Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre (5776) — Paradise Now

25/09/2015 at 09:30 Leave a comment

“Paradise Now”


Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre

Neil F. Blumofe

23 September 2015

Perhaps some of you remember, as I do, the public service spots that aired on television in the 1970’s and 80’s featuring Woodsy Owl, who used to chant – give a hoot, don’t pollute, never be a dirty bird – in the city or in the woods – help keep America — looking good! In elementary school and later in middle school we used to sing this song, never really thinking about its message, as we just lived our lives.  Yes, I was the youngster who went around school, singing – give a hoot, don’t pollute.

Now, Yom Kippur is upon us – and as we gather here this evening, each of us coming from our own private and concealed places, with our own jingles or old songs in our heads, and with our own expectations of what we would like to stretch out before us in this precious time – let us empty ourselves of expectations – rather, let us take a deep breath now – please, take a breath — and let us adjust our eyes to see the original abundant Garden of Eden with its luscious fruit and well-watered perennials, just ahead. Perhaps, if we softly close our eyes for a moment, we can feel a warm, refreshing breeze as the deep-green grasses gently sway – as we breathe in the sweet, intoxicating smells of paradise – and we, almost in a reverie — are drawn to the basking light, dappling the leafy places where we can take our rest in the refreshing shade.

This place is within our reach – a place where we hear the astral birdsong in the high trees, and the effortless bubbling brooks tumbling brilliantly and clearly below us – we hear the natural whisper of nocturnal activity and rhythms around us as we gaze above on a clear night at the unobstructed Milky Way, glinting at us and reassuring us of our place in this universe, and we are not afraid. With a fullness of spirit, looking upon this unsullied land and in this precious moment, we can cheerfully proclaim that lashem ha’aretz u’mloa’ah – the earth is God’s, and all that fills it.

As we enter into Yom Kippur, we are entering on wide, verdant paths between thick canopies of trees – we are present between two spaces as we walk above the crusted ground of intermingled roots – each of us gathering as a veined leaf on a tree – opening ourselves to the radiance of what we would like to receive, as we seek to grow in these deliberate moments as it grows dark outside and as we hope for the best as night sets in.

And as we open our eyes now and refocus, we see the angels of destruction spinning lahat hacherev hamit’hapechet — their two-handed swords that flame and smoke, and sparkle and hiss, preventing us from returning to such a magnificent place of what once was. In our exile now in this New Year 5776, we live in a more ravaged place – a place scarred and furrowed by the devastation of our habits.

As our air heats up and our oceans rise, we will continue to clamor for basic necessities — we will be susceptible to a crisis of politics and ecological panic again in this generation, as we find ourselves in the dread wilderness, as our tradition teaches on this day regarding our sacrifices to God and to Azazel — between a solution and a scapegoat. At the peak of our dilemma, do we cast off responsibility on to another or onto obscurant issues, or do we go forward together with our offering and face the music of our pressing obligation? Give a hoot, don’t pollute – never be a dirty bird?

Do we distract ourselves with the latest entertainment and trends, zigzagging from one thing to the other in perpetual, unforgiving denial, as we live – gratifying our need to look away, and tuning out the bothersome consequences of our imperfect, blustering decision-making, from generation to generation? Do we insult the chickens as they come home to roost, abandoning them to fend for themselves, as we find other, exclusive places to dwell, saying all the while — pen tivlaeinu ha’aretz – lest the earth swallow us, too? As our places of refuge become smaller – as our sureties diminish how far can our good will span?

We are to turn our real perils into promises – and our contemporary hazards into renewed prospects – we are to transform our mourning into dancing, and change our sackcloth into robes of joy. We are beginning Yom Kippur now — to do so, we must act, here and now – for if not now, when? For as we have two animals – one designated to God, and one to Azazel – we are standing at the entrance to two portals – one to Eden, and one to the Abyss. Let us not fulfill the teaching of Resh Lakish who states – r’shaim afilu al pitcho shel geihinom, ainam chozrin bitshuvah – the wicked who stand at the entrance to Gehinnom, do not change their ways – rather they continue to pollute and defile forever, as they pass their obdurate ways to their children and to their children’s children. As we reflect in the entrance of each of our open gates, we can still – and we must — change our ways in order to back away from the Gate of the Abyss.

