28/09/2012 at 09:47 Leave a comment

“Shouting While Standing at the Gate of the City”


Rosh haShanah –Day 1 — 5773

Neil F. Blumofe

17 September 2012

There is a story told in our tradition of Rabbi Alexandrei who would stand in the gate at the entrance to the city, and as people passed by he would shout at them, “man ba’ei hayei, man ba’ei hayei?” — who wants to live, who wants to live?  And the people would crowd around and they would answer, hav lan chayeigive us life!  And then Rabbi Alexandrei would say to them – so, you want to live?  Sur meira va’asei tov – turn from evil and do good – (Sanhedrin 19b).

In order to live, we are to construct the world in the likeness of our good work – how we apply ourselves, is how the world will be.  Quality of life is right in front of us – it is the Torah that is the source for goodness – if we learn Torah and endeavor to walk in her ways, we will be assured that we have chosen life.  Throughout the generations, many have found comfort in this conviction – if we act well, then we will merit living a worthy life.  Our Torah is a divine document that teaches virtue – and it is with virtue that our life takes on purpose and meaning.  Done.  Problem solved.

Except when it doesn’t.  This neat syllogism about life doesn’t necessarily follow – there are no guarantees linking a life steeped in Torah, a career of committing acts of goodness and lovingkindness – a constant display of concern, consideration, and care — with anything good.  We may feel gratified by our altruism and our ever-growing tally of helpful deeds, yet at the end of the day, we may not have improved our lot in this world – the ancient Jewish Wisdom teacher Ben Sira reminds us that we are all destined to die.  We share it with all who have ever lived, and with all who ever will be.  How then do good deeds give us life – how then does turning away from evil turn the tide in our favor?

We are here this morning to celebrate the birthday of the world – to inaugurate another year together – even perhaps to set an intention together – an intention that stays with us and links us together and holds us accountable collectively as we bear witness to each other throughout the year, sharing our life — with many exceptional moments of routine joy, most probably punctuated by sporadic bursts of sadness, fear, and insecurity that can linger for the length of our days.  In this sanctuary, we pledge to do the best that we can as we enter this New Year together.  We pledge to give others to benefit of the doubt as we, in our limited and imperfect ways try as hard as we can, hopefully melting our inflexible ceaseless grudges down into puddles that beget new beginnings, and beating our swords of conflict into ploughshares of accord.

Let our refreshed intention allow us to scratch beneath the surface of doing what we think has to be done publicly to get us underneath all of that, past put upon and invented sentiment spurred by peer pressure or aimlessness, to a place of a true flowering of our soul. “Man ba’ei hayei, man ba’ei hayei?” — who wants to live, who wants to live?

Al tirah mipachad pitom — let us not be afraid.  Let us realize the power that this day has – unleashing a wholly new energy into the world – a flood of vitality, a volcanic day – a cosmic eruption of dynamism that washes over and enters into all creatures giving us new life and purpose – a force that gives us fresh inspiration from which to develop new perspectives and improved aptitude as we encounter the challenges in our life.  Let us not be cowed by the brokenness that we see all around us – let us not be shaken by the violence that comes without warning, let us neither be deflated by cynicism nor defeated by the corruption that seems to seep into our daily life.

Let us stand here this morning and in these opening days of this New Year, and collect this new life as it rains down – let us cup our hands in front of us and open up our souls like rain buckets to collect this renewed might that will overflow our borders and enliven us and our actions in this coming year.

The significant 19th century Hasidic mystic Reb Levi Yitzchak of Beredichev teaches that this great life force that is released on Rosh haShanah fills the mold of our character based on what our character is, at this moment – if we are prone to despondency or negativity, then this great influx of energy will only fortify these qualities.  If we are open to channeling this new inspiration in positive and productive ways – in living without panic, in cultivating restraint, in seeking wisdom – then this will be the New Year’s endowment that we will receive – God is the source of life and we are responsible for choosing how this life force will be applied.  As the 20th century philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, the image of the person is larger than the frame into which they have been compressed.

