Thursday, December 22, 2011

Creating a Culture of Honor for a Kehilah Kedoshah – A Sacred Community - December 22, 2011 (D'var Torah for Board meeting and for 3rd Night of Chanukah 5772)


K’VOD HABAYIT - Honoring this house: Respect this environment and building – clean up after yourself. 
K’VOD HAMAKOM – Honoring this place: Respect the Temple as a center for learning, gathering and worship.
K’VOD HACHAVERIM - Respecting fellow members: Speak kindly to anyone of any age and treat them in ways that you want to be treated, whether in polite conversation or heated discussion;  be accepting of differences in background and opinion, while always taking the opportunity to remind one another that we are all valued members of the community.   Remember to say excuse me, I'm sorry, please, and thank you at the right moment.  Always seek peace in this House of God - Beit Eil. 
K’VOD HAK’HILAH – Honoring the community: Respect what people give to the congregation, especially their knowledge and time and care. Learn and live the values of the congregation and Judaism within the Temple walls and throughout the community.
K’VOD HALIMUD – Honoring study: Respect what everyone adds to Temple as a learning community.
K'VOD HA-EMET - Honoring the truth - Be honest and forthright in communication in a way that is supportive and respectful, so that sharing the truth will lead to communal and personal growth.
K'VOD HADOROT -  Honoring the generations - recognize the special ways in which members of all ages add to the richness of the congregation and remember that we all have something to teach and learn from one another across the different stages of life.
K'VOD HATZIBUR - Honoring the general community - do not separate yourself from the needs and hopes of local citizens and of those living in the state, nation and world -  offer the best of Jewish values to our neighbors to create greater understanding and further tikkun olam, the healing and repair of humankind and the earth on which we live.  

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Prayer for Change - Response at Installation at Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, NM - December 2, 2011

When I mentioned my upcoming installation after one of our Temple study groups in recent weeks, one of the participants asked, “Rabbi, do we have enough room on our Temple hard drive to install you?” I can say with confidence that the answer to that question is “yes”! My current Bat Mitzvah student wondered why I am being installed in December when I have been here since July, which seems like a long time in some ways, but I have to say these months have gone by very quickly. So here we are – you have had a chance or will have a chance to meet our family – my brother the rabbi, our son Adam, our sister-in-law Cathie, and Rhonda’s Mom, Jean Marks, whom I do call Mom as well. We are grateful for special occasions that bring us together, and you have made this night memorable through your presence and participation.

The Torah reading for this Shabbat couldn’t have been more appropriate for the installation of a new rabbi at a Temple called Beth-El. As you have already heard tonight and probably know, that was the name of the place where Jacob is said to have had his dream. But the connections between this passage and an installation of a rabbi go beyond the name of the place. After his dream, Jacob prayed, “If God is with me and watches over me on this path that I am taking and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house, then will the Eternal be my God, and this stone that I have set up as a monument shall be a house of God.” Some commentators accused Jacob of praying in a way that bargained with God. They felt that he was asking to prosper rather than just survive, and that he seemed to have little faith that God could really deliver on a promise to watch over him along his life’s journey. On this night of my installation at Temple Beth-El, I can relate to Jacob’s feelings at that moment. He was uncertain about what the future would bring. I feel that Jacob had heard God’s promises in his dream loud and clear. This prayer was his very human and cautiously optimistic response to his dream. I believe that Jacob knew in his heart that God would take care of him.. What he was asking was to have his own relationship with God, who had inspired his father and grandfather. He wanted to know that the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac would also be ELOHEI YAAKOV – the God of Jacob. We prayed those very words earlier in the service, so we know that our tradition holds that it all worked out between God and Jacob. Like the relationship between God and each of the patriarchs, this installation service gives us an opportunity to reflect on our relationship and its uniqueness. To quote one of my favorite Jewish poets and lyricists, Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota, otherwise known as….Bob Dylan, “You ain’t seen nothing like me yet.” That could be said of any rabbi. And I know that the same could be said of any congregation and especially, you – the members of Temple Beth-El and the Las Cruces community. All of you with whom I have studied, prayed, and taken part in efforts to improve this community are like no congregatiotoro community that I have seen before – in a very positive way. My hope is that our mutual and combined uniqueness will continue to bring us together.

