Neil F. Blumofe
11 February 2017
To mix it up a bit – here is a sports sermon – I figure that I would offer one, once in a while.
This morning, I’m going to speak about last week’s Super Bowl game. For those of you who saw it, at first it was not much of a contest, with the Atlanta Falcons dominating the game through the first 45 minutes or so. However the last quarter belonged to the New England Patriots and specifically to their quarterback, Tom Brady, who almost preternaturally, marched his team up and down the playing field to ultimately come from behind and win the game in overtime.
I am not the biggest fan of football – I grew up cheering for the Chicago Bears – rejoicing in their extraordinary 1985 championship season – and then later on, became a New Orleans Saints fan, enjoying their Super Bowl victory in 2010 – however, in the last couple of years, I’ve seen a few more games and while it was thrilling to have watched my youngest play football on his middle school A team – and really, it was grosse naches to see him, the rabbi’s son, successfully navigate a version of Texas football culture — it pained me each time a game was delayed as one young man after another experienced an injury over the course of a season – and it was eerie to be one of the parents cheering as our team made a vicious tackle, or made a big play, at the expense of the other team.
For Hanukkah last year we gave my son the movie, Concussion, starring Will Smith – and he rolled his eyes, and watched it in adolescent silence without me – however, a few months ago, we both watched the ESPN show “The ’85 Bears,” which took me for a nostalgic ride until we got to the chilling scene where the famed quarterback Jim McMahon was interviewed – and he could barely speak in sentences that were not laced with pain. The thrill of victory – the agony of defeat. For both of us, it was a sobering reminder of the damage that playing football does – and it tempered my adoring childhood images of the confident, electrifying young men who sacrificed their bodies to their athletic pursuits. And after a few years of negotiations in our family, coupled with the recent announcement from sports legend Bo Jackson, that neither he nor his children would have played football had he known then what he knows now, my son has retired from football – looking to enter into high school next year strengthening and continuing to develop skillsets for different sports and activities.
However, Tom Brady did me no favors last Sunday night. His is a quintessential success story. In high school, Brady was a backup quarterback on a winless team – and eventually he made his way onto the Patriots as a sixth-round draft pick, becoming the greatest quarterback in NFL history. This quote from the owner of the Patriots, Robert Kraft, is illustrative:
I still have the image of Tom Brady coming down the old Foxboro stadium steps with that pizza box under his arm – a skinny beanpole – and when he introduced himself to me and said, “Hi, Mr. Kraft,” he was about to say who he was – but I said, “I know who you are – you’re Tom Brady. You’re our sixth-round draft choice. And he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.” “It looks like he could be right.”
As we study the Torah portion Beshallach this week, I look to explore this idea of self-confidence. In college, at the University of Michigan, Brady was a backup quarterback for two years – and for most of his undergraduate days, he had an intense struggle to get some playing time. It is written that during college, Brady hired a sports psychologist to help him cope with frustration and anxiety – and he met with a member of the athletic staff every week to build Brady’s confidence – and during his senior year, he led his team to multiple 4th-quarter comebacks, earning him the nickname – “The Comeback Kid.”
What gives a person grace under pressure – to keep calm and carry on, even though there is chaos and distraction all around? When is it confidence and swagger – and when is it haughtiness, bordering on contempt? To use a Jewish example – the great pitcher Sandy Koufax was once asked by a reporter – what his favorite pitch was to throw when he had the bases loaded behind him – Koufax’s answer? “My boy, I don’t recall every having to pitch with the bases loaded.”
What lessons can we learn as we see an athlete inspire his team to take calculated chances, to step up their game – as we see Moses between the sea and the pursuing Egyptian army, with little time left on the clock and no timeouts, make an appeal to God to intervene and provide some direction? Responding, God deflects Moses and redirects him to lead the people in a version of a hurry up offense – daber el b’nei Yisrael v’yisa’u – speak to the children of Israel and let them journey forth. In other words – get back into the game – trust yourself, and you will not wade directionless in the water – instead, you will walk confidently between the split sea on dry ground – v’yavo’u v’nei Yisrael b’toch hayam bayabasha.
A famous midrash has Nachshon ben Aminadav walk headlong into the raging sea until the water was just beneath his nose – it was only at that moment that the sea parted, and enabled everyone to go through safely on dry ground. His action was not desperation – he was not banking on an official time out — rather he was calm, cool, and collected – doing what he had to do to change the balance of the situation and inspire others to step up. How do we handle pressure and develop mental toughness? So much of what we do is a mind game – how we react to the world around us, to the people around us – we can easily get sucked into someone else’s drama and lose our footing – how do we keep our surety and our balance? What would Tom Brady do? What would Nachshon ben Aminadav do? What do we do?
Our experts would tell us to dwell on the moment and not worry so much about the outcome. We should be mindful of what is right in front of us – and be aware that as our mind races, there is nothing we can do about its harrowing flights – we are to readjust our expectations to do what is next, each time. Also, if we can’t move past the pressure that we are feeling, then we are to adapt it into our outlook. We are to drop into hard work – and not rely on miracles to bring us victory. We should adjust our focus – not wondering how we can win, rather to concentrate on how we can offer a solid, consistent approach to each of our encounters. To me, this response and strategy is similar to how I approach taking care of a mourner, who is the depths of pain. We can use this technique in the rest of our lives, as well.
