28/09/2012 at 10:13 Leave a comment

“Entering the Iron Gates of Life”


Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre

Neil F. Blumofe

25 September 2012


It continues to be a privilege to stand with you on this evening, as the Gates of our Lives are flung open and receptive to admit so much possibility.  We gather here from our different places, perhaps looking for something or only to inhabit this space for a while, confirming what we already know.  It is with reticence that I address each of you at this time, asking that as we experience Yom Kippur and as we examine our lives and probe the significance of our deeds in this precious time that we are now sharing, that we commit ourselves to engagement and responsibility.  I request that we leave here this evening, somehow different from when we entered this place.  Somehow, let the words and the melodies — this experience — penetrate our expectant hearts and souls and may we feel something different begin to take root in places and thoughts that we frequent and that we hold most dear.


In these past few months, I have given much thought about the trajectory and the purpose of my life – and as much time as I devote to counseling others and modeling mindfulness and reflective listening as one grieves, there is nothing that could have prepared me for the death of my father this past July, so closely following on the heels of my mother’s death, just last year.  Standing on the far side of this abyss, I can feel the hollow, thudding silence of their absence still reverberating – it is a palpable sensation as it remains, this void not dislodging from the centerpiece of my heart.


And as I continue to do the work in our community that I love to do, the phrase from the Metaphysical English poet Andrew Marvell, resounds in my ears – at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near; And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity.  How do I know if I’m on the right path – and even with all of the mitzvot, all of the commandments to act nobly and morally that I cherish and privilege, pangs of uncertainty and hesitation haunt my days.


Am I doing all that I can?  Is what I am doing enough?  What am I doing anyway, and what is the meaning of all that is laid out before me?  I often speak about the tolerance that we must give ourselves – the permission for us to be imperfect – the need for us to act honorably through our limitations – to grant ourselves the gift of patience, as we are often our own worst critics.


Since the death of my parents, I feel in ways that I could not have imagined the void of exemption.  As the oldest now of the generations in my family, I feel that I have no pass to rely on another to take care of things and make things right.  There is a responsibility that gnaws at me to seize the day before it is too late, to make the most of every moment, to not let opportunity pass me by.  This feeling of responsibility is not now a burden, rather it is something that I lean into and find reassurance with as I press my shoulder into the squalling winds of our difficult world.  This sense of responsibility is not a mere feeling – examining how we make our mark in the world – what we choose to consume, and how we choose to expend our time are all activated in the ramifications of feeling accountable.


This is not something someone could have told me, before I was ready to hear it.  It’s like the example of the parents who have been blessed with young, exuberant, sweet, and wonder-filled children find themselves in conversation another parent who has older children and who remarks, knowingly – “just wait until they’re teenagers.”  And yes, years later, those same young parents now see what you mean.


Tonight, I am not here to convince you of anything.  Each of you knows your own score and can decide for yourselves your own priorities and concerns.  I too, often inhabit a space where I think I am right and it takes quite a discordant blow for me to unclench my stubbornness and to make a move off of what I believe is working for me.


I am concerned for our world.  I am concerned for our students and for all of us who are not engaged, or perhaps do not have a principled center from which to make just decisions.  I am afraid that we are swimming in so much information, that we are adrift in the agendas of others – I am troubled because I think that we are exhausted – that we are so constantly caught up in the currents of progress, or driving to achieve what is possible, that in our competition against each other, we are reinforcing fatigue and perpetual breathlessness in our life.  The way that we scan and process information pushes us to leap from one happiness to another more quickly, leaving us less time to appreciate and to savor even a momentary pleasure.


This summer, just a few weeks after my father died, I chose to travel to the West African country of Ghana, as part of a rabbinic delegation, sponsored by the American Jewish World Service.  The seventeen of us worked for two weeks in a school called Challenging Heights — a school that is dedicated to rescuing children, mostly boys, from the plague of current slave trade practices in this West African country.  I wasn’t sure of what to expect – and in fact, kept my expectations minimal and was resolved to just experience something different from my everyday life.


Each day, after we would finish working on various construction projects, we would all gather together for a meal.  Often, students and some of the younger neighbors of the school sat with us – and as we were eating, we would be asked to share our food.  The American Jewish World Service employs a strict policy of not sharing food or giving gifts to anyone that we are serving or with whom we are working – for fear of promoting inequality, unreasonable expectations, and discord among those with whom we briefly interact.  And yet, there is the adorable five-year old boy who is looking at you with the widest of eyes and the faint turn of a smile as he puts his fingers to his lips and beseeches you to – share with him.  What do you say then?