There is a midrash about the stones in that place where Jacob laid down to rest before his dream. The translation now says that he took “one of the stones” as a headrest, but the Hebrew actually says he took “from among the stones” to make a headrest – possibly meaning more than one stone. One rabbinic story suggested that these stones argued about which one would be the main stone on which Jacob would rest his head. Hearing this argument, God made sure that all the stones, which had been pushing and shoving each other, merged into only one stone. That is why it said after the dream that Jacob took the STONE – singular – he had used as a headrest and set it up as a monument in remembrance of his dream and God’s promise. As members of a community, we are sometimes like those stones that became one. We need to be reminded that we don’t need to push, shove or argue when we are working for the same purpose. Whether we want it or not, God will inevitably bring us together through our common pursuit of divine commandments or doing what we might call God’s work of repairing the world, TIKKUN OLAM. What unites us should always overshadow what divides us when we are working for the same goal of enhancing the lives of members of our community. We offer a sense of security, inspiration and hope to each other as long as we remember that each of us is created in the divine image. That is what makes us all one community.

The line just before the one I already quoted from the Bob Dylan song “Make you feel my love” says that “winds of change are blowing wild and free.” That is exactly what I thought last night as the wind was whipping through Las Cruces. Of course, Las Cruces wasn’t changing because of the high winds – but the wind – in Hebrew RUACH – was making this seem like a totally different place. Sometimes the RUACH – the wind – can bring a positive change. RUACH also means spirit –and it is RUACH that we can and do demonstrate through our voices united in prayer and song, our optimism about how we can grow our congregation, our commitment to making our community a warm and caring place, and our energy and creativity that we bring to the Temple Beth-El table. May the spirit of change that we generate together preserve the best of the past and uncover meanings that will enrich our minds, enliven our souls, and brighten the years to come. And let us say amen.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Grateful for our Blessings - November 25, 2011


"Twins! I'm having twins!".
This is the excitement that we probably would have expected to hear from Rebekah when she realized that she would bear two children and not just one. This news came to her after years of being unable to bear a child. As the two sons-to-be were already involved in a pre-birth wrestling match, Rebekah responded with concern. She said, "Im Kein Lama zeh anochi - if so, why do I exist?" It was as if she was in pain, both emotional and physical. She went to ask God why the twins were in such turmoil, but the Torah hints that she knew from the start that these children would not easily get along. Once God told her that these children would become two distinct nations and peoples, Rebekah likely felt a touch of relief and maybe even joy. She seemed able to accept the reality of the struggle to come, knowing she would do her best to manage the rivalry through her own insight and with God's help.
Life often demands that we accept situations that are less than ideal, challenging us to find blessings around us, the silver lining in the clouds that may seem to hover over us. On this day after Thanksgiving, there is hopefully a lingering attitude of gratitude that is providing us with a positive lens as we consider what we have. Our prayers for Shabbat direct us to give thanks for creation and for the wonders in the world. On Tuesday, following the completion of a meeting I attended in Anthony, I walked out to the sight of an entire rainbow going from northwest to southeast, so I had a perfect vantage point as I looked directly northeast. I pulled out my blackberry and snapped two photos that I later spliced together in a panorama. More importantly, I recited the rainbow blessing of our tradition: Blessed are You, our Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, who remembers the covenant, who is faithful to the covenant, and who keeps the divine word. The right combination of sun, clouds and rain offers us an unmatched gift of color that can inspire us to recognize the many possibilities for goodness and hope in our lives.

In her book Saving Civility, Sara Hacala suggests that being grateful takes practice. We have to constantly adjust our responses so that a mostly empty glass always appears to us as partially full. Hacala cited the case of a minister who visited a member in the hospital whose legs had just been amputated. The woman who had just had this serious surgery told her pastor how much she looked forward to doing many things with her hands. "After I get home, pastor," she said proudly, "I think I will bake you a cake!" Hacala noted that a grateful approach to life fills us with more positive emotions like joy and hope and moves us away from jealousy. Gratitude deepens our connections with each other, strengthens our resilience in the face of challenge, and makes us less lonely.
I don't how many of you took part in the rush of "black Friday." It was sad to hear about a woman at a Walmart in California who sprayed pepper spray at nearby shoppers to keep them away from a display of Xbox video game systems so that she could get one first. The "black" in black Friday may not be the violent acts on the outside but the darkness of jealousy on the inside that prevents some people from being happy with what they have.
Next to that incident in California, Rebekah's reaction to the news of twins seemed much more positive to me. She was going to give birth to two brothers who would achieve greatness and who would eventually find the gratitude that would bring them back together in a memorable reunion. As we consider our blessings, let us always remember that our greatness as individuals and as a community can come from our practice of gratitude that can lead us to honor and appreciate each other and the many gifts we enjoy every day.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Being like Rebekah - November 19, 2011

