top of us, we read of Moses who tries again to convince God to let him enter into the Promised Land.
In this time of year, in the middle of the Hebrew month of Av, we pay attention to all that has gone wrong – all of the mistakes, the willful misunderstandings, and the intentional attempts to harm and defame and we see how – from generation to generation – because of this, we have been persecuted, exiled, and all too often, killed. We are preparing for the New Year – and rather than lurching to what will inevitably be again next year, our tradition asks us to take some real responsibility to try and disrupt what we might think are immovable narratives – and for us to be responsible agents to aid in our own wellness and well-being.
For Moses, the paradigm has changed – because of the strength of his leadership over his lifetime, there are now new ways – new negotiating strategies and new outlooks in the world that will give the children of Israel more success in their new circumstances. As our sages make clear, God has determined that the people will have a new leader and that Moses will not be permitted to enter into Israel – and we can make a convincing case for why Joshua now has the privilege to lead the people.
However, why God forbids Moses from entering into the land is less clear. What would be the harm as our Talmud speculates, for Moses just to walk its length and breadth of the Promised Land and to be given a chance to perform the mitzvot that can only be done specifically in the land of Israel? He wouldn’t get in anyone’s way – he would be content to be just a simple Jew and let Joshua lead – and God is silent and our Torah is inscrutable in assessing a reason that Moses couldn’t do just that.
And when Moses tries again to change his circumstances and again hears nothing, Moses changes tactics. Rather than accept his fate — bringing the people to exactly where they need to be, and for him to be content in his accomplishments, he tries to find a reason why. Ignoring the advice of our Wisdom Tradition which teaches us – let us not seek to understand what is too difficult for us, nor search for what is hidden, nor be preoccupied with what is beyond, for we have been shown more than we can comprehend, Moses is frustrated and takes out his frustration on the people.
And certainly, over the course of our lives, many of us get frustrated too, as we see the world and our circumstances in it change past our comfort zone without, what we think, is good reason. And, how do we cope? Past our addictions and strategies of escapism, some of us have family or circles of friends to whom we can privately unburden ourselves, allowing us to blow off steam, venting to the point where we can gain an illusion of satisfaction, or at least a way forward. Over the years, I have seen that those afflicted actually would prefer complaining than working towards a solution to the problem.
Moses seems to exhaust his outlet for answers – and when he needs to protest, he realizes that he is all alone. This is the greatest challenge that our Torah, in Sefer Devarim, offers to each of us – as we consider this sacred text as our own legacy. As we see that things are not going our way and we see that our life is accelerating towards its end – and we have not accomplished what we thought we would accomplish, or that things turned out differently from what we imagined our life would be, where can we turn to express our grievances?
The actions and prayers of Moses do not change God’s decree – and we have seen that Moses has no family or circle of friends on which to rely. The relationship between Moses and his wife Tzipporah is a perplexing and complicated one, at the very least – and as we have taught often in this sacred space, the relationship that Moses has with his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, is fraught and according to the Torah, almost non-existent – the last mention of them was three books ago, in Exodus 18 – and we see that they are not even considered for the new leadership of the people.
Moses has feisty cousins – Korach and his family who led a rebellion against him and tried to get Moses to resign – ultimately, because of God’s intervention, themselves meeting a final end. And it does not seem that Moses kicks back with a small group of buddies, decompressing and processing the days – exhaling the lashon hara and letting it dissolve safely into a mist.
So, the tragedy is that Moses has nowhere else to go, and turns to the people of Israel throughout this last book of the Torah, to hector them, lecture them, antagonize them, and ultimately to alienate them, because of feeling the letdowns in his own life. The people mourned him when he died for the minimum of thirty days, and then they moved on, listening to Joshua – not even remembering where he is buried.
Moses, who is remembered in the Torah as the one, with God’s help, performed signs and wonders in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh with a strong hand and an awesome power. And here, perhaps spurred on by his own disappointments of not getting an answer for why he can’t go into the Promised Land, he turns on the people to accuse them of his own misfortune.
In our own lives, as we are slowly lifted from these days of heaviness and rebuke and as we turn fully towards these weeks of recovering love and apprehending God’s active presence in our lives, how do we give voice to our fears and our disappointments? Do we lash out against our very life’s projects, sabotaging and sullying what we have managed to accomplish? When we realize that our circle of friends is much smaller than we’ve imagined, and that our family is involved in other activities and have found their own path in life that does not necessarily include us to our satisfaction, how do we endure?
This is a powerful lesson of our Torah as we consider our own mortality and our schemes of contending with the vicissitudes of an imperfect life – all too often I see in someone’s final days a chill of regret that comes on fast, when they realize the negative impact that they have had in their years, and that they must finally hire someone to sit with them in these concluding vulnerable moments.
These exhortations of Moses inspire us to appreciate our own shame – they are a wake-up call for us to recover our own honor in order to live a considered life possessed by a strength of character and not a sense of presumption motivated by our fears of our diminished relevance — and to hedge now against our ultimately living and dying alone.
“Greatest Living Yankee”
Neil F. Blumofe
26 September 2015
What was it like when you were leaving home for the first time – who was there to send you off – what advice was given to you? Did you feel prepared or worthy of your next adventure, or did those in your home want to follow you, ostensibly to make sure that you were doing well, but also perhaps, they were unsure how to live without you?
As Moses speaks to the people for the last time, his frustrations and his deepest anxieties rise to the surface. He evokes the witness of the heavens and the earth in his castigation of the people, whom he calls ikaish uf’taltol – a perverse and wicked generation. He beseeches them to shift course – and not to become like previous generations – courting corruption, greed, and overall bad behavior.
As our tradition teaches, the people that Moses is addressing are the people who will be entering into the Promised Land – essentially the children and the grandchildren of the former slaves and mixed multitude. The Israelites stayed in the desert for forty years in order to start again – to lose their dependence on a dominant culture and to cultivate independent thought. The constant complaining to Moses at difficult moments that they should return to Mitzrayim, belonged to their elders – at this point, these new generations possess a clearheaded vision of what lay in front of them – entry and adaptation into a new, unexplored land with fresh possibilities.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Moses did not enter into the Promised Land is that he was unable to pivot from leading one group of people to the new demands of the next generations. His models and emotional conditioning were vestiges of old needs – now there were fresh opportunities that required a different way of thinking, and Moses was struggling to speak a new adaptive language that would befit leading this largely untested group – or perhaps as Yogi Berra taught – I never blame myself when I’m not hitting. I just blame the bat and if it keeps up, I change bats. After all, if I know it isn’t my fault that I’m not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?
