“Joys Over Oys” — YK Yizkor — 5778

“Joys Over Oys”


Yom Kippur – Yizkor

Neil F. Blumofe

30 September 2017


In our tradition, counterintuitively for us perhaps, Yom Kippur is considered to be a joyous day – our sages deriving this meaning from the Song of Songs which teaches – go forth on this day – may it be a day of gladness of the heart.  These joyful moments are consistently celebrated today among the Mizrahim – Jews who derive from local Jewish communities in the Middle East.  In their prayers and in their poetry, known as piyyutim, on this day, there is an abiding confidence that Av haRahaman, and Av haSelichot – The Merciful God, and The Forgiving God — will forgive all of their sins – so they stand before God in this time with gratitude and hope.  In the Mizrahi tradition, the foundation – the basic understanding — is that the petitioners, these supplicants on the most awe-inspiring day of all, do not feel abandoned – but rather, are uplifted and reassured by praying their prayers and singing their piyyutim.


This is not an easy pivot for many of us, who are suspicious of faith and vulnerability.  Many of us have been conditioned that pretending is advantageous to us, as we go through the motions of our lives.  Many of us hold at arm’s length this classic idea that Yom Kippur is a corresponding hue of Purim – a time of absolute celebration.  Whereas Purim is a time of disguise and concealment, Yom Kippur is a time of exposure and honesty – today is a day when we have nothing up our sleeves – when we don’t compensate for our deficiencies with other activity.  We are to show up now wearing white to see the arc of the sun as it set and rises and sets again – and we are here, with our thoughts, baggage, and overall perplexity, without a distraction, without an escape route – as our defenses, offenses, illusions, collusions, deceptions, exceptions, truths, and untruths are laid bare — and this can be maddening.


How can we find joy in such a fraught time?  To stand here in joy sounds illogical.  The author Susan Piver writes in defense of holding onto sadness, stating – when you look out at this world, what you will see will make you very, very sad.  This is good.  You are seeing clearly.  Genuine sadness gives rise, spontaneously, naturally, completely, to the wish – the longing – to be a benefit to others…Despair is what happens when you fight sadness.  Compassion is what happens when you don’t. 


Perhaps the one who recognized this sense of sadness most deeply in our tradition was Rebbe Nahman of Breslov, an 18th-century rabbi.  I spoke about him a few weeks ago, when I introduced the concept of hitbodedut, a spiritual practice of unburdening ourselves with the goal of freeing ourselves from all negative traits which obstruct our spiritual transformation.  Essentially, this is stream-of-consciousness expression – what Freud developed into what became known in the salons of Vienna, as the talking cure.


Hitbodedut is the articulation of whatever may come to us as we go about our way, oftentimes surprising us in our revelation – as we give permission for words and ideas to just fall from our lips.  Rebbe Nahman would regularly practice hitbodedut as he walked in the fields and the woods outside of his home in the Ukraine.  This is an intensely personal practice – where the rawness of what we keep buried within us – again, what became known later as the subconscious that bubbles up – and then, is hopefully released, which then allows space for something new to open.  Friends of mine who regularly practice hitbodedut see it something akin to how other people practice mediation or yoga – this being a method steeped in a Jewish oeuvre — a private time to release all that is pent up, sublimated, or repressed.


To casually look at Reb Nahman’s writings, one would not readily think that he was one who knew sadness, intimately.  In fact, his legacy is one that leverages joy.  He is regularly quoted as saying, it is a great mitzvah to be happy always – and, always remember, joy is not incidental to spiritual quest.  It is vital.  However, beneath these determined, sunny quotes of uplift – we can see that Reb Nahman, like we do, very often speak about and concern ourselves with that which we are most needing to hear.


Rebbe Nahman writes movingly about the power of kvetching – or, as he calls it, the krechtz.  This is the sound we make when deeply sighing – and he teaches us to honor all of our sighs and our groans, stating that sighing is an extension of our breath, which is the vital force of human life.  Reb Nahman says that sighing is holy – and as we recognize what we lack, through the sigh, the lack is made whole.


There is a well-known joke about a man who goes to a world-renowned therapist and says that he is depressed – saying that it is hard to keep everything together, all of the balls in the air, all of the plates spinning.  He tells the therapist that he feels alone, alienated, and isolated – and the world is too overwhelming for him.  The therapist responds, saying, “I know something that will cheer you up – there happens to be a great entertainer in town this evening – the clown Pagliacci – with his antics, and his humor, he will definitely make you feel better.”  And the man burst into tears, and he cries, “O doctor, what can I do – I am Pagliacci.”


In the tragic opera Pagliacci, composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo in 1892 — before performing, the miserable clown Canio sings – ridi del duol, che t’avvelena il cor!  Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart.  And in Yiddish, there are many colorful phrases that highlight the gulf between how we truly feel, and the face that we feel that we must show in public – such as these two — Az oif dem hartsen iz bitter, helft nit in moil kain tusker – if there’s bitterness in the heart, sugar in the mouth won’t make life sweeter.  Nit yeder harts vos lacht iz frailech – not every heart that laughs is really cheerful. 


Reb Nahman, and in fact, many of us, strive to wield a determined positive attitude against darkness – not because we underestimate darkness, but because we know darkness all too well, and know how unbearable it can be.  We would much rather be entertained than have to confront our fears of mortality, our melancholy, and our tedium.


What do we need to hear, now?  Can we create our own space, as we stand for Yizkor and cry – not only for the memories that we keep – but also for all that we mourn within ourselves?  Can we take this timeout – this moment when we don’t have to be brave, when we don’t have to be calm and carry on — so we can crumple into ourselves for these precious moments, supported by the gravity of our tradition?  Can we let the laughter die away for a moment, so we can see and celebrate the sadness – thus enabling us to open and cleanse our hurts?  Let’s try it now – each of us in our own way, to heave a kvetch – or to give a mighty krechtz – a holy oy.  Let’s give voice to the lack within us – and through our oy, we can be made more whole — [OY}.


Throughout the year, sometimes we may feel like we have a duty to perform – that our role and our task is similar to the one performed by the boy made popular by the American author, Mary Maples Dodge in her novel Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates – the story of the boy who kept his finger in a leaking dam, in order to stave off a flood.  This is how we may go about many of our days – keeping the flood in, coping as best we can.  However, now is the time when we remove our finger for a moment, to let the gushing out – the primordial water – the tears that acknowledges our pain and in their release, relieves our discomfort.


In our tradition, Yizkor is the moment when we even call on God to move the Holy Throne of Mercy from atop the firmament that protects us – in order for us to taste the salt of the original floodwaters that will come rushing in – those very same waters that overwhelmed the generation of Noah.


And too, like Jonah, we are in the depths – this is not even a time for mercy – for that Holy

Throne has been removed in this time — this is just a time to acknowledge the dull thud of what is.  When in the belly of the fish, Jonah merely states what is – he doesn’t ask for mercy – he prays – l’kitzvei harim yarad’ti, ha’aretz b’riche’ha va’adi l’olam, va’ta’al mishachat cha’yai haShem Elokai – I went down to the bottoms of the mountains – the earth with her bars closed on me forever – yet you have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. 


We are here now as Jonah, dwelling in the bottom of the pit – trying to reassure ourselves by looking hopefully towards a Divine Mirror that only offers opaque-ness, in return.  We ourselves must walk this narrow bridge for this moment, until breads and circuses return, and we have our liturgy, our ritual and our drama with each other and our disputes with God to keep us busy.  All of that is silent now.  We recognize too that as much as we miss our loved ones – the sadness that we feel, the depth of longing that is pressurized within us – we can let go of it now – and we can feel the power of the name of God first revealed to Moses at the burning bush – ehyeh asher ehyeh – we can summon the pool of tears that is within us up and out – as we acknowledge, what is.


At this moment our prayers of supplication, our prayers for mercy cease, and a quiet acknowledgment of this unfortunate, yet very affecting aspect of life – our knowledge of death is seen and shivering, felt by each of us in this sanctuary.  This no longer translates as theory – this is no longer a prayer that we pray in the plural, so we can be absorbed into the larger whole.  This isn’t Ashamnu – we have sinned.  Here, it is just each one of us, weeping alone into the Divine Void.


Our tradition imagines God as standing closer to us now, as if an accessible shape in a field.  Ani l’dodi v’dodi li.  It is not until Sukkot that we go out into that same field, actively looking for this more exposed God.  Here at Yizkor, in the belly of the fish, we are asked to see reality for what it really is – for each of us in this honest moment, to gaze behind the curtain.  To see this, to perceive this moment, is difficult – as Plato writes – to see the light of what is really real would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning away to the things which he was actually able to look at – and these he would believe to be clearer than what was now being shown to him. 


