Kol Nidre, 5775 — Oh, the Places You’ll Go — Israel (Independence Grove)

08/10/2014 at 09:34 Leave a comment

“Independence Grove”


Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre

Neil F. Blumofe

3 October 2014

I am grateful and appreciative that we are all gathered together in community this evening as we experience Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement — this Day of Forgiveness in these precious hours. Although we are now embarking on a journey that seems long and even arduous based on our time dedicated to prayer, fasting and other deprivations, this time will fly by, and in the words of Unetane Tokef, from our liturgy, upon a little reflection, kachalom ya-uf — our lives pass quickly, like a dream.

There are so many other places that we could be right now – ACL at Zilker Park – even the House of Torment at Highland Mall – anywhere where we can elude this call of the shofar, for us to gather and move out of the comfortable and familiar personae with which we identify ourselves and others – a time to climb out of the boxes that we reserve to identify and judge each other daily, and now to remake our lives as we plumb our character. In no way do we have to achieve perfection – we don’t have to solve ourselves — rather to just identify who we are and take responsibility for what we have done, may be enough for us to spur even a modicum of encouragement, change, and redirection. Again, returning – and starting tonight — may each of us experience a profound connection to our tradition, our purpose, and our community – and may we invite others to share with us the glory of having our lives matter, together.

When I was a small boy, I was afraid that there were monsters under my bed. Growing up in the suburbs north of Chicago, at night during rainstorms, I would often see the lightning dancing and flashing through my window, zigzagging across the blue walls of my room, and upholding a breathless panic, I would count the seconds until I heard the booming thunder, and then, and only then, I would exhale, in dread of what was next. Back then, I believed in superheroes, as well. I felt deeply the stories of the Golem, whose mission it was to protect his people. I yearned for a Justice League that could proclaim right from wrong and good from evil. I wanted this judgment to make things easier, neater – to offer a specific contour that shaped tolerable and intolerable – to that which needed to be preserved and that which must be destroyed. I wanted Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman to act together, not so much as mercenaries, but as dedicated champions above the pettiness and agony of human discourse and interaction.

And when I think of my childhood home, I think of the thick shadows cast by the spruces grown big, planted when we first moved in. I remember the furtive exploring walks through the tall grasses and the thickets when I was young, ultimately reaching the cornfields and the lake, my teeth sometimes chattering as my ears constantly heard the tales of the ornery, enigmatic owner of the property, armed with a bb gun, who would mercilessly shoot trespassers, no matter our age. In our beautiful Arcadian, suburban setting, rumors circulated among us in the public high school, about a story of an ill-fated school, or some say, an asylum, isolated within the dense woods – long demolished — and a gate, still standing and haunted now, after so many years, that long ago, was witness to cruel, barbarous, and still unexplained behavior – a real place called Independence Grove — and every Halloween, it was said, for I never dared to go there on that day, fresh blood would drip and the phantom heads of the victims would appear on its wrought iron gateposts, accompanied by a chorus of eerie screams and mysterious sounds.

So, even in my late teenage years, as I was driving and had a job, before going away to college, there were monsters in my mind that lurked when I came home after midnight, as I hurried past the tall spruces and put my key in the front door — turning on the lights as I passed through each room, and I would quickly make my way up the stairs, hearing the creak around stair seven, and the snoring of my father, willing my fears to dissipate, hoping that there wasn’t another rainstorm filled with lightning and thunder, as I got into bed.

In college, in New Orleans, as I was studying and beginning to connect to the larger world, in 1991, there was the First Gulf War. I read of and saw indelible images of Russian-made Scud missiles launched by Iraq exploding in the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. I saw pictures of rooms in small apartments being converted into safe rooms, fortified with plastic sheeting, and gas masks handed out and worn in frightful anticipation that the warheads of the missiles contained nerve or chemical agents.

