Monday, September 28, 2009

YOM KIPPUR SERMON, 5770 / 2009

The New York Times. June 23, 2071. Obituaries.

Jonathan Blake, Michelin-Star Awarded Chef, Dies at 97.

Jonathan Blake, whose restaurant Fress has long been a shrine to Jewish cuisine and has served as the training ground for rising stars in the culinary world, died Saturday at his home in New York, surrounded by family.

Chef Blake’s innovative spin on classical Jewish cuisine--one of the restaurant’s signature dishes is a mousseline of gefilte fish in a carrot-jalapeño foam--helped transform a modest six-table restaurant in Greenwich Village into a culinary powerhouse that received its Michelin star in 2047, upon moving to its current location opposite Lincoln Center. It has held on to those stars ever since, becoming the first Jewish-themed restaurant so recognized.

Many of the dishes that won that star remain on the menu, like “lox in a box,” a house-cured gravlax of salmon concealed in a perfect cube of brioche and truffled poached egg. In an era of celebrity chefs, Blake was a throwback, a dedicated practitioner more comfortable in front of a saucepan than a TV camera. He also contributed to a renaissance of interest in Jewish cuisine with his popular cookbook series entitled The Well-Tempered Kugel.

Blake was raised in a food-obsessed family, in a home suffused with the aromas of a Jewish kitchen. But it was only later in life, upon retirement at age 65, that the chef answered his second calling. In a stunning act of reinvention, he traded in the modest yarmulke of his first career as a congregational rabbi for the signature white toque of his latter years. Though the rabbinate is sometimes regarded as a footnote in Blake’s otherwise butter-slathered biography, it should be noted that even in retirement, he never missed a Saturday morning Torah study, a pursuit which stirred his passion no less than his restaurant’s most popular appetizer: the purple-potato latke with crème fraiche, chives, caviar, and sweet red onion jam.

Well, one can always dream.

I’ve been inspired this year by stories of reinvention, and the fantasy I’ve just outlined I owe to my college classmate and friend Julie Powell whose name comprises one half of “Julie and Julia,” the uplifting, if now ubiquitous, true story of reinvention for both its namesakes. The popularity of television shows like American Idol and Project Runway, in which a nobody emerges a superstar, suggests that reinvention is part and parcel of the American dream.

As tough times put more and more people out of work, careers undergo re-consideration and, for the inspired, yesterday’s misfortune has become today’s opportunity for reinvention. Layoffs have activated untold numbers of Americans to pursue discarded dreams, reconfigure priorities, take up new hobbies, go back to school, volunteer in their communities, promote their professional expertise online, discover what had been missing from their lives at home and among family members.

Even for cynics the possibility of reinvention holds an allure. “My one regret in life,” Woody Allen said, “is that I’m not someone else.”

Some have been summoned to reinvention by a newfound conscience or consciousness. Last month Nick Kristof wrote an Op-Ed piece about Wendell Potter, a big health insurance executive who for twenty years worked to block health care reform. But in his heart, doubts began to creep in. The defining moment came in 2007 when Potter dropped in on a three-day charity program at a county fairgrounds to provide medical care for patients who could not afford doctors. Long lines of people were waiting in the rain, and patients were being examined and treated in public in stalls intended for livestock. “It was a life-changing event to witness that,” Potter said. Since then he has gone public with his concerns, testifying before the Senate, working tirelessly for reform.

Or consider Julius Lester, African-American professor emeritus of Judaic Studies at UMASS. Periodically, Prof. Lester would lead Shabbat services at Amherst College Hillel when I was a student. Trained as a chazzan, the baritone lent a gospel beauty to our prayers. You’d never know that in the 1960’s Lester distinguished himself as a militant anti-Semitic radio host who called his first book, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama! With encouragement, love and the guidance of my Hillel rabbi, Yechiel Lander, he reinvented himself. You can read his eloquently testimony in his book, Lovesong: Becoming a Jew.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said, “There are no second acts in American life,” was dead wrong. Could anyone familiar with Ronald Reagan’s work in the 1940s or 50s imagine him in the 1980s? Or for that matter, could anyone have predicted Al Franken’s second act? Celebrated folk artist Grandma Moses took up painting in her seventies, after arthritis made it impossible for her to continue her career in embroidery. Luciano Pavarotti was an elementary school teacher and insurance salesman who studied voice for six years, performing intermittently at small recitals for no pay. A nodule on his vocal cords and a disastrous concert prompted him to give up singing altogether, a decision so psychologically liberating that he suddenly found his natural voice able to make sounds he never before dreamed possible.

