Friday, January 12, 2018

Getting our Spirit Back - Parashat Va-era - January 12, 2018

I am the Eternal One.
I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians
I will deliver you from their bondage.
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.
And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.
I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal One.’”
     What a hopeful upbeat message to receive!  
Moses, the newly-selected messenger of God, was totally certain that the people would rejoice. 
In fact, in Exodus, Chapter 4, it says that they did actually believe and accept what they heard.
So why not in this case?  
I could go into an explanation of how various sources from different writers were woven together to form the narrative in the Torah.
Or, I could simply say, that it’s possible to experience a bright, optimistic declaration in different ways based on your mood on a given day, or in a particular moment.
What was the state of the Israelites at that moment?
We can discover that easily, without an opinion poll, with no need for cable or network news.   No tweets are available from that time, of course.
Just this: the Torah states that they couldn’t listen to Moses because of KOTZER RUACH.
KOTZER is from the root that means short.
RUACH is wind or spirit.
So what do we make of this phrase that preceded the words AVODAH KASHAH, which means “hard work” or “difficult labor”?
Some have taken the two phrases together and translated “Cruel bondage.”
However, the phrase KOTZER RUACH deserves attention all by itself.
So….here are some of the translations.  
·      “Crushed spirit” (from The Torah commentary translation, URJ/CCAR Press).  
·      Stunted spirits (from the Eitz Chayim Commentary).
·      Broken Spirit (NRSV – Oxford Annotated Bible)
·      Dejection (Catholic Study Bible – New American Revised)
·      Shortage of spirit (from Richard Elliot Friedman’s Commentary on the Torah).
·      Shortness of spirit (from Everett Fox’s translation, The Five Books of Moses).  
·      Shortness of Breath (by the commentator Rashi)
·      Impatience (Ramban/Nachmanides),
·      Michael Walzer’s suggested rendering, “Dispiritedness.” (the last three were cited by Everett Fox in his translation).
Robert Alter, in his translation and commentary,  accepted Rashi’s suggestion of “shortness of breath,” noting that the people’s bondage had been made harder by Moses’s attempt to free them.  They couldn’t catch their breath due to their exhausting work.
     Perhaps you are feeling like this – with KOTZER RUACH -  just a little bit today as we continue to face the challenge of racism in our nation, and not just in the wake of the tragic and fatal result of the Charlottesville protests.   Where there is one hatred, there tends to be another.  When racism rears its head, anti-Semitism is not too far behind. Some might say that these attitudes go in cycles.  I would suggest that those prejudices are always present.  They go underground when people who espouse such views become marginalized. They resurface when some charismatic leader reactivates the acceptance and even encouragement of expressions of bigotry by using such rhetoric to gain a following.
     That is why the world needs people who will come forth, like Moses, with a message that is hopeful, and affirming of all people.   Moses went to tell dehumanized individuals that they were, in fact, as human and as deserving of respect as their oppressors.   Moses went to their oppressors to tell them that their slaves were, in fact, as human as they were.  Whenever human beings want to minimize the value of a group of people, one adjective that seems convenient to add is “only.”   In the animated film “Prince of Egypt,” Moses, after discovering the slaughter of the first born Israelite sons at the time of his birth, spoke with his adoptive father, the Pharaoh Seti.  Seti told Moses that he should not be concerned.  “They were only slaves” were his words of comfort that stirred Moses’ Israelite soul.   It is one of the most powerful moments in that film, expressive of the message that cries out from the text – that all people are human and deserve to be free. 
    Perhaps the most important message of this passage is about caring.  God told Moses of divine concern and  compassion for the people crying out in pain due to  their KOTZER RUACH.   Moses’ mission was to be God’s eyes, ears, hands and heart on earth – to relentlessly stand truth to power before a ruler who didn’t know what it meant to be compassionate, but who only understood power and its uses and application.   Moses, having been raised in the Egyptian royal court, could not have been accused of dehumanizing those who enslaved his people.  He was familiar with their views and their lifestyles. Because of that, he likely knew what it would take for them to change and to allow those whom they had enslaved to go free.
     I had the opportunity to sit in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta last March and to visit the graves of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.   We learned about the life of King and others who lived in that neighborhood and their place in the greater Atlanta community.   We also visited the Temple -Hebrew Benevolent congregation, a building that was bombed in 1958 because of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s support of the emerging civil rights movement.  He was driven by a belief that all people are created in the divine image.
   This notion of acceptance begins in the loving relationships of one’s home and in community.  It is nurtured over the course of years through the teaching, by one generation to the next, of love, support, empathy, encouragement, and resilience in the face of challenge.   When we band together as a community, we hope that those values are still the hallmark of who we are.     