I realize that we don’t have to emulate Tom Brady as a quarterback as we develop our own skills – in all that we do, we can separate our identity from any results that we achieve – both positive and negative. This is so important — in no cases, should we let the results of our actions define us – it’s so seductive to get a boost from something good that we do – and to crave this kind of recognition, and have it compound our self-worth. However to resist that urge gives us a chance to routinely show up to offer the best of who we are without having to compare our efforts, day after day, and sink so very low when we inevitably make a mistake – and are called out for our less than stellar performance.
In addition, we should know what we can and what we can’t control – and we should realize what stories we tell ourselves daily that can affect our mindset. What would we hear if we recorded that inner voice that constantly critiqued our decisions every day? Oftentimes, we are our own worst critics. And, if we make minor adjustments to what we are doing – small changes that can boost our performance, we receive a powerful lesson from our Torah portion and from thinking about the most recent Super Bowl game – we do what we must do to serve the greatest need of the present circumstances.
I actually don’t think Tom Brady is so extraordinary. With discipline and awareness, we too can deepen our mental toughness and resilience. As we fantasize about our life – about the dreams that we have and the honors and accolades that we think we deserve, we can actually achieve our goals by taking one small step at a time. We know that we are not alone – we know that we are not perfect – we know that others are willing to help us – and that our failures are not a referendum on our character. We can actually lose a battle, while winning the war, as we capitalize on what is important in each moment, and live to try another day – without giving up hope and by honing our physical efforts and our mental abilities, each day. Rather than thinking we must improve the things that give us the greatest challenge, we can concentrate on upgrading they things in which we excel – magnifying our signature strengths.
Life often reveals that we are going to be perennially losing late in the 4th quarter. In response, we can shrug and say that’s how God made me – always a victim, always behind the eight ball, so to speak, to mix my sports analogies – always succumbing to the pressure. Or, we can bring our skillsets to bear to always push back against defeat, using our grit, knowing that many times, by our efforts, and by joining our efforts to others, all of us inspiring each other, if not winning the actual game, winning itself will fairly often, actually go our way – and regardless of the specific game, our life will be successful.
Neil F. Blumofe
4 February 2017
In this most extraordinary of moments, the Israelites are able to collectively move from the narrow confines of slavery, to the uncharted wilderness of freedom—breaking free of their bonds of servitude. Our tradition asks, in order for this to occur, what had really changed? How were the conditions in their lives different, in order to enable the Israelites to finally confidently organize and take these transformational, dramatic steps? In truth, not much had really changed – even the most terrible of the plagues – darkness and the death of the first born — had ultimately failed to move Pharaoh to a place of resignation and acceptance that his subjugation of the people was over. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
As my kids get older, I am more painfully aware of how out of step I am in keeping current with their cultural and linguistic signposts. To be diplomatic, I am always a couple of days late in recognizing the latest music, technologies, and language that define their experiences as they move through life. Heaven help me, if I try to employ their language. Especially as much of their enjoyment of things is through earbuds or in the privacy of more intimate communication with their internet machines held close to their faces, I do not always have the luxury of learning in real time, how their sense of self and the world develops – and I take cold comfort in at least knowing how to access what was popular about a decade or so ago – much to the chagrin and rolled eyes of whoever might be present when I do so.
In addition, I have long wondered about the inscrutable description of Pharaoh repeatedly hardening his heart in response to the requests from Moses and Aaron to release the Israelites. In one moment Pharaoh acts as if this liberation was the new policy, and then all of a sudden, he reverses course – so that the situation is destabilized, and we do not know where he stands in any given moment. Not being able to trust or rely on someone’s word or rational behavior – especially if it’s cruel behavior — causes us an extreme case of vertigo – as we internalize the sinking feeling of not being secure in what a new day will bring.
I have recently learned that there is a term for this – it’s called gaslighting, which is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in someone or in a group of people. The goal of gaslighting is to use persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and deceit to make the intended targets question their own memory, perception, and ultimately, sanity. The term itself comes from a 1938 play by the same name – the play was later made into a movie in 1944 – and this term gaslighting has entered into our vernacular to describe an attempt to destroy another person’s perception of reality.
In psychiatry, it is argued that gaslighting involves the projection and introjection of psychic conflicts from the perpetrator to the victim, breaking down our reliance on our own free agency and ultimately causing us to consider ourselves crazy. In short, gaslighting is a tactic of abuse – and it is chilling to think about the dilemma of the Israelites in such a toxic environment. How does one know when to move, or how to act – what opinions are to be expressed and what others are to be concealed – out of fear and disquiet? What is real? Ultimately, as Judaism teaches, our hardships are magnified by our own bad behavior – this is the central message of the rabbis as they describe sinat chinam – baseless hatred — as the core reason why the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed by a foreign power. Earlier, the prophets also express a similar view – as Ezekiel maintains for example, the invasion of the Babylonians into Judea was because of the instability and mutual loathing of the Jews among themselves.
To think of the Pharaoh as a gaslighter profoundly changes this narrative – and we realize that we are doing the best we can in uncertain, bleak circumstances, when we can’t believe the news that we read, or when we know we are missing crucial pieces of the story, or that we are deliberately being deceived. As Pharaoh continues to machinate, and as his word is unreliable, we can break the spell in thinking that we are crazy, by holding onto not the latest in expression as delivered or determined by social media or in the fleeting currency of pop culture – rather we can take a lesson from a day like today and realize as we gather to celebrate Shabbat and the efforts of an extraordinary young girl who is becoming Bat Mitzvah, that we are participating in resistance to our own manipulation.
