Thursday, September 21, 2017

Side by Side - Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 5778 - September 21, 2017 (Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, NM)

Even before we begin the Torah reading today, I know you can picture the story.  It is one of Judaism’s most perplexing reruns - I can call it that because it is read twice a year from the Torah.   God calls Abraham to take his son Isaac to a specific mountain to offer a sacrifice there.   They embark on their journey.  The main moment of dialogue is when Isaac asks his father where the animal is for the offering. Abraham tells his son God will provide whatever they need when the time comes.  They ascend Mount Moriah, and the next “cry aloud” comes not from Isaac, or Abraham, but an angel, who stops the action and prevents the tragedy at the last moment. 
    Many commentators on this tale have held up Abraham as a great exemplar of faith because of his desire to do anything for God.  Others have asserted that the lesson of the story may not be that one should follow God without asking questions. After all, just 4 chapters before, Abraham had argued with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  He convinced God to spare the cities even if there should be found only 10 righteous people in the population.   In this story of the journey to a far-off mountain, for some unknown reason, Abraham lost his voice.  What was it that took away his ability to utter even a feeble protest?
     The answer is still elusive for me, after many years of speaking about this passage.  Rabbi Donniel Hartman, in his book PUTTING GOD SECOND: HOW TO SAVE RELIGION FROM ITSELF,  expressed his own concerns about what this and other biblical stories might teach us.   Looking at our world and people who practice various religions, Hartman suggested that some people who are fervent about their faith may become so focused on God that they will see or hear nothing else.  What he calls “God intoxication” can lead a person or a group of people to apply and mobilize religious texts in a way that defines some human beings out of the circle of salvation.   
    For Hartman, this type of God intoxication and God mobilization is not religion at its best.  Anyone who sees Abraham in this instance as a superhero of faith might not be able to discover the best lesson of this story  that can guide us in the New Year.   And one thing that we know and admire about superheroes is their usual desire to help people who are in danger and, when necessary, to listen to a respected, external guiding voice turning him or her to do good.
    Early in his book, Hartman shared a poignant story about balancing between faith and concern for our fellow human beings.
    A famous Hassidic master was walking along a cobbled street in Eastern Europe some two hundred years ago, when he heard the cry of a baby coming from his student’s house—a cry that pierced the night. He rushed into the house and saw his student enraptured in prayer, swaying in pious devotion. The rabbi walked over to the baby, took her into his arms, sat down, and rocked her to sleep. When the student emerged from his prayers, he was shocked and embarrassed to find his master in his house, holding his baby. “Master,” he said, “what are you doing? Why are you here?” “I was walking in the street when I heard crying,” he responded, “so I followed it and found her alone.” “Master,” the student replied, “I was so engrossed in my prayers that I did not hear her.” The master replied, “My dear student, if praying makes one deaf to the cries of a child, there is something flawed in the prayer.”
        The father who did not see or hear his child was not acting like God, because God sees and hears people in distress in some of the most important tales in the Torah.    In Exodus Chapter 3, when God revealed the divine presence to Moses from the burning bush, God said, “I have clearly seen the plight of My people in Egypt and have heard their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings.”    And God knew that Moses was the right person to lead the Israelites because he turned aside to see the wonder of a bush that appeared to be burning but remained intact.
       Various forms of the verb “see” appear in this morning’s Torah reading. Abraham saw their destination from far away.  He told his son that “God would see to the ram for the offering.”  But Abraham did not truly see his son, at least, not at first.
      What changed Abraham’s ability to see so that he spared his Isaac?   It was something he heard. It was the cry of the angel, that declared, “Abraham!  Abraham!  "Do not lay your hand on the lad; do nothing to him; for now I know that you are one who reveres God!”   Abraham’s eyes were opened again so that he saw Isaac clearly, and he saw the ram caught in a nearby thicket.  According to the Torah, that place gained the name ADONAI YIR’EH: the place where God will see.
      So we are called upon to hear and see like God, and sometimes we need an angel nearby to make that happen.  
