28/09/2012 at 10:29 2 comments

“The Gates of Atonement”


Yom Kippur – Yizkor

Neil F. Blumofe

26 September 2012


I have always been struck by the attention our tradition gives to the challenges inherent in relationships between parents and children.  On these Holy Days – these days of introspection and denial, when we are to unclutter our mind and revive a sense of sacredness and simplicity, and allow basic questions of good and evil, right and wrong, and life and death to claw their nails into the soft flesh of our weary soul, we pick up the story of Abraham, eternally walking towards Mt. Moriah, with his sacrifice, his son Isaac, on his back.  We know how it will end, as it does year after year – at the last moment, Isaac is saved by the intervention of a convenient angel and then Sarah dies, most probably from a broken heart and father and son separate and live separate lives, only connecting again after Abraham’s death.


And on Yom Kippur the story is worse – the ultimate cautionary tale.  Aaron the priest sees the unthinkable – two of his boys perish right in front of his eyes — consumed, as they were involved in service to the Most High – trying to emulate and continue the example of their father – trying to please their father, they fail most tragically.  And perhaps it is more heartbreaking for us, we who have to relive this disaster year after year, like a penitent Sisyphus sentenced to hell.  As time passes, Aaron, whose memory we honor and cherish, is swept away like his children, yet we who are living, who are here now, encounter this state of affairs as our gateway into our own atonement.


Why does our tradition keep pointing us in these directions – towards the near misses and the catastrophe of family sorrow – why does this specific sacred time beckon us to find a path amid the stinging brambles of loss — past, present and future?  Psalm 27, the psalm that we include in our prayers for the entire month of Elul, preceding the High Holy Days and through the last day of Sukkot more than halfway through the month of Tishrei, reminds us everyday – avi v’imi azavuni – my father and my mother leave me.   With this pounding headache of sobriety reminding us of Isaac and Nadav and Avihu, these loosenings of the bonds of generational familiarity together between parents and children, what can our tradition be urging us to consider?


As we consider the binding of Isaac every year and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, I think we are guided to think about the power and the depth to which we are willing to go to make a sacrifice.  In pursuit of our dreams and our ambitions, how far are we willing to go?  The traditional image is of parents sacrificing their children, or their families, while chasing the winds of achievement – time spent traveling for business, or in meetings, or taking email or calls during mealtimes, or just being vacant, or preoccupied instead of present for rising children who are urgently looking for an example.  Relationships are allowed to fray through neglect, avoidance, or active disregard.


We are guided by our tradition that while our parents are away, or involved in other things, that God will ya’asfeini – will care for each of us, however this is of small relief to one who walks in an empty house, is enrolled in childcare or afterschool activities until evening, or who feels that having a parent sit down at a meal or attend a school or sports activity, is a special occasion, worthy of note.


I don’t speak about this to cast aspersions – I speak plainly this morning to name some of my own struggles – one who studies the life of Moses – a man who decides to cleave to God and lead a people at the expense of his own family, becomes Moses.  Wanting to balance obligations and opportunities with the duty and the commitment of raising children is not easy – at least for me.  It seems our tradition challenges us to accept this stark choice as a fact of life – either follow your goals or dutifully participate in the raising your children, and accept the consequences of whichever path your traverse.


And as our career continues and we move into the lengthening shadow of our prime, and our children grow and begin to find their own way half-listening to our pressing advice, reinforced in their distracted behavior by having lived in the fizz of the best of our intentions — and then as time passes quite often, and our health declines our roles reverse and as the saying goes, the child becomes the father of the man and our children become our caretakers – helping us to make decisions that we so proudly made before – helping us communicate and get around and if our health permits, finding us a living situation that befits our current lifestyle.  We completely devour each call or text from our children, each moment shared, as we see independent lives having to constrict to admit us.  As the roles reverse, we see that Isaac has gotten up from the altar and that we have changed places with him.  In the passage of time, it is we who have now rested our head on the stone and are waiting for the sacrifice.


Every so often, I partner with Danielle Kaplan, an Agudas Achim Family member who works with Jewish Family service.  We lead holiday gatherings throughout the year at one of the assisted living facilities in town.  The staff is incredibly responsive and their chef serves an exquisite lunch and for the twenty or so folks who attend, it is a pleasant social and celebratory gathering.  At our recent Rosh haShanah luncheon, I went around the table, asking each participant to name something positive in the New Year – perhaps a blessing that they enjoy, or something that brings them life, or something for which they were grateful.


Each person gave a general answer – the wedding of a grandchild, a small visit from a friend, a recent outing – until the turn passed to a particular resident who was silent for a moment and then stated with obvious pain – “you know, I’m ready to die.  I have nothing to look forward to, there is no meaning for me.”  I gently tried to engage her, offering possible positive openings, however, compared to her forcefulness, mine was a weak attempt and with burning tears in her eyes, she left the table.  There was a pall that crept across the table at that point, eventually dissipated, however, her empty chair stood for the rest of the meal, like a seat where an agitated and heartbroken Elijah the prophet once sat but left, not able to bear the insipid conversation about positive thinking, appreciation of little things and hope.