It is an extremely powerful statement that this family has a family Torah that travels the world and shows up at the various family simchas. This family Torah, like Tiresias has seen it all – today it stands resolutely as a silent witness – surviving the travails of this world and the bleakest of times – and it is this long view – this withstanding of what is in and what is out in this season – it is the independence that is fostered in not gaining an identity from the constructions all around us. As we celebrate Shabbat, we are reminded to be independent actors and to think critically when someone tries to negatively influence us, or to make us doubt our values or to acquiesce to what they need us to be. As Sun Tzu writes in the ancient Chinese treatise, the Art of War — the art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him – not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable. So, for example, if I need a bit of assistance or I feel out of touch with whatever my children happen to be into today – I counter with having them sing the Shema Yisrael with me. That’s not compensation – that’s heavy-duty strategy.
I am finding my way past my need to be hip – and there is a bit of solace in my aging – I can find meaning and identification in joining the tribe that privileges dad jokes and a dad bod and that lives with an ever-receding hairline. And yet, I am empowered by the non-negotiables in the Jewish tradition that allow us to outlast a Pharaoh that rises and gaslights his constituency. Even though the conditions didn’t change, the Israelites were able to operate beyond the narrowness of reacting to every little thing the Pharaoh did – and they were able to take agency for themselves. There easily could have been ten more plagues – and then many after that.
For a moment, the Israelites were able to say stop the madness – and find a sense of self-worth and relevance beyond the Pharaoh. They were able to thrive in difficult circumstances which allowed them to pass beyond their dire straits and wade into the water that floated them in its own magnificent current to vulnerable, exposed, unexperienced freedom upon a savage dry land. This morning, we are there, exquisitely and safely there — between the two columns of ever-rising water. Let us ground ourselves in coming regularly to shul – let it be your practice — I don’t get commission – let us seen the value in the constant cultivation of our spiritual life.
A life of loving Shabbat, of exploring Judaism is a bulwark against looming disaster. We can change our mindset, we can deepen our spirit – and then no matter what – we can be free, which then gives us the position and the strength to more effectively neutralize the edicts of slavery that cynically exist and continue to expand, all around us.
Neil F. Blumofe
31 December 2016
Do you remember the song Tradition in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, as we are being introduced to the various inhabitants of the town Anatevka, we meet Reb Nahum the beggar – who after getting only one kopek this week from Lazar Wolf responds to him, nu, if you had a bad week – why should I suffer?
In this week of lighting our Hanukkah candles as we look to restore hope and balance in this world with our increasing lights, it has been a strange, imbalanced week – a time when we could say that there has been a disturbance in the force. Many of us traveling or on vacation, looking to take a breath and enjoy life for a few moments, were following with dread these past few days instead, the recent decision of the United Nations Security Council Resolution – the first one in 36 years – that condemned the building of housing for Israelis in the areas known as Judea and Samaria – the West Bank – what are called settlements. This was followed by a speech by the current US Secretary of State who defended the US abstention of this resolution and demanded that Israel end so-called settlement building – calling it an obstacle for peace.
I condemn this resolution and the public, one-sided nature of how the US abstention was rationalized and explained. I do believe that this action emboldens others to merge legitimate critique with anti-Jewish and anti-Israel positions. I appreciate the recent report concerning the British Prime Minister scolding Secretary of State Kerry for his focus on the settlements. And I could go on – however, I feel to analyze political posturing and to comment on the agendas of others should not be my focus – certainly in this time of teaching and inspiring with Torah – and is to fall into a trap, of not seeing the forest for the trees.
For while upsetting, this attitude from America is nothing new – back in 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker famously said to his counterparts in Israel – everybody over there should know that the telephone number of the White House is 202-456-1414. When you’re serious about peace, call us. And while we are looking for a way now to move through this current ripple in the great Israel-US alliance, we should also be reminded that we should have no illusions about what constitutes partnerships in the realm of realpolitik.
Even more than people, countries act in their own self-interest, and we celebrate when these actions may coincide with benevolence and empathy. We give our leaders too much credit if we think that they prioritize our needs before their own. As Pirkei Avot shrewdly teaches – hevu z’hirin barashut, shein m’karvin lo la’adam elah l’tzorech atzman. Nir’in k’ohavin bish’at hana’atan, v’ein omdin lo la’adam bish’at doch’ko – be wary of the authorities – they do not befriend anyone unless it servers their own needs. They appear as a friend when it is to their advantage, however, they do not stand by anyone in the hour of need. In addition, as we strive to make sense of the decisions of government — there is a method always to what is shared publically versus what is shared privately. Who people are speaking to is not always obvious. To this end, even when there aren’t organized services in this sanctuary, I like to take time and dwell in here, when it is quiet. I have had a great privilege in my time in Austin, being a part of the envisioning of this space – and the small details of its construction continue to stay with me as I share them with you, as well.
As we direct our attention to the ark doors, we see the artful zodiac – which is meant to remind us of the ancient mosaics found in the sixth-century synagogue in Beth Alpha, located in the north of Israel, near Beit She’an. In addition, the study of astronomy is meant to connect us to the once great Jewish civilization in Babylon – the place where the Talmud was codified and rabbinic Judaism flourished, establishing our Jewish practices, even today. Everytime we say mazal tov, which means, may our stars be favorable, we are evoking our legacy from Babylon.
