Shelach Lecha — Asylum Seekers (5778)

How the Torah can activate us when children are separated from their parents at the US Border.


Continue Reading 10/06/2018 at 12:25 1 comment

Yearbook Pictures — Yizkor (5778)

“Yearbook Pictures”


Parashat Shavuot

Neil F. Blumofe

21 May 2018


This year is my 30th high school reunion, held in the same town in which I grew up – Libertyville — a northern suburb of Chicago.  As in the other years, I am not able to attend again this year – for in addition to activities taking place on Shabbat, it is also over the Festival of Sukkot.  In these months leading up to the reunion, there have been a few postings on social media to recruit volunteers and to begin the planning of the weekend – and I have looked at these with an agreeable yet distracted eye – knowing that I would not be involved.


It has been interesting to see people that I haven’t interacted with in 30 years communicate to this list.  Most of the students in the six-hundred student class ended up going to either one of the fine state schools for college – or to a Midwestern school in a neighboring state.  It seems too that the majority of people who are active in this list still live in the general area of my hometown – and those of us who have moved away – who went far away for college and then stayed away to begin the adult chapters of life are considered a bit curious, or even suspect – the unspoken question of, “why haven’t you come home?” seems to linger.


Obviously, we are no longer children – we are all in the dusking years of our 40’s.  In my public school, where mine was one of the very few Jewish families, still resonates — the fact too that I am a rabbi, seems a bit exotic – and on a few occasions, I have heard from those who have married Jewish partners with a note of connection and even solidarity.  And so, it was with a bit of a chill in my spine that I opened up another message from one of the organizers of this reunion, and saw that she had posted an obituary of a classmate of ours that had died, earlier this month.


This struck me, for the man who has passed away, was the first friend that I had ever made – before I moved to Libertyville, when I was in the middle of first grade.  I think my mother, of blessed memory, went out of her way to get us together, because he too was Jewish – we may have gone to kindergarten together – and she wanted me to have a Jewish friend – we weren’t actually that close – I would go to his house and I remember eating pickles with him and we would watch the old TV series Baretta together – and after I moved away, we drifted apart.  I think he too moved up to the Libertyville area when we were in middle school or high school, and by that time friendship circles had formed – we saw each other a few times, but I hadn’t spoken to him in decades.


And even though I am often with people in their saddest moments, offering pastoral presence, nothing prepared me for what happened through that day and the next.  After that posting of the death of my friend, one after another, people began to post obituaries of their friends in our class who had died.  For the next day or so, it didn’t stop – every few hours came a new death notice – piling up to about fourteen – some were suicides, some were illnesses, and a surprising number were accidents – especially car accidents – all tumbling together – the news of all of these deaths, hitting home at the same time.


I got a thud in my chest, when I read the obituary of Laura – the girl that I met when I entered my new school — Mrs. Wright’s class in first grade.  I went immediately to sit next to her, and realized that this was what my first crush felt like – she was killed by a drunk driver when she was 31.


It takes a lot for me to get overwhelmed – this torrent of announcements – so many people dying in their 20’s or 30’s or 40’s – filled me with dread.  I tried to make light of it by remembering what someone once said – like everyone else who makes the mistake of getting older, I begin each day with coffee and obituaries.  I was now that person.  And yet, something caved in,  inside of me after this experience – it is not exactly a flood of nostalgia – however, in my mind’s eye – all of these people are still in high school and none of them had a chance to grow up.  I realize that this is unreasonable, and yet, my memory is peopled in specific times – and to have death now invade and bring ghosts, where the wisps of children have walked, is mighty unsettling.  It seems that the story that I have told myself has been interrupted, or exposed as not accurate, after all of these years.


So, I am wondering today – what stories have we told ourselves – how have we processed our past, having let people go.  My assumption is that they continue to live – and to read about the deaths of so many so young at one time, is affecting.  A week or so ago, my kids received their yearbooks – the format and layout of which hasn’t seemed to change much since I was their age.  And like I once did, they looked through the many pages, spontaneously reliving stories from throughout that year – one in the sunrise of high school and one in the sunset.  They told stories, and especially my senior, looked at the pictures of her classmates with an unspoken, unformed sense of camaraderie, or shared experience of growing older together – even if there were no direct experiences shared.


And I see this moment for each of us, of opening our yearbooks again – and remembering – not only those who have died in our life – not only those whose memories we cherish or are challenged by – but too, the experiences that we have lived that have been shelved, or nearly forgotten.  Who are the ones with whom we have lived, who have had a supporting role in shaping us into who we are?  While I think of my mom and dad now more constantly than I ever did when they were still alive, there are a few from my past who I have thought about regularly over the years – who have shaped my character.  Like the boy with whom I ran cross-country in high school, who because of a perceived bad break up, choose to kill himself before graduating high school.  For some reason, I still have our cross-country photo together easily accessible in a drawer.  And I wonder now — which one of us am I mourning more intensely – him, or the thought of who I once was, and will never be again?


