Friday, September 14, 2018

The Teaching - D'var Torah - Parashat Vayeilech - September 14, 2018


 From 2001 to 2006, I taught a spring semester course in Sociology of Religion at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.   I had been asked to teach that course because I had majored in Sociology in college at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.   The Sociology department head was a congregant at my Temple, and they needed someone to fill in at the last minute because the usual instructor had taken a leave of absence.    I had only a week to prepare the course after a quick look at the textbook.  
    I settled into the course rather quickly.   One of the assignments I gave my students was to go to a house of worship or a gathering of a faith group not their own in order to observe and to report on what they witnessed.   I would ask them note how the group expressed their core beliefs, what symbols were central to the worship experience, how people present were personally acknowledged, which rituals involved participation of worshippers and which involved a leader presenting a core message, and how social ties were created before, during and after the service.    For me, it was an exercise not only in teaching, but in self-reflection.  Every Shabbat, I would keep this assignment in mind as our worship at my congregation, and our post-service reception, the Oneg Shabbat, unfolded.  
   We can easily engage in this type of observation in the present day.  Sometimes ancient texts describe in some detail rituals and customs from the past.   The Torah reading for this Shabbat from the book of Deuteronomy does just that, in its own way. 
    It is really difficult to know when this passage originated.  Traditionalists would say that God gave it to Moses on Mount Sinai, well before this scene prior to crossing into Canaan ever materialized.   Some scholars would say that the whole book of Deuteronomy was nearly identical to a “Book of the Teaching of Moses” that was found in the Temple in Jerusalem in 621 BCE during the reign of King Josiah.   Other commentators would date this section to 100 to 200 years after that.   
    The date may not really matter at all.  What is important is that this scene portraying a special ritual, with community values proclaimed before the people, depicts ancient practices that are quite similar to what we do now in our respective congregations.
      First, the people were gathered together into one place. There was not yet a Temple, given that the Israelites seem to have been witnessing Moses’ farewell speech in an outdoor setting, likely near their Tent of Meeting that they set up in the wilderness.
    Second, there was a sermon.  If you look only at this section, it was a very short sermon.  If you count the entire book of Deuteronomy as Moses’ speech, well, it was much, much longer!   With Moses about to conclude his time as leader of the Israelites, passing the torch to Joshua, he knew that he had to reassure his people and offer them a sense of security that would outlast his presence with them.    So he told them to be strong and resolute.  He declared that God would be with them wherever they would go.    In those moments, he used his words to bestow his spirit upon them in a way that would preserve his legacy.  
   Third, the leader’s message was put into writing.  As I already mentioned, we are not sure if “this Teaching” that Moses wrote down was this short section or the whole book of Deuteronomy.  It might have even been the entire Torah, from Genesis through Deuteronomy.   In any case, it was written down so it could be read again and again.  Similarly, these days, most any clergy person saves his or her messages of all types in writing or online, because they embody the essence of who he or she is and what he or she believes. 
    Fourth, there were other leaders involved in the ritual, who would read the Teaching they received from Moses in the future at a set time - in this case, that was to be every seven years at the time of the fall harvest festival, the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, called in Hebrew SUKKOT.   And it would not be in that place that the Teaching was originally read – to the east of the Jordan River -- but in a place that God would choose after the Israelites had settled across the Jordan. 
    Fifth, there was a symbol that was a focal point for the people: the Ark of the Covenant.   It signified the teachings that the people would continue to study in future.  The Ark reminded them that God was with them.  
   Sixth, this section gave specific instructions regarding who should listen to the Teaching being read every seven years.  The directions were crystal clear: “Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the Eternal your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.”  It was a worship experience that included religious education among community members and for anyone who was curious and happened to be in the vicinity.  The focus, though, seemed to be on assuring that the children, who hadn’t personally lived through the Exodus from Egypt and all those years in the desert, would be able to teach their children and grandchildren the stories from their past and the values that were most important for their people. 
     So this passage from the Torah sets a pattern for a gathering of people for prayer and study that we still follow today.   I believe that it also sends us a crucial message: that we should be strong and resolute, or courageous, about taking a stand for our own beliefs, and that we should see the value in joining with many people to reflect on such a text together, not just in our congregations, but across a variety of faith groups.   If we see our whole community as being gathered together as one - men, women, and children - we may just have a chance to truly reach a promised land, a future filled with mutual respect, with understanding, with hope, and with peace.  