We are now in a moment when we perceive the harrowing reality in the Garden of Eden – a place where we cannot sustain our human gaze and live.  So, we are trekking together, for an instant, and as we emerge from this alarming experience – from this love and terror in the God encounter, joy will come.  When we behold the depth of our pain, when we allow ourselves the wailing groan of unrestrained tears – when we do not put any constrictions on this Yizkor, then in turn, we can appreciate a fuller joy – a joy that is a truth underneath the grief of our heart.


Beyond sadness, it is in the compassion where we are able to cultivate joy, no matter the state of our soul.  As the author, Brene Brown writes – I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite – black and white – good and bad.  My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty – love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity.  We are now guided into an important experience that in considering mortality, is wrought with uncertainty.


Freud reputedly wrote that the reason we think and talk about sex all of the time, is because we are petrified to talk about what lies behind sex itself, about that which defines the human condition itself, which is death.  In this moment – during Yizkor, we are back in the womb – hayom harat olam — a time for appreciating our origins, for lamenting our wasted time, and for keening for those whom we miss, so dearly.  This moment is an oy that we allow ourselves – so we don’t have to pretend.  And the art of this – what stops this from becoming an absurdist, existentialist play – is that from here, now in the belly of the fish, before we are again released back out onto dry land, that we are to make our peace with uncertainty – and we are able to live daily with gratitude in the light that makes the shadows on our cave.  The reality, that happens after we present our elemental tears – the moment after the oy, is enough.


We dispense with the gnawing feeling that existence is horrifying, and that our lives are perpetually in the throes of a bad joke; and instead, we emulate Reb Nahman, and our Mizrahi brothers and sisters, and nurture joy in every moment – convinced that we live by the grace of God and that as the great Talmudic sage, Akiva, teaches us – all that is, is kol man d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid – that nothing happens by accident or by chance – that nothing happens without God’s decree – and that ultimately, all that God does will ultimately lead to good – and we live in a perpetual state of simcha, of joy.


If we in fact can take care of this sentiment, believe it and enact it, we will be granted the power to actually influence events in this world, so that the good that was originally decreed, and that sometimes gets lost in translation and exchange, can be seen and felt by us every day as well.  This is the power of Yom Kippur – and it is for this reason that our tradition considers this time to be a time of great joy.  Indeed, Judaism teaches that in Hebrew, the word for thought – machshava, is comprised of the same letters as b’simcha – in joy – that it is with declaring joy, that even our thoughts themselves are transformed into simchah. 


During Yom Kippur, we are given the gift of sensing the different dimensions of our existence – that we are on just one plane of reality, and that we are locked in relationship with generations past and future.  It is here that we stand at the intersection of past and future – we see that our sadness is unique and belongs to us – and yet we see that we can yet return it to that which exists well beyond us.  It is this, which is the sustaining joy – that ultimately our hurts don’t belong to us – we are here just to realize them, clean them and then return them transformed to the worlds beyond us.  Surely, we too belong to that which is greater than ourselves – as we ask ourselves, what really do we need, anyway – and what really do we need to hold on to – and most difficult for us, can we reshape our perspective and our relationship concerning death, itself?


It is in the considering of this, that we are able to sing in joy – as we swiftly move into and out of this Yizkor moment – eyes open in it, and then blinking the moment will gone – and in its wake, we are then able to feel gratitude for the breath, the krechtz, that we take, now.  And while we may not yet be fluent in the sacred poems of the Mizrahi tradition, let us take a page from their machzor now and apply the idea of existing in joy to our own songs and inherited musical references, as we prepare for our individual tears flood this sacred space – and let us hold fast that there is joy just behind our sorrow.


The community that oys together joys together.  To remind us of the joy that is in the silence after the oy, before we begin Yizkor, let us first sing this song of joy together – and in this singing let our burdens be lightened – and let us feel, truly feel, the festive majesty of this day – let us feel the resounding b’simchah that is continually within us, let us feel our barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, as we proclaim — kol man d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid – all that happens will ultimately lead to good – as we  each of us, yet together, assuredly remove our finger from the dam in this moment.  So, are you ready? …


One, two, three, four —


I Just Want to Celebrate (1971)

Rare Earth

I just want to celebrate another day of livin’
I just want to celebrate another day of life
I put my faith in the people
But the people let me down

So, I turned the other way
And I carry on, anyhow

That’s why I’m telling you
I just want to celebrate, yeah, yeah
Another day of living, yeah
I just want to celebrate another day of life
Had my hand on the dollar bill
And the dollar bill flew away
But the sun is shining down on me
And it’s here to stay

That’s why I’m telling you
I just want to celebrate, yeah, yeah
Another day of living, yeah
I just want to celebrate another day of livin’
I just want to celebrate another day of life…


Don’t let it all get you down, no, no
Don’t let it turn you around and around and around, no


Well, I can’t be bothered with sorrow
And I can’t be bothered with hate, no, no

I’m using up the time but feeling fine, every day

That’s why I’m telling you I just want to celebrate
Oh, yeah
I just want to celebrate another day


Oh, I just want to celebrate another day of livin’
I just want to celebrate another day of life…


Don’t let it all get you down, no, no
Don’t let it turn you around and around, and around, and around
And around, and round, and round
Round, round, round, round
Don’t go round


I just want to celebrate
I just want to celebrate
Well, I just want to celebrate
Said I just want to celebrate (celebrate)
I just want to celebrate (I want to celebrate)
I just want to celebrate (I got to celebrate)
I just want to celebrate


G’mar Hatimah Tovah.



02/10/2017 at 14:08 1 comment

“Movers and Shakers” — Kol Nidre, 5778

“Movers and Shakers”


Yom Kippur – Kol Nidrei

Neil F. Blumofe

29 September 2017


I hope that this Kol Nidrei evening finds you and your families well.  Anne and I and our family wish each of you and your loved ones a year filled with good health, courage, gratitude, and generosity.  It is heartening to be together here, gaining strength from each other and offering mutual inspiration in our presence together — each of us out of the daily activities of our lives privileging this time now as a community to gather to recharge our connection, grow our spirit, and gain insight.  This really is the most special time of year – each from our places, giving of our time and attention – setting forth our expectation to have Yom Kippur do something – to have it change or improve us somehow – as we dare to articulate our core questions of purpose and identity, all the while, forestalling our dread and keeping us from the edge of despair.


Yom Kippur is a time when we summon joy – when our spirit is to grow, as we take active steps to develop resilience in what very often appears to be a rootless world – now, when we can feel that our Judaism is both a counteracting agent to self-medication and that it gives us wisdom to encounter the intractable issues that afflict our soul – things that keep us up at night – or that it allows us to question why certain problems in our world and the suffering of others don’t affect us as much as they should.  As we gain strength in our community – as we wish each other l’chaim – another year of robustness and life, let us take these moments to confront the questions in our life that require the most courage to ask – the abundance of heartbreak that we have, the chill in the realization that we don’t feel as much as we think that we should, and the distance that is sometimes present in even our closest relationships.


We see our lives, and we see how much we are sated with detachment – as an insulant – to protect ourselves from risk, disappointment, and too much involvement.  We see too how much we double down on certain things – and from those places that we are most right, we strive to have our world make sense, realizing only vaguely that as the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote, it is doubt and love that dig up the world – not absolute conviction.


Have we made the right decisions as parents or caregivers?  Do we have the staying power to have conversations with people that we care about, especially when we know that we will disagree – all the while, acknowledging the mistakes that we have made?  Do we think that participating in Kol Nidrei tonight will add value to our life?  Are we committed to building this community, as others and other organizations, and other things vie for our attention?  When Yom Kippur ends and we move back into our routine, will we encounter the world differently – will we see how we are sometimes manipulated and played by connivance – and resistance to this is at root, a spiritual practice – a practice that demands that we continue to ask questions, rather than rely on facile answers?


Whether we stand proudly, or take a knee proudly, can we live with dissonance and inconsistency in our lives, knowing that each of us are the frayed ends of a timeworn tapestry that still possesses profound beauty – that each of us, like the raggedy tsitsit on a beloved tallit, represent aspects of action and belief and that we — like the tallit is made whole – is activated – only when we are together – not in agreement, but rather in conviction that we belong together?  What are immovable certainties in our lives, and what can easily yield?


This summer I had the opportunity to visit my oldest son, while he was studying German, music history, and performance in Vienna.  I had previously not been to Vienna, and I was looking forward to seeing The Imperial City through the eyes of my son, who had been there for several weeks already.  We attended the Staatsoper, enjoyed the Prater, explored the Jewish Museum, and had time to walk about the city – seeing places and experiencing things – like Sigmund Freud’s rooms where he saw patients and established the practice of psychoanalysis — that had only previously been alive for me in my study of history and literature.