We are now at the moment of Yizkor – a time when we are to photo shop the people that we love back into our life – back into the pictures of our memories and thus, for a moment, back into our lives – what used to be called, Kodak moments.  To do so now may be difficult, or unexpected.  Think of taking out an old volume of a year book – and paging through each season – who and what do you see?  Perhaps envision yourself at a reunion – whether a school reunion or a family reunion – what stories would you tell about whom?


Not only your classmates – and the shadows of your past – of course – with your parents and grandparents – and too some of us, sadly, with our children.  What activities, what events are present this morning?  Maybe a sibling, or another favorite relative – maybe something is showing up now that you have shared with a close friend?  It can be challenging in the context of such loss to think about the choices that we have made, and that we will continue to make as adults.  With whom do we remain connected, and who in our circles, really understands us?


After reading about Tod, my first friend, I wrote something about him in our group – and a few people commented and a couple of people sent me friend requests – I normally would not have accepted them – especially since one of the people reaching out, was the one who beat me in the class president elections sophomore year — I haven’t spoken to them since high school, yet this was a whisper of a shared journey – something unspoken in the connection – so we have connected, and I haven’t shared with them since – and yet it is somehow important that we continue to walk together, witness to each other’s trials and triumphs – somehow authenticating the imperfect journey that we are making — savoring the good times and sharing our grief and disquiet over what has been, and what will no longer be, as we square our shoulders and lean, into the future.


Hag Sameach.

24/05/2018 at 17:38 1 comment

Somatic Therapy (Behar/Bechukotai)

“Somatic Therapy”


Parashat Behar Bechukotai

Neil F. Blumofe

12 May 2018


I’ve just finished a very revealing book that I recommend for all of you to consider.  It’s authored by the Israeli journalist, Ronen Bergman, entitled, Rise Up and Kill First – The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.  The rather clunky title is a direct quote from the Talmud – Berachot 58a, where this phrase is offered amid a provocative discussion which is a referendum for authority – in this case, the ancient monarchy – and can effortlessly be applied to our world today.


In the Talmud, it seems that a certain judge, named Rabbi Shila punished a man who he found guilty of transgression – and in turn, the punished man began to troll the judge, trying to get him in trouble in the eyes of the king.  Ultimately, the Talmud paints the man as a rodef, one who hurtfully dissembles and relentlessly causes tension wherever he goes, so the judge personally strikes him down to prevent him from further ill will and disruption.


This Talmud decision is based on the Torah – specifically Exodus 22:1, where it states – im ba’machteret yimatzei haganav, vhuka vameit, ein lo damim – if a thief is found breaking into a house, and he is struck and thus dies, there shall be no further blood, shed for him – which means that the taking of his life is not considered murder – so it is not actionable, or punishable.  The idea here is that if the thief breaks in, it can be reasonably assumed that he would do so, prepared to kill the homeowner – as Rashi teaches – perhaps Rashi has roots in Texas — it is well known that people forcibly protect their property, therefore it is feasible to take the life of the thief, before innocent blood is shed.


I hope that this issue as described in the Talmud would generate rich discussion for us as we continue to study in our community in these months ahead.  Here though, as we speak again about Bergman’s book, the title is used to highlight the work of the three agencies in Israel – the Shin Bet internal security service, the Mossad spy agency, and AMAM – which is the Directorate of Military Intelligence – and the work that they do, often partnered with the Israel Defense Force, the IDF, in neutralizing enemies who are dedicated both to the destruction of the State of Israel, and to the deliberate elimination of the Jewish people.


The harder question of Bergman’s book is – when does the suspension of law or violence in the name of self-preservation outweigh the values that are to be preserved – the values of a robust, free, society?  As the Roman orator Cicero wrote, in times of war, the laws fall silent.  Is Israel always in a perpetual war, and if so, when does the counter-terrorism and the targeted killing threaten to become the dominant worldview and the way that not only the spies and the assassins, but the state officials and even the citizens, see the world.  What are the gains and the losses of this force being used as a part of a larger effort at statecraft?


In halacha, a shochet, a ritual slaughterer, cannot be in the blood for an extended period of time.  After killing the animals in a kosher way, the shochet is mandated to take a break – to walk away from the blood that he has spilled for a while, in order that this appetite for killing does not infect his spirit – and in turn that he is not dehumanized to the life that he has killed – in order for him not to take the killing for granted and be desensitized to its consequences, even if it is for consumption.  In traditional Jewish law, there is to be a moment of realization and supplication for the one taking the life of the animal to be eaten – which is integral to the process, and is related too, to the ways that we offer blessings both before and after we eat.


In almost 650 pages, Bergman describes the history of the ingenious and legendary ways that Israel has fought back for over 70 years against those who were dedicated to her destruction – against terror gangs, suicide bombers, rogue organizations, terrorist organizations, and hostile governments.  In addition to the aftermath of the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, and the rescue of the hostages in Entebbe – and many, many other episodes, he chronicles Israel’s daring assassination campaign against German nuclear scientists working for Egypt in the 1950’s and 60’s, and those currently helping Iran bolster and break out with a nuclear weapons program.


