Thursday, October 20, 2016

D'var Torah - Temple Beth-El Board Meeting - October 20, 2016 - Our Diversity, Our Purpose

Eternal God, 
We find ourselves
Every day in this world
Searching for partners
and community members
With whom we can share our perspectives
And find affirmation 
From our discussion.  
Or, if we have the persistence,
And the courage,
We can engage in a conversation
With people who may not share our ideology
Or positions
But with whom we may agree on a common hope
For Contentment
for Personal subsistence
for a modicum of prosperity
That would fulfill the statement of the rabbis:
Who are rich?  Those who are happy with what they have - with their portion in life. 
Take us higher, Holy God,
To reach for some measure of holiness in our lives. 
Guide us to work for
And Justice that is blind to who people are 
In their personal heritage or background
But a Justice that hinges on determining which actions 
tip the scales of humanity towards goodness or towards evil.
Remind us, Compassionate God,
That You hope that we will find our own compassion and act upon it in the presence of others.
Lead us, God of all creation, 
To show consideration to this universe and this world, respecting all that You have made.
Inspire us, O God, Author of Freedom, 
To look deeply into ourselves to  understand what constitutes freedom 
For us, for our fellow citizens, and for people of the world,
May the memory of the slavery we left behind so long ago
Enable us to find ways to work together for liberty in the four corners of the earth. 
And may our concern for freedom and justice, lead us to make peace for all the inhabitants of the earth
As You make peace in the highest heavens.  
And we say, Amen. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Is Justice Pursuing Us?" - A "Rabbi Tale" for Yom Kippur morning - October 12, 2016