I had long wondered what kind of a place Vienna is — I have been acutely aware of the darkness and the beauty of fin de siècle Vienna for many years – the institutional tolerance of antisemitism and largely as a response, Theodor Herzl’s founding of modern Zionism—as well as the birth of modern music, art, and philosophy – and because of this opportunity to be together with my son, I overcame my chill of being in Vienna itself.  And I was bracing myself as we walked within the Ringstrasse – inside the boulevard that serves as a ring road around the Old Town district of Vienna, which contains Austria’s parliament, the university, the Burgtheater, the town hall, and the Volksgarten – I knew it was there — and then I saw it — the monument, the statue to Karl Lueger.


While his name may not mean much to us now – he is largely considered the architect of what later became Nazism, based on his reliance and his use of antisemitism to stoke fears, to cause dissension, and to conscientiously unweave the thin threads of the fabric of civilization.  As mayor of Vienna he is credited with transforming Vienna into a modern city – and at the same time, he is praised as an inspiration in Mein Kampf as “the most formidable German mayor of all time,” Lueger having said in 1890 – that “the Jewish problem would be solved and service to the world achieved, if all Jews were placed on a large ship to be sunk on the high seas.”


The statue was dedicated in 1926.  In part, the later explanation of the significance of the statue reads – as mayor he promoted the expansion of a modern municipal infrastructure…among his achievements were the municipalization of public transport, as well as water, gas, and electricity supplies.  He was also responsible for the protection of the woods and meadows surrounding Vienna.  During the conflict between the nationalities in the late Habsburg Monarchy, Karl Lueger reinforced the anti-Semitic and nationalist trends of his time.  He was a legend in his own time and is still a controversial figure today. 


What potency does a statue have?  What statement does a statue project in a city or a country – what story does it tell, from the prominent places in which it is placed?  How does such an enduring representation both begin and end a conversation about power, priority and privilege?  Since July, I have been thinking about my abstract, disjointed feelings about the sinister legacy of Karl Lueger and Vienna, as my feelings coalesced into the tangible feelings of alienation, unease, and second-class status, all these years later, after bearing witness to the accommodations and the permutations of history.  It is nothing that is explicitly said as people walked on the paths in the park – it is just the values that are on display as communities decide to honor and preserve their values in stone and metal – ultimately making demonstrable, calculated choices out of complicated history.


The rise of modern Vienna is inseparable from the accomplishment and rhetoric of Karl Lueger.  As successful and majestic as the city is, its contemporary bedrock is hate and the othering of Jews.  What he sanctioned served as fertile ground – thus, normalizing dehumanization so a young, disaffected man looking for meaning was able to be elected as Chancellor of Germany a few decades later and to implement the mechanized extermination of Jews and other so-called undesirables.


Connecting these dots exposes a cautionary tale concerning the stories that we tell about ourselves, and about our founding myths that can be uncomfortable, as we give it some thought.  Would we like to imagine that we had as much conviction and zeal as our ancestor — young Abraham — who, as the well-known Midrash teaches us, while his father was out, destroyed all of the statues in his father’s idol shop?  We too could plead atzabeihem kesef v’zahav ma’asei y’dei adam – that all of these idols are silver and gold – mortal work.  Our beliefs, our narrative is more sanctified – more lustrate than his father’s business.


And, short of taking down all of the statues, who gets to decide which stories are the stories worth retaining?  In each life or episode so commemorated, how much of the surface are we willing not to scratch in order to retain our myths?  Last week, a statue to Mikhail Kalashnikov was unveiled in Moscow – Kalashnikov is the inventor of the famous rifle that bears his name.  The AK47, is responsible for more than 250,000 deaths per year – more than all other modern weapons combined.


What we choose to lionize is not about a person’s life – it is about our own sense of self – an existential line in the sand, so to speak, that proclaims — the idea of this person and what he or she stood for is important to me and adds value to my life; and whether it is Karl Lueger, Andrew Jackson, Harriet Tubman, George Washington, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Woodrow Wilson, Christopher Columbus, Indigenous Peoples, Barbara Jordan, or Albert Sidney Johnston, as we represent ourselves in our public, municipal academic, or even private settings — what stories do we want to tell – what aspects of our identity – American, or otherwise, do we wish to emphasize, and what stories do we wish to conceal?  What behaviors or permissions do we want to sanction – by stating that this statue represents me – and proudly displays to all what I am about and the values important to me?  How are each of us implicated in the stories that we tell or that represent us around this city, in this country, or in the world?


All of these lives, and so many more have contributed to our being here, imperfectly, today.  Each of them, and each of us, notes in a holy nign – a holy melody – those who built our railroads, those who established our infrastructure – all of the unsung heroes – those who have served us and sacrificed for us — the mothers raising their children – our lives are peopled with their unseen influence and their constant presence.  Each of these figures warrants a dance – and in our history, they all dance together – it is time to see those who are concealed – and those aspects of our culture that we don’t readily see.  It is time for us to study and to recognize the searing truth of the truths that we hold to be self-evident.


The Roman coliseum was constructed by Vespasian Augustus and finished by his son Titus, with the use of 20,000 Jewish slaves, and with the spoils taken after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and burnt Jerusalem to the ground in the year 70.  Will each of us privilege the expansion of a modern municipal infrastructure over the dignity of someone else’s life?  As society is built on the back of slaves, the expulsion of others, on seized or stolen property, or on the hatred that is institutionalized and taught, generation after generation, do we continue to lionize our leaders and visit the structures that represent dominant societies?  Do the ends justify the means?


What conversations are we willing to have together about the systemic injustices that prowl in our everyday decision making, as we go about our lives?  We should not hide our history – even if it is hidden in plain sight – we should see our shortcomings and move together to correct them.  We would do well to cultivate the teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote that the sin of idolatry is that it is static, and is contrary to demonstrating the gift of our lives.  We are always in motion – we are betzelem Elohim – created in the image of God – therefore, like fashion, we are always changing – and our stories, like God are always in flux.  The only way we can fashion an image of God then, is through the medium of each of our lives.  We are to make ourselves a worthy image of God – and to not seek images of God in that which we strive to create.  Once we commit to something in stone, we are stuck with it – and all of the irony in the world – like the pictures that many travelers, including me, have taken of the giant disembodied head of Vladimir Lenin that still sits in the main city square of Ulan-Ude, in Russia, do not chip away at the statement that is plainly being made.


Have you ever seen the imposing statue of Christ the Redeemer that sits atop the Corcovado mountain overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro – a statue that was both consecrated and proclaimed as one the New Seven Wonders of the World, ten years ago?   As Jews, can we live with the everyday recognition of being the other — can we understand the many-sided nature of living under the shadow of such a statement of Christ the Redeemer – at once, loving and threatening?  How can we even begin such conversations in our American society about representation, as we hear the various, valid sides of the pros and cons of remembering and forgetting?


So, while we may not possess the ancient hammer that Abraham had to destroy what he found most objectionable, we can have the mental fortitude to realize where exactly we stand and how we are represented in the story of a nation or society.  Are we willing to have patience – to wait out the efficacy of a name, or the clout of a particular statue – can we be content like the traveler in Percy Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias who reports that the once great king has now sunk into the sand – that this once bold and intimidating figure is now a colossal wreck – alone and decaying as the lone and level sands stretch far away?  Can we wait that long?  Should we?  As Martin Luther King has said – wait has almost always meant never.


As Yom Kippur begins, we have choices in what we choose to represent in our community – including if we choose to feel left out or included.  I humbly suggest that we begin our New Year by simply asking why, if there is an opinion or a position with which we don’t agree.  Rather than rely on a strategy of insult and brutalization of others – rather than reflexively resorting to violence or a cheap tweet that coarsens our culture and ultimately encourages others to work around the people in the exalted positions exhibiting such belittling attitudes, can we not engage each other – and especially those with whom we disagree, in reasoned conversation?


Perhaps I am being naïve.  My Karl Lueger, who represents the perilous nature of casual hostility and the creeping specter of legitimized, state-sponsored antisemitism, is another person’s Karl Lueger, who represents progress, modernization, and innovation – and who wasn’t really antisemitic, but was just shoring up his base, using his political means to assert his political will.  Do we not both possess versions of the truth?  Would we ever have the opportunity to agree to disagree without resentment and acrimony?  In our country, we must strive to live in relationship, not secure in separating ourselves in our particular neighborhoods, while peopling our particular agendas of narrative and representation across public spaces.


And as we live in such dissonance, who can claim victory?  Are we so sure of ourselves?  In this time, our holy rituals of Yom Kippur hedge their bets – as we read of an equal offering to God and to the mysterious power of Azazel.  As we experience these moments of teshuvah, may our hearts of stone be remade into hearts of flesh – may we drop deeply into our empathy as we wrestle with our inheritance – as we whisper the quivering, piteous words of Esau, as he realizes that his family’s history has already been proclaimed – barcheini gam ani, avi – bless me too, father – and let us weep, as we see ourselves as the other, out in the world.  And let us weep, as we see our brothers and sisters of color put down and marginalized in each generation – and let us not be named as conspirators to such conduct.


