Erev Rosh haShanah – 5780 (Halley’s Comet)

07/10/2019 at 15:44 Leave a comment

“1986: Halley’s Comet”


Erev Rosh haShanah

Neil F. Blumofe

29 September 2019


Shanah Tovah!  May each of us and our friends and loved ones have a sweet year – blessed with good health, joy, possibility, and with the inclination to bring our whole selves into every situation.  As we celebrate 5780, we wonder at how fast the years are going – and yet, everything old is new again.  The 80’s are back!  Time to get out our koosh balls and hacky sacks, and play Pac-Man – dress code for the coming High Holy Days is parachute pants and leg warmers, and accessorize each day (not Shabbat!) with your Walkman, Cabbage Patch and Teddy Ruxpin dolls. It’s customary to get haircuts before the New Year – mullets for everyone!  As our tradition teaches – it is good to remember and to invite our memories into our present – where we can live with them — and not be mortified by them.


This evening and again tomorrow, I will be sharing ideas through the lens of the 1980’s.  Now, I want to speak about overcoming disappointment. As a fifteen-year-old, I remember sitting in my backyard in 1986, trying to catch a glimpse of Halley’s Comet when it raced through the sky.  I don’t think I was so well prepared at that time – my friends and I may or may not have had some binoculars among us – and I think we had our rusting, metal lawn chairs set up in spots, upon reflection, that were not so strategic.  Our perspective was terrible and with the excitement of knowing that we were looking to experience a phenomenon that appeared only every 75 years or so – it was also cold, and uncomfortable and there was a sense of dreaded obligation and requirement, that if I didn’t try to do this – to see the streak of a comet briefly pass by – what guilt would I accrue and how would I judge myself later, plagued by self-criticism – what we now call FOMO – fear of missing out?  Suffice it to say – I don’t remember seeing the comet – and I even think I convinced myself that I saw it, when deep down, I know that I didn’t.  I blew it.  We weren’t prepared and it was a missed opportunity.


And I have wondered since – knowing that in all likelihood, I will not see Halley’s Comet pass by again — if this is our last day on earth – what would we do?  How are we known – when facing a tough or tense situation, what is our instinct – how do we act – and, what is our reputation, out in the world, when we are most disappointed and feeling dissatisfied?


In thinking about all of this, I am struck anew by the Biblical story of Jacob who, in the house of his uncle Laban, is attracted to Rachel, but ultimately ends up marrying Leah. The traditional version of the story has Laban substituting his older daughter for his younger one, in an act of trickery.  Upon being confronted in this deception, Laban matter-of-factly tells Jacob about the customs of the place – that the younger sister is not married before the older sister is.  It is very interesting how our tradition puts it – as Jacob sought to upturn the order of things by seizing his older brother’s birthright, he finds himself tripped up by the maneuverings of Laban – who sought to protect his eldest daughter – thus, requiring an older sister to have the rights of marriage before a younger. As Jacob is also wedded to Rachel and agrees to work seven more years – the Torah tells us that Jacob loved Rachel and that Leah was unloved, taken for granted, used for bearing children, and then, cast aside.


Jacob, the man who gains the name Israel, is a complex figure.  His life is to reflect our life that is filled with contradictions and inconsistencies.  After fleeing his home as his mother Rebecca feared for his life, absconding with the first-born blessing that was stolen from his brother Esau, and bestowed upon him by his father Isaac, Jacob rests for the night and as a spiritual fugitive, has a dream about a ladder and angels.  His dream prompts him to remark – achein yeish haShem bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati – surely God is present in this place, and I did not know.  And now, awakening from his marital bed, he realizes that he is not dreaming – this is a moment of utter disappointment.  A moment lived, after which, everything changes.  His life has taken an unexpected turn, and that he is now united to both of Laban’s daughters – Leah and Rachel – and he doesn’t speak in wonder – he speaks with bitter resentment – the deceiver has been deceived.