The Golden Calf, the incident of the spies – in fact the whole enterprise of slavery itself belonged to Moses more than it belonged to this wilderness-born assemblage, gathered at the river, waiting to go forward. Those were stories that were heard, rather than experienced – and while they were tangible, passed to these new generations, they were not eyewitness accounts.
This new generation, condemned before it begins, asserts patience while listening to Moses, out of respect for him and his accomplishments to lead them this far. They listen as Moses tells them that they are doomed, and that eventually God will take up vengeance on their behalf to acquit their spilt blood. The song of Ha’azinu is certainly not a pep talk or an encouraging valediction – rather, Moses speaks his greatest dread and his constant fear – that the people, although they have the kiss of progress, will fall into the same patterns as have ever been and will not distinguish themselves in worthiness as they begin to enact God’s covenant in the sacred, promised place. Whether in the wilderness or in Eretz Israel the people remain the same, prone towards imperfection, deceit, exploitation and impropriety. To Moses, all that has been, remains the same.
More than with his family, Moses has constructed his identity exclusively in his service to the people. He is defined by his work – and now that his work is coming to an end, there is no place for him to go. The struggle is that the generations change – and just like there was a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph – there are emerging generations that do not know Moses. He is vital in a certain frame of time – and yet, the world continues to shift and demand leadership from others as his skills were appreciated and then ultimately cast aside.
As Shakespeare has Macbeth lament: Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/To the last syllable of recorded time;/And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Or there is something dazzling about seeing Don Draper operate in his Mad Men milieu – filled with glamour, intrigue, and prestige – when he was at the peak of his powers – except if he lived, Don would not be as vital now – and he certainly wouldn’t possess that same interest or charisma much anymore – as he reviewed his life – how much could he adapt to a rapidly changing world, as he ages?
It seems that the world appoints leaders when it needs them and then discards them, sometimes suddenly, when their use is done. Moses has made his bed with the people and now that his responsibilities have ended and Joshua has been chosen to lead a new generation of people across the banks of the Jordan into the new land for new conquest and new experiences, Moses is a bit flummoxed.
For us, what are the signposts of our success? What are our reasons for living that God forbid, if it went away, we wouldn’t quite know what to do? Is it our work – or particular relationships with our partner, or our children? Is it this community – and as things change, how can we meet the challenge of our own maturation and inevitable decline as the world develops new technologies and interests – today’s Snapchat is tomorrow’s Friendster. How can we see that the places, people and experiences that we loved are like mist – fading so quickly from time and space?
Contrasting this dilemma of Moses with the end of Abraham’s life is instructive, as well. Moses pleads with God, unsuccessfully, to enter into the Promised Land with the younger people – and then he dies in the wilderness, buried in an unmarked, and thus, unvisited grave to be forgotten – after the debacle with Ishmael and Isaac, and after the death of Sarah – Abraham marries Keturah – siring a large, new family – a new chapter separate and apart from the drama of our established narrative. It seems that Abraham finds a way to make new choices and cope with life, when his chapter comes to a difficult end – do you remember that song from the 1936 musical, Swing Time – don’t lose your confidence if you slip,/Be grateful for a pleasant trip,/And pick yourself up,/Dust yourself off,/Start all over again.
How will we cope with changes – as others that we love are now or will soon be leaving home, or this world? As we turn into the New Year and prepare to celebrate Sukkot – how do we listen to this last song of Moses, who was convinced that the more things change, the more they stay the same? As we are still negotiating our own habits and establishing new paradigms for ourselves, should we as well develop new insight into our own relevance and mortality – as we see our influence wax and wane? When are we Moses and when are we Abraham – both imperfect – and both trying to derive meaning out of their diminished circumstances?
What will be the last advice that we give – what will be the last notes that we sound in our symphony of life? As Yogi Berra said, the future ain’t what it used to be. Can we then get to a place of resolution and after our own concluding at bat, can we then rest and enjoy as the game plays on?
Shabbat Shalom – Hag Sameach.
Neil F. Blumofe
19 September 2015
As we see Moses finish his address before the people and prepare to get his affairs in order, we can utilize his example as we engage in our preparations for Yom Kippur. More than a day of atonement, Yom Kippur is considered too, to be a day of confronting our mortality – in our complete fasting, by the white kittel that we wear, how we refrain from life-affirming physical refreshment and activity – we let ourselves decompose just a bit – physically and spiritually – as we move past the needs of our body, and concentrate on the movement of our soul.
Inspired by the great medieval commentator and mystic Ramban, we see Moses seal a renewed covenant with the assembled people – and then they disperse, returning to their homes. We now see Moses, fully aware of his impending death – leaving his home and walking through the camp of all of the tribes to wish a valediction to people – and to essentially shake their hands and say goodbye.
One of the cherished moments I have during the Yamim Noraim, is after both the Rosh haShanah and the Kol Nidre evening services – we have gathered at sunset as a people, immersing ourselves in the machzor, hearing some Torah, and singing the great High Holy Day melodies – welcoming the beginning of each sacred moment – renewing the covenant, if you will – and then we begin to disperse after Yigdal, going home to our own private observances and celebrations.
However, before we go – we have a chance to greet each other – and I have a chance to have a moment, to wish all those who would like, a Shanah Tovah – and a G’mar Hatimah Tovah. While I realize that standing in line to do so is not everyone’s cup of tea, to me it is significant and helps to center me, especially on Yom Kippur, as I seek to encounter my mortality – and the mortality of my family and community.
Our tradition states that Rabbi Eliezer taught — shuv yom echad lifnei mi’ta’tach — to repent the day before we die. We are to cultivate a spiritual practice of each moment standing before God, uttering Hineni – here I am – to be of service, or to breath my last. As we do this, our time becomes more intentional – our words become more precious, and our company becomes more holy.