    It was two days after Rosh Hashanah as the rabbi was taking advantage of some peaceful time following the New Year. It was gratifying to see congregants, long-time community members, extended family and guests come together for prayer and celebration. Fortunately, the rabbi’s Yom Kippur evening sermon was already complete, so he could begin to focus on the “home stretch” of High Holy Day sermon creation – his D’var Torah for Yom Kippur morning. He appreciated that the Torah and Haftarah readings for Yom Kippur day are overflowing with significance and meaning.  There would be much to discuss. 
     In the morning, the passage from Deuteronomy Chapters 29 and 30 speaks of how divine guidance – in the form of the Torah’s commandments – are not far away from us, but in our mouths and hearts, so that we can easily find a way to practice them.   We read every year in that section the command to choose life and good over death and evil.   The proclamations in the morning Haftarah, from Isaiah Chapter 58 remind us that ritual is important and valuable especially when it moves us to action.  Isaiah asserted, in his own special way, that participating in worship and community celebrations can and should lead us to apply to our lives moral principles such as kindness, appreciation of nature, freedom, learning, understanding, combating hatred and providing all people with a sense of hope for the future.    
    On Yom Kippur  afternoon, the Torah reading from Leviticus Chapter 19 characterizes what it means for us to be holy, culminating in the goal of loving our neighbor and the stranger - all people - as ourselves, always recognizing our common humanity.   Finally, the afternoon Haftarah portion from the book of Jonah tells the story of a man that some commentators call the quintessential “anti-prophet.”  Jonah had no compassion for the people of Nineveh, to whom he was directed to deliver a warning to repent for societal wrongs.     He refused to carry out his prophetic mission of telling them to change their behavior because they were not Hebrews like he was.   Yet, as a prophet, he HAD to do what he was told to do. Against his will and through unplanned transportation provided by a very large fish, Jonah found himself where he didn’t want to be – near the city of Nineveh, the very destination he was trying to avoid. At that point, he had no choice but to speak to the people there, who did listen to his warning and change their ways.   
    All of these portions combine to encourage us to think carefully about what we do every day, calling on us to choose life and good, compassion and understanding, holiness and honesty, forgiveness and love.  
      Now back to the rabbi.  He had been reading in recent months and discussing with his congregation books that shed light on what it means to be a responsible member of the human family.    He had especially focused on the issue of social justice, and how certain rabbis interpret the teachings of our heritage as a guide for the work we could do in the greater community.    
    In his book THE SOUL OF JEWISH SOCIAL JUSTICE, Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz highlighted Jewish values that might inspire us to work for justice in the world.  He identified tenets of our tradition that direct us to embrace God in our efforts toward building a just and righteous society.  
Those principles included the belief that all people are created in the divine image; remembering that the position of God has already been filled, so we should strive to be good and humble human beings; the sense that our ancienthistory as slaves calls on us to be liberators of the oppressed; a notion of obligation to heal the world; embracing God in a way that empowers us to look evil in the face and combat it with love; and a vision of the perfection that we can make real and enduring here on earth.  
    In her book, THERE SHALL BE NO NEEDY, Conservative Rabbi Jill Jacobs expounded on what Judaism demands of us in caring for our fellow human beings.   She cited underlying principles of biblical and rabbinic tradition about how we are expected to approach and assist people in need.  She noted that, because everything belongs to God, what we own is temporary.   The fates of the wealthy and the poor, she said, are inextricably linked.  The bible and the Talmud instituted controls to make sure that the gap between the rich and the poor does not become too wide.   Even the poorest members of society possess inherent dignity, and each member of the community is responsible for preserving the dignity of everyone, no matter what their station in life may be.  Judaism teaches that the responsibility for poverty relief is an obligation, not a choice.   Finally, the eradication of poverty is viewed within our heritage as an essential part of bringing about a perfected world.  
  Rabbi Jacobs outlined the many meanings of the word that we often use for justice, TZEDEK.    TZEDEK, in Hebrew and related languages, could mean legitimate, loyal, true, courageous, dependable, competent, right, responsible or doing one's duty.   She explained that TZEDEK is a term that applies only in the context of a relationship with another person. To speak of God’s TZEDEK means that God pursues a relationship of responsibility and loyalty in partnership with us.  We are commanded to do the same with each other.   
    Again, back to the rabbi, who who was sitting in his office at the end of the day, pondering all of these insights from Jewish tradition. He also reviewed responses he received from congregants about how they would define justice.   With all of this on his mind, he was, for the moment, overloaded and exhausted.  If he could only close his eyes for a few minutes, maybe he could think more clearly….
   Suddenly,  he heard the Temple doorbell ring.  He must have dozed off for a few moments, he thought.  He ran to the door and opened it. There, he saw a man with jet white hair and a short beard, wearing a t-shirt and jeans and boots, waiting patiently to enter.  His t-shirt bore the words, "Bringing light in the darkness." 
   “Sorry, sir, I was asleep for a few minutes and finally heard you ringing the doorbell. Welcome!  How can I help you? By the way, I like the message on your shirt!” 
   The man looked around for a moment and said, “Oh, thank you.  Well, I came here to talk to you.”
    “Really?  To talk to me?”  asked the rabbi.  “How could you possibly know that I am someone you might want to talk to?”
    “Word always gets around.  You are the rabbi, right?   After arriving in your area, I had to go the public library so I could get directions to find my way here.   Sorry, no smartphone for me.  Nice website, by the way!”  
    “Thank you!  So, what’s your name?”
     “My name is Shai.   I come from rather far away, but that’s not really important.  I didn’t come for help for myself. I came to help you.”  
   “Me?  What would make you think that I need some help?”
“Well,” said Shai the stranger, “You are a rabbi, and it is between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and you still have one sermon to go, don’t you?   I looked at your blog and found some of your past writings.  Not bad.   I imagine you have been doing a lot of searching lately for new ideas.  Have you found the wisdom you were looking for?”
  “It wasn't just wisdom I was seeking,” said the rabbi.  “I wanted to find some rules to live by that could lead to doing mitzvot and showing kindness and compassion in the community.”   
   “Well, I know something about that – did you take a close look at the Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning?” asked the visitor.
The rabbi responded insistently, “Why, yes!  I know that Haftarah nearly backwards and forwards.   Isaiah, Chapter 58 – it features some of the most important principles in the whole Tanakh.   Not many passages strike the right balance between ritual and responsibility.  This is one of the best – ‘Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house?  When you see the naked, to clothe them? And never to hide yourself from your own kin – which means any human being!  If you do this, then your light shall blaze forth like the dawn.’  That passage presents a series of reminders, Shai, for what we should be doing here in the community.   At our congregation, we are already collecting non-perishable items for the local food pantry and we are doing a food drive right now.  Members of our community serve at the local soup kitchen.  We collected donations this year to support a tent city that provides shelter for people who don't have their own homes.   One annual fundraiser contributes to an organization that builds homes for community members in need of assistance.  We organized a series on how we can address and ease poverty in our area.    Our members give individually to many worthy causes and do good work as a congregation.”
    Shai the stranger was impressed, “You have done a lot to bring this biblical passage to life, to live out the teaching of that prophet.    I think your members understand that their religion teaches that every single person is a manifestation of God, made in the divine image.  No matter what your status in society, people who have more or less than you, or the same as you, are part of the same human family.  The more you recognize God’s presence – God’s face – in the face of other people, the more God will be present within you.” 
  “I have thought about that a lot in relation to working for justice,” said the rabbi.    “Shai, I know that we are commanded to follow after justice - like it says in Deuteronomy, TZEDEK, TZEDEK TIRDOF - justice, justice, shall you pursue.   Why do I feel sometimes that justice is running after us and can't catch up?  You know, I recently asked my congregants about what justice means to them and what they might do that would bring justice to the world." 
   "So, rabbi, what did they say about justice?" Shai was intrigued.
"They said that justice could be a balance in society between right and wrong, between tyranny and freedom, between acceptance and oppression.  It could be a set of standards we hold for everyone on an equal basis.   Another view suggested that justice is a commitment to refrain from revenge disguised as appropriate punishment.  Still another comment claimed that there is only revenge, and no real justice."
  Shai hesitated, "No real justice?  You know, I have felt that way sometimes, that there is only injustice that has to be stopped or curtailed.  Some people have told me I am a dreamer.  I simply replied to them that I would always hold on to my optimism and deliver my message of working for justice to anyone who could hear.  So, rabbi, what did they say were actions they could perform that could bring Justice?"
    The rabbi was eager to share this list. "Well, there were some encouraging suggestions: Tutoring students for better achievement, working towards rehabilitation for inmates in jails, doing what is right even if it means taking a risk, and acknowledging people with a smile to recognize their humanity.  They suggested that we could work for justice by being a good listener without judging what we hear, learning from our mistakes, making a commitment to love each other no matter what, and speaking up for those who are afraid to ask for the respect and consideration they deserve.”
   Shai thought for a moment and said, “So I know that Isaiah Chapter 58 speaks a lot about keeping the Sabbath as central to your faith and practice.   I believe that your Sabbath offers an ideal that points to many of these aspects of justice that you mentioned.  The Sabbath has at its core the values of freedom, rest, encouraging creativity, and preserving equality.    The Sabbath teaches the importance of taking time to consider and develop new ways of improving the world. You said that you feel like justice is pursuing you, instead of the other way around.    Perhaps resting even a little on the Sabbath would give justice a chance to catch up with you.  If you do that, you would give yourself an opportunity to realize that the memory of the ancient experience of slavery places the Jewish community here and around the world in a special position to advocate for freedom for all people who are oppressed and to show mercy to people who may be stuck in a difficult place in life for one reason or another.   When we are inspired to work for justice, to make the world as fair as we can make it, then light can blaze forth, and the night can become as bright as noon.”  
   The rabbi was enraptured by what he heard.  “Shai, maybe you can give my sermon on Wednesday morning! That was amazing!”
   “No, I will leave the rabbi’s task to the rabbi.   There is another thought I should share that you might want to include.   I have been following in the news about people within the public realm calling each other names and using some rather unfortunate and extreme imagery.  Remember what Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz said in his book that you read and discussed: "The effect of social intimidation and mockery truly is lethal.... Shaming another is considered a life and death issue. The Gemara teaches that “Whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood” (Bava Metzia 58b).  Maimonides taught that “It is forbidden to call someone by a name they dislike” (Deot 6:8).
    The rabbi expressed his gratitude to his guest.  “Shai, thank you so much for that reminder and for all of your wisdom and encouragement.   I have a sermon to finish, I suppose.  I should probably get back to it.”  
“You will,” answered Shai, “but first you have to wake up.”
“Wake up….what do you mean?”  
“Rabbi, ask me my full name….”
“Your full name- let’s see, Shai – Y’sha-yah – Y’shayahu – that would be….Isaiah – THE ISAIAH?”
“I knew you’d get it – yes, it’s Isaiah…..time to wake up.” 
The rabbi was awakened abruptly by the phone ringing.  It was an assisted living facility.  Someone was in need of a visit.  The rabbi knew there were other tasks to which he needed to attend.    So, even if it was only a dream, there was something crucial and urgent in what the rabbi thought he had heard – in a land of freedom, we have a golden opportunity to help people in need, to ease hunger for people all over the world, to provide relief and shelter, and to find common ground and foster civility with everyone because there is much to be accomplished.    Isaiah’s words echoed in the rabbi’s mind – and heart, “If you remove…the menacing hand, the malicious word, if you make sacrifices for the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night become bright as noon.  God will guide you always.”      
     Those are words we need to hear again and again, the rabbi thought, not just on Yom Kippur, but every day.  So, for a new year, it was and is his hope that every congregation could unite behind a banner of compassion, humility, selflessness, justice, and peace.   So may WE do, once again, in 5777. 

