Saturday, January 21, 2017

Three Expressions of Free Expression - Prayers at a Crucial National Historical Moment - on Exodus Chapter 1 and statements of the day

A prayer for Shemot and a crucial historic moment 
January 19, 2017
Eternal God,
Who led the Israelites to freedom,
The Torah reminds us of the consequences of forgetfulness
As the new Pharoah who did not know Joseph
Saw fit to enslave an entire population of people
From which had come the very man who had led the people through a difficult time of famine and despair.
The Torah reminds us of courage, as the midwives Shifrah and Puah found a way to save one special and important male child
Born after Pharaoh’s tragic decree to deny life to all infant boys to live born among the Israelites.
The Torah reminds us of awareness, faith, and a sense of holiness,
As Moses turned aside to see a bush that burned but was not consumed and heard a voice calling for him
To lead his people out of slavery to a new beginning.
Seeing the appearance of fire did not elicit fear in Moses, but wonder, and determination and hope.  
Moses was told that he stood on holy ground at that moment, but even when he eventually approach Pharoah at his palace, Moses’ presence made the ground holy
Because he sought freedom for his people.
Moses declared, before Pharaoh, the call from a God of freedom and compassion
Who heard the cries of suffering from among the Israelites.
He spoke God’s instruction to him so that it could resound
through all Egypt to reveal the crime of enslaving an entire people and forcing them to engage in hard labor.
So help us, God, today and at all times,
To walk with courage, to remember the good that has come to us from all types of leaders and workers on behalf of all people, to keep our eyes open to wonders that might inspire us to be advocates for freedom, and to hear the cries of those in need so that we can lead them to a better place which will, in turn, take us to a better place as well.

Eternal God, 
You are hearing everything we say,
Watching all that we do, 
Wondering when we are going to start talking in positive terms about the here and now, not just future greatness. 
We learn from the Rabbis to "look at each other in the most positive way."   
That includes the way in which we view our nation in the moment.    
There could be a more positive outlook if we could see the good in where we are now along with the challenges 
And the best parts of ideas from left, right, and center, 
So that there might actually be some respect generated among us.  You are said to love stories, Source of knowledge, Companion in our experiences along the path of life. 
Help us to create more stories of acceptance, understanding, and even partial reconciliation that can lead us forward....because we know how ridicule and revenge can only bring us down to where we should not go.    
Lead us to sit down and listen to one another. 
Remind us of the values of our national community and the tenets of any faith that we might follow that can lead us to the unity we so sorely need.   
Be with us on our journey.....

Benediction at Temple Beth-El – January 20, 2017

A Final Reflection on Sh’mot - and a response to the "Fractured Faiths" exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum that portrayed the migration of Crypto-Jews to this continent - and how the Inquisition found some of them.....a lesson for today


God of all peoples,

We approach you in prayer with the hope that our words will inspire us

to reach out in friendship to members of the human family representing all faiths and all backgrounds, all cultures and all ideologies.

We know, however, that at times, the fear of the other

Can overtake leaders of nations and their citizens

Resulting in programs of enslavement, expulsion and execution

Carried out to the point of obsession

As if nothing else in life mattered

As if the ability to see the divine image in every person

Had been lost to the detriment of a community or nation.

The Israelites in Egypt,  the Jews of Spain, Jewish communities in Europe during World War II and even Crypto-Jews who came to this continent several hundred years ago,

some seeking escape from tyranny or seeking just to survive,

Eventually found no refuge, gained no respite from hatred.

Rulers and community members forgot the good those people had done

And The contributions they had made to knowledge, to culture, and to the richness of faith.

Who knows what was lost from those who were put to death

Because their firm commitment to the heritage of their birth persisted

And they were discovered by those seeking to root them out?

Who knows what the world would be like today

If faith officials and national leaders had sought to be inclusive and open-hearted

Rather than inflexible and fixated on those people whom they saw as a threat

But were only trying to live their lives with treasured beliefs intact?

