5774 — Rosh haShanah Day 1 — The Rainbow Past the Whirlwind

09/09/2013 at 09:48 1 comment

“Digging Deeply”


Rosh haShanah –Day 1 — 5774

Neil F. Blumofe

5 September 2013


A rabbi friend tells me the story about a funeral he once officiated for a woman in his community – a woman who lived a full life and enjoyed children and grandchildren.  This woman had what could be called a good death – not subject to a prolonged illness, or a tragic or accidental death – she was blessed with a long and fulfilling life.  My friend met with the family ahead of time – gathering memories from the children and the grandchildren, and they sat together before the funeral service in quiet and respectful conversation.


Just before the funeral was to begin, one of the sons came over and handed my friend a sealed envelope labeled, “Rabbi,” and said that his mother had instructed him to give it to the rabbi to read during the service.  The service began – filled with reminiscences of the children and the grandchildren – and sweet memories of friends – a crowd of a few hundred who nodded their heads approvingly as the woman was lovingly remembered. 


After my friend finished speaking, he pulled out the envelope and announced that this was a message that he had just received, unopened and unread from the family – now to be shared in this company — a last request of the woman who passed away.  The note read as follows: Shalom.  You all came to visit me often — my family and friends.  You brought me joy and satisfaction throughout my life, and among my many pleasures, it was my true pleasure to bake for you my now famous chocolate cake.  Many of you asked for the recipe, and I always obliged you.  You would call and ask questions, because somehow the cake never came out like mine.  Perhaps it was the oven temperature, of the precise sifting of the flour, or perhaps it was the amount of cocoa, you all often wondered.  None of these was it – now I can tell you – here are the missing three ingredients that I left out.  I just didn’t want you to forget me.


We want to be essential and vital to others.  We want to receive attention and be recognized for our efforts.  We would like to participate and have our contributions matter.  What are our essential three ingredients?  What is our offering that is our exclusive quality, which cannot be replicated by others?  How do we go about demonstrating our gifts?  And why would we wait until it is too late to reveal the ingredients that make us who we are?  Why would we squander such talents and knowledge, revealing our heart and soul only after it is too late?


As you may expect, our tradition asks us to consider these questions and provides for us a helpful if troubling example – the besieged figure of Job, standing provoked in our Hebrew Bible.  It is telling that we don’t ever chant from the Book of Job, however it is a Sephardic custom to chant the story of Job during Tisha b’Av – the saddest day of the Jewish year, when we revisit our heartbreaks, mourn our shattered aspirations, and inhabit our brokenness.  Job is vouched for and promoted by God – as God gambles on this man who is tam v’yashar ­– blameless and upright – showing him off in a challenge proffered by Satan – known as the Adversary in Jewish Tradition.


Our tradition does not give us the terms of the wager – only that God offers Job as the paragon of righteousness and reverence in this world – and then seems to withdraw, permitting The Adversary to test, torment, and afflict Job from a seemingly bottomless cup.  There is no rainbow to be had here to provide hope or guidance – for when reading about the difficulties of Job, we drift rapidly and directly into a deep and dark squall of a storm. 

Throughout the generations, a question is asked – why Job?  Of all people, how did this singular man get boxed into a corner by God, seemingly sold out, and brought into a cauldron of acute suffering?  A key to answering this question is comparing how Job is described and how Noah is described – both are characterized as tam – as blameless – not as especially holy or virtuous – just simply blameless.  And indeed, many of us get through life dodging blame and taking the easier and more direct road to pursue our wants.  We consider this to be rational behavior – and it is to be admired, in many respects.  We are loving people who are dedicated to noble causes – we put others first and we are dutiful.  We are known as good people and we have a respectable code for living.  We consider ourselves to be innocent, and we will generally respond, if asked to give or do something.

Yet there is something more.  We live as reactionaries, content to not mix in, if we don’t have to.  We are satisfied with our portion, and while we pursue tikkun olam with an admirable sense of determination for fairness and equitability, it is more rare that our good works penetrate our souls and shape us differently.  We may appreciate and in fact empathize with the story of the woman who chose to withhold her special three ingredients until she was eulogized – she seems like a good sport and one who has a zest for life – and ultimately, even with her favorable and delightful acts she did not stand out – and as I see it, with the passage of time, one invariably ceases to be remembered — even with a most delectable chocolate cake recipe.  hevel havalim – all is vanity and as Elazar haKappar teaches: hayilodim lamut – those who are born are destined to die

We are comfortable doing just enough and not too much.  We would feel at home with Noah and Job, enjoying our accomplishments, titillated by our perfect amount of counter-culturalism and activism, without having to sacrifice too much.  And this is precisely why Job is chosen – to shake him out of his sense of well-being, to lay the shofar right next to his ear and have God blow, with all of God’s might, waking Job up to the urgency and consequence of opening his hands, as well as his head and his heart, before his life is over.

In his difficulty, Job begins to question everything – his motivations, his sense of entitlement and privilege, and his list of priorities.  He realizes that he is implicated and that there is a truth behind the stated truths and as the veil is lifted from his eyes – he stares at the Divine mirror and the Divine void in front of him and makes peace with the infinite.  He states – l’sheimah ozen sh’maticha, v’atach eini ra’atcha – I had heard about You with my ears, But now I see You with my own eyes. 