"Do you know my name?" -Sermon - Erev Yom Kippur - October 11, 2016

     Have you ever prayed for rain?   Or, have you ever lived somewhere where the leaders of your city, county, state or country have encouraged you to pray for rain? 
      Turning to God to change the natural order, if only for a moment, is not so unusual in areas like ours where rainfall is hard to come by.   We see rain mostly as a blessing, except when it comes all at once or when it is accompanied by golf-ball sized hail.  In those times when we need rain, we might just go along with calls to pray for rain to fall in a manageable dose.          
     In one of the latest examples of public prayers for rain, Governor Rick Perry called on Texans in April of 2011 to appeal to God when their state was facing a long period of dry, hot and sunny days and many raging wildfires.   
    We don't know if asking God to affect the forces of nature actually works.  I have always believed that the most powerful aspect of prayers for rain is that they enable people living in affected communities to generate mutual support at a difficult time.  That camaraderie can bring some measure of blessing even if no rain falls. 
     In Judaism, we recite prayers that declare that God causes the wind to blow and the rain or dew to fall.  We ask the Eternal One to send rain in its season.   
    And we have stories in our heritage about prayers for rain.   We might think that their purpose is to teach us that those prayers work.  There is, however, usually a deeper meaning to those tales about praying for rain which may not be about praying for rain at all.    Here is one such story. 
   In a certain town, there was once a terrible drought.  No rain fell for many weeks, and the ground became very dry and hard.  Plants would not grow, and food grew scarce.  The wells had dried up, and people were becoming more and more thirsty. 
The rabbi at the local synagogue prayed for rain.  When there was no response to his pleas, he ordered a fast on Mondays and Thursdays, when the Torah was read in the synagogue.  Still, no rain fell.  Finally, the rabbi gathered the people together.  With their voices raised as one, the whole community offered up special prayers that might bring them, at long last, precious rain. 
    That night, the rabbi had a dream.  In the dream, a voice said to him, "All the prayers the community offers will bring no rain.  Only one man's prayers will succeed.   That man is Moishe the Shopkeeper.  He, and he alone, must lead the congregation in prayer."   
  When the rabbi awoke, he was troubled by the message in his dream.  "Moishe the Shopkeeper?  He knows nothing about prayers and rituals.  He should lead the prayer?"   The rabbi shrugged his shoulders and dismissed the dream as nonsense. 
      The next night, the rabbi had the same dream and heard the same voice tell him, "Send Moishe the Shopkeeper to lead the prayers, and rain will fall.  Otherwise your prayers will not be answered."  Again the rabbi refused to believe the dream.  
     The same dream came on a third night in a row.  At that point, the rabbi finally realized that he had to listen to what the voice was telling him to do.  In the morning, the rabbi called the entire community to prayer.  The people waited for the rabbi or one of their community leaders to begin.  To their surprise, the Rabbi called out, "Today, Moishe the Shopkeeper will lead us in prayer." 
      All eyes turned to Moishe, who was sitting way in the back. He didn't move.  The Rabbi said, "You, Moishe son of Yitzchak, please come up to the bimah and lead us in prayer."   Moishe shook his head and said, "No, rabbi, no, I can't do it!"   People could see him beginning to hide in his tallit as he tried to avoid eye contact with everyone so that he wouldn't have to fulfill the rabbi's request.  
    The rabbi walked out to Moishe's seat and pleaded.  "Moishe,  YOU and only YOU must lead us.  Then, the rain will fall and end our drought. I beg of you, Moishe, go up to the bimah and begin our prayers."  
     "Rabbi," whispered Moishe, "I'm so ashamed.  I don't know how to read properly, and I barely know the ALEF-BET.  How can I go up to the bimah and lead the congregation in prayer?" 
      "It doesn't matter that you don't know the prayers," the rabbi told him.  "Say whatever is in your heart, Moishe.  God will accept it."  
      Moishe slowly stood up...and left the synagogue.  Everyone was bewildered, but the rabbi confidently took his seat on the bimah as they waited in silence. 
       In a few moments, Moishe returned, carrying the balance scales from his shop.  People wondered what he was going to do with his scales in the synagogue.   Moishe turned to the congregation, held up the scales, and said, "God of all the Universe, I am not a learned man.  I cannot read your holy words, I cannot pray in the proper way. I have only my good name to show.  So hear me, God in heaven, and take my words for good and not for evil.  I brought my scales with me to remind you that I have always had honest scales.  I never cheated anyone.  I have never lied.  If I have fulfilled the commandment to be honest and to keep my scales clean, then hear my words and have mercy upon us and bring us rain."   
      The people waited.  Suddenly, the heavens grew dark, and, in a few moments, the rains began to fall.   The people enthusiastically thanked God for answering their prayers.  
    And then, at least some of them understood the true meaning of Moishe's words.   When the merchants in the town returned to their stores later that day, they all made a small, subtle adjustment to their scales.   From that time on, the rains always fell according to their season.  And the people prospered. 
      So, yes, the prayer for rain worked for Moishe and his fellow townspeople.     What is it that makes this story meaningful, especially for Yom Kippur, this day of atonement?    This tale presents a central teaching of our heritage:  that the sincerity and integrity of one person can make a difference for a community or, even, for the world.   It demonstrates the power of honesty and a commitment to the truth.   Moishe's declaration led the merchants in the town to change their ways, to be more forthright in their business dealings.   The power of the example of Moishe the Shopkeeper was not that only his prayers could bring rain.  It was that he set a standard for everyone to follow.    And once they did,  the collective character of the townspeople moved to a higher level.   The community members treated one another with greater mutual respect and trust.    
    Of course, honesty in business and greater regard for personal integrity are issues with which we continue struggle in our time, as we watch some public figures attempt to explain their own questionable practices and behavior.  
    In the story of Moishe the Shopkeeper, prayers intended to bring a change in the natural world brought into focus the need for introspection to bring about personal growth. 
      The same could be said about a familiar High Holy Day prayer.  This reading that we know well began its long, long existence as a simple prayer for rain.
    It comes straight from this passage in the Talmud:
    "At a time of drought, Rabbi Eliezer went down before the ark and said twenty-four blessings, 18 for the daily T'filah/Amidah and six more prayers for a public fast that could be recited to bring rain. But his prayers were not answered.    
   Rabbi Eliezer's great student, Rabbi Akiva,  led the people in worship right after his beloved teacher.   He said this before the congregation: “Our father, our king, AVINU MALKEINU, we have sinned before You. Our father, our king, AVINU MALKEINU, we have no king other than You.   Our father, our king, AVINU MALKEINU, for your sake, have mercy upon us.”
And the rain fell.
   When they heard this story, the rabbis shouted and complained that Rabbi Eliezer's prayers were not answered.  
