Re’eh — 5770 — Living in the Day

08/08/2010 at 13:17 Leave a comment

“Living in the Day”

Shabbat Re’eh

7 August 2010

Neil F. Blumofe

One of my favorite one-line jokes goes like this – a waiter comes up to a Jewish couple in a restaurant and asks politely, “is anything alright?”

With the advent of instant access to constantly updated news and information, day or night

It seems that we are assigned the strenuous work to decipher complexities of meaning in each everyday event or remark – whom do we believe?  Who do we trust?  It seems too that our attention span has grown quite small, darting from one situation to the next, as we rush and click to try and make sense of things, which because of their proximity and thus the responsibility that we think we have in commenting on or interpreting them, loom large in our lives.

It is very clear in the Torah – before we take another step, we are reminded, re’eh, anochi notein lifneichem hayom b’racha uk’la’la – see, today I present before you today a blessing and a curse, and our tradition has been remarkable over the ages to guide us, saying that each new day, presents the same choice and opportunity – each day is filled both with blessings and curses and it is up to us to navigate our way through the myriad of adventures, usually to mixed effect.

This teaching, which is central to the High Holy Days, is that today is a different story – that we don’t have to carry over our baggage from the previous day into this one – our history and our circumstances although like crimson, in the words of Isaiah, can be turned to be as white as snow.  Everyday is a fresh chance, a time for healing and a time for reconciliation – indeed, the Hebrew verb used in this verse from Isaiah just mentioned, nivachecha, can be translated as honesty — therefore – if God calls us to be honest, and we are honest, than the stricken image that we have of ourselves can melt away and we can face each day freshly, in great possibility.

Living this way can be transformative – it can allow us to accept the horrors of our past mistakes and allow us to move past the ravages of our grim histories.  Moving from day to day, allows us to gain perspective – while not shutting out the curses of the past, we can move beyond them into an attitude of constant improvement and upgrade.  We can believe that things are getting better all the time.

Yet, what if they’re not?  What if we live with an anchor to the past – we are the carriers of a chain that inexorably binds a firm past to a fateful future — that all of the experiences that we have now, inform an unchanging promise of yesteryear – that we are not looking to the future for hope – rather that our lives are an extension, an extrapolation, of the past – that we are mere ciphers for something else that we know about, something made plain long ago, that has yet to manifest itself on our contemporary stage. Instead of thinking about each day as a fresh opportunity, renewing us at each moment, what if our lives and the actions in our lives are indicative of one long, hot scorching day, that has no bright future, rather, is tied to a past that never ends – not hayom, representing a new chance, rather hayom, we in the blighted hours of one exhausting day?

These are two different worldviews that seem almost mutually exclusive.  Perhaps then, when we go into a café on any particular day and order our latte, it is a choice that spirals out from something long ago, setting us up to be servants to something much greater than ourselves.  If we think like this, which narrative are we a part of – as Jews, do we still hear the voice from Sinai, literally as if it were yesterday, pouring directly into our hearts and do we answer constantly, na’aseh v’nishma – we will do and we will hear?

We remember the events of almost nine years ago, on September 11th, 2001.  What used to be called the World Trade Center is now called Ground Zero and is a memorial to the many who were killed in New York on that terrible day.  And too, the neighborhood around Ground Zero, goes on.  It is a neighborhood in New York, much like any other, established with its own character and with its own people and problems.  And lately this neighborhood has attracted much attention, because there is a proposal for an Islamic center, which has existed in the lower Manhattan neighborhood for many years, to buy a bigger building and expand.  This 13 story building is a few blocks from the site of Ground Zero and the possibility of an upgraded Islamic presence so close to the former site of the World Trade Center has polarized many – including many in the Jewish world.

The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has been an outspoken and consistent supporter of the new center, claiming that not only should this project be allowed to go forward because it is a freedom of faith issue – according to an interview that he gave on radio yesterday, he is not even concerned where the money would come from to finance this big project.  Another outspoken thinker, a reliable supporter of Jewish causes, Alan Dershowitz, a law professor at Harvard, also supports this construction.  Conversely, Abe Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, writes passionately against this project being built so close to the place where the greatest national tragedy in United States history occurred.  He hopes that an alternative location can be found for this Islamic Cultural Center and mosque – it is too close to a place of incredible suffering, cause some victims additional pain, which he says, can be avoided and would impede efforts that would be counterproductive to reconciliation.  His view is supported by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as well – an organization whose mission emerges out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

According to Foxman’s view, building a bigger Islamic Center here would almost replace the World Trade Center – it would be like a victor building over what came before in a triumphalist, position – consistent with the patterns of history and the construction of many churches and mosques over what has been conquered or subsumed – mosques trumping churches, churches trumping mosques and both, over the years, built on top of synagogues.

Needless to say, this is a dilemma for many – a path filled with weeds as we follow it.  Our thoughts about it may be guided by this week’s Torah portion and the significance of the verse that we learned earlier.  We everyday, have the choice to distinguish between blessings and curses.  When we think of our stories, the narratives of our lives, who belongs inside?  Who are the We and who are the They?  How much do we really tolerate and when does our tolerance run thin?  Is the world that we live in just symbols for something else – that this controversy regarding the Islamic Center and Ground Zero is really a continuation of a war that was begun in the 7th century – competing for minds and souls and domain, or is that nonsense to us – we recognize that there are fanatics out there, however our response to such absolutism is allowance and freedom, even to our own discomfiture?

Or perhaps this new building has nothing to do with the events of 9/11 – rather, beyond the issue of this proposed cultural center and mosque, an underlying issue is what do we do as Americans to mark this tragedy appropriately and how teshuvah is made?  What kind of conversations should be had to advance a grieving and a recovery process?  How do we transform this open wound?  How do we get past our fears and suspicions? Do we have any trust in this kind of work, whatever?  Is this even possible?  In what range do we live our lives?   What are our boundaries? On what trajectory do we walk?  What are we willing to live with?  Is everyday a new day, or is it a drumbeat for something bigger and more insidious than what we can imagine?  What is strength emanating out of bravery and valor and our secure belief in freedom, and what is naivete?

Re’eh, anochi notein lifneichem hayom b’racha uk’la’la. How do we choose?  What do we get? When the waiter asks us, is anything alright, if we are honest – maybe sometimes we can answer yes and maybe too, we must sometimes answer, no, nothing is alright.

Let us continue to reflect on this multifaceted predicament, for it too is our very life that we face, not only in these current, emotional ways – it is how we live – hayom, hayom – from day to day, in renewing opportunity — or perhaps based on no reassurance otherwise, we are detained in one long day, waiting for the cooling gentle wind of relief or with severe portent, its pronounced and riotous end.

Shabbat Shalom.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Ekev — 5770 Shoftim — 5770 — Towards the End of the Page

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