Thursday, September 13, 2018

A Prayer for Yom Kippur 5779

Eternal God,

Creator, Sustainer,

Source of our comfort,

The One who desires our return,

We strive to feel Your presence among us here today. 

Are You a watchful companion wherever we may find ourselves? 

Are You with us when we face hard choices?

Are You standing by us when we make our voices heard

Based on our most deeply-held beliefs? 

Will You forgive us if we forget You even for a moment, 

If we are unable to make time to take a look around

At Your beautiful creation? 

Will You help us to recognize that You are embedded 

In the diversity that exists all around us?

Will we hear You in every baby’s cry? 

Will we see You in the faces of family members,

neighbors, community members, strangers, and in friend and foe alike? 

Will You remind us that our successes are based upon talents 

That You have been bestowed upon us 

Which we have nurtured 

And will You then direct us to use those abilities to generate

Generosity and goodness in the human community? 

Will You help us to turn our failings into lessons from which we will learn

So that we will grow stronger from those trying moments in our lives? 

For those who are among us today, on this Sabbath of Sabbaths,

seeking atonement or At-one-ment with You and with one another, 

And for those who are not among us,

We pray that the words we recite in our worship today 

Will encompass our entire congregation

So that all that we say and do 

Will reflect Your dearest hope

For our constant return 

To the path You have laid out 

for our lives

And for our souls

This year and every year.  


Monday, September 10, 2018

"God heard the cry" - Sermon - Rosh Hashanah Morning - September 10, 2018 (Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, NM)