    But a heavenly voice called out and said:  'It is not that one of these two rabbis is greater than the other.  Rather, Rabbi Akiva's prayer was answered because Akiva  is more relaxed and forgiving, while Rabbi Eliezer is more exacting and demanding.  God responded to each of them according to his personality.
  (Talmud, Ta’anit, 25b)”
      So, yes, the origin story of Avinu Malkeinu featured a conflict between two rabbis, two prayers for rain, and an appearance of the ever elusive and mysterious heavenly voice, the BAT KOL.  That voice could come out of nowhere in the Talmud to a settle short-term disagreement or a long-term debate. 
    In this story of Eliezer and Akiva, as in the tale of Moishe,  the central lesson was not necessarily about praying for rain.    We should, however, still ask, why did Rabbi Akiva's prayer bring rain?
    Rabbi Larry Hoffman, in his book NAMING GOD, collected commentaries from a wide range of scholars about this Talmudic passage and about the Avinu Malkeinu prayer that we recite today.  Some of the scholars and rabbis featured in NAMING GOD explained why, in their view, Akiva's prayer successfully brought rain.     One reason given was that Akiva avoided reciting conventional, prescribed prayers.   Instead,  Akiva offered a spontaneous and sincere public meditation.  Perhaps he felt that he might be able to influence the very processes of creation if he himself was creative, if HIS prayer emerged straight from his heart. 
       This story also presents an important character study of these two Rabbis.  Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, in his contribution to Rabbi Larry Hoffman's book, explained that Rabbi Eliezer made known to everyone how disappointed he was that Rabbi Akiva, his highly intelligent student, wasn't more accomplished and insightful.  The problem was that Rabbi Eliezer never really understood how much his brilliant student Akiva had learned from him and how much Akiva appreciated his teacher's guidance.  Eliezer lacked the capacity to see the good - or the best - in other people.  He was a harsh and cruel teacher who was eventually banned from entering the rabbinical academy.  Akiva was different.  He had gained the respect of others because of who he was and how he acted.   In describing the character of Rabbi Akiva, this Talmudic story implied that he was relaxed and forgiving, but the Hebrew actually said of Rabbi Akiva - MAAVIR AL MIDOTAV - "he passes over his character traits.".    
    That phrase meant that Akiva was able to overcome his worst impulses and his internal weaknesses in order to show the best he had to offer to his family, friends and colleagues.   Rabbi Kaunfer asserted that we are like Rabbi Akiva when we ensure that our strengths can overshadow our faults,  when we successfully act based on our own innate kindness and goodness, and when we refuse to allow hatred and anger to fester inside of us. And as we try to pass over our faults, we ask God to do just that in our High Holy Day prayers.  We hope that, as we confess human sins and ask for forgiveness, we will gain the inner strength we need to move beyond our flaws, to use our memories of errors in judgment for the purpose of self-improvement, and to enable our better nature to shine through.   We ask God to show us mercy and to help us set ourselves on a path towards personal change.    And we ask the same of each other, so that we will treat one another with compassion and offer mutual  support, not only during the High Holy Days, but throughout the year. 
     The prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind us that it is our choice to move towards kindness, love, peace, and hope.  We voice our intentions to exert self-control so that the net result of our behavior will be for the good.  We pray that we will be able to fashion a year filled with blessing.   
     The individual lines of AVINU MALKEINU express many of those same sentiments about the New Year.     Still, the question remains, why did Akiva, approach God with the names AVINU MALKEINU, Our Father, Our King, or, if you prefer, Our Parent, our Ruler?  
    The 103rd Chapter of the book of Psalms may answer that question.   Listen to these verses from Psalm 103 and try to pick out its references to God as a Parent, a Ruler, and a source of Mercy:  
The Eternal One is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
As the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is God's steadfast love toward those who revere the Eternal One.
As east is far from west, so has God removed our sins far from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Eternal One has compassion for those who revere Adonai….
The Eternal One has established a throne in heaven,
God's sovereign rule is over all people.
Bless the Eternal One, all God's works,
through the length and breadth of God's realm;
bless the Eternal One, O my soul."
In this ancient song, the quality of compassion was associated with God as Parent.   God as a Ruler was characterized as loyal to those who demonstrate a commitment to God's teachings.  In Psalm 103, God is a  merciful magistrate, parent and sovereign who leans towards grace and provides for us love and support when we most need it.  
     Beyond calling God AVINU and MALKEINU, our High Holy Day prayers in our new prayerbook, MISHKAN HANEFESH, direct us to address God with additional names like our Creator, our Rescuer, our Provider, our Refuge, our Healer, our Helper, Almighty One, Merciful One, the One Who listens to us, Our support, and the One who gives us life.  Naming God with those titles has the potential to make us feel that we can strive for perfection even when we make mistakes, that we can change ourselves for the better when necessary, and that we are never alone.   And every one of those names for God -- healer, helper, one who listens, support, rescuer, and provider – is significant because each one points to what we need to be for each other if we hope to create strong relationships that will last a lifetime.  
     Every year, we write our own stories about who we can be, about how we can maintain our own integrity while being loving and forgiving towards each other, ready to lift up those who find themselves in despair.   Like Moishe the shopkeeper, we can set an example of honesty that can raise the bar for the type of person we should strive to be.  Like Akiva, we can bring out the best in us, approaching others in a way that is loving, supportive, and forgiving.  
     One version of Avinu Makleinu  in the new Mishkan Hanefesh prayerbook mentions some of the dilemmas that we encounter in our lives.  This reading reminds us that a sense of God's presence can inspire us to stand at each other's side so that we can discover the right path together. Let us join in this new meditation that can help us find the answers that can lead us along the way towards a sweet New Year to come. 
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ, הָאֵר לָנוּ אֶת דֶּרֶךְ חַיֵּינוּ.
Avinu Malkeinu, Ha-eir la-nu et derech chayeinu. 
Avinu Malkeinu - Illumine for us the path of our life. 
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we find the strength to take the road less traveled by? 
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we come to know the purpose of our existence?  
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we learn not to live life in vain? 
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we get out of our indifference? 
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we distinguish between truth and falsehood?
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we find the answers to our questions? 
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we gird ourselves with strength to seek answers?  
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ, חָנֵּֽנוּ וַעֲנֵֽנוּ חַזְּקֵנוּ וְאַמְּצֵנוּ, כִּי בְךָ וְעִמְּךָ הַתְּשׁוּבוֹת.
Avinu Malkeinu, choneinu va-aneinu, 
chaz’keinu v’am’tzeinu, ki v’cha v’im’cha hat’shuvot. 
Avinu Makleinu - Be gracious and answer us, empower us, and give us courage,for the answers are both in You and with You. 