The larger copper doors themselves were by design, manufactured in Europe, specifically in Germany, and evoke a connection to the once glorious Jewish presence in Europe – where Jews became an indispensable part of the fabric of Western civilization – and both of these civilizations of learning and leading – Babylonian and European — are long gone – there are no Jews safely living in modern day Iraq – and the majority of Jews in Germany and Poland are largely reconstituted from Russian and Israel, today. Thus, our sanctuary in its beauty is an elegant open question, and a silent referendum about our own current success. As we come here to pray and to put our trust in God – a question beneath our prayers is always — In America, as Jews, how far can we go?
We are living in a toxic and corrosive environment – where the Jewish community is battling neo-Nazis on the right and on the left. As students of history, this should surprise no one. What is more dismaying is the quick willingness of Jews to denounce other Jews – adopting the language of the fascists in declaring what is right and proper in pursuing particular political agendas – calling Jews JINOS (Jews in Name Only), unJews, Erev Rav – a mixed multitude, kapos, and the enemy within – and declaring an absolute Truth and way forward that obscures more difficult truths is most distressing. In these attacks among us, to separate the strength of Israel and liberal Judaism is a grave mistake.
Here, unfortunately, there are so many parallels to the story of Hanukkah – and the aftermath of the victory of the Maccabees. For if we read the end of the Books of the Maccabees, we see that after the defeat of the Seleucids, the Maccabees began to fight among themselves — Jews against Jews – Judah Maccabee attacking other cities around Jerusalem. The Maccabees finally lost against the Greeks in the Battle of Elasa in 160 BCE, where Judah Maccabee was killed. However, based on the political considerations of the day and negotiations and interests of the larger world powers at the time, Jonathan, Judah’s youngest brother, became High Priest and ruled an independent Judea until about 100 years later. In a disagreement then between two Hasmonean brothers, descendants of the Maccabees — the Romans were called in by the Hasmoneans themselves, to strengthen one particular side – and once the Romans entered as an interested party, this unleashed a brute, impassive force against the Jews of the region.
I would rather we get to know the great thinkers and wisdom carriers of our tradition – and there is so much to say – however, let me introduce you today to just one figure in our tradition who can help guide us in these unprecedented times – the great leader, Yitzchak ben Yehudah Abravanel – a 15th century Jewish statesman and Torah sage – and a life that reflects the fate of Jews in this world, as we can take council from our history.
Commonly known as Abravanel – he was born in Portugal in 1437 – to a family that had escaped massacre in Castile in 1391. He was appointed as treasurer to King Afonso V. After this king died, Abravanel was considered a traitor by the new king – the move to a new administration was not good for him. Eventually he moved to Toledo, Spain, and began to work for Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand – you may have heard about them – the ones who expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. I can only imagine the names Abravanel would have been called today by other Jews — Abravanel tried mightily to have the king and queen reverse their decision – offering to pay extraordinary amounts of money to have them to do so. He was unsuccessful and left Spain for Naples – working for the king there, until the French invaded and Abravanel was forced to leave again without any of his possessions. He eventually ended up in Venice where he worked in the government until his death in 1508. He was buried in Padua – and the next year, there was a Siege of Padua by the Holy Roman Empire and the subsequent destruction of the Jewish cemetery – so his grave is currently unknown.
Hopefully we can get perspective from knowing more about the story of the Maccabees and the simple biography of Don Isaac Abravanel – we should know too, as we wade through our news feeds, this quote from Niccolo Machiavelli – politics have no relation to morals.
So, let us celebrate Hanukkah and each day, excruciatingly aware of the world around us and yet not to have the world darken our spirits – we are not to be occluded — we are to find the light in dark times – amid our grim preparation for confronting what is next, we are to choose miracle out of morass. We are to deeply acknowledge the darkness – and as we dwell within this magnificent and thought-provoking sanctuary bracing for impact, to not only say – but to feel in the depth of our being – nes gadol haya po – as Hannah Arendt writes – even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost any circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth. We are, each of us, that uncertain, flickering, and weak light – and we are to persevere. As Reb Nahum from Anatevka reminds us – this belief, this perseverance, is our tradition.
32ND ANNUAL IACT THANKSGIVING SERVICE: Words of Wisdom and Welcome
Rabbi Neil F. Blumofe, President, Interfaith Action of Central Texas (IACT)
Good afternoon. We thank Rev. McClendon and the St. James community for their gracious hosting of our moments together this afternoon. My name is Rabbi Neil Blumofe, and I am honored to serve as the president of Interfaith Action of Central Texas (IACT). Throughout our celebration together, I invite you to explore your program in hand, and see the many wonderful ways that you can get involved and deepen your connection to our larger Austin community through IACT. And while we are privileged to be here – I must say that today, many of us are weary – many of us are just tired.
I’ve been thinking — it was 153 years ago yesterday, at a dedication of a cemetery in Gettysburg, PA, in one of the lowest moments of this nation’s history, that President Abraham Lincoln reminded a fractured nation that we shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.
We must show up for each other. We must continue our work. We are called upon to offer spiritual resistance – to stem the tide of suspicion, fear and hate-mongering. Let us cherish facts and the truths that we hold to be self-evident — that all people are entitled to a chance in a system that supports them. That we have a moral obligation to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and visit the sick, and comfort the mourner – and stand up for those oppressed, and stand with those who are victimized – and stand up for those in danger – and to know that we are not alone. We must not be alone.
For we are at a moment where uncertainty is rising.