When we sit in the city gates like Rabbi Alexandrei, what do we shout at people when they pass?  By the way, we shouldn’t shout – that’s annoying.  Can we be more gentle? How do we connect with others – are we positive and encouraging, or are we needlessly harsh and overly critical?  Beyond the painful doses of image and rhetoric that we ingest every time we check out current events, how can we admit life that comes to us now, like a yearly influx of nourishing manna from heaven?

We can be confident that the world is not as reasonable as we hope – that if we invest our deeds with a positive and upbeat demeanor, then we will not necessarily receive cheerfulness and optimism in return.  We are living beyond the consistent logic of Maimonides – we exist in a post-rational age where randomness is the norm and where we cannot depend upon our mathematical proofs to locate God.  We may feel that we live in a state of aginut, a state of abandonment, in which it is impossible for us to overcome the breach between us and God – where turning away from evil and towards good is not a guarantee of anything.

Yet, can we feel that today is a new start?  Can we feel emptied of our derisions and the sludge of our previous blunders and are we ready to capture a new and buoyant inspiration as it washes into our healthy containers of body and spirit, regardless of our age and our ability?

Who wants to live?  Who wants to live?

Are we willing to live a full nuanced life, despite those who agitate for destruction – even our destruction?  Despite everything can we turn towards the good, and feel the good and know as the 20th century philosopher and Talmudic commentator Emmanuel Levinas writes, that the good is higher than the truth?

Can this Rosh haShanah inspire us to connect more deeply, can it reduce our vexations and can it meet our needs – will we be open to finding harmony together past our selfish desires and violent impulses?  Will we be able to live with contentment as we find a way to cope with shocking and recurrent degrees of pain stemming from our vulnerability to professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of our loved ones, and our own inevitable decay and demise?

To heal ourselves – to contest our loneliness and our isolation, can we notice each other?  As Alain de Botton writes in a recent book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion — whereas the Bedouin whose tent surveys a hundred kilometers of desolate sand has the psychological wherewithal to offer each stranger a warm welcome, his urban contemporaries…in order to preserve a modicum of inner serenity – give no sign of even noticing the millions of humans who are eating, sleeping, arguing, copulating, and dying only centimeters away from them on all sides.


It once happened that members of the synagogue were puzzled about a section of the Talmud where it says that we must thank God as much for the bad days, as for the good ones.  They wondered, “How can this be?”  For what would our gratitude be worth if we gave it equally for the bad as well as for the good?  After consulting with their teacher the Maggid of Mezritch, he recommended that they travel a far distance and god see Reb Zusya who would have the answer to their question.

The students went and looking for Reb Zusya, found his home in the poorest section of the city, on a derelict street – crowded between two small house, they found his tiny shack, ready to fall apart.  When they entered, they say Reb Zusya sitting at a bare table, reading by the light of the only small window in the place.  He looked up and said – welcome strangers – please pardon me for not getting up, for I have hurt my leg.  However, would you like some food?  I have bread and I also have some water.

The students refused and said that they arrived only to ask a question.  Their teacher, the Maggid of Mezritch said that you, Reb Zusya, would know the answer to the question – why do our sages tell us to thank God as much for our bad days as well as for our good days?  Reb Zusya laughed as he shook his head and said, “Ask me that?  I have no idea why the Maggid sent you to me.  You see, I never have a bad day – every day God has given to me has been filled with miracles.”


May we appreciate the power of this setting and the people in our midst – of what surrounds us and who could so easily, fill us with affection.  May we crown the mystery of existence in charge and especially in our uncertainty, leap forward to begin this year with zest and prospect – may we hold wide open our vessels to collect this plentiful rain, these blessings, that fall in this particular moment of the year.  May we find an enthusiasm in our being together and may we make the most of our freedoms as we attach ourselves to moral and humane action.  May we rediscover our own integrity.

Tonight, let us take a chance and hold God up high and proclaim that we want to live and find a way towards good that infuses us with purpose and yet, not necessarily with assurance.  Let us stand in the entrance to the gates of the city and not shout at people as they pass – rather let us demonstrate by example how we live – with insight, compassion, celebration, and honorableness.  May we find a sanctifying vulnerability that leads us away from shame and exuberantly escorts us directly to these gates through which we can boldly climb in confidence, into the promise of this New Year.

Shanah Tovah u”Metukah.


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