And yet, there is a quote from Meir Dagan, one of the most effective and lethal heads of the Mossad that resonates with me.  In 2015, at a political rally for the opposition to the current Prime Minister, Dagan said – I believe that the hour has come for us to wake up, and I hope that Israeli citizens will stop being hostages of the fears and the anxieties that menace us morning and night.  Dagan was no shrinking violet in his career – and his comment needs to be considered.


Recently, as was reported in the Times of Israel and other sources this week, government officials in Israel have called the situation in Israel unchangeable and an enduring peace unrealistic.  And this is why I cheer the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – more than a symbol, this is a concrete step of someone hearing the story of Israel.  Rather than being perpetually accused or torn down – of being Middle East-splained – or taunted that its very existence is suspect, it is refreshing to have the United States honor the story that Israel speaks about itself – that the city of Jerusalem is central to not only tradition – including our origin story, it remains crucial to the flowering of the Jewish state.


With this move, perhaps something new can happen – perhaps all of us who desperately care about Israel and her people – can move on from a ceaseless stalemate – can get past perpetual war — as the blood continues to rise, pooling over our feet.  Perhaps this gives us a way to interrupt the cycles of violence, recrimination, and revenge, and like the shochet, we can take a break from this.


In therapy, an important introductory skillset for the counselor is to actually hear the story that the patient is telling about herself.  It sounds simple – giving this opening – to honor, celebrate, and secure Jerusalem — as the world, led by the United States, begins to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – perhaps that can then give us a new way of regarding ourselves – and give those diligent and tireless, who constantly defend Israel, a chance to be heard, and thus given an opportunity to offer a new narrative beyond always having to be the homeowner with a weapon raised, constantly in wait for an intruder.


I think of this embassy move as psychosomatic medicine – as a therapy that can relieve the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as Israel was founded and as the country has had to continuously justify her existence – this medicine can include self-awareness and the release of physical tension that remains in the aftermath of trauma – thus alleviating the pain and perhaps promoting wellness and flourishing for friends and even for present enemies.  Once respect for space, place, and life are established, then the enduring questions of purpose and wellbeing for others in the region can then be carefully addressed.  I think that once we are not as fearful of those who are coming to kill us, hope is possible.  This road is very long, and is the work of generations — and — there are answers after violence, and when we can move away from the extraordinary cases of the rodef, those who are unreasonable and dogged in their hatred, we can then concentrate on hearing other stories, and thus amplify the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness for a greater number of heartbroken people.


Shabbat Shalom.

14/05/2018 at 10:44 Leave a comment

Haman Looking at Mordechai, Looking at Haman (Tetzaveh/Zachor)

“Haman Looking at Mordechai Looking at Haman”


Parashat Tetzaveh/Zachor

Neil F. Blumofe

24 February 2018


As we study this week’s Torah portion through the lenses of our anticipating the Festival of Purim, and through our experience of current events, we see that the instructions given to Aaron and his sons as they inaugurate the priesthood for the children of Israel, offer us guidance.


Very often the famous directive found in the Talmud in the name of Rava gives all of us an excuse to indulge in careless, artless – even irresponsible — behavior on Purim.  As the Talmud teaches – one should become so inebriated on Purim so that one cannot distinguish between the phrases “bless Mordechai” and “curse Haman.”  If you think about this – this moral relativity is a disturbing thought.  Our tradition is asking us to pay attention to the assumptions that we make, the narratives that we tell – and to subvert them – to interrogate them to see if they in fact are worthy of being believed in.  we are to turn our world upside down and shake it a bit – and then on the day after Purim, we are to pick up the pieces and see if they still fit together, as we ask, what reality are we living in – or more troubling – whose reality are we living in?


Sometimes when I am traveling, I see someone from a distance and think that I know the person, based on how they were dressed – their general visage is similar to one that I would know in our community, here in Austin – and for a few days at least, I assemble associations that erroneously link people in the different worlds that I transverse.  It is likely that Mordechai and Haman dressed similarly and shared similar characteristics – speech patterns, cultural references and general comportment.  It would be difficult perhaps to tell them apart immediately – that is, until they started talking – or tweeting.


Our Torah is concerned about misplaced identity and reminds us that how we dress – how we represent — must befit the work that we are doing in the world.  Aaron and his sons are to dress differently from everyone else in order to distinguish them and their particular function – as they serve as kohanim – or priests in the Tabernacle.  As they go about their sacred tasks, they are to be distinguished, prominent, and remarkable – not to be confused or mistaken as anyone else.  Contrary to Purim and Rava’s teaching, as he was officiating, no one would mistake Aaron for someone else.