  How would you react if you were to wake up to this headline in all major newspapers both print and online:  “Passports of Jews invalidated - Jewish domestic and international travel drastically restricted”?
Or how would you deal with another similar announcement: “Jewish residents with passports from several Eastern European nations deported from their homes without notice”?
   Fortunately, those headlines are not taken from the present.   There was a time, however, when they were real and true.  It was Germany that invalidated the passports of Jewish citizens on October 5, 1938, nearly 80 years ago.   And, on October 27, 1938, Jews with Polish passports who were living in Germany, some for many years, were deported and, in many cases, escorted by force to the Polish border. 
   Within two weeks after the expulsion, the Third Reich perpetrated on the German Jewish Community the nation-wide pogrom known as Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass.”  Rioters destroyed 267 synagogues in the country.  7500 businesses owned by Jews were looted and had windows shattered.   91 Jews died in the attacks, and up to 30,000 Jewish males were sent to concentration camps.
    I can remember, when I was a child, seeing movies about the Holocaust, as well as films like the 1965 documentary “Let My People Go: The Story of Israel.”  Both the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 brought home for me the precarious existence, as well as the enduring strength, of the State of Israel.  We have seen all too well the dangers that Jews face living in that unfriendly neighborhood that is the Middle East.  In October of 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 3379 which equated Zionism with racism.  I was a college senior listening to a radio news report about that sad turn of events.   I felt like it touched me personally, nearly a year before I first stepped off a plane at Ben Gurion Airport.  That UN Resolution was rescinded in 1991.      
    All of these experiences have shaped my sense of who I am as a member of the Jewish community and as a rabbi.   I would add, though, one more experience that has affected my Jewish identity.   I never really got used to being told by friends that they were upset and sad that I would not be saved at the end of time because I am Jewish.  Sometimes our conversation turned into a robust, substantive interchange about our respective beliefs – and sometimes not.
    So I was not surprised when the 1980 declaration of Baptist minister Bailey Smith hit me deeply.   In August of that year, Rev. Smith told the Southern Baptist Convention, “It’s interesting to me at great political battles how you have a Protestant to pray and a Catholic to pray and then you have a Jew to pray. With all due respect to those dear people, my friend, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew. For how in the world can God hear the prayer of those [who don’t believe in] the true Messiah?” At that time, and in later statements of his position, Smith claimed to love the Jewish people.  He was never, as far as I know, able to say that he could affirm where we are as Jews,  enthusiastically comfortable with our own beliefs.  
    The memories of Rev. Smith’s unwavering expressions of his position came to mind as I read Robert Jones’ 2016 book, THE END OF WHITE CHRISTIAN AMERICA.  Jones outlined the changing demographics of the United States which would lead our country to become more diverse.   Jones correctly surmised that such changes could elicit concern and fear for many Americans.  As I read this book, I felt like an observer, looking on from the sidelines, but not “out of the game,” so to speak.   As for me, I was not afraid of Jones’ conclusions at all. My extensive participation in interfaith organizations and multicultural coalitions throughout my rabbinate has always led me to seek out diversity and to develop greater interreligious connections and understanding. 
    I came to see over the years that there are many people in other faith groups who not only believe that our prayers are heard, but they are eager to discuss our respective views, to discover where we differ and where our beliefs converge, and to foster unity and respect between us.  
      On Rosh Hashanah, we join in worship as members of a worldwide Jewish community, with people gathering in synagogues throughout the world, directing prayers to God that will enable us to see ourselves and our lives with greater clarity.  When I chant, sing and read the High Holy Day liturgy, I believe that God hears me where I am at the beginning of this New Year.  I have faith that the Oneness which connects and binds together all of creation is like a counselor and friend who listens to us and who wants US to listen to ourselves as we recite readings alone, and as we pray together, about how we, as imperfect human beings, can still strive for perfection. 
    The Torah reading for the New Year always provides insights that can guide us in the months to come. For my entire rabbinate, I have served in congregations that followed the custom established in the previous Reform High Holy Day prayerbooks of reading, on Rosh Hashanah morning, the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis Chapter 22.  That passage is recited in traditional congregations on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
    Mishkan Hanefesh provides us with a wider choice for the Torah passages we could recite on this New Year morning.   It includes the Torah reading that tradition assigned for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which is Genesis Chapter 21, which we will read today.  This passage begins, VA-ADONAI PAKAD ET SARAH, “God remembered Sarah,” noting that God kept the divine promise to Sarah that she would bear a son, Isaac, YITZCHAK, meaning “He will laugh.”   The link between this section of the Torah and Rosh Hashanah is that we want God to remember us and to truly hear us as we consider our behavior and character in ways that will lead us to bring healing and repair to ourselves and to the world in the coming year. 
    There is however, much more to this story than the birth of Isaac.   This passage is complete with rivalry, drama, and unexpected challenges to survival.  It is part of a saga that began several chapters before. In Genesis Chapter 16, Sarai had given permission for her husband Abram to have a child with her servant Hagar.  Once Hagar became pregnant, Sarai despised her, and her harsh treatment led Hagar to flee into the desert.  An Angel came to Hagar as she rested by a well, telling her that she would bear a son, whom she would name Ishmael, meaning “God will hear.”