At this time, I was preparing to study in Poland – attending the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, studying Polish and political philosophy – and I made arrangements to travel to Israel for the first time that summer, after my program ended in the spring. I wanted to be in Israel, to get beyond the editorials, and the news cycles – I wanted to walk in paths made real by my footsteps, and have the patient lessons of determined Hebrew schoolteachers come alive in astonishing ways. Somehow, I wanted to claim a narrative about Israel that was different from the supposed experts and thought leaders, who like the most seasoned advertisers, opened a reality that while appearing multifaceted and varied was in reality, quite narrow – as the English novelist and critic, George Orwell writes, political language is designed to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Living in Israel for those three months in 1991 allowed me to see that the reality that I constructed about the land and its people – and really about Judaism as a whole was, to say the least, incomplete. It is with each passing year that I realize the inferred meanings, intended indirection, and complexity of viewpoints inherent in any conversation, let alone a conversation about Israel. There truly are shiv’im panim la’Torah – seventy faces of Torah – with contingencies, incongruities, ambiguities, and multiple truths present in every telling. As Israeli cinema loves to depict for example, there are no clear-cut heroes, no pure or absolute choices as our reality unfolds – we are all implicated, all responsible – all amalgams of good and evil.

And now, as my kids grow older, and I can no longer rely on my parents for advice, I lie awake at night, gripped by these same monstrous thoughts of uncertainty. What will be? Will my family be safe? What about the harassing creepers, who follow our kids after school? When my kids couple, will their partners beat or abuse them? What kind of men will my sons be? What about those in our world who are literally, spoiling for our heads? Who really knows what evil lurks just outside of our supposedly secure places? As our Torah teaches, the heart of the human is rak ra kol hayom – is only evil, continually. As much as I wonder about monsters under my bed and the beds of my loved ones, I am certain that there are others just like me, who are striving to place those monsters of destruction there and arm them with the most sinister of weapons, as quickly as I will them away and attempt to annul their power.

And to be on the ground, amid the danger, in many ways is healthier than having our imagination run rampant, where fears can quickly compound. I quickly realized this when I was in Israel this summer, even as the lightning and thunder of the Red Alert system kept activating, that rockets were en route and Iron Dome was activated and like I did when I was small, I counted until the explosions, either in the sky or on the ground inevitably followed and then exhaled – and still, in many ways, there was no place I’d rather be – as I remembered the words of the writer, William Faulkner: Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid. And even though I was looking forward to the great Greenland kayaking adventure with my son afterwards, it was difficult, and indeed, wrenching, to take my leave from that besieged, incredible place.

And now, 23 years and 16 trips after my first travel to Israel, I feel that I belong to the people and the land, and that the land and the people belong to me. I feel, amid all of the tensions and uncertainties, that Israel is my home and that I am invested in her story, and in her past, present, and future. This realization fills we with hope, belonging, gratitude, and possibility. This connection empowers me to want to share this journey with you, and your loved ones and friends.

Yes, there is plague all around – Ebola in Dallas, threats of pandemic and radical, fundamentalist evil, on the move. There is no Justice League; the God that we seek is a hidden, inscrutable God – we are all, after all, merely ordinary — the monsters under the bed have come out into the brightness of day and seem to be sharpening their teeth, everywhere we turn. And even though I sometimes feel that I am still living near Independence Grove, mine is not a dusty light of wan solidarity – not a cheap, relative, fluctuating resolve. There is grit involved in my association – difficulty, angst, frustration – as well as a determination to learn more, discover more and to involve myself in navigating the inevitable difficulties. As in any invested relationship, the stakes are high, and the invitation to walk away – to divorce — is ever-present. Nevertheless, on this night of all nights, as we turn again to each other, and sit waiting for wonder – waiting for the miracle to come, I ask that we fall in love with Israel. I am asking that we do not fall in love with the idea of Israel – rather that we fall in love with the imperfect, challenging, amazing, and perplexing blood and guts that comprise the Jewish state. I ask that we immerse ourselves in possibility and not allow our proclivities to criticize to overpower our capacity for vulnerability and selfless offering. I ask that we don’t allow reports of corruption, cynicism, betrayal, ignorance, and human fallibility crowd out our belief in something lustrous still, beyond measure.

I ask that we travel to Israel together to experience an indomitable, resolute spirit among ourselves, while cultivating one with our brothers and sisters. I ask that we face our fears and immerse ourselves in something larger than ourselves – as the Israeli novelist, David Grossman, has written – you describe your reality in the highest resolution even when it’s a nightmare and in doing so, you live your own life, not a cliché others have formulated for you. I ask that we deepen our commitment to understanding the demands and the rituals of our tradition – that we grow to appreciate its delicious indeterminacy – and that we not be so quick to abandon our heritage, our synagogue community, or be willing to choose an easier, less demanding path.