As many of you know, I spent these last few days at the national clergy gathering of PICO, People Improving Communities through Organizing. This group is the national organization of the local affiliate CAFĂ©, Communities in action and faith which seeks to bring out the power of people throughout the area to make our county and our country a true land of opportunity for everyone.
The need for power through organizing is crucial, because it gives a voice to people who may have no one to speak for them otherwise. It also can help us realize that there may be some aspect of our lives that we dismiss or shrug off where we are actually facing challenges due to the same forces that are sending middle class Americans into poverty and turning millionaires into billionaires. These forces may weigh on certain ethnic or cultural groups, but the forces themselves transcend those differences.
I believe that making a difference in creating opportunity comes down to kindness. It is kindness that could prevent an employer from letting go a long-time and trusted worker due to a lower bottom-line. It is kindness that allowed so many of our ancestors to come to this country – and yes, they probably faced comments like, “those people are taking away jobs from us.” We need a new kindness and compassion that will allow immigrants a chance to be productive participants in the continuing American experiment.
When budget cuts hit our schools, it is kindness and concern for the welfare of our children that can lead a school board or the Congressional supercommittee to develop a plan that will serve all students so that every boy and girl can have the best chance possible to learn what he or she needs in order to achieve personal dreams and goals. Finally, on any issue, it is kindness that turns any “us and them” approach into a “we” that recognizes the dignity that every person deserves.
In the Torah reading for this week, Abraham's servant, called Eliezer by the rabbis, was looking for kindness during his journey as he went to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer hoped that, as he arrived at his destination, one of the women there would think to give him and his camels water to quench their thirst without his even asking. Of course, Eliezer would appear as a stranger, a wayward traveler, with his 10 camels in tow. He knew that the woman who would willingly offer water and assistance at the well to the human stranger AND his animals would be the right partner for Isaac, someone who could enter Sarah’s tent to become the new matriarch of one very special family. And so Rebekah did.
As I watched many facts and figures go by during the presentations at the PICO clergy conference, I wondered at what point we lost our ability in this nation to be kind. Of course, on some levels, we still show that compassion. I was present this morning at Casa de Peregrinos, our local food bank, as we made our donation for Thanksgiving – turkeys and a wide range of other foods fit for a holiday dinner. We have members who serve at the El Cadito soup kitchen. We have people giving in so many ways. But what we need more of in society are Rebekahs – people who see a need and, without being asked, fill the water jar – meet the need through their own initiative. And even if we only have our energy and commitment to give to furthering the cause of making the United States a land of opportunity for everyone, that still makes us like Rebekah. This can happen as, in the coming months, we at Temple Beth-El share our own stories about opportunity with each other, tales of times when we encountered a Rebekah who gave us what we needed to move forward in our lives, who saved us from despair. Together, we will find ways, by starting with ourselves in our congregation, to ultimately quench the thirst of many in our community and nation who seek to drink the waters of hope and optimism. May we find many ways to offer them that gift – and let us say amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Welcoming Good News - November 11, 2011

