Erev Rosh haShanah (5776) — Queen for a Day

18/09/2015 at 09:21 Leave a comment

“Queen for a Day”

 

Erev Rosh haShanah

Neil F. Blumofe

13 September 2015

As we gather expectantly this evening — shining brightly and radiant as we stand together in this new gateway – in this New Year — almost willing a positive change to occur by our presence – many of us come here too in our brokenness, with dread and outsized bafflement at what has happened in our world over the course of the past 365 days.

 

A year ago we set our intentions and hoped for the best as danger loomed – yet now we see the world burning around us – and we are caught in a vortex of competing interests, political machinations, and appeals to the lowest common denominator among us – as fear-mongers and will o’ the wisp idealists alike, attempt to lure us into narratives that present false senses of security – it is as if we are the citizens of ancient Shushan who wonder – ma zeh v’al mah zeh – literally, what the what – or more colloquially rendered, what the hell happened?

 

There is no perfect tonic in these alchemists’ collection of potions. As we look around us, it is difficult to see beyond what we ourselves choose to project – it is not easy to penetrate underneath the heat-seeking hype of those most certain, and get at the root causes of what might be fueling such dissonance and difficulty, propagating the problems that we have in this world – and we choose to be nuanced and equitable at our peril, while the Middle East continues to devolve and perhaps the surest result of the Iran deal or any secret side deals or with the advances of ISIS or the intervention of Russia is an escalating, calamitous arms race with the peddlers of munitions as the victors – with a new version of the Cold War dug in, in an updated location and a retread of old attitudes.

 

In the story of Purim, Mordechai took swift action to rebut the evil decrees swirling around him, convincing Esther to take a chance and to go and see the king unannounced, to beseech his help at such a difficult moment – al t’dami v‘nafsheich l’himaleit beit hamelech mikol hayehudim – ki im hachareish ta’charishi ba’eit hazot, revach v’hatsalah ya’amod layehudim mimakom acher, v’at u’veit avich toveidu — u’mi yodei’a im l’eit kazot higa’at la’malchut – don’t think that because you are in the king’s palace, that you will escape, any more than any of the other Jews who will not escape. For if you remain silent at this time, then relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place – but you and your legacy will be destroyed. Who knows, Esther, whether you have come to the palace for precisely a time as this?

 

Like many of you, I look to find guidance in this time.   The gates are open and tonight we are in our finery, seeking good feelings – hoping for a time of momentary relief as we begin this challenging year — yet perhaps here we sit, casting apprehensive, insecure glances at each other and at the tools that we have for our worship, not knowing quite what to do. It is very easy to be carried along in the current at this time, as the hours stretch into themselves as the days extend towards Yom Kippur – and we can perfunctorily sit and stand and sit and stand again, rooted to our nominal expectations, not moving ourselves into the breech, to state plainly what is on our mind. It is easy to go through the motions from our seats, mouthing our petitions and our unenforceable, ineffectual, and haggard words calling for peace and hope in languages and in postures that we don’t really know.

 

For me, it is hard at this time of year to tap into the zeitgeist of what can be most helpful for our community. There are certain words and issues that I could raise that would make me a hero or a villain, and would succeed in having many of us speak about what I said specifically, thus accomplishing the task of taking our minds off of our stabbing yet vague feelings of nausea and displacement.

 

As we are here tonight, proudly as Jews, enthroning this world again and offering a blessing for its revitalization and awakening – as we look to tenderize our hearts and the hearts of our neighbors, it is difficult to not speak in clichés as an easy way out – it is difficult not to present a specific position, with specific action plans to accomplish a finite goal, an agenda that will serve to soothe our disquietude.

 

Perhaps like Esther, we are here to barge into God’s throne room unannounced, and demand that our concerns be heard as we describe the narrow places of injustice and terror that roar just beyond our sanctuary. Perhaps this year we move past celebration and go right to the brinksmanship of judgment – knowing that the chips are down and the masks that we wear and that the world wears are partially forsaken – and all that we do is significant.

 

And yet, who are we? As we dwell in our ruinous fears and in our flatteries, trying to find the most convenient or easiest way to act, we think of Abraham Lincoln’s adjuration in his first inaugural address in 1861, as the country was caving in on itself – we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

 

A quaint notion for us in 5776 as we leap headlong into the fray sizzling all around us. However, perhaps these mordant, ironic, escapist stances that we take, are also just masks that we wear? Can we remember to weep again when we read the hopes of a 15-year old girl who wrote — in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. We know what happened to Anne Frank – and yet does not her guilelessness move us to crack open what we fiercely hide away? Does not her youthful naïveté demand of us a vulnerability that is impervious to attack? As we look to heaven or to the better angels of our nature, do we not see that something has to give – and that we cannot tumble headlong into oblivion, becoming victims to our circumstances, without a fight?