Considering this — nowadays, perhaps like you, I think a lot about how our information is disseminated, and the reliability of most things.  How we photo-shop our pictures, how we embellish the stories that we tell – how we rely on imprecise memories as we construct our world – and more insidiously, how we are unwitting consumers of propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen and other means of influence that seize upon our insecurities and fears, and act to fray our already tenuous social and political threads of community.  As we are manipulated to go down a specific path, we lose perspective of a more nuanced and subtle world – and in order to accommodate our overwhelming feelings of incapacity and dread, we then perhaps tolerate and rationalize behaviors that we wouldn’t normally tolerate – just so we can keep going and not regularly feel vanquished – or comprehend that we are so often suckered.


It is as if Haman dresses up as Mordechai and in this costume, performs an automated bot swarm dumping intentional misinformation over our social media platforms– and thus, because of this impersonation, the reliability of most everything – and perhaps even reality itself is then under suspicion.  Thus, moral issues can be drowned out – and principles and the imperatives of ethical virtue and justice are swept away by the torrent of indoctrinating obfuscation.


We see a resistance to this kind of elision in both Aaron and Amalek in our Torah.  Aaron as a kohein, is to be protected from identity theft.  He is to be unique in his functionality – a walking manifestation of holiness – not to be confused with partial truths, hedged bets, or the good enoughs.  We hear him coming, because of the bells jangling on his tunic – and this is meant to prepare us to consider our unalienable rights – our most rooted truths.  Like we stand and face the Torah in the synagogue, we are not just greeting it as it passes our way – rather we are to stand – face to face in relationship with our own fundamental being and see how close or far we are living in our essentiality – are we living in bad faith, can we even locate our self?


Our Torah teaches us that somewhere in our life we are to have an intrinsic Torah – something that is not compromised by the exigencies of what we must do to stay alive – or all of the accommodate we must make in order to live through all of the gray areas.  This Torah still stands for us to locate our wonder and rectitude – even as we analyze the trajectory of our life, we still have a resolute intractable Torah that stands at attention in the core of our being like a High Priest, distinguished and removed from everyday fray, and thus spared not to be a casualty of the consequences of our decision-making.  At the end of the day, there is part of us that is still whole, and still hopeful.


And our Torah teaches us too about Amalek – remembering to not forget – a tautology, or a redundancy of propositional logic, that reminds us that most of what we see every day is already in costume.  There is no isolated Amalek that we can destroy and thus transcend the difficulties of our world – our Torah is saying that there are shades of Amalek – that like the ingredient soy lecithin, we can find Amalek in most everything – it is impossible to eradicate – and as the super hero franchises teach us, Amalek always has a sequel.


So we are aware – we cannot completely overcome the assaults on information.  So we must guard ourselves against too much Amalek.  We must resist doing another’s bidding as Amalek.  On Purim, we dress in costume to remind ourselves of this – in effect, to inoculate ourselves against believing too much in the agendas of others – to be wary of the diet that others want to create for us.  We are to retain our independent thinking and sharpen our critical faculties.  We are to practice consideration and thoughtfulness.  We are to hear and hold each other’s pain.


Here, in these days before Purim, we stand on the precipice between truth and fiction – between morality and amorality – and we resolve not to serve another in their quest for tyranny of our minds and souls – and ultimately, we stand opposed to putting our lives at risk for another’s pleasures.  We are to leverage our freedoms to work for laws that make us more secure – to advance technologies that improve our lives and not threaten them.


Between Aaron and Amalek, we are to be wise and responsible – and in pursing these qualities and mindset – we are to appreciate all of the ambiguity, and in this reality, in all of these shades of gray between black and white – we are then to shrewdly discern.  We are to cultivate the courage to know when enough is enough so we can put away our things once a week, on a day like today, so we can simply appreciate the profound pleasures that exist all around us without our need to comment, criticize, or corrupt them as we express our gratitude and as we more fully enjoy this moment, as we are.


Shabbat Shalom.

26/02/2018 at 10:25 Leave a comment

Sanhedrin as Sanctuary (Terumah)

“Sanhedrin as Sanctuary”


Parashat Terumah

Neil F. Blumofe

17 February 2018

(In loving memory of the 138 students, teachers, coaches, and staff who have been murdered in American schools, during the school day since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting).  

Today, as the Book of Exodus continues to unfold, we begin the great and detailed instructions of building the mishkan, the sanctuary in the wilderness.  In fact, the remainder of this second book of the Torah is concerned with this construction.  Also, it is instructive to learn that beginning with the teaching of the master medieval sage Rashi, there are other poskim – other commentators — who suggest that the building of this home for God was a result of the tragedy of the Golden Calf – or in Hebrew, egel hazahav.


This is to suggest, as the 16th century Italian rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno does, that the Tabernacle came into existence because of the transgressions, or the shortcomings of the people.  He contends that after the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the awareness of God was imbedded in every person – and it was only when the inherent holiness was obscured by our contravention of that experience, that a constant reminder was needed for the people to sustain such supernal realizations.  This is why the instruction to build this sacred site begins with the direction that the sanctuary shall be built, v’shchanti b’tocham – so that God’s Presence will dwell among all of the people.