In the book of Proverbs, we read that “good news fattens the bone” and “as cold waters to a faint soul is good news from a far country.” And there is the familiar statement that “no news is good news.”
The Torah reading for this week, Vayeira, has important points to make about how to receive reports of events that come our way, both good and not-so-good. When Abraham heard from Sarah that Hagar and Ishmael were making life difficult for Sarah and Isaac, he banished Hagar and Ishmael from their home. Hagar and Ishmael took that bad news along with them on their journey, where they heard from an angel the news that God would provide for them and make Ishmael a great nation. Abraham heard the news – or the command – that he should take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah where it seemed, based on God’s direction, that he would offer Isaac as a sacrifice - and Abraham remained silent and didn’t even share the information with his son, perhaps because he was focused on his faith –or perhaps because he was devastated. God almost withheld the news from Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah were about to be destroyed, but decided that Abraham could be to God a special sounding board. Abraham challenged God not to destroy the cities if there were almost any number of righteous people living there. In that case, Abraham was not silent at all.
How do we respond to the news that comes to us? Today is Veteran’s Day, which carries with it the memories of members of the armed forces who returned home alive and in person to their loved ones while other family members received word their loved one had died in the service of our country. In either case, it is likely that family and friends responded with pride. This past week included the anniversary of the death of Yitzhak Rabin in November, 1995 – a tragedy that exposed a wide rift in Israeli society that still remains, one that we hope will not bring more bad news of the taking of a life for the cause of political disagreement. Perhaps recent economic challenges in Israel have finally made possible greater dialogue between those in different places on the political spectrum. This week also included the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of Broken glass in Germany, with many destroyed synagogues, Jews murdered by the Nazis, and many taken to concentration camps. The news of those events signaled to the world, at least to those who would take note in a significant way, the true hateful nature of the Nazi regime. Kristallnacht is still a prime example of the demonstration of state-sponsored violence that must not be ignored. In light of that event, as we hear hateful rhetoric from various corners of the world, we have trained ourselves to respond with words of protest against those who spread prejudice and bigotry. We offer expressions of support to the victims of verbal and physical attacks who are targeted simply because of who they are.
Finally, the reports in the last two days emanating from Penn State University have become a prime focus in the media. If anything, this sad situation that led to the firing of Coach Joe Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier demonstrates the need to immediately share the news about acts of abuse. Withholding such information, as we have seen all too often, offers cover to people who don’t deserve protection and leaves abuse victims without the support they need to move forward with their lives.
We shouldn’t only focus on what we would consider bad or sad news without looking at the one piece of good news found in the Torah reading for this week. Three visitors – divine beings sent by God who took on human appearance – came to Abraham’s and Sarah’s tent with the express purpose of delivering good news – that Sarah, who had not yet been able to have a child, was going to bear a son. Rather than greeting the news with joy and elation, Sarah responded with disbelief, wondering how she could have a child, saying, in her words, “now that my husband is old.” She didn’t even mention what the narrative noted – that she was well beyond her childbearing years. God then repeated to Abraham what Sarah said, but with one change – asking why Sarah wondered if she was going to have a child given that she was advanced in years. That divine wisdom likely headed off at the pass an argument between husband and wife about who was old, illustrating the importance of couching our statements in a way that doesn’t hurt the feelings of someone close to us. Still, the basic news didn’t change – Sarah was going to have a son – and so she did, naming him Isaac, Yitzchak –he will laugh, because, she said after his birth, “God has brought me laughter – all who hear will laugh with me.” Sarah’s surprising but understandable doubt did, in the end, become joy.
Let us take a moment to think about an example of a piece of news that came to us in recent days that was, perhaps, not so good, but that was balanced out by another report that was much more in our favor.
The opportunity to look at good news as something positive is always there – along with the possibility of finding a silver lining in the reports about our lives that are not what we hoped they would be. After this silent moment, we will recite a blessing together.
Yes, Virginia (or Sarah, in this case), there is a blessing about receiving good news in Jewish tradition – please say the beginning with me and I will teach you the concluding words:
BARUCH ATAH ADONAI ELOHEINU MELECH HAOLAM HATOV V’HAMAYTIV - Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who is good and is the Source of all that is good.
May goodness and good news surround us in the days to come. And we say Amen.

Friday, November 4, 2011

"Our Light—We are not alone” - Delivered at the Las Cruces CAFe (Community in Action & Faith) event on November 3, 2011

We have heard the words of the prophet Isaiah recited in three different languages tonight. The message should come through to us loud and clear – end oppression, feed the hungry, relieve the burdens that weigh upon all who are in need, - then your light will shine! Stop going about the business of your lives without taking a moment to see, to hear, to notice that there are people calling upon you to listen, to help, to act - and if you do act, your light will shine!
If Isaiah were here today, he would declare that we are not alone. We are not alone, because we are all created in the same divine image. We are not alone, because we all face the same challenges every day of providing food, clothing, and shelter for ourselves and our families, and assuring that our children receive a quality education and that they are healthy. We are not alone in seeking the type of job that will give us security and comfort. And finally, we are not alone, because when we lose a home, a job, or the opportunity to receive the education we desire for our children or for ourselves, we must become the safety net for one another. We have the responsibility to hold each other up not only with words of assurance but also by organizing for programs and policies that recognize the value of every single individual.
Isaiah would tell us to be a community that allows no one to feel disenfranchised or alone. He would tell us that community is home, neighborhoods, helping organizations and agencies, religious congregations, and government. And he would tell us to get over our political differences if we expect to make our light shine in the darkness. If "we the people" has any meaning, it is that that we are a “we,” not us and them. The light that can shine for us comes from compromise and combined wisdom, not holding policies and people hostage due to polarization that leads to inaction and to greater suffering.
Isaiah would challenge us to be more caring, more sensitive. He would ask, "How can you try to improve someone else's life and situation if you don't feel for their pain and plight? How can people cheer at the suggestion that a person dying in an emergency room who has no health insurance should be allowed to die? How can a candidate for public office say to every person who is unemployed that such a situation is his or her fault? How can a school board or a state legislature cut the budgets of schools without strategizing on how to provide the same level of education for all students, even with less funds available? How can we hear the stories of so many people who face nearly insurmountable challenges in their lives without offering our help?"
Isaiah would finally proclaim that we still have a chance to make a change, to choose light, not darkness, to engender hope, not despair. This is our time. This is our opportunity. We are not alone. We can walk a common path that can improve the lives of so many people in need, if only we open our minds, our hands and our hearts.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Every life... - October 21, 2011