Alfred Nobel, namesake of the world’s most celebrated prizes, undertook a stunning reinvention that began when, quite by accident, he happened to read his own obituary. In 1888, an erroneous publication of a premature obituary by a French newspaper condemned Nobel for his invention of dynamite. The obituary stated, Le marchand de la mort est mort: “The merchant of death is dead,” and went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Reading those words haunted and transformed him. Seven years later he signed his last will and testament to establish the Nobel Prizes in fields of science and literature and peace, to be awarded annually, without distinction of nationality.

Our sacred texts tell stories of reinvention. Abram reached a ripe old age ambling around his hometown in Mesopotamia until he heard God’s call, Lech-Lecha, “Go forth, go forth from anywhere you’ve ever been and everything you’ve ever known, and forge a destiny, an identity, progeny, people.” Thus was Abram reinvented as Abraham; his wife Sarai, as Sarah.

Moses had more than one “second act.” An infant abandoned; a child of Egyptian privilege; a fugitive killer; a soft-spoken desert shepherd; and then came the mountain and the bush aflame but unconsumed. Returning from the epiphany he descended all aglow, radiating light and law and leadership.

Stunning acts of reinvention, all.

And who can forget Jacob? Tarnished by stealing birthright and blessing from his twin brother, Jacob fled Esau’s murderous rage as a young man. For more than twenty years he has tended sheep, taken wives, raised a family. He decides to return home. He sends his family ahead. Alone in pitch-black night by the riverbank, he awakens to find himself gripped by a stranger, pinned to the ground. All night long he wrestles.

At daybreak the foe, overcome at last, releases Jacob and tries to escape. But Jacob holds him fast. “Let me go,” the adversary cries, “for dawn is breaking.”

“I will not let you go,” Jacob insists, “until you bless me.” His opponent struggles hard, wrenching Jacob’s hip from the socket.

“What is your name?” he gasped.


“Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with God and with people and you have prevailed.”

He blessed him and departed.

There, in the dark, a dramatic reinvention. Out of a harrowing encounter, the patriarch emerges transformed. Jacob the sly trickster has become Israel the spiritual victor.

In the course of a lifetime, we all visit this place, the place of life struggle, of wrestling in the dark. The loss of a job, a marriage, a loved one, a cherished hope or dream, can pin us down in an iron grip. From Wall Street to Detroit to the heartland, from last Yom Kippur to this Yom Kippur, we’ve endured a long, dark night. Can we extract blessing from the struggle, emerge transformed? Arise victorious, with new confidence, new purpose? New degrees, new opportunities, new vocations?

I can hear what some of you are thinking:

“Rabbi, this is a retirement account we’re talking about, a life-long endeavor, not a fleeting mid-life crisis. We planned for decades for a quiet golden age of family and travel and togetherness--not for more time at the office. I’m spent.”

Or: “Rabbi, I liked my line of work. Yes, it provided an income, but it also provided happiness and fulfillment. Why should I re-invent myself when I’m happy with who I was, who I am?”

Or: “Rabbi, what’s done is done. My loved one is gone forever. But don’t expect me to pull myself up and look on the sunny side… let alone start dating again! I can’t be someone I’m not.”

And, you know what?

You’re right.

For most mortals, the possibility of reinvention remains vanishingly small. Most attempts end up frustrated, failed. Fitzgerald may have gotten it right after all. Very few are granted second acts. We are not, cannot be, need not be, Julia Child or Luciano Pavarotti or Alfred Nobel, let alone Abraham or Moses or Jacob.

The familiar saying about teaching an old dog new tricks is accurate and wise. Perhaps you have heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The MBTI is a questionnaire designed to measure personality type: our psychological preferences in how we perceive the world and make decisions, extrapolated from the theories of Carl Jung. Today as many as two million MBTI questionnaires are administered annually, including at WRT among your rabbis and cantors, who have utilized the Index to understand each other’s personalities and work habits, and thereby to improve the way we work together as a team.