I believe that we are now amid our own egel hazahav moment.  With the latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida, we have bobbled the lodestar that guides us, entreating us that we are all entitled to a pursuit of the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – which any sort of government is created in order to protect.  We are losing our children, and we seem to be trapped in a blind canyon of not prioritizing the moral imperative of protecting those who are vulnerable – those looking to shape an identity in large part based on the examples that they see each of us setting.


A significant myth of America teaches that each of us is to form our own individual character – that we are to stand out as rugged, iconoclastic, and non-conformist in a way – entrepreneurs are praised – followers are not.  Especially for males, the establishing of a mask of cool is encouraged – whether as a cowboy, private detective, an outlaw – or as some sort of rebel – and I submit that it is not exclusively a form of mental illness that energizes a young man to cultivate a school shooter persona – the modern equivalent of the outlaw.  This kind of identity construction is ingrained in our culture and a variant of it has been with us for a long time – and I think the expression of masculinity is currently in crisis.


We see these lines in the sand materialize before our very eyes.  As our own Jim Vertuno reported for the Associated Press (AP) back in 2013 after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut – that there are some influencers who consider unimpeded access to owning and operating guns as a part of a larger culture war – and the ability to use standard military firearms as important to defend against tyranny.  This belief privileges a defense of a way of life more than it cares for the well-being of elementary or high school students, movie theater-goers in Colorado, college students in Virginia, people on the campus of the Jewish community in Kansas, church-goers in Texas, or anyone gathered to enjoy a concert in Las Vegas.  Already in the seven weeks of 2018, there have already been 20 mass shooting incidents in the United States – in 2017, there were 346 – and in 2016, there were 384 – more than one a day.  How long must we suffer?  Is this just the current price of living in America, or can each of us take steps to respond with practical action?  I think it is easier to change laws than to change founding myths.


In studying the profound lessons of our Torah, our sages teach that the instructions given the building of the Tabernacle and the forming of the Sanhedrin – an assembly created to establish law — are interrelated – that ritual and law are linked.  According to Ramban, the 13th century Spanish mystic and scholar, the mishkan was a central rallying point of the people – a place where everyone would go to elevate themselves spiritually.  Likewise, the Sanhedrin was created after tragedy.  So, knowing that the building of the mishkan and the foundation of the Sanhedrin were both a consequence of the egel hazahav, we can see that these laws can have a positive effect and can neutralize the deleterious effects of almost daily trauma in our lives – as provoked by the mass shooting crisis in which we are now living.


Recent studies have demonstrated that in order to insulate ourselves against such a flurry of tragedy, we have developed an accelerated processing time, before we move on.  Tragedy does not shock us as much as it used to – and for the incident that occurred this past Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, experts say that our processing time is two days.  Two days before we shrug our shoulders and we recede.  Two days before our discontent is eclipsed by our accommodation.  Two days before we numb ourselves back into a dormancy – overwhelmed by sustained engagement.


If not now, when will we get involved?  Really, what can we do?  As Rabbi Paul Kipnes suggests – we can animate the Torah injunction – lo ta’amod al dam reiacha – of not standing idly by as our neighbor bleeds – by doing two simple acts in these two days when we are still prone to act.  Beginning tonight and before the weekend is over – do two things – maybe join an organization that reflects your views, or contribute to a candidate that reflects your views, or write a letter to an elected official, or attend a rally, or make a donation, or write an article that reflects your views – keep those in positions of authority accountable, and then encourage two friends to do the same.   Also, consider running for public office.  Early voting in Texas opens this coming Tuesday and continues until just after Purim, on 2 March.  Election Day is Tuesday, 6 March.  Don’t be afraid.  Engage, because the window is closing and for self-survival we will move on – and this tragedy will join the annals of American tragedies, as our drifting youth continue to look for a voice and for lives of meaning and significance, and as people in positions of leadership twist our nuanced dilemmas of being into a zero-sum game for dominion and mythological survival, by distilling a complicated issue into depraved battle lines of war.  Blot out the noise and let us stop focusing our energy on that which and those who deplete us.  Remember our inherent worth and holiness.


As my friend, and colleague from the Hartman Institute, Rabbi Les Bronstein has written – I refuse to give comfort – or take comfort from any religious tradition that would substitute comfort for righteous action.  I refuse to acknowledge the credibility of any theology that would only pray for the souls of the victims, without beseeching our God for justice.  Let us beseech God for justice and realize that our mishkan is calling to us – entreating us to make a sanctuary of our society – to realize that we have erred, and that we can create order out of chaos, so that our children, our friends, and our neighbors will have not died in vain – and with sensible controls on the purchase and use of such powerful weapons – with effective laws that recognize the power of the tools of destruction in place, we can then concentrate even more on the vexing issues of disaffection, vainglory and self-doubt that ravages so many boys, and indeed, so many among us.


