Rosh haShanah (5780) — Sweetness

07/10/2019 at 15:50 Leave a comment

“1981: 6-10; 1985: 15-1” (Sweetness)


Rosh haShanah – Day 1

Neil F. Blumofe

30 September 2019


When I was a kid, growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the dad of the family next door was the running back coach of the NFL team, the Chicago Bears. We lived on a cul-de-sac and we would see each other very often, he usually with a beer in his hand, would offer my father advice about general topics – mostly concerning landscaping and home maintenance – and he would sometimes invite us into his basement to watch films of the team, and a couple of times a year, he would give our family tickets on the 50-yard line to watch the Bears play at Solders Field.


The Bears were terrible. We would sit in the stands, wrapped in Hefty garbage bags for warmth and watch the team lose as the quarterback Bob Avellini would throw incomplete passes or get intercepted – and the defense, even with the future Hall of Famer linebacker Mike Singletary, had not yet come into their own.  The silver lining in these dreadful seasons was watching the running back, Walter Payton, in action.  Walter Payton is considered to be the greatest running back of all time.  He was graceful and quick – and it seemed that every time he had the football, something exciting would happen – that transcendent magic was an inherent part of his play.  His nickname was Sweetness – and he was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection – and was a long-time record holder for career rushing yards in the NFL.  A later head coach of the Bears, Mike Ditka, called Walter Payton the greatest football player that he had ever seen – and an even greater human being.


Back in 1981, one afternoon, I was in my backyard and saw my next-door neighbor’s patio – there were no fences separating yards in those days.  He was hosting a barbecue with the three main running backs on the Bears roster, at that time – Roland Harper, Matt Suhey, and Walter Payton.  Walter Payton, the greatest running back of all time, was next door, just a few hundred feet away.  I ran inside and told my parents – and thinking quickly, my mom carefully wrapped some of her homemade mandelbrot in wax paper, and told me to bring it over, so I could say hello.


At age ten, I wasn’t really thinking of the interesting and particular suburban pairing of BBQ pork ribs and mandelbrot.  I walked over and long story short – stayed for a bit.  The players were incredibly friendly and the coach, Hank Kuhlmann, was gracious – tolerating both me and my brother, and then eventually my mom and dad who came by to gawk – or as they would have said – to kvell — at this incredible stroke of fortune.  After saying goodbye, we returned back to our yard, floating a bit in the air – and still hungry – for we had missed dinner – having politely refused the BBQ.


Over the years, I have wondered – what was Walter Payton doing on that team?  Sure, the Bears won the Super Bowl in 1985 – however, in his twelve-year career, beginning in 1975, he was only with the Bears — and with the exception of that incredible year – especially in the first decade of his career, the team had several losing seasons.  Throughout his career, he only missed one game.


In the Jewish tradition, a comparison between Walter Payton and Aaron, the brother of Moses, is instructive.  Aaron was a superstar among a stiff-necked, undistinguished people whose playbook was to complain – up and down the field.  If the Torah gave out nicknames, Aaron’s would certainly have been Sweetness, as well. He was known as one who cherished his teammates – he could understand and effectively appeal to the children of Israel – one who was a lover and pursuer of peace.  Legends are told about his caring for community – that Aaron loved to bring peace between people, fulfilling the statement found in our prophets – the law of Truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found on his lips – he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and he turned away from iniquity.


Our tradition teaches that any time Aaron met a surly or negative person, he would always greet them warmly, thus helping to improve that person’s attitude and sense of self-worth. Also, when two people were arguing, Aaron would go and sit with one of them and say – look, the other person with whom you argued is mortified right now – they are embarrassed because they have offended you.  And then Aaron, would make a beeline, past any defenders, to sit with the other person and say that the first person also was sorry and wanted to get past the argument and repair the relationship – he would do this back and forth, investing the time, until the rancor in each of their hearts was removed.   When the two previously warring parties finally met – they were temperate and would embrace and kiss each other – each made whole by Aaron’s tireless efforts.


In addition, after negotiating with Pharaoh in Egypt for the release of the slaves, Aaron essentially took himself out of the narrative after the deaths of two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu – who in the presence of the people, when God’s Glory descended to earth, offered what the Torah describes as strange fire, and they perished immediately.  Aaron was silent thereafter, and doesn’t have a central role going forward – in that he is not described speaking to God – and God does not speak to him.  God and Aaron are estranged, and Aaron finds meaning in serving his community.


This non-relationship between Aaron and God can be illustrative of our modern crisis of finding meaning in this world – especially after the horrors of the Holocaust and the creeping rise of today’s antisemitism.  Like the Book of Esther, where God is not mentioned at all, tracing the arc of this seeming abandonment of faith by Aaron, if not certain crisis of significance and purpose, can be helpful for us as we look to navigate our way in this world.  Our lack of enthusiasm, our fear, our events devoid of verve, add up to create a melancholy and a world-weariness in all that we do as we search for purpose and meaning.


And because of this, Aaron turns his energy and his talents towards the people.  When the people were faced with the great challenge of survival – when it seemed that the Divinely inspired plague was going to wipe out the people, Aaron, in his wounded-ness, leaps forward and stands bein hameitim u’vein hahayim – he stands between the dead and the living, and offers incense – this incense that once offered, killed his sons – and because he did so, this deadly plague is checked.  The people are not without casualty – over 14,000 people die before Aaron steps into the breach.  And yet, what is it about Aaron deciding to fight the plague that is so powerful, and that stops its onslaught?


