5774 — Kol Nidrei — The Rainbow in the Delta

18/09/2013 at 09:10 Leave a comment

“Morton’s Fork”


Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre

Neil F. Blumofe

13 September 2013


Menachem Rosensaft, the Founding Chair of the International Network of Children of Jewish Survivors, tells the story about his father, who was an inmate in the Birkenau death camp – one evening during Sukkot in 1943 my father and a group of Jews from the Polish city of Zawiercie were sitting in their barrack when the Zawiercier Rov suddenly said in Yiddish – you know, der Rebboine shel-oilm ken zein a ligner – the Master of the Universe can be a liar.  He was asked how this could possibly be – the rabbi explained – if God were to open a window now and look down and see us here, God would immediately turn away and say, Ikh hob dos nisht geton – I did not do this – and this would be the lie. 


My parents, of blessed memory, loved Israel.  They traveled there just one time, meeting me as I journeyed there for the first time, in 1991.  They participated in a program called Volunteers for Israel, working for two weeks in supporting roles alongside Israelis young and old – learning diverse and compelling stories and imbibing powerful yet mundane experiences that gave them permission to stand and say that they too, in their own way, were participants in the flowering and the progress of a Jewish state.


They returned home from the trip swelled with pride and a newfound commitment to reawaken their discovery of Jewish life.  My mother started taking Hebrew classes at their synagogue for the first time, leading to her adult bat mitzvah – and my father became a para-chaplain, leading Friday evening services for those in assisted living and nursing homes – bringing joy and a warm human connection in simple Shabbat observances to many for whom contact and basic rapport was lacking and yet, so desired. 


They blew up one of their pictures taken on that trip, to a ridiculous size – a photo of the three of us standing near the kotel, the Western Wall, in the heart of the Old City – and you could feel their pleasure and their joy (and based on the expression on my face, my dutiful cantankerousness), as they stood in the place where all streams flow, from the beginning of time – as they were present in the thriving home of the Jewish people – and I know that they thought of their parents and grandparents who never saw that place, as they touched their souls in gentle kisses, beyond this world as their voice resounded throughout the generations saying, hineni – miracles of miracles, we are now here.


After they left then, I stayed in Israel for a few months – working in the chicken coops and the grape fields on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights and then learning in a yeshiva in Jerusalem – each of these experiences new, and highly prized, as I too began to turn towards and willingly choose the gifts of my birthright and inheritance. 


I was a neophyte – really unschooled in the intricacies of identity and the blessings and the curses of history – the thick soup of remembering and forgetting.  I knew that Iraq had launched Scud missiles against Tel Aviv and Haifa earlier that year and that left me unsettled and somehow connected to a people that I called my brothers and sisters, and yet, did not yet know. 


And now, 22 years later and after 13 subsequent trips that I have made to Israel, I stand humbly before you, enthusiastic to share my most recent learning and adventures with you, my beloved community.  In your graciousness and generosity, I have been able to accept a three-year appointment as part of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative, sponsored by the Hartman Institute, which is based in Jerusalem.  For the next three years, I will be able to learn in Jerusalem for a week each winter and for a few weeks in each of the summers, and also throughout the year, the 27 rabbis in our cohort participating in weekly study together, connected by technology, bringing us collective wisdom and shared experiences – and in turn, sharing our learning in our respective communities – hopefully broadening awareness and deepening a desire in each of us, to discover unexplored wildernesses yet within us.


And tonight we gather and I will speak about a moment that I do not remember – an event that happened forty years ago today.  On this precious day, when we give our tradition the benefit of the doubt and stand if not open and expectant, we stand present nevertheless and each of us opine, hineni – we are here, hoping beyond hope, past our prior experiences, perhaps, now as ever, waiting for the miracle, the miracle to come.  We are entering a time out of time, a bit removed from a normal rhythm – a mythic time, when we can even for an instant, shed our gloom and our fretfulness and our restlessness, and cast aside our harried and shoddy ways that we speak throughout the year – as we often tell each other words perhaps close to Leonard Cohen’s upon entering the synagogue at Yom Kippur – I don’t believe you’d like it, you wouldn’t like it here.  There ain’t no entertainment and the judgments are severe. 