In late June, the Pope released his long awaited encyclical concerning climate change. I was one of over 360 rabbis to sign an amicus to this encyclical, entitled, A Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, underlying the Jewish commitment and wisdom to help heal our wounded earth. This encyclical delivers moral leadership in our world – powerfully arguing that we – that our generations alive now — must address the climate crisis – for not only our own preservation – but because the weight of all that we hold important, spiritual and meaningful, is calling out to us to do so – for we truly are between two gates – between life and death.

It is this environmental crisis that exacerbates a spiritual crisis in our world – which in turn, afflicts every culture, every economy, political system, and social setting – leading to instability and the systemic poisoning of our ways of life. It is the recognition of the scarcity of resources – the anxiety about weather and livable and arable land that causes war and conflict. How quickly after Katrina in 2005 did the fissures in New Orleans society appear, with people barricading themselves in their homes surrounded by their precious and meager supplies, unafraid to shoot any threat to them and their loved ones? How far can we run, seeking safer ground while exclaiming, pen tivlaeinu ha’aretz – the earth is going to swallow us up, too? How suspicious will we be of our neighbor – and how willing are we to relinquish our power in deference to the one who is angriest, or most desperate?

Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si, translated as Praise Be to You – evoking the life of St. Francis of Assisi – who, tradition teaches, dedicated his life in love of the poor and all of all creation – he writes –

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes, which produce or aggravate it… We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes, and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual, and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.  

We can link the Hasidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, to St. Francis of Assisi – who also preached to every flower, inviting them to praise God, just as if they were endowed with reason. The Baal Shem Tov, as he walked in this world, cultivated hitbodedut – an interconnectedness with all things.

As a student, Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who taught in a different generation, writes – all my days I have been careful never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of our sages that not a single blade of grass grows here on earth that does not have an angel above it, commanding it to grow. Every sprout and leaf of grass says something meaningful, every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence, every creation utters its song – these words of our great master [Baal Shem Tov], spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply in my heart. From that time on, I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for all things.

As we are proud of our world’s unprecedented economic growth, let us publicly advocate for a move towards lower pollution and a low-carbon economy. Let us seek dramatic and nimble ways to uncouple and separate the link between this economic growth and the scourge of emissions and pollutants from our current use of fossil fuels, so we can also limit the influence and the political clout of oil-producing nations. Let us continue to grow and account for the continued increase of our world’s population as we limit greenhouse gases and find alternative energy sources to boost and sustain our very real and ever-increasing needs.

As Reb Nachman of Breslov prayed: O that we might have the privilege of hearing the songs and praises of the grasses. How each blade of grass sings a hymn to God without any self-serving motives, without any foreign thoughts, without any consideration of reward. How beautiful and lovely it is to hear their song! It is so good to be among them and to serve God with awe.

For today, we are standing between the Gates that will determine our future, and the future of those who follow us. These rituals of Yom Kippur are not a game – a sacred drama that recreationally tests our endurance and our discomfiture with self-denial for a day – rather, this time is a time of realizing that even with our entitlements and our privilege, there is nothing that will prevent our death. We are to practice living this day with all of our might, putting our grand schemes into perspective, as we encounter and come to terms with our finitude — let us find the systemic urge to change ourselves and our world, before we, and all that is in it, becomes ayin – nothing, or of no consequence, as the ground opens up within us and under our own feet.

Taught by Aaron, and the High Priests after him, today we are to make expiation for ourselves, our family, and our community, after the death of the boys, Nadav and Avihu. Like the ancient priests, as survivors after casualty, as we live in this moment, we are asked to enter into the Holy of Holies – the remnant of the Garden of Eden left on earth — to brave the whizzing ruined swords of the cherubim who guard this place – and to proclaim, baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed, as we pronounce God’s name on our breath, as a corrective remedy for repair. The Holy of Holies is the place past the danger of the swords – as we reseed the Garden and become the Garden for each other.