On this day, our prophet asks us, hakhazeh yihiyeh tsom evkhoreihu – is this your fast that I desire?  It is as if God is saying – am I really going to dwell before you and see you go through your motions, trying so hard in such sanctified space to get it right, or to sit obediently for a proscribed amount of time until you’re done, and then leave? Fantastic!  Yet what happens when you leave this space – after you breathe deeply mentally make a check and say, well, that Yom Kippur is behind us?  What patterns of our lives do we return to – the real dilemma of teshuvah that we encounter – not dutifully chipping away at our transgressions, rather anxiously greeting our transgressions again, after this Yom Kippur,  turning back to them and welcoming them again like a dependable friend.


The great paradox of this day is just before us – we who tumble into synagogue now are encouraged, once we are finally here, to go from here and do good work –  v’shalach r’tsutsim chofshim — to let the oppressed go free; halo paros la’raeiv lakhmecha – to share our bread with the hungry; to take the wretched poor into our home; to clothe the naked, and all the while, not ignoring our kin, those who are closest to us.  This is the teshuvah prescription – if we cease to be menacing and hegemonic, and stop speaking ill of others, even if we don’t like them – all the while as we feed those who are famished, then we will find a purpose, then our truest prayers will be answered and we will walk in this world with a light and humble step.


Yet, we know, with all of our good intentions, that the world is not this responsive.  It’s not as simple as our acting and the world getting better — there is plenty of complexity with thorny, complicated issues that implicate all of us at deeper levels.  On one hand, helping to improve a school so that it can better fulfill its mission is one thing – revolutionizing events so that the vicious cycles of dire poverty are curbed, is impossibly overwhelming – as Franz Kafka, the influential 20th century Jewish writer states, by imposing too great a responsibility, or rather all responsibility on yourself, you crush yourself.  Yet, I do feel responsible.


I can look to my Social Action committee here at Agudas Achim and I can choose to get involved in a project with Cindy Zieve or think of a new one to begin.  I can get involved in various good works in Austin – delivering meals for Meals on Wheels or being available to give rides and other support services to those who are sixty years or older and in need, as part of Faith in Action Caregivers – a worthy organization where Agudas Achim is loyally represented by Ester Smith and Terry Milman.  I can make a donation to A Glimmer of Hope, I can choose to support extraordinary organizations like Hospice Austin, who care for the needy, gently walking with them into death and together, we can continue to transform the world through work that we can do through our synagogue community in ways that we today can only barely envision.


And the question that I ask is how can we sustain our efforts?  We can be instantly inspired – by the starving smile of a child, or the immediate needs of our parents – yet our ardor will burn away, eventually – how can we take Isaiah’s words to heart, recognizing that the fast that we choose even if challenging, is not always the fast the God asks of us – for tomorrow, we can choose again to have dessert and go back to our accustomed ways.  How can we interrupt our own cycle of living to be more sensitive and aware of the world around us?  How can we always carry empathy on our backs, to be held in conjunction with all other choices that we make?


As a holy community, how can we promote this kind of discerning behavior?  What if we took our noticing of our own hunger with us, past Yom Kippur and out into the world?  Last year Dr. Raben, Rabbi Kobrin, and I participated in a Global Hunger challenge – the goal of the initiative was to live for a week on $31.50 – the average amount that one enrolled in the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spends for food – one in seven Americans – and nearly 25% of our children – averaging about $1.50 per meal, per day. To do this was indeed a challenge last year – and I wasn’t always successful — and this year, I ask that each of us take this on – we will devote the first week of November – Thursday, November 1st through Thursday, November 8th to being a part of this challenge, paying attention to not only our hunger, but too – the feelings of struggle and difficulty that may arise.  I ask that our community get involved in this challenge – helping each other by keeping each other accountable, speaking about how limiting our food spending and intake tests us, and by spreading the word about our experience, calling attention to the scourge of hunger around the world.  Keep a record of your work and of your observations as our community enters into this awareness together.


As we share these valuable moments together and as we move together through Yom Kippur — into the heart of our day through towards the closing of these gates tomorrow evening, let us continue to be inspired, long after we exchange again these special white covers for our sifrei Torah back to our everyday shades.  Even as sensitive and engaged as we think we are, let not the passing of cherished family, or the scare of an illness propel us to accountability and action.  I am asking for your help and your partnership in realizing and sharing the astonishing blessings that each of us have in this world.