Over the years, in speaking to many and in providing pastoral care in our community, I realize that from time to time in our life – we resemble those in the corridor, just waiting for life beyond this one – each of us living our life as if we are in a waiting room, expectant for something significant to occur in our next appointment. The thrill and privilege of living now sometimes seems to escape us, as we set our sights on future goals – and as much as we would like to avoid the topic of our death – as much as we strive to outwit the angel of death, we know that eventually, all of us meet the same situation, as the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches – ki mikreh v’nei ha’adam u’mikreh hab’heimah – k’mot zeh, kein mot zeh – for that which happens to each of us, happens too to animals – so as one dies, so dies the other. There is no distinction at the end of our days.
And to imagine Moses, having argued with God for just a little more time – ultimately comes up short, and after blessing the people and blessing Joshua to have discerning and enlightening leadership, pays a visit to each tribe to personally wish them well as he takes his leave. The emeritus leader, at the end of his days confident that his words now have limited effect on policy – and God’s attention is elsewhere, and soon the people’s attention will also be elsewhere – as I am present with people who are nearing death, who, because of time, are in a very different form than when they were most vital – with the family as we look at pictures, or sometimes tell stories – it is hard to see that this person lying before us as once so capable and so robust – in short, once so alive.
And there is a tickle in the back of our minds that there but for the grace of God go I. We see this in a shiva minyan for one who has past away at an advanced age – the friends and colleagues of the deceased look around tacitly and uneasily, wondering who’s next. And at the funerals of those who have died too young – middle-aged people who are in the prime of their life – their friends take it hard, thinking about their own situation and how long they can avoid a fatal diagnosis, or keep creeping and debilitating issues of aging at bay.
Yom Kippur is not a sovereign remedy against our mortal anxiety – however it does invite us to put into perspective all of the machinations, stratagems, pettiness, and intrigues that rule our lives – Yom Kippur invites us to dismiss what others may think of us, as we expend our best efforts to make our relationships right, as we too are sometimes unsuccessful in our teshuvah – and resentments and disappointments in our relationships carry over from one year to the next.
A very powerful memory I have of Yom Kippur, is at the end when we are racing through Ma’ariv, just before the final shofar blast – but really the next day – is to see my father stand for the Mourner’s Kaddish at precisely that moment, to say kaddish for his mother, who died the day after Yom Kippur.
As we enter into Yom Kippur, may we seek each other out with the implicit realization that this is a day that all words, study, melodies cannot mask – as we plead for a commutation of the evil decree, there is no guarantee of what tomorrow may bring – and are we truly just a bundle of acrimony, grudges, and displeasure, when we prepare to leave the corridor of this world? Cannot we look at our heart and tame it – retraining it from becoming a Pharaoh’s heart – as we tenderize and circumcise it, as we look into the face of the void of our life’s end?
Yom Kippur is known to be a day of celebration – and perhaps doing this difficult work, we can emerge on the other side, grateful for what we have had and incredibly joyful to be, just in this moment, together, with our shaking hands outstretched, bidding each other acceptance, receiving, and peace.
Shabbat Shalom – G’mar Hatimah Tovah
“The Angel of Death in Ordinary Clothes”
Yom Kippur – Yizkor
Neil F. Blumofe
23 September 2015
Do we not sometimes realize that we have inadvertently come face to face with the angel of death? Sometimes we are minding our own business or involved in our regular everyday activities, when a chill suddenly ripples in our soul – when we – startled — comprehend that we are in the company of a destroyer.
As many of you know, this summer, before my Fellowship with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to share a week in the West Bank, visiting different communities – Ramallah, Nablus/Shechem, Jenin, Bethlehem, and the South Hills of Hebron — and accompanied by Eric Solomon, a rabbinic friend, and our Palestinian guide, Husam Jubran, we met with a variety of people, all coming from a spectrum of conventions and customs – people who are engaged in the arts, in business and activism – to speak about their lives and their prognosis for the future and the possibilities of peace in this formidable region.
Most of the Palestinians were wary, as they spoke their walloping truths, telling me that their associations with Israelis and in fact with Jews was frowned upon – that these encounters were seen as collaborations with the enemy – and that after the latest intifada and wars in Gaza, a complete separation from all things Israel was what was most desired — a psychological wall or barrier is currently being built and cemented in the inner recesses of the minds of the people – sadly both in the minds of the Palestinians and the Israelis, who live in such close proximity, but worlds apart from each other.
As we experience this Day of Atonement, it has been my experience that a willful Othering of the neighbor – of the Israeli, of the Jew, is being stitched out of whole cloth in the Holy Land. In speaking to me, the people that I met were taking a risk – exposing themselves to being shunned and rejected as betrayers, as normalizers – and some of the interactions, as heartfelt as they were, seemed a bit rehearsed – until we arrived in Jenin.
Jenin is a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank, with a population of about 40,000. It is known to Palestinians as the martyr’s capital – during the 2nd intifada between 2000-2003, Israel estimated that there were 28 homicide bombers and 31 militant attacks that originated from this area. When Eric and I visited this past June during Ramadan, the streets were empty during the mid-day heat – when walking on the main street, there were posters praising istishhad, martyrdom, and individual pictures of shahidim, or martyrs who killed themselves as they murdered innocent Israeli civilians. Interspersed among these were recruitment posters for Islamic Jihad, an organization whose objective is the destruction of the state of Israel.
On our way to visit the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, we passed through the refugee camp, where the buildings are still riddled with bullet holes from the street fighting, twelve years ago. We were supposed to meet with the Managing Director, Jonathan Stanczak – however he was out of town, so we ended up in an impromptu meeting with the Financial Manager, Omer Kabeya.
Unlike many of the people that we spoke to that week, Mr. Kabeya did not speak English very well, so our guide, Husam, served as our translator. Throughout our trip, we were instructed to not speak Hebrew while traveling in the territories and to not outwardly identify ourselves as Jews in any way. In the Freedom Theatre, whose motto is “Generating Cultural Resistance.” My friend and I asked questions about his life and his thoughts about living in Jenin – and in some broken English and in the sudden hesitancies from the usual verbal fluidity of our guide, after a short while, Mr. Kabeya cheerfully exclaimed that the complete elimination of the Jewish state was his distinct preference. Nowhere else had we heard such an unabashed, blatant wish – Husam, who I liked very much, brushed it off with words about Mr. Kabeya’s lack of sophistication, etc. – however, Mr. Kabeya’s honesty and the unexplored question of where the six million Jews of Israel would go in his fantasy remained an open question, long after we left that place.