      In his book, Hartman encapsulates the message of Judaism with the term “nonindifference.”  That means that we are obligated not to ignore the cry of someone who needs our help.   We are commanded to identify with people who are on the outside looking in, because we have been in that position so many times throughout our history. “A Jewish society,” Hartman said, “is one in which everyone is obligated to be able to see and be seen.  Jews must create a society in which seeing is possible.” 
      The title of Hartman’s book, “Putting God Second,” was intended to elevate the importance of basic human decency in our tradition.  Calling people to remember to be ethical and respectful was the mission of the prophets in Israelite society.  In the story of the binding of Isaac, the Angel was the prophet, the conscience, issuing the call that reminded the Torah’s first monotheist that piety should not take the form of blinders that shut out other people. 
      We are likely familiar with the Talmudic story of the man who went to both of the ancient teachers Shammai and Hillel and asked them, “Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot.”   In his impatience, Shammai drove the man out of his house with a measuring rod.   Hillel, though, calmly answered him, saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.  Now, go and study.”
      Hartman revealed in his book that some streams of rabbinic tradition criticized Hillel’s statement for its lack of reference to God.   Such comments claimed that  fervent belief in the Eternal was more important than seeing, hearing and even loving one’s fellow human being as oneself. 
     Hartman also cited the two great medieval Jewish sages who were ready to back up Hillel 150%.   Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, Nachmanides, taught that we should always try to do what is good and upright.  Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, Maimonides, asserted that “piety and wisdom” should guide us, where piety is expressed in action to help other people and not just in belief. Maimonides taught that all the stories in the Torah must be evaluated based on a high ethical standard. That is why the Angel of the binding of Isaac episode might be considered the moral superhero of the tale.
     So consideration, decency, respect and seeing and hearing people calling for our help should be the values at the foundation of our moral approach to the world.  
    And there is one more value to mention.   The father and the baby in the story I told before were living in their home, side-by-side, and it took the passing rebbe to remind the father to activate the love inside him and turn his attention to his crying infant daughter.   Abraham and Isaac walked side by side to Mount Moriah, and it took an Angel to open Abrham’s eyes to this child that he loved. 
     Yes, the son he loved.  God had originally called out to Abraham,  “Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac.”    We might prefer  that this loving father had refused to take his son on this divinely-commanded journey.   God may have wanted Abraham to do just that in this instance: at least to question the command he was given.
    Perhaps this story relates to the times when loving families face difficult times.   We hope that people who love one another know how to navigate the challenges of life while preserving an ability to see and hear each other in their time of need.
     In his book, THE FIRST LOVE STORY: ADAM, EVE AND US, Bruce Feiler expressed why he believed the Bible’s first description of human relationships is actually a story of two people who learned to support each other based on the value of love.  In his book, Feiler shared and evaluated many classic interpretations of the Garden of Eden story and its aftermath.   
     Feiler first thought of writing this book when, while standing in the Sistine Chapel, his daughter made him see, for the first time, that the famous depiction of God and Adam by Michelangelo also portrayed Eve sheltered under God’s arm.  This realization led to a journey of discovery to find the essence of the Garden of Eden story that took Feiler around the world to explore centuries of telling and retelling the biblical recounting of the origins of humanity.
    Feiler gravitated to religious commentaries that established Adam and Eve as equal partners, which even the Hebrew text does in its own way.    
     So why did Feiler view the tale of their relationship as “The First Love Story?” 
    It was because Adam and Eve faced great upheaval and displacement in their lives, and their relationship survived.   It didn’t matter so much to Feiler, as with some other authors and commentators, that it was the actions of the first man and woman in this story that led to what has been called their expulsion from the garden.   Some scholars and sages have asserted that Adam and Eve were destined not to remain in paradise, because, even in the context of the Torah’s narrative, humanity would not have been humanity without Adam’s and Eve’s exit from Eden.
     In the Garden, the Torah portrayed two human beings, living side by side, within God’s love.   We aren’t sure, though, that they loved each other. According to Feiler, their love wasn’t certain until they began their post-paradise lives.   It was out of their new existence filled with toil, pain and hardship that they were able to truly experience real contentment and, yes, love. 
      So if Adam and Eve could survive through all of those changes, then it was love that  kept them together.   Or, as Feiler said, quoting from the famous lyrics from “Fiddler on the Roof,” “if that’s not love, what is?”