In these times let us substitute courage for caution. Let us realize that the flaming, revolving swords held by the cherubim are our own unwillingness to address the problems at hand – they are our own propensity to pass the buck, and feel reassured if climate change fills our lakes this season, while other parts of the globe, collapse. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly had his character Pogo quip for the observance of the first Earth Day in 1970 – we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Today, we are asked to back away from the open doorway of Gehinnom – and rather, change our ways and risk our lives to return to the Garden of Eden – on our mission, we are to again breath in the air, listen to the wind, take soil samples and be grounded in sound science to regain our awe of such a wonderland. We are to team up with the ancient mystic and provocateur Akiva, as we break back into Paradise and reclaim it as part of this world, unwilling to cede it away. As we venture, let us not be satisfied with “good enough” — al tomru mayim, mayim — and instead, let us make our way back to a time, place, and mindset that inspires unfettered reverence, devotion, beauty, and respect, and the spontaneous creativity of an open society to solve our problems – as we reclaim our name earth – adam — as a crucial foundation of our existence – as Franz Kafka, the 20th century writer, witnesses – the expulsion from paradise is eternal in its principal aspect – this makes it irrevocable, and our living in this world inevitable, but the eternal nature of the process has the effect that not only could we remain forever in paradise, but that we are currently there, whether we know it or not.

We are to come out of exile, even for a moment, as we return home – to a place where we feel physically and emotional secure – as a living, integral, indivisible part of the natural flow of this world, where even the sky is not the limit. On this Yom Kippur, we will wholly succeed when we are able to cast aside our inherited sense of being masters of the place as we invent, improvise, devise, and innovate — and rather, practice hitbodedut – an interconnectedness with all things and tsimtsum, reduction – creating a tangible presence through our not-doing, through our not subduing, and our not vanquishing others as we continue to thrive. Can we not, really, give a hoot?

In our modest efforts we can link our spirits together – l’ha’chayot ruach sh’falim ul’ha’chayot leiv nidka’im — each of us empowering each other, encouraging us to take those necessary, yet fraught steps — recalling wonder, recovering astonishment from each of our places, as we gather here tonight. As we inspire each other, as the prophet Isaiah envisions in the prophetic reading for this Holy Day – v’nacha’cha haShem tamid v’hisbi’a b’tsach’tsachot nafshecha v’atsmotecha ya’chalitz v’hayita k’gan raveh uch’motsa mayim asher lo y’chazvu meimav – that God will guide us always and satisfy our souls in drought – that our bones will be strong and healthy and that each of us within ourselves can truly become again watered gardens to nourish this world, like springs of water who will not fail. We can become again, like water, as we wash away our judgment of imperfection, and be clean.  With the Holy of Holies within us, we can again become like Gardens of Eden to each other. Let us sing our song, and think about the message it contains as we live our lives – give a hoot, don’t pollute – never be a dirty bird. In the cities or in the woods, help keep America – looking good!


So as we close our eyes again — let us see again in our mind’s eye that natural place of refuge in this world that can hold us and remind us of our tenderness and our compassion and innate goodness. Let us feel the mild breeze on our face again and the beneficial balm of an unexpected sun shower as we look upon a sublime horizon. Let us resolve that paradise is possible and that we currently are living in it – as we turn the swords of angels into ploughshares and then the ploughshares into instruments of praise.

As the 17th century poet John Milton, writes in Paradise Lostlong is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads us to light — so we can pass through without threat, away from the Gates of the Abyss choosing instead — in our unrewarded, unrecognized, and unrelenting work — the sustainable, unceasing abundance of this Garden — this life.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah – May each of us have a significant and meaningful fast – as we are Sealed in the Book of Life – and as Yom Kippur begins, we emphatically enter again, the Garden of Eden.

(Kol haOlam Kulo)

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Rosh haShanah (5776) — Sarah’s Gate: A Gate of One’s Own Yom Kippur – Yizkor (5776) – The Angel of Death in Ordinary Clothes

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