I believe that in that moment, I was in the company of a destroyer – one who would have no hesitation to snuff out and escort souls away from this world, in a banal way. At the time, and again this morning as we weep and fast on Yom Kippur, I am reminded of the poetry by TS Eliot, who writes – but though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,/Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,/I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;/I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,/And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,/And in short, I was afraid.
Mr. Kabeya was an ordinary man – unexceptional, excepting that his cultural signposts, his milieu, his experiences, every day – all encouraged the grim work of an absolute attitude, which brooked no quarter. To me, he was like a spiritual descendant of the German solider unremarkably writing a letter home during World War II about his experiences killing Jews in Belarus – during the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants… Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to pieces in flight.
This is not madness, per se – rather, this is our seeing that for bursts in time, beyond the natural cycles of sickness and mortality, death has the advantage of a lopsided power play in our world – where many are infected with the mundane feeling that there are those who have no place in this world, and deserve to die – and if we are honest with ourselves, we too feel such insidious absoluteness, from time to time.
We breath in the malodorous air breathed out by the angels of death that surround us, and in our darker moments, we echo the frustrations of Job’s wife in her time of travail – bareich Elohim va’mut – curse God and die, already — as we consider these disturbing lines from the poet Isaac Rosenberg, who wrote about his experiences retrieving dead bodies by mule-cart in the trenches during World War I – here is one not long dead;/His dark hearing caught our far wheels,/and the choked soul stretched weak hands/to reach the living word the far wheels said,/the blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,/crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels/swift for the end to break/or the wheels to break,/cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.
In the Jewish tradition – the tendencies of the angel of death, the malach hamavet, can be beaten back and restrained – and perhaps most dramatically in the most hidden of all places – the children’s song that ends the Passover seder – Had Gadya, when we sing – v’atah haKadosh Baruch Hu – v’shachat l’malach hamavet. God ultimately vanquishes the Angel of Death. Had Gadya, Had Gadya.
We can get overwhelmed by death – as we hear the pulse of time throb in our ears. As we fill up daily on our share of ominous headlines from all over the world and endless cycles of news, our worst instincts are stoked, as we are overpowered, tragedy after tragedy after tragedy – and in dread, as we see the current spiking of violence in Jerusalem with a creeping gloom. We may feel that a strong response to such injustice is needed – that brute force is necessary to stomp on all of that which seeks our destruction. Surely we can cut through the difficulty — teaming up with the forces for good that eliminate threats from our world, so the casual attitudes of removal and displacement can be blotted out? Surely we can be victorious?
And yet, for us to defeat death would require a much more fine surgical strike than we possess. We would have to have cognitive dissonance to do such work and keep our world intact – and to make any impact, we would have to become as ruthless as the malach hamavet, itself – we would have to live as that common German soldier, shooting babies routinely, in midair. Furthermore, the ancient conception of the Angel of Death is that it is filled with eyes – it is impervious to surprise and can always see us coming from every angle, always ready to shift shape and outwit our best efforts to strike.
So rather than plan an elaborate and risky operation to destroy those who wish to destroy us, that will in turn, leave us exposed and in much danger – how do we confront the attitudes of Mr. Kabeya and the many like him, as we draw our attention to these Yizkor prayers? We can sing our children’s song with glee – we can apply magical realism to our world that one day death will be defeated – and yet we know — there is a tickle in the back of our minds that our days are numbered. We see this in a shiva minyan for one who has past away at an advanced age – the friends and colleagues of the deceased look around tacitly and uneasily, wondering who’s next. And at the funerals of those who have died too young – middle-aged people who are in the prime of their life – their friends take it hard, thinking about their own situation and how long they can avoid a fatal diagnosis, or keep malingering and debilitating issues of aging at bay.
Yom Kippur is not a sovereign remedy against our mortal anxiety – however it does invite us to put into perspective all of the machinations, stratagems, pettiness, bad attitudes, and intrigues that rule our lives – Yom Kippur invites us to dismiss what others may think of us, as we expend our best efforts to make our relationships right, as we too are sometimes unsuccessful in our teshuvah – and resentments and disappointments in our relationships carry over from one year to the next.
We acknowledge and feel the many-eyed forces of destruction always looking at us – and yet, what do we pray for as we stand here today in a charged moment – in this posture in the defiance of death? At this time, I always think of the last words of King David – how filled with vengeance they were, as he violently spits out instructions to his son about how to dispatch his rivals, like a mafia don – v’horad’ta et seivato b’dam Sheol – bring down [Shimi ben Gera’s] gray head to Sheol with blood.
As we rehearse our last words – do we want our last breath to contain a directive to bring more suffering into this world – or to even a score, or settle a rivalry? Are we truly on the turning wheel of collateral damage and cycles of bloodletting, unable to let go – unable to live well, amid uncertainty and mortal danger?
Contrast King David’s last words to the words of Dr. Oliver Sacks, the noted medical writer, who died just a few weeks ago. He knew that he was going to die – and in the last column he knew he was going to write – his final word on life – beyond anything else, he wrote about his connections with Shabbat. In the column, although he did not have such a noteworthy connection to Shabbat in his adult life – he describes growing up – and his local synagogue full of friends and family – and the palpable joy in the services of his youth, and in the meals shared with his family. He writes – and now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
Are we content living our days like Omer Kabeya – filled with quiet rage – and hoped for rupture and displacements, that will justify our hurts as we spoil for a fight and dream about revenge, or shall we be in pursuit of contentment, like Oliver Sacks, remembering what gave us joy as we reach again towards that? In our lives, what are we most proud of – what relationships sparkle in the sunlight of this reflective day? How can we meet our needs and address our fears, knowing that our days in this world are limited – as we confront our mortality and as we see the many-eyed angel of death everywhere, out of the corner of our own nervous eye?