Judaism teaches that in encountering our legacy, we name all narratives – our stance is countercultural.  There is no winner take all attitude – we acknowledge rather that we are all in it together, as Hillel and Shammai dance and Rav and Shmuel dance – dissenting opinions are also given pride of place in the Jewish intersections of imagination.  All is contained within the page – and our narratives are constantly unstable and shimmering – as Heschel teaches us – for we are betzelem Elohim in our relationships – we are like God — not static – like an idol.


We have a choice again this year.  Can we thwart the growing momentum of polarization, and turn away from the tactics of trolling and undercutting each other from our isolated places in the netherworld of the wilderness?  We see with alarm the rise of the AfD party (Alternative for Germany), that has been elected to the Bundestag, the antisemitism that is festering in the Labour Party in Britain, and we see the ratcheting up of brazen rhetoric between the leader of our country and the leader of North Korea.


Can we walk in the night, like Robert Frost’s unnamed hero – outwalking the furthest city light – and can we keep walking – marching for justice and outspoken in what we hold dear, unalienable, and everlasting – that all of us are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – no matter what stories the statues or self-proclaimed idols around us are trying to tell?  What stories do we want our children to hear?  That we can move past that which is unmoving and our living soul can in fact be the hammer that breaks the bonds of unyielding narrative – for as we have come to expect from our technology, our narratives too are in dire need of an upgrade.


For as Frost writes, this time is neither wrong nor right for all of us acquainted with the night.  In this time, we are to emulate King David, who in the darkest hour, put his harp in the window, for the midnight breeze to play music for him – and woke and alert, he would write his Psalms – his impassioned pleas for discernment and awareness.  Let us set our table in this new year to shine encouragement, inspiration, and hope in the darkness – let us open to a steady recognition that everyone, including our adversaries, deserve dreams of limitless potential – and not a stunted constant reminder of a haunted past.  Here and now, we are able to choose a better future, together – indivisible, with liberty and justice for all – no matter if we stand, sit, prostrate ourselves, or kneel.


Let us write our Psalms – let us share our history and not erase our stories – as we frame public memory, we would do well to devote this year to vigorous Talmud study – or at least for us to begin to explore the shakla v’tarya, the give and take, of Jewish thought, so we can see how Judaism works and how it can help us to understand the swirl of accounts, opinions and nostalgia all around us.  Let us begin there, recognizing that we can take all of what we know with a grain of salt – as we enter into this most Holy Day knowing that we don’t know – and in our unknowing, we are secure – as we see that the safety net we thought was under us, does not exist – so we move, and keep moving to be like God – and we dance with Hillel and Shammai, and we dance with Rav and Shmuel, who have been dancing for a long time – and as we dance we sing –


Sha! Shtil!

Un az der rebe tantst

Tantst dokh mit der tish

Lomir ale klapn mit di fis.

Un az der rebe zingt

Dem heylign nign

Blaybt der sotn a toyter lign.

And when the Rebbe dances

The table dances too

Let’s all stomp our feet


And when the Rebbe sings

A holy melody –

Satan lies dead. 

May each of us have a significant and meaningful fast – as dancers – as movers and shakers.  Let us not remain static.  Let us keep moving, as God keeps moving.  May we be Sealed in the Book of Life – unafraid, energized, and refreshed as Yom Kippur begins.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

02/10/2017 at 13:57 Leave a comment

“The Theory of Gravity” — RH – 5778

“The Theory of Gravity”


Rosh haShanah – Day 1

Neil F. Blumofe

21 September 2017


When I was twelve years old, I wanted to be president of the United States.  In retrospect, this was a goal that I pursued with some determination – volunteering with my congressman for seven years, through Middle School and High School, and thinking that I wanted to go to West Point — the United States Military Academy — even quitting my first chair saxophone position in our state ranked jazz band, in order to try and get a varsity letter in track, which held practice at the same time as rehearsal.  Based on the posted criteria for West Point, I thought receiving a varsity letter would improve my chances of admission – it would check another box.


During the summer of 1987, I was able to intern in Washington DC for my congressman – this was a time when database networks were just coming on line, and the Iran-Contra scandal was raging, and I was so enthusiastic to participate in the everyday business of government, that I would arrive very early every morning at the Longworth House Office Building and sort the mail, so that by the time the full-time staff arrived, I was ready to help them with whatever tasks they were doing.  They didn’t know quite what to do with me – I was eager and enthusiastic, and sixteen – so when they invited me to their weekend parties a couple of times, where there was drinking and casual drug use, which I vetoed, it was off putting to me, and pretty awkward for them – and after one or two, the invitations ceased.


I was staying in a basement apartment on 16th St, in the Mt. Pleasant area, and after my roommate found out I was Jewish, he immediately moved out.  For the most part, I was lonely that summer, and I sought to take solace in the work that I was doing and in the constituency that I was serving.  I was assigned to research various bills under consideration and I wrote the letters describing the congressman’s position concerning the contentious debate about the Supreme Court nominee who was up for consideration that summer.  Even though as a member of the House of Representatives, he did not vote in the confirmation, which fell to the Senators, nevertheless, we drafted two letters for those who wrote to the congressman expressing their views – one that made it appear that he supported the nominee, and one that skewed more towards critique.


All in all, I returned to high school that fall, a bit unsettled about all that I had witnessed.  My childish naiveté was upended as I realized that the world was more complicated that I thought – and that even then, I realized that there were so many things moving below the surface, and beyond the presenting face of what I was experiencing, of which I was not, and would not ever be aware.


Had I known of it at the time, this Midrash, this teaching from Bereshit Rabbah would have resonated –


Rabbi Yose ben Rabbi Hanina said – whoever elevates themselves at the cost of another’s degradation has no share in the World to Come.  How much more so when one seeks to elevate themselves at the expense of the Glory of God.  However, our Torah teaches – v’ha’aretz hayitah tohu va’vohu – the earth was unformed, waste, and void – and God made the earth out of this – that is to say, tohu va’vohu — out of garbage, sewers, and dunghills.  Rav Huna says in Bar Kappara’s name – if this was not written, it would be impossible and heretical to teach it. 


I didn’t feel that I belonged in that world — as I saw it, I was not willing to give over my life, chasing various approvals, in order to create a persona that was worthy only of conditional acceptance and belonging.  These summer experiences cured me too of any inclination to submit to peer pressure.  I let my West Point dreams fade, never completing the final step towards admission, and I voluntarily let my political work languish.  Instead, I moved to New Orleans to go to college, where I began to explore what it meant to be an American, not through government work, but rather through the gumbo traditions of jazz, particular to New Orleans.   It was also in New Orleans where I began to practice, study and be nurtured in my Judaism with more intent.


Like many of us gathered in this sanctuary this morning, for many years, I have been trying to square my Jewishness as I live in America.  In many wonderful ways, I think that these fresh streams being both Jewish and American — complement each other, and give mutual, beneficial confluence, creating fertile, Edenic land between the two as they flow together and separately.  Over the years, for the most part, I have seen the disappearance of, or the ironic reclaiming by insiders, of the tropes of weakness and deficiency, and the growing acceptance of Jews and Judaism in the wider community.  I have deliberately dedicated my career in Austin to develop it into a place where connections and expectations can be positively wired time and time again, and in the nineteen years that I have been blessed to serve our community, I have been often rewarded in my hunch – that with purposeful work, initial, skeptical curiosity can lead to genuine respect among neighbors, and a close-knit caring and trusting network can be created one relationship at a time – as Judaism is utilized both as a responsive way of life for all of us as practitioners, as well as an informed wisdom tradition more generally, out in the public square.


And now as I reflect on the odd, syncopated rhythm of this past year — as a nation, we are undergoing a certain rancorous spasm of chauvinism that across the political spectrum, has tried many of us and filled us with trepidation and unease.  Especially after the debacle at Charlottesville, where it seemed that those who brazenly chanted threats about us were not sufficiently neutralized, the nowhere quality of being Jewish seems suddenly front and center again.  Where do we belong?  Where can we consider home?  I was recently eating dinner with my son, and we were speaking about my childhood political experiences and Charlottesville – and he said, with great acumen – “dad, if you ran for office, you would never beat any other politician, because you’re a Jew.”  It’s significant that as I strive to raise my kids with a sweet, positive pride and a bit of knowledge about their identity, at the same time undeterred, the world makes itself known.  My idyllic place, watered between my being American, and my being Jewish, is not as impervious to cultural climate change, as I perhaps thought.