Amid all of the videos that enjoy a flare of popularity on You Tube, there was one that a colleague recently shared that I had not heard of.  It is a short video made by a filmmaker named Jeremiah McDonald, who when he was 12 years old made a video of himself interviewing his future self – and now, twenty years later, using that footage, he created a conversation between his 12 year old self and his 32 year old self.  While the video is entertaining, it is also thought-provoking – as my colleague writes, “he is both dismissive of his younger self’s immaturity and general cluelessness about so much in the world, and also inspired by his younger self’s drive, creativity, and vision.”


It is now time for Yizkor – a time when we collapse lifetimes into a single moment.  Beyond the relationships that we both invest in and withdraw from over our lifetime – beyond the closeness that we feel with our parents and the inscrutable distance and alienation that ebbs and flows throughout the years, what would it be like to meet ourselves twenty years in the future, or thirty years in the past?  What would it be like to have a conversation with either our older or younger self?


What would we talk about – what encouragements would we offer?  What hardships would we speak about avoiding?  What would we want to know – what reassurances would we seek?  Looking from the past into the future, would we be proud of what we saw today?  Would we be inspired by who we used to be?  Would our life be cleanly divided into chapters that neatly built, were neatly stacked on each other, or would we revisit disorder?  Would we find some sort of consistency regarding our values, commitments and desired life direction?  How much of it would we fast forward through?  Would we laugh at perceived wrong, or offer encouragement for our past self as it struggles to emerge from a dark night of the soul?


Yizkor is our opportunity to explore all of these ideas – to have a conversation both with our timeless self and also with those who have shaped us – our origins.  We are entering an almost enchanted time, when we do not exist here – rather when we occupy an incredible vantage point from which to gain perspective and offer forgiveness – both in our role as Isaac and as Abraham.  As we see the dreadful action of Nadav and Avihu – trying with all of their might to be like their father, to please him — and failing – perhaps trying to gain approval and sacrificing their life for this illusive approval.  As Rabbi Jill Hammer writes,
The binding of Isaac is not the lesson; it’s the sacrifice of the ram that is the lesson.  The ram is life, and we have to kill and eat other lives; we sacrifice them in place of ourselves.  Our contemplation of this is the beginning of our knowledge of tragedy… In the face of this truth, we try to make our lives valuable; how else can we deserve the countless sheep, plants, and ecosystems sacrificed for our need?  We are all Isaac staring into the eyes of the dying ram.  To deserve this gift, what must we become?


Yizkor is a time to take a breath – to move out from under the heavy rings of sadness and loss that we feel and to link our diminishment to remembrance and blessing.  At the end, I was present as my father lay dying.  I was with him in the hospice facility and as I listened to his breathing becoming more labored overnight, all of these thoughts began to come to the surface.  The spirit-presence of my dead mother joined us in the room and truly another force was also there – a particular aspect of God – the malach hamavet – the angel of death entered as well – and it seemed that all were waiting for something, that they needed something from me.  And in the small hours of the morning, I began to speak, as if in front of an ethereal beit din, an assembled court — the departing soul of my father joined by the other two and at a certain point my words stopped and seamlessly I began to sing a wordless niggun that is important to me – that is part of my soul’s soundtrack (Reb Nachman’s nign).  And in that full room, in the whispering hush of the hallway as the melody carried forward, that court sat in judgment until I felt that I was released and then it was just my father and me again – and after being wide awake and apprehensive of these boundary-crossing guests for the night, I fell asleep and awoke with the sun streaming through the wooden slats.  I went to my father and he looked at me and I told him that I would be right back after I put a change of my night clothes back in my car, which took just a moment – and then rapidly I returned to my father’s room, where in my brief absence, he had just died.


In some capacity, I felt that peace had come.  Lives were not ironed out – however, being present and speaking my truth, I felt that even in that last moment, as we looked at each other and the last words he said to me that morning were, “I’m in pain,” I was ready to accept that and take some bit of responsibility for it, as well – as the son Isaac holding the knife above his father’s head, or both of us looking at each other as rams from underneath the thicket, each waiting to be recognized and in our sacrifice, each waiting to be loved.



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KOL NIDRE, 5773 — CRASHING THROUGH THESE IRON GATES Bereshit, 5773 — Live Like Lance

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lisa Brill  |  29/09/2012 at 17:11

    Thank you for sharing such a personal and moving story about your Dad before he died. May we all live in the present and focus on being engaged with our loved ones.

  • 2. Debbie Stern Danforth  |  29/09/2012 at 21:44

    Thank you, rabbi for your very touching story about your Dad. Thank you for being with us at our own time of need.


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