Righteous Jews — Kol Nidre, 5777

14/10/2016 at 17:52 Leave a comment

Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre

Neil F. Blumofe

11 October 2016


Good evening, everyone.  L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu – May we and our loved ones be sealed in the Book of Life for a good New Year.  I am hoping that each of us is feeling uplifted in these opening days of 5777, and that we have had ample opportunity in these days to reinvest and sustain our friendships and bonds of family and community.  I have been consistently struck by this precise moment over the years – each year as we gather on the evening of Kol Nidre – each of us present for our different reasons as Yom Kippur begins – a time which carries its own rhythm of reflection, reverie, and reconstitution – as we notice each other and draw strength from each other, even as we notice who is missing or who is no longer here.


We are not here merely to rehash our former deeds and to hold ourselves accountable, moved as we may be by our guilt, hurt feelings, and determination to try harder next time.  We are here to break free from the hardened hearts that steer us directly into ruts and bad behavior.   I believe we are here to reacquaint ourselves with the honest, baseline patterns that our tradition offers in this Day of Atonement, and to not look to discover who we are, but rather, to imagine who we may yet become.


In a sense, we fast and bow and speak and sing so many words on Yom Kippur, because we don’t really know what else to do.  We are uncomfortable with contemplative silences, and the sheets of sound that we produce, page after page – the time that we spend in this sanctuary, looking for sanctuary, is to compensate for our helplessness and to stave off our apprehensive, yet ambiguous feelings of mortality.  Perhaps we feel that we can assuage any menacing dread in our lives, and forestall bad news, if we suffer a bit this day, putting a down payment on more life as we use our tradition as collateral.  We will tell our stories, bundling our messages together, and then relieved when the stars come out tomorrow night, we can each return to our lives, maybe recognizing some internal shift, heartened for another year.


We are not so unlike the ancient priests in our story, hedging their bets – sacrificing their goods to both the Sovereign and the Shadow – to God and to Azazel — attempting to keep an even keel – an equilibrium — not wanting lives in the community to go sideways and events in their world to boil over into a savage, uncontrollable bloodshed.  They want to keep things status quo.  We too think that if we can keep chaos at bay, appeasing all parties and allaying our more baleful impulses, we will avert the evil decree that lurks just outside of our own door.  We recognize that this is uncomfortable to think about, and yet here we are, arriving now again, to stare into the void.


Last week, many of your heard me speak about a series of unfortunate events called my Bar Mitzvah – and how that experience distanced me from appreciating the efficacy of organized religion.  Subsequently, between the ages of thirteen and twenty, I went to Friday night services, only sparingly – mainly to have time with my father alone in the car for the twenty-minute commute, talking some and listening to the classical radio station.  When it did happen, I cherished that time.  In college, at Tulane University, I promised my parents that I would go to Hillel now and then – and upon discovering that I knew a few of the Erev Shabbat congregational melodies, the organizers arranged that I would lead services sometimes – each time, in exchange for a free meal.


In 1990, when Anne decided to take a year and study in Paris in a Junior Year Abroad program, I thought that instead of graduating early, I would take a semester and study abroad too.  I was majoring in English and Political Economy, and through American University in Washington DC, I arranged to study in Poland for the 1991 spring semester.  I arrived in Poznan, Poland in January, 1991 and enrolled at Adam Mickiewicz University, ostensibly to study the democratic transition of the country and the founding of the Third Polish Republic.  I was housed in the Dom Studencki Jowita – the international dormitory, which accommodated both international and Polish students.


Just before I arrived, Lech Walesa was elected as the President of Poland, and the government was engaged in achieving a democratic government, a market economy, and expanding the scope of private enterprise — the first fully free and democratic Polish government since 1926.  These were exhilarating times – and I enjoyed my studies and research very much – in the mornings, attending Polish Ulpan, and in the afternoons, learning and exploring.  On the weekends, we had ample time to travel, and while many of my friends went to Berlin and points west, something in my subconscious prevented me from ever considering a visit to Germany.  Instead, a few friends and I would hop on the train and go to Warsaw for dinner, eating at the finest restaurants, accoutered with our American privilege and our disposable Polish student stipends.


And everywhere I went, I saw the renewed flickering hopes of a country coming back from the dead.  With fresh coats of paint on the buildings and daring art and bold political conversations that seemed to be in the air all around me, nevertheless, I could not shake visiting places that my gauzy understanding of Judaism presented – I felt magnetized to do so — and that is how I found myself one weekend on an overnight train from Poznan to Oswiecim.


This town is infamous – known in Yiddish as Oshpitzin and in German as Auschwitz, I staggered before dawn, from the overnight train car that was filled with overpowering, unfiltered cigarette smoke, and alone, began to try to find my way to the gates of the death camp.  On the roadside I met a couple of nuns – for at the time, there was a convent housing Carmelite nuns near what is known as Auschwitz I.  I asked them – przepraszam pani – gdzie jest oboz smierci – excuse me, where is the death camp?  Maybe it was my rudimentary Polish, but at first they didn’t seem to understand – and then suddenly, their faces illuminated with joy and I was given orders – ah, Auschwitz!  Lewy, prawy, prosty – left straight, then right.  Their satisfaction in giving me directions remains chilling to me, 25 years later.