And yet, this is not all — our tradition goes deeper than this – there is a modern Hasidic perspective that seem to be from the pages of psychology that claims that actually, Leah and Rachel are paradigms – particular forms – that Rachel and Leah are actually one — internal aspects of Jacob, himself.  Before Jacob wrestles with the angel and becomes Israel, Jacob has to come to terms with how to handle disappointment and restlessness. This approach is to deny neither the obvious meaning of the story – that the father switched his daughters for his own advantage — nor the agency of the women – rather this quasi-mystical viewpoint is taught to teach a powerful lesson — illuminating a deeper character of Jacob and instructing us in the importance of balancing our perspectives.


How often does it happen that the moment we get what we think we want, we don’t want it anymore? Jacob desired Rachel and when he woke up from a night of intense lovemaking his desires turned to stone – and in the morning after, Rachel became the antithesis of desire – she immediately became Leah in Jacob’s eyes – taken for granted, ignored, and disassociated.  It’s as if the humorist Helen Rowland was thinking of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah when she quipped – after marriage, a woman’s sight becomes so keen that she can see right through her husband without looking at him, and a man’s so dull that he can look right through his wife without seeing her. 


Our Torah was teaching us that Jacob had shade on his heart – his inside was chilly, and he was still not adept at recognizing the blessings that he possessed.  At this point in his life, he was chained to the hamster wheel – for acquisition, appetite, and ambition – he did not yet possess yishuv daat – a settled mind. Rachel and Leah are aspects that represent this unsettledness within him – and really, within each of us, as well – the desire and the yearning on one hand, the hazards of actually getting what we want, and struggling with acknowledging the blessings of living in the imperfect circumstances, on the other.  Among other things, Jacob was afflicted with constant searching without satisfaction.


What would it be like to decouple from this pursuit of attainment, from this unsettled wandering – to give permission to let the different desires that we have within us become one – to not let the hopes that we have regarding Rachel turn to ash in our hearts – for perpetual disappointment in living with Leah?  We have these binaries on Yom Kippur – as we offer sacrifice to both God and to the mysterious Azazel – which represent both our good and bad inclinations.  Now, on Rosh haShanah, as we begin the New Year, we inaugurate the world again with fresh possibility, we pay attention to our shape-shifting, unformed selves – and how prone we are for disappointment – as we grapple with both desire and the self-imposed misfortune of fulfilling our desires.  We are not yet ready for good or bad – that’s coming on Yom Kippur – now, we are still trying to figure out what has happened to us – and how we got to this place, and why many of us have a chronic sense of unnerving dread within us.


How do we respond to unruly or difficult situations?  How many different aspects of our being are we acknowledging as we sail on the seemingly glassy seas, with all of our multiplicity churning, just underneath – with all of the selves that we are?  When the going gets tough — when are we selfless, and when are we self-interested, in response? As we name our experiences – let us bring our whole self into a shimmering presence as Rosh haShanah begins. Our outward practices should reflect our inward journey, and vice versa.  This year, let us not regret our reality as we accommodate and make peace with our adequacies and our inadequacies.  Let us be in alignment.  Let God be what we need God to be, because we know that we can’t always get what we want – but we hope that we at least get what we need.  Let us fill this new year with holy surprise and wonder as we continue to manage our expectations and appreciate what we have, even if the desire to have it as we live with it, has dimmed in our eyes. Let us overcome any defeatist attitude, and let us not be too quick to abandon the field.


Every day, a version of Halley’s comet streaks across our life – maybe to reappear in 70 years or so – or maybe to never reappear again.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  When these opportunities occur – peak moments and sadly too, when tragedy strikes, let it not neutralize us – let us learn from our missed opportunities, and our disappointments and learn from our setbacks.  Let us live with ever-expanding imagination and a sense of composed reality, knowing that our time on earth is fleeting, and as we look around this sanctuary this evening, without sounding melodramatic, we don’t know who of us will be present again next year, in 5781.