It’s Rosh haShanah.  This is a good time to speak generally about the reactivation of hope, and with broad brushstrokes, assert the promise and the successful propulsion into the New Year.  We choose life yet again, and look for our name to be written yet again into the ledger of the Book of Life – with each day precious and accounted for.  What else can we expect, and what else do we want?  To me, while calming, this message seems a bit like me writing a general constituent letter or two for my congressman that has lots of good words, is generally reassuring, and yet doesn’t really say much.


When we designed this sanctuary roughly seventeen years ago, we decided to link our sacred space with the Jewish civilizations that have come and gone in history.  As you may have noticed our coppers doors are highlighted by a calendar akin to a zodiac, which is meant to evoke the birth of the study of astronomy and astrology in the ancient Babylonian civilization – a place where our ancestors once thrived and produced the multi-volume Babylonian Talmud – a rich compendium of rabbinic civilization that we continue to study today.  Any time that we say mazal tov – we are channeling our ancestors from Babylon – a saying that we know as good work, or congratulations – yet which has its origins in the constellations of the sky – mazal are stars in alignment – so it literally means, may you have good fortune, may your stars be in alignment.  And yet, we know that today, Babylon does not exist – in its place, Iraq does, and the once great Jewish community that existed now numbers a handful.


The big doors that we commissioned for our sanctuary were fabricated in Germany – so that every time we open these doors as we are honored to read from our sifrei Torah, we remember those who were murdered in the Holocaust – that which once existed and is now no more.  We can remember how European Jewry was once so culturally diverse and how it once flourished and was violently cut off at the shoots – even as we see over seventy years later how European Jewry is struggling to blossom again with newly arrived Jews from Russia and Israel.


And we exist now in this charmed space as we create our reality day after day, realizing too that we have been living in a bit of a Golden Age.  We are to be reminded as we live in this majestic place that no matter how hard we try to insulate ourselves, we are still nisht ahin un nisht aher – that we are insecure; we are still in limbo.  Our mystics might say, that from our beautiful places, when the winds blows a certain way, try as we might to mask it, sometimes we can smell the tohu va’vohu – the garbage heap onto which we have constructed our palace.  In darker moments I wonder — what might future generations put on their ark doors to commemorate what we have accomplished in our Jewish-American civilization?


And yet, we are privileged not to live in an either/or world.  As Jews, we have the tremendous gift of the State of Israel – a place that by its very existence, gives credence and strength to the lives that we are living in Austin.  No matter where we are, we are not alone – and in connecting to Israel we can feel more at home.


However, in our current dilemmas, as politics, opinion, and even language itself can be weaponized, we must develop a discipline not to passively rely on that which gives us credence and strength.  Both in America and in Israel, we must actively and persistently advocate for the visions that we support as we choose to live our life.  Let us not settle for mere gesture, and let us focus instead, on acting with intentionality, purpose and authenticity.  Each day, we thread the needle regarding our identity – very often, we tolerate immediate accommodation, trading the here and now for the promise of improving our position tomorrow.  We try to develop good faith.  We regularly do not raise our voice in order to keep peace and to prevent disruption to the pattern of life that we are desiring to have, sated by small reward and the luxury to not fill our time with an outsized, troublesome noise with which we would then have to deal.


And yet, we do not realize how much power we actually do have.  We can readily see that we are not mere reactionaries, ricocheting from headline to headline and from current event to current event.  These days of the Yamim Noraim are for gaining perspective – for seeing that if we do assert ourselves, we have an almost unlimited ability to increase our influence.  We are not for just kicking the can from one generation to the next – for just going through the motions – sleepwalking from one year to the next.  We are currently being taught that our most successful politicians are the ones who buck the system – and as counterintuitive as it sounds, we can learn from their example by applying our own creativity to intractable issues and to systemic injustice or bias.  We can develop our entrepreneurial skills as we increase our courage to steadily invest in the improvement of our lot and of our world.


The Mishnah teaches us that today, the entire world passes before the Creator’s tearful eyes.  Who do we yet want to be in this world?  When our levels of comfort are removed – when we see how we can be manipulated — what is most important to us?  How much risk are we willing to take to support those who work for the life that we hold dear?


We can’t just make “Fighting Nazis,” our catchphrase for this year.  While so engaged, we must uphold that which makes us whole and successful.  If we succumb to responding to antagonism exclusively with gallows humor, or by pouring our time into dilatory activities, or events or meetups that serve just to make us feel better, we miss the chance to truly use our power.  Let us not be reactionaries – rather, let us respond positively, by building those networks that we do support, with some sweat and dollar equity – and let us develop agendas together that can change laws, attitudes, and culture, and at the same time, enshrine justice.


On Yom Kippur, we will speak more about ways to more fully exercise our rights and privileges as Americans.  This morning, I want us to shore up our support and deepen our relationship with Israel.  I am a proud supporter of Israel, visiting as often as I can, and eagerly contributing to strengthening the security and well-being of the Jewish State – supporting JNF and AIPAC.  And I also see the great need for encouraging the normative practices of Judaism that I uphold here, also in the land that is my birthright – so I contribute to the Masorti Movement in Israel – an organization that like Conservative Judaism here, upholds and encourages pathways into traditional Judaism for all who are interested.  I do this both because I believe with all of my heart in the flourishing of Israel, and I recognize that I am summoned – that we are all summoned – to recognize the vexing political issues on the ground there at this very moment, that inform what kind of Jewish State the Jewish State will be.  From each of our places, we have an uncanny ability to influence this trajectory.


After Charlottesville, it is an unsettling feeling to not feel at home in this country, in a place that you have always thought is your own.  Even today, as we inaugurate 5778, we still feel the pains, uncertainty, and insecurity of exile.  We are asked to defy gravity – to recognize our place here as both more and less than home.  After so many years of thinking otherwise, it is ominous to think of ourselves again as orphans and immigrants.


And we know too that in Israel, in this space and time, we would have an uphill climb to express ourselves Jewishly in the same way that we have come to cherish our Jewish observances in this community. And as we support Israel, how poised are we to enact and advocate for our pluralistic stance in a deep-rooted, longstanding way – helping to influence society and religious norms in Israel — even more than when we are on vacation, touring, appreciating, and celebrating for a day or two at Robinson’s Arch and across the Jewish State?


From time to time I think, what would it be like to make aliyah to Israel.  Pursuing a religious life that is consonant with my current practices, what values and examples would I assert?  In Israel, how would I be encouraged and how would I be disaffected – how would I gain influence and how would I be crushed?  From my position of leadership and influence in Austin, how can I work to empower and legitimize those same values and examples?  In this place, what is standing in my way?


Perhaps we are living now in a time when the veil of ignorance has been pulled back a bit, exposing the waste, void, and primeval animus that is flowing just beneath our civilizing accommodations.   Let us live our lives, determined not to be rubes in someone else’s game.  Let us inaugurate this year with the best of what our American and Jewish identities grant us – to question, and not to rely on answers – and to not be a cog in someone else’s machine.   The Book of Proverbs warns – b’ein chazon yipara am – where there is no vision, the people perish. 


Let us not ask the question, who are we willing to fight – rather let us ask ourselves, what are we willing to fight for?  When the rubber hits the road, what are our priorities?  We cannot leave our investments half-attended to.  Who we are at home needs to be who we are out in the street – as we carry our values, principles, and morality wherever we go.  We learn in our current climate, that we cannot take anything for granted – our beloved Agudas Achim needs our support, as do those places in Israel and around the world that give us a real sense of home and belonging – and it is from these places that we are then poised to engage in all of the other ways we need to both protect and assert ourselves in our world.


Together, we can support each other and give each other strength that our way of life is valued and matters.  Together, we can realize that while shalom bayit in our Jewish family has its place, we must see the long view of what is important and devote our lives to its constant upkeep.  In our present security, let us not squander our shot.  It is easy to get tired and yet the world demands both our attention and our engagement.  And while the luster of wanting to be president has since waned for me – the idea of why I wanted to be, all these years later, remains as strong as ever.  I have learned in wrestling with my identity that it is Judaism that calls us every day to make a difference – to offer our very lives as a holy down payment for the future.  We are to emulate our prophets who wanted to make something that is already amazing, miraculous.  As we study our texts that make no bones about the state of our world – we have no better option to drown out the cynicism, mendacity, and carnival barker brinksmanship around us than by our commitment to good deeds and righteous living.  We can do so in Israel, strengthening an egalitarian, traditional, non-judgmental religious life that has already embraced us and the choices that we have already made by being here.