And so I entered under the gate that proclaims in German, Arbeit macht frei – Work sets you free.  It was still before the sun rose, and it was cold and gloomy.  I walked slowly around the site, on grounds that were well manicured and with buildings that looked like a college campus, putting my fingers in the bullet holes in the walls, and just drifting across the expanse.  I saw the mountains of confiscated luggage – including the bag of Otto Frank – Anne Frank’s father — and the heaps of human hair and eyeglasses, displayed behind plastic – and I was cold and numb.  And I entered into another barrack building and read the placards, and then suddenly saw a wall emerge right in front of me – towering in its sight.  A wall that was filled with pictures – pictures of Jewish life from before the war.  Scenes of youngsters laughing in the park with their grandparents, of adults socializing in homes and synagogues, of couples and individuals carousing, studying, gambling, dancing, praying, masquerading, celebrating, mugging and ignoring the gaze of the camera.


This wall filled with pictures and vitality took my breath away, and the bottom dropped out of my heart.  This was a normal community – Jews involved every day in the inquiry and intrigue – wrapped up in the importance of their precious lives – unaware of what was coming — and I realized, all of them killed in this place, or two miles up the road at Auschwitz II – Birkenau.


I stood rooted in that spot, shuddering – realizing how close I was to passing Judaism by.  I didn’t have any of this.  I had run from organized Jewish life, marking time in unremarkable Hebrew school and not participating in what I thought were sketchy and awkward youth activities – I did not have Jewish friends.  For so many years, I felt out of place – not at home with a group of people who pronounced short-sighted judgments and caustic attitudes about others who did not happen to fit into a particular way of acting or being.  Throughout my teen years, I felt confounded by what I saw among some relatives in my own family — the holding of a presumptuous, overbearing Jewish identity — thus preempting a more well-rounded and elegant wisdom of what Judaism could be.


And this cascade of pictures on this wall — of people in everyday situations, seemingly enjoying life gripped me and emblazoned their images onto my heart, which persist until this day.  The day grew colder and rainier and as morning rose, the skies grew darker.  I walked from Auschwitz to Birkenau as the roosters crowed in the yards of the houses around me.  As I rounded a hill, I saw the spidery rails of train tracks emerge out of the grasses from all directions and surround me.  The main entrance of the camp was in view and this steel web work beneath my feet suddenly coalesced into one main railway that led directly into the extermination camp.  Walking into Birkenau on this singular track, knowing that it was the terminus from points all across Europe – that Jews who disembarked onto these platforms were immediately marked for death – chilled my bones in ways that the weather could not.


Tomorrow morning, and anytime that the ark is open, you will see the Torah cover for our Holocaust Torah – both in the High Holyday white and the everyday purple – which was designed specifically for our community by the artist Mark Podwal in 2001, after I told him parts of this story.


Upon returning to my dorm room in Poznan, I got sick and stayed in bed for a number of days, nursed back to health by a few of the outcast Africans, who were regularly avoided by the Polish students.  After my semester in Poland ended, I traveled some and was able to spend much of the summer in Israel, working on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights and studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.  I returned to college in the fall, and was reunited with Anne – and we both started to regularly attend Shabbat services at one of the synagogues in New Orleans.


And although I don’t remember the finer details of the pictures on that barrack wall, those pictures are regularly with me.  And tonight, as we clamor for something greater – for our needs to be met, for our defenses to be melted, just a little bit – and to let in the possibility of something bigger than ourselves — I speak to you with these images permanently encasing my heart.  Who were these people?  I am not content to go through the motions for all of us to observe just another Yom Kippur, without challenging us to consider our role in this community.  Yes, we are all welcome – and what, then?


I ask us to consider the personalities that we will encounter in our sacred texts in the arc of this day and how they collectively guide us in our own decision-making and in our relationship to our traditions and to the people in our community.  I ask each of us to form these depictions and to see to whom we relate as these figures speak to each other today.  Our tradition is peopled with divergent personalities all searching for a comparable truth.  With whom do we identify, this year?


Tomorrow morning, we will again meet Aaron, the High Priest, who endeavors to balance and satisfy the various needs of the diverse community, all the while as he strives to walk with God.  He exists at the intersection of public and private – between God and Azazel – Soverign and Shadow – between serving the community based on his call to do so, and based on the various and contrasting expectations of all of the people.  He is a consummate politician – giving to both parties — simultaneously an agent and a visionary.


What he believes is subordinate to who he must be – and he is only as good as his last act.  He regularly puts his family second and he shows up time and time again to be present with people as they quest for God and for meaning.  He is the focal point for things, sometimes beyond his control – he is the champion – or the scapegoat — for the pains and the triumphs of the assembled people.  He is Willy Loman – a person who as he ages, leverages his popularity against the symbolic representation of all who will inevitably outlive their usefulness.