We are to turn the elaborate detail of the mishkan into a solid, dependable Sanhedrin – a place where we can heal, by practically and resolutely addressing the disaster that we are in, as we mourn our children again.  May the lives of all seventeen from this latest incident – teachers, coaches and students — be for a blessing.  May we not forget them and not just attach them to bigger lists – like this one: since Sandy Hook – December, 2012 — more than 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings, with 138 murdered.  May these lives matter, and may we have the courage to awaken again and disrupt this grim business as usual to protect all of our children and to strengthen our society with our efforts.


Baruch Dayan haEmet.


V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham

Va’anachnu n’vareich Yah, v’atah v’ad olam


[Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true, 

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, sanctuary for you.] 


Shabbat Shalom.




18/02/2018 at 16:52 Leave a comment




Parashat Va’era

Neil F. Blumofe

13 January 2018


Now, before the redemption of the Israelites and the Exodus from Egypt, we are to endure the series of plagues that befall the people of Egypt – what our rabbinic tradition calls the signs and wonders of God.  Our Torah portion presents seven of the ten, each seemingly brought on by an intractable Pharaoh and a determined God – and however we understand these to have been – and whatever we translate these to mean in our own day, and with our own theology – if we take our story of origin seriously, we see that we can celebrate these plagues only because we are on the other side of them, as we ritually fold them into our Pesach seder.


And as often as we have studied these or sung them – I am returning to the idea this year of what would it have been like to have experienced these plagues while still slaves in Egypt.  As our paradigm was shifting all around us – what actions would we take – would we be meek or heroic – afraid or lion-hearted — as we would have witnessed the blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, epidemic, boils, and hail, all around us?  Would it not have been reassuring to rationalize in our muted response, that these plagues did not directly affect us, and were ultimately for our benefit?


Our tradition states that these plagues were a result of the grappling between God and Pharaoh – to demonstrate God’s power in a strange land, and to show that with an outstretched arm, God did not forget the oppressed people on the road to freedom.  It could also be that the plagues were a test of the people Israel – to spur them into action – to dare them to stand up against that which afflicts their society and to try and curb the injustices and the tragedies that they saw all around them.


It can be asked – what kind of power did a bunch of slaves have, anyway?  How could their voices stand against the ravages all around them – and how could they gain momentum to help their suffering neighbor, and at the same time gain enough traction to be able to leave the bondage of slavery for good?


In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. while sitting in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote a letter to his fellow clergyman, answering their criticisms of his actions of protest against injustice – famously proclaiming here, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within in its bounds. 


Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps inspired by this week’s Torah portion – where the four steps for God’s redemption of the people are spelled out – writes of four steps in the campaign of nonviolent protest – (i) collection of facts to determine whether injustices exist; (ii) negotiation; (iii) self-purification; and (iv) direct action.  He was hoping that these direct actions would spur negotiations that would finally undo segregation.


And our Torah has shown us, that the protracted negotiations between Pharaoh and Moses and Aaron, ultimately did not bear fruit – rather, we see the vertiginous and conflicting responses of Pharaoh – seeming to agree that the slaves should be free, and then suddenly changing his mind with renewed zeal.


As we learn from our history – from the sacred texts of our traditions to the somber events of the 20th century concerning racial relationships in the United States, we see the plagues again this year – and are confronted with the question of what do we do?  Do we read these events with a blinking eye, determined not to connect our Torah to the events in our current world?  Do we rely on God to sort out the issues of the world, resigned to think that we will not be reading about the miracles in repose this time – rather, we will be the generation that either dies in slavery or is doomed in the wilderness – bestowing celebration to a yet unborn generation?  Martin Luther King speaks about our holy places being not thermometers that just measure and record the ideas and principles of popular opinion – but rather, thermostats – that transform the very mores of society.  How can we be more thermostatic than just recording a temperature?


Who do we see as family – how do we have conversations about our future that acknowledge that we each hold a partial truth, and that our cultivated compassion will uplift our own answers as right and just?  How do we remind ourselves that the challenge for us to contribute and innovate are greater than what we must do to resist or correct?


Currently, there is a renewed movement that takes up Martin Luther King Jr’s challenge in 1968, when he said – there can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution; that is a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution of weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapon of warfare. Then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place and there is still the voice crying the vista of time saying, “Behold, I make all things new, former things are passed away”… Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges … and new opportunities … We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses … We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists … We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that is signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic non-violent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible. This was known as the Poor People’s Campaign –a fight by capable, hard workers against dehumanization, discrimination, and poverty wages in the richest county in the world – and there are stirrings of a new Poor People’s Campaign in our country.


This renewed effort is seeking to tackle the following core issues – racism, poverty, militarism, ecological destruction and our national morality – in order to disrupt what Martin Luther King called the degenerating sense of nobodiness.


The miracle of our Exodus from Egypt is that our people found a voice – we became Am Yisrael – somebodies — ready to wander in the desert together, and to take pride in our community.  Together we were inspired to wrestle with fundamental questions and concentrate on our longer-term trajectory, for meaning, significance, and purpose.