So long ago, I chose to hold my Judaism fast, in order to better reflect that which I hold to be important.  I have found a home in this pursuit, as we live today in Austin.  Do you feel at home in this place and time?  How can you further express this feeling?  While we don’t know what tomorrow will bring – and we see in this very space, manifested in the ark doors themselves, the rise and fall and rise again of Jewish civilizations, I think in this time and in this space, it is important to have an egalitarian, pluralistic, traditional synagogue in Austin from which we can give our devoted support to our brothers and sisters in Israel.  Pluralism in Israel is perhaps one of the most important issues of our time, and will help insure the extravagant vision of the Zionist dreamers as they worked steadily to establish the Jewish State.  Before Yom Kippur, I will be sending out more information so you can get to know better what the Masorti Movement is and what it stands for in Israel.  Like our Zionist forebears, I choose to support our community and the Masorti community in Israel. I hope that you will care to join me.


Am Yisrael Chai

Medinat Yisrael Chai


Shanah Tovah u’Metukah

Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah

29/09/2017 at 08:21 Leave a comment

“i love you so much” — Erev Rosh haShanah – 5778

“i love you so much”


Erev Rosh haShanah

Neil F. Blumofe

20 September 2017


Shanah Tovah, everyone – it is delightful that we are able to greet each other and wish each other a sweet new year this evening as we gather again in this gesture of hope, awareness, and positive expectation.  As we are present, we again open our prayer books and our hearts as we move in tandem with our ancestors in this season – as we enter again into the tense household of Abraham and Hagar and Sarah – as we weep with Hannah as she prays in the most holy of spaces, and as we sing along with the prophet Jeremiah as he reassures us that even in the most difficult of circumstances – even in our shortcomings and our flaws — we are seen, loved, and welcomed here this evening.


As we hold space for those who are not here, we are entering again into an idyll of remembrance and aspiration – where time is expanded and our cares in this world take a back seat to our renewed convictions to start again – to appreciate this moment in our life — no more and no less, as it occurs — and as we connect to our ancestors to learn from them as we superimpose our experiences onto theirs – and as we look, for a few precious moments, to quiet our minds and our racing hearts to hear again the still small voice of our essentiality – as we crave with all of our might, just for a moment – that we could possess a heart of wisdom.


As we start this new year, there may be so many things left undone – so many things that perturb us and cause us grief.  And we may not yet be ready – or we may be so ready already to cast off what we see as so wretched in this past year, and start anew.  And yet, before we enter – before we revive our associations for this season, before we begin to perform our stories, before we sit with our ancestors, and express heartache for who and what has been lost — let’s take a moment, and as we breath, consider how we are doing, in this moment.  So, how are you?


How is our emotional health?  Are we sitting here a bit more fragile than before – a bit more guarded, with another year of living and the responsibility of holding the private confidences of others, or the burden of our own secret life that we must maintain?  How are we doing physically?  Do we know our basic health information and our numbers – our cholesterol, our heart rate, our blood pressure?  How is our stress level?  Are we eating well – are we currently suffering from addiction or dependence on alcohol, opiates, illicit drugs, or other medications that get us through each day?  Is our sleep effected because we are online late at night, or because we are suffering from insomnia?  How is our exercise regimen?  Are we sitting here now, suffering in silence, hoping to put on a good face – but really, each year falling into another – how did it get to be 5778 already — and we don’t quite articulate specific goals this time, either – tonight, we are just looking for a bit of inspiration, a little entertainment, and sanction to pass into what is next.  Are we yet able to connect these moments now to our spiritual health — to a practice of prayer, of study, of mediation, and mindfulness?


How can we integrate all of this as we greet the New Year – beyond our appreciation of sweet apples and honey cakes?  How can we develop a holistic plan that takes into account the best of who we are, without judgment, and that enables us to live well, even in a climate of uncertainty and in times when we are convinced that we don’t exactly know what we are doing?


In these days of Elul Rabbi Swedroe and I have been sharing different character strengths in our community – including a bit of a description, a source from our sacred texts and then practical advice about what to consider about each character strength, and suggestions of how to energize these strengths in our life.  We will continue this exploration until Yom Kippur.  We have received a lot of positive feedback in these past few weeks – appreciative notes from members of our community who use these daily announcements as meditations for consideration – people who are glad to receive some practical wisdom and suggestion, and people who appreciate the contact, as they see that some of the character strengths resonate powerfully for them.


There are 24 of them – roughly divided into the categories of wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence – they are:

WISDOM: creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective –

COURAGE: bravery, perseverance, honesty, and zest –

HUMANITY: love, kindness, social intelligence –

JUSTICE: teamwork, fairness, leadership –

TEMPERANCE: forgiveness, humility, prudence, contentment –

TRANSCENDENCE: appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality —


This past Saturday evening, we had a spirited conversation as part of our Selichot study about how we see ourselves, how others see us, how we think others see us – and really, how little we are thought of in the first place – and with these character traits, how we can develop a language and a life of flourishing, as we seek alignment or shleimut, in our life.  As we may know, true change – transformational change — comes from within, as change ultimately, is our choice.


On Rosh haShanah as the shofar is sounded, we proclaim three times, hayom harat olam – today the world stands, as at birth – or as we commonly translate it – today is the birthday of the world.  What is old is new again.  This phrase is taken from the Book of Jeremiah (20:17), as the prophet writes – asher lo mot’tani merachem vat’hi li imi, kivri v’rach’mah harat olam – because God did not kill me in the womb – so that my mother would have been my grave – and her womb forever pregnant.  This is a disturbing verse, and yet it is the source for what the ancient rabbis choose to imagine is our greatest joy.  Past the terror of such an event, our tradition is asking us to consider that our birth is miraculous and that each moment that we have is eternally full – of possibility, of depth, and connection – hayom harat olam – today — as this is the day that we are alive, now – this day is forever pregnant with meaning.


On Rosh haShanah, we move from curses to blessings – even if we are carrying such burden and trepidation, we enter into this space and move from terror to triumph – a place of difficulty, to a time of expressing ourselves with gratitude, connecting our lives now, with a moment of creation – each of us aware that we possess the potential of an entire world.


We have chosen to be here this evening, as a way to break our isolation and to come in from the cold.  We learn again to appreciate meticulous honesty – to tell ourselves the truth.  We reject amorality – we reject negative dialectics and deconstruction as we open our emotions, our bodies, and our souls to the possibility of what can yet be. We all possess all of these character strengths – and each of us is gifted with specific core signature strengths, that is our footprint as we step in the world.  As the 19th-century Hasidic master, the Sefat Emet teaches — each of us contains the form of the entire world – each of us is called a small world, since the whole world is contained within each of us.


Each of us embodies the resistance and the liberation of hayom harat olam – each of us with our own approaches can yet help to determine the stories of our ancestors as we write them again this year – and we can increase the caring of and the healing of our world as we stretch to know ourselves and our potentials, a bit better.  And while we greet our Rosh haShanah ancestors again, we stand in uncharted territory – for it is they who are looking to us now for guidance and direction.  As we know that we are carrying our tradition forward, we realize that in our community together, we are all a great constellation — as we orbit each other, and gain our strength and our inspiration in our mutual gravitational pull.


By doing the work of identifying and exercising our signature strengths in a Jewish context, we can increase our resilience, our optimism, our well-being, and our joy.  We see that our happiness is not contingent on our external events – we can cultivate an internal ever-replenishing wellspring that sustains our life – and we can see that our life is a calling, beckoning us to turn difficulty into favorable consideration – as we are sustained by constant gratitude, come what may.


So I ask in these days – the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – in these 10 Days of Repentance, that we review these 24 character strengths, and in our introspection, we identify our top five – through the material that we are providing, and in the guiding questions that you can answer online from the VIA institute – the group that is doing the research regarding the science of wellbeing – and let us privilege how we are wired as we immerse into this new year – enhancing our life’s meaning in how we express ourselves Jewishly, and how we enhance our personal strength when living each day hurts.  Let us ask for help – let us seek to provide help – and let us thrive – we are here, today.  Hineinu.  And each of us is yearning today for harat olam – the ability to have all of our hopes, dreams, fears, rejections, and aspirations finally burst forth from us, like each of us walking again through the miracle of the split open Red Sea – positioning us in these days of promise and renewal, for redemption and God willing, for relief.


Shanah Tovah u’Metukah

Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah

28/09/2017 at 08:37 Leave a comment

“Shabbat Shalom” — Pinchas — 5777

“Shabbat Shalom”


Parashat Pinchas

Neil F. Blumofe

15 July 2017


Something interesting happened at the Hartman Institute this year, which is directly connected to something that happened in Austin this past October.  Perhaps you remember that Micha Goodman, a professor of philosophy and a Research Fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, visited our community this past fall and offered words of Torah in our sanctuary.  He said that he had never offered a d’var Torah in a synagogue before, and especially, in the presence of his father, who was in town, as well.


