5772 — Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre — Mt. Ladoshem: Laughing, Not Lying

11/10/2011 at 20:12 Leave a comment

“Mt. Ladoshem: Laughing, Not Lying”


Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre

Neil F. Blumofe

7 October 2011


It may be one of the rich ironies of this time that as our sacred spaces are filled tonight, more than any other time of year, and as we make an effort to show up and try for engagement, and as we are surrounded by our fullest community, we may feel, in this moment alone or adrift or somehow, not a part of things.  Also among us this evening may be those filled with hope for new possibility, some small change to be handed out or taken – some of us may be on familiar ground, or honored guests, just passing through – some may be struggling mightily in this moment – to stay awake, or to gain focus, or to commit to what might lie ahead.  Kol Nidre is a curious and an exigent evening to look for connection – we stand here, alone together in all of our places to ask for forgiveness for what we have done and for mercy for what we hope for in ways that may be totally unfamiliar and uncharacteristic of how we normally live our lives.


On Rosh haShanah, I compared our assembly to the gathering at Mt. Sinai – a time when all of our community, from all backgrounds and all expectations, gathered in one place to receive revelation or direction.  I asked that we go further, finding an individual and personal space to connect with God, as well, outside of the buzz and activity of community.   This would be Mt. Horeb, inside of Mt. Sinai – a place where our deeper selves are allowed to surface, even for an instant, as we find words to answer the question, ma lecha po – why are we here?  And as we find our footing inside of the spaces of Mt. Horeb, I asked too that we consider the significance of Mt. Moriah – the place where Abraham brought his son Isaac, to be sacrificed.  I asked that we honestly consider who and what we sacrifice everyday to pursue our ambitions, our delectations, and our fantasies.  What price are our desires worth?


And tonight, on the most sacred of nights – when we turn page after page of our machzorim, giving witness to others in our larger family over the many generations who poured out their hearts like a flowing river to find a connection, any connection with God and thus, a foothold to climb up their own mountain of restlessness and isolation — they too are to inspire us to find our way, here and now.


And, what are our lies that we tell ourselves to give us a boost and to give us an easier way up the trail?  What mountains of fictions do we bring into the world that will give us a moment of convenience and ease, while the harder parts, the parts that demand work and attention, are left dangling off the side of the cliff, like unwanted debris blowing in the brisk mountain air?  How much of what we say convinces us that we are on the right path – how much of our daily deception, our fronting, is what we claim as truth, and more so, is what we truly believe to be true?


And we are here now on Yom Kippur, to try our hand at ritual theatre – to affect our soul, somehow in these melodies, these images, and in this company, all of us, together.  An elderly colleague of mine tells of a man who used to stand outside of his home long ago, and as people would go by, on their way to synagogue, he would shout at them, “Hypocrites! Hypocrites!”  And maybe this was his form of prayer, as inscrutable as it might be.   Jean-Paul Sartre, a 20th century existentialist thinker, described a waiter at a Parisian café who goes out of his way to play the part of the waiter.  He balances trays on his arms, just so – he speaks in a theatrical voice, and he does everything he can do to be this idea, this convincing waiter.  What is clear to everyone, including this man, is that the whole thing is an act – an affectation; where one abandons one’s own true and authentic self in favor of some over baked bit of performance.  How often do we play an acting part in our life, removed from what is essentially us?  How about now?


Is it not easier to lie when honesty brings discomfort?  Are we not lulled into a pattern, a lifestyle of lying, entertained by our inventiveness and secure in our abilities to hold all of these slippery strings together?  We create a working world populated by our trickery, happy and heedless about the responsibilities of what we say in the moment, thankful to have the agility to deflect the requests and the demands of others.  Lying gives us freedom and a space to move away from what we don’t want to do.  And then, over time, perhaps we see our children lying – saying what they do and believing it to be true.  How are we effected by seeing our children, our students, maybe our coworkers and friends lie, given confidence and safety in our own example?