   Like that first couple, we live side-by-side not only as spouses and as members of different generations in a family, but also as neighbors, colleagues, and friends.   We thrive when we meet challenges together.  We are stronger when we see and hear each other, both in good times and in moments of challenge when it is crucial to reach out and offer our assistance and support.
     And such times came upon us in recent days. How many of you have friends or family who were affected by Hurricane Harvey ?   How many of you have friends or family touched by the strong winds of Hurricane Irma?   Many of the victims of the storms have expressed their feeling of despair.  Along with that sense of loss and uncertainty has been extreme and heartfelt gratitude for those who have sent many types of donations and offered help in person to enable people who lived in the areas damaged by the storms to gradually get back on their feet.  It will take them a long time to recover, but they deeply appreciate that so many of us have seen and heard them, providing them with hope and even love.   And the last several days have seen more disasters, with more deaths and more people to whom we must offer our help. 

     To see and hear each other and to love one another - these are crucial to our well-being as individuals and as members of the greater human community.   We can be angels for each other when we need a reminder of who we are and where we need to go, making sure that no one in the human family is on the outside looking in.  So may we hear the child’s cry and answer right at that moment. May we see the plight of the despairing and  oppressed and bring them into our circle of hope.  May we walk along the path of life doing what is good and upright, pious and wise, so that we will feel in our feet that God is walking with us, side-by-side.

"Who are we and how did we get here?" - Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon 5778 - September 20, 2017 (Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, NM)

Shanah Tovah to all of you who have joined us tonight.
This night provides us with a special opportunity.  It is available only to people who celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the New Year. 
    For most of the world, tonight and tomorrow are primarily identified as days in the year 2017.   This calendar year has challenged our sense of truth, justice, hope, security, trust and peace.   It has pitted people against each other who could, if they only tried, find something in common.   2017 has subjected us to moral whiplash, verbal exhaustion, mental confusion, and communal despair.   And some of you will understand if I say the words “duck and cover,” because who hasn’t thought about that, even for an instant, in light of the actions of North Korea?
     Here at Temple Beth-El, and in the Jewish world, we do mark the year, on one level, as 2017.  We haven’t been totally sheltered from all that is happening around us.
    But we do, still, have a special opportunity tonight.
    We get to turn the page.
     Not a page in a book. 
     We have turned our Jewish chronological page to a new year.   It’s now 5778.
     Everything that happened in the Jewish year 5777 will still be with us when the High Holy Days are over.
     However, because we have turned our page, we have the chance to help ourselves and the world make a change towards renewal, building on the moments when our best gifts emerged in 5777 so that 5778 will be different. 
   In our service tonight,  we are about to read the prayer for holiness.      
   During this last year, the notion of holiness seems to have been far from many people’s minds.
    Or, the word “holy” may have been employed in the sense that some people see themselves as holier than others, believing that their faith makes them better, more righteous, more saved, more deserving of God’s blessing.
    Judaism teaches that, if we seek to be trustworthy, respectful, peaceful, honest, and hopeful, then righteousness and holiness will naturally follow for any person.  
     Rosh Hashanah provides us with a time to refocus, to remember that our heritage demands that we hold ourselves to a high standard of behavior that is reflected in the prayers of the Machzor, the High Holy Day Prayerbook.  There are specific values at the foundation of Judaism which we still teach and discuss and by which we are called to live so that we can serve as exemplars for everyone around us. 
    During these High Holy Days, as we use Mishkan Hanefesh for the first time during several of our services, I want to take the opportunity to consider the meaning and implications of one particular reading in each service.  Tonight, it is the reading on page 48.   My title for my remarks tonight was “Who are we and how did we get here?”   This reading and the prayers that follow actually answer my question.
     Our prayers and our tradition teach us that we are here because God put us here.  There are many ways to express that belief, but when we speak of such things in Judaism, even our prose, which seems literal, is poetry.  Acknowledging God as our Creator requires of us a great measure of humility.  We have developed our own power, but it’s not ultimate by any means.   Our natural setting, our beautiful sunrises and sunsets that often present a colorful collage in the sky, and the great eclipse - all of these elicit in us a sense of wonder and amazement.   The word YIR’AH in the holiness prayer can mean fear, but it can also mean awe and reverence.   The first part of the holiness prayer says, “We yearn for connection with all that lives, doing Your will with wholeness of heart.  Awe-inspiring is Your creation, all-encompassing is Your transcendent name.”  