How can we be outfitted with courage to joyously sing Had Gadya, all of our days – rejecting the long shadow that death casts over us – how as survivors after our loved ones pass away, we can cultivate a joy that transcends our gripping fear? In our gathering this year, may we withstand the baleful glances, words, or even actions of those who wish us harm – instead, may we set our sights on appreciating this day as we consider our mortality and our words become more precious, and our company becomes more holy – as we strive to live fully, in each moment that we have.
As we celebrate this Yom Kippur, may we seek each other out with the implicit realization that this is a day that all words, study, and melodies cannot mask – as we plead for a commutation of the evil decree, there is no guarantee of what tomorrow may bring – and are we truly just a bundle of acrimony, grudges, baleful attitudes, asphyxiating narratives and displeasure, when we prepare to leave the corridor of this world? Can we not look at our heart and tame it from being hardened as Pharaoh’s heart – as we tenderize, circumcise and subdue it, as we look into the face of the void of our life’s end?
Yom Kippur is known to be a day of celebration – and perhaps doing this difficult work, we can emerge on the other side, grateful for what we have had and incredibly joyful to be, just in this moment, together with our memories, bidding each other acceptance, receiving, love, and peace – decorating our streets not with the posters of those so-called martyrs in Jenin whose death has given them glory and reward, bestowed by the malach hamavet – but rather, we can adorn our public places, with powerful and inviting Torah that chooses life, as we honor the way that we reflect ourselves and our actions back into this world, off of the white kittel that we may be wearing — as we realize that our souls, like the whispering wind, are just gently passing through.
(Kol haOlam Kulo)
Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre
Neil F. Blumofe
23 September 2015
Perhaps some of you remember, as I do, the public service spots that aired on television in the 1970’s and 80’s featuring Woodsy Owl, who used to chant – give a hoot, don’t pollute, never be a dirty bird – in the city or in the woods – help keep America — looking good! In elementary school and later in middle school we used to sing this song, never really thinking about its message, as we just lived our lives. Yes, I was the youngster who went around school, singing – give a hoot, don’t pollute.
Now, Yom Kippur is upon us – and as we gather here this evening, each of us coming from our own private and concealed places, with our own jingles or old songs in our heads, and with our own expectations of what we would like to stretch out before us in this precious time – let us empty ourselves of expectations – rather, let us take a deep breath now – please, take a breath — and let us adjust our eyes to see the original abundant Garden of Eden with its luscious fruit and well-watered perennials, just ahead. Perhaps, if we softly close our eyes for a moment, we can feel a warm, refreshing breeze as the deep-green grasses gently sway – as we breathe in the sweet, intoxicating smells of paradise – and we, almost in a reverie — are drawn to the basking light, dappling the leafy places where we can take our rest in the refreshing shade.
This place is within our reach – a place where we hear the astral birdsong in the high trees, and the effortless bubbling brooks tumbling brilliantly and clearly below us – we hear the natural whisper of nocturnal activity and rhythms around us as we gaze above on a clear night at the unobstructed Milky Way, glinting at us and reassuring us of our place in this universe, and we are not afraid. With a fullness of spirit, looking upon this unsullied land and in this precious moment, we can cheerfully proclaim that lashem ha’aretz u’mloa’ah – the earth is God’s, and all that fills it.
As we enter into Yom Kippur, we are entering on wide, verdant paths between thick canopies of trees – we are present between two spaces as we walk above the crusted ground of intermingled roots – each of us gathering as a veined leaf on a tree – opening ourselves to the radiance of what we would like to receive, as we seek to grow in these deliberate moments as it grows dark outside and as we hope for the best as night sets in.
And as we open our eyes now and refocus, we see the angels of destruction spinning lahat hacherev hamit’hapechet — their two-handed swords that flame and smoke, and sparkle and hiss, preventing us from returning to such a magnificent place of what once was. In our exile now in this New Year 5776, we live in a more ravaged place – a place scarred and furrowed by the devastation of our habits.
As our air heats up and our oceans rise, we will continue to clamor for basic necessities — we will be susceptible to a crisis of politics and ecological panic again in this generation, as we find ourselves in the dread wilderness, as our tradition teaches on this day regarding our sacrifices to God and to Azazel — between a solution and a scapegoat. At the peak of our dilemma, do we cast off responsibility on to another or onto obscurant issues, or do we go forward together with our offering and face the music of our pressing obligation? Give a hoot, don’t pollute – never be a dirty bird?
Do we distract ourselves with the latest entertainment and trends, zigzagging from one thing to the other in perpetual, unforgiving denial, as we live – gratifying our need to look away, and tuning out the bothersome consequences of our imperfect, blustering decision-making, from generation to generation? Do we insult the chickens as they come home to roost, abandoning them to fend for themselves, as we find other, exclusive places to dwell, saying all the while — pen tivlaeinu ha’aretz – lest the earth swallow us, too? As our places of refuge become smaller – as our sureties diminish how far can our good will span?
We are to turn our real perils into promises – and our contemporary hazards into renewed prospects – we are to transform our mourning into dancing, and change our sackcloth into robes of joy. We are beginning Yom Kippur now — to do so, we must act, here and now – for if not now, when? For as we have two animals – one designated to God, and one to Azazel – we are standing at the entrance to two portals – one to Eden, and one to the Abyss. Let us not fulfill the teaching of Resh Lakish who states – r’shaim afilu al pitcho shel geihinom, ainam chozrin bitshuvah – the wicked who stand at the entrance to Gehinnom, do not change their ways – rather they continue to pollute and defile forever, as they pass their obdurate ways to their children and to their children’s children. As we reflect in the entrance of each of our open gates, we can still – and we must — change our ways in order to back away from the Gate of the Abyss.
In late June, the Pope released his long awaited encyclical concerning climate change. I was one of over 360 rabbis to sign an amicus to this encyclical, entitled, A Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, underlying the Jewish commitment and wisdom to help heal our wounded earth. This encyclical delivers moral leadership in our world – powerfully arguing that we – that our generations alive now — must address the climate crisis – for not only our own preservation – but because the weight of all that we hold important, spiritual and meaningful, is calling out to us to do so – for we truly are between two gates – between life and death.