So we have, once again, begun the annual cycle of reading the Torah with the familiar tales of creation and the first generations of humanity.   Tomorrow morning, I will read the story of Cain and Abel, a passage that we could probably paraphrase almost from memory.  After mom and dad pointed fingers at each other when God asked why they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, one would think that the sons would learn the lesson to tell the truth.   We find out in this passage that the children are doomed, at times, to repeat the mistakes of the past.   In the story in Genesis Chapter 4, Cain and Abel were born – Cain grew up to be a farmer, and Abel a shepherd.  One day, they brought to God an offering, with Abel bringing the best of his flock and Cain bringing some regular grain.  God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, sending Cain into a rage.  God lectured Cain for a moment about sin – knowing that Cain’s anger could lead him to do something he might regret.  And so it did – Cain killed his brother Abel following an undetailed encounter and conversation in the field.   God then inquired of Cain the whereabouts of his brother. He replied with the famous and quotable words, “How should I know?  Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Like his parents, Cain thought he could conceal the truth from the One who is the source of truth.  Cain realized his guilt, and God put a mark on him so no one would take revenge.
     Cain’s name, KAYIN, is related to the word to make or acquire.   Abel’s name – HEVEL – is the same word that graces several passages in the book of Ecclesisates – breath, a puff of air, or vanity.  It is as if Abel or HEVEL was born to be a wisp of a person, destined not to survive.    The Torah makes clear that, for Cain, his brother was like an insignificant puff of air, inconsequential enough that Cain thought it was all right to take his brother’s life.    
     As I thought about Abel’s position in this story of being almost non-existent, it brought to mind people who may be marginalized and forgotten in some way in our society.  I was listening this morning to the Today Show team talk about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and their message.  Then I went online and found an article by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post on the “99 Percent” project.  The article noted how people who might normally fall through the cracks are getting much needed attention.  Klein wrote, “It’s not the arrests that convinced me that ‘Occupy Wall Street’ was worth covering seriously.  It was a the blog called, ‘We Are The 99 Percent,’ and all it’s doing is posting grainy pictures of people holding handwritten signs telling their stories, one after the other.” For example, “I am 20K in debt and am paying out of pocket for my current tuition while I start paying back loans with two part time jobs.” These are not rants against the system. They’re not anarchist manifestos. They’re not calls for a revolution. They’re small stories of people who played by the rules, did what they were told, and now have nothing to show for it. Or, worse, they have tens of thousands in debt to show for it….It’s not that 99 percent of Americans are really struggling. It’s that 99 percent of Americans sense that the fundamental bargain of our economy -- work hard, play by the rules, get ahead -- has been broken, and they want to see it restored.”  I would urge you to read some of these testimonies from real people seeking to turn their lives around.  
     We saw another example this week of someone who could have become like “a mere breath” were it not for the steadfast commitment of his parents and many others to bring him home.  Many people have credited this movement as the catalyst that brought about the deal that led to Gilad Shalit’s release.  So many times, someone in distress can be “out of sight, out of mind,” but not in this case.   And on the other side, I saw one parent of a freed Palestinian prisoner echo Gilad Shalit’s sentiment that “maybe this deal can lead to making more steps toward peace.”  
    And finally, there was a man who had been hiding, likely attempting himself to say, “How should I know?  Am I my brother’s keeper?” about the citizens of his country and other nations who were directly and indirectly victimized by his brutal  regime.   The capture and killing of Muamaar Ghadafi – especially the videos shown on television and on the internet – were grisly and graphic.  Ghadafi was likely counting on the possibility that people would forget his victims, the people he pushed aside and tried to render insignificant, as if the world and humanity did not require their existence.  But people remembered – not only in his nation, but all over the world.   It is sad that our world has seen too many rulers like him.
     The rabbis taught in Pirkei Avot, “Despise no one and call nothing useless, for there is no one who doesn’t have his or her time and no thing that does not have its special place in the world.”   Everyone one of us – and the people next to us – our brothers and sisters in the family of humanity –  we are all significant.  Our inner voices – and sometimes our outside voices – call for recognition and affirmation.   As we want that for ourselves, may we grant that to others who need our support and assistance to make their lives whole.   Right around us, in our city, there are people who are part of the 99 percent.  There are congregants who are facing challenges and need our reassurance.  There are members who are ill and need our prayers and thoughts that will affirm and bolster their strength and confidence. May we reach out  with love and care to those who are silent and to those who speak, and may we call out for those who need to be heard.   And let us say amen.      