     And so, on this night when we read of positive words presented to the Israelites, we can think of the ways that we can free one another from the stresses and burdens of our lives so that we can find greater contentment.    We can consider how we can walk with each other with arms outstretched in a way that offers help and hope and endurance.   We can pledge over and over again to be partners with each other in facing each day with strength and courage.    And we can walk with one another as traveling companions towards a land of promise filled with mutual consideration, understanding, and peace.    

Thursday, January 4, 2018

December confers light on givers and receivers - Column for Las Cruces Bulletin on January 5, 2018

December celebrations that have symbols of light associated with them (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and others) reflect the need for brightness to counter the increase in daily hours of darkness as the winter begins.   These observances bear other meanings as well, with light as the foundation of their message. 

   During the celebration of Hanukkah, which commemorates a victory for religious freedom won by Jews in Judea in 165 BC, I asked my congregants at Temple Beth-El to share one word about what the festival meant to them this year.   

    Their responses encompassed a wide range of aspects of the holiday and its relation to our lives today.  The “one-word” descriptions I received included: 

• Gratitude and pride. 

• Triumph and hope.

• Family and Continuity. 

• Endurance and perseverance. 

• Remembrance and tradition. 

• Freedom and survival.

• Empowerment and enlightenment. 

• Dedication and responsibility.

• Commitment and focus. 

   Some of these values naturally flowed from a story about a people seeking to hold on to their house of worship, their faith, and their right to be different in the face of a ruler who sought to change them and insist that they be like “everyone else.” 

   Other principles expressed how we can find ways, today, to be heroic on our own terms and to offer our help to people in need whose circumstances have led them to a place where hope is ours to give them. 

   That is how I view the annual effort of my congregation to serve breakfast at Camp Hope on Christmas morning.   Many Temples and synagogues around the country try to find ways to serve their communities on a day when regular volunteers at hospitals and helping programs may be at home celebrating the holiday that they observe with family or friends.  

  In 2012, members of Temple Beth-El sought to identify a way in which we could make a small impact on people who needed some warmth and cheer on a holiday known for those qualities.  

   We called on congregants to provide donations of food, funds, time and energy so that we would be able to serve a hot breakfast at Camp Hope.    

    As it has turned out over the six years of this effort, we have not only served a meal, but we also have had a chance to speak with the people who came.  We have listened to their stories, and we have tried to provide them with a sense that there are people who care about them.   

    In recent years, our Religious School children have created “goodie bags” that residents could take with them.  This year, they also made greeting cards that, they hoped, would lift the spirits of the recipients.  Several of our students were present to directly deliver these gifts of their hands and hearts.  

    I know that there are other organizations and congregations engaging in this type of activity in order to dispel darkness with light, to replace hopelessness with a spark of hope, and to offer warmth to counter the chill in the air.   

   These acts bring a brightness that can be sensed inside the one who gives and the one who receives.   They reflect every value that my congregants cited in relation to Hanukkah, because it is, through our giving and our dedication, that more people will be able to live well and thrive every day.  May that be a goal for which we continue to strive individually and as a community.  