It is this environmental crisis that exacerbates a spiritual crisis in our world – which in turn, afflicts every culture, every economy, political system, and social setting – leading to instability and the systemic poisoning of our ways of life. It is the recognition of the scarcity of resources – the anxiety about weather and livable and arable land that causes war and conflict. How quickly after Katrina in 2005 did the fissures in New Orleans society appear, with people barricading themselves in their homes surrounded by their precious and meager supplies, unafraid to shoot any threat to them and their loved ones? How far can we run, seeking safer ground while exclaiming, pen tivlaeinu ha’aretz – the earth is going to swallow us up, too? How suspicious will we be of our neighbor – and how willing are we to relinquish our power in deference to the one who is angriest, or most desperate?
Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si, translated as Praise Be to You – evoking the life of St. Francis of Assisi – who, tradition teaches, dedicated his life in love of the poor and all of all creation – he writes –
A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes, which produce or aggravate it… We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes, and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual, and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.
We can link the Hasidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, to St. Francis of Assisi – who also preached to every flower, inviting them to praise God, just as if they were endowed with reason. The Baal Shem Tov, as he walked in this world, cultivated hitbodedut – an interconnectedness with all things.
As a student, Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who taught in a different generation, writes – all my days I have been careful never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of our sages that not a single blade of grass grows here on earth that does not have an angel above it, commanding it to grow. Every sprout and leaf of grass says something meaningful, every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence, every creation utters its song – these words of our great master [Baal Shem Tov], spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply in my heart. From that time on, I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for all things.
As we are proud of our world’s unprecedented economic growth, let us publicly advocate for a move towards lower pollution and a low-carbon economy. Let us seek dramatic and nimble ways to uncouple and separate the link between this economic growth and the scourge of emissions and pollutants from our current use of fossil fuels, so we can also limit the influence and the political clout of oil-producing nations. Let us continue to grow and account for the continued increase of our world’s population as we limit greenhouse gases and find alternative energy sources to boost and sustain our very real and ever-increasing needs.
As Reb Nachman of Breslov prayed: O that we might have the privilege of hearing the songs and praises of the grasses. How each blade of grass sings a hymn to God without any self-serving motives, without any foreign thoughts, without any consideration of reward. How beautiful and lovely it is to hear their song! It is so good to be among them and to serve God with awe.
For today, we are standing between the Gates that will determine our future, and the future of those who follow us. These rituals of Yom Kippur are not a game – a sacred drama that recreationally tests our endurance and our discomfiture with self-denial for a day – rather, this time is a time of realizing that even with our entitlements and our privilege, there is nothing that will prevent our death. We are to practice living this day with all of our might, putting our grand schemes into perspective, as we encounter and come to terms with our finitude — let us find the systemic urge to change ourselves and our world, before we, and all that is in it, becomes ayin – nothing, or of no consequence, as the ground opens up within us and under our own feet.
Taught by Aaron, and the High Priests after him, today we are to make expiation for ourselves, our family, and our community, after the death of the boys, Nadav and Avihu. Like the ancient priests, as survivors after casualty, as we live in this moment, we are asked to enter into the Holy of Holies – the remnant of the Garden of Eden left on earth — to brave the whizzing ruined swords of the cherubim who guard this place – and to proclaim, baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed, as we pronounce God’s name on our breath, as a corrective remedy for repair. The Holy of Holies is the place past the danger of the swords – as we reseed the Garden and become the Garden for each other.
In these times let us substitute courage for caution. Let us realize that the flaming, revolving swords held by the cherubim are our own unwillingness to address the problems at hand – they are our own propensity to pass the buck, and feel reassured if climate change fills our lakes this season, while other parts of the globe, collapse. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly had his character Pogo quip for the observance of the first Earth Day in 1970 – we have met the enemy, and he is us.
Today, we are asked to back away from the open doorway of Gehinnom – and rather, change our ways and risk our lives to return to the Garden of Eden – on our mission, we are to again breath in the air, listen to the wind, take soil samples and be grounded in sound science to regain our awe of such a wonderland. We are to team up with the ancient mystic and provocateur Akiva, as we break back into Paradise and reclaim it as part of this world, unwilling to cede it away. As we venture, let us not be satisfied with “good enough” — al tomru mayim, mayim — and instead, let us make our way back to a time, place, and mindset that inspires unfettered reverence, devotion, beauty, and respect, and the spontaneous creativity of an open society to solve our problems – as we reclaim our name earth – adam — as a crucial foundation of our existence – as Franz Kafka, the 20th century writer, witnesses – the expulsion from paradise is eternal in its principal aspect – this makes it irrevocable, and our living in this world inevitable, but the eternal nature of the process has the effect that not only could we remain forever in paradise, but that we are currently there, whether we know it or not.
We are to come out of exile, even for a moment, as we return home – to a place where we feel physically and emotional secure – as a living, integral, indivisible part of the natural flow of this world, where even the sky is not the limit. On this Yom Kippur, we will wholly succeed when we are able to cast aside our inherited sense of being masters of the place as we invent, improvise, devise, and innovate — and rather, practice hitbodedut – an interconnectedness with all things and tsimtsum, reduction – creating a tangible presence through our not-doing, through our not subduing, and our not vanquishing others as we continue to thrive. Can we not, really, give a hoot?
In our modest efforts we can link our spirits together – l’ha’chayot ruach sh’falim ul’ha’chayot leiv nidka’im — each of us empowering each other, encouraging us to take those necessary, yet fraught steps — recalling wonder, recovering astonishment from each of our places, as we gather here tonight. As we inspire each other, as the prophet Isaiah envisions in the prophetic reading for this Holy Day – v’nacha’cha haShem tamid v’hisbi’a b’tsach’tsachot nafshecha v’atsmotecha ya’chalitz v’hayita k’gan raveh uch’motsa mayim asher lo y’chazvu meimav – that God will guide us always and satisfy our souls in drought – that our bones will be strong and healthy and that each of us within ourselves can truly become again watered gardens to nourish this world, like springs of water who will not fail. We can become again, like water, as we wash away our judgment of imperfection, and be clean. With the Holy of Holies within us, we can again become like Gardens of Eden to each other. Let us sing our song, and think about the message it contains as we live our lives – give a hoot, don’t pollute – never be a dirty bird. In the cities or in the woods, help keep America – looking good!