All of this business as usual can be overturned for one treasured moment and on Yom Kippur, we can lose our inhibitions and relearn how to care and how to express ourselves earnestly and with intention – we are here, ready to receive — and forty years ago, on Yom Kippur, 6 October 1973, when many were in synagogues or with their families, a coordinated coalition of Egyptian and Syrian forces crossed negotiated ceasefire lines and attacked positions held by Israel.  A ceasefire was imposed almost three weeks later, on 25 October – and even though at that point the Israeli armies had recovered from this attack and not without small casualties over 2800), had advanced and were just 25 miles from Damascus and 63 miles from Cairo, this war is known to be a defeat of prestige and advantage for the Jewish state — based on the findings of the Agranat Comission, reflecting the shortcomings of some strategic decisions and the lack of preparation leading up to the war, the Prime Minister, Defense Minister and Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff were forced to resign and other IDF commanders were relieved of their duties – the aftermath of this war punctured the sense of invincibility gained six years earlier in the victory of the Six Day War in 1967, and raised hard questions of maintaining advantage in a volatile region and provoking feelings of insecurity and existential crisis that many believe are still extant in considering the trajectory and development of the enterprise of Israel.


Indeed, these feelings of anxiety have become mythic, in themselves.   As in any deeply committed relationship, we find the triggers of our partners – and we intimately know tender areas, and even certain words that if said, can quickly reduce our so called intimates to watery piles on the floor or can instantly change a momentary disagreeable conversation into a long-standing, seething feud.  We can be mindfully cruel – and on this Day of Atonement – this day of openness and honesty, it seems too, in the course of this world, that God doesn’t want us to get too close or too comfortable.


Throughout history, in our own quest for acceptance for a normalized life, free from harassment and violence because of our religion, and even in the periods of our exclusions, we crave the approval of others.  Scholars speak about this tension between security and endangerment in the Jewish experience, as the tautness between a Sinai outlook and a Holocaust outlook. 


At our experience at Sinai as a people, we received Torah and established a covenant with God – our future was bright and open before us and even with the merciless and pitiless strikes by Amalek against our weakest members during our journey out of Egypt, we were able to withstand such assault and move beyond the immediate trauma of such a gut-wrenching episode with aplomb and with inspiring measures of confidence and trust.  In our search for God and for a meaningful life in this world, we were not to be deterred – and our undertaking, towards freedom and revelation, were both insistent and eternal.  Everyday, blessed with life, we choose life and with munificent intentions, we shine a mirror into the world and see the holy work that is ours to do — hayom katzar, v’hamlacha m’rubah.  We build a sukkah out in the world and whatever winds and rain may come, we dwell secure and unafraid, knowing that there is a rainbow, after.


By contrast, the Holocaust and the slaughter of our people and of many millions of others – and the smooth efficiency and upgrades in the mechanisms of war and the advent of the atomic age, brought our walk on the path to significance and value to a grinding halt.  We were both shocked and benumbed to the damage and brutality that humans could inflict on one another – and as part of a reflexive response, we spent a generation in the desert, calling this genocidal behavior maniacal and crazy – and yet we know, underneath our rationale that it is not – that murder and warfare is part of the human condition and that we cannot distance ourselves from knowing that this vortex of evil has existed and does exist perpetually among us – va’yar haShem kol yetzer machsh’vot libo rak ra kol hayom – and God realized that the inclinations and the thoughts of the human were always evil, everyday. 


To develop a Sinai consciousness means that a little danger is tolerable and manageable and that regardless, we have a higher purpose than conflict or stooping to the banal level of any tormentor – to have a Holocaust consciousness means that we are never secure – that there is always a creeping danger and that we must always be vigilant and prepared for the worst, as old demons never die. 