    Every faith group has its own belief about how to mirror God’s will in an approach to people and to the natural world.   There are some of our fellow Americans who believe that only they know God’s true will, which gives them special privileges.  A movement called Dominionism accepts only people who profess a certain type of Christianity as being worthy of positions of leadership in our nation because of their supposed moral and spiritual superiority.   The yearning for such power and control would lead to a fulfillment of only one narrow view of a divinely ordained mission as applied to citizens and to the lands that are our national treasure.   It also rejects interfaith partnerships that could bring people closer together.
    There are other people who take a much different approach.  In Las Cruces, for me, that is realized in small group settings, one with clergy, and another every Friday noon with a group of lay people and ministers who come from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i traditions.  Our book discussions enable us to share our beliefs in a cooperative and enlightened spirit.
    Dr. Andrea Weiss of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City activated a network of her fellow scholars of religion to create the “American Values, Religious Voices” campaign that developed letters to send to our national leaders for the first 100 days of the new administration.   The breadth and depth of the resulting expressions about the principles that emerge from our faith groups was breathtaking.  I believe that God wants us to be equal partners in sustaining not only creation, but also in developing stronger ties with each other across our differences.  The divine essence in each of us and all of us is holy, and when we discover that spark in ourselves and in others, holiness happens all around us.   Such sacred partnerships in the greater community and the world should be our goal.
    The second part of the Holiness prayer on page 50 speaks of Jews all over the world.  The note at the bottom of the page explains, “This prayer…reflects for the Jewish people - often marginalized, misunderstood, and despised – a yearning for honor and recognition, a secure place among the nations.” 
    We probably think of ourselves as secure now. Or, with recent events, perhaps not.   
     Last January, I was first invited to the Friday discussion group which I attend to teach about Jews and Judaism in America.  We used as our text my teacher Dr. Jonathan Sarna’s book, AMERICAN JUDAISM.   In that chronicle of history was this paragraph that described the status of Jews in relation to the rest of the population nearly a century ago: 
    “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- [targeted but] never mentioned Jews, and it restricted… immigrants like Italians and Slavs no less stringently, while Asians were barred entirely. ‘Chauvinistic nationalism is rampant,’ Louis Marshall, the foremost American Jewish leader of his day, recognized. ‘The hatred of everything foreign has become an obsession.’”
     Libby Garland, in her book AFTER THEY CLOSED THE GATES, detailed how the restrictions of the 1924 Immigration act put in jeopardy many Jews in Europe, who had already acquired legal visas to come to the United States.   They had left their homes believing they could safely embark on their journey, only to discover that the new immigration act would delay their entry because quotas for the nations from whence they came had been filled.   Many of those Jews wishing to join family members who were already here were forced to resort to a wide range of means to enter in a timely way.  If they saw the anti-Semitic handwriting on the walls of their European towns and cities, we shouldn’t be surprised if these despairing Jews listened to anyone who promised to get them to America.  Sometimes they found out too late that the pathway they were taking was illegal.   Libby Garland was only able to chronicle the stories of those whose efforts were thwarted by American officials.  She estimated that tens of thousands of Jews immigrated “under the radar” to the United States from Europe, quietly circumventing a system that was dedicated to keeping their numbers to a mere, insignificant trickle.