Here’s the interesting part. Research shows that one’s baseline personality attributes as assessed by the MBTI will remain essentially unchanged from adolescence until death. If at age sixteen one prefers to make lists than to “go with the flow,” prefers solitude to the company of others, feels moved by passion over logic, then these ingrained tendencies will probably hold fast for a lifetime.

Reinvention? Get real! “I am what I am and that’s all that I am. I’m Popeye the Sailor Man!”

Come to think of it, Jacob didn’t really re-invent himself that night. Even after earning the name Israel, the one who struggles and prevails, the Torah still refers to him as Jacob, even on his deathbed. Jacob could never erase all the things made him Jacob, ugly though some of those traits may have been: sneakiness, narcissism, ambition, stubbornness. Writhing in the dark, battered and exhausted, Jacob won’t just walk away, leave it be, let it go. “No!” he says. “First, I have to get something!” Why should we expect that Jacob would ever let anything go? At every stage of life, Jacob remains quintessentially Jacob: unyielding, unbending, unrelenting.

So it should not surprise us that in old age, Jacob regretted opportunities unmet and relationships unfulfilled. He carried grudges with him to the grave, over children who let him down.

When all is said and done, reinvention is not the ultimate Jewish goal, not even a Jewish way of thinking about what a meaningful life demands of us. The secular world is always telling us, “Change your hair, your clothes, your attitude! You can be someone else.” That is not what Judaism tells us.

The Chasidic Master Reb Zusya famously taught, “When I reach the next world, God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ The question will be, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Why were you not the person you were meant to be? Why were you not the most you that you could be?

But if reinvention is not a Jewish path, neither is its opposite: stagnation, complacency, becoming ossified, calcified, set in our ways, unwilling to change. Even among the gainfully employed, how many of us feel stuck, unable to break the old, predictable patterns? Lily Tomlin once said, “The trouble with being in the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” It’s no way to live, and, frankly, our faith asks more of us.

Here is what Judaism teaches:

You can change.

You need not reinvent yourself.

But you have to change.

Call it evolution.

Spiritual evolution!

You can evolve.

You must evolve, if you really want to live.

Darwin who taught us evolution is a deeply misunderstood figure. Evolution through natural selection says little about “survival of the fittest” and much about adaptability. Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” The world keeps changing: in some instants, immensely, more often, imperceptibly. But it keeps changing. Why not you?

The Creator made you that way, able to change. At this very moment your cells are replacing themselves: out with the old, in with the new. What is true for the human cell is true for the human body and what is true for the human body is true for the human spirit. You can change. You were born to evolve, and to keep evolving.

Reverend Peter Gomes who serves as the spiritual leader of the Memorial Church of Harvard University is one of America’s great preachers. He recalls meeting two ladies, twins in fact, who had recently celebrated their ninety-third birthday. “In response to the usual newspaper question, ‘To what do you attribute your longevity,’ the laconic answer from Miss Minnie was ‘Time.’”

Upon which, Gomes observes, “...time presents the opportunity for growth and too many people waste too much time waiting for epochal ‘mountaintop’ experiences as a stimulus to growth when there is so much work to be done in the valleys, where we spend most of that time anyway.”

So much time, so much potential growth, so much work to be done down here, in the valleys.

Why are you not the most you that you can be?

And let us ask yet more, on Yom Kippur, day of questions:

If I could read my obituary today, would it say what I would want it to say?

What lies within my capacity to change?

And what lies beyond my capacity to change?

If parts of my life dissatisfy me, am I trying too hard to change the people around me, or the circumstances around me, and not hard enough to change … me?

Is my way in the world--my words, my deeds, my priorities--harmonious with my most cherished values and with the values I espouse to others? If not, why not?

How can I recalibrate my deeds so that they more closely resemble my innermost values, the things that I tell myself and others “really matter the most?”

If I am unwilling to change, how much of that unwillingness is rooted in fear--fear of what I might find out about myself, my limitations, my weaknesses? Fear of abandoning the reassuring familiarity of old ways?

Am I open to the possibility of evolution? Or have I convinced myself that I’m done changing, that my power to evolve dried up long ago?

Am I ready not only for change to happen, but to struggle, really struggle, to make it happen?