I ask that we sit with and give energy to what the word sacrifice means, and not abscond with a paltry substitute or be satisfied with a feebler pretender. I ask that we don’t trade our own problems for Israel’s problems – using the manifold challenges of the Jewish state as compensation for our own sense of powerlessness, marginalization and discontent with our own elected officials and state and national policies. I ask that we not be hypocritical in our rebuking – recognizing that our castigations hold influence and that we don’t just speak for ourselves – that others have agendas far more suspicious and malevolent than our own — conflating any mistakes or dilemmas of Israelis with negative traits common to all Jews. I ask that we give the benefit of the doubt, and see our relationship with the people and the land of Israel as ever-flowering and uplifting – agreeing with Amos Oz who said: I have been a man of compromise all of my life. But even a man of compromise cannot approach Hamas and say – maybe we meet halfway and Israel only exists on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

As a community, I hope that we can travel together to Israel this coming spring, and many times thereafter. Please consider joining me on this trip for an incredible experience. The dates are 10-22 March and there is more information by your seats and online. A plus about traveling together in the spring, is that we will be in Jerusalem during the day of the Jerusalem marathon and half marathon, and any who would like to walk/run in these events with me are encouraged to do so. What an inspired way of crafting a unique relationship with our Eternal City. If you don’t feel called to participate in the race yourself, do come along, and consider sponsoring one of our students – as we explore our homeland. In many ways, we are at the beginning of a more long-term, real, and significant relationship with our brothers and sisters in Israel and I look forward to helping us engage in experiences beyond the tendentious surface area of headlines. Come travel with me as we stare down our anxieties and as we face the dynamisms of knowns and unknowns – as we make peace with what we can and cannot control.

Israel is our land too – a legacy and a place that beckons us and invites us into discovery. And like the bucolic setting of my childhood, amid the verdant foliage and the general places of safety, there lurks a destabilizing presence – an unseen negative force that either pesters us with a bb gun, or is present with rumors of insidious crimes, threatening to sap our courage and assurance, if we are not careful. There is an Independence Grove, a menace outside of our well-lit places, both seen and unseen, and yet confident and unafraid, we realize that we are all family and that we are responsible for each other.

There are many stories, some quite recent, that exemplify this as Israel received hundreds of rocket attacks this summer and threats from sophisticated terror tunnels – perhaps none as poignant as the remarks of Rachel Fraenkel, a mother of one of the three Israeli teens murdered this summer – while I saw her from afar at the funeral in Modi’in and heard her proclaim the Mourner’s Kaddish, she later spoke up, at the end of the shiva for her son, to comment on the death of the 16-year-old Mohammed Khdeir, murdered in retaliation, after the death of the three boys – she said, even in the abyss of mourning for Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali, it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem – the shedding of innocent blood is against morality, is against the Torah and Judaism, and is against the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country. Only the murderers of our sons, along with those who sent them and those who helped them and incited them to murder – and not innocent people – will be brought to justice: by the army, the police, and the judiciary – not by vigilantes. No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Mohammed’s parents. This is the people I love, who live in the land that I love.


How do we cultivate empathy? How do we speak from authority and not ape reactionary rhetoric, thus confirming our inflexibility? Do we not see how quickly things change? Must we go through tragic experiences to speak tragically? How can we understand another’s situation and convey the feelings of another? How do we feel someone’s joy, as well as their pain? And rather than us seeking shelter, thinking that we are out of harm’s way in our comfortable lives – letting others speak in our name, we must open ourselves to the larger world and turn our lives towards living in compelling ways that offers healing, respect, and love. We must give witness. We are not merely survivors, rather we are creators of this world’s Torah – we are designers and shapers of our future, and the world’s future – inspired by the Israeli writer, Etgar Keret: something out of nothing is when you make something up out of thin air, in which case it has no value. Anybody can do that. But something out of something means it was really there the whole time, inside you, and you discover it as part of something new, that’s never happened before.  Let us make something out of something, together.

Va’tikvah v’dorshecha – to those who seek You, grant hope.

L’shanah ha’ba’ah b’Yerushalayim – in this coming year, let us be in Jerusalem together.


G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

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Erev Rosh haShanah, Day 2 — Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Shalom, Shalom la’Rachok v’laKarov Yizkor, Yom Kippur, 5775 — Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Under the Sea (The Book of Jonah)

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