Guide us today, Eternal One,

To keep our eyes and ears open

So that we can combat ruthless targeting of enemies,

Bullying of ideological opponents,

And the perpetuation of hatreds that should have ended long ago.

When we recite the words of the Psalmist,

“How good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity,”
Help us, God of all ages, to teach others that it will not be because of the victory of one perspective over another that we will thrive –

It will be through reaching understanding, encouraging open discussion, and achieving meetings of the mind and compromise that we can move forward not only as a nation but as a worldwide community. 

Help us, Source of compassion and justice, to always put humanity, created in Your image, first in our minds, in our hearts, and in our work to heal the world.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Preserving our Legacy - Parashat Vayechi (a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to Jacob) - January 13, 2017

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
     Many of you will recognize that excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated.    
     I still wonder how he could offer thoughts and words so timely, as if he knew what was going to happen the next day.  What is more likely is that his awareness that he was a walking target led him to make that declaration publicly at least once.  What was important about what he said was that he knew that his legacy was intact.  He had developed a movement.  He had galvanized the desires and hopes of people who needed faith and optimism.  King realized that while he was a leader in the struggle for expanded civil rights, he could not be the only voice if goals for equality were to be reached.  We can see today that there are many people who pay tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. through their work for civil rights and voting rights, which are political battles that are not yet totally won in a way that acknowledges everyone’s place in society.    The poverty that King hoped to alleviate still is with us.  The peace in the world that he sought has not come to fruition.  It was apparent from what he declared in his last speech that King knew that there would be others to take up the mantle of his dreams and his vision in the future. His words reverberate in our minds when we consider what we still must do.  
    Like Martin Luther King, Jr., each of us has dreams, aspirations and a vision not just for ourselves but for life in the human community.     We act on those values in our relationships and as citizens who have an opportunity to make an impact on our corner of the world.   Last night, in our discussion session on the book WISE AGING (by Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal), each participant drew, on a sheet of paper, a depiction of a “river” of his or her life, noting the most important events along the way and identifying people who were present at those moments. Each of those visual life reviews identified what was meaningful and significant throughout the years, both in terms of personal achievement and in work that touched others in a way that left a lasting impact.    Looking at the sweep of a lifespan, even on paper, can invokes a sense of awe, amazement and satisfaction, if we allow ourselves to see what we have done as a complete legacy at any given time.
Twelve Tribe Window
Temple Beth-El
Las Cruces, NM
Twelve Tribe Window
Temple Beth-El
Las Cruces,NM
    In the Torah reading for this week, Jacob, who was nearing death, realized that he needed to leave his children and grandchildren a legacy in the form of a blessing, words that would stay with them and be passed on to future generations.    Jacob had received a spiritual inheritance from his parents and grandparents,  and he wanted to be certain that the next generations understood how important they were as the descendants of Abraham and Sarah and as Jacob’s children and grandchildren.   When Jacob first arrived in Egypt, Pharaoh met him and immediately asked how many years he had lived.  Jacob responded: “The years of my sojourn [on Earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life-spans of my fathers during their sojourns.”    After seeing Joseph for the first time in many years, it was clear that Jacob wasn’t quite ready to convey or even feel relief and joy at the reunification of his family.  Eventually, he would find that contentment after living for a time in Egypt.    Jacob would bless his sons with individual characterizations that conveyed their personality, expressions that are portrayed in the stained-glass windows here on the bimah.   My favorite statement from Jacob is his blessing of his grandsons, “May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.”  At that moment, Jacob could have told them all about himself and focused on his own life experiences, recounting his challenges and the travail that he felt when he spoke to Pharaoh.  Instead, he was ready to look towards the future.  When he brought the two boys close to him, he created a memorable encounter that solidified the link between them and their family, all the way back to their great-great grandparents.  In telling them that future generations would offer blessing using THEIR names, Jacob thrust Ephraim and Manasseh into the spotlight, a central position that would require them to visibly preserve the heritage that was being handed down to them.   They would need to discover God as Jacob had at Beth-El.  They would need to wrestle with God or with themselves to reach their highest potential.   They would also, hopefully, retain and nurture the faith that began with Abraham’s realization that the existence of one God could lead them to a vision of one humanity that would, one day, find peace.
    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jacob in the bible left something significant to their followers and their family that would stay with them for the coming generations.   As we consider our own legacies, who will carry on our mission?  Who will take our achievements and add their own enhancing touch to them in a way that honors us? Who will learn from our wisdom and values?   Who will be inspired by our vision of a promised land to the point of engaging in action that will make real the goals for which we have worked throughout our lives?   There are likely people whom we know or whom we don’t know who share our values, who will apply those principles in a way that will spread kindness, goodness, understanding,  and a richness of spirit that constitutes a promised land that will offer many members of the human family help and hope.  Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and like Jacob,  we will not fear, because all we are and all we do will offer blessing to everyone around us.  May that be the legacy we leave. 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Our light - column for the Las Cruces Bulletin on January 6, 2017