To open ourselves to change is to become Israel: to confront the adversary and refuse to let go until we emerge with blessing. Yes, Jacob will be Jacob. He can never undo his childhood mistakes, never recover the misspent years, never change his essential nature. He can never relinquish every regret. Even after encountering his long-estranged brother in a healing embrace of forgiveness, he can never reconstruct a perfect relationship with Esau. He can never make himself impervious to hardship or heartbreak, and he will yet know plenty.

But in that long night of wrestling, Jacob insisted: “I can change. I can evolve. Never again will I run away from my troubles. Never again will I toil for years in silent bitterness, hopeless of my own power to change. I can never stop being Jacob, but I can also be Israel, the one who strives and prevails. I may forevermore walk with a limp, but tonight I will not let go until I change.”

Judaism does not ask us to scrap who we have been. It does not call us to reinvent ourselves. It calls us to evolve, to change, to grow spiritually so that our deeds more closely resemble our innermost values. Judaism never asks us to become someone else. It constantly demands that we become our most authentic selves.

The notion that Yom Kippur furnishes us with a “blank slate” is misguided and a bit ridiculous. The slate is never blank, not even at birth: we come into this world burdened with potentialities and tendencies and family histories, features inscribed by genetics, by parenting, by environment. We’d be fools to think that Yom Kippur can erase the deeds already done, the tenacious habits, the insults and injuries.

What Yom Kippur does give us is perspective: the perspective to see that there’s still plenty of room on that old imprinted slate to add another chapter, to revisit ourselves with unflinching honesty, to go back and try again, and this time, to change it a little bit.

Alice Walker who wrote The Color Purple has said:

“I feel that as long as the Earth can make a Spring every year, I can; I won’t give up until the Earth gives up.”

Great God of Life, you have blessed us with a glorious Earth, constantly evolving, constantly renewing itself. Today, make us like the ever-changing Earth. Help us make our Spring, this Autumn, at the beginning of the year, 5770, and never give up.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah Sermon 5770 / 2009