Do we ever meet the lies that we have told – do they ever return to repopulate and haunt our reality?  The Israeli writer Etgar Keret asked this question on a recent episode of Selected Shorts — how much are each of us a residual, permanent part of each other’s lies, an uncomfortable ontological presence that lingers as we meet each other during waking hours, our lives decorated by the elastic truths that we tell to each other’s faces, or more commonly, cruel exaggerations that we tell, behind each other’s backs?


I have long wondered about the significance of the imagery that is presented as we receive Torah on Yom Kippur.  Our portion is always the same – Leviticus, chapter 16 and it describes the sacrifices that are offered on Yom Kippur – two goats extended on equal footing – one offered “ladoshem,” and one offered “la’Azazeil”  — one submitted to God and one released in the wilderness to the mysterious force called Azazel.  Why, on this holiest of days, does the Torah reinforce the disquieting idea that God is not God alone?  Why, as we ourselves attempt to find at-one-ment on this long journey of self-discovery, after we have celebrated Rosh haShanah and proclaimed that God alone is God and that we live in God’s world, albeit imperfectly with our memories and our shofar blasts of ambition, why now do we jiggle that premise not slightly, and introduce a pretender, another character into our sacred drama who undercuts all that we have previously established?


And further, why do we offer a sacrifice to this Azazel – a sacrifice that we also give to God?  Are we hedging our bets – are we making sure that we’ve got chips on both black and red, so we’re not taken advantage of and completely cleaned out of our spiritual investments that we’ve placed on the table?  According to our Talmud, the goat for Azazel was lead out into the wilderness, past ten watch posts and then it was led to a steep mountain, from which it was pushed to its death.


According to later rationalist thinkers like Maimonides, this ritual could not possibly have happened.  He writes that this scapegoating idea, this procedure to take sins off of our heads and transfer them to another being is only symbolic – allowing one to create a space for recognizing what has happened and to then take steps to remedy big mistakes, or careless, recreational transgressions that often cut even deeper.


Yet, allow me to suggest that Azazel is very real and to suggest tonight that we live within Azazel’s world much more than we live in God’s.  To me, Azazel represents the antinomian world in which we struggle most days, far removed from an enduring and honest certitude.  Azazel represents shuck and jive – it represents shadows and vague memorandum, half-truths that we tell each other and ourselves that get us through the day – the white lies that give a crispy edge to our soft and runny opinions – this goat of culpability is thrown from our own self-made mountain of lies.


We create this world – our mystics call it the sitra achra – the other side – a parallel world where our fabrications and our darker inventions reside, mirroring and sometimes ridiculing or cheapening the efforts that we put forth in God’s world, the world of the sitra d’kedusha.  Even as our world seems to teeter before us, as we turn anxiously into this new year, insecure of the direction of our financial markets, the churning of a dissatisfied people — movements growing, hatreds hatching, and resentment fomenting in this country and around the world — and the increasing use of technology which connects us more globally and too, can serve to feed us as we recognize new challenges that we have in cultivating meaningful, committed, and private relationships.


I ask that we lead not towards the mountain of Azazel and our spectral dispositions that we create in each other’s image – rather that we walk confidently towards the peaks of morality and compassion — substantive truth and thoughtfulness, searching for God in our moments of Horeb and Sinai – alone and together.  On this night of Kol Nidre, I ask that we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming – and we interrupt our accustomed time frames and that in this space together, we each go on a journey of transcendence and movement away from easy texting and discounted, unbounded speech.


Our experiences of Yom Kippur involve us in a performance of life and death – again, we are in this moment, as we may have been before – and our ingenious traditions ask us to play a part – to stand, separating hard work from mere expediency, appreciating best efforts while we eschew sloppiness, seeking real difference as we walk past shallow, insignificant change.  We are asked to depart from a place of familiarity – to mobilize for this journey, recognizing the depths of our pain and the limits of our conditioning  — expanding outward our moral imagination, which is made valuable as we recognize the many contradictions, paradoxes and dangers inherent in living a moral life.


