Sunday, August 13, 2017

Remarks at Las Cruces vigil for Charlottesville and against white supremacy - August 13, 2017

While I was rabbi in Topeka, Kansas

I saw the KKK demonstrate and  I saw Neo Nazis demonstrate

Both at the state Capitol

With the Westboro Baptist Church always picketing nearby

Spouting their hatred as well.

I heard those groups spew forth their bigotry and intolerance - 

Seeking to acquire ultimate power which they believed had been taken away from them 

while accusing others of being guilty of abominations and evil. 

In their misplaced passion for intolerance, they forgot about one ancient list 

of human behaviors that we are called upon to hate - from which we should stay far far way.  

Those behaviors were: 

Excessive pride

A lying tongue

Hands that shed innocent blood

A mind that hatches evil plots

Feet quick to run to evil 

A false witness testifying lies

And one who incites conflict between people. 

When it comes to responding to actions like those, hatred is totally appropriate and required

If we are to be human beings willing to stand side by side with each other in companionship and cooperation. 

When it comes to seeing a group dehumanize others in word and deed

As happened in Charlottesville, resulting not only in insult but in injury and loss of life, 

We must respond with words of condemnation.  Sometimes, THERE IS ONLY ONE SIDE. 

That is something that our current administration did not remember yesterday as it tried to walk a tightrope so as not to lose the support of those white supremacist demonstrators who descended on Charlottesville.

But we would cry out that the support of such people is not something to seek in the first place

Or to welcome or to maintain. 

We know that silently assenting to the rhetoric of such haters 

And focusing, instead, on keeping “law and order” undermines any call for unity. 

I for one would not step into to such a circle 

That does not roundly condemn the hatred and intolerance that targets many, including me, 

for virtual Expulsion from the human race.  

But still, we are all citizens together. 

We appreciate national leaders across the ideological spectrum who condemned the hatred and loss of life in no uncertain terms. 

And look around tonight - see who is here. 

What is important is that we are here now. 

We are sincere and passionate, ready to commit ourselves to hope, to understanding

To the acknowledgment of the pain we may experience

Whatever the source, whatever the cause

To work together, once and for all, leaving hatreds behind

And managing disagreements in a spirit of respect.  

In the words of my friend, liturgist and poet Alden Solovy,  

“We are American, born to a legacy of truth and justice, born to a legacy of freedom and equality”

And I would add that we Americans should always be ready to enlarge that circle

Of truth, justice, freedom and equality

To all who are ready to stand by each other with a sense of deep concern.

And love for who we are and who we can be.   

May these ancient words guide us now and always: 

How good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity


Friday, August 11, 2017

Your Old Shall Dream Dreams, Your Youth Shall See Visions - Making Mensches for the present and future (with reflections on NewCAJE8) - D'var Torah for Ekev - August 11, 2017

        In case you haven’t heard, “America’s Eclipse” is coming on August 21, when the sun will be totally or partially obscured by the moon for a short time all across our country.   We will see an eclipse percentage here in Las Cruces somewhere in the mid-to-upper 60s.  It will be enough to note an eerie difference, and sufficient to see with even a crude pinhole - projection device that anyone could make at home.   This astronomical phenomenon is a wonder because it is different from the ways in which we are used to seeing the sun and moon, and, for those in the area of totality, it is a rare opportunity to see the Sun’s corona because of the natural movement of three celestial bodies.  

       Of course, some spiritual leaders are seeing this event from a lens that would go back some time, like over two millennia, when there was a different understanding of a departure from the natural order of things.   It is true that some Talmudic texts saw eclipses as bad omens, with a lunar eclipse being particularly foreboding for the Jewish people because our calendar is primarily based on the moon.    Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, recently wrote a blog post that asserted that this particular eclipse could be a sign of God’s judgment on America.  She quoted a verse from the book of Joel: “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood…before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (3:4). She then offered this caveat,  “Please be assured that balancing God’s warning is His plea for us to return to Him and rend our hearts in sincere, heartfelt repentance.  I can almost hear the tears in Joel’s voice as he pleads for us to repent and return to God, because, as Joel said, ‘Who knows? He may return and have pity and leave behind a blessing.’ (Joel 2:13-14)

    An earlier part of that passage in Joel looks upon that special day as a time when “your old shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions” and that “everyone who invokes the name of the Eternal” would be a surviving remnant.  