So, how do we respond to the plagues occurring all around us?  How do we contribute and innovate – rather than tell our stories after they happen?  How do we engage any Pharaoh that does not seem disposed to negotiation?  In what ways can we have what we cherish, matter?  How far are we willing to go?  There are the questions of our Torah – and they remain the questions for each of us, as we encounter our world, and as we seek answers for the generations looking to us for guidance.  We take up the challenge of the plagues and of all of the accommodations that we make in order to live our life. I urge you to look at the information of the New Poor People’s Campaign – and in your research, find ways to get involved —

At heart, our Torah is asking us to consider the question of time – when is the right time for slavery to be transformed into freedom?  As it were, how much should I let go and let God?  Let us be so challenged — as Martin Luther King writes, his inspired voice rising to us still from his jail cell in Birmingham – more and more I feel that men of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will.  We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.  Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

How much is too much – when is the right time to say, hineni?  Im lo achshav, eimatai?  If not now, when?

Shabbat Shalom.list-8-literature-jail-king-birmingham-e

14/01/2018 at 16:25 Leave a comment

Vayeshev – 5778 — Jerusalem: Beautiful Heights and the Murmuring Deep

“Jerusalem: Beautiful Heights and the Murmuring Deep”


Parashat Vayeshev

Neil F. Blumofe

9 December 2017


(Im Eshkachech)


For the past several years, I have had the honor of being part of a national rabbinic mentor team, convened by the Clergy Leadership Incubator, which is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz.  As a mentor, I get to advise and encourage other rabbis in areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation – part of an area of study which is known as adaptive leadership.  Adaptive leadership, as opposed to technical leadership, is an area of study that helps people adapt and thrive in challenging environments.  Researched by scholars such as Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky – both from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard – who have pioneered this study of how to thrive in an unpredictable marketplace with unprecedented uncertainty and new types of competitors.


This week, I greet with joy the announcement that the United States will finally honor the 1995 Jewish Embassy Act which is a public law passed by the United States Congress, in part, calling for Jerusalem to remain an undivided city and for it to be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel.  This legislation was adopted back then by the Senate 93-5, and by the House 374-37.


Is not Jerusalem at the epicenter of our yearnings?  As our Psalms proclaim – im eshkachech Yerushalayim, tishkach yimini – if I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.  We certainly have not forgotten Jerusalem through our millennium of exile.  And yet, our rabbinic tradition teaches this story in the ancient Jerusalem Talmud – when David came to dig the foundations of the Temple in Jerusalem, he dug fifteen thousand cubits, but had not reached the Deep.  Digging further, he finally uncovered a cluster of stones and was about to lift them up, when one of the rocks spoke to him and said – do not touch me…  Even so, David did not listen, and once the rock was lifted, the Deep arose, and threatened to submerge the world.  Also, the 20th century Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai writes –


Jerusalem is built on the arched foundations

of a held back scream.  If there were no reason

for the scream, the foundations would be shattered, the city would collapse,

if the scream should be screamed, Jerusalem would explode into the heavens.


These are cautionary words – one ancient and one modern — and yet, for too long in our lives and in the machinations of the world living in a precarious time – a period that the American political economist, Francis Fukuyama termed the End of History — Jerusalem, and by extension, the legitimacy of the State of Israel has been the elephant – or as some writers cheekily call it – the camel in the room.  I offer some thoughts from my own perspective this morning – in an effort for us to consider what we believe, what questions we are asking, and from where we draw our information, and how, even in an aggressive, winner-take-all culture – a culture that is primed in the opposite way of our storied traditions of Judaism, where a multiplicity of various opinions and statements are preserved in our texts — how we can continue to have respectful and nourishing conversations with each other?   


I submit to you that we, supporters of the state of Israel, are wounded.  We have been wounded by decades of feeling that the cards of public opinion have been stacked against us by agencies like the United Nations who proclaimed in 1975 in the General Assembly Resolution 3379 that Zionism is akin to racism – to be finally revoked only in 1991 – and, as I have spoken about a few months ago, agencies like UNESCO – the cultural arm of the United Nations which has consistently passed legislation that ignore Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, stating that Israel is both an occupying power and guilty of “provocative abuses that violate the sanctity and integrity” of the area.


This kind of organized activity that seeks to deny the connection between the Jewish people, the Land of Israel, and Jerusalem only entrenches extremism and an unwillingness to engage in creative thinking – in other words, this kind of provocation only encourages technical solutions and not adaptive solutions – this just furthers the problems – letting them remain status quo – without seeking to fix that which is broken.


I do believe that this week’s announcement is an adaptive change – and can help all parties seek new and fresh solutions, without thinking that they have to act according to what has already been predetermined.  In celebrating our ties to Jerusalem, we should not think that we are doing something wrong.  We are acknowledging that true shift in the Middle East will come from a position of strength, confidence, and service to our narrative – and having the world see that this is possible, gives everyone an opportunity to reframe their thinking on this issue – and not fight grueling proxy wars of delegitimization.