As Micha began to offer his Torah, he realized that there were some somber aspects to it – as he was speaking about Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judea, who encouraged the people to expand their holdings in the land and increase their security, by intentionally cultivating fields and vineyards – Gedaliah was assassinated – and once Micha began speaking about the mirrors of history and the relevancy of Gedaliah in our own day – he stopped and playfully, just said – this is an intractable situation – everything is distressing – Shabbat Shalom –– which, by its absurdity and sad truth, was funny.  The punchline is that there is no clear way forward.  Shabbat Shalom.


And there were many Shabbat Shaloms at Hartman in these past two weeks – it became a running joke.  Not only Micha, it became a catchphrase among many of the presenters – who, realizing the inevitable difficulties in various choices and dilemmas, tried to diffuse the bleakness by abruptly saying – Shabbat Shalom.


Micha, who is known as a wunderkind in Israel, was speaking this past week about his new book – a best seller in Israel – called Catch ’67 – the title is modelled on the Joseph Heller book, Catch -22, where the protagonist, Captain John Yossarian, a US Army Air Force B-25 pilot, struggles to keep his sanity, while fulfilling his requirements of service.  The Catch 22 is a paradox – Heller sets it up as people who are mentally unfit were not obligated to fly, however anyone who applied to stop flying was showing a rational concern for their safety, and therefore were sane enough to fly.  A Catch 22 is known as a double bind – or an unsolvable puzzle of logic.


Goodman named his book Catch 67, in order to explore the double-bind present still, after Israel’s extraordinary victory in the Six-Day War in 1967.  He hoped to open up a healthier conversation about the inner struggle present in Israeli society about the current moral and political dilemmas that exist in forging ahead with both the blessings and the curses gained from that war, and in the 50 years since.  Catch 67 is the best-selling book in Israel and its thesis?  Shabbat Shalom.


The paradox is that while a majority in Israel favor withdrawing from places with a Palestinian majority in order to ensure Israel’s future as an internationally accepted state, the same people realize that they cannot withdraw because they fear for the security which would then have indefensible borders – thus the Zionist project is in jeopardy – both remaining and withdrawing from Judea and Samaria are not practical.  As Micha has said – the Israelis in the center are not between the right and the left – they are both right and left – that is why we are so perplexed. 


Catch 67 is not yet translated into English – however, the thrust of the book charts the main, competing ideological movements of Zionism and how they have been transformed and are currently in crisis.   On one hand, there is the Zionism as imagined by Theodore Herzl – the ancient Jewish wish is to be accepted and loved.  This Zionism strives to connect the Jews to the world – where geography doesn’t matter as much as politics.  This belief purports that if there is a Jewish state, then antisemitism will disappear and Israel will enter into the family of nations, becoming an organic part of humanism.


The other Zionism described in the book is what Micha calls Romantic Zionism — that Jews will be brought together – that the culture of the Jews is the spirit, and that the covenanted land of the Jews is the body – that it is space that defines who we are.  This view was popularized by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, and the founder of Yeshiva Mercaz HaRav Kook – a school that teaches what is now known as Religious Zionism.  Rav Kook stated in 1920 that the land of Israel is not acquisition – rather it is inherently part of who the Jewish people are.  Ze’ev Jabotinsky, co-founder of the Jewish Legion of the British Army in World War I stated that problem lies with people who try to prove that the land belongs to us – rather, he taught – the land is us.  This position states that Zionism and the establishment of Israel is the return of the spirit to the body – where memories attach themselves to places – as the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky wrote, who we are is where we are.


After 1948 and the founding of the state of Israel, both of these two Zionisms took a back seat to other Zionisms that surfaced as the State of Israel struggled to survive and to flourish – and both Zionisms became animated again after the victory in the Six Day War —  for the Herzl vision, Israel now had territorial assets with diplomatic advantages – land for peace was possible; and for the followers of Romantic Judaism, Rav Kook’s vision, the promised homeland of the Jews was finally delivered into our hands – and now our task is to settle it – and it is these two ideas, perhaps utopian visions, that have been tearing Israel apart ever since.


Yossi Klein Halevi describes our current time as Stage Three – including two deadly intifadas which have brought about a disenchantment of both of these visions.  We are currently living in a time where the recent victory of Avi Gabbay, the new leader of the struggling Labor Party, tellingly didn’t even mention peace in his platform – for this possibility seems so distant – where peace is not even a promise of the politicians, let alone a vison of society.  In this Stage Three, Israelis can neither trust nor control the Palestinians – if Israel stays in the Disputed Territories – Israelis believe that they will lose ethically, diplomatically, and demographically – which will bring the end of Zionism.  And if Israelis leave the Disputed Territories, it will be hard for Israel to defend itself – where Israel could not survive a surprise attack – as current commenters state – the Arab Spring was like an earthquake – if ancient stable countries collapse so easily, could a new weak Palestine survive?  It would be fauda – chaos – and we have the dilemma of believing in both quandaries.  We have the trepidation of both withdrawal and of occupation.


Is there a way out of Catch 67? Are we willing to expect a lot less from what a solution looks like?  As Goodman states – are we willing to turn a fatal disease into a chronic condition?  Are we willing to think differently about our Zionism and about the dichotomies present in both the visions of Herzl and of Rav Kook?  Micha leaves us with these important considerations — are we willing just to have more peace, as opposed to wanting to bring “the peace?”  Are we willing to make some accommodations to relieve some pressure of the Catch 67, shrinking the amount of occupation without dramatically shrinking the amount of security for Israelis?


So we are left with a lingering dilemma which has engaged some of the politicians – Naftali Bennett, head of the pro-settlement Jewish Home Party wrote that he did not agree with everything that Micha wrote – however he said, “the truth be told, over the 50 years since the great victory in the war, we have sunk into a war of ideas in which we basically triumph over ourselves.”  The former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, wrote a long negative critique of the book in Haaretz, suggesting that Goodman was out of his depths and not qualified to speak for the generals of the army – and Micha wrote back about Barak, who was Prime Minister during the difficult second intifada, stating – it is a fascinating twist for one of the story’s heroes to offer his critique of its narrator.


And so the debates slouch on – as we study Pinchas and God’s granting of the Covenant of Peace to the man whose actions and rewards are hotly debated in our traditions.  Pinchas, who stopped a devastating plague by killing Zimri and Cozbi – an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who were acting badly before the Tent of Meeting — was accused of murder by the B’nei Israel and also, offered the Priesthood by God.


Can both be true – can the responsibilities of caring for the people and entering into the Covenant of Peace be a way to advance a moral and secure life?  Can we stop the plague – a fatal disease – and devote our dedicated efforts to managing the chronic condition?  Can all of us in our community have conversations based on mutually shared respectful values without resorting to fear, blame, resentment, or severe judgment?  Let us ask ourselves the question – who do we want to be?  What is important to us?  As good, moral, intelligent lovers of Israel, can we have different political positions about Israel and together create a place of exploration, creativity, and magnanimity as we live and struggle in these mighty predicaments together?  Let us continue these practical vital conversations on the ground, while at the same time we look for the miracle from above.  Kein Y’hi Ratzon.


Shabbat Shalom.

18/07/2017 at 13:48 Leave a comment

“As Loud as Grasshoppers” – Shelach – 5777

“As Loud as Grasshoppers”


Parashat Shelach

Neil F. Blumofe

17 June 2017


At the shore of the Jordan River, Moses sends twelve spies to scout out the Promised Land, with disastrous results.  Ten of the spies return with negative reports about the chances of success for the Israelites in entering and settling this land, thus withering the spirit of the community, and leading to no confidence and terror.  There is panic among the people, which ultimately leads to a Divine decree of a forty-year exile — thereby condemning this generation of former slaves to wander in the wilderness until they die.

These extraordinary people, who have directly witnessed many miracles of God, do not get to fulfill God’s covenantal promise of entering into the Promised Land — they are obligated to live their lives outside of their purpose — their days becoming a sentence of fragmentary, exilic gestures.  This is no more tragically described in the final, unsuccessful plea of Moses at the end of his life, to enter into the land to which he has devotedly led his people.

How are we manipulated by those around us — those supposed experts who have their own motivations for injecting uncertainty and dread into our daily lives?  How do we sit, transfixed by the doomsday scenarios surrounding us — convinced that our world is on a fast track to hell in a hand basket, while we become both radicalized and desensitized, in response?  How do we regard those in our community who may have a different opinion about the current state of our world, as we stew in the juices of heaped upon frustration?  How much violence will it take for us to snap back and withstand the bilious offerings of partisan cynicism and adverse showmanship?