So as we close our eyes again — let us see again in our mind’s eye that natural place of refuge in this world that can hold us and remind us of our tenderness and our compassion and innate goodness. Let us feel the mild breeze on our face again and the beneficial balm of an unexpected sun shower as we look upon a sublime horizon. Let us resolve that paradise is possible and that we currently are living in it – as we turn the swords of angels into ploughshares and then the ploughshares into instruments of praise.
As the 17th century poet John Milton, writes in Paradise Lost – long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads us to light — so we can pass through without threat, away from the Gates of the Abyss choosing instead — in our unrewarded, unrecognized, and unrelenting work — the sustainable, unceasing abundance of this Garden — this life.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah – May each of us have a significant and meaningful fast – as we are Sealed in the Book of Life – and as Yom Kippur begins, we emphatically enter again, the Garden of Eden.
(Kol haOlam Kulo)
Rosh haShanah – Day 1
Neil F. Blumofe
14 September 2015
So, how are you? How was your year? What’s changed since we last spoke, or saw each other? If you’re visiting, or here for the first time – welcome – I hope that we too have a chance to say hello and exchange greetings in these opening days of the New Year – and it was delightful to see so many of you last evening and again here today, and have the opportunity to share time together.
A few things have happened, as we begin 5776. I’ve just had the privilege to start my 18th year in service to this community – our oldest, a sophomore in university, declared a double vocal performance and philosophy major in the Macaulay Honors Program at Brooklyn College – as he has been for the past few years, he is now in Nyack, New York , celebrating and helping to lead services with my dear friend, Cantor Michael Kasper — our daughter is a sophomore at McCallum High School where she has a choir concentration, and enjoys working with power tools and fabricating designs on set and crew in the various theatrical productions in the Fine Arts Academy – and our youngest – well, in these 18 years of living in Austin, he has allowed me to explore a new identity, beyond what I thought I would experience – and I feel the rush of all things Texas, when I tell you that he is a starting lineman on the A team of his middle school football team. The rabbi’s son. America.
Last night, I spoke about each of us transforming ourselves into angels of action – not angels who sing in the praise chorus, but rather angels who are not afraid to get their hands dirty – seizing injustice, abuse, neglect, and wrongdoing, and wrestling each of them to the ground – compelling them to change their adverse names into blessings, as the unnamed angel did with unripe Jacob, who became known after that encounter, as a more mature Israel.
And I am guided to the dilemmas offered by our tradition on this day of regeneration – as Avram became a more God-soaked Avraham, and his wife Sarai, became skeptical, devitalized, and more mercenary as Sarah – how she withered too, in his overwhelming shade — possessing little light of her own, reflecting and negotiating rather, Abraham’s powerful intensity. As the writer, Virginia Woolf penned in 1929 – women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.
What message is in front of us this day, as we peer more closely at Sarah – a woman also far from her ancestral home, not going from there because she was inspired by the word of God – rather she went, because she was taken by her husband to a land that would be shown to him. At such an advanced age, at last, Sarah finds joy in the birth of her son – she exclaims – kol hashomei’a yitzchak li – everyone who hears about this birth will laugh with me, and indeed, as this miraculous birth is said to have occurred on Rosh haShanah – there are special gates open specifically today that admit our fervent prayers for those who are barren, infertile, exploited, threatened, and suffering from the trauma of rape and abuse. There is a special Gate of Sarah that rejects objectification of women – that repudiates the indignities that women regularly suffer – and that beckons into its entrance all those who are survivors of such violence and antipathy.
And yet, after waiting so long, the joy of having a child is not enough. Sarah moves to exile Hagar and Ishmael from her household, and our contemporary view of her austere decision casts her in an unfavorable light. Rather than demonstrating courage, she is seen as mean-spirited and unable to share – she is depicted as jealous of Hagar, and suspicious of Abraham’s devotion to his oldest son.
Indeed, our tradition is critical of measuring our success by another’s advancement – as our Talmud teaches — v’amar Rav Natan bar Aba amar Rav – kol ham’tsapeh al shulchan acheirim, olam chasheich ba’ado – she’ne’emar, nodaid hu la’lechem ayeih – yada ki nachon b’yado yom choshech – Rav Chisda amar – af chayav einan chayim —
Rav Natan bar Abba said in the name of Rav – anyone who has to look to another’s table for food, is considered as if the world facing that person is dark, as the Book of Job states — he wanders for bread, asking “where is it?” – it is this person who knows that the day of darkness is close by. Rav Chisda maintains that this life – a life of looking to another’s table — is not a life.
And yet, as we experience life, we realize that not much is at it seems, and appearances can be deceiving. In our concealed hearts, what resentments do we constantly harbor, and how can Sarah be justified in her directed action to break up her husband’s family? What leads Sarah to make absolute decisions about the lives of others that on the surface appear cruel and hard-hearted – and further, how can God condone such action, muting Abraham’s bothered response by stating – kol asher tomar eilecha Sarah sh’ma v’kol’ah – whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says?
What are the various factors that we must take into account when we make difficult and complicated decisions? When we viscerally experience Sarah’s disappointment — perhaps her profound regrets involving her moldering, long-term relationship with Abraham – the ways that their lives took different turns over the years, can we not only have some sympathy for her, but can we see her choices as meritorious – decisions that can be praised, under our scrutiny? It sure does feel good to say that helping anyone in need is a moral imperative. It is seductive to compare anyone at risk to Hagar and Ishmael, cast out of their home, to wander in the wilderness – yet beyond sloganeering or trafficking in clichés, in what practical ways can one be helpful, without setting up a deleterious or pernicious environment and putting our lives in peril?
How are we moved – does it take a picture of a drowned three-year old boy to awaken the latent guilt and the amazing compassion that routinely courses within us – is it enough for us to make our best effort for a particular period and then proclaim, “Mission Accomplished? Are these refugees different from those who have been trapped in Sudan and many other places for so many years – all confronted with a bleak future? When we extend our hand, for whose benefit do we act – to do the right thing, at least right now? To receive the short-lived sympathy of fickle world opinion? To assuage our culpability? As things go — to improve these lives, but because of extenuating circumstances, not others?