Saturday, December 23, 2017

One-word reflections from the Temple Beth-El Las Cruces community on Chanukah 5778 - 12/15/2017

One-word reflections from the Temple Beth-El Las Cruces community on Chanukah 5778 - 12/15/2017


Friday, December 22, 2017

Bring us together - A Prayer Based on Parashat Vayigash - December 22, 2017

Eternal One,
Source of wisdom for those who learn and teach,
Wellspring of hope for those who seek help,
Soul of the Universe who envelops all creation,
Bring us together.
As Joseph found his brothers again,
And as they learned to dwell close to each other,
To accept one another,
To trust that they would treat each other with respect,
Lead us to find each other.
When we have different views, open our eyes and ears to honestly speak about our perspectives.
When we come from different backgrounds, enable us to truly listen to each other’s stories to broaden our horizons.
When we see people putting up walls between each other, open our minds and hearts to realize that we cannot come together unless those walls are never created in the first place.
When we sense that that too many people are being written out of the human family, heighten our senses and our sensitivity to discover the divine spark in everyone. 
When we feel ourselves welling up with anger at the wrongs we witness around us, turn our rage into resolve to change the world for the better and to lead people towards one another in a spirit of understanding where disagreeing agreeably can move towards solutions not yet imaginable.
May You, Creator and Sustainer of us all, heal our divisions, dispel our doubts,
And bless us with faith in ourselves and in each other,
So that we can live and thrive in this world where we are neighbors
Fashioned in your holy image.  


Friday, December 1, 2017

What we learn, what we see...on Chanukah - Column for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter - December 2017

What do we learn from the freedom that the Maccabees won in their time? 
• They resisted the tyranny of a ruler and regime that sought to impose one culture, one belief, and one approach to life on everyone. 
• They demonstrated that power that lacks inspiration and purpose, but only seeks control, will not last.
 • They turned the perceived need among some of their fellow Jews to acquiesce to cultural pressures around them into an affirmation that it’s all right to be different. 
• They acted with courage in the face of great odds and what might have been certain defeat. 
• They kept their vision focused on what was holy to them: their values, their tradition, their rituals, their community, and their God. 
• They persisted in engendering hope at a hopeless time. 

What do we see in the lights we light on the Chanukiah? 
• We first see the history of each chanukiah we light: when it came into our home, who lit the candles on it over the years, why that particular chanukiah design bore significance for the family, and, perhaps, photographs of lighting the candles from year to year, and how Chanukah itself marks the passing of our heritage from one generation to the next. 
• We see the joy that we know in our own lives that comes from warming relationships with family and friends. 
• We see connections between us and the Jews around the world who are also lighting their Chanukiot. 
• We acknowledge that our celebration is one of many in December, which provides us with an opportunity to build bridges of understanding. 
• We look into the lights on the Chanukiah and see the guidance and wisdom of Judaism that has sustained us until now and can still nourish us with its teachings about compassion, commitment, justice, hope and peace. 
• We learn from using the Shamash to light the other candles that service is crucial to assuring that the lights of any society or nation, in the form of well-being for all people, will burn brightly. 
• We see the various colors of the flames, reminding us of the diversity of humankind that has a way of moving people towards coexistence out of necessity and, ultimately, out of love. 
• We watch the candles burn and feel their warmth, knowing that we can exude that same warmth through hospitality and generosity of spirit. 
May our celebration of Chanukah in 5778 lead us to a special place in ourselves and with each other. As the lights of Chanukah are holy, may we reflect that holiness in our lives through all we do. Happy Chanukah! 

To be remembered as one of the good guys - Column for Las Cruces Bulletin - December 1, 2017