There was an important verdict handed down this week – a judge found a young woman, Michelle Carter – now 20 years old — guilty of involuntary manslaughter after she kept sending her friend, Conrad Roy III, text messages when she was 17, urging him to kill himself, which he ultimately did.  In order for this case to get to trial in the first place, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the intent and content of her text messages to Roy had a coercive quality to them.  As was described, the thousands of texts and phone calls motivated the young man to take his life – and specifically Carter was on the phone with Roy at the time of his suicide, exhorting him to get back into his truck that was filling with carbon monoxide, and then listened to him die without trying to help him – as the prosecution stated – she was in his ear, she was in his mind, she was on the phone, and she was telling him to get back in the car even though she knew he was going to die.


What voices are constantly in our ears?  How much do these voices guide us towards the actions that we take?  Are other really responsible for what we do?  And these spies, reporting to the Israelites gathered at the entrance to the Promised Land – how debilitating was their reportage – how much did it negatively impact the culture of the camp?


This decision to assign blame to someone who is not physically present, yet encourages negative behavior, will have far-reaching implications.  It determines the extent to which we think we have free will.  We realize that the opinions that we have are not ours alone – rather, that they have been formed in the refraction of other influences that we regularly encounter, digest, and assimilate.  Whose fault was it that the Israelites gave in to their fears and anxieties – according to our Torah, everyone was effected, and everyone paid the price for their unstable behavior.


We are what we read, what we listen to, what videos we watch, and what websites we visit.  We are a sum total of all that we read during the blaze of day, and all that whispers to us in the hush of night.


One of the elements in which I take a lot of pride in serving this community, is the diversity of this community.  I am proud that we have a growing, flourishing community, that is filled with strong opinions across the political spectrum.  However, as we have seen in our larger American landscape, these delicate balances are in danger of disappearing.  If someone is too sensitive to rebuttal, they might be deemed a snowflake – and there are demeaning epithets from left to right that do not admit any nuance or truth – rather, they are angry and meant to isolate and demean others – shutting down conversation.


As a community, we must recognize who is in the room – are we still able to engage with each other?  Can we encourage those in different political parties to pray together, and to support our community together – or shall we ignore the political firestorms raging outside, and double down on this being a sanctuary – limiting opinions that can lead to controversy – and just smile, hoping that people don’t quit, as we leave the world outside?  How far is too far, before the pegs fracture, and our big tent comes crashing down – and are there principles more important than people?  As we exercise our passions, how do we engage others, without driving them away?


Van’hi v’eineinu ka’chagavim — vechein, hayinu b’eineihem – as we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and we also appeared to them as grasshoppers.  Grasshoppers make a lot of noise – always in our ears, and in our minds.  As our mystics teach, we are always on the shores of our Promised Land – always ready to enter.  What sounds constantly rustle in our ears, like an incessant typewriter, that prevents our going forward?  How can we limit that which depreciates and dehumanizes us, that which has a coercive quality – and pushes our buttons and coarsens our approach to life?


And as our Proverbs teach — “a happy heart is as healing as medicine.”  Learning the sobering lessons of this week’s Torah, let us rise up to respond differently than our Torah ancestors did, tested by the import of the challenges and the uncharted territory that we now face.


Shabbat Shalom.

22/06/2017 at 17:25 Leave a comment

Lego Land

“Lego Land”


Parashat Terumah

Neil F. Blumofe

4 March 2017


Earlier this week, as part of our 10,000 Faces of Torah initiative, I was leading a Torah study on this week’s Torah portion in a house filled with wonderfully engaged participants.  Most folks there had not really studied in a concerted way – and as we spoke together, introducing the topic of building the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, out of very rich materials gained in Egypt as the Israelites were leaving slavery – the people assembled were now in the desert learning how to relate to each other in their newly discovered freedom.


As we learned about the ancient rabbinic concept of — ein haKadosh Baruch Hu makeh et Yisrael eleh im kein borei lahem refuah techilah – or in other words, threats and danger do not appear to Israel unless God has set up a remedy for them first.  This is a concept central to our understanding of Purim – where the machinations of the villain Haman have already been mitigated by the presence of Esther, who has previously been chosen to be the queen to King Achashverosh – and this concept is also relevant to our Torah portion, as understood by the great medieval sage, Rashi – the Tabernacle exists — it is already in place to neutralize the damage of the orgiastic insurgency of the Golden Calf.  While the episode of the Golden Calf is yet to come in our linear reading of the Torah – according to our teaching, this difficult episode of impatience and betrayal was already anticipated in the scheme of things and the antidote to its potential harm – the building of the Mishkan — has already been injected into the world.


While we were studying, the realization that the Jews are often their own worst enemies, surfaced.  Very often, our tendency not to give our neighbor the benefit of the doubt degrades our relationships – and our tendency to be unduly influenced by antagonism and disapproval coarsens the fabric of our delicate community.  We were speaking about this a few days ago as we were all affected by the grim, ironic realization that over the past several weeks, over 100 Jewish community centers, schools, synagogues, and cemeteries have been threatened by bomb threats, vandalism, and violence.  We have seen picture after picture of the gravestones of our loved ones toppled over and we have seen our most vulnerable – children and seniors — being evacuated from places that are meant to serve as places of refuge – that are meant to serve as sanctuaries from the ever-present, creeping indignities of everyday life – the places that are currently threatened are the very places build by Jews as buttresses against such insidious antisemitism.


These baleful events exacerbate the apprehension that many feel as we all struggle to recalibrate and respond to a whirlwind of new national leadership and a perceived breakdown of the previously organized signposts of our media and of our culture.  The boundaries between fact and fiction are more porous than ever – and our ability to customize our own worldview while at the same time being manipulated by the viewpoints of others, seems to be unprecedented.


And here we are, in the specter of this disquiet, finding the common thread of our own difficulties with each other.  It seems, that in reaction to the difficulties of this world, we take out our stress by struggling against those with whom we are meant to find common ground and shared experiences.  As Jews, we attack each other – as the easiest, softest targets.  This congregation is not immune from this affliction.  As we find ourselves in a clash of ideals, we discover perhaps to our surprise, our own inherent trigger warnings attached to our staked-out political positions – and we compensate for our unease by disengaging from each other, and even boycotting or badmouthing this community, sacrificing it to our so-called higher ideals or prevailing priorities.  I think that this is a grave mistake.


In a time such as this, such behavior underscores that many of us are truly alone – unwilling to invest in a Jewish community that at times may cause some turbulence and friction – and at the same time knowing that out in the larger world, there are those who have already dehumanized us and who don’t think twice about threatening our children and grandparents.


And however difficult it may be to affirm, we do have the principle that even in the darkening hours, there are remedies already in place that provide a cure.  I welcome all of us to cultivate the gifts of perseverance and resilience as we move in this community – allowing for civil disagreement without turning everything into a zero-sum game.  I ask us to make our synagogue life a higher priority, knowing that our potential disbeliefs and distrusts – and certainly the ills of this world will not be solved by our disengagement.  I am confident that this community will long outlast current political alliances and will thrive beyond specific administrations.


Also this week, we were privileged to have in Austin a world-renowned scholar of Jewish Mysticism and Zohar, which is the foundational work of the Kabbalah.  As Melila was visiting, she taught that this world is linked together in a unified oneness, as the Kabbalah states – [our lives] constitute a chain linking everything from the highest to the lowest, extending from the upper pool to the edge of the universe.  There is nothing – not even the tiniest thing – that is not fastened to the link of this chain…Down to the last link, everything is linked with everything else – so divine essence is below as well as above – in heaven and on earth.  There is nothing else. 


According to our Torah, this is the way that we fix our Golden Calf moments.  As we construct our Mishkan, we make kerashim – vertical planks that were held flush by two tenons that inserted into two mortises and were made strong by their mutual support – like legos.  We realize that in our study of the Mishkan we can frame our perspective, and realize that ultimately, we gain support from being in relationship with each other – also like legos.  In learning about this sacred architecture of the Torah, and in our hopes of bringing meaning into our world, we can recast our hardening perspectives with a modicum of gentleness.  The world will not readily offer inherent safety and security – we must forge those bonds of kinship and commonality in the hard work that we do by finding common ground all around us, and linking ourselves to the circumstances of our neighbors – this kind of work begins within this sacred structure – if we are finding our motivations and rationale beyond these sacred kerashim, then we are failing each other and absconding from our responsibility – we are then unwittingly allowing the ascendancy of those who wish us harm.


In response, we are to give each other the benefit of the doubt – as we try mightily to make sense of what is around us.  We must do so with generosity and an increased tolerance that none of us really know what we are doing and none of us knows what is coming – and that we must not operate from exclusive self-interest.  We know and we take solace that there are remedies awaiting our discovery – already built into our world – so, let us not fixate on the ailments themselves and the deliberate misdirection of our politicians – but rather let us concentrate on these positive, powerful countermeasures of blessing, grace, and mercy that are previously God-given – and let these be the ways — the tenons — that hold us together.


Shabbat Shalom.

06/03/2017 at 11:23 Leave a comment

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