And may we find those answers within ourselves and, perhaps, within each other. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Initial Remarks at Las Cruces Panel on LGBTQ Inclusion - October 6, 2016

I am grateful to the organizers of this program for asking me to participate.  This issue of LGBTQ inclusion is one that essentially thrust itself into the center of my rabbinate over 20 years ago. 
It began with a presentation at the Topeka, Kansas Area Clergy Association by the minister of the local Metropolitan Community Church.   He had been our Temple organist and keyboardist already for some time, so I knew him well.  
    He was a Presbyterian minister who came to Topeka in order to transition to living as an openly gay man and clergy person.    He spoke of the freedom and equanimity that he experienced when he acknowledged his true sexual orientation.
  I would say that it was his story that most influenced me to truly open my ears to listen and my eyes to see what I, a heterosexual rabbi, needed to do to advocate for fellow human beings who needed support to be who they really are.  
    In 1991, the Westboro Baptist Church began its daily picketing of a local park and, eventually, religious congregations and businesses. Their horrifying picket signs spoke freely of what they saw as God's hatred against gays and lesbians and their allies.  They believed that they, God's elect, needed to tell us all that, if we didn't change our ways, God's wrath would come down upon our country.    They would stand on public sidewalks and in places where the law could not touch them, holding their signs and singing songs that ridiculed everyone for being reprobates and children of Sodom.  
  Coalitions began to organize to oppose the WBC appearances around town.   I was part of those efforts even while my congregation had not yet been picketed. 
    That happened soon enough.  22 years ago, I received a call from someone in town about my last name being featured on a picket sign with the F-short A-G word right before it.  My answer came out as biting sarcasm: "Gee, I wonder what my father will say, given that he gave me my last name.  And my grandfather is probably turning over in his grave."   Of course, I didn't mean a word of it. 
    And, of course, the caller was a member of the WBC, and my tongue-in-cheek words appeared on one of their church's FAX/FLIERS as if I had meant them seriously.  The reason for my being picketed was that the state Holocaust commemoration which I had organized had mentioned that homosexuals were among the victims of the Nazis.  They were singled out for their behavior that was seen as weak and non-conformist by the Nazis and anathema to the plan of creating a master race.  
    In March of 2000, my rabbinic organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, met for its annual convention in Greensboro, North Carolina.  One issue we were considering was a resolution to permit rabbis, if they so chose, to perform religiously-based same gender ceremonies for couples that desired to formally unite their lives.   4 of my fellow Topekans, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, were present.  Each of them attempted to engage my colleagues in harassing conversations.  Ultimately, the resolution passed overwhelmingly.   
    The picket sign with my name on it appeared all over Topeka for 12 years, until I left in 2006.    People told me it was a badge of honor.   And it put me in a place where I knew I needed to be - an ally, an advocate, and a friend of the LGBTQ community.   
    One of my greatest joys was a moment in 2010 when I officiated at the wedding of two women whom I had come to know well.  After their marriage, I had the privilege of filling out and signing an official New Hampshire state marriage license that I proudly mailed in to the authorities the next day.  
I can't always control the positions and views of individual congregants or my co-religionists.  I know, though, that I can control my views, and be welcoming on my own.  So that is what I try to do. 
    We are all created in the divine image.  We are all called upon to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Those are two fundamental views of Judaism that, as far as many are concerned, are essential to how we should treat other people.  That is the foundation on which I try to teach and to build my own approach to a beloved community