We must rise to recommit ourselves to common core values and we must awaken to promote enduring soul values in this world – to accept the challenge of our holy Scripture and to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord. Our prophets teach us – awake, awake, ye slumberers – rise up from our sleep. Let each of us find common ground to protect the defenseless, to comfort those in fear, to work for justice for all, to be more loving and attentive in every aspect of our daily lives. Amen.
We are called into service as our ancestors were called into service. We listen to the hearts all around us that have been broken open.
We can see the world as half full or half empty. We can choose. The power that is stored up within each of us is exceedingly great. Let each of us go forth and joyfully meet our God – let our spirit soar to the very heavens – for we – each of us — is created in God’s image – let us now act.
I have just come to this magnetic place after a concert earlier this afternoon in my own synagogue – Congregation Agudas Achim. We hosted the Holocaust Survivor Band – a group that plays music with defiant joy, in the wake of terror. Two men lead that band – one who is 89 and one who is 91. Each undaunted – and let us too say to our neighbor — walk with me awhile, for we have been here before. We have been here before. We need each other – for our dignity, grace, and self-respect.
Today we have come to dedicate a portion of our field – let us awaken and yet act in ways – morally, ethically, honorably, and virtuously that is befitting of our stature and our claim to be truly free.
May we be blessed in each other’s light – to live a life of fullness and significance.
And may God bless us and all of our efforts.
INVOCATION FOR THE AUSTIN CITY COUNCIL MEETING – 3 NOVEMBER 2016
Honorable Mayor, Distinguished Council, Respected Guests:
You don’t have to love baseball to have appreciated such a magnificent game last night. From both the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians, the athletic ability of the players, the decision-making of the managers, and the vision of the executives all converged to deliver a grandeur and a grace that somehow illuminates our own efforts as we think now about the significance and the meaning of our own actions. As we look to move forward next Wednesday after the election results are in, both in our miracles and in our challenges, we admit that we are living in unprecedented times.
We like to think of Austin as a radiant example – a place where our good ideas are hotly and respectfully debated. A place where our imagination and our dreams are implemented for the good of all of our citizens – as we grapple with transportation, demographics, inevitable growth, affordability – and so much more.
And now, inspired by this World Series, we can rekindle our hope as we see that there are always new and creative ways to solve seemingly intractable issues. We can see that there is always a third way – day by day, or if you will, inning by inning — a way forward that is respectful, compassionate and tolerant of our errors and appreciative of our unique talents. Another doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right.
May you and your loved ones be granted good health and the inspiration to cultivate wisdom as you conduct yourselves – may you be blessed to see the good in what you do, especially in the most difficult of days – and may your inspiration offer direct benefit to others so that they may cheer you on. We need each other — players, managers, and executives — and with positive actions around us, we may continue to prosper our beloved city of Austin.
Y’hi Ratzon – May this truly be God’s will.
Neil F. Blumofe
Congregation Agudas Achim, Austin, Texas
3 November 2016/2 Heshvan 5777
“Mr. and Mrs. October”
Neil F. Blumofe
29 October 2016
Each day, as I was growing up in suburban Chicago, when I would come home from school in the afternoon, it seemed that I would return home and the Chicago Cubs game would be on television – WGN, channel 9. These were the days before there were lights in Wrigley Field, so each home game would start in the afternoon, just after 1:00. I would tune in around the 6th inning or so, and invariably would hear Jack Brickhouse, Steve Stone, and of course, Harry Caray – call another Cubs defeat – trying their best to make it interesting, as the last pitches were thrown. I knew the entire roster of these teams, and in between my own Little League games, I would be outside for hours, hitting tennis balls against the house, imagining I was each player in the Cubs starting lineup, and having a catch with my father, my brother, some of my neighborhood friends, or anyone else who would take the time to throw a baseball with me.
The bones of these afternoon and early evening rituals, lasted through high school – it was only when I was leaving for college – in August of 1988, that Wrigley Field installed lights and that the Cubs began playing night games at home. At that point, I was through playing serious baseball – I could neither see well in the stadium lights nor hit a curve ball — plus — I had other activities to which I was devoted – and the Cubs were so bad, year after year.
As I went on to live in other cities – New Orleans, New York, and Austin – I picked up other teams that I could celebrate – I remember living in New York when the Yankees won the World Series, in 1996 – I had a newborn at the time and I remember thinking that this is what it feels like when a team becomes a champion. Elijah and I rooted for the Yankees as they won in 1998, 1999 and 2000 – and my oldest son became a Yankees fan – the Cubs were honored, but were talked about essentially, in past tense.
So, this is a strange year. To say the “Chicago Cubs” and “late October” in the same sentence is a bit surreal – as Jack Brickhouse has said, “any tem can have a bad century.” And, to be completely honest, and I know that this is a bit treacherous to say publicly, my interests are not locked in on sports. I am glad for the Spurs when they win – I would be happy if the Rangers made it back to the World Series, I am happy for the Blackhawks fans – and of course, I would be delighted to celebrate another Longhorn winning season, someday soon. However, it was with the Saints winning the Super Bowl in the 2009 season – a triumph after Hurricane Katrina, that I thought I reached an apotheosis in my sports rooting career.