   That was a long time ago, but echoes remain of prevailing attitudes of that time.  The “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville in August reminded us of that.   In the flurry of discussions, reporting, and activity surrounding the events of those tragic days last month, the chants of “Jews will not replace us” and the originally Nazi slogan, “blood and soil,” and descriptions of armed right-wing demonstrators standing across from the Temple in Charlottesville, were almost drowned out.   But not for us. We heard.  We mourn the death of Heather Heyer, whose passion for values that resonate with the heart of Judaism led her to attend the counter protest.  We are fortunate to be in a position to make our voices heard when such hatred is expressed from wherever it may come, including specific campaigns against the State of Israel that employ classic anti-Semitic language and imagery.   Sometimes we don’t know where to turn, other than to the core of our heritage:  the teachings of the Torah, the wisdom of the rabbis, the give-and-take discourse that characterizes Jewish tradition, where we should be able to sit with one another and talk as equals with humility and utmost mutual respect.    That goes for us, and it should go for Jews all over the world, including  those who gather in the precincts of the Western Wall, the Kotel.  At that historic site, women who seek to pray aloud in reverence and joy, and the Orthodox women and men who protest their monthly public worship with whistles and catcalls, should, because they are all Jews, be able to find a way to admit that, even with their differences, they are part of the same community.   In the words of the holiness prayer in MISHKAN HANEFESH, “May the sparks of David, Your servant, soon grow bright enough for us to see a beam of light in the darkness, a promise of perfection.”  Hopefully, there are ways in which that light still can shine down on us, so that fellow members of the Jewish community who live near and far will be able to fashion and maintain sacred partnerships that will take us into a bright future.
    The final section of the holiness prayer, according to the note on page 51, “envisions a future in which good people will see the reward of having held fast to their ideals: a world in which righteousness prevails.” 
     A brief story.  On Wednesday, August 2,  I had a number of different places I could have been.  My choice for that day was to work on some congregational projects and to take our major High Holy Day mailing to the post office.
    As I left the building, three high school students came by Temple.  I asked them if they needed help or if they were just passing by.  They said they were fine, so I continued walking to my car, but I looked back and saw them eyeing our outside display case.  I approached them again, and they told me they wanted to know more about Temple, Judaism and what was inside.  So, I opened the door and let them in. Don’t worry, they were NOT a security risk.  I could tell that they were having an inquisitive moment.    For me, it became a teachable moment.   I showed them the Sanctuary and explained the various symbols around this sacred space.  I opened the ark and took the cover off the middle Torah.   As I set it for the portion for the coming Shabbat, I explained to them:  “You are here in a good week to see what’s in the Torah.  Here are the Ten Commandments and here is the statement of one God, the Shema. Both are central to Judaism.   Had you come at another time, I wouldn’t have been able to show you these important passages in the Torah so readily!”  Perhaps God works in mysterious enough ways that I was reminded, as I spoke to these students, that we do have something very special and crucial to offer the world.   It’s why much of what I have written in the last year in local publications has been about values that many people share.  Principles for life require us to dedicate ourselves to human decency - to menschlichkeit, so aptly highlighted by Global Character Day creator Tiffany Schlain ( in the material that was the centerpiece of our Selichot Discussion last Saturday night.  It wasn’t only that Torah reading of the first week of August that contained central tenets of Judaism.  In the following week’s parashah was this passage from Deuteronomy Chapter 10:   
 And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in divine paths, to love and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Eternal's commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good.  Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Eternal your God, the earth and all that is on it!  Yet it was to your ancestors that the Eternal was drawn out of love for them. Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.  For the Eternal your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
     This was the vision in Deuteronomy of how we can bring righteousness in the world.   That was then.  In 5778, who are we?  We are still people called upon to open our hearts, to take the teachings of our heritage and apply them in our relationships with each other and with all of the human family, with a sense of God’s presence guiding us along the way.   Practicing these values could begin to assure, in the words of our prayer, that we will live in a world where “evil has no voice,” where “the stunning sight of arrogance” will be “gone from the earth,” and where the God of holiness will be made holy through OUR righteousness.
       One last question is, how did we get here? That is still a mystery on some levels, and it raises another question:  What or where is “here,” which can also include the notion of “now”?   For the moment, “here” is tonight, as we find ourselves at the beginning of a new Jewish year.   “Here” is a world that is so intricately connected that we can converse with people halfway across the planet in an instant.   “Here” is a national and global situation when disagreement and conflict could tear humanity apart. 
      But “here” can also refer to this moment, this new year, that gives us an opportunity to turn the page, to carry over the best of our past, as we seek to explore among ourselves what Judaism can give the world:  a sense of blessing, hope, justice, righteousness, and peace.   May we walk together in sacred partnership as we move forward into the future, joining with others to discover the spark of God and godliness in one another that will lead us all to a MAKOM KADOSH, a holy place, wherever we may be.