    In Genesis Chapter 21, the rivalry had extended to the new generation, as Ishmael was mistreating his half-brother Isaac.   The word in Hebrew for what Ishmael was doing is M’TZACHEK, which can mean “making sport” or “mocking.”  One commentator suggested that Ishmael was doing more than that.  Given that Isaac’s name was YITZCHAK, M’TZACHEK, taken from the same root,  could mean that Ishmael was trying to take Isaac’s place as the favored son.   That was not going to happen, but Hagar had been promised that her son would become the father of a nation.  It was just that, in Abraham’s household, there was only room for one ancestor of a great nation - and that was Isaac.   Ishmael’s behavior and Sarah’s anger led Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away.  Abraham had compassion for his family, though, so he provided them with bread and water to last for the first days of their journey.
    But the provisions ran out.   And Hagar had no hope for her own survival and that of her son.  The story continues: “God heard the boy's cry, and from heaven, an angel of God called to Hagar and said, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid, for God has heard the cry of the boy where he is. Stand up, lift the boy, and hold strongly onto him with your hand, for I am going to make of him a great nation.’  And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the water-skin and gave the boy a drink. And God was with the boy as he grew.”
    This is a difficult story to tell, because it presents Abraham and Sarah as approaching their own family members with apparent cruelty.    Even so,  Hagar and Ishmael survived because God heard them.   Where there is divine listening, there can be a chance for rescue.  
      And where there is human listening, there can be an opportunity for acts that can save people who face threats to their own survival. 
     Sometimes we readily recognize those needs and give food and clothing and provide shelter for people who might ultimately be lifted up to their own subsistence because of our generosity.
   But we might not readily see everyone’s needs.     In his book, Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz explained that sometimes we have to intently listen to hear the cries of people in need.  He said, “Tikkun ha-olam, repairing the world, hints at tikkun he-elem, repairing that which is concealed, whether from our thoughts or from our heart. Our job is not just to repair the world, but to make what is hidden visible and repair that, too. This includes the suffering of invisible people—those vulnerable people who go through life without the concern of the broader populace—while also combatting the pernicious and hidden forms of injustice, below-the-surface oppression, and scarcely seen brokenness that silently affect millions.  Undertaking this task reinforces the purpose of human creation and our human essence.”
    So it is our challenge to not only to be God’s hands and eyes, but also to listen for those voices that call on us to recognize inhumane treatment and cruelty.  Some may claim that there are people who are undeserving of our concern based on the beholder’s interpretation of legality. Other may not understand that people who are facing extreme financial challenges may be in that situation because of a whole constellation of forces at work in society, not solely because of their own mismanagement or incompetence.    
   The point of this Torah reading is to teach us that everyone deserves to be heard.   If God heard the cry of Ishmael and an angel gave Hagar reassurance, then they were not to be despised or ignored. They were still very much part of Abraham’s story.   When Abraham died, Ishmael and Isaac came together to bury their father.  So the Torah intends for us to be sympathetic to the mother and child who were sent away from their home.  That is why it tells us that, more than once, God heard them and answered them.
    We can, from our place, hear the cries of people in our own country and around the world who need assistance, who are seeking to live a good life, who desire freedom, who would work hard for any community or country in which they would live, and who would be grateful to anyone who would show them grace and hospitality.  
    I believe that the Torah is trying to remind us, on this New Year’s day, that it is our human duty to open our minds and hearts to all people, to see beyond disagreements and differences, and to reach out based in fellowship, peace and even love. 
    To do all this, we simply have to acknowledge that our humanity inexorably ties us all together.   In her book, THE OPPOSITE OF HATE, Sally Kohn recounted a personal story that served as the foundation for her work.  She had, as a young teenager, bullied and harassed a classmate.  As she later looked back on her behavior at that time, she was regretful and even horrified.  After describing, throughout her book, the ways in which people in many places around the world have tried to resolve their own disagreements and conflicts, she arrived at this conclusion about how we should think about our fellow human beings, especially when hatred could overtake us in ways we can’t control.  She said: “Ultimately, the opposite of hate is the beautiful and powerful reality of how we are all fundamentally linked and equal as human beings. The opposite of hate is connection....Understanding—and expressing—our equal interconnectedness is the practical path to ending hate…It’s what every major and minor world religion teaches, though, sadly, it’s not something all followers seem to fully grasp. This sense of connection is not just some heady abstraction, nor some bland platitude, but a transformative tool for finding our way out of hate and toward a positive, constructive alternative. We can relate to each other and to society in general in ways that perpetuate hate. Or we can spread inclusion and equality and justice—by choosing to connect.”
    Sally Kohn did seek out and find, through social media,  her long-ago classmate whom she had wronged.  She sent her a note of sincere apology.  The woman wrote her back, claiming she wasn’t sure she was the person Sally had been seeking. Then she said this: “Messages such as this cannot absolve you of your past actions.  The only way to do that is to improve the world, prevent others from behaving in similar ways, and foster compassion.” 
       So may the One who created us, who made us equal, and who fashioned us in the divine image, enable us to hear with clarity and with an ear for compassion, words that can bring us ever closer to one another, cries of those who desperately require our helping hand, and teachings that continue to reveal that we are all in this together, as we continue to work for healing, repair and hope in this world.    So may we do, and let us say Amen.