   It is likely that the symbol that most people would identify with the Jewish community and Judaism from ancient times would be the six-pointed star or hexagram, widely known as the Star of David. 
   Actually, the oldest symbol of Judaism and the Jewish community is the 7-branched candelabra, called in Hebrew menorah.   
    The biblical book of Exodus records the command to fashion a "lampstand of pure gold," with seven branches.   Each branch of the menorah featured on top ornamentation in the shape of almond blossoms.  This was significant because the almond tree blooms early (in January) in the land of Israel, so early that it was viewed as having an eternal quality.  It was a short "leap" to link the almond tree to the Tree of Life (in the story of the Garden of Eden).  
    A symbol bearing light, which can light up the darkness at any time of year, was created in the shape of a tree that represented the endurance of life itself. 
    At this writing, lights are still up around town (and in many, many more places) as the celebration of Christmas continues to its conclusion, following the kindling of lights during Advent leading up to the holiday.  Many find these lights, in whatever form, captivating. 
     The lighting of a new candle on a kinara each night from December 26 to January 1 to observe Kwanzaa highlights values based in African traditions that reflect both particular and universal messages.  The glow of these candles offers inspiration to strengthen personal character and a sense of communal responsibility. 
     When most people hear the word menorah, they think of the candelabra that Jews light on Chanukah, an eight-day holiday that celebrates a victory for religious freedom by Jews of Judea against their Syrian Greek rulers.  Led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, the Jews reconsecrated and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem as a place of Jewish worship.  They celebrated their victory for eight days, lighting the Temple menorah which had not been lit for three years.   
     The story of a container of oil being found that was expected to last for one day, but burned for eight days, added a touch of drama and sanctity to the holiday.   In Jewish tradition, Chanukah is not a major holy day, but the light on the 9 branched Chanukah menorah, also known as a Chanukiah, is considered to be holy.  With each additional night, the glow of the candles increases in intensity.   There is beauty, wonder, spirit, history, determination, strength and hope contained in those lights.  
    Perhaps similar values are brought to mind for many people as they behold the lights that are a part of their own traditions and cultures at this and other times of the year. 
   Recently, at Temple Beth-El, we dedicated new front doors which bear a stylized menorah.
    At the recent ceremony to consecrate these new doors, I offered this interpretation:   "During the day, these doors allow light to come in and to sense when someone has a desire to enter our space to join us.  At night, we can see the light from within shine forth into the night.
     As these doors allow light in, may we be open to the lights of learning, freedom, friendship, love, and hope so that they can suffuse our spirits.  As these doors reveal the light within to the darkness of the outside world, may we share our lights with our community, the lights of wisdom, wonder, creativity, commitment, kindness, and peace." 
    There is light inside of each of us that we can share.  There is light outside of us that, if we welcome it, can lead us to personal growth and new understanding, and bring us closer to one another.  Our combined light can, if we will it, illumine any darkness we may encounter. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Power of Language to divide...and to unite - article in The Jewish Voice, newspaper of the Jewish Federation of Greater EL Paso, for January 2017

“I am Joseph!  Is my father still alive?” 

With that declaration, from the standpoint of Joseph’s brothers, a stranger became family.  