In other words, if we think that we are negotiating a price in a bazaar, and we see that the seller has established an exorbitant price, we do not negotiate from that place – we reset the table by establishing the price that we think we shall pay – and then we go from there.  Negotiation in a bazaar is mythic and cutthroat – and yet, ultimately it is honest brokering that will allow scrupulous people to dispense with nonsense, and finally have a conversation about power and peace.


How can this decision further peace in the Middle East?  What opportunities and which countries are being signaled in this latest pronouncement?  What are the undisclosed motivations in announcing this decision?  At this point, it is impossible to say.  Regardless, it is in our interest and in the interest of the world to establish facts on the ground that are true.  This is a starting point for adaptive change.  We then can recognize the trauma that we live within the constant shadow of history, and proudly claim that Jews have a right to have agency, self-determination, and even sovereignty in the world.  From a place of equals, we can then practice transformation – with the current state of things, it is next to impossible to work within the practice of anti-normalization – how can one engage a partner for a secure peace if they don’t see you as an equal – and in return, if we dismiss them?  One can make the case that it is actually in the interests of the Palestinians to acknowledge that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel – this can give everyone a chance to practice adaptive change and have momentum for normalization, and a quest for better rights among all residents as we seek to improve upon what has previously been regarded as an intractable situation.  This may be a light to get us out of the tunnel of what the philosopher Micah Goodman, who spoke from this pulpit last year, has proclaimed is the bane of Israel’s predicament – the Catch ’67.


I realize that all of this is toxic – when I was first in Israel during what later became known as the First Intifada in 1991, I saw the games that the children played – like previous generations would play cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians – these kids played Israelis and Palestinians, and it was as sad as you could imagine.  How do we change inherited legacies of transmission?  This may be a promising first step to interrupt what is – and to make a paradigm shift and promote a new way of thinking.


We must resist the notion that recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will bring violence.  This is not a decision that Israelis can make – rather, that is a decision for those provocateurs, themselves.  We should not infantilize others – we should encourage others to soul-search and not make decisions from a knee-jerk reaction – rather we should reward visionaries who think beyond the box that we are perilously in.  Our luxury is that we get to Monday morning quarterback history, not realizing all of the hand-wringing, wrangling, and trepidation that led up to the decisions that we now see as inevitable.  I am currently reading a book entitled 1924, which tells the story of a certain extremist leader in Bavaria who becomes the leader of Germany.  He did not accomplish his demonic work on his own – he was emboldened and his way was made clear by those in society around him – making his atrocities much more insidious, wide-reaching, and macro-complicit than we would like to admit.  We now have a potential opportunity to go beyond our languishing and suffering, with truth as the best remedy.


And speaking of truth, of course, there is much work to be done.  In our complex world, this also includes the demand that the same Chief Executive who this week implemented the Jerusalem Embassy Act also repudiate Nazis, racism, hatred, and class warfare in America – a dram of truth in a cauldron of lies quickly dissipates.  Undertaking these actions as well, will go a long way to addressing the threats and despondency so many feel, as we think about the present tilt of our country.


Many ask, what effect with this announcement have?  We can see that at the end of the day, that the sovereignty of Israel is not contingent on any statement from any place – however, I think that this announcement means a lot.   In the court of public opinion, the cards may have been reshuffled this week, just a little.  Adapting a quote from Francis Fukuyama — war is the wrong metaphor for the broader struggle, since wars are fought at full intensity and have clear beginnings and endings.  Meeting today’s challenges is more of a “long twilight struggle” whose core is not a military campaign, but a political context for the hearts and minds of ordinary people around the world. 


As our Torah portion teaches this week – we wonder about what Jacob really knew about the relationships between Joseph and his brothers.  There is a midrash that claims that Jacob did know what would transpire for Joseph as he sent him to find his brother, and with this prophetic vision, he allowed the immediate suffering to happen in order to facilitate a longer-term redemption.  Thinking that suffering leads to redemption is a core principle of an academic interest of mine – Holocaust theology – and as we search for meaning past the difficulties of our world, this may be disturbing to our ears.  As my friend and teacher, Rabbi Danny Nevins writes – thinking about this time of Hanukkah, which means dedication and shares the same root as education – he writes:  ultimately the Hanukkah story is about the willingness to suffer for the sake of a better future.  We zoom to the happy ending, the rededicated Temple and sufganiyot.  But before that there were months of hiding and fighting, or resisting and risking everything for the sake of a different reality.  It is the legacy of vision and determination and courage and sacrifice that is the ultimate inspiration.  May we be spared such suffering, and yet find the clarity, conviction, and courage to change our own reality from darkness to light – from oppression to freedom – and from sorrow to joy. 


May we – and may all of us indeed, be spared suffering – and may we find clarity, conviction, and courage to change our own reality from darkness to light – and move from sorrow to joy, as we continue to address honestly, the dilemmas of power and peace.


(Im Eshkachech)


Shabbat Shalom.

11/12/2017 at 08:21 2 comments

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