Westchester Reform Temple Scarsdale, New York Delivered 09.18.09 I am honored and so, so happy to greet you on this, my seventh Rosh Ha-Shanah at Westchester Reform Temple, in this new sanctuary both inspirational and intimate. I hope you feel as I feel tonight: right at home. Please pause with me to acknowledge how many people, how much time, how much thoughtfulness and insight, how much generosity of spirit has been summoned in service of this sanctuary. And please acknowledge how much yet summons us. We are still building. Moments like these conspire less toward self-congratulation than toward a great humility. Our name for this special time of year, “Days of Awe,” takes on new resonance tonight. We come here at the turn of the year, a year that in its own disquieting way also conspired less toward self-congratulation than toward a great humility. On the morning before Rosh Ha-Shanah last year we sat here with many a worshipper’s electrocardiogram dancing up and down in queasy tandem with stock market. We’ve endured a year for the ages: a landmark election that changed the face of the country; bank busts and big bailouts; the once-mighty General Motors giving new meaning to “Cash for Clunkers”; a raging and uncivil debate over the future of health care in America; a frightening and persistent upswing in unemployment and underemployment… and that’s just the domestic front. Against the backdrop of these public upheavals many sitting here tonight have also endured untold private pains. And though some of the dust has settled over the year that was, we sit here tonight very much uncertain about the year to come, this new year 5770, very much humbled. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a little humility, hard won though it may be. If the last year impelled us to spend less and save more; to use less and conserve more; to reexamine our views about health care, about what constitutes a “right” and what a “privilege,” then perhaps on balance we can look back and say that it served a good purpose. But a fine line divides a feeling of awe and humility from a feeling of smallness and insignificance. “Today I saw a red and yellow sunset and thought, how insignificant I am!” writes Woody Allen. “Of course, I thought that yesterday too, and it rained,” he adds. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer announces the essential message of the Days of Awe: “Our origin is dust and dust is our end. Each of us is a shattered urn, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, a particle of dust floating on the wind, a dream soon forgotten.” It is feeling at the heart of the human condition: to understand our mortality; to know the futility of so much human striving; to feel small and inconsequential. We all know that feeling. Years like this one, and moments like this one, have a way of magnifying it. The masters have spilled oceans of ink on it. Do you remember Gregor Samsa? “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were, armor-plated black and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed-quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his build, waved helplessly before his eyes. ‘What has happened to me?’ he thought. But it was no dream.” Franz Kafka. Metamorphosis. We’ve all been there, all been Gregor Samsa at one time or another: transformed into something hopeless or helpless; flailing about; alone. It requires no special prompting. But the loss of a loved one, or a job, or a retirement account can make us feel insecure, adrift, captive while we watch cherished dreams vanish. “What has happened to me?” we ask. But it is no dream. So what do we do? We compensate. We puff ourselves up. We tell ourselves, and we tell others, that our importance derives from what we have accumulated--wealth or status or influence or advanced degrees. In ourselves and others, we mistake net worth for true worth. We value impressive titles over the lowercase friend, helper, mentor, mensch. We confuse career success with life success. A ship is sailing through the Atlantic on a cold and foggy day. Suddenly a voice is heard from somewhere out on the water. It is a cry for help. The captain runs to the side of his ship, only to realize that the fog is so thick he is unable to see exactly where the cry is coming from. But he can hear a frightened voice yelling, “Save me; I am in a boat that has sprung a leak. Save me!” The captain quickly grabs a bullhorn and shouts in the general direction of the boat. “We are trying to get to you. What is your position? What is your position?” The voice answers back, “Senior Vice President of a bank! Senior Vice President of a bank!” How ironic that arrogance, entitlement, self-important bluster most often arise not from high self-regard but rather from low self-esteem, from a feeling of powerlessness and inconsequentiality and insignificance. Here is where our Jewish tradition has something important to teach us. Did you know that one of the pivotal characters in the Bible is an unnamed man standing in a field in the middle of nowhere? Joseph has gone in search of his brothers who have headed off to the north country to tend their flocks. As Joseph ambles around the countryside, he happens upon an anonymous man who asks him, “What are you looking for?” Joseph tells him, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are shepherding?” Indeed he can. The man points the way to the territory of Dotan where Joseph encounters his brothers and the real story begins. Now imagine how it might have gone had Joseph not encountered the stranger in the field: no run-in with his brothers; no colored coat torn from his body and dipped in blood to fake his death; no pit of terror out of which Joseph was dragged, chained, and sold into slavery; no bereaved father; no voyage to Egypt; no help for the beleaguered Egyptians; no safety, survival, or salvation for the starving Israelites, including Joseph’s own family; no Israelite migration to Egypt; no Moses; no Exodus; no Sinai; no Torah; no Promised Land, no Jewish People. The identity of the man who helped Joseph intrigued the Rabbis. RaSHI insists that he is in fact the angel Gabriel, directing the action as God’s messenger, steering the course of Jewish history from the sidelines. Ibn Ezra said just the opposite: he’s just a passerby, no more, no less; an ordinary person with ordinary information to share. But it is Nachmanides, the 13th Century Spanish Sage, who offers the best and most beautiful resolution. “The Holy One of Blessing sent Joseph an unwitting guide in order to bring him to his brothers. That is why the Rabbis said that the man was an angel, in order to teach us that these events were not meaningless, but that God’s will shall prevail.” In other words, here we have an ordinary man--a mere passerby--yet he was unwittingly fulfilling God’s design. What, then, is an angel? Not a supernatural being but a human being, a person who, unbeknownst to him or herself, can fulfill a divine purpose. Indeed, the Hebrew word for angel, “mal’ach,” is also the word for a human messenger. One and the same. I share this with you today because I believe it illustrates an essential precept of Judaism. Which is: You. Are. Important. Against all the seeming randomness, against this reeling world, against every feeling of insignificance and meaninglessness: You are important. You are significant. What you do, what you say, is important. It matters. You may not even realize it, but you are here to carry out a Divine purpose. Your importance has nothing to do with your title, or your degree, or your job. It has nothing to do with your Google ranking or your grade point average. It has nothing to do with your assets or your influence or your looks. It has everything to do with who you are: You are a child of God. You are a reflection of God. You are an unwitting instrument of God’s purpose. A messenger. A mal'ach. An angel. This is what the Torah means when it teaches that human beings are created in God’s image. That honor, that supreme measure of our significance, comes to us not by achievement or appointment but by birthright. To be human, to be alive, is to be an image of God. It is to be, in a word, important. Two weeks ago at my nephew’s bris the mohel said these words about little Samson Noah: “You don’t think this child can change the world? He can. He is important.” Understanding this, understanding the true nature of our importance--really understanding it--has a surprising effect. Instead of feeling puffed up, we feel genuinely humble. The helpless Gregor Samsa, the deflated, defeated, insignificant one, takes on renewed human dignity. We come to realize that our words and our deeds--small and unsung though they may be--have transformative power. We no longer mistakenly conclude that in order to make a real difference we are required to perform extraordinary acts. Judaism instead asks only that we perform ordinary acts with extraordinary faithfulness. Visit the sick. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Cultivate integrity. Pay wages promptly. Promote fairness. Study sacred wisdom. Speak with sensitivity to and about others. These are but a few of the deeds that our faith demands of us, quietly heroic acts, that unsung angels can perform again and again, day after day. When you are gone they will soon forget the car you drove. They will however long remember the acts of kindness you performed for someone else. One word from an anonymous stranger set forth the course of Jewish history. What could one well-chosen word from our mouths, one thoughtful gesture with our hands, set in motion? This past year, I tracked down a man with whom I had not spoken in more than twenty years, in order to tell him that something he once said to me changed my life. When I was twelve years old and a camper at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, my bunk’s counselor-in-training was Jeff Van Valer, a skinny eighteen year old with a mullet haircut. (We all called him “Jeff Van Halen.”) Last fall, I remembered something significant Jeff once said to me, and it became important for me to find him. I tried everything: Google, Facebook, 411. I finally located an investment banker in Tahoe City named Jeffrey Van Valer. I left a rambling voicemail at his office. His secretary called back to say, “Mr. Van Valer has never heard of you.” I persisted. Two weeks later I tracked down a “Joseph J. Van Valer, MD, Neurologist” in Indiana and figured, what the heck. I left another rambling message. Two days later, I received this e-mail: “Hey, Rabbi: Or should I say Jonathan Blake, Esq. (didn’t you used to write home to your parents with that title?)? How’s it going? I was very pleasantly surprised to hear you’d called. When were you in the cabin? 1986? Intermediate Boys Cabin 10? Wow. I even wondered how you found any contact information. I googled Jeff Van Valer and found some investment guru out in Tahoe City. Anyway, Thanks a ton for looking me up. Send me some info on yourself, and I’ll get into some detail shortly!” In my reply, I explained the reason for my call. I had been sitting in the office at WRT meeting with Cantor Abramson about teasing and bullying among school-age children (which we see all too often, even here at WRT). In the course of our discussion I remembered something Jeff Van Valer had once said to me, and felt the need to reach him. “One day,” I wrote to Jeff, “you came up to me while I was walking across campus and said, ‘Hey, can we take a walk?’ So we went for a stroll through the main building and you very gently, but with authority, said, ‘Jon, you’ve got a great sense of humor. You have the ability to make people laugh. But you should really work on using that skill in ways that don’t hurt other people's feelings. You should really work on not using your sense of humor at the expense of others.’” “I just wanted to tell you,” I wrote, “that I think of that conversation more often than you could ever know, and that it was one of the most important lessons I ever learned. So, in a very real way, you changed my life.” Jeff sent back one of the most beautiful letters I’ve ever received. I’d like to share part of it with you. “Dear Jonathan: When my assistant, Becca, called me and said ‘Rabbi Jonathan Blake,’ you popped right into my mind before true thinking intervened and began to suggest that I may be mistaken. Where I live, Columbus, Indiana, rabbis don’t call very often (never, really)…. In responding to your call, I’ve had a rash of possible approaches to your initiative: where I am and where I’ve been; what I’m doing and what I’ve done; what I (and my wife of 9 years) have produced, namely and most proudly my two children, Martha and Joe (8 and 5 respectively); what I remember most that might be relevant to you…. The jumble of notions races toward the digital page like a peloton of bicycles. The lead bike, my ability to organize, verbalize, and type, slips and crashes, and and all those speeding ideas pile up on top. As an organizer and instructor of many, you surely know the feeling. The most important thing, though, is that I once said something to you that resonates and has affected positively how you look at things. It’s an honor to be in that esteem with you; I have several poignant experiences with individuals in the past who have done that for me, but to know I have done that for someone straightens me right up and makes me feel important. Like I’ve been carrying the proverbial torch without even knowing I could.
Thanks, Jonathan. Your contacting me—both in your reason and tenacity—will probably influence me more than anything I ever said to you.” In the course of Jeff’s lengthy letter he cited other examples of passers-by who had unwittingly steered his life’s course in significant ways, like Dr. Chun-Fang Wu, who told Jeff, then a doctoral student, that his academic research should keep him up at night with excitement. “There’s not enough time in this life to do everything. You’re either going to be a good scientist or a good father. I am a good scientist.” Shortly thereafter, Jeff abandoned his Ph.D., applied to medical school, wrote what he called an “acceptable” Masters thesis, and came back home to Indiana. Jeff concluded his letter with a pledge: “I’m going to contact those people.” Thus was a meaningful friendship kindled, or re-kindled, and thus was a high holiday message born with little need for my extra verbiage. We may never know how important our words and our ways may be. Like a stone tossed into a still pond, what we do here and now ripples outward and touches distant shores. What you do, what you say, how you choose to live: these are important beyond your ability to measure. A friend of mine recently observed that we each leave behind an “ethical footprint” no less than a carbon footprint. We have been taught to limit our carbon footprint. “But we should feel no qualms about making our ethical footprints as big as possible,” she said. “Through our actions, we make our mark on the world,” a mark that persists even beyond our imagination. My friends, I am confident that many of us have a Jeff Van Valer, a passerby along life’s way, who has turned out to be an unwitting angel of the Most High. In some cases the person is truly anonymous, or nameless to us, or long since gone and so will never know the ways in which a simple word or deed steered the course of our lives. But in many cases that person can yet be found. And in some cases, that person may be someone deeply familiar, one’s most intimate companion or closest kin, a person who has made an immeasurable difference and who yet may feel anonymous, unsung, insignificant. Surely we can identify parents, children, siblings, husbands or wives who from time to time feel invisible to the people who ostensibly matter the most. And so I want to leave you tonight with a little High Holiday Homework. Would you try to find one or more of those messengers in your life and let them know that they are important? Track them down. Tell them that they matter, and why they matter. Tell them that something they said one day, or some act of kindness they once performed, without fanfare or hope of reward, made a difference. If you sing the song of the unsung, you’ll be making the music of the angels. L’shanah tovah u’metukah.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Yamim Nora'im - Days of Awe