   We know the story:  a colored coat, dreams of seeming grandeur, a concerned father, jealous brothers, the dreamer sold into slavery, the slave framed and sent to prison, the dreamer/slave/prisoner becoming an accomplished interpreter of dreams, and that special talent taking the young man before Pharaoh for a crucial dreamer interpretation session, the dreamer/slaver/prisoner/interpreter being made Pharaoh’s “second-in-command” to manage the storage in preparation for the famine, and the newly-appointed Egyptian official seeing his brothers come into his presence.   Once he saw his brothers fight for the freedom of his full brother Benjamin, Joseph was unable to control himself.”  That was when he revealed who he was, telling his brothers that God had sent him to Egypt to save their lives. 

  In that case, the Torah told how one simple sentence made a world of difference for Jacob’s family   Words compassionately spoken in the context of a personal encounter reunited Jacob’s sons and led to the future that had been laid out for their people.  

  I was intrigued by the importance of language in two recent movies. In the film “Arrival,” actress Amy Adams portrayed linguistics professor Louise Banks, who led a team of investigators trying to determine why 12 gigantic spaceships had touched down in random locations around the world. “The language you speak determines the way you think,” said Professor Banks, as she tried to devise a way to communicate with the extraterrestrials to determine if their intentions were peaceful.  Learning the language of the visitors is crucial to the outcome of the film.  Misunderstanding was a constant possibility which had to be overcome to bring the situation to resolution.  That would only happen if both sides learned and fathomed the meaning and intentions of the thoughts being expressed.   That is difficult even when we speak the same language. Professor Banks’ hope was that their conversation would, ultimately, turn these strangers into friends. 

   The film “Denial” portrayed Professor Deborah Lipstadt’s success in contesting the libel charge brought against her by Holocaust denier David Irving. In her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and MemoryLipstadt called Irving a “liar” and “falsifier of history.” She accused him of “taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions.”  Language was key in the case and how words can express the truth or be twisted to create disinformation.  Professor Lipstadt and her legal representatives proved that Irving intentionally falsified documents and that much of his material, referenced in footnotes in his books, came from other deniers.   In one scene, a poem Irving had written for his daughter that had definite racist overtones (which I will not share here) was read into the court proceedings.   Irving himself was unable to see anything wrong with his negative and insulting references to people of other backgrounds. “Denial” reminds us that words can be deftly used to divide people in ways that can be harmful to all of humanity.   

   The reconciliation “scene” in the story of Joseph is still one of my favorite tales in the Tanakh.   Perhaps we all know stories about people, who have been at odds for a long while, who have found a way to get back together and have continued  into the future with a renewed sense of commitment and purpose. 

   To do so requires faith, hope, and a commitment to focus on what unites us as human beings.    

    Judaism teaches that the entire human family shares a common ancestry.  Is that enough to enable us to see one another as brothers and sisters?   

     The answer to that question is in our hands and our hearts.  







Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Remarks at Chanukah Candlelighting at San Jacinto Plaza in El Paso, Texas on December 28, 2016

