5774 — Yom Kippur Yizkor — The Rainbow Shining Past Dreaming and Dying

18/09/2013 at 09:13 Leave a comment

“Between Dreaming and Dying”


Yom Kippur – Yizkor

Neil F. Blumofe

14 September 2013


We live in between our dreams and what often are our disappointments.  We imagine worlds in front of us where we succeed and where others will magically take on our point of view – where we are heroes and where life is perfect and the temperature outside is always exactly right and never too hot — we cry when we see the big-eyed wonder of a small child celebrating existence and the open-ended efforts of others helping those more vulnerable. 


We watch movies to be taken away – to enter into a world that is more lively, more thrilling, and perhaps more significant than the one that we live everyday.  We dream so that we don’t wilt inside – so that we may yet envision a world where we may live as one, or where our fantasies are safely given room to roam and we are encouraged from within, to live another day.


Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and called for an end to racism in the United States. He wrote: now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.  Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.  Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.  Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.  And fifty years later, while we walk along this path, it continues to be a long and winding road. 


For example, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were incremental changes, compromises that were toughed out in the hard terrain of bleak reality, with the gritty, detailed hand of forceful politicians who were determined to see these bills through – champions who deftly handled divergent and competing interests to make even these imperfect bills, law – these efforts that were steps along the way, to realize the remaining dream to end racial injustice.


There is a world of difference between the high flown rhetoric in that moment on that summer day in 1963 and the endless, committee meetings, assurances, and deals that happened – pulling leverage on relationships in anonymous rooms that insured the implementation of some aspects of these grandiose dreams – and that left the door open for more conversation and more legislation.  We dream and we see the world how it is – our dream a drop of water in a dry ocean, as we see how much is left undone.


Our liturgy, especially on Yom Kippur, also sets up dreams and urges us to participate in these dreams even as we see the difficulty and the treachery of our reality.  The influential American rabbi, Avi Weiss, teaches that the call and response of the Avodah service and the Eleh Ezkerah service, both within the Musaf service of Yom Kippur represent the resplendent dream and the coarse reality.  The Avodah reveals the highest reaches of the possible to us – the sweetest dream — that in this moment we summon the holiest person – the High Priest (called the Kohen Gadol) and place him in the holiest place – the Kodesh Kodashim, on the holiest day (Yom Kippur), speaking the holiest word – which is the name of God.


Avi Weiss speaks about this moment as a dream-like moment – where all are lifted up and regarded as one would regard a Kohen Gadol – where every moment was appreciated as we would appreciate being in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur – and where every word that came forth from our lips was considered as much as we would consider proclaiming the ineffable name of God.


And then we turn the page – and with the next service, Eleh Ezkerah, reality sets in, and we see the broken landscape of our unrealized dreams all around us – we see the organized murders, we see the pogroms, and the destruction of civilizations – we see the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent citizens, and we see victims of jealousy and hate.  We are pained by those killed because of religious belief or sexual orientation – or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – a victim of an enraged pursuer armed with guns.  We see how difficult life is anyway as we fret for the innocent in a perilous world – who for any number of circumstances are cut off at the roots, too soon.


And we, the survivors – at least today, hold the weight of both – the responsibility of dreaming how the world could be, and too, the rude dull heft of the world as it is.  We hear the words that we say just before waking from the Avodah – ashrei ayin ra’atah kol eileh, halo l’mishma ozen da’ava nafsheinu – blessed were those who saw these things – sadly, we can only hear about them.  And then we wake and try to remember – and grasp again for the elusive happiness that we may have held in the ether of the night. 


So too, our memories – we may dream of one whom we love – and for a split second think that they again walk the earth – that, is it possible – that the dead awaken?  And then the blunt thud of realizing that we are living without them and our struggles and our sorrows begin again, across the landscape of the day.


And, past our nightmares and our nostalgia – past our fears and our understanding that dreams never translate well in real life – that we keep dreaming – that today, we keep installing the High Priest to proclaim the normally unspoken name of God – on a day when we plead with our very lives and offer ourselves into the breach, as Aaron did, carrying only the surety that we do not know.  Today, we offer our repentance to God as well as to Azazel – dreaming that the possibility of atonement is possible.  We invest our hopes in making peace with the living – even though we may not feel called to turn towards one who has offended us and offer expiation.  We allow the dead to move on – we recognize how much we are holding that is to our detriment – and we give ourselves permission to let it go, finding new openings and possibilities for ourselves in the process. 