What happens to our gifts if our life is not what we expect?  It’s one thing to speak of a special chocolate cake recipe – it’s quite another to distinguish ourselves in adversity or when we are challenged by the unexpected surges of life.  How can we be prepared for anything – and more than keeping calm and carrying on – who are we when the chips are down? Noah receives the promise of the rainbow and the everlasting covenant, and then drinks overmuch and passes out, responding awkwardly to his survival, rescued imperfectly by his sons.  His coping mechanism comes up a little short.  Yet Job, who suffers severe reversal of fortunes and the ultimate personal woes, does not take the advice of his wife who urges her husband to be done with it all – to curse God and just die.  He steadfastly endures, asking questions, determined to feel something and to make a change. 


We can’t legislate change –we can demand it and assent to it and then not do it.  All of the many words and concepts and moments that we will experience over these High Holy Days attempt to connect us to the feelings of vitality and drive as we give our prayers and our practices another go round.  All we have is this moment and I suggest that we do not withhold our most precious ingredients as we participate in this mix.  There is only so much that I can adjure and try to convince that we can be the change that we seek.


It is a blink of an eye.  Kids that I have named have become Bar and Bat Mitzvah.  I am now naming the kids born to those who became Bar Mitzvah fifteen years ago.  My eldest son, who now lives in Brooklyn, is the same age that I was when I met Anne.  As we celebrate our neighbors at Beth Shalom, who will be dedicating a new building this fall, we look at our extraordinary home built twelve years ago – a centerpiece for vibrant community and outreach.  We are launching our Centennial this year – one hundred years of Agudas Achim helping to determine Jewish life in this city, and beyond. 


We must not be Job – who was complacent and satisfied.  We must not wait for both shoes to drop for us to be taken out of our hebetude and then spring into a secondary, reflexive action.  We know that God makes suspect deals with The Adversary.  Nevertheless, how will each of us be able to bound out of this sanctuary, determined to stand in the breach – to recognize how relative our lives are and yet, how so profoundly holy and to not be dissuaded by the sheer immensity of it all?  As Leonard Cohen writes, everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/Everybody knows that the war is over/Everybody knows that the good guys lost./Everybody know that the boat is leaking/Everybody knows that the captain lied/Everybody got this broken feeling/Like their father or their dog just died.


How do we concentrate and maintain our attention on what is most important in life? It is difficult to do so, and exhausting – and there are no guarantees of success in whatever terms we define as success.  How can we not only lean into – how can we fall willingly into a life of service, with our own traditions as hardy guides?  The claim that Judaism does not respond to real needs is a dodge – and our own scattered beliefs should not determine our commitment to utilizing our subtle and intelligent tradition for good and for significance.  Let us not merely be blameless – let us be heroic, everyday.


We are launching an initiative this year, in honor of our 100 years, called Making Minutes Matter.  It is a modest attempt for our engagement to be habituated in this year and in the years to come.  The idea is to take 100 minutes or just over an hour and a half and immerse in different aspects of Jewish activism throughout the year.  We are looking for each of us not to just be blameless – we are looking for each of us to proactively lend talents and presence for learning, building, and strengthening – for its own sake — without precondition or expectation of a reward.  Even if you do have a habit of study, or action, or attendance at prayer services – we are asking you to go beyond and volunteer to continue to make this community a place of indispensability, based on your involvement.  As the author Charles Duhigg writes in his book, The Power of Habit, every [human] habit, not matter its complexity is malleable.”  If we truly believe that we can change – then we can change.  Belief is the ingredient that makes a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.


Earlier this week, at the funeral of his father, the Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, Michael Heaney revealed that his father’s last words, sent as a text message to his wife Marie minutes before he died, were nolle timere, which is Latin meaning, “don’t be afraid.”  This last thought is in stark contrast to the withheld ingredients.  Identify what you can bring – and take a risk – accept responsibility and also, a share of the blame.  Move past the avoidances of Noah and the hard lessons of Job – let us open ourselves to accountability and let us share the best of who we are as we dig for our deepest truths – handling our blade past the crust and through the mantle so it scrapes against the inner core of our terrain.


Va’ya’an haShem et Iyov min hasa’rah vayomer – And then God answered Job from the whirlwind saying — perhaps the answer – the extremely loud and incredibly close shofar blast is witnessed in this poem written by Seamus Heaney, published in his last collection called Human Chain, in 2010.


Had I not been awake I would have missed it,

A wind that rose and whirled until the roof

Patterned with quick leaves off the sycamore


And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,

Alive and ticking like an electric fence:

Had I not been awake, I would have missed it


It came and went so unexpectedly

And almost it seemed dangerously,

Returning like an animal to the house,


A courier blast that there and then

Lapsed ordinary.  But not ever

Afterwards.  And not now.                                   


Shanah Tovah u’Metukah.


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5774 — Erev Rosh haShanah — Introducing the Rainbow 5774 — Kol Nidrei — The Rainbow in the Delta

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Jennifer D. Dubow  |  09/09/2013 at 20:42

    Very moving. I like the call to action around personal responsibility and activism 🙂


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