At varying times, I would think that each of us possesses a little Sinai and a little Holocaust within us – both boundless hope and chasms of apprehension.  I believe that an implication of the Yom Kippur War is that it became the delta where these two distinct rivers flowed, becoming an integral part of the ethos of the Israeli – the Sinai and the Holocaust – each pouring into each other in real time, merging currents and sediments and taking on a larger, mutual, muddy meaning – each becoming one, defined by the other – inseparable in their confluence – neutralized, and yet maintaining – optimistic and despairing, at the same time.


And bound up in any peace process, in any new initiative or agreement, in any flickering moment of greatness, is the creeping feeling that the specter of the Holocaust is nearby, snickering, ready to strut again and make itself known upon the world’s stage, to the secret delight, or the apathetic or exhausted shrug of the dominant world powers.


And how seductive is it to proclaim like the former speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg does, that the Holocaust is over and that we must rise from its ashes.  How reassuring is it that we can proclaim our own destiny – that we can determine a paradigm shift – a pivot away from menace and towards the ethical imperatives of justice, fairness, equitability and common individual and human rights – a universal Torah of Wisdom, given at Sinai.  With the triumph of Sinai, we are able to proclaim an authentic prophetic voice and work towards goals that bring us together – all nations flowing towards the house of God – in an expandable and unsparing covenant. 


And the difficulty is that both positions are valid, real, and present – both waters flow into and out of each other simultaneously.  And for us to recognize this, to hold onto both Sinai and the Holocaust, gam v’gam, we can rediscover the complex simplicity – the wonder of the mundane that brings us engagement and witness to all that develops in the wake of Sinai and the Holocaust.  We live with both, everyday – and our heightened experiences tonight too sound in the chamber of echoes of forty years ago – of past conflict, and ill preparation, and sneak attack.  Tonight, we pray openly and yearn for real meaning, protected by a cadre of security, on vigilant watch on our behalf.  And in our online footprint and as we travel, we are allowed to be credulous as we put our trust in unseen forces to encrypt our most sensitive information and keep us safe.  And we stand here, as if we were at the kotel 2000 years ago opening our hearts to something greater – we create myths within our mythic time.   We choose to believe in this moment – reclaiming Yom Kippur in gratitude to all those who perished in order for us to live and imagine and dream — for we would be churlish ingrates in freefall if we did not.


A number of years ago, an Israeli author whom I admire, Haim Sabato, wrote a novel about his experiences in the 1973 Yom Kippur war – the book is called Tiyum Kavanot or in English – Adjusting Sights.  It is the story of Hayim who lost his friend Dov in the opening days of the war as they served together in a tank battalion. 


No one talked. Everyone looked depressed. I went off and said an early afternoon prayer. There may not be time later. We had become used to that. We prayed when we could. You never knew when you would have another chance. I tried to focus my prayers. It was hopeless. As soon as I shut my eyes, I began to see things… I couldn’t concentrate. And the war had taught me what concentration in prayer was in the ambush, with no radio and unadjusted gun sights and the missiles coming closer and the tanks around us bursting into flames. Gidi had shouted, “Gunner, pray! We’re taking fire!” I prayed. There wasn’t a hair’s breadth then between my heart and my lips.


And at the end we turn back to God, for ultimately God is all we have – past our Iron Domes and our trust in a shared justice and the advance of successive civilizations – past our prickly hold on both the paradigms of Sinai and the Holocaust.  Tonight let us let go and pose for a picture together in our sacred space and blow it up to a ridiculous size, framed in our hearts, as we hold space for our beloveds and each other, past the rush and the sting of cruel reality, past the intellectual deflection and existential crisis, past our uncertainties, let us say, with full knowledge of the many dilemmas that we face and the imperfections that will always exist, and the history that may have happened differently, and the struggles that remain, that through it all, we are here – by some incredible miracle, we have momentarily dispensed with our wanderings and managed to find ourselves here.  Hineni – like a rainbow in the blink of an eye – we are here.


As the English Romantic poet, Lord Byron wrote in 1814:


Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life. 

The evening beam that smiles the clouds away,

And tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.


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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5774 — Rosh haShanah Day 1 — The Rainbow Past the Whirlwind 5774 — Yom Kippur Yizkor — The Rainbow Shining Past Dreaming and Dying

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