We must have dreams to alleviate the difficulties of living, growing older, and ultimately dying, in this world.  We are taught that in dreams begin responsibilities – and our Avodah service, as alien as it may be to us today, beckons us to explore our stories and encourages us to move past our dreams and to nurture our visions.  Martin Luther King Jr. has also written – that the difference between a dreamer and a visionary is that dreamers have their eyes closed and that visionaries have their eyes open.


So, let us open our eyes – not just to solving a piece of technology or a puzzle or a game – let us open our eyes and envision, without illusion, how we may turn our dreams into a form of reality.  We realize that it is not possible to have our perfections turn up – however, if we visualize what could be, as outlandish as it appears, some semblance of it may in fact emerge. 


Our tradition imagines ten miracles that occurred when the Beit haMikdash was standing – that there were never any flies present during the sacrifices – the rains never put out the fires of the woodpiles; no scorpion or serpent ever harmed anyone in Jerusalem – and no one ever complained – that it was too crowded – or too hot or cold – or that things went on too long.


This is a form of wishful thinking – a form or positive visualization that is so necessary.  Yom Kippur asks us to find a moment of mystical perfection that to us, would bring enduring value and hope to our life.  So, we can take a moment and visualize something that seems preposterous and be radical dreamers.  What are we willing to work for?  So often, I hear from members of our community about your grandparents or great-grandparents who came from another land with hardly anything – little education, basic skills, and certainly no knowledge of the language or the ways and means of a new land – and then, two or three generations later – we or our children are doing vanguard work, with degrees from the most prized university of higher learning – determining advances in technology and conversations in culture just in everyday living. 


In our lives, who is the High Priest, doing rarified work on the holiest day of the year?  The historian, Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, reminds us that we are repeatedly urged by God in our Torah to remember our past – and we responded not by recording events, but by ritually re-enacted them – by understanding the present through the lens of the past. 


So the Avodah service and the Eleh Ezkerah service are not just about those things, in themselves.  They are about our own needs – our own visions and dashed hopes, together, today.  We live in between our dreams and our nightmares – and for us to not bump against either edge – to open our eyes to both the glories and the ignobleness of this world, fashioning a persevering vision is what our tradition guides us to do – and yes, this is a mixture of fantasy and a desire for transcendence – as Yerushalmi writes in his book, Zakhor: what was suddenly drawn up from the past was not a series of facts to be contemplated at a distance, but a series of situations into which one could somehow be existentially drawn.  So let us fall into our prayers of Yizkor – and I am asking you to participate in the Avodah service and the Eleh Ezkerah service – not so I can brag on you to my colleagues and say that my community is one who stays all day – rather, because this ritual and this liturgy can be helpful.


In preparing for our High Holydays together, one of the saddest things that I ran across – something that gave me chills – perhaps because it hits so close to home — is an entry from the diary of Samuel Pepys, who lived in London in the 17th century.  Pepys picked up his practice of journaling everyday from his father – and there are records kept from both father and son – one episode in particular, has captured rightful attention – one day that was shared together and described in the differing perspectives of both father and son – Samuel Pepys, the son describes a day when his father took him fishing – going into great detail about the time that he got out of bed, what both of them ate for breakfast, the preparation of the fishing gear and bait, the trip to the fishing hole, the time that they spent together, what they caught, and what a wonderful day it was.  The parallel entry in his father’s journey reads: day wasted.  Took the boy fishing.


And each of us has some version of this story too – perhaps even right now.  What glories resources are contained within ourselves, mirrored too in the machzor – what abilities we have to get involved in something and to learn and be changed by our past.  The Avodah and Eleh Ezkerah are short stories in our canon of literature.  As Henry James exhorts – try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.


Let us be both uncanny and eternal, for what happens to our days once they disappear?  Do they return to a dreamland – or are they preserved in our memory, even our collective memory to be dreamed and returned to again – becoming a vision for the future for us and for our people?


Im Tirzu Ein Zo Aggadah – if you will it, it is no dream


If we act on our dreams and work for them – they become visions.  Let us continue to become a people of vision, with eyes open, standing in the breach between what we’d like and what is – and continue to work for a world – or for a nation – or for a people, or community, family, or self – undeterred from those who would bring us down our convince us otherwise.  Let us enter into Yizkor knowing that we stand on the precipice between this world and others – between what we think we know and things we can’t even imagine, and let us be gentle, opening our mouths to the words that stimulate our memories – and let us cry, and resolve, and learn, overcome, and grow.


Niggun: We Shall Overcome/Im Tirzu

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5774 — Kol Nidrei — The Rainbow in the Delta Erev Rosh haShanah — 5775 — Oh, the Places You’ll Go: The Sacred and the Exile

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