Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Traveler’s Prayer

A traveler’s prayer

Eternal God,
Guardian of every pathway 
Creator of a wide and wondrous world
That is ours to explore
Bless the road and the journey.
Make us wise in our planning 
Creative in choosing what will accompany us 
And patient as we stand in whatever line and queue, whether long or short, that 
Directs us to our destination.
Grant calm and efficiency to those who shepherd us through stations of transit.
Sustain in us kindness and compassion so that a smile or an unexpected offer of assistance might brighten our day
Even at times of challenge and delay. 
May our experiences along the way bring us joy and enrichment,  connection and knowledge and and hope. 
Be with us, O God, so that we may go and return in safety and peace.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Invocation - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Board Meeting - March 15, 2018

Eternal God,

Source of wisdom,

Revealer of truth,

Beacon of integrity, 

Inspire us to tread a path of honesty and good intentions. 

Open our eyes to see when enthusiasm and creativity

Have right action and sound policy as their purpose. 

Remind us that when our disagreements are for your sake,

And in the service of goodness and communal fortitude,

There can be holiness in dialogue and discourse

In compromise and partnership, 

In caution and progress 

That can all move us towards resolution.  

Help us overcome fear and misunderstanding

And to foster avenues of communication that will engender

A sense of honor among us. 

May we conduct ourselves here and out in the community in such a way

That cooperation and a desire for peace

Will foster unity among people who come from many backgrounds

And who hold many different viewpoints. 

Blessed are You, Eternal One, whose Oneness pervades creations

And makes us mindful that we, too, are one.  

Friday, March 9, 2018

Enough...and more - D'var Torah - Parshat Vayakheil/P'kuday - March 9, 2018

How manifold are the blessings and favors that God has conferred upon us!  Had God brought us out of Egypt, and not divided the sea for us – it would have been enough for us- DAYEINU!
How God divided the sea for us, and not sustained us for forty years in the desert – DAYEINU!
Had God sustained us for forty years in the desert and not fed us with manna – DAYEINU!
And the musical version has a very memorable refrain: DA-DA YEINU!
    The Hebrew word “DAI” means “enough.”  While its most famous usage is that passage in the Passover Haggadah, there is a little piece of DAYEINU that relates to holiness and to the realm of human community in the Torah reading for this Shabbat.   The two combined portions for this week describe the making of the Israelite house of worship in the wilderness, the Tabernacle.   In the section I will read from the beginning of Exodus Chapter 36, the artisans, led by Bezalel and Oholiab, received a wide variety of gifts and donations from the people, tangible items that were intended to be used to make their portable holy place.   The people were contributing every morning….until this happened. 
4All the artisans who were engaged in the tasks of the sanctuary came, each from the task upon which he was engaged, 5and said to Moses, "The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the ETERNAL ONE has commanded to be done!" 6Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: "Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!" So the people stopped bringing: 7their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.
    Their efforts had been more than enough – the words are DAYAM – there is that word DAI again – V’HOTEIR – which means “and more.”  In this communal donation effort, there was no cajoling, no pressure and no ad campaign.  There was no need for parlor meetings or one-on-one requests.   The people just….gave.  Perhaps this was like an antidote to the tragic episode of the golden calf, when the people donated to a cause that led them astray.  In this case, they were giving for a holy purpose from their hearts, and with a special generous spirit, so much so that the message to STOP had to be given to them with vigor.   So how many congregational building funds in the history of religious communities have had such an experience when the people enthusiastically gave more than was needed?   I don’t have the data to share, so I won’t go there.  In this case, the tangible gifts given by the people expressed something intangible – a feeling of connection with each other, and a sense of wanting to draw near to God in a holy space.   What they gave was more than enough….but they were not yet done giving. 
   What they still had to give after they made the Tabernacle, a holy place, was holy action.   And for this, please take out your prayerbook and turn to page 88.  The “EILU D’VARIM” reading, which combines two ancient texts of the rabbis, lists some of the positive acts we can perform that can strengthen the foundation of any community.  Please turn to page 88 and read with me:
These are things that are limitless, of which a person enjoys the fruit of this world, while the principal remains in the world to come. They are: honoring one’s father and mother, engaging in deeds of compassion, arriving early for study, morning and evening, dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick, providing for the wedding couple, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer, and making peace among people.  But the study of Torah encompasses them all.   
    This passage presents study as a path to the actions that are listed.   When we engage in learning with each other, we create partnerships and friendships that can keep us on a path that sets a high standard for all that we do.    When the passage says, “these are things that are limitless,” we could understand it to mean, “these are the things that you have to do enough….and more.”   It is a counterpart in the realm of human relationships to the Israelites who brought more-than-enough gifts for the building of the tabernacle.   This passage calls on us to bring the best gifts of our character to create holy spaces in our everyday lives.
     When we turn this reading into its opposites, it can bring home for us the message of why the positive acts of the EILU D’VARIM prayer are so important.   The opposite values to the ones reflected in that passage are disrespect, cruelty, laziness, rejection of others who are different, lack of concern for community members, arrogance, creating conflict for the sake of conflict, and ignorance without a desire to learn something new.    This description of what some people could do in a negative way may sound all too familiar because we can readily think of examples of how people act based on those dark principles and approaches to life.   I believe the rabbis knew that, too.  And what they said at the beginning of the reading really is this: “These are things that you should practice and do enough…and more.  And even if it seems you aren’t making any headway, even if you feel that there is no immediate reward for the good that you do, don’t stop.  Have faith that what you do to help and support others will lead to a greater good that you cannot even begin to imagine.”   
    So may the gifts we bring to our families and communities express our own sense of purpose and enhance the lives of everyone around us.   And may we not stop giving, because what our world demands of us is, always, to do enough…and more.   So may we do – and let us say amen.

Prayers texts from Mishkan T’filah, CCAR.
Haggadah excerpt from Sharing the Journey, CCAR.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Passover Column for the March 2018 El Paso Jewish Voice

For the last year, I have participated in an interfaith discussion group that, for several months, focused on issues and concerns related to Jewish identity and history.   I joined the group in early 2017 to lead a study of Dr. Jonathan Sarna’s book, American Judaism: A History.      The most chilling paragraph in the book commented on the conditions a century ago that led to the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act.  After so many Jewish immigrants had successfully integrated themselves into life in America, there was not acceptance in all corners of society.  Here is that passage: “Immigration restrictions that sought to restore the nation's ethnic mix to its nineteenth-century white Protestant character also aimed directly (though by no means exclusively) at Jews. The House Committee on Immigration received a report prepared by Wilbur J. Carr, the director of the Consular Service, and approved by the secretary of state, that described Jews who desired to migrate to the United States as being, among other things, ‘undesirable,’ ‘of low physical and mental standards,’ ‘filthy,’ ‘un-American,’ and ‘often dangerous in their habits.’ Resulting legislation - the 1924 Immigration Act - never mentioned Jews, and it restricted other "undesirable" immigrants like Italians and Slavs no less stringently, while Asians were barred entirely. ‘Chauvinistic nationalism is rampant,’ Louis Marshall, the foremost American can Jewish leader of his day, recognized. ‘The hatred of everything foreign has become an obsession.’”

     The Pesach Haggadah states that “in every generation, we are obligated to see ourselves as if WE were freed from [slavery in] Egypt.”  Jewish arrivals in the United States were grateful to live in a land where a wide range of freedoms are realized and practiced. There are also echoes of prejudicial expressions from that previous time that do, in our own day, emerge and re-emerge to remind us that certain negative perspectives, unfortunately, do not totally disappear.   

    Pesach’s arrival in the spring can inspire us to renew our hopes for triumphs in the struggle for freedom against hatred and bigotry.  The symbols of the Seder bring to life the promise of redemption, which can result from our faith in God and from our partnership with one another.   

     Emma Lazarus once said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”  May her words, and the prayers and songs of our Passover celebration, lead us to continue the quest for liberty for all humanity. 

Rabbi Larry Karol

Temple Beth-El

What I learn from the Shabbat Morning Prayers - column for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter for March 2018

1) Be grateful for the opportunity to wake up on each new day. The MODEH ANI prayer thanks God for giving us back our soul every morning after it has “taken flight” at night while we slept.
2) Don’t take for granted for the ways in which our bodies work (hopefully well). The prayer for the body generally describes the functioning of our heart, our digestive tract, and our blood flow. The words of this meditation note that if anything in our bodies would fail to function properly, we would not be able to stand with our community.
3) Appreciate the soul that makes us human. Once when I was discussing with Religious School students what the soul might be, one child said, “It’s what makes you you.” There are various levels of the soul within Judaism which relate to our basic existence as members of the animal kingdom, moving higher to our emotions and then to greater awareness of being part of a higher existence. We each are stamped with a touch of the divine, but we bring to our lives our own individuality.
4) Recognize the blessings that we enjoy every day as human beings and as members of an ancient community of faith. The prayers in this section, titled in Mishkan T’filah “Miracles Every Day/Nisim B’chol Yom,” praise the Eternal One for enabling us to tell day from night, for giving us a measure of sight, for freeing captives (and giving us the possibility of movement), for lifting up the fallen, for strengthening our steps, for removing sleep from our eyes, for creating us in the divine image, for making us free (a gift that hopefully many people can enjoy), for being allowed to struggle with God (that is the meaning of “Yisrael”), and for providing us with strength and glory as members of the Jewish people. Some say these blessings trace our process of waking up, taking our first steps of the morning, getting dressed, and going out to face a new day.
5) Take every opportunity to study, because study can lead to right action. Of course, it does depend what you study. We thank God in this part of the service for making the words of Torah sweet for us, and for finding new ways to discover our own truth while, if possible, exploring the truths of others in a spirit of understanding and dialogue even within our own community.
6) Identify and practice the essential acts that can enhance the community in which we live. The EILU D’VARIM prayer presents a guide for what we can do without limit, where the reward is in the doing: honoring our parents, engaging in deeds of compassion, exhibiting an eagerness to study, showing hospitality, visiting those who are ill, being present at times of celebration (weddings) and sorrow (at a funeral), being devoted in your prayer, and making peace between people. This text, originally from the Talmud, offers us a roadmap to making a positive impact upon the people in our lives.
7) Sing! Praise! Thank! Appreciate the wonders of the world! Be enthusiastic about your gratitude! Know that the Creator of the Universe is present with You every day! The Verses of Song/P’sukei D’Zimrah section begins with paying homage to the power of the divine word in causing all existence to come to be, and identifying compassion as a fundamental aspect of God’s rule over creation. Psalm 92 (for Shabbat) celebrates the presence of righteous people in the world who follow God’s ways. Psalm 145, with its “Ashrei” introduction, gives thanks to God as our support and strength. Psalm 150 recalls how voices, musical instruments, and dance can combine to offer rousing proclamations of praise to the Eternal One. The final prayer, NISHMAT KOL CHAI (Let every living soul bless God), notes that our words of praise may not be enough to capture the vastness and greatness of creation, but those words are all we have, so we should not refrain from offering our declarations of wonder, gratitude, and hope for blessing in our continued existence.
8) Remember, always, to prepare yourself to pray properly. Like the rabbis of old, ease yourself into a place where the words in the prayerbook will be more than words. Note the values they reflect, the wonder they express, the gratitude for life that they direct you to utter.
9) Take note that the prayers are, mostly, in the language of “WE.” They are for each of us, individually, and for us as members of a community. So join the communal chorus that we create at every service, because it is in that union of our voices that we bring to life the deepest spirit of our heritage.

Dr. King gave us words that resonate to this day - column for Las Cruces Bulletin on March 2, 2018

    On Sunday, February 11, 2018, over 160 people gathered at Temple Beth-El of Las Cruces to hear a speech and a voice echoing down to us from the past. 

     On March 12, 1961, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Massachusetts.  Rabbi Joseph Klein of Temple Emanuel introduced Dr. King that night.   Following his retirement from Temple Emanuel in 1977, Rabbi Klein made his way to Las Cruces to serve Temple Beth-El until 1984.  

     Before he left town to return to the northeast, he presented Temple Beth-El member Frances Williams with a cassette tape copy of a recording of the King speech. Eventually, KRWG was given the opportunity to enhance the audio. 

      Rabbi Klein’s granddaughter Laura contacted Temple Beth-El a few days before our program to let us know that the family had the original reel-to-reel tapes of the talk and the question-and-answer session following.       

      Temple Beth-El and the Dona Ana County Branch of the NAACP co-sponsored this gathering. 

     The NMSU Gospel Choir presented music to begin and end the event, and a local panel set a context for King’s talk and responded to King’s words, 

      Many of us who heard the speech on February 11 were impressed with its resonance for today, not only in the realm of race relations, but for other societal issues as well. 

     Dr. King noted how people might approach the situation in 1961 with optimism, pessimism and realism, recognizing how the United States had come a long, long way in treating African-Americans with dignity and equality, after the Brown v. Board school desegregation decision by the Supreme Court in 1954, and the registration of 1.3 million African- Americans in the South (but that was out of 5 million possible voters).  

     This paragraph touched us all, as we, in our time, all too often fail to engage in respectful conversation: “For too often in the South, we find ourselves seeking to live in monologue rather than dialogue.  No greater tragedy can befall a community than this tragedy of seeking to live in monologue.  Men hate each other often because they fear each other.  They fear each other because they don’t know each other and they don’t know each other because they can’t communicate with each other.  They can’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.  And so that is a real challenge of this hour for the people of good will in the white South to rise up and take over the leadership and open the channels of communication and thereby make for a smooth and peaceful transition.”  

     And, finally, Dr. King called on people to be willing to be maladjusted “to the evils of religious economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”   He concluded, “it may well be [that] the salvation of our world lies in the hand of the maladjusted.” 

     One of the songs presented by the NMSU Gospel Choir at the beginning of the program was of my own creation, based on Psalm 133, verse 1: “How good and how pleasant it is when we sit together.” The lyrics continued: “Are we destined to live in a world divided?  We still can see clearly what makes us united.  When we feel the ties that bind us, love and understanding will find us.”  

     On that day, hearing Dr. King’s voice, we realized that we still share that hope for understanding and unity.   




Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Every song a new world AND a response to the world - thoughts on recent musical creations

   There is so much happening in our country and in the world that it is impossible to keep silent.  My invocations for Board meetings, my divrei Torah/sermonettes at Shabbat Services, and my recent articles in the local press are all meant to put into words some of what I am feeling and thinking about society, about the values that I don’t want to see lost, and about the principles that, I believe, can keep us together.   
   The murders at Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida touched many people deeply, not just in that community but well beyond, because of connections with people who have lived and currently live there, rabbinic colleagues serving congregations in that community, and a national sensibility that must lead us towards preventing, as much as we can, further tragedies in schools or other public places. 
     My response to the Parkland tragedy has, so far,included an invocation at a Board meeting and a sermonette, both reprinted here on my blog. 
     The songs, though, are different. 
     When I am feeling despair for what to do, whether for myself or for a challenge in our nation or in the world, I search for texts in which there might be a lesson for me and for us all. 
      My first thought was to do a search online for “shelter/Psalms.”   As one might expect, several choices were suggested.  I chose Psalm 46, a short chapter which describes God’s great power.  Psalm 46 envisioned the great waters causing mountains to tumble, and proclaimed that God caused - or could cause - all wars to cease.   And then, it offered reassurance: “Be still, for I am God.”   After looking at several translations of the Psalm, the mountains, in my lyric, became “mountains of misunderstanding” tumbling, washed away by God’s cleansing rain.   The misunderstanding that comes to mind for me is exemplified by the unwillingness of some of our leaders to listen and compromise.  They see one view - their own - as controlling, and the only one that matters, even when a majority of people across the country may have another perspective.  My prayer is that having God as a strength and shelter can unify us enough to listen to each other, because God is in each of us.  
Here is the link to the song I created on February 18, 2018:  

       I still had more to say.  
      So I kept looking for more Psalms that presented the notion of God’s power as giving us a chance to meet challenges before us with the right approach.   Psalm 37 rose to the top of my search on February 22.  The central verse in the Psalm that is well known is “The meek/humble shall inherit the earth.”   The Psalm contrasts those who think they have power and wield their arrogance like a weapon, while those who are humble trust in God and godliness.  According to the Psalm, in the end, living a life of good values - and walking through life humbly - is the path that will lead to personal well-being and even quiet victory.   I thought of people of all ages, but especially the groundswell of high school students, currently seeking change.  I heard the pronouncements of leaders who cited a list of Jews who supposedly are using their power to tout a creeping socialism that will destroy our country.   I am not one to believe in conspiracy theories, and this was one that was just too much to take.   The God in whom I believe is a God of justice with whom I am supposed to humbly walk.   The beat of this new song, “Inheritance,” needed to feel strong and resolute.  Hopefully I captured that with this song.  

       And I decided, today, I still wasn’t done.  I was perusing through the Mishkan T’filah for Gatherings prayerbook from the Central Conference of American Rabbis and found an alternative version of the Priestly Blessing.   What intrigued me about this text was that it came from the Community Rule of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  These ancient documents from a Jewish sect that existed over 2000 years ago include interpretations specific for that community.    The familiar three lines that begin with the phrase “May God bless you and keep you” were embellished in this version, translated by scholar Nahum Glatzer: 

MAY GOD BLESS YOU with all good 

and keep you from all evil. 

May God enlighten your heart with immortal wisdom 

and grace you with eternal knowledge. 

May God lift up merciful countenance upon you for eternal peace.

The text offered a unique opportunity to use basically the same melody for both the Hebrew and English.  This one I wanted to be gentle and peaceful, due to the last word of the blessing. 

   The line that led me to want to create a melody for this blessing was the second statement: “and keep you from all evil.”   On February 27, the day before Purim,  the specter of evil, in the person of Haman in the book of Esther, loomed large for me.   We need protection from those who hate without cause, those who spread untrue accusations, and those who seek to dehumanize others.  In the book of Esther, Haman sought the death of the Jews.   Declarations of bigotry intended to take away people’s humanity can cause their “social death,” where people oust them from the human community for no reason other than someone telling them that they should take that approach.  We have seen this all too often.  We need words of blessing to take us in a different direction.   Hopefully, this prayer front he Dead Sea Scrolls offers that opportunity.  

   Will there be more songs to come?   Time - and the events around us - will tell.