And now that the Cubs are playing in the World Series this year, I not going to argue now who’s a more devoted fan – and who is a Johnny-come-lately in these final games of the season. For me, this last series has more to do with honoring all of the past seasons – and particularly, honoring the memories of my parents, who having lived in Chicago their entire lives, watched or listened to a losing team each year of their lives – speaking in hushed tones about the demise of the Cubs and the rise of the Miracle Mets in 1969. In connecting with this series, I have experienced a very powerful feeling of sharing these days with my parents (OBM). As the recent Yizkor prayers of Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret ask us to do – it is in these games that I quite unexpectedly feel their presence, and I realize that for all of my adult years – since 1988 – I have made do with surrogates.
In the context of this week’s Torah portion – with this perspective I can more readily understand the difficulties that surface between the brothers, Cain and Abel. They are living as second best – trying to adjust to life outside of the Garden of Eden – they were born in exile, and all they know are the stories that their parents have told them of the good old days – and without having witnessed Paradise first hand, knowing that they are not part of a championship life – they bicker and ultimately come to dastardly ends. Defeats begets iniquity – and as Cain has his children, each farther removed from the stories of winning, the moniker of losing becomes more hotly imprinted in their psyche – perhaps even as we get to the later generations of Cain’s descendants – and see the tragedy of Lamech, who, our tradition teaches, was blind and accidently killed his ancestor Cain and his son Tubal-Cain, we may wonder as the study of genetics is currently teaching us, if trauma is actually encoded into our genetic material.
To postulate this in the context of the legacy of the Chicago Cubs, may be overreaching. However, I cannot explain to you the rush of déjà vu when I think about this baseball season – and rooting for a team now in a place where it seems that they do not belong. Our mystics talk about a concept in Judaism called tikkun – which is to repair something, beginning at the granular level – this is not just to apply a coat of paint to something and proclaim it better. Rather, to fix something is to do the work to bring about systemic change – to reroute the thing you would like to fix, for the better.
And here, as I have struggled with my memories of my parents – living in a sea of what I feel are missed opportunities – for we never fully engaged as adults – when I left for college, I essentially left – the Cubs are giving me a direct access to a time before I left home – and the opportunity for tikkun, for it seems that I can more easily relate to my parents now in a language that we both understand. For me, Aroldis Chapman is today’s Bruce Sutter. At second base, Ben Zobrist holds a place for Ryne Sandberg – and the possibilities that have opened within me recently as I connect differently to my parents, are a tremendous blessing. With the Cubs in the World Series, it is as if Adam and Eve took their family into the Garden of Eden for a day and said, “this is where we grew up. By seeing this today, you may know us better, and consequently then, cause less harm while being better to each other.”
So, it’s not so much the pride I would have in the Cubs themselves, if the Cubs win the World Series this year. Rather, in their victory there is the beginning of tikkun – for it’s the pride that I already have for thinking that my parents are part of the starting roster too, and I will be acutely wistful when that feeling ends. So, I hope that we can keep flying the W this week and that the series goes to seven – and then inevitably, we will turn our attention to other things, as we see the election looming – and so many other issues and dilemmas with which we must grapple — yet this moment has inexplicably become magical for me and it is with pleasure and a bit of surprise that I honor the memories of my parents each night as each championship game begins, and I root for the Cubs as I once rooted for the Saints in 2009 – to deliver this moment so we can continue to repair the past and concentrate on the essential yet difficult things that we must, to make a more brilliant and enduring future.
Yom Kippur – Yizkor
Neil F. Blumofe
12 October 2016
Good morning – as we enter into these Gates of Memory – as we consider the personal stories that bind our lives together from generation to generation, this year we also remember three Jewish notables who exemplify Jewish thought, peoplehood, and conscience in our challenging world. It is their writing, leadership, and example that encourages us to continue their work, in our own humble way – to allow our lives to resonate – as guarantors for those who are looking to us for inspiration and direction.
To begin, I will offer a few remarks about Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner, who died this past Shabbat Shuvah, and I will also share about Shimon Peres, who passed away just before Rosh haShanah. In addition, I’ve asked Marc Winkelman to speak about Elie Wiesel this morning. Marc is the Secretary/Treasurer of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization founded by Elie and his beloved Marion shortly after he received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986. The Foundation is dedicated to combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice, through international dialogues and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding, and equality. Marc and Elie enjoyed a strong friendship for more than a decade.
[JACOB NEUSNER] – (1932-2016) – NIFTAR — SHABBAT SHUVAH, 5777
Rabbi Jacob Neusner was an American academic scholar of Judaism who is regarded as the most published author in history, having written or edited more than 950 books. He received his rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary and concentrated his research on the study of rabbinic Judaism in the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras, claiming that there were in fact several Judaisms that coalesced into what we now know as rabbinic Judaism. His great importance to us is that Neusner translated into English nearly the entire rabbinic canon, thus opening up this world to the greater world. He was an engaged scholar and with his connections to the past, with the publication of one of his books, Fellowship in Judaism: The First Century and Today (1963), helped to shape what became known as the Havurah Movement which continues to have a significant impact on American Jewish life. As Shaul Magid writes about Neusner, “he was a believer in the flourishing of Judaism and the Jewish people, but was a critic of confessional Judaic scholarship and Jewishness not based in religion.” He was one of the most influential Jewish intellectuals in America in the past fifty years – as we continue to try to find our way and place in 21st century America.