Also, my wish for each of us is to ask us to be quick to offer gratitude, inspired perhaps by a prayer from the Breslov Hasidic tradition – a prayer that is said in times of revealed and hidden goodness:


Melech Malchei haMelachim, Master of the Universe, Hashem – Thank You! Thank You that I am standing hereand thanking You! Thank You for the infinite times that You have helped me, supported me, rescued me, encouraged me, healed me, guarded over me and made me happy. Thank You for always being with me.  Thank You for giving me the strength to observe Your commandments, to do good deeds and pray – thank You for everything! Thank You for all the times You helped me when I didn’t know how to say “Thank You”.


Thank You for all the loving kindnesses You do for me each and every moment. Thank You for every breath I breathe.  Thank You Hashem for all the things that I do have, and thank You Hashem even for all the things I don’t have.   Thank You for my periodic difficulties, my occasional setbacks, and for the times when I don’t feel happy, because everything is for my ultimate benefit. Even if I don’t see that it’s always for my best, deep in my heart, I know that everything that comes from You is the very best for me and designed especially for me in precision and exacting Divine Providence, of which only You – the Sovereign of Sovereigns — is capable.

Thank You for my difficulties, for only through them I know how to appreciate the good.  Only after being in darkness can one appreciate the light. Thank You for the wonderful life You have given me. Thank You for every little thing I have, for everything comes from You and from no one else. Thank You for always listening to my prayers. Creator of The World,
I apologize from the bottom of my heart for all the times that I didn’t appreciate what You gave me and instead of thanking You I only complained. I am dust and ashes and You are the entire universe. Please never cast me away.




There is a story told about how we can make our disappointments our joys.  Adam and Eve, cast out of the Garden of Eden, were living together, east of Eden, tilling the earth and raising children, and struggling to stay afloat.  After years of struggle, when their children were grown, and they were empty nesters, they decided to see the world.  They journeyed to each of the four corners of the world, and in the course of their wandering journeys – they found the entrance to the Garden of Eden, that was still guarded by an angel with a flaming sword.


They were frightened and remembered their exile – and they began to flee, when the voice of God spoke to them.  Adam and Eve!  You have lived in exile for so many years – the punishment is over – you may now return, back to the Garden.  The angel with the fiery sword disappeared and the Gates to the Garden opened. Enter, Adam – enter, Eve.


Adam spoke up – God, it’s been so many years – I can’t remember – what is it like in the Garden?    God answered – the Garden is Paradise – in the Garden there is no work, not struggle, no pain, no suffering, no disappointment – in the Garden, there is no death.  Day after day, life goes on forever – Adam and Eve – enter through these open Gates and return to the Garden.


Adam listened to the words of God – and thought of this invitation – no work, no struggle, no disappointment, no death – just ease – and endless life of ease.  He turned and looked at Eve – he saw again this woman with whom he had struggled to make a life – to take bread from the earth, to raise children, to build a home. He thought of the tragedies that had overcome together and the joys that they had cherished together.  And Adam shook his head and said – no thank you, God – this is not our life anymore.  Eve, let us return home.  And Adam and Eve turned their backs on Paradise and walked home.    


These precious moments are charged with our capacity to change.  We don’t have to stay incarcerated in our own disappointments.  Our generations are linked to Jacob who becomes Israel because he was willing to learn, modify, and adapt.  May our choices not define us – and may we learn to live well with the hard truths that lay before us.  May this year open to us with joy and with fresh possibility as we bring our whole selves forward – seeing Rachel and Leah together – our desires and our decision — and living with both of them in the same moments of discernment, insight, and gratitude.  The Gates are open – and like Adam and Eve, in their real-world considerations, let us decide where we are to go from here.


Shanah Tovah u’Metukah

Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah

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

Vayikra — World History (5779) Rosh haShanah (5780) — Sweetness

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October 2019

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