Chanukah Candlelighting
San Jacinto Plaza
El Paso, TX – December 28, 2016
We come tonight
To bring light to the darkness
As we have for centuries
During our celebration of Chanukah.
We have gathered in homes from generation to generation
making sure, in places
where we enjoyed freedom,
that the 9 branched Menorah
the Chanukiah
Could be seen by passers-by
Enough to raise a question in their minds
Why are they lighting these lights?
We are lighting these lights
Because of a fight for freedom
By people who had been given a choice to change their customs, their beliefs, their faith, OR
To die in a world that denied them their right to worship One God.
These people knew there was yet another choice – take to the hills, fight back, keep in mind the vision of the Temple in Jerusalem that was transformed into a space where no Jew could pray again
Unless the fight was successful.
The first phase of a long war
Brought the Jewish fighters,
Known as the Maccabees,
Back to Jerusalem where they did win.
They rededicated the Temple to the One God and to the practices that it had housed from generation to generation.
The celebration lasted 8 days.
But why?
Various reasons were given in the retelling of the story that focused on the Jews of Judea and their desire to rejoice.
Several hundred years later, the rabbis added their take on the miracle of the Jewish fighters: that when they entered the Temple, they wanted to light the Menorah in the holy precincts, but could only find enough oil to light it for one day….But it lasted for eight
And they rejoiced. 
The rabbis saw it as a miracle made by God
For a people who sought to follow God and their faith for many centuries into the future.
And here we are – far from that place, that spot whose Jewish associations may be questioned by some
But not by we who light this Chanukiah. 
Though we may be physically far from that place, our hearts are not far from that place at all
Or from that ancient time when the first shouts of joy emerged from the Temple at a victory for the freedom
To believe what we want to believe
To be who we are
And to teach all of this to new generations of Maccabees.
May the lights we light tonight in this public place inspire us and our neighbors to preserve freedom, understanding, and respect for the many beliefs and customs around us and among us.  
May these lights, which we call holy, lead us to infuse holiness into all that we say and do.  Amen. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Dedication of New Front Doors at Temple Beth-El Las Cruces - December 23, 2016

Exodus 25:31-33
You shall make a lampstand of pure gold: the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes, and petals shall be of one piece.  
Six branches shall issue from its sides: three branches from one side of the lampstand and three branches from the other side of the lampstand.  On each branch there shall be...cups shaped like almond-blossoms.

I, the Eternal, in My grace, have summoned you.
And I have grasped you by the hand. 
I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations.
Opening eyes deprived of light.
Rescuing prisoners from confinement, 
From the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
I am the Eternal One, that is My name. [Isaiah 42:6-7]
 The Eternal One is my light and my help; 
whom should I fear? [Psalm 27:1]
The human spirit is the lamp of the Eternal One. [Proverbs 20:27]
The commandment is a lamp, the Teaching is a light. [Proverbs 6:23]
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path.  [Psalm 119:105]

   The rabbis believed that the menorah from the Temple was so sacred that no effort should be made to reproduce it.  Depictions of the menorah over the centuries sometimes had five branches, six branches, or eight branches, but artistic representations still often bore the seven branches.  
   These doors bear a stylized Menorah.  Some see a seven-branched Menorah in the wood, if you allow your eyes to see six branches floating on a sea of glass.   Some see a Chanukiah, both in the wood and in the glass, where the space between the two doors holds the place of the middle branch.  The menorah represents the oldest continuous Jewish symbol, our bearer of light from ancient times.  The Chanukiah brings light to a dark time of the year.  It reminds us of a crucial fight for freedom and how rekindling the light in the ancient Temple illustrates for us how we can rekindle our faith today, at any time, when we allow our heritage to inspire us.
During the day, these doors allow light to come in and to sense when someone has a desire to enter our space to join us.  At night, we can see the light from within shine forth into the night.
As these doors allow light in, may we be open to the lights of learning, freedom, friendship, love, hope and God’s presence so that they can suffuse our spirits.  As these doors reveal the light within to the darkness of the outside world, may we share our lights with our community, the lights of wisdom, wonder, creativity, commitment, kindness, and peace.
May we enrich ourselves every time we walk through this entryway, and may our personal and communal growth offer new and unique gifts to the world.  
We recite this verse from the book of Psalms to consecrate these doors and all that they represent:
בִּנְדָבָ֥ה אֶזְבְּחָה־לָּ֑ךְ א֤֘וֹדֶה שִּׁמְךָ֖ יְהֹוָ֣ה כִּי־טֽוֹב
Bi-n’davah ez’b’chah lach - Odeh shimcha Adonai ki tov. 
With a generous gift, I make an offering to You, O God; I give thanks to Your name, for it is good. 
(Psalm 54:8) 

Friday, December 16, 2016

We are not alone - An Original Midrash on Jacob's daybreak encounter - Parashat Vayishlach - December 16, 2016