Monday, October 3, 2016

"I Lift My Eyes...and I See! - Sermon - Rosh Hashanah Morning - October 3, 2016

    Last night, we began our service with the opening verses of Psalm 121 – ESAH EYNAI EL HEHARIM – I lift my eyes to the mountains – MAY-AH-YIN YAVO EZRI – from where does my help come?  EZRI MAY-EEM ADONAI – my help comes from the Eternal One – OSAY SHAMA-YIM VA-ARETZ – Maker of Heaven and earth.     
       We sing these words every year to begin our High Holy Day worship.    I read this Psalm at funerals and in the yizkor or memorial services on Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot.    As I was considering what I wanted to convey to you on this Rosh Hashanah morning, Psalm 121 was foremost in my mind.   You are probably expecting me to give another sermon about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.   I have to tell you that you are right – I will get there. Yet, to REACH Mount Moriyah, we will begin, this time, with Psalm 121.
       As I read this Psalm passage, I wondered why the Psalmist was looking at the mountains. I pondered which mountains in the land of Israel had caught the eye of the composer of this ancient song.  I probed for a connection between the first two lines – I LIFT MY EYES TO THE MOUNTAINS -  WHAT IS THE SOURCE OF MY HELP?  
      The first phrase – ESAH EYNAI – I lift my eyes – is echoed in the story of Abraham’s and Isaac’s nearly fateful three-day journey.  Genesis Chapter 22, verse 4 reads – BAYOM HASH’LEESHEE – On the third Day – VAYISA AVRAHAM ET AYNAV – Abraham lifted his eyes – or looked – VAYAR ET HAMAKOM MAY-RACHOK – and he saw the place from afar.   Lifting our eyes and taking a look at what is around us is the first step to recognizing what challenges or perils lie ahead.    This is not the only time that words related to sight appear in the tale of the binding of Isaac.   As they neared their destination, Isaac asked Abraham, “I see the stone and the knife, but where is the ram for the burnt offering?” Abraham replied, “ADONAI YIR’EH LO HASEH L’OLAH, B’NI – God will see  - or provide – for himself the ram for the offering, my son.”  
      Lifting our eyes to what and who is around us reveals to us our own resourcefulness and insight  in any situation we may face.    Making eye contact, lifting our eyes towards another person, demonstrates openness and self-confidence.   Before September 11, 2001, there seems to have been an unwritten rule in New York City, especially in Manhattan – don’t make eye contact with anyone.    Yet, on that day, 15 years ago, everything changed.    One of the more creative responses to the events of last September 11, 2001 is the book WITH THEIR EYES.   This collection of writings presented a series of monologues prepared by students at Stuyvesant High School, located several blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center.  These teens interviewed peers, faculty and school staff to create a dramatic presentation of the testimony they gathered about the events of 9/11.    In the midst of these collected stories is this comment from one student: “I remember on the first  day…makin' eye contact with everyone.  If you're from the city, you know you don't make eye contact when you're walkin'.   But this was the only way you communicated for the first couple of hours [after the planes hit the towers] because everybody had masks on (due to the dust and smoke).  Everybody was [actually] looking at each other and I was like, this is amazing.”   
     We can only imagine how looking into the eyes of other people, perhaps for the first time, gave New Yorkers comfort and reassurance on September 11, 2001, and in years since that time.  On that day, if they had looked at the buildings that had been damaged or leveled, they would have focused only on the chaos and uncertainties of that horrific day.   By lifting their eyes towards each other, they began to realize where they could find order, support and even kindness.
    In Genesis Chapter 22, when Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the mount from afar, he began to understand that he would soon discover the outcome of this test of his will and faith.     For the Psalmist looking at the mountains, perhaps the sight of God’s majestic creations signified the strength and help that could come from the One who made the mountains and the heavens and the earth.
    Some commentators believe that the mountains in Psalm 121 and the mountain to which Abraham set his sights were one and the same.  Rabbinic legends identify the site of the binding of Isaac as the Temple Mount itself.   In Psalm 121,  I LIFT MY EYES TO THE MOUNTAINS could indicate that the Psalmist was in Jerusalem, looking at the Temple Mount.  Then the next phrases of Psalm 121 would logically follow – I LIFT MY EYES TO THE MOUNTAINS – THAT IS, THE MOUNT OF THE ETERNAL ONE - FROM WHERE DOES MY HELP COME?  MY HELP COMES FROM GOD, MAKER OF HEAVEN AND EARTH.    
     Psalm 121 proclaims that God is a tried, true and dependable source of strength and assistance.  Yet, when we consider God’s role in the story of the binding of Isaac, we are left with more questions than answers about God’s role in our lives.   Most theologians, philosophers, and ethicists wonder how a good God, One who teaches us to value life, could ask Abraham to take the life of his son.   Wasn’t this a cruel command?  Didn’t God know that, if Isaac died, the promises to Abraham of many descendants would go unfulfilled?  Perhaps God was just trying to encourage Abraham to stand up for himself and his son.   Why didn’t Abraham refuse to take Isaac with him or simply stay home?  Were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, on whose behalf Abraham had so persistently pleaded, more important to him than his own son?   We don’t know why Abraham didn’t protest.  Of course, if he had refused to go, there would have been no story to tell, no lesson to learn.   Some scholars believe that this tale was the ancient Israelites’ way of saying, “Well, our neighbors do sacrifice their children to their gods, but that is something WE will NEVER DO!”    In that case, God may have required Abraham to go through the motions and emotions of taking his son to be sacrificed so that he would know why no one should take the life of his or her child as part of worship or for any other reason.  There would then have been a special purpose for God to send an angel to tell Abraham to stop what he was doing. 
   It may be that Abraham was simply not able, on that day, to meet God’s challenge with protest.  There are many times when we do stand up for ourselves, our family, our friends, or our community.  Yet, if we are tired or spent from all of those other times when we stood tall, we may find ourselves taking the path of least resistance and simply accepting what we are told.  At such times, it takes someone else to act as our angel, to tell us to stand up for ourselves once again.   
In his book GOD AT GROUND ZERO, Chaplain Ray Giunta shared his conversations with many people that he counseled in New York City in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and tragedies.  Chaplain Ray related the following story of escaping danger, one where a woman gave an external source of strength credit for taking her to safety.  He said: 
   “One woman…shared her experience in a rush of words. On September 11, 2001, she was commuting from New Jersey on the subway that runs…to a station underneath the World Trade Center. She took an earlier train than she normally would have. And because she did, she stepped out of the subway train and onto the underground platform just as the first plane hit.
She and her fellow passengers suddenly found themselves unable to exit. Although she didn't know why at the time, the plane's impact had cut off the power. The subway gates had locked down.  People didn't know what to do; the crowd around her was beginning to panic, crushing up against the locked gates, pushing harder and harder against each other as more people got off the trains…She was in grave danger of being trampled.  
‘I know this sounds crazy,’ she told me, "but you [as a chaplain] should understand. You see, I felt I literally heard God say to me, `Turn around, stay to the left, and don't look back.’ 
   By staying on the left, while [other] people walked where they usually walked – on the right – she was able to quickly move underground away from the World Trade Center area….Blocks later, she found an open entrance and rushed toward the daylight. Finally, at street level, in the sunlight again, she moved under a nearby steel awning.  [She then] looked up at the World Trade Center just as the second plane hit.”
  We know that, on 9/11, not everyone made it to safety.  We do know that relatives and friends of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, even 15 years later, continue to respond with fortitude and courage.  Many of them have continued to stand with each other, finding comfort in their common experiences touched with tragedy and sadness, in their shared sense of memory, and in their combined strength to go on in the spirit of those people close to them who did not survive that day.      
 As we face challenges in our lives, we do what we can to stand by each other.   Every day, we encounter dilemmas that emerge from our jobs or our family relationships.  We struggle with crucial personal decisions that will affect our security and well-being. In our families and among our friends, we try to help each other when we have to make choices about colleges, careers,  personal behavior, activities, finances, work, and care for relatives who need assistance to attend to life’s daily routines.   At those times, when our problems remain unresolved, we may wonder if God is with us at all. 
 As he journeyed to Mount Moriyah, Abraham somehow knew that God was with him and with Isaac.  It is likely that Abraham hoped – and even trusted - that he would not have to sacrifice his son.   The composer of Psalm 121 was even more certain that God would be present along the way, even in difficult times.  That Psalm declares:   “MY HELP COMES FROM THE ETERNAL ONE, MAKER OF HEAVEN AND EARTH.  GOD WILL NOT LET YOUR FOOT GIVE WAY, YOUR GUARDIAN WILL NOT SLUMBER. GOD IS YOUR GUARDIAN, YOUR PROTECTION AT YOUR RIGHT HAND. THE SUN WILL NOT STRIKE YOU BY DAY, NOR THE MOON BY NIGHT. GOD WILL GUARD YOU FROM ALL HARM, GOD WILL GUARD YOUR LIFE.”     We might think that such certainty is hard to come by in our lives.   I believe that the Psalmist knew that God’s protection would not prevent all physical harm, but could take us through the times when we feel that life has broken our spirit.   It is said of the healing prayer, the Mi Shebeirach, that we may not always receive the complete physical recovery we desire.  Yet, our prayers may help us sustain a positive outlook that can bring healing to our spirit and soul, even when an illness persists.   Chaplain Ray spoke to one relative of a victim of the September 11, 2001 attacks about where God was on that day.  He suggested, as many have in relation to the Holocaust, that God was with not the perpetrators, but the survivors, helping them find refuge in the face of disaster. And, one might even believe, in a very Jewish way, that God was the victims, guiding their souls back to the source of creation.  This theology echoes Jewish prayers that speak of God protecting the souls of our loved ones who have died and binding the wounds of those who mourn.   
 I believe that the essence of the story of the binding of Isaac is reflected in a phrase that appears twice in Genesis chapter 22.   The text says VAYEILCHU SH’NAYHEM YACHDAV– the two of them – Abraham and Isaac  - walked together.  It is at that point that Isaac asked about the ram for the sacrifice.  When Abraham assured his son that God would provide the ram, the Torah repeated the phrase, VAYEILCHU SH’NAYHEM YACHDAV- the two of them walked together.  Biblical commentators have explained that the first time that phrase appeared, it meant that they were walking physically together, on the same path, side-by-side.   When it used the phrase a second time, it signified that they were together on a spiritual level, moving forward with one heart.   
   I have always been inclined to favor this statement of parent and child united as the most meaningful verse in this tale of tragedy averted.   As I read Chaplain Ray Giunta’s book GOD AT GROUND ZERO when it was first published, I discovered a modern echo of that ancient bond between parent and child hinted at in the Torah reading. The chaplain shared this moving episode from 15 years ago: “Today I met a man whose nephew was killed in the attack. The nephew worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, a company in the WTC that lost almost seven hundred employees. On September 11, 2001, the man’s nephew arrived early and took his place on the 105th floor. We don't know the details, but we know he was there when the plane hit the first tower. How do we know? Because his mother also worked in the building. On that day, she was late and did not commute with her son as she usually did. As she was coming to the building, she received a page. The digital pager displayed an instant message sent from her son trapped high in the sky: ‘Do not come in or near the towers. Mom, I love you.’”    
Such a close connection can exist between parents and children, friends, fellow community members, and between anyone who is willing to look another person in the eye and say, “you are my fellow human being and I must care about you because God created you.”   We can lift our eyes to the mountains to think of God as the source of our help, but we can also turn to one another for the assurance and support to continue with confidence along our journey.  
   As Rhonda, my Mom and I sat with my Dad and his doctor in my Dad’s hospital room one day in late August of 2002, we discussed the possibilities for my Dad’s care during the days that would follow.  My father had suffered a stroke a few weeks before, and the combination of a variety of health challenges had taken their toll on him.   As we talked, we saw my Dad muster his last surge of strength to share the best of himself.  He responded to the questions put to him with insight, thoughtfulness and humor.  As I bid him goodbye that day, he grabbed my hand - and wouldn't let go.  I thought maybe he wasn't physically able to let go - but I realized that the meaning of his grip related to the final words of Psalm 121 - ADONAI YISHMOR TZEITCHA UVOECHA MAYATAH V'AD OLAM - May God guard your going out and your coming in now and forever.   My Dad died less than three days later, but I still feel his presence and encouragement always with me to this day.  
   The belief that God can be with us wherever we go during our lives and as we begin and end our time on earth can bring great comfort to us.  That conviction based in faith has brought me a sense of hope and support on my own personal journey which reaches 62 years today.   The binding of Isaac ends with God sending an angel to tell Abraham that he did not have to take his son’s life.   We hope that God is with us when we make pivotal decisions that will affect our own lives and the lives of people important to us.  We  welcome the presence of friends and family members who can be our treasured companions or who can serve us like angels who will lead us to where we need to go.  And we pray that we will walk together as partners along life’s paths with hearts and eyes turned towards one another so that we can bring each other healing and peace.  So may we do - And let us say Amen.  