 

Are we willing to stand up unapologetically for what we believe? Are we not proud of our sparkling bonds of liberty and the democratic freedoms that insure our ability to gather here, albeit under armed guard, this evening? Do we not cherish our Jewish traditions that encourage us to ask questions and to pursue peace like Aaron pursued peace, standing amid the plague to stop with his prayers and force of will?

 

There are different ways that angels act in the Jewish tradition – they can be amplifiers for God, ceaselessly singing God’s praises, they can act as gracious hosts between this world and other worlds, delivering specific yet unlikely messages, or they can be actors in the cosmic drama – wrestling with and even injuring someone who needs a bit of a comeuppance.   I ask that we look around this sanctuary, that we scour our circles of friends and that we examine our hearts – and that we position ourselves to be precisely these angels of action, who are not afraid to give as good as we get.

 

These angels of action do not breath rarified air – they do not hang out around God’s heavenly throne, accessible only by extraordinary vision – rather, they are dispatched into the crevices and the misfortunes of this world, to break up the bets between God and Satan for Job’s soul, and to offer themselves in service in order for the world to change. These angels are the legions that dispatch bad attitudes, misanthropy and treachery. These angels are not looking to make a buck on the backs of the helpless and woe begotten – and neither are they willing to sacrifice themselves for another’s profit. Rather, these angels stand their ground, inspired by the prophetic call of our tradition – u’vimkom sh’ein anashim, histadeil lihiyot ish – where there is not humanity in a place – then strive to be an angel.

 

Let us now take all of our blemishes, all of our imperfections – our blotches, our wrinkles, and our stains – let us take all of our mistakes, our blunders, and our recklessness – let us take our doubts, our assurances, our disbeliefs and our certainties, and let them all go as each in our community becomes like the angels, assigned to this world. Are we ready to rumble? Let us emulate Moses’ brother Aaron – va’ya’amod bein hameitim u’vein hachayim vateiatzeir hamageifah – who stood between the living and the dead until the plague was subdued.

 

What choices do we have – the New Year is tumbling in – the time is passing as we sit here – and we so desperately want to celebrate – to breath deeply, and recover a wondrous smile that stretches the length of our face. We want to feel joy deeply, and we want to be satisfied and to say from our gut – l’chayim – it is so much easier being an angel in the heavenly choir, then to be a hardscrabble angel, tasked with difficult missions on earth.

 

As angels, let us go out into the world and gracefully and with a bevy of social cues, be unapologetic. Let us cultivate optimism and truly believe that tomorrow is better than today. Let us steep ourselves in this kind of moral courage, as we learn to develop our intuition of righteousness. As we identify problems in this world – let us not oppress others or bully them into what we would like them to believe or do – can we fix it? — let us fix it – and invite God to fix it – let us activate God by taking personal responsibility.

 

In 1939, with the world on the verge of war, a song that was 14 weeks on the top American Billboard charts, was written by the jazz trumpeter Ziggy Elman and the great American lyricist and songwriter, Johnny Mercer. Mercer put words to Elman’s earlier arrangement of the klezmer tune, “Frailach in Swing” – this new song was called “And Angels Sing.”

 

We meet and the angels sing

The angels sing the sweetest song I ever heard.

You speak and the angels sing,

Or am I breathing music into every word?

 

As we meet in this New Year, let us sing our sweetest song, as we do our important work in this world. As the year begins, let us not abscond to the high ground, to our fenced in, climate controlled safe spaces and sit back, waiting for others to do the hard work, while we decry the injustices and the brutality that we see around us and as our world shifts and teeters.

 

Growing up, I always asked myself – what would I have done, if I had been a young man living in Europe in 1939? Would I have folded – or would I have had the discernment to anticipate the unraveling of the world, and also had the fortitude and the courage to act – to wrestle as the angel wrestled Jacob – with all of its power and all of its might? As we enter 5776 – while circumstances are very different – we have a similar choice – for as the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre writes, commitment is an act, not a word.

 

As angels of action – may we have a year of good health – despite it all, may we truly breathe music into our every word. May we sound our shofar and inspire others to sound theirs, as well. May we truly effect a positive change, just from showing up. May we have the courage of Esther, and may we burst unannounced into the palace of every king – to express our fears and to draw attention to grave injustice. Who knows whether you have come to the palace for precisely a time as this? While the risks are high, the day is short – and if we are honest with ourselves – hob nit kain moirch ven du host, nit kain ander braireh – don’t be frightened when you have no other choice, for we really have nothing to lose.

 

Shanah Tovah u’Metukah

Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah

 

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Entry filed under: Judaism, Talmud, Torah, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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