      As for me, I believe that eclipses are amazing.  They may actually give people in one locale or around the world a chance to feel that we are actually on the same planet, that we have to live together, and that dwelling on this earth provides us with some incredible moments when we just have to look to the skies. 

     Still, sometimes, we don’t get along.  Look at the current war of words between North Korea and the United States.  Hopefully, it is just a new version of the old cold war.  An Associated Press report today noted that even with the statements going back and forth, there is a back-channel between our two countries, an attempt to preserve at least a desire to discuss development of ongoing talks.   As we know from the Middle East, back-channels are essential to the preservation of order and to the prevention of real war.   Hopefully, such contacts will keep any movement towards hostilities at bay. 

     While I was at the NewCAJE convention for Jewish educators near Oakland this week, we did read about everything that was going on in the world on our smartphones.   We also heard from a speaker who encouraged us to use our smartphones wisely, to take a break from them every so often, and to use our access to technology to become better people.    Filmmaker Tiffany Schlain addressed the conference this past Tuesday night to talk about her personal efforts to create worldwide movements towards improving who we are as individuals and as a global community.   Schlain was the founder of the Webby Awards, which are presented to the best websites every year.   She developed a day in her family to go without technology based on Shabbat - actually, coinciding with Shabbat, and she shared her idea for more people to do this all over the world. She believes we are in a world of interdependence, and that fact calls on us to be more considerate of each other, more hopeful and thankful, more creative and loving, and more respectful and responsible.   Schlain created Global Character Day, which has been marked by programs worldwide over the last several years.  Some Jewish leaders pointed out to her that her “periodic table of character strengths,” developed to help people get to know themselves and find ways to grow, bore striking similarities to the Mussar movement in Jewish tradition.  Mussar was brought to light in modern times by Rabbi Israel Salanter in Lithuania in the 1800s.  It was based on earlier texts that sought to create a moral foundation for walking in God’s ways through exploring and practicing middot, specific traits we can develop within ourselves as part of a community.   So Tiffany Schlain realized that her Jewish background directed her to create a specifically Jewish version of Global Character day, with its own “Periodic Table of being a mensch” which you can see on your handout.   

    The reason that I mention this effort at character-building is only partially because I was at NewCAJE this week.   In the Torah reading for this Shabbat is the second paragraph of the Shema in a traditional prayer book, which is also on every mezuzah parchment along with the Shema and V’ahavta.   This is a classic statement in the Torah about how walking with God can give us rain, and how being lured away by other gods of our own creation can cause the heavens to refrain from giving their blessing.    Most of us don’t believe this literally anymore, and don’t think for a minute that this applies to the rainfall in Las Cruces which comes only when it’s good and ready.    The Torah presented this view of reward and punishment as a first understanding of a human dilemma.  It was overshadowed in later books by other perspectives, especially by the book of Job, where one righteous man had everything taken away from him as a test to see if he would lose faith.  He didn’t, but people around him still tried to claim that he must have deserved whatever had happened to him because of secret moral violations, even though that was totally untrue. 

     I have always been a believer in character education. Values transcend many of the ideologies that divide us, enabling us to see that we may have much in common with people who don’t agree with us otherwise.   Tiffany Schlain’s periodic table may be nothing new, but we need just this type of roadmap for rank-and-file citizens as well as for leaders.  If people directing national policy and those using their energies to serve and strengthen communities were to apply these middot, these values to their lives, and to learn how to do so along with their neighbors, there would be rain.  The rain that would result would not come down from the sky, but would appear in the form of blessings of cooperation and harmony that might pleasantly surprise us.   We human beings still have it in us to be people of good character.   It is a project on which we should embark in concert with one another every single day. 