A World That Needs Me - Sermon - Erev Rosh Hashanah - October 2, 2016

    After returning a few weeks ago from a trip that included some artful dodging of hurricane-turned- tropical storm Hermine, we woke up the next morning to a chilling report about the unfortunate demise of a small piece of the natural world.   It wasn't caused by an act of nature - not by a hurricane, not by a tornado, not by torrential rain, and not by an earthquake.     I am referring to the toppling of the Duck Bill natural rock formation in a cordoned-off area at Cape Kiwanda State Park near Pacific City, Oregon.  That photogenic site had stood mostly unchanged for millions of years.  State officials who heard of the collapse attributed it, at first, to erosion.  However,  within a couple of days, David Kalas of Portland, Oregon, came forward to authorities. He had taken a video of a group of visitors to the site who were not there just to look and enjoy.   The images clearly showed some of these individuals vigorously pushing on the rock structure until it fell to the ground in a heap. When Kalas confronted them, they said that one of their friends had previously broken his leg because of that formation.  They decided to eliminate what they saw as a safety hazard.   Kalas said it was like they were "taking revenge" on the rock structure for hurting their friend.    A natural spot that had intrigued and attracted so many people over the course of many years was gone because a few people thought they could assert control over something that did not belong to them.  
     This incident illustrates the unfortunate human capacity for disregard of nature and disrespect towards the property of other people.  We see a similar motive in the case of individuals who heartlessly start wildfires that ultimately destroy animal habitats and nearby homes. We have witnessed the Islamic State, along with many other atrocities, ruthlessly demolish a string of  worship and heritage sites which they deem unacceptable because of their narrow beliefs.               
     And there have been human tragedies perpetrated over the course of the last year that have elicited a strong response from communities around our country.      
During the last several months, a number of us have participated in local vigils, one for the victims of the fatal shootings at a club in Orlando in June and another for the tragic deaths of citizens in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota and the deaths of police officers in Dallas, Texas.    In response to the second of those gatherings here in Las Cruces,  one local community member wrote: “Nearly 200 people attended a vigil tonight in Las Cruces to mourn the continuing loss of precious life due to hatred, ignorance and…violence. Speakers included clergy representing a diverse spectrum from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist traditions as well as public servants dedicated to community safety and well-being. In conclusion, all sang together: 'Peace will come; let it begin with me.'"
     Jews around the world have mourned the victims of what has become known as the "stabbing intifada" and those who have died in other attacks that continue in and around Israel.  Especially sudden and tragic were the shootings at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv on June 9 in which four Israelis were killed and six were wounded.  
    On September 11 this year, I attended the Las Cruces Patriot Day commemoration, the first official event held at Plaza de Las Cruces downtown.  That program marked the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.   The keynote speaker had been in the Pentagon on the day of the attacks.  His recollections connected everyone present to the effects and results of the terrorism perpetrated on that tragic day, acts which altered the way in which we see our safety and our need for security. 
    Besides attending that event, I found myself watching more than my share of programs on television about 9/11 as a way of engaging in my own personal remembrance.  This year, one story from 9/11 stood out for me.  It offered a striking contrast to the tales of destruction and violence that have been on our minds all too much in recent months.  
     Even ESPN carried a report about the “Man in the Red Bandana” who saved at least twelve people from certain death due to his courageous assistance in the south tower of the World Trade Center.   Welles Crowther was raised in Nyack, New York by his parents, Jefferson and Allison Crowther.   When Welles was six years old, his mother and father gave him a red bandana that he carried around with him all the time.  He wore it under his sports uniforms in high school.  He had it with him when he was a junior firefighter at age 16 with the Empire Hook and Ladder Company, where he served along with his father.  When Crwother attended Boston College, he wore the bandana when he played on the lacrosse team.    After he graduated in 1999 from Boston College with a degree in Economics, Welles Crowther worked for Sandler O'Neill and Partners on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center South Tower.   After United Airlines Flight 175 struck between the 78th and 85th floors on September 11, 2001, Welles called his parents to let them know he was all right.   Then he sprang into action.   He guided a number of workers in the tower down to the lower floors of the skyscraper so that they could find safety on the ground below.  He immediately went back up the stairs to floors where he thought he might find more people who needed help.    Ling Young, who had been on the 86th floor and had suffered extensive burns, and Judy Wein, who had worked on the 103rd floor, both later identified Welles Crowther, with his red bandanna, as their rescuer.   Judy Wien recalled Crowther putting out fires on the 78th floor and then telling anyone who could hear him, "Everyone who can stand, stand now.  If you can help others, do so."  It is likely that at the time of the building's collapse at 9:59 am that day, Crowther was working with New York firefighters at their command station in the South Tower lobby.  Judy Wien commented, "People can live 100 years and not have the compassion, the wherewithal to do what he did."
     On this birthday of the world, Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new year, this is what we are called to be:  people who have the wherewithal to help and save fellow human beings in need of our assistance, people who are willing to search deep inside of ourselves to find the compassion that will enable us to reach out to all of humanity and to the entire world with a sense of reverence, commitment, unity, and hope.   Welles Crowther was one of many whose acts of bravery and heroism saved lives on that day.    How do we know that we won't be required to exhibit the same type of courage, care and tenacity in difficult circumstances, when we least expect it?    The High Holy Days direct us to ascend to our highest potential, encouraging us to always strive for perfection.  These Days of Awe call upon us to see ourselves as so connected to all of humanity and all of creation that we would choose to follow the  example of Welles Crowther without hesitation.    
     And we are intricately connected to other people and to  the entire universe much more than we might imagine.   Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson asserted that such notions about our interdependent existence are essential to being Jewish in his book, Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit.   
 Artson explored the relationship between scientific discoveries and fundamental values of Judaism through the lens of Process Theology.  Within that perspective,  God is embedded in the connections that unite all creation.  God can be found within in all of the processes that renew our world and the universe in aspects both large and small.  This way of looking at our place in the world defines our role as being co-creators with God, the Creator.   Our decisions, our actions, and our choices are real and significant.  They have an effect and make a difference in the composition of creation.    During one of his sermons that I remember from 50 years ago, my home rabbi, William B. Silverman, passed his hand through the air.  He then declared with great resolve and confidence, "I have just changed the order of the universe."   So was he speaking the truth?  If we view all existence as an interconnected unity, then Rabbi Silverman did, in fact, speak a scientific truth.   And that vision of Unity is echoed in the faith-based declaration that we call the Shema.   Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad could be translated, "Listen Israel - Our God- YUD HAY VAV HAY, the One who always exists and causes everything to exist, IS a Unity, a Oneness that encompasses us and unites everything everywhere."   Our differences in the realms of physical characteristics and personal qualities do not make anyone better than anyone else when we  are all part of a greater Unity.  
    With our respective strengths, each of us has a specific role in making the Universe more whole.  Whatever we do in our lives, in fact, each individual action, has the potential to change the order of everything.   Creation has been moving for billions of years towards greater complexity and deeper connection.   Throughout our lives, we have the freedom to act upon our own creativity in our own little corner of the universe and to reach higher in order to  improve our character so that we can help all of creation to grow and change in positive ways.   Rabbi Artson asserted in his book, "I need creation as the garden in which to exult, grow, play, work, struggle, learn and sing.  As a part of creation, there is a sense in which creation needs me, but only to the degree that I am a willing participant of that creation, an expression of its vitality, and a partner in its process....We are a part of the world, not apart from it, and our lives join the shimmering waves of an endless sea.  We flow from it, and return to it, and in that cycle of tide and tow, of ebb and flow, we leave a mark precisely to the degree that the sea continues, unimpeded, on its way."  Every one of us has a role in assuring the persistence of life for eons to come.     
    We can only accomplish this goal, this human role, if we do it together.   We are co-creators with God and with each other.  We are partners.  Attempts to control others that rob them of their freedom to create constitutes a move towards destruction.  The well-known Talmudic declaration from tractate Sanhedrin still resonates with us and with all that we do:   “For this reason,  humanity was first created as a single individual: to teach you that anyone who destroys one life is considered by the Torah to have destroyed the entire world. And one who saves one life is considered by the Torah to have saved the entire world. And [another reason why humanity was created as a single individual was] because of [the nature of] people: That one person shouldn’t declare to another: “My ancestors were greater than your ancestors.”   Being creators in this world points to our fundamental responsibility to foster kindness, justice, and outward respect that affirms the inner connections that bind us together.  Judaism teaches us to think of every person as being worthy of saving if at all possible, even if it means convincing those who may doubt that view to take on a new perspective, and to divert them from conflict towards cooperation, from fear to mutual concern, from hatred towards love, and from indifference to generously extending a helping hand to people in need.  
    I was recently visiting a patient at the Rehabilitation Hospital of New Mexico on Lohman Avenue.  After I completed my visit, I walked towards the exit doors from the patient unit on my way to the main entrance.  As I opened the door, I came upon two lines of staff members, enthusiastically applauding for a patient who had accomplished her goals and tasks of healing, enough to be able to go home.   That ritual of encouragement, kindness and connection was a joy to behold as the former patient's departure was treated as a landmark occasion.  The gathering of that moment established a touching bond between dedicated helpers and the one who was grateful for their assistance.   
   During our recent trip, there was a medical emergency on the plane as we were flying home.    One of the flight attendants announced the need for a doctor. A volunteer immediately came forward.  The physician and all of the flight attendants gathered together and diligently treated the passenger in distress with dedication, commitment and caring. They suspended service to the rest of us while making sure there was room enough to diagnose the passenger and to keep her comfortable until we landed.  It was quite a sight, one that we don't see very often, fortunately. It demonstrated to me the deep sense of responsibility that the flight attendants feel for travelers with whom they only come into contact for a short time. 
     Law enforcement officials worked quickly to arrest Ahmad Khan Rahami, who had planted bombs in New York City and New Jersey two weeks ago.   It wasn't only through the efforts of those officials that all of the explosive devices were discovered.  They couldn't have completed their task without the help of two homeless men who were rummaging through the trash in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  They found a backpack containing five bombs and immediately reported what they saw to the local police.    Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage quickly declared to the community and to the world that these two men likely saved hundreds of lives because of what they did.    Many people in that New Jersey neighborhood are deeply grateful that these two men demonstrated a strong sense of communal connection that should offer an example to all of us. 
    We have opportunities every day to perform such acts of responsibility and concern, and of love and kindness, what our tradition calls G'MILUT CHASADIM.   If we acknowledge and believe in the ties that hold us together within the very fabric of creation, how could we not care about each other?  How could we not reach out to one another with a sense of help and hope?  How could we not be welcoming?  And how could we not approach one another in humility as equal partners who can enable our families, our congregation, our community and the world to reach for our highest potential for goodness that will ultimately draw us closer together?   As we begin this new year of 5777, may we see the coming months as holding the possibility for countless opportunities to practice the best of who we are, to bridge the chasms that divide us, and to truly understand the many ways in which we are part of a universe and an existence that is amazing and mysterious.   And may that feeling of wonder lead us to moments that are meaningful and holy as we continue to move  forward, side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, stepping into the future of this incredible existence in  which we are all privileged to live together.   So may it be - and let us say amen. 