I ask that we ask for forgiveness for our invented lives – for the lives that we assign to others from our own distortions, and our own willful misrepresentations.  This is a time of celebration of happiness, to break free from the verbal prisons that we create for ourselves – tonight is the time to make something out of something  — to beckon from our deepest places, places of the genuine – let us not catch ourselves and trip over the many slippery strings of our inventions.


So, let us bring our secrets with us.  Let us bring our exaggerations with us.  Let us walk away from the place that looms large in our everyday life – a place where prevarication is the rule of the day and dissembling is encouraged – let us not sacrifice our self-respect, throwing it off of Azazel’s mountainside to preserve something that we think precious in the moment.  Rather, let us walk towards “ladoshem,” choosing to draw near to the mountain of the Lord, a place that is described in the last words of this entire magnificent sacred performance – words from our prophet, Isaiah – va’haviotim el har kodshi, v’simachtim b’veit tefilati oloteihem v’zivcheihem l’ratzon, al mitzb’chi – ki beiti beit tefila yikarei l’chol ha’amim – I will bring all of them up to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer – all of their sacrifices will be acceptable upon My altar and My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people. 


If we don’t pay attention to the mountain of Azazel, it will crumble and become less important to us.  We will find ourselves not dragging a goat to its precipice – rather with discipline and fortitude, we will give it the scant attention that it deserves – we shall walk away from this place, empty-handed, expecting nothing in return.  On this journey, let us stand together appreciating the sights of this extraordinary time.  Let us have patience with ourselves and with others around us as we attune ourselves to this time and as we drop away the cosmetic trappings that prevent us from cosmic possibility.  Yom Kippur is for everyone in this world – to improve, to drop our guard, and as we realize our mortality to celebrate a world more accurate that is not populated by our shame.  So let us lift our heads and on this fast day, appreciate the wisdom of our tradition, which teaches — v’amrei leih, af b’sachako – it is in laughter that a person’s true character is revealed.  So, tonight, we speak with high hopes for a shift in paradigm – for a meaningful change in our behavior, for meaningful bonds to be established or reestablished, for circumstances to be lightened, and for truths to be told, however hard, with love and kindness – this is what will heal us and link us together and will bind us in common purpose and will enable trust so we can weather any worldwide tempest  – so, looking directly inward, even for a moment, let us laugh, let us restore, as we celebrate this day of atonement thus letting our truest character reveal itself – confident in our walk away from the deceits of Azazel and towards the significance and privileged consequences of preparing to encounter God.


So, a joke to close – laughter, which can point us in the right direction of ladoshem, as we ask ourselves whose life we are living, who is really in control – what reality are we in as we experience the peaks and valleys – the challenges and the rewards of Yom Kippur –


Two lifelong friends, Mildred and Sadie, both in their 80’s, were out driving towards the mountains in their old Lincoln, with their heads barely reaching over the dashboard.  Cruising along, they went right through a red light.  Sadie thinks to herself, “Something’s wrong.  I must be losing it.  I could have sworn that we went through a red light back there.”  They zipped through the next intersection – that light was red as well.  Sadie was becoming increasingly more concerned.  She decides that she is going to pay especially close attention the next time.  Sure enough, at the next intersection the light is definitely red and they sped straight through.  Now sure of herself, Sadie turns to Mildred and says, “Do you know that you ran the last three red lights?  You could have gotten us killed!”  Mildred turns to her innocently and says, “Oh, really?  Am I driving?”


[Elohim ten bamidbar har                        God, grant on the barren mountain

hadas shita b’rosh tidhar                        myrtle, acacia, cypress, and box trees

v’almazhir v’lanizhar                                    and to the instructive and to the attentive

sh’lomim ten k’me nahar]                        grant well-being, that flows like a river’s waters.]


(Esa Einai)


G’mar Hatimah Tovah

Shabbat Shalom.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

5772 — Rosh haShanah, Minchah — The Fiery Bear (Talmudic Interlude) 5772 — Yom Kippur, Yizkor — Mt. Nebo: Being at the Mountaintop

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