We have an obligation to bring justice to this world, all the while, not ignoring our brothers and sisters.  When asked what we should do – whether to make Israel a priority in our life by keeping up with current events and lending our voice and resources as we can, or helping feed and stabilize some of the world’s most vulnerable and at risk people, the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel answered, yes and yes.


Where do we sit this year?  Ayenu?  Where are we?  What kind of a jolt do we need to wake up and run towards the issues that affect us as a people — issues that will demand our full and sustained attention — issues that will challenge us and our assumptions – that will ask us to honestly and with integrity face our worldviews?


Back in Ghana, every morning, before we began working, the 400+ students in this school had a daily assembly – after working to carry heavy water jugs on their heads and laboriously preparing for the demands of the day, all of the kids would stand together and sing with a full voice and with pride about the independence of Ghana and how wonderful their school was.  The kids had a sweet self-assurance in where they were and it seemed that they took nothing for granted – and even when they weren’t before us, shyly getting to know us, they looked happy – even happier than most of our children regularly seem.  A friend of mine relates that he saw a girl, who was about nine years old, with her three-year-old brother strapped to her back, as she was walking up a big hill for about a half-mile.  He turned to her and asked, “Isn’t it hard to carry your brother?”  And she looked up at him with an expression that seemed to say, “I don’t understand what you are asking me.  Carrying my brother is neither hard nor easy – it just is my responsibility – it is what needs to happen now.”


I ask that we take an inventory of what we need, and like this day demands we do an accounting of our soul, we do an accounting of our stuff.  What is our philanthropic practice – what can we live without?  What of our stuff makes us better?  What stuff of ours allows us to insulate ourselves or to escape?


Ruth Messinger,  the head of American Jewish World Service, who was with us in Ghana, shared a story about an adult farmer in Uganda who told a college student volunteer that he had decided that he was Jewish.  When the volunteer asked him what he meant he said that he had seen the Jews come and that he is Jewish because he wants to leave the world better than he found it – that is what Jews do.


In this year, let us begin our conversation together about our purpose and how we can sustain our work as we remain steadfastly dedicated to discovering our purpose.  Our purpose may have nothing to do with what we think we want or what we think we’re about.


40% of all food produced in America is thrown away.  Let this not be our fast – let us not shunt this day aside and quickly move to what’s next for us.  Let us pause and anticipate the real needs that we see around us – let us lift each other out of our pain – let us strive to be like Abraham, and be on the hunt, respectfully looking for others to help.


The theme of the Challenging Heights School in Ghana is “to whom much is given, much is expected.”  This theme is chanted repeatedly every morning at assembly as a call and response, building in volume and fervor each time – so at the end, the leader and the children both are shouting their respective parts – “to whom much is given – much is expected – and then the day resumes.  And at any time during the day, if one begins this cheer, whatever activity that anyone is doing is put aside for a moment and joins in – words that exist to help shape expectation and truly act as a testament of faith – to whom much is given, much is expected.


To Whom Much is Given – Much is Expected.


Hearing the children eventually scream out the words – “much is expected” – was cute, however, our group of seventeen rabbis soon realized that these interchanges were not merely a game – they were a daily intention and reminder that this in fact, is how the world was to be within the rarefied confines of Challenging Heights – an expectation that demanded honesty, forthrightness, integrity, and fair dealings.  The culture of the place needed no security cameras, x ray scanners, or hallway monitors – often doors were not locked, demonstrating faith in safety and setting up this small school as an island of safety within a larger, more hazardous district, where kids and the rights of the kids, the teachers, and the visitors as a given, are respected.


“To whom much is given, much is expected.” This is a powerful way to start a day.


We have a sacred responsibility to offer thanks and then to step out and shine our light as we look to emulate the fast that God wants from us.  Let us fling wide open the gates that inhibit us from acting – let us move our sadnesses into works that heal. “To Whom Much is Given, Much is Expected.”  U’vimkom she’ain anashim histadeil, lihiyot ish – in a place where there are no leaders, be a leader.  Let us feel the weight of our words and apply them to our actions to resonate in our personal life, and in the marketplace – and let us start here, in this place – by making our time within these sacred walls meaningful, non-judgmental, important and precious, to accomplish the beginning of something better – and no matter how we anticipate this year, or the damage that will be done – let us unafraid, encourage and help and re-imagine this world differently, come what may.


Let us roll all our strength, and all/Our sweetness, up into one ball;

And tear our pleasure with rough strife/Through the iron gates of life.


G’mar Hatimah Tovah – May Each of Us and All of Us be Sealed in the Book of Life in this Year and Always.







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