      As I sat with fellow Jewish teachers of all ages this week, I thought about the verse from the book of Joel, “Your old shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions.”   While I may have been in the older cohort of participants over the last few days, like everyone there, I was seeking fresh ideas, personal renewal, and an enhanced network of resources and colleagues.   Our presence there united us in song, in study, and in hope that our efforts would bear fruit in the coming months, and that challenging moments that might darken our spirits would give way to a shining sun of learning and love.  In our congregation and in many others, we will continue on a common journey as partners in growing our character and our wisdom.   May we do so, always, together.   

See more about Tiffany Schlain at

Photos from the closing ceremony for NewCAJE 8 at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA

Thursday, August 10, 2017

For Everyone - L'chulam - a song for our soul(s) - August 10, 2017

I realize that participants at conventions which I attend are getting used to seeing me as the "Jamming Rhythm guitarist (Rabbi)." I accept that graciously because "jamming" expresses an important value for me: community, and a camaraderie and partnership among musicians, singers, and listeners. It is always a great joy. 
Still, I am a singer/songwriter whose main "venue" is right here on Facebook, or on my YouTube channel, outside of my congregation in Las Cruces, Temple Beth-El, where a few of my original songs/melodies have become part of worship. 
Songwriting doesn't come easily to me, but it comes, and it is a meaningful mode of personal expression that is akin to the sermons and articles I write. However, a song offers a way to present thoughts, views, opinions, and perspectives with a special feeling added through chords and melody.  
I sang this song late at night at #NewCAJE8, and I have shared it via a multi-track recording. I just think this one is important, because it affirms the place that each of us has in the world. It grew out of the months leading up to the birth of grandson Joshua Moise Karol. A quote by Martin Buber about each of us filling our own particularity in the world is in the new rabbi's manual birth ceremony (and was part of my rabbinic ordination service). The Sayings of the Rabbis/Pirkei Avot quote about each of us having "our hour" has always been a favorite. So here is "L'chulam/For Everyone." Always remember that everyone in your life - peers, colleagues, friends, family, students teachers - has a role in who you are and who you will become. 
L’chulam - For Everyone (Larry Karol - Copyright 2017)
Based on Pirkei Avot 4:3 and a quote by Martin Buber
With your hands, you could touch the sky
As you grow, feel the years rush by
With your strength, you’ll go far one day
With your lips, wise words to say
You are here to be all you can be
Lift up your eyes to see all you can see
לְכָל דָבָר יֵשׁ מָקוֹם לְכוּלָם יֵשׁ שָׁעָה,  
L'chol Davar yaysh makom - L'chulam yaysh shaah
[Everything has a place, all people have their time]
There's not a soul in time or space
Who will ever take your place
Take your hopes and give them wings
Lead your mind to learn everything you can
Take your heart and teach it love
Set your sights on the shining stars above
You are here to be all you can be
Lift up your eyes to see all you can see
לְכָל דָבָר יֵשׁ מָקוֹם לְכוּלָם יֵשׁ שָׁעָה,
L'chol Davar yaysh makom - L'chulam yaysh shaah
There's not a soul in time or space who will ever take your place
אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר
Al t’hi vaz l’chol adam v’al t’hi maflig l’chol davar
[Do not despise anyone or call anything useless]
There are treasures to be found wherever you are
לְכָל דָבָר יֵשׁ מָקוֹם לְכוּלָם יֵשׁ שָׁעָה,
L'chol Davar yaysh makom - L'chulam yaysh shaah
There's not a soul in time or space who will ever take your place
There's not a soul in time or space who will ever take your place

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Community Should Help People without judgment - Las Cruces Bulletin column for August 4, 2017

          A long time ago (1978-1981), I served as a student rabbi at Temple B’nai Moshe in LaSalle/Peru, Illinois.  Students from my rabbinic school in Cincinnati would travel every two weeks, from September to June, to our assigned congregation to lead worship, engage in study, teach children, and make pastoral visits to congregants facing illness or other challenges. 