And after this – God begins to speak to Aaron again – charging him with care of the Tabernacle and holy places.  Our tradition elevates Aaron after the debacle of Korah, another Levite. According to the 15thcentury sage Abarbanel, Aaron was to stand not only in the breach among the people – he was to stand in the liminal space between sacred and secular – helping the people and protecting them from the dangers of getting too close to the Divine. Aaron was able to overcome his own post-traumatic stress and rework his life in order that his actions in community were again meaningful, every day.  He was devoted to doing his work – for the community and after a while, for God as well. This is a very powerful lesson for us – by his singular action, he shows us a path away from easy complaining.  He shows us that progress is possible after loss and disappointment – and he shows us that a love, or at least a respect for the people – even the people on a not-so-great team – that loyalty and steady effort weighs more than our grievances against God.  This is sweetness, personified.


Aaron is a helpful guide for us, as we seek to make sense of our world.  We too are to hold something positive amid difficulty.  We too are to love each other, despite our all-too-human foibles.  We are to take a risk on this world — to “step out of line,” to face the challenges of this world with a steady and present spirit.


What is supposed to happen in these awesome days?  What are we supposed to do?  We turn the pages of our machzor, reacquainting ourselves with the themes of this Holy Day, to what effect?  What does our tradition demand of us – what does our world demand of us?  Each of us maybe tries to be like Walter Payton or Aaron the High Priest, standing between the Books of Life and Death, trying to find an opening to run the ball to the goal line, working with a mediocre offense and against superior odds.  We are to play for the love of the game – caring primarily about our community – with God to join us, as a happy fan, supportive of our efforts.


We are to be spiritual activists – raising up our teammates – not trash talking or trolling them.  We are not here to get in the last word – rather let us use our silence gracefully, and let our noble and virtuous actions speak louder than any words can.  We are to do the work to elevate everyone – from nervous rookies to grizzled veterans.  We are to love our friends, and we are to love our enemies in this time when every person on every team seems to play for a zero-sum game – quick to take personal umbrage and to spread claptrap or dreary gloom.


The author and social scientist, Arthur Brooks, challenges us to take steps to subvert the current culture of contempt in our world.  Like Aaron, we are to be present for different points of view, to excel in a competition of ideas.  And like Aaron, we are to validate these opposing ideas standing in the breach against bitterness.  We are to assemble a supportive team of rivals to succeed, to learn, and ultimately – to grow.  As Walter Payton inspired his teammates – as Aaron strengthened the children of Israel we can build shared objectives together without insult, negativity – and against extremism, contempt, and disgust.


As Brooks asks of us – let us stop eye rolling when we hear something that bothers us – or when we are with someone we don’t like.  As one who does much pastoral counseling, I have learned long ago, that we don’t know what is really going on inside of a person – we can never know what they really think or what powers someone else.  Someone’s motives are never to be assumed.


In this New Year, let us engage in our relationships and communities – building a team in good faith. Let us resist coerciveness, and instead be kind, aspirational, and civil.  For ourselves, let us earn the nickname, Sweetness.  By our own example, let us inspire each person to take responsibility – and let us affirm each person to articulate a unifying and aspirational vision for our team.  Who are we going to pay attention to – Korah, Aaron’s cousin, who wanted to overthrow Moses and Aaron, and was looking for his own advantage in a tough situation, or Aaron, who like Walter Payton, knew his skills and was consistently positive, confident that better days were ahead?


Let us refuse to be used as we practice warm-heartedness and we can also take a page from the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who before going to bed, prays that his enemies have a good and happy life.  Here’s how we can emulate Aaron – for every criticism that we speak or write – bring five encouraging comments as well.  Practice empathy – and stand up for those not in the room.  Let us think of who we have treated with disgust, or contempt, or at whom we have rolled our eyes – and let us apologize, or if that is too uncomfortable at this point, let us at least stop that toxic behavior.


Walter Payton is considered the greatest running back of all time – not only because of his skills, but because of his character, and how he inspired others to be their best.  Aaron is known as a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace – an ohev shalom v’rodeif shalom– and rather than complain – let us mobilize ourselves to be like them and run and stand into the breach, when the situation calls, using what once brought us so very low now as our super-power.  We are to be felled neither by our disappointments nor by our fears.  In this sense, Payton and Aaron are both post-modern heroes – in Payton’s losing and in Aaron’s brokenness, saving the people from the God inspired plague – and then entering into the role as the gatekeeper, mediating between God and all of us.


I think that this is actually what Judaism demands from each of us – if we are up to accepting this challenge.  While overcoming our own predicaments to stand in the breach is a radical and massive responsibility, it beats dying in the wilderness as a stiff-necked people, with another losing season.  As we open the gates of possibility, as lovers of peace, and with sweetness on our hands and hearts, we can endure another losing season and with the right motivation and example – as we build up our teammates, we can transform our offense and defense, and in unmatched fashion, we can go all the way this year, to win the Super Bowl, as the best team the league – and this world — has ever seen.


Shanah Tovah u’Metukah/Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah.

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

Erev Rosh haShanah – 5780 (Halley’s Comet) Kol Nidrei (5780) — Adulting

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October 2019

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