Dear Friends,
As our most sacred season approaches, allow me to wish you a new year of 5770 filled with blessing.

I will be posting my High Holiday sermons on our Blog after delivering them in synagogue.

L'Shanah Tovah Tikateivu: May you be inscribed for a good year!

Yours warmly,
Jonathan Blake

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Fugitive Aramean and You

Dear Friends and Students of Torah,

As this week's offering, we bring a reprinted commentary on Parashat Ki Tavo.

L'Shalom and Happy Studying,



Parashat Ki Tavo

Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake

The Fugitive Aramean and You

“…My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation” (Deut. 26:5).

Are these words familiar? If you’ve ever participated in a Passover Seder then they might be! This quotation forms the kernel of the Passover Haggadah. When we tell our story at the Seder we begin here.

The line comes from our Torah portion, Ki Tavo. The Israelites await orders to enter the Promised Land. Once they arrive in the land, settle it, and cultivate it, they must present a basket full of the first fruit of their harvest to the priest. They are told to recite a formula, a compact narrative of the Israelite experience, from nomadic roaming to bondage to deliverance to inheritance of the Land. That formula begins with the invocation, “My father was a fugitive Aramean,” or so our text translates it.

In Hebrew the line presents ambiguities that preclude a definitive translation. Arami oveid avi, the Hebrew reads. The words Arami, “Aramean” (meaning a person from the territory of Aram, in modern-day Syria) and avi, “my father,” are easily translated. But the meaning of “oveid” is less clear. Oveid (from the root alef-vet-dalet) can mean “to lose,” but it can also mean “to perish” or “destroy.” In the context of the portion, it might mean “to be lost,” “to go astray,” or, as our translation has it, to be a “fugitive.” But Jewish tradition suggests other possible renderings.