Friday, September 30, 2016

Immigration and My Family - for the Las Cruces City Forum on Immigration - September 29, 2016

     Several years ago, I was looking through some memorabilia from my Dad’s family.  I found, in my search, several important documents that marked milestones for my grandparents, Mendel Karol and Anna (Wolf) Karol.   My bubby or grandmother Anna came to Kansas City  to join other relatives there after arriving at Ellis Island on the S.S. Bremen, a German ship, on May 17, 1904. My grandfather arrived within the next two years.  He had family in Kansas City as well, but he came to the United States for good only after a decade-long sojourn in South Africa.  In around 1895, he had left his home of Akmine, Lithuania most likely to avoid being drafted into the Russian army for life.   Mendel Karol and Anna Wolf were married on March 17, 1907, in Kansas City, Kansas.  What allowed both of my dad’s parents to enter the United States was the immigration policy of the time.   As I understand the history of immigration laws, as long as there was someone in the United States to offer support, a new arrival was allowed to pass through the gates at their point of entry.   Mendel became an American citizen on April 28, 1924.
My parents' wedding day - August 31, 1941
Standing: My parents, Joseph and Ruth (Glazer) Karol
Seated: My father's parents Anna Wolf Karol, Mendel Karol,
My mother's mother, Pearl Glazer
   Anna Karol was naturalized on September 22, 1941, a few weeks after my parents’ wedding.  She was among the millions of residents of the United States required to register in compliance with the Alien Registration Act of 1940. That act established a program to fingerprint and create a record of every non-citizen within the United States.   This legislation explicitly declared, as one of its purposes,  to prohibit “certain subversive activities.”  It became known as the “Smith Act” because Virginia Representative Howard W. Smith authored the Act’s anti-Sedition section.   So, my grandmother likely had to tell a local registration officer a few things sometime late in 1940. She had to report that she had hazel eyes and gray hair and that she was from Nowogrodek, Russia in the district of Minsk.  And she had to declare that she had not “been affiliated with or active in organizations, devoted in whole or in part to influencing or further the political activities, public relations, or public policy of a foreign government.”   I admire the fact that my grandmother would even think of becoming a naturalized citizen following that experience!  After many years of operating a dry goods store (which closed on January 7, 1939), I am sure that she had nothing to hide!
    These documents reminded me that my grandparents were, at one time, strangers in this country, and that officially becoming an American was part of a long process of acculturation.   They both became citizens when quotas had been established within the immigration acts of 1921 and 1924 that applied to anyone trying to enter the United States from that time on.  Those laws all-too-effectively prevented the entry of many people who would likely have added to the quality and character of our nation.   Quotas likely originated, at least in part, out of fear of the stranger or foreigner.  Those limitations were imposed several years before the Great Depression, so the rationale for those rules may not have been based in economic concerns,    If today’s laws had been in force between 1900 and 1910, I assure you that my grandparents would not have been allowed into the United States and I would not be sitting here.
    Because of the experiences of my grandparents, I cannot help but be moved by the stories of the many people who come to the United States to escape threats to their personal safety back home or to make a better life.  Residents of the United States who want to be citizens of our country should readily have the opportunity to make that happen.   Refugees who are leaving war torn areas go through levels of vetting that some of us might not be able to pass.   I am proud of the work of groups like HIAS,  know originally as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, that is providing for protection and resettlement of people seeking a peaceful life in a variety of nations, including ours. 
     I understand the sense of caution with which some Americans approach the issue of immigration, but only up to a point.  I  believe that we are enriched by the diversity of our national population and by the skills and wisdom and that that people from many different places bring to our society.
       As a rabbi and a grandson of Jewish immigrants, Leviticus Chapter 19, verses 33 and 34, strongly resonate with me:  “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him or her.  The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”    

      I am grateful that my grandparents had the courage to make a change in their lives and come to the United States.   What I hope is that the land that they envisioned, a nation that is welcoming to all who want to enjoy the benefits of citizenship, is always within our reach.