In aspects of our lives, do we not set up boundaries to protect what we consider to be sacred? Our Torah teaches us to tithe 10% and not overwhelm ourselves in altruistic acts – to not destroy our home in pursuit of the good. Can we not be honest in acknowledging our own fears in upsetting an already uneasy balance as we see the tens of thousands of desperate people fleeing from their homes, in search of places that are safe — offering even the possibility of a viable future? The lessons of our tradition sparkle here, when we see the determination of Sarah to have a room of her own, on one hand, and in the reassurance that the angel gives Hagar, that all will turn out well, on the other.
The Torah locates the angel as speaking from heaven – from a place of remove, and not intimately involved in the particular, urgent suffering of Hagar and her child. Sometimes help is better utilized when it emanates from a distant place – that separation aids in cultivating good feelings and minimizes resentment and animosity – as the poet Robert Frost writes – and on a day we meet to walk the line/and set the wall between us as we go. Can providing help from a secure distance not be more helpful than dropping down unprepared, amid the conflict?
Can it not be that Sarah could be both protective and helpful at the same time? There is a compelling midrash that teaches that the angel encouraging Hagar is Sarah herself – providing for the vulnerable, considerate from a distance, opening up hopeful possibilities and elevating her spirit only after her future with Isaac is more assured and secure. When we first secure our interests, are we not then in a position to offer help and assistance from a place of generosity, rather than from bitter coerciveness?
Can we not rightfully say that this place is not your place – and that your place does exist, which we will help you find? Can our active work as angels come from a place of distance – and that normalization, a sharing of life, hearts, and home, must be deliberate and well considered?
We can never expect the world to do the right thing. Looking for some inspiration, some precedent, of how to make sense of our troubled current world, I have researched and read a bit about the peace negotiations that occurred in Paris in 1919, after World War I. This precedent, while revealing, is not so optimistic – for any idealism about a better world was, as is so often the case, engulfed in the realpolitik of self-interest — as Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France wrote to US President Woodrow Wilson about their clash of aspiration and realism, just after the war – he writes – please do not misunderstand me. We too came into the world with the noble instincts and the lofty aspirations, which you express so often and so eloquently. We have become what we are because we have been shaped by the rough hand of the world in which we have to live, and we have survived only because we are a tough bunch.
In hindsight, the negotiations and the agreements at Versailles are considered largely to be a failure – the contents not possessing the courage to tackle the real issues that were plaguing the world, and that were criticized as a knee-jerk document, speaking at once in flowery, obfuscating grandiloquence, and on the other, used for revenge – however, with many of its provisions ultimately not enforced. It is undeniable that after the treaty was ratified twenty years later, another world war and another genocide occurred with murder on an unprecedented, horrific scale, in plain sight of many of the survivors of the Great War and supporters of the treaty. When we say never again, are we willing to do the hard work to actually give teeth to that phrase – or do we mean, never again, in my backyard?
Before trying to reflexively solve seemingly insurmountable problems, do we have the will to move past lingering guilt, to shed our suspicions, to beat back oppressors, and to address the root issues that cause so much pain and suffering? Do we have the moral courage to recover our character in a sustainable way – not making important yet impulsive decisions about people’s lives, before our attention is turned elsewhere – before another arresting picture surfaces – and others are left to deal with the crucial details of what we have initiated?
Here is a partial list of what was taken off of the agenda of the Supreme Council at the Paris Peace conference in 1919: the League of Nations, Polish affairs, Russian affairs, Baltic nationalities, states formed from the late Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the Balkans, the Far East and the Pacific, Jewish affairs, legislation to guarantee people’s self-determination, protection for ethnic and religious minorities, and penalties for crimes committed during the war – the loss of will and commitment to discuss these important issues at such a seismic shift in civilization led directly to the exhibitions of everyday horror that was the 20th century, and that remains our inheritance.
As we notice Abraham’s wide-ranging wanderings – as we see him zoom from cause to cause, losing sight of priorities as he protractedly argues for the citizens of Sodom, but gives up his son without a murmur – can we not appreciate Sarah’s caution in living not just for today, but for the day after today – can we appreciate her discernment and her wisdom?
When I speak to couples who are looking to get married, we speak about many of the details and the beautiful teachings and ideas that surround and uplift gathering in a huppah – generally when we steer the conversation to the day after the wedding and the relationship that will emerge after sanctifying two people before God – and we begin to focus on the responsibilities of marriage, there is a little lull.
I gently explain how relationships can change – how circumstances can shift – how the arrival of children, or the lack of children can vex even the best of emotional health. How bodies can fail – how sickness can intrude, or interests diverge — how dreams can be deferred or detoured, and how good behavior can give way to a sense of routinization and everyday, simmering acrimony as people drift apart. As Leonard Cohen writes – we asked for signs/the signs were sent/the birth betrayed/the marriage spent.
As we step determinedly into this New Year, let us not turn away from the ragged, desolate relationship that existed between Sarah and Abraham – it may help us discover something about ourselves and about our relationship in this world. How do we compensate for our unhappiness – to what lengths will we go to protect that which has meaning for us, as we pave over the rest? What are the cognitive, emotional, and psychological firewalls that we construct within us in order to cope with our disappointments, and what are the consequences for our distance – what becomes damaged because of our incapacity to act and take care of ourselves?
And yet, our eyes still shine in anticipation – we still have a burning, wondrous hope for what yet can be – we try again, we dare to love again, as the angel, Sarah, is prepared to help on her own terms from a protected space – from a place that allows her to live fully in the confined space of her relationship – to move out from victimhood on her own terms.
May each of us not be tasked to repeat the history that we barely know – for the broad brushstrokes of history belie the agonizing details of the unfolding of time – may we take Virginia Woolf’s words to heart as we decide where to lay bare our efforts – may we consider when we are to jump into the fray as angels of action, and when we give our help as from heaven – as she writes – we can best help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods, but by finding new words and creating new methods.
As Sarah, let us identify what is home to us, first – what is sacrosanct and not to be compromised or imperfectly arbitrated in a larger conversation with competing interests. Let us fiercely protect that – and then, let us be angels to those outside of our shelter, and take Clemenceau’s words as a renewed challenge for our generation, as we must find new solutions to creeping and catastrophic problems that threaten to seize us and carry us away in a calamitous whirlwind, as he writes – yes we have won the war and not without difficulty; but now we are going to have to win the peace, and that will perhaps be even more difficult.
Shanah Tovah u’Metukah
Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah