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
Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre
Neil F. Blumofe
11 October 2016
Good evening, everyone. L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu – May we and our loved ones be sealed in the Book of Life for a good New Year. I am hoping that each of us is feeling uplifted in these opening days of 5777, and that we have had ample opportunity in these days to reinvest and sustain our friendships and bonds of family and community. I have been consistently struck by this precise moment over the years – each year as we gather on the evening of Kol Nidre – each of us present for our different reasons as Yom Kippur begins – a time which carries its own rhythm of reflection, reverie, and reconstitution – as we notice each other and draw strength from each other, even as we notice who is missing or who is no longer here.
We are not here merely to rehash our former deeds and to hold ourselves accountable, moved as we may be by our guilt, hurt feelings, and determination to try harder next time. We are here to break free from the hardened hearts that steer us directly into ruts and bad behavior. I believe we are here to reacquaint ourselves with the honest, baseline patterns that our tradition offers in this Day of Atonement, and to not look to discover who we are, but rather, to imagine who we may yet become.
In a sense, we fast and bow and speak and sing so many words on Yom Kippur, because we don’t really know what else to do. We are uncomfortable with contemplative silences, and the sheets of sound that we produce, page after page – the time that we spend in this sanctuary, looking for sanctuary, is to compensate for our helplessness and to stave off our apprehensive, yet ambiguous feelings of mortality. Perhaps we feel that we can assuage any menacing dread in our lives, and forestall bad news, if we suffer a bit this day, putting a down payment on more life as we use our tradition as collateral. We will tell our stories, bundling our messages together, and then relieved when the stars come out tomorrow night, we can each return to our lives, maybe recognizing some internal shift, heartened for another year.
We are not so unlike the ancient priests in our story, hedging their bets – sacrificing their goods to both the Sovereign and the Shadow – to God and to Azazel — attempting to keep an even keel – an equilibrium — not wanting lives in the community to go sideways and events in their world to boil over into a savage, uncontrollable bloodshed. They want to keep things status quo. We too think that if we can keep chaos at bay, appeasing all parties and allaying our more baleful impulses, we will avert the evil decree that lurks just outside of our own door. We recognize that this is uncomfortable to think about, and yet here we are, arriving now again, to stare into the void.
Last week, many of your heard me speak about a series of unfortunate events called my Bar Mitzvah – and how that experience distanced me from appreciating the efficacy of organized religion. Subsequently, between the ages of thirteen and twenty, I went to Friday night services, only sparingly – mainly to have time with my father alone in the car for the twenty-minute commute, talking some and listening to the classical radio station. When it did happen, I cherished that time. In college, at Tulane University, I promised my parents that I would go to Hillel now and then – and upon discovering that I knew a few of the Erev Shabbat congregational melodies, the organizers arranged that I would lead services sometimes – each time, in exchange for a free meal.
In 1990, when Anne decided to take a year and study in Paris in a Junior Year Abroad program, I thought that instead of graduating early, I would take a semester and study abroad too. I was majoring in English and Political Economy, and through American University in Washington DC, I arranged to study in Poland for the 1991 spring semester. I arrived in Poznan, Poland in January, 1991 and enrolled at Adam Mickiewicz University, ostensibly to study the democratic transition of the country and the founding of the Third Polish Republic. I was housed in the Dom Studencki Jowita – the international dormitory, which accommodated both international and Polish students.
Just before I arrived, Lech Walesa was elected as the President of Poland, and the government was engaged in achieving a democratic government, a market economy, and expanding the scope of private enterprise — the first fully free and democratic Polish government since 1926. These were exhilarating times – and I enjoyed my studies and research very much – in the mornings, attending Polish Ulpan, and in the afternoons, learning and exploring. On the weekends, we had ample time to travel, and while many of my friends went to Berlin and points west, something in my subconscious prevented me from ever considering a visit to Germany. Instead, a few friends and I would hop on the train and go to Warsaw for dinner, eating at the finest restaurants, accoutered with our American privilege and our disposable Polish student stipends.
And everywhere I went, I saw the renewed flickering hopes of a country coming back from the dead. With fresh coats of paint on the buildings and daring art and bold political conversations that seemed to be in the air all around me, nevertheless, I could not shake visiting places that my gauzy understanding of Judaism presented – I felt magnetized to do so — and that is how I found myself one weekend on an overnight train from Poznan to Oswiecim.
This town is infamous – known in Yiddish as Oshpitzin and in German as Auschwitz, I staggered before dawn, from the overnight train car that was filled with overpowering, unfiltered cigarette smoke, and alone, began to try to find my way to the gates of the death camp. On the roadside I met a couple of nuns – for at the time, there was a convent housing Carmelite nuns near what is known as Auschwitz I. I asked them – przepraszam pani – gdzie jest oboz smierci – excuse me, where is the death camp? Maybe it was my rudimentary Polish, but at first they didn’t seem to understand – and then suddenly, their faces illuminated with joy and I was given orders – ah, Auschwitz! Lewy, prawy, prosty – left straight, then right. Their satisfaction in giving me directions remains chilling to me, 25 years later.
And so I entered under the gate that proclaims in German, Arbeit macht frei – Work sets you free. It was still before the sun rose, and it was cold and gloomy. I walked slowly around the site, on grounds that were well manicured and with buildings that looked like a college campus, putting my fingers in the bullet holes in the walls, and just drifting across the expanse. I saw the mountains of confiscated luggage – including the bag of Otto Frank – Anne Frank’s father — and the heaps of human hair and eyeglasses, displayed behind plastic – and I was cold and numb. And I entered into another barrack building and read the placards, and then suddenly saw a wall emerge right in front of me – towering in its sight. A wall that was filled with pictures – pictures of Jewish life from before the war. Scenes of youngsters laughing in the park with their grandparents, of adults socializing in homes and synagogues, of couples and individuals carousing, studying, gambling, dancing, praying, masquerading, celebrating, mugging and ignoring the gaze of the camera.
This wall filled with pictures and vitality took my breath away, and the bottom dropped out of my heart. This was a normal community – Jews involved every day in the inquiry and intrigue – wrapped up in the importance of their precious lives – unaware of what was coming — and I realized, all of them killed in this place, or two miles up the road at Auschwitz II – Birkenau.
I stood rooted in that spot, shuddering – realizing how close I was to passing Judaism by. I didn’t have any of this. I had run from organized Jewish life, marking time in unremarkable Hebrew school and not participating in what I thought were sketchy and awkward youth activities – I did not have Jewish friends. For so many years, I felt out of place – not at home with a group of people who pronounced short-sighted judgments and caustic attitudes about others who did not happen to fit into a particular way of acting or being. Throughout my teen years, I felt confounded by what I saw among some relatives in my own family — the holding of a presumptuous, overbearing Jewish identity — thus preempting a more well-rounded and elegant wisdom of what Judaism could be.
And this cascade of pictures on this wall — of people in everyday situations, seemingly enjoying life gripped me and emblazoned their images onto my heart, which persist until this day. The day grew colder and rainier and as morning rose, the skies grew darker. I walked from Auschwitz to Birkenau as the roosters crowed in the yards of the houses around me. As I rounded a hill, I saw the spidery rails of train tracks emerge out of the grasses from all directions and surround me. The main entrance of the camp was in view and this steel web work beneath my feet suddenly coalesced into one main railway that led directly into the extermination camp. Walking into Birkenau on this singular track, knowing that it was the terminus from points all across Europe – that Jews who disembarked onto these platforms were immediately marked for death – chilled my bones in ways that the weather could not.
Tomorrow morning, and anytime that the ark is open, you will see the Torah cover for our Holocaust Torah – both in the High Holyday white and the everyday purple – which was designed specifically for our community by the artist Mark Podwal in 2001, after I told him parts of this story.
Upon returning to my dorm room in Poznan, I got sick and stayed in bed for a number of days, nursed back to health by a few of the outcast Africans, who were regularly avoided by the Polish students. After my semester in Poland ended, I traveled some and was able to spend much of the summer in Israel, working on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights and studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. I returned to college in the fall, and was reunited with Anne – and we both started to regularly attend Shabbat services at one of the synagogues in New Orleans.
And although I don’t remember the finer details of the pictures on that barrack wall, those pictures are regularly with me. And tonight, as we clamor for something greater – for our needs to be met, for our defenses to be melted, just a little bit – and to let in the possibility of something bigger than ourselves — I speak to you with these images permanently encasing my heart. Who were these people? I am not content to go through the motions for all of us to observe just another Yom Kippur, without challenging us to consider our role in this community. Yes, we are all welcome – and what, then?
I ask us to consider the personalities that we will encounter in our sacred texts in the arc of this day and how they collectively guide us in our own decision-making and in our relationship to our traditions and to the people in our community. I ask each of us to form these depictions and to see to whom we relate as these figures speak to each other today. Our tradition is peopled with divergent personalities all searching for a comparable truth. With whom do we identify, this year?
Tomorrow morning, we will again meet Aaron, the High Priest, who endeavors to balance and satisfy the various needs of the diverse community, all the while as he strives to walk with God. He exists at the intersection of public and private – between God and Azazel – Soverign and Shadow – between serving the community based on his call to do so, and based on the various and contrasting expectations of all of the people. He is a consummate politician – giving to both parties — simultaneously an agent and a visionary.
What he believes is subordinate to who he must be – and he is only as good as his last act. He regularly puts his family second and he shows up time and time again to be present with people as they quest for God and for meaning. He is the focal point for things, sometimes beyond his control – he is the champion – or the scapegoat — for the pains and the triumphs of the assembled people. He is Willy Loman – a person who as he ages, leverages his popularity against the symbolic representation of all who will inevitably outlive their usefulness.
We will meet Isaiah – a firebrand who shows up, despite himself. While he performs the rituals, he upends them – implicating them and critical of them — and advocating for a more practical justice in the community. He asks us to consider why we are doing what we are doing – to move beyond the niceties and the formalities of wishing each other an easy fast, and to consider the sickly, and the weak, and the vulnerable among us. He would gladly move beyond the pages of the Machzor for doing work with the Joint Distribution Committee, for example – humanitarian work, deep in the anonymous furrows of helping another — where a life of meaning happens — showing in our deeds that all Jews are responsible for each other.
Isaiah asks – how do we find redemption – and he answering resoundingly — by providing for the well-being of those among us who need food, clothing, and shelter, by isolating our hypocrisy, by joyfully and fully celebrating Shabbat – by putting your money where your mouth is – this is how we summon God to listen to what we need, in turn. Yes, we should wholeheartedly attend and cheerfully support our synagogue – and we should be leaders in Jewish philanthropy – out on the ramparts, making noise and pursuing just justice.
And Jonah – the one who tries to escape – who hears the call of the shofar summoning us to the High Holydays and with dread, tries to slink away, unnoticed – and yet, shows up in time for Minchah. He watches what transpires with a bemused eye – recognizing the futility, the absurdity, and the irony of what we involve ourselves in. He sees how awkward it all is. He is the one possessed by profound doubt about the potency of all of it – of our prayers and our efforts for justice. He flees and yet discovers that he can’t run away. His escape route to Tarshish, always ends at Nineveh, decidedly non-Jewish city, where he most reluctantly proclaims himself as part of the tribe – part of the Jewish people, despite himself.
He continues to ask questions and to be critical – he doesn’t really get the rituals, and his audience with God fails to impress. He wears the moniker that echoes my favorite joke – the one about the two Jewish diners in the deli, and the waiter comes up to them and asks, is anything alright? Jonah wears this, “is anything alright,” status like a proud, abstract badge. He revels in the randomness and he doesn’t want to feel too much or too deeply.
For each of these Biblical figures, God is elusive. There is no certainty in any of these modes of life – and Aaron, Isaiah, and Jonah can never be sure that they are doing it right. For each of them – and for each of us – God remains hidden. When I think of the photos before me – involving Jews of all ages, from all walks of life – I realize that without speaking to each other, Judaism devolves into factions – and not following Aaron or Isaiah or Jonah specifically puts you on the outs with the others. We become separate tributaries that trickle without a main source.
The fact that this awareness was made plain for me in a barrack in Auschwitz is not lost on me. In the ashes of Auschwitz, each approach, all of the nuance, and all of the distinction of alternative paths was eliminated. I call all of us — the Aaron’s, Isaiah’s, and Jonah’s — to assemble in our community to work together to promote an elastic, creative, dynamic, and robust response to monochromatic appraisal. As we do on Passover, when we invite children with various perspectives into the conversation to speak together and to create something bigger than themselves – today on Yom Kippur, we need each of us together from our own places of unyielding truth to see each other and welcome each other into our own raw and private conversations without eye-rolling, sabotage, or derision. It is in linking our conversations – cross-pollinating our ideas and dreaming together — that we can inform and magnify our Judaism, and thereby protect each other.
In our efforts not only to welcome each other, but to consider our political, prophetic, and dissimulating approaches each as legitimate — honors the memories offered by the pictures on that wall, and proclaims that for the sake of heaven it takes all of us to honor the many faces of our one living God. Aaron, Isaiah, Jonah, and each of us in our shortcomings and idiosyncrasies are forever linked together.
With our long eye on history, we know what may occur when we spin apart from each other and build walls of resentment that block us from seeing each other. We can bring meaning to meaninglessness. We can keep evil in check, without being our own worst enemies. With our efforts, we can improve our luck. I ask that we discover our voice. Bring your disbelief, bring your reluctance, bring your scorching passion – and of course as always, bring your personal responsibility. Invest your thoughts and actions into the part of Judaism that speaks to you – over the course of this Day of Atonement, see with whom you identify – Aaron, Isaiah, or Jonah – it is this path that has a claim on you – and share all that you are.
We don’t have a perfect offering – bring your imperfect offering, instead. Make this community better, because you are a part of it. As God asks Jonah, haheiteiv charah lach – are you so greatly vexed, all the time? Where are you? Excuse me, is anything alright? For God’s sake, strive to act like a person who has been chosen.
Just before a Beit Din welcomes someone into the covenant for the first time, the last question before the final affirmation is – do you bind your personal destiny to the destiny of the Jewish people? All of us do well to consider this challenge for ourselves – as this day of considering our mortality unfolds before our very eyes.
May each of us have a significant and meaningful fast – as politicians, prophets, and potential escape artists. May we be Sealed in the Book of Life – unafraid and energized as Yom Kippur begins.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah.
Good morning, beloved friends and community. My family and I wish you a sweet New Year, filled with powerful blessings of love, sustenance, prosperity, and of course, good health – above all. You and your loved ones are all most welcome in this sacred space – today and every day — and I hope that this New Year brings you many moments of inquiry, satisfaction in engaging study, and the ability to express yourself wholly in prayer and petition, beyond self-consciousness, in a quest for meaning and significance. Blessed be the longing that brought you here.
As I have been reflecting on the changes in my life and in our Agudas Achim community from last year to this year, I have been thinking about the stories that we tell ourselves that allow us to justify our attitudes and our behavior. This morning, as we honor the birthday and the renewal of this world, I would like to share my rationale and reasoning that informs the kind of person and rabbi that I strive to be – one who honors the aphorism of our sages which teaches – hafoch ba v’hafoch ba d’chola ba—never be satisfied in the answer – to keep turning the questions, holding them up like diamonds, their various aspects sparkling in the light.
This morning, I would like to share some memories of my Bar Mitzvah with you – perhaps one of the worst experiences of my younger life – and certainly one of the most impressionable. My Bar Mitzvah was celebrated on Labor Day – 5 September 1983. I was 12 years old. Based on a compromise with certain quarters of my family who would not travel from their homes to my synagogue on Shabbat, my parents rented a tent and held the service in our backyard in a decidedly non-Jewish suburb of Chicago – a northern town called Libertyville, on that Monday morning. That particular Monday was very windy – blustery – and the flaps of the tent were shaking mightily as we began the morning prayers.
Much of that day was a blur – I don’t remember if I wore tefillin – and I do remember that I was presented with a tallit by my parents (OBM) and a Chumash by the president of the Sisterhood. This date was also near my father’s 50th birthday – so there was a combined party – and many of his long-time friends were in attendance, in addition to my relatives. I had about three friends that I invited from my public school. It seemed like there was a lot of preparation that led up to this event – my father was in the wholesale plumbing business, so he knew folks who designed kitchens and did woodworking and cabinetry.
As a present to my father on this occasion, and also to our synagogue, one of his friends designed and built a portable ark – meant to hold the Torah in rituals that were held outside of the synagogue. I remember it being made of dark wood, with panes of glass in the front – we were very proud of this and it had a place of honor on our simple deck in our backyard. I remember too that my Bar Mitzvah was videoed – we had a neighbor who was big into technology, and he had purchased the top of the line JVC VHS-C camcorder that was just released that year – the iPhone 7 of its time – and despite the whipping of the wind into the microphone, he went around filming and asking people to comment on what they saw around them.
Generally, when I meet with Bar and Bat Mitzvah families in our community, to give perspective and to offer empathy for our kids – the following is the story that I tell:
I did not have much study time with the rabbi. He recorded a cassette tape of my Torah portions in the late spring and he told me to come back to see him when I had learned them. I had never had any formal training in service leading or chanting Torah, and like a typical 12-year old, I didn’t do much work over the summer. I remember that the rabbi called our house about two weeks before my Bar Mitzvah asking about my progress, and my mother, seeing that I hadn’t really started – made that a priority of my life – and in a matter of days I memorized the three Torah readings, without knowing what or why I was doing what I was doing.
As the big day arrived, I felt awkward, dressed in my polyester suit – and very out of place as a gawky 7th grader, surrounded by observant cousins whom I didn’t know, or barely knew. So, the service was happening and I was going through the motions – there, but not really present. What I know is that suddenly the fierce wind knocked over the portable ark, and the front glass smashed, and the Torah hit the deck hard, unfurling underneath the broken wood. Needless to say, the services were interrupted.
When I speak to our kids – this is where I end the story – with a chuckle about how their Bar or Bat Mitzvah experience will already be inherently better than what mine was – even with the Torah falling, I became a Bar Mitzvah – and I offer some encouraging words about how the support of rabbis, teachers, and family in their lives makes all the difference in the world. And all of this is true – and there is a second part to the story, which I share now.
After the Torah fell, in my mind’s eye, I next remember having many of the guests gathered in my parent’s unfinished basement – a place that collected old newspapers, spiders, mildew, and the flotsam and jetsam collected from the various chapters of my parents lives. My knowledgeable relatives were standing tightly together, discussing how we were to address this calamity – as our custom teaches, were all of the men to fast for 40 days, or should each person fast for a day or two – with the sum totaling 40 days? Should we start today, or after this simcha – should we start tomorrow? What about the approaching High Holydays? Should we fast on Rosh haShanah? On Sukkot? I was already mortified – and my many non-Jewish neighbors were standing around my relatives – and after listening intently, one of them said, “We would like to fast too – we want to help.”
My heart lifted – these were the people with whom I shared my everyday life – playing baseball and going to school – having sleepovers and playing Atari — they were not imported for my family’s special simchas, when yarmulkes suddenly appeared for us to wear, for appearance’s sake – and my father’s old, rejected yeshiva background came once again to the fore. And my hope was dashed in an instant, when one of my relatives suddenly turned to this curious, accommodating neighbor and curtly responded, “How could you help – you’re not Jewish, you don’t matter.”
I remember too turning many shades of red, as embarrassment spilled over my face and shame pulsed through my body. I went upstairs to my room and I’m sorry to say, hid under my bed, for what seemed to be a long time – not sure what to do with my feelings of anger, alienation, and what could only be termed as exile from my identity — until I came back down and finished the service and lurched through the rest of the day, feeling smaller and smaller – a stranger in a strange land.
Rosh haShanah was three days later that year – and I remember going to services then, and then not really returning to the synagogue for another eight years — until I was 20 and had a chance to come to terms with becoming Jewish on my own terms. Had it not been for later transformative experiences as a college student in Poland — being able to walk in the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau to look directly into the void, and encounter the dire consequences of not taking my Judaism seriously — and then visiting Israel in the summer of 1991 after the First Gulf War, there is virtually no chance that we would be together today. I think I would have disappeared – fully assimilated into the larger, enticing American culture.
I keep returning to that episode in my parent’s basement on that windy day – when in my memory, my friends and my way of life were indicted and my soul was torn. I think I watched the video with my parents once, a few years later – and then finding it again, when I was cleaning out my parent’s home after their deaths, I threw it away. Feeling that I scrabbled intentionally in the decades that followed to become who I am instills me with vigor in not only encouraging the children of our community – but to continue to find ways to welcome anyone who is interested in learning about or connecting themselves to our traditions.
And yes, according to the letter of the law, my relatives were right to not involve my neighbors in fasting for a fallen Torah. However, it was how they did it – tactlessly with a maladroit spirit – with a presumption of superiority, with a churlish narrowmindedness — that cut me to the quick, and drove me away. As I have since learned, when making a decision, it is much easier to say no then to say yes – however, actually saying no – with immediate and cocksure self-righteousness – which builds impenetrable walls, what is lost – how many disenchanted ones have abandoned the search for Judaism because of such reflexive intolerance?
Our children ask, what is the value added in being Jewish – not only by binge-watching Seinfeld or Transparent episodes, absorbing and applying Jewish cultural cues and learning a Jewish lexicon – but also, immersing oneself in the practice of spiritual discovery with the efforts of discernment and difficult questions. Our youth are asking to be inspired – not to be furnished with inherited truths, which reveal flaws even in dim light. We have the examples of Job – who struggled with faith and meaning – and Ruth who sacrificed much to be with Naomi – we have the wily Jacob, and Joseph, who lives fully in two separate worlds. We have the rabbis of the Talmud who navigate their own feelings of belonging and distance to create the Talmud – a most extraordinary creative and wise riff on Judaism, tweaking an establishment that seems so sure of itself as it staggers unsteadily forward. And so many poets, sages, philosophers, mathematicians, doctors, inventors, workers, politicians, dreamers, and merchants over the ages – who were able to negotiate Judaism in their own contemporary society.
We have tremendous challenges currently in front of us. College campuses that are to serve as laboratories for inquiry and critical thought, are instead breeding grounds for vicious and absolute anti-Israel condemnation. Increasingly, young Jews are singled out and isolated, and repugnant movements like BDS – Boycott, Divest, and Sanction encourage a diminution of free-ranging thought and obstruct the ability for kids who had a bland or negative childhood experience of Judaism, to recover pride and propulsion to think for themselves and to be Jewish again, on their own terms. And if we in the home communities live a binary life, steeped in groupthink and the poor choices of political correctness – clinging to how we think things should be because of how they have been, our Jewish lives will become arid, and our sanctuaries, that should be filled the vibrancy of give and take – with dreaming and imagination — will be covered in dust. As our synagogues look to remain places of inspiration and refuge, we must ask the vital question – who belongs? Who is allowed to support and love our community?
The prophet Isaiah teaches – harchivi m’kom aholeich – enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of your habitations—do not spare your cords – rather, lengthen them, and spread out wide your stakes. I am committed to broadening our conversations, increasing our accessibility and our visibility, and welcoming all those who want to show up and contribute as a part of our sacred community.
I think our community could benefit from deep and wide ranging conversations about the meaning of membership, belonging and attachment to our synagogue. I think our conception of who can be and even who is a member of our community should be reconsidered. It is important that we encourage serious and thoughtful conversations that are not commandeered by embittered and unreasonable bias, and indurated, preexisting lines in the sand. Let others lead groups of short-sighted reactionaries who define themselves by who they are not – rather, I want to inspire and be inspired by those who recognize both the dilemmas and the consequences of participating in our revered debates, b’shem shamayim – for the sake of heaven. I ask all of our entrepreneurs of the spirit to gather to think about how our community can meet the challenges of organized Jewish life in these times – I issue a call to action for all those who would like to be engaged in meaningful study of our texts to host me and any of your friends for times of study in your home. Let us speak about our unabashed connection to, or profound distance from God – and yes, let us speak about our multi-complexioned support and love for Israel without penalty.
I realize that many of us are wounded and lack for strength by throwing shade and talking smack haphazardly about other people. I ask us to be better than that. I ask that our community be made holy by your presence – let us take our subterranean conversations out into the sunlight, and say yes – or say no, at least, with more compassion and examination.
The themes of Rosh haShanah are misunderstanding, resentment, and sending others away – we are asked to step into the story and to change the endings – to find a way for Sarah and Hagar to live together, to speak more compassionately to Hannah as she prays for her life in the sacred precinct, as she has been ostracized by Peninnah because of her infertility – and to resist sacrificing our children in the heat of the moment, just because God calls us to – or because that’s how we grew up.
At times, I marvel at the long and winding road that has brought each of us to this vital, sacred place – each of us with the potential to share the stoked fire burning deep within our souls. I think of what a miracle it is that I feel with all of my heart, soul, and might the importance of the work that I do. We are not called to mark time, in the turning of the New Year, content to be written in the Book of Life until we are not. We must find ways to upgrade and call home again all who recognize the wisdom of our timeless texts and the worth of supporting a synagogue – we are to be ambassadors of our legacy, proud of how we find ways to live in formidable circumstances – we are to take the words of Shimon Peres (z”l) to heart – when you have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is to look for the third that you didn’t think about, that doesn’t exist.
What would I have done back in the basement, in 1983 – most likely, I would have partnered with my earnest non-Jewish neighbors. I would have chosen certain days to fast alongside them while offering guidance about why honoring a fallen Torah is important in our tradition. And now — our beloved Agudas Achim community can become much more than we are – it will take your ingenuity, your imagination, intention, and your resourcefulness – it will mean for us to break free from our zero sum gamesmanship to find a calmness and serenity, even on windy days – in short, it means that each of us needs to fall in love with our texts and our community again and again. We have an extraordinary opportunity to do this with our newly commissioned Torah project – which you will hear more about on Yom Kippur.
The shofar summons us to refresh our behavior, and our sacred texts dare us to dream differently, about who we yet can be. Let us continue to learn together as we continue to demystify our prejudices, and let us invite all who are willing to gather – to sit together to speak, as we continue to build bonds of affiliation, deeper connections, mutual respect, and love, everyday. In this year, some of which will be windy inside our tents – let us craft a different ending to the stories that we know – and truly make a conscious decision to choose life.
Shanah Tovah u’Metukah
Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah
[P’tach Lanu Sha’ar]
Shanah Tovah! I first heard the melody for this chant in 2014 in Jerusalem. That was a difficult summer, with tseva adom sirens regularly sounding across the country as missiles fired from Gaza exploded overhead, keeping everyone on edge. At the time it seemed that there was a hardness developing within everyone’s attitude – a posture of defiance to compensate for the fear that was felt — threatening to definitively encrust our hearts – and after long, insecure days, one evening, a group of us descended into a basement of an art gallery in the German Colony off of Emek Refaim, sitting together, learning new songs – and protecting and cherishing something within us — reminding us that past the unease, we were holy. This is one of the songs that we learned that day.
[P’tach Lanu Sha’ar]
And now, as we look to greet this New Year – 5777 – we are on the cusp of uncertainty as we eye the upcoming elections, and the boiling contempt in our country – and as we see the seismic shifts of people across countries, and as we see the creeping platitudes and acidic contempt that thwarts reasonable dialogue and conversation. It seems that in our anxiety we become more brittle – predisposed to lash out from our narrow irrational places in a vain attempt to posit a defense and assert our control. Echoing the 20th century poet, William Butler Yeats – we worry that the ceremony of innocence is drowned – the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
And now we gather, each of us from our specific places, into this sacred, special place — hearing the summons of community and hoping for the reestablishment of good prospect in the New Year. We want to say abracadabra – that we will say something affirming and that it will instantly come true – like the Ba’alei Shem Tov of the Middle Ages – the magicians in our tradition who could manipulate speech for positive effect. We want good. We want to be safe. We want to be right and we want to be loved. We want to declare that God should open the Gates – and by our command, the Gates will open.
Gates that offer welcome and sanctuary, proving that our efforts are sound and worthwhile. We chant these words of inception P’tach Lanu Sha’ar – joining our efforts to the storied efforts in our tradition as our Talmud describes, when after choosing lots – a random process similar to that described on Purim, the Priests entered into a special, specific doorway, unlocking the Sha’ar haGadol – The Great Gate — bearing gifts – a sacrifice in hand – an investment for the future. Each of us in these days passing through the entrance into the New Year, performing our own humble Divine service, preparing to offer our own sacrifices, creating our experiences of the future based on our personal outlook.
Our Talmud (Tamid 30b) speculates that the sound of this Great Gate opening in Jerusalem resonated and was so powerful and emphatic, as to be heard over 15 miles away, in Jericho. Each of us it seems, randomly selected who have gathered, representing others who are not here now, confidently opening the Gate in front of us – so we can walk through to search for God, expressing ourselves with meaning. This was not a surreptitious lock picking done in the dead of night – rather, we too can open the Great Gate in front of us with a joyful noise – a powerful, compelling exertion as we greet the New Year.
Tonight is the night to raise our voices and cry our tears, unafraid – thus, unbolting the barriers that are before us – recognizing that with our efforts we can halt what seems to be our polarization, our plummeting, and our disenchanted scattering — and re-form this world back towards a paradise – our mighty efforts emanating from deep with us, melting the impediments towards harmony with the stoked fire burning in our souls.
Tonight, we are not asked to believe in anything specifically, as the new year begins. The High Holydays are to be considered as a magnificent love story, between us and God – indeed, as Rambam teaches us that our highest purpose is to be madly in love with the One Above (Hilchot Teshuvah, 10).
Tonight, we are neither to utter a creed nor perform a preset doxology. We are encouraged to explore. Rather than accuse, we are enjoined to ask questions. We are encouraged to shake the gates with our love, until they open with such a clatter. As the foundations of the world ominously rumble, dayeinu – that we have decided to show up at this gate, our gate, at all. With our roar against disillusion, we are to demand and act as if things can get better – and then we will not be cowed by setbacks or the current troubles that we face.
In the Jewish mystical tradition there are many books. From the 13th century there is a book entitled the Bahir, allegedly authored by the great sage, Isaac the Blind. This book comments on the Creation Story, found in the Book of Genesis – it mentions that the world did not come into being by a particular act of creation – rather, the world has always existed, and it is only our apprehension of creation that reveals its wonderment. As we notice things, then they take on substance – how many times does it happen, that once we see something once, we begin to see it everywhere.
As we draw energy from the Eternal – from the Ein Sof, the Infinite nature of God – we bring things forward into the world. As we speak, we are able to create. The Bahir was written in the Aramaic language – like the language of the Talmud – and the way to say, I create as I speak is Abara k’ Dabra – or abracadabra.
We have choices in this world – we can whet our tongue to create violence, or we can recognize that despite violence and despair in the world, we can create blessings by how we conduct ourselves. We can withstand assaults – whether they are from an external enemy, or from within our own family and community circles – indeed, these are the High Holydays, not the Low Holydays – a time to imagine and dream – and to recognize that our traditions are beckoning each of us to cast open wide that Great Gate before us, so the sound of its hopeful opening – a belief in tomorrow — is heard across the land.
And in this new, revealed space past the open gate where we make our home this year, what intentions do we have for the New Year – our social media culture encourages us to be shady, snarky, cynical, anonymous, and trolling – let us instead be responsible, gentle, loving, and considerate. How can we direct our light to illumine our path and not set stumbling blocks for others? How can we positively create as we speak? Abracadabra.
On the cards that you have received this evening is the chant that we have begun. We call for the gate to be open, and it opens. The word sha’ar is repeated. Is the gate we look for the same gate that is actually before us, or do we ask for one gate, and get another one, entirely? Does it matter? Are we willing to just call out and see what happens?
What personal gate would we like to open – to address our sorrows, and to encourage blessings to flow from our lives out into the world? I have asked each of us to think about an 18-word blessing – to affirm life and to begin our New Year in a good way. To inspire us to craft something, I think it is to our benefit to hear from each other now about the Gates that we would like to open with a loud clang. So, we will hum the melody of the chant, and if you have a Gate or a blessing to offer, in one or two words, please do so now – you are welcome to close your eyes, as we offer our intention in our sacred space. May each of us open the spaces within us so we can gain koach and emunah – strength and faith to walk in the world beyond the Gate just before us. Dayeinu, we should have the merit to walk together into the reverberations of this year.
As Lyndon Johnson said, we may not have chosen to be the guardians of the gate, but there is no one else. My blessing for us in eighteen words – may we open a movement of blessings in our community with compassion, good health, vigor, self-awareness, and joy. What sounds, what words, what love will you bring forth now, that will echo from here to Jerusalem, on to Jericho, and back?
[Hum – P’tach Lanu Sha’ar]
From here, in these opening days of the New Year, I ask that you take some time and fashion for yourselves an 18-word blessing for the New Year. If you get stuck, you can start in Hebrew with Baruch Atah haShem Elokeinu Melech haOlam – and then you’ll only need twelve more words. I hope that you would like to share your blessings with each other – and that your words can help represent our community. I am determined that we will not let hate stand – we will not let heedlessness be our way – and we will not let fear grip us to the point of immobility. Cast your blessing into the void – make a joyful noise into the unknown. Invest in the future. Loudly open that Great Gate that is just before us and walk with confidence in the yet unknown New Year that will give us strength, faith and resolve to address what we see.
We need each other – and as we open our Gate, let us help open the Gate of others, as well – for the gate of our neighbor may be the gate we need to have open for ourselves, as well. Open the gate for each of us – and the gate opens.
[P’tach Lanu Sha’ar]
Shanah Tovah u’Metukah
Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah
Neil F. Blumofe
27 August 2016
Yesterday afternoon, I called my oldest son who lives in Brooklyn to offer him the Shabbat blessings a parent offers to a child – as I usually do, every week. As many of you may remember, he has just returned from leading a Birthright Trip to Israel and he has begun his fall semester at college, and we hadn’t yet had an opportunity to catch up.
He was telling me how over the journey, he led two Shabbat experiences for the Birthright contingent – 40 young people, ages 18-26. The first Shabbat coincided with Tisha b’Av – so he also chanted a chapter of the Book of Lamentation and spoke to the travelers about how to live with both tragedy and joy, together. After that first Shabbat, the Israeli guides took him aside and mentioned that while they appreciated his depth and intensity and they admired his passion, that in their experience the groups that they had seen were not yet ready for such intense moments. They asked that he consider a longer runway for bringing the people into the richness and the complexity of what Judaism and being Jewish offered – especially while in Israel.
With his usual levelheadedness, he took their advice and in that next Shabbat in the context of the prayers and themes of the day, was asking the group to think about what emotions usually surface for each of them when they feel uncomfortable, disappointed, or overwhelmed. What were their go to responses? Did they each take responsibility for how they themselves felt, or did they lash out at another and seek to pin blame, fault, and inadequacy on someone else?
After an initial backlash from one or two of the participants who felt annoyed by this exercise, once each of them allowed this to be a legitimate exploration, my son mentioned that the group was able to grow in connection and in respect for each other and in what motivated each of them as they looked to flourish and move through life. In the context of their experiences together – even the Israeli guides whose opinions my son respected and heeded – were able to fully participate in this work, trusting that the intense moments shared with the group on the 10-day journey offset their own concerns of what could be the ramifications of too honest a conversation.
Our Torah, in profound wisdom, prepares us nicely for to do this similar work as we anticipate the new Hebrew month of Elul. Our tradition teaches that this month, just before the turning of the New Year, is when God is closest to us – and offers us the chance to be most vulnerable and ready to move past our own familiar stories and truths that we hold to be immutable – past the limits of our own assumptions, as we seek to improve our lives.
The concept of teshuvah is ascendant now – a time, not when we wipe our slates clean with each other, but rather, when we realize that our relationships together continue in the brokenness that has been and in the fresh hopes that still await us.
Moses is addressing the people on the banks of the Jordan River, just before they enter into the Promised Land without him. In his own processing of his disappointment that he will be left on the Eastern bank of the Jordan, while the people move forward – he reminds the people of their baser qualities as he prepares them for the journey and ultimately, for confrontation with those others who are already living in cities across the river.
Moses reminds them that they have been constantly coarse and reckless with each other – and because of their behavior, have disrespected God all along their journey. Moses reminds them of their building a Golden Calf – and how Moses broke the original tablets and went back to Mount Sinai to get a replacement – and here the Torah provides an exquisite detail – that both the new Tablets and the original ones that Moses smashed would together be contained in the ark that the people carried.
Moses is reminding the people of their mistakes – and rather than focus exclusively on them, having them become the centerpiece of all future interactions with the people – rather than having these mistakes become the only topic of conversation – and the only defining action that describes the people forevermore, the Torah takes this brokenness and puts it in a box – allowing it to coexist with a restorative future.
Our sages speculate on this instruction and offer creative ideas of why now the group is actually more whole in assimilating what disappointments have been, rather than casting them aside. What is the value in knowing ourselves and how we react to mistakes? How can this knowledge prepare us for the confrontations that we will inevitably have with others who are hostile to us? How can true forgiveness not be a trite – forgive and forget, but rather a commitment to live again and again in relationship together – always communicating and acknowledging the scars that surely come after living in relationship. What is the value of the brokenness?
As Jews, we mark the period of mourning with a tear of a ribbon or of our clothing – we project to the world that we are broken and diminished – and after a period of time the external kria goes away and we are expected to immerse again in the world. And yet, those of us who have been mourners – we realize that the internal tearing never fully heals. Our hearts, once wounded, remember the wound. Are we able to live fully with tragedy and joy in the same place? Can we carry both the second tablets and the broken ones in the same box together, as people expect us to eventually move on?
The Talmud sage Reish Lakish teaches – p’amim shebitulah shel Torah z’hu y’suda — that there are times when the nullification of Torah may be its foundation (Menachot 99b). As the New Year approaches, seeing, collecting, and carrying the breaking may give us a new way forward – and allow us to engage each other wakefully and compassionately. If we realize that we are all mourners to some degree – carrying a broken heart inside of us, we can engage differently – allowing us to really explore what emotions usually surface for each of us when we feel uncomfortable, disappointed, or overwhelmed – and we can modulate.
Together, can we not be stronger as a coalition of the willing? Are each of us ready to embark upon this journey of transformation – proactively applying the gifts of our tradition, rather than reactively avoiding them or paying lip service to them? In these intense moments, can we allow ourselves to move beyond our initial emotional defense mechanisms – accepting this gift — a new day, in a new month dedicated to teshuvah — with new tablets that are more valuable to us precisely because they are joined wherever we go — in our tragedy and in joy — in the constant reminder of our brokenness.
Neil F. Blumofe
20 August 2016
As we experience this day of Shabbat – called Nachamu in our tradition – a Shabbat particularly shaded by the wishes for comfort – an internal comfort that promotes equanimity, and a comfort to be reassured that our world will not implode on top of us, we read of Moses who tries again to convince God to let him enter into the Promised Land.
In this time of year, in the middle of the Hebrew month of Av, we pay attention to all that has gone wrong – all of the mistakes, the willful misunderstandings, and the intentional attempts to harm and defame and we see how – from generation to generation – because of this, we have been persecuted, exiled, and all too often, killed. We are preparing for the New Year – and rather than lurching to what will inevitably be again next year, our tradition asks us to take some real responsibility to try and disrupt what we might think are immovable narratives – and for us to be responsible agents to aid in our own wellness and well-being.
For Moses, the paradigm has changed – because of the strength of his leadership over his lifetime, there are now new ways – new negotiating strategies and new outlooks in the world that will give the children of Israel more success in their new circumstances. As our sages make clear, God has determined that the people will have a new leader and that Moses will not be permitted to enter into Israel – and we can make a convincing case for why Joshua now has the privilege to lead the people.
However, why God forbids Moses from entering into the land is less clear. What would be the harm as our Talmud speculates, for Moses just to walk its length and breadth of the Promised Land and to be given a chance to perform the mitzvot that can only be done specifically in the land of Israel? He wouldn’t get in anyone’s way – he would be content to be just a simple Jew and let Joshua lead – and God is silent and our Torah is inscrutable in assessing a reason that Moses couldn’t do just that.
And when Moses tries again to change his circumstances and again hears nothing, Moses changes tactics. Rather than accept his fate — bringing the people to exactly where they need to be, and for him to be content in his accomplishments, he tries to find a reason why. Ignoring the advice of our Wisdom Tradition which teaches us – let us not seek to understand what is too difficult for us, nor search for what is hidden, nor be preoccupied with what is beyond, for we have been shown more than we can comprehend, Moses is frustrated and takes out his frustration on the people.
And certainly, over the course of our lives, many of us get frustrated too, as we see the world and our circumstances in it change past our comfort zone without, what we think, is good reason. And, how do we cope? Past our addictions and strategies of escapism, some of us have family or circles of friends to whom we can privately unburden ourselves, allowing us to blow off steam, venting to the point where we can gain an illusion of satisfaction, or at least a way forward. Over the years, I have seen that those afflicted actually would prefer complaining than working towards a solution to the problem.
Moses seems to exhaust his outlet for answers – and when he needs to protest, he realizes that he is all alone. This is the greatest challenge that our Torah, in Sefer Devarim, offers to each of us – as we consider this sacred text as our own legacy. As we see that things are not going our way and we see that our life is accelerating towards its end – and we have not accomplished what we thought we would accomplish, or that things turned out differently from what we imagined our life would be, where can we turn to express our grievances?
The actions and prayers of Moses do not change God’s decree – and we have seen that Moses has no family or circle of friends on which to rely. The relationship between Moses and his wife Tzipporah is a perplexing and complicated one, at the very least – and as we have taught often in this sacred space, the relationship that Moses has with his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, is fraught and according to the Torah, almost non-existent – the last mention of them was three books ago, in Exodus 18 – and we see that they are not even considered for the new leadership of the people.
Moses has feisty cousins – Korach and his family who led a rebellion against him and tried to get Moses to resign – ultimately, because of God’s intervention, themselves meeting a final end. And it does not seem that Moses kicks back with a small group of buddies, decompressing and processing the days – exhaling the lashon hara and letting it dissolve safely into a mist.
So, the tragedy is that Moses has nowhere else to go, and turns to the people of Israel throughout this last book of the Torah, to hector them, lecture them, antagonize them, and ultimately to alienate them, because of feeling the letdowns in his own life. The people mourned him when he died for the minimum of thirty days, and then they moved on, listening to Joshua – not even remembering where he is buried.
Moses, who is remembered in the Torah as the one, with God’s help, performed signs and wonders in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh with a strong hand and an awesome power. And here, perhaps spurred on by his own disappointments of not getting an answer for why he can’t go into the Promised Land, he turns on the people to accuse them of his own misfortune.
In our own lives, as we are slowly lifted from these days of heaviness and rebuke and as we turn fully towards these weeks of recovering love and apprehending God’s active presence in our lives, how do we give voice to our fears and our disappointments? Do we lash out against our very life’s projects, sabotaging and sullying what we have managed to accomplish? When we realize that our circle of friends is much smaller than we’ve imagined, and that our family is involved in other activities and have found their own path in life that does not necessarily include us to our satisfaction, how do we endure?
This is a powerful lesson of our Torah as we consider our own mortality and our schemes of contending with the vicissitudes of an imperfect life – all too often I see in someone’s final days a chill of regret that comes on fast, when they realize the negative impact that they have had in their years, and that they must finally hire someone to sit with them in these concluding vulnerable moments.
These exhortations of Moses inspire us to appreciate our own shame – they are a wake-up call for us to recover our own honor in order to live a considered life possessed by a strength of character and not a sense of presumption motivated by our fears of our diminished relevance — and to hedge now against our ultimately living and dying alone.
“Greatest Living Yankee”
Neil F. Blumofe
26 September 2015
What was it like when you were leaving home for the first time – who was there to send you off – what advice was given to you? Did you feel prepared or worthy of your next adventure, or did those in your home want to follow you, ostensibly to make sure that you were doing well, but also perhaps, they were unsure how to live without you?
As Moses speaks to the people for the last time, his frustrations and his deepest anxieties rise to the surface. He evokes the witness of the heavens and the earth in his castigation of the people, whom he calls ikaish uf’taltol – a perverse and wicked generation. He beseeches them to shift course – and not to become like previous generations – courting corruption, greed, and overall bad behavior.
As our tradition teaches, the people that Moses is addressing are the people who will be entering into the Promised Land – essentially the children and the grandchildren of the former slaves and mixed multitude. The Israelites stayed in the desert for forty years in order to start again – to lose their dependence on a dominant culture and to cultivate independent thought. The constant complaining to Moses at difficult moments that they should return to Mitzrayim, belonged to their elders – at this point, these new generations possess a clearheaded vision of what lay in front of them – entry and adaptation into a new, unexplored land with fresh possibilities.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Moses did not enter into the Promised Land is that he was unable to pivot from leading one group of people to the new demands of the next generations. His models and emotional conditioning were vestiges of old needs – now there were fresh opportunities that required a different way of thinking, and Moses was struggling to speak a new adaptive language that would befit leading this largely untested group – or perhaps as Yogi Berra taught – I never blame myself when I’m not hitting. I just blame the bat and if it keeps up, I change bats. After all, if I know it isn’t my fault that I’m not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?
The Golden Calf, the incident of the spies – in fact the whole enterprise of slavery itself belonged to Moses more than it belonged to this wilderness-born assemblage, gathered at the river, waiting to go forward. Those were stories that were heard, rather than experienced – and while they were tangible, passed to these new generations, they were not eyewitness accounts.
This new generation, condemned before it begins, asserts patience while listening to Moses, out of respect for him and his accomplishments to lead them this far. They listen as Moses tells them that they are doomed, and that eventually God will take up vengeance on their behalf to acquit their spilt blood. The song of Ha’azinu is certainly not a pep talk or an encouraging valediction – rather, Moses speaks his greatest dread and his constant fear – that the people, although they have the kiss of progress, will fall into the same patterns as have ever been and will not distinguish themselves in worthiness as they begin to enact God’s covenant in the sacred, promised place. Whether in the wilderness or in Eretz Israel the people remain the same, prone towards imperfection, deceit, exploitation and impropriety. To Moses, all that has been, remains the same.
More than with his family, Moses has constructed his identity exclusively in his service to the people. He is defined by his work – and now that his work is coming to an end, there is no place for him to go. The struggle is that the generations change – and just like there was a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph – there are emerging generations that do not know Moses. He is vital in a certain frame of time – and yet, the world continues to shift and demand leadership from others as his skills were appreciated and then ultimately cast aside.
As Shakespeare has Macbeth lament: Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/To the last syllable of recorded time;/And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Or there is something dazzling about seeing Don Draper operate in his Mad Men milieu – filled with glamour, intrigue, and prestige – when he was at the peak of his powers – except if he lived, Don would not be as vital now – and he certainly wouldn’t possess that same interest or charisma much anymore – as he reviewed his life – how much could he adapt to a rapidly changing world, as he ages?
It seems that the world appoints leaders when it needs them and then discards them, sometimes suddenly, when their use is done. Moses has made his bed with the people and now that his responsibilities have ended and Joshua has been chosen to lead a new generation of people across the banks of the Jordan into the new land for new conquest and new experiences, Moses is a bit flummoxed.
For us, what are the signposts of our success? What are our reasons for living that God forbid, if it went away, we wouldn’t quite know what to do? Is it our work – or particular relationships with our partner, or our children? Is it this community – and as things change, how can we meet the challenge of our own maturation and inevitable decline as the world develops new technologies and interests – today’s Snapchat is tomorrow’s Friendster. How can we see that the places, people and experiences that we loved are like mist – fading so quickly from time and space?
Contrasting this dilemma of Moses with the end of Abraham’s life is instructive, as well. Moses pleads with God, unsuccessfully, to enter into the Promised Land with the younger people – and then he dies in the wilderness, buried in an unmarked, and thus, unvisited grave to be forgotten – after the debacle with Ishmael and Isaac, and after the death of Sarah – Abraham marries Keturah – siring a large, new family – a new chapter separate and apart from the drama of our established narrative. It seems that Abraham finds a way to make new choices and cope with life, when his chapter comes to a difficult end – do you remember that song from the 1936 musical, Swing Time – don’t lose your confidence if you slip,/Be grateful for a pleasant trip,/And pick yourself up,/Dust yourself off,/Start all over again.
How will we cope with changes – as others that we love are now or will soon be leaving home, or this world? As we turn into the New Year and prepare to celebrate Sukkot – how do we listen to this last song of Moses, who was convinced that the more things change, the more they stay the same? As we are still negotiating our own habits and establishing new paradigms for ourselves, should we as well develop new insight into our own relevance and mortality – as we see our influence wax and wane? When are we Moses and when are we Abraham – both imperfect – and both trying to derive meaning out of their diminished circumstances?
What will be the last advice that we give – what will be the last notes that we sound in our symphony of life? As Yogi Berra said, the future ain’t what it used to be. Can we then get to a place of resolution and after our own concluding at bat, can we then rest and enjoy as the game plays on?
Shabbat Shalom – Hag Sameach.