      One of my members at Temple B’nai Moshe was a man named Irving Bell who lived in Ottawa, Illinois.   Mr. Bell, who founded Bell’s Clothing in 1922, was born in 1899 in Lithuania. He came to the United States in 1913 (at age 14) from Germany at the insistence of his parents, Moses and Dora Kubelsky.  He joined his uncle Meyer and cousin Benny in Waukegan, Illinois.  While going to school there, Irving worked at his uncle’s store.  Meyer Kubelsky liked what he saw in his nephew as a salesman. That was not so with Meyer’s son, Benny.    

     Irving’s daughter, Marcia, related a story that, one day, Meyer said to his son, “'Why can't you learn to sell like Irving instead of playing your stupid violin?”  The way Irving told me the story was that his uncle said to his cousin, “You’ll never amount to anything.”  

     While Irving shortened his last name to Bell, his cousin Benny dropped his last name during his career, and added a first name: Jack.   Irving’s cousin was well-known entertainer Jack Benny.    

      Most every time I saw Irving at Temple, he would say to me, “I remember the beginning of the Haftarah (a section from the biblical prophetic books) from my Bar Mitzvah like it was yesterday.”  He would then recite in Hebrew, ChazonYeshayahu ven Amotz asher chazah al-Yehudah.  It was the first verse of the book of Isaiah, “The vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz, that he beheld concerning Judah.”   Then Irving would add, “but if you asked me what I had for breakfast, I couldn’t tell you.”  

     This past Sabbath was the week when Jews around the world recited chapter one of book of IsaiahSo I thought about Irving and his frequent sharing of a distant memory.    

    In the section from the book of Isaiah from Irving’s Bar Mitzvah, the prophet railed against the people of Judah for not understanding the need to sincerely follow their faith.   He claimed that they only went through the motions of their rituals with no intention and no sense that they were supposed to translate belief into action.  

   So Isaiah declared to the people that they should “cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, uphold the rights of the orphan, and take up the cause of the widow.”  

     In his book, All Politics is Religious, Rabbi Dennis Ross explained that Isaiah  insisted that community members should meet people in need where they were, as opposed to blaming them for their plight.   Seeking justice was not about imposing punishment. It was about approaching vulnerable members of society with a sense of compassion and fairness.  

     Both Irving Bell and his famous cousin, Jack Benny, amounted to something.   It is likely that their new community in Waukegan assisted them in feeling at home after they first arrived, setting them up with what they needed to be able to, eventually, help themselves.       

     Isaiah’s message can still guide us today.   We can be here for each other, offering help to one another when necessary.    The choice is ours, as the blessingsthat can come from our hands and hearts could be ours as well. 




Monday, July 31, 2017

A Feast of Values - Shabbat as a light for our weekly path - Article for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter - August 1, 2017

We are fortunate to live in a country that guarantees freedom to practice our religion. We can take whatever opportunities we choose to learn, to pray, and to be with our community. At the same time, our society has its own rhythms that are reflected by community groups, sporting events, and cultural performances. Consequently, Shabbat can be a time that might make some members of the Jewish community feel somewhat out of step with the mainstream, as many activities and programs do occur on Friday and Saturday. Shabbat, however, can provide us with a time to step back and reflect on the teachings of our tradition and how they can guide our contributions to the betterment of the world around us.

The rituals of Shabbat highlight the value of rest after engaging in the labors of the week. As a congregation, it is our privilege to create a holy space for one another to set daily life aside for a little while, to join our voices together in prayers that are ancient and always new, and to develop insights through words of Torah and by engaging in discussion. The music of our worship is intended to be restful, spirited and nourishing, and our voices joining in melody together can enable us to nourish and nurture a special sense of soul on Shabbat.

There is great meaning in the readings and rituals of Shabbat. Values for living emanate from the meditations and readings in our services and from the symbols before us in the Sanctuary. The light of the Shabbat candles, the Eternal light and the lights of the menorah are an expression of the enduring faith of our community and the persistent presence of God's Oneness among us.