[SHIMON PERES] (1923-2016)
He had a political career that spanned almost 70 years, serving twice as the Prime Minister of Israel, twice as the Interim Prime Minister, a member of twelve cabinets and ninth President of Israel, Peres was considered to be the last link to Israel’s founding generation. He was mentored by David Ben Gurion, and was an architect of Israel’s nuclear program, understanding that Jewish innovation and Jewish achievement were all predicated on Jewish survival. Together with Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres helped to organized the daring Entebbe rescue operation in Uganda in 1976. The Book of Proverbs teaches that when there is no vision – we will perish. Throughout his long and distinguished career in building the people and the State of Israel, Shimon Peres did not lose his capacity to dream and through even the darkest times to imagine a better tomorrow. In 1996, he founded the Peres Center for Peace and in 2016, he founded the Israel innovation center, encouraging young people from around the world to be inspired by technology. In 2014, when receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, Peres concluded his remarks before Congress with these words before Congress: “I leave you today with one piece of advice. It is the advice of a boy who dreamed on a kibbutz who never imagined where his blessed life would take him. When Theodore Herzl said, “im tirzu ain zo agadah – if you will it, it is no dream,” he was right. Looking back on the life of Israel, our dreams proved – not to be too big, but rather, too small. Because Israel achieved much more than I could have ever imagined. So I ask only one thing of you – the United States of America – this mighty nation of dreamers. Don’t dream small. You are great. Dream big. And work to will those dreams into a new reality, for you and all humanity.”
[ELIE WIESEL] – Marc Winkelman
Thank you, Marc. As we take these intentional moments for Yizkor this morning, and encounter ourselves anew, in the space between life and death, we see our flame flicker as we remember those in our lives who have made an impact – in the stories that we tell, in the genetics that we share, and most tragically, in the hopes and dreams suddenly broken by lives ended much too soon. What a terrible burden we now hold. If we had a few more moments, what would we say – how full would be our embrace of those whom we know we will not see again?
A rabbinical colleague of mine, Ken Berger, once wrote about the astronauts of the Challenger rocket, and how after the explosion in 1986, they had five minutes to contemplate their lives as they were plummeting to the ground from 65,000 feet up. He called his sermon, “Five Minutes to Live.” Terribly, almost three years later, Rabbi Berger and his family were on a commercial airplane flight when the tail engine exploded, crippling the controls. As the plane lost altitude Rabbi Berger and his wife had about 40 minutes to contemplate their lives before they were killed – his two children miraculously survived. If we truly considered our mortality, what thoughts would enter into our minds? What actions would we take? How deeply might we painfully dwell in the idea of, “if only.”
It is in these moments that quiet stories are shared – inspiration that may strum a soft chord – anecdotes of resilience and encouragement that serve to cushion our encountering these bleak moments and acknowledging our mortality. How can we make peace with this, when all ultimately crumbles, like brittle matzah?
Our tradition teaches that King Solomon, a son of King David, and a most wise and discerning king in his own right, at important junctures of his life, wrote three sacred books in his lifetime. When he was young and filled with zest for life, he wrote Shir haShirim – The Song of Songs – a passion-filled reverie that celebrates both spiritual and physical intimacy in the guise of young lovers. When he was older – middle aged, and established, he wrote the Book of Proverbs – known in Hebrew as Mishlei — a testament to wisdom and the pursuit of ethical values and moral behavior. When Solomon was looking at his last days – and he was able to assess the impact that he had in life, he wrote Kohelet, or the Book of Ecclesiastes – a book that interrogates the lessons that we are supposed to draw from our experiences in life. Far from making peace with what we have accomplished and what we have left to do, Kohelet postulates that most of what we do is hevel – or futile – and that the impact that we make in the world before we die is blunter than we imagine.
Along with the Book of Job, Kohelet is considered radical and controversial in its challenging depictions of life’s difficulties. When we see our life as a grand drama in the fullness of time, with each point connected, as opposed to singular events, broken up in the fragmentation of our own development – our life becomes filled with timeless understanding. We are able to review everything we have done without cherry-picking that which we are most proud – or that which will play well in the restless scrutiny of the public – we see an uninterrupted precious offering of our years – rather than isolated incidents executed haphazardly here and there.
As we age, we get to see all that we have been, without concealer or makeup. We gaze upon our blemishes and our frayed state plainly, yet gaining strength and vitality from seeing in our mind’s eye, who we once were, as well. Yes, this is frightening – to see the landscape of who we have been and to see too that we are both a shadow of who we once were – and a shadow of who we were yet to become. We are a totality of our actions – and the best teshuvah we can make is to not ignore what we have done, or write it out of our narrative that we tell ourselves, but rather to own all of it, even in its unpleasantness, and realize that we have not only survived our challenges and our bad choices, we have lived and continue to live to reset our judgments, by living with a radical sense of forgiveness or at least acceptance, before we die.
In the Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer teaches – shuv yom echad lifnei mita’tach—repent one day before your death, and our tradition takes this as a potent lesson for expanding our perspective and broadening our awareness – allowing each moment to be sacred, for we do not know what will come next. We look to cultivate presence in all that we are, now – and if you are like me, in all of the years, you find music to match your mood.
As I dwell in my life, I notice its soundtrack – the songs that were once so central to specific experiences or time periods of my life, and how subsequent songs that have come on the scene have been informed by what was – and are richer because of these juxtapositions, irrespective of song genre or category. As my life’s soundtrack is being created, it plays like a mixtape – some Led Zeppelin, Arnold Schoenberg, John Coltrane, Chopin’s Nocturnes, and the discography of Leonard Cohen.