After he heard that his brother Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men, Jacob had no idea of Esau's intentions, but he knew that there was a strong possibility that his brother had come to seek revenge for Jacob's deception early in their lives. 
So Jacob sent his family across the Jabok River.  Rather than joining them, he stayed behind for a moment to gather his thoughts and his courage. 
Jacob was left alone. 
Or so he thought. 
Out of nowhere, a man appeared.  He lunged toward Jacob, hoping to take him to down to the ground. 
Jacob, not knowing he had such strength, resisted with great success. As they struggled, Jacob struck the man's hip, and, in an instant, his own hip was strained.   
But Jacob was in control. 
"Let me go, for the day is breaking," the man said. 
Jacob said, "I won't let you go, unless you bless me."  
The man asked, "What is your name?"  The answer came, "Jacob." 
But Jacob continued, "Who are you and what are you doing here?  I just sent my family across the river.  I was preoccupied with the impending arrival of my brother.". 
As the man look intently into Jacob's eyes, for some reason, he felt safe enough to add more to his story.   "I have no doubt that he holds a grudge because I convinced him to  negotiate away his birthright and, with my mother's support, I took the blessing of the first born right out from under him.   He received a blessing, too, but not the one he thought he deserved.  I left home, and God has brought me prosperity, but not without some challenges along the way.   All I wanted was to be alone to prepare myself to see Esau.  Why are you here???"
The man said, "Jacob, do you really think YOU could ever be alone?   You are the son of Isaac and Rebekah and the grandson of Abraham and Sarah.  Even I know that your descendants will become a great people!"
Jacob was surprised, "How do YOU know THAT?" 
The man said, "It's not important how I know.  But I know. Wherever you go, Jacob, your past, your deeds, your beliefs follow you.  I know that your mother Rebekah believed you to be the son to follow the ways of God.   I know you had a dream at Beth El and said that, if God brought you back there safely, then you would be close to God always.  I understand what happened with your uncle Laban, and with your wives, and how Laban tried to deceive you.  It's written all over your face and in your heart."
"You can really tell all that just from looking at me?" Asked Jacob.   
The man replied, "Yes, but let's say I have special sources that let me know all that you have experienced.  Even so, Jacob, you are not alone.  Remember those angels going up and down on that ladder?  They were there to protect you.  Now it's my turn." 
Jacob's eyes were wide, "You're an angel?"  
The man clarified, "Well, not exactly.  Let's just say that I am the sum total of your life until now, joining you in this place as you get ready for one more confrontation that might not go well.  I can tell you, though, Jacob, that you are up to it.  You gave me quite a fight.   And you know why?  You are Isaac's son, and for all that he went through, he still had a touch of his father's spirit.  You are Rebekah's son: resourceful, insightful, seeing the big picture, which you could do, if only you would allow yourself to do so.  Any person, even if he or she is alone, is not alone, Jacob. All that you have been until this day will take you into the future and help determine what you will come to be.   But that doesn't mean that there isn't at least one change that will come from our encounter."
Jacob was puzzled, "What do you mean?  I just beat you handily in a wrestling match.  Isn't that enough?"  
The man was quick to answer, "No, probably not.  You did prevail over me, at this moment.   There is one thing we need to do. Your name means 'the one who grabbed onto the heal of his brother,' or maybe 'the one who will supplant his brother.'  Not much of a name, if you ask me.  How about this?  You will be Israel - "the one who struggles with God."  Because that's what you have done all your life.   And, at this moment, you have come into your own.  You are ready to be the man you need to be to see your brother Esau again, and you are the man who will be the progenitor of a great nation that will spread in all directions."  
Jacob thought for a moment, and softly spoke.  "Israel - yes, I can feel how that name is good for me now and for the rest of my life."  He looked up to the sky, "God, thank you for making this moment happen that helped me become who I need to be." Jacob then asked the man his name, and was told not to ask.  The man blessed him there.  
And soon, Jacob, now Israel, crossed the river, rejoined his family, and met his brother Esau, who ran up to him and hugged and kissed him. Israel said to him, "Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God."  
And Israel knew that he would find God in every person he met, if he could only look deep enough. 
And he knew one more thing. 
He would never ever feel alone again.