The Psalms that welcome Shabbat declare not only the majesty of the divine, but also the essential role of justice in the world and the need for people to be "upright in heart," because that approach brings more light to the world. 

Jewish liturgy leads worshippers on a journey from honoring creation and daily re-creation happening around us to feeling the love of the divine when we study on our own and with each other. We express the ways in which we can return that love and we recall past moments of redemption so that God can redeem the world through our righteous and just actions.

The central section of the service, The Prayer (T'filah), offers praise to God for being with us through- out our history. We are directed to perform acts in the world as a reflection of godly values and divine character: lifting up the fallen, healing those who are ill, freeing the captive, and infusing the world with our own life-giving powers.

We are called upon to seek ways in which we can be holy (like God is holy) and to make Shabbat sacred by regenerating ourselves for our work in the world. We ask for a special spirit to envelop us every day, and we give thanks for all of the gifts we enjoy in our lives. Our prayer for peace has endured for centuries, and we recite it over and over, week after week, hoping that we will be alive at a time when nations and people will discover a way to truly make peace a reality. We pray for a time when the Oneness that we ascribe to God will lead us to find the oneness within humanity that could be our ultimate peaceful destiny. We remember people who have died, whose lives and spirits could move us to act in a way that expresses the best they had to give while they were among us.

Our prayers on Shabbat morning add new themes to the prayers of the evening: giving thanks for our bodies that have the potential to miraculously work each day, and expressing gratitude for the soul inside of us that makes us who were are. We recite blessings in the morning that praise God for giving us sight and insight, for strengthening our steps, for giving us the energy to face the new day, for creating everyone in the divine image, and for providing us with the opportunity to be free.

Communal worship and study prepare us to enhance the life of our community with the wisdom of our heritage, which includes a sense of how human beings should treat one another with respect and accept each other beyond any differences that, according to some, could drive us apart.

On Shabbat evening, we often recite this verse from the book of Psalms: “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart."

We always need more light, within ourselves, among the members of our congregation, and in the greater community. We generate that light by determining what it means to be righteous and upright in our actions towards our fellow human beings.

May our resolve to practice the values we pray continually prepare us and guide us to shine that light on the world and upon each other. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