A comparison of different translations of the Haggadah proves this. The most recent Reform Movement Haggadah, The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (ed. Sue Levi Elwell, CCAR Press, 2002), says:

“My ancestors, wandering Arameans,

went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number” (p. 46).

…Adding this explanatory note:

“We are descendants of wanderers from the region known as Aram. Abram and Sarai left their home to follow God to an unknown land” (Ibid).

The Open Door identifies the “fugitive” or “wandering” Arameans with our ancestors, Abram and Sarai—that is to say, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people. Pioneers who left home to answer God’s call.

On the other hand, the Soncino Koren Haggada (1965) says:


In contradistinction to our first example, the “Aramean” here is an enemy of our people! “An Aramean sought to destroy my father.”

Who is this Aramean bent on destroying our people? The traditional Haggadah identifies him as Laban, who came from Aram. Laban, you might recall, cheated Jacob out of his betrothal to Rachel and presented him instead with Leah—and kept Jacob in indentured servitude for decades. Rabbinic tradition exaggerated Laban’s blemishes and made him an archetype of evil and chicanery.

A typical “Orthodox” Haggadah like the Passover Haggadah (ed. Rabbi Nathan Goldberg, Ktav, 1949-1966) explains:

“Come and learn what Laban the Syrian [Aramean] tried to do to our father Jacob. While Pharaoh decreed only against the males, Laban desired to uproot all” (p. 12).

Thus does tradition present us with a second version of the Arami oveid: not a wandering Jew, but a foreigner bent on destroying our people.

We are left with two divergent understandings of the same three Hebrew words.

One translation makes us into intrepid pioneers. Our ancestors were wanderers who left their home, Aram, setting out on a journey of discovery, prompted by God’s call to Abraham: Lech-lecha, “Go forth.”

The other translation makes us into victims of enemies out to destroy us: Laban the Aramean tormented and pursued Jacob, as have countless tyrants and demagogues.

How we choose to translate our verse speaks to our most fundamental beliefs about Jewish history and Jewish identity.

Are we Jews essentially pioneers, willing to establish home and heritage in all the new lands to which fate and faith have brought us? Or are we essentially victims, perpetually fleeing the next Laban, Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar, or Hitler who would seek our destruction?

My work as a congregational rabbi, and my life-experience as a concerned Jewish citizen of the world, prompts me to worry about anti-Jewish sentiment. The apparent escalation of overt acts of Jew-hatred in parts of Europe, the Arab world, and on college campuses in the United States, alarms me.

But I worry even more about the detrimental effects of the victim mentality. A couple of years ago, when rockets rained down on Israel, I attended a local solidarity rally. How inspirational to stand with more than 1,200 Jews, of all denominations, of all ages! But my satisfaction at the dramatic turnout was tinged with regret, because every rabbi knows that that opportunities to see 1,200 people in Temple are few and far between. Perhaps it is only natural that we put more passion and commitment into our Judaism when we perceive ourselves as under attack, but imagine a Jewish community that would put the same passion and commitment into learning Torah, observing holidays, creating vibrant and meaningful prayer services, and working for a more just society.

A room in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. houses the shoes of 4,000 Jews gassed and cremated at Majdanek. Perhaps you have been there. No one leaves that room unmoved. It contains 4,000 reasons to be Jewish. But this room alone does not inspire us to create an imaginative and meaningful Judaism for the 21st century and beyond.

Rabbi Jack Stern wrote, “We should take our children back beyond Auschwitz to Sinai. We should take our children forward beyond a system of life defense to a system of life value; beyond a sense of Jewish foreboding to a sense of Jewish commitment, and ultimately to the Shabbat and the Torah that some of our forebears left behind, which, in the final analysis, may be the best way of all to combat Anti-Semitism” (The Right Not To Remain Silent, “Anti-Semitism and Israel,” Rosh HaShanah 1983/5744, p. 177).

Arami oveid avi.

My ancestors were victims. From Laban the Aramean to the present we have never been safe.

Arami oveid avi.

My ancestors were wanderers who left Aram at God’s call to start a new civilization in a land of promise.

There are two ways to understand this verse, and there are two kinds of Jews. Look into the Torah and see your reflection.