At a recent memorial service for a congregant, the program prepared by the family highlighted values that were central to the life and character of their loved one: kindness, patience, wisdom, optimism, and fairness. In their brief eulogies, members of the family explained how he had demonstrated these traits in a consistent way throughout his life. When the sharing of recollections was opened up to everyone present, one community member offered his comments in the form of a conversation with the man who died, telling him that he was “one of the good guys.” That is what made him so special.
We need people of good character to assure that our society, our nation, and our world will move forward in a positive direction.
The memorial service was held several hours after Temple Beth-El had hosted its annual pre-thanksgiving Interfaith conversation on the afternoon of November 19, 2017. This year, the theme was “People of Character: What Does It take to be a mensch (a decent human being)?” At the program, I shared the “Periodic Table of Character Strengths” prepared for Global Character Day, marked this year on September 13 and founded by film-maker and innovator Tiffany Schlain (featured in my September column).
What was most important about the November 19 program was that we had representatives of several faith groups speak on values which, we believe, are central to good character.
Pastor Jared Carson of Peace Lutheran Church presented his views on persistence. He used biblical examples (Jacob of the Hebrew Bible and Joseph of the New Testament) and shared a poignant personal story that reflected this value.
Deb Rodgers of the Baha’is of Las Cruces shared a personal experience that recounted kindness shown to someone in a communal setting who needed encouragement.
The Rev. Carol Tuck spoke about truth and its varying permutations in our society, seeking to uphold a reverence for honesty and forthright presentation of current events so that we can find a way to live with each other in a spirit of integrity.
Kelley Williams of the Islamic Center of Las Cruces spoke about law, justice, and mercy, noting how religion seeks to strike a balance between all three.
Sonoma Springs Covenant Church pastor Rob Reed spoke on perspective, using the New Testament image from Hebrews of life as a marathon race to be run, with eyes fixed on God and a pace that is holy, honest, humble and healing.
I spoke about compassion/mercy, beginning with the suggestion of the book of Exodus to adopt a positive approach towards the stranger and even to one’s enemy, and also addressing how Judaism seeks to give mercy an edge over an approach of strict justice.
When we broke into small groups for further discussion, attendees shared their impressions of the presentations and built on what they heard to engage in new conversations about how we can work together to encourage everyone to explore how to cultivate character strengths in themselves.
What most impressed us was that, amid the diversity of the teachings of the faiths represented, there was a definite resonance about what builds good character, about what it takes to be a “mensch.”
As we enter a month with important annual holiday celebrations, may our gatherings lead us to consider how our rituals and customs can teach us how to continue to be people of character who value kindness and goodness in a world that needs the best that we have to give.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Our Vision, Our House of God - D'var Torah - Parashat Vayeitzei - November 24, 2017

House of God.
This is where we are
Every week
Or maybe a few times a week
For some of us....every day.
What happens here can be inspirational
Or regular and ordinary, anything from maintenance and administration
To turning lights on and off. 
But it’s still the house of God.
So Jacob left his home after receiving the first born son’s blessing
Though he was a second-born
Incurring the wrath of his twin brother Esau
But fulfilling the desires and design of his mother Rebekah, who believed she was making God’s will come to pass.
She was probably right that it would be Jacob to carry on the spiritual legacy of the family.
Part of that legacy would be shaped as he set out on his own,
And laid down in a particular place for a night.
He set stones as a headrest
And dreamed.
There was a ladder reaching to the sky with angels going up and down on it.
And God stood with him, right next to him,
Telling him,
“I will give this land to your descendants, who shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south. Through you and your descendants all the families of the earth shall find blessing. And here I am, with you: I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you.״
Jacob awoke from this night-vision. 
He was scared, excited, inspired and hopeful all at once.
He realized.....the place was a BEIT EIL, a house of God, and this house of God was a gateway or stairway to heaven....or to the divine.
How did Jacob know that God hadn’t been with him all along?
What was important was that, as he was alone, away from home, just when Jacob was feeling the most vulnerable, 
God’s presence in his life came clear to him. 
The floodgates of truth and spirit had been opened for him. 
Even without a name change - that would come later- Jacob was different. 
“Surely God was in this place and I, I did not know,” he said.
At this point, he knew, and would count on God’s support
For the rest of his life.
How do we know that a divine presence doesn’t accompany us along our life’s journey? 
How do we know that our BEIT EIL - our congregation, Beth El, isn’t, for us, a gateway to heaven
A connection to the divine
Through our prayers
Through our study
Through our building of community
Through the ways in which we try to engender in one another
The values of respect, justice, compassion, kindness, and peace?
How do we know that every word we say, inside and outside this building, doesn’t count in God’s eyes and in the eyes of others?
God is in this place and sometimes, we, we do not know.
But if we remembered, and recognized God’s presence every minute, every day,
we, like Jacob, might be changed.

In our own personal and communal vision, may the angels above us lead us to new heights, lofty goals, and high standards for who we are, what we do, and who we can become. 

Above - Genesis Window with the Ladder in Jacob's dream theme at Temple Beth Sholom, Topeka, KS
Below - Neir Tamid/Eternal Light with Ladder in Jacob's dream theme at Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, NM