We will meet Isaiah – a firebrand who shows up, despite himself.  While he performs the rituals, he upends them – implicating them and critical of them — and advocating for a more practical justice in the community.  He asks us to consider why we are doing what we are doing – to move beyond the niceties and the formalities of wishing each other an easy fast, and to consider the sickly, and the weak, and the vulnerable among us.  He would gladly move beyond the pages of the Machzor for doing work with the Joint Distribution Committee, for example – humanitarian work, deep in the anonymous furrows of helping another — where a life of meaning happens — showing in our deeds that all Jews are responsible for each other.


Isaiah asks – how do we find redemption – and he answering resoundingly — by providing for the well-being of those among us who need food, clothing, and shelter, by isolating our hypocrisy, by joyfully and fully celebrating Shabbat – by putting your money where your mouth is – this is how we summon God to listen to what we need, in turn.  Yes, we should wholeheartedly attend and cheerfully support our synagogue – and we should be leaders in Jewish philanthropy – out on the ramparts, making noise and pursuing just justice.


And Jonah – the one who tries to escape – who hears the call of the shofar summoning us to the High Holydays and with dread, tries to slink away, unnoticed – and yet, shows up in time for Minchah.  He watches what transpires with a bemused eye – recognizing the futility, the absurdity, and the irony of what we involve ourselves in.  He sees how awkward it all is.  He is the one possessed by profound doubt about the potency of all of it – of our prayers and our efforts for justice.  He flees and yet discovers that he can’t run away.  His escape route to Tarshish, always ends at Nineveh, decidedly non-Jewish city, where he most reluctantly proclaims himself as part of the tribe – part of the Jewish people, despite himself.


He continues to ask questions and to be critical – he doesn’t really get the rituals, and his audience with God fails to impress.  He wears the moniker that echoes my favorite joke – the one about the two Jewish diners in the deli, and the waiter comes up to them and asks, is anything alright?  Jonah wears this, “is anything alright,” status like a proud, abstract badge.  He revels in the randomness and he doesn’t want to feel too much or too deeply.


For each of these Biblical figures, God is elusive.  There is no certainty in any of these modes of life – and Aaron, Isaiah, and Jonah can never be sure that they are doing it right.  For each of them – and for each of us – God remains hidden.  When I think of the photos before me – involving Jews of all ages, from all walks of life – I realize that without speaking to each other, Judaism devolves into factions – and not following Aaron or Isaiah or Jonah specifically puts you on the outs with the others.  We become separate tributaries that trickle without a main source.


The fact that this awareness was made plain for me in a barrack in Auschwitz is not lost on me.  In the ashes of Auschwitz, each approach, all of the nuance, and all of the distinction of alternative paths was eliminated.  I call all of us — the Aaron’s, Isaiah’s, and Jonah’s — to assemble in our community to work together to promote an elastic, creative, dynamic, and robust response to monochromatic appraisal.  As we do on Passover, when we invite children with various perspectives into the conversation to speak together and to create something bigger than themselves – today on Yom Kippur, we need each of us together from our own places of unyielding truth to see each other and welcome each other into our own raw and private conversations without eye-rolling, sabotage, or derision.  It is in linking our conversations – cross-pollinating our ideas and dreaming together — that we can inform and magnify our Judaism, and thereby protect each other.


In our efforts not only to welcome each other, but to consider our political, prophetic, and dissimulating approaches each as legitimate — honors the memories offered by the pictures on that wall, and proclaims that for the sake of heaven it takes all of us to honor the many faces of our one living God.  Aaron, Isaiah, Jonah, and each of us in our shortcomings and idiosyncrasies are forever linked together.


With our long eye on history, we know what may occur when we spin apart from each other and build walls of resentment that block us from seeing each other.  We can bring meaning to meaninglessness.  We can keep evil in check, without being our own worst enemies.  With our efforts, we can improve our luck.  I ask that we discover our voice.  Bring your disbelief, bring your reluctance, bring your scorching passion – and of course as always, bring your personal responsibility.  Invest your thoughts and actions into the part of Judaism that speaks to you – over the course of this Day of Atonement, see with whom you identify – Aaron, Isaiah, or Jonah – it is this path that has a claim on you – and share all that you are.


We don’t have a perfect offering – bring your imperfect offering, instead.  Make this community better, because you are a part of it.  As God asks Jonah, haheiteiv charah lach – are you so greatly vexed, all the time?  Where are you?  Excuse me, is anything alright?  For God’s sake, strive to act like a person who has been chosen.


Just before a Beit Din welcomes someone into the covenant for the first time, the last question before the final affirmation is – do you bind your personal destiny to the destiny of the Jewish people?  All of us do well to consider this challenge for ourselves – as this day of considering our mortality unfolds before our very eyes.


May each of us have a significant and meaningful fast – as politicians, prophets, and potential escape artists.  May we be Sealed in the Book of Life – unafraid and energized as Yom Kippur begins.


G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

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