As we move back and forth among our memories – from our foundational remembrances to those that have just formed – to the ones that are effervescent to the ones that keep returning, to our dismay, to fill our slumber or to inhabit too, even our waking hours – to the ones that are marginally true, to the ones that have brought us to where we are now, from the intensely private memories to the public ones that serve as a great narrative of our collective purpose and status in this world, it is hard to think that our soundtrack will someday end.
To others will we just leave our studio recordings — what will happen to the live sessions – to the tape that continues to run, recording our non-manufactured, more candid moments? We have seen, most embarrassingly and tellingly in our times, that these recordings, once forgotten and again resurfaced, can be destructive to the image of who we would like to think that we are.
To protect against this is to live the challenge of Rabbi Eliezer. The best way to not have our previous images or comments come back to bite us, is to not create them in the first place. In this time of year, I typically listen to a good bit of Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen has been recording music for slightly longer than I have been alive, and in the chapters of his life, his songs correlate with the three main stages outlined by King Solomon. And each of us, as we collect our own writings, postings, photos, or memories, know too that we create a collage of our collected works, as well.
How do we transform our shames and our regrets? I have been intrigued with the more recent recordings of Leonard Cohen. In 2012, at the age of 78, he released a song entitled, “Going Home.” The lyrics as Cohen sings them:
I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit.
But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube.
This album is produced with his trademark sparse sound, backed by tightly harmonized female voices, urging along the messages of this song – and of our lives – love, desire, faith, and redemption – knowing that our time is limited.
And last month, on his 82nd birthday, he released a new song, “You Want It Darker,” in advance of the forthcoming album. This song is a radical departure from his more established work – the themes of longing and inevitable loss are still present, yet the arrangement has changed. For this song, Cohen connected again with the synagogue of his youth – Shaare Shomayim — a place in Montreal where his grandfather and great-grandfather served as congregational presidents, and where Leonard himself became Bar Mitzvah in 1947.
As he sings the lyrics which can be read as a challenge and a sober examination of God, he employs the haunting sounds of the male choir. This is not a challenge from the thrilling remove of a coffee house or concert stage – this is an indictment of God and an assessment of his life emanating squarely from the sanctuary itself in the tradition of the founder of Hasidic mysticism, the 18th century Baal Shem Tov, who used to pray – Tateinu – today is Kol Nidre, when everyone forgives and is forgiven. Let us put the past behind us. I didn’t always do what was asked of me and you didn’t always do what was asked of You. So, I forgive You and You forgive me – and we’ll call it even. And Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Beredichev who wrangled with God on behalf of his community in the 19th century, daring God to choose another people, already, or as Elie Wiesel recounts in 2008, happened in Auschwitz, when a group in his barracks put God on trial for Crimes against Humanity – and found God guilty, and then they went to pray. In addition, as Cohen sings in an inscrutable bass voice – he intones in English the opening words of the Mourner’s Kaddish as he also asserts –
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame.
And then he switches into Hebrew – singing Hineni, Hineni – I’m ready, my Lord – the watchword of the High Holydays. At the end of the song, the cantor of the synagogue has the last word, singing Hineni – seemingly to advocate on Leonard’s behalf, to plead with God and to help him get to where he wants to go.
I find this utilization of a traditional Jewish sound to be enlivening. From our far distant places, we are called back to the experiences that we once have had, or are currently endowing, as we contemplate our last chapters. Often, I walk in the hallway of our own Religious School, looking at the pictures of the Confirmation classes on the wall and imagining the trajectory of the students who I did not have the privilege to know, and wondering too about those who used to sit with me as they studied for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah – how they are and where they are. This is the greatest benefit of being so long in our community – having such a long-term investment with so many of our families.
And now, we are not to trade one service for another – one year for another, giving the old one back as if we were leasing it. We are to create our successes on what has already been – unable to strike much from our memory, while making peace with it. This is the job of Yom Kippur – not forgetting; rather, learning how to move into all that we are as we look to imagine who we may yet become.
It has been said that in cultivating awareness, we realize that we live our lives as gravediggers trapped in a gold mine — marveling at the exquisite beauty all around us, yet knowing that our days are numbered. What will this year bring as we consider the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer? Can our lives still be unexpected and extraordinary? Beyond our good days and bad days — right now, we are at the summit of our powers that are left to us. Can we yet still be healed by coming to terms with our past?
On his first album, released in 1967, Leonard Cohen sang a song called, “So Long, Marianne,” a paean to a woman with whom he lived and who he had mightily loved – and with whom it ultimately did not work out. He kept in touch with her intermittently throughout the years, and earlier this year he received word that she was dying. This woman, who had helped Leonard discover his voice, and was a most powerful influence on him at one time, was in her final days. This past July, he wrote to her saying:
“Well, Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye, old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.
All we have is the song we can sing now – the Torah that we write in this moment that joins all of our previous chapters. Like King Solomon throughout our lives, in our times, we have written our books, reflecting on who we have been. Like Leonard Cohen, we can still offer vibrancy even as we may think that death may come later than it should. We always have but five minutes to live – it’s always the day before our death – and if we outlive our connections that we have, we become lost souls, pining away for our end – exclaiming Hineni – that we are ready, my Lord. Why not surrender the illusion that we have any control – and as we argue with God about our present circumstances, we can look to draw meaning and strength from the investments that we have already made in our years, that are always ripe for rediscovery.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah – Shanah Tovah Tikateivu vTeichateimu