When we are responsible... - D'var Torah - Parshat Matot-Mas'ei - July 21, 2017

        Perhaps you heard about the traffic accident in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida in early June which involved tennis star Venus Williams.  She had driven her vehicle out into an intersection, and another vehicle struck her SUV after their light turned green.  The passenger in the second car died from his injuries, and the driver is still in serious condition.   At first, the police report cited Venus Williams with running a red light into the intersection.  Eventually, a surveillance video from a nearby location clearly showed the turn of events.   Williams’ vehicle followed another vehicle into the intersection while the light was still green. Williams had to wait for an oncoming car to turn, and at that point, she was out in the middle of the intersection with her light turning red, and the traffic to her right saw their light turn green.  That was when the other vehicle struck her SUV. 
    It didn’t really matter whether Venus Williams was at fault or not when it came to her response to this sad occurrence.  When she was asked about the accident while at Wimbledon, Williams broke down into tears, saying how devastated she was by what happened.   She held her head in her hand for a few moments and left the room, coming back in several minutes to complete the interview session. 
     The final determinations in this case have not yet been made in relation to the accident. 
      But what we know is this – it was a tragedy.  And Venus Williams found herself in a place where she never would have chosen to be.   And even if she was not at fault, she seems to have felt a sense of responsibility because of her involvement in what occurred.  
      I found in this situation an echo of a passage in the Torah reading for this Shabbat.  
      Generally, the Torah insists that we assume responsibility for what we do, and it outlines the consequences if we choose wrong over right, evil over good.    Ancient rituals directed the Israelites how to overcome sin through sacrifices which they brought to the priests and through resolving to change their ways. 
       Yet, sometimes there are bad things that happen not by choice, but by accident or happenstance.    What if we are party to a tragedy that could not be averted, something in which we were involved by being in the wrong place at the wrong time?  One might think that if our intention was not to do wrong or harm, then we could walk away without taking responsibility. 
     But that is not what the Torah says.   At the end of the book of Numbers, the parashah Mas’ei described the process by which six cities of refuge would be created to where people could flee under certain circumstances in a case where a life was lost.   The section that has always most intrigued me focuses on rules applied to someone who committed an act of unintentional, non-malicious manslaughter.  
     In such a case, a relative of the victim was bound to seek out the person who caused the unintended death in order to restore the balance between their families.    The “blood avenger” usually had the right to take the life the manslayer almost immediately, except for the fact that, in this situation, it was up to the community to judge if the act was intentional or not.  If not, the person could stay in the city of refuge until the High Priest there died, at which point his or her sentence of being under an ancient version of “house arrest” would end. 
     I often wonder how the person guilty of unintentionally causing the death must have felt.  He or she likely was overcome with great remorse, running over in his or her mind what happened and how it could have been avoided.   There was likely a sense of relief at still being alive, free from the threat of death at the hands of the avenging relative of the victim.   Yet, this person was still serving a sentence, unable to leave the city of refuge for an undetermined amount of time.  If anything, these rules reflected an ancient sense of the sanctity of life. Perhaps the sanctuary status provided by the city of refuge enabled the manslayer to understand the notion of responsibility towards the community and to himself or herself, along with a feeling of empathy towards the victim’s family.    
     I have always believed that the sentence of confinement to the city of refuge, in this case, illustrates what it means to acknowledge wrongdoing even when there was no evil motive.  According to the Torah, one’s presence and involvement in a tragic moment carries with it a feeling of guilt and remorse, even if there was no real blame that could be assigned to anyone.  
     Unfortunately, we see too many examples of leaders and public figures who find ways to deflect both responsibility and blame. It may be with a publicly uttered excuse or a dodge offered in a court setting.    Or it may be with a declaration that names someone else who supposedly did something worse, when the situations may have been totally different.    This, of course, may happen in families, in classrooms and in workplaces as well as in the public sphere.  It may seem human to say that “he or she did it,” or “he or she did something worse than I did, so why focus on me”?    But it’s still not right.
      In the Torah, the person who unintentionally caused the death of a fellow human being knew that taking responsibility was the best option.  And so, this person waited patiently in the city of refuge, understanding that there were consequences to most any action, but feeling fortunate to be alive, knowing that freedom would come one day. 

      As we make our choices every day, may our sense of duty lead to greater honesty, fairness, and goodness for us and for our world. And may our empathy in the face of tragedy lead us to turn tears of sadness into acts of help and hope.   

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Prayer for Arrival - For the first Moon Landing and for the discovering the unity of humankind

Eternal God, 

You have given us great abilities

To dream, to aspire, to inspire,

To design, to build, and to partner

To reach for high places beyond this world. 

Some of us recall crowding in front of our television sets

48 year ago

As two fellow human beings took the first steps on the moon

That belonged not just to the United States of America

But to all humankind.  

For a moment, we were united. 

We were fascinated in ways that put us in step with one another

All across the world. 

Enemies and allies, people who knew of these events at the moment They occurred 

Or learned only later

Shared in this great achievement

That demonstrated not our grandiosity

But our humility and sense of wonder 

At the globe at which we had gazed from afar for so long

And had never touched and explored. 

As we succeeded, at that time, in coming together, if only for a brief instant

So that this lofty goal could be reached,

Lead us now to find ways to work with one another. 

When we lift our eyes to the heavens, 

May we remember that You, our Creator, 

Have provided us with the wherewithal to care for each other, 

To lift up those who need assistance, to share knowledge and teach skills that will enable all people to be self-supporting, 

Grant us health and the resources to provide the means for all to continue to sustain their health and well-being. 

Instill in us a spirit of cooperation that will take us to unimagined vistas and new horizons

That we will yet experience

Whenever we pledge to find ways 

to share our hopes, our talent,

Our respect, our understanding, 

and our love for one another.    

Enlighten our eyes with Your wisdom, Source of Life, 

So that our insight will continue to deepen and grow.