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Be strong and resolute - for a peaceful future - September 23, 2011

In the last week, we have witnessed a rare demonstration of Jewish unity regarding Middle East politics. From the Zionist Organization of America to AIPAC to the Association of the Reform Zionists of America to J Street have come calls to oppose a United Nations vote for Palestinian statehood. The reasons may have differed for the various groups that participated in this coordinated effort, but the goal was the same: to keep attempts to forge a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict totally in the context of face-to-face negotiations. It is unclear, after the events of these last few days, whether or not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas are prepared to, once again, sit at the same table, but officials from within the leadership of Israel and the Palestinian Authority will only make progress through direct communication or, at least, active and persistent mediation by a third party.
As I wrote my remarks this morning, I was trying to keep up with the flow of news from the United Nations. President Abbas submitted the Palestinian application for statehood to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and then spoke to the gathered delegates. Prime Minister Netanyahu also spoke about how the United Nations casts Israel as a sole villain and offers cover to many nations that violate the human rights of their own citizens. I still remember well the events of October 10, 1975, when the United Nations passed the resolution that equated Zionism with racism. I see that event as an insidious strategic move through which the Soviet Union and Arab nations joined together, with their respective definitions of Zionism, to portray the State of Israel, and Jews and Judaism by association, with hateful words and images. Even with that 1975 resolution rescinded, the hate continues in many corners of the world, whether through the words of Mahmoud Ahmedinijad yesterday at the United Nations or on the Arab street as Spring turns to fall. In Israel, many people in recent demonstrations offered harsh words for the Prime Minister, bordering on name-calling, but they did not resort to violence or blaming any another nation for their issues. Many people found their voices in an internal debate about Israel’s economic policies and knew they could speak their mind within a democratic state.
Whether for the benefit of leaders among many nations, or for those individuals who hope for peace in the Middle East wherever they live, a message from this week’s Torah reading offers a watchword for the future. Moses spoke to Joshua as he was about to step down as leader of the Israelites and charged him with the words: “Be strong and resolute.” He reassured Joshua that God would be with him, but that was only a beginning to leaving his legacy. The Torah says that “Moses wrote down this Teaching – this TORAH” – perhaps the book of Deuteronomy, perhaps the entire Torah – and gave it to the priests. He told them to read the entire teaching every year during the holiday of Sukkot so that everyone of every generation would hear the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt, moving from slavery to freedom. This recitation of the teaching had the potential to make all of the Israelites partners with one another and staunch supporters of Joshua, their leader-to-be. Remembering where they came from and recognizing where they were going provided the Israelites with a vision of their future, one that would enable them to respect Joshua as he shephered them to their promised land.
And so, there were two speeches today at the United Nations presenting differing views, perspectives and visions. What is the promised land which they seek? It is not only physical land at all – it is a time of peace, one that would bring together people from the entire political spectrum on both sides. It is memory and a rehearsing of the past that fuels the narratives of the peoples of the Middle East. But their goal should be to seek the possibility of creating one Torah and one story – of how two peoples came together to successfully work out their differences – where they are strong and resolute not in relation to the past, but to the future, and not in the perpetuation of disrespect and hatred, but in engendering and teaching understanding and mutual acceptance. The united voices of Jewish and Zionist groups of which I spoke before are, for the most part, strong and resolute not just in their opposition to this week’s attempted political move but also in their dedication to advocating peace as an ultimate goal for the Middle East. May the coming year, 5772, bring even small steps to that goal of SHALOM in the Middle East and throughout the world. And may we do what we can to be advocates of paths that can lead to constructive discussion, negotiation, and a true and lasting peace. So may we do – and let us say amen.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Good as new - Shabbat Ekev -August 19, 2011

In one of my many trips to a nearby Rockport shoe outlet, I was speaking with the sales person about the amount of time a pair of their brand of shoes should last. “One year if you wear them regularly” came the answer. Experience tells me that he was about right, but I did wonder why they couldn’t make an $80 pair of shoes last longer than a year.
Then there were Haggar slacks – I didn’t go to an outlet store to buy them, but I would hear “50 washes” as a common measure of their longevity.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, but the Torah reading for this week, Ekev, makes an incredible claim about the Israelites and their wardrobe: “The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years.” The implication was that their clothing not only remained in excellent condition, but even expanded as Israelite children grew into their adult years. And after all that walking, they weren’t tired at all. They had enough strength to continue on, albeit with a small dose of kvetching. The instances of their complaints as reported in the Torah, compared to the sum total of their years of wandering, were rather few when put into proper perspective.
Unlike the Rockport shoes and Haggar slacks, there was a sense of timelessness connected to the Israelites along their journey. How did they – and their feet and clothing – last for so many years? The rabbis explained, as does the Torah, that it was God who saw to their needs without the need for a shopping spree at the occasional oasis. And what of their ability to remain strong and to rejuvenate themselves?
That is where Shabbat comes in. Ahad Haam, the founder of cultural Zionism, once said, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat has Shabbat kept Israel.” Taking a day, once a week, to rest and renew ourselves does wonders for our fortitude, our patience, and our view of our significant place in the world. A day of rest has the potential to take us back to where we were the week before, and the week before that, in terms of our level of energy and our ability to give the best of our abilities and wisdom. Shabbat can help us make ourselves “good as new,” rather than a little more worn than the week before like those slacks and shoes that have a limited life. The rejuvenation of Shabbat has its greatest effect on our spirit and our emotions, enabling us to feel, in our minds and hearts, that we can transcend time and continue along a path to reach our potential. Jewish thinker Martin Buber once said, “Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique and every man or woman's foremost task is the actualization of his or her unique and unprecedented…possibilities.” No matter where we are along the life cycle, we have new opportunities, every week, to try to make those personal possibilities real. Such an approach to weekly or daily living can keep us young or, at least, ageless, where what matters is not how long we have been on the journey but that we believe that every step of the journey offers us a chance to further discover who we are, and what we can give to the world.
So yes, the shoes change, perhaps the feet swell, and the clothes on the outside may need replacing every so often. Yet, we have the power to preserve what we wear on the inside in “good as new” condition – our hopes, our determination, our commitment, our self-assurance, and our desire to reach for others in friendship and love. Our well maintained internal emotional and spiritual clothing can enable us to keep moving forward with a youthful enthusiasm and exuberance along the way to our own promised land. Shabbat Shalom!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Sign on our Hand - D'var Torah - August 12, 2011

Uk’shartam l’ot al yadecha
Bind them for a sign upon your hand
The words are familiar to us
We know them like “the back of our hand”
Because we recite them
Not only from the Torah as we read this week’s portion
But in every evening and morning service.
In Jewish tradition, the sign on our hand came to be a physical symbol
The T’filin shel yad, with its leather strap wrapped
Around the arm 7 times
And with the strap on the hand forming the letter Shin (for Ashkenazim), the first letter of the word SHADDAI, the name of God that means “almighty.”
One who has finished putting on tefillin recites this passage
From the prophetic book of Hosea:
I will betroth you to Me forever.
I will betroth you to Me with righteousness,
with justice, with kindness, and with compassion.
I will betroth you to Me with faithfulness,
and you shall know God.
These words from Hosea – words of love and commitment
bring us back to the beginning of the paragraph that we know so well
V’ahavta eit adonai elohecha – You shall love the Eternal your God.
It is spoken not in plural, but in singular, because
each of us, through what the Torah calls the work of our hands, can show our love for God.
Some commentators have wondered if
“Bind them for a sign upon your hand”
Meant to create a physical symbol
Or if it was a metaphor
Attempting to point our behaviors towards God and godly paths.
The book of Proverbs, in several places, suggests that we can bind God’s teachings to our neck, our heart, and our fingers,
Meaning that we should keep God’s instruction close to us – or, as we might say
Close at hand.
As One who wears tefillin during prayer sees a visible reminder of God on his or her hand,
we are called upon to remember that there is always an invisible and potent sign on our hands to use them to bring goodness and holiness into our lives and into the world.
With our hands…
We give gifts to others
We bring donations to people in need
We extend our hand to welcome others
We offer a hand in friendship or a touch meant to provide comfort and support
We reach across a divide of disagreement
To restore a sense of unity
We write words the reflect and teach companionship, righteousness and hope
We fix what is broken.
We create meals or delicacies to share with our families, neighbors, friends, our congregation, or with people in need.
We play musical instruments for enjoyment and perhaps as part of worship
We open a book to drink of its wisdom
We turn the pages of prayerbook to join our community as one voice
Or we turn in the siddur to read other words and thoughts on our own to renew our spirit.
These sentiments about how the work of our hands can enrich our lives are echoed in the following passage from a once-popular work…
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.
What is bound as a sign on our hand is not only what we do but also who we are
We are a part of creation
And some would say that the OT – the sign – that is bound on our hand is the stamp of the divine upon and inside each of us.
Some would claim, even further, that we are God’s hands – that God acts through us in the world – and that when we acknowledge that a sign of God is upon our hands,
We will remember to act with a greater sense of
Kindness
Goodness
Righteousness
And justice.
And so - may these words, these teachings, and the best of the value of our heritage
be bound as a sign upon our hand so that our work,
every day,
will be touched by God.
So may it be – let us say amen.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Planning and Working for Peace....after Shabbat

D’var Torah – Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, New Mexico - Board Meeting – July 28, 2011
During our Shabbat Morning service last Saturday, a discussion arose about the contrast between two prayers about peace in Mishkan T’filah on page 141. The reading at the bottom, “Grant us peace,” is a reading that has been essential to Reform prayerbooks since the first Union Prayerbook was published in the 1890s. “Grant us peace” is addressed to God, asking that shalom pervade our country, the entire world, and the soul of every human being. The reading at the top of the page by Rabbi Stanley Chyet takes a different approach.

We oughtn’t pray for what we’ve never known
And humanity has never known
Unbroken peace.
Unmixed blessing.
No.
Better to pray for pity,
For indignation,
Discontent,
The will to see and touch,
The power to do good and make new.

We recognized in our discussion that, in the familiar words of “Grant us peace,” it was God who was doing much the work, behind the scenes, to support and even manage our quest for peace. In Rabbi Chyet’s reading, there was no mention of God – only what we as human beings can do. Grant us peace stated a series of ideals that we could bring about ourselves, with the help of the divine. “We oughtn’t pray” deals in realities, the fact that we might not be able to reach the perfection and lofty goals of the other prayer, which envisions contentment within our borders, health and happiness in our homes, friendship and fellowship connecting all humanity, and every person living a virtuous life. Rabbi Chyet’s prayer, instead, notes that what is most important for us is not to be complacent. We should readily recognize any inner feeling of pity, indignation, and discontent, and allow those emotional responses to the world to inspire our desire to change the world through “the will to see and touch, the power to do good and make new.”

The question that arose in the face of these two meaningful expressions about peace was this: which prayer is more appropriate for Shabbat? On our day of rest, we certainly can’t ignore what is happening around the world. Yet, in our Jewish bubble of Shabbat Shalom, there are certain approaches to the world that can and should flow out of a day of rest and peace for any Jewish community, whether it is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or “Just Jewish.” But first of all, the menuchah or rest of Shabbat as opposed to doing work like any other day has its purpose. Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf once wrote, “The ‘work’ that is prohibited by Jewish law on the Sabbath is not measured in the expenditure of energy. It takes real effort to pray, to study, to walk to synagogue. They are ‘rest’ but not restful. Forbidden ‘work’ is acquisition, aggrandizement, altering the world. On Shabbat we are obliged to be, to reflect, to love and make love, to eat, to enjoy” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, in quoting this passage several years ago, explained that “this is the Shabbat that our Reform Judaism teaches us to strive for and to bring into our lives.” Various Reform statements over the last half-century have noted that we, as a community, can and should find ways to take Shabbat seriously, to honor it in some manner based on our tradition and our own communal or personal interpretation.

In our discussion last Saturday, we agreed that Shabbat is a day to state the ideals for which we should strive, and to note the feelings that may stir inside of us in response the words we pray, including pity, indignation, and discontent. Yet, planning how we will act based on those stirrings in our soul should wait until Shabbat is over. A day of Shabbat Shalom is a time to reflect, to re-energize, and to reconnect with the oneness that unites all creation. That is difficult to do if we are busy with the tasks of life.

A congregation that has a worshipping community on Shabbat evening and morning is one that makes the Sabbath holy, not just by following the command to “remember” the Sabbath, ZAKHOR, but also to observe the Sabbath, SHAMOR. Temple Beth-El is such a community. When Rhonda and I return home from Shabbat morning services, we feel that we have fulfilled both of those standards from our heritage.

So whenever we talked about Shabbat – as individuals, as members of a Reform congregation and a Jewish community which encompasses diverse backgrounds, let us remember that k’dushah, holiness, and shalom, peace should guide us and touch our words and our hearts.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Spirit Rested Upon Them - June 10, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!
“Would that all of God’s people were prophets,
That the Eternal would put the divine spirit upon them!”
So said Moses when his assistants, Eldad and Medad,
exhibited signs of being touched with God’s RUACH- SPIRIT
at the same time that the Israelite elders, the “official leaders,”
had received a touch of God’s spirit from Moses.
Joshua (Israelite leader-in-training) urged Moses to stop Eldad
and Medad, but it was his call of concern that elicited Moses’s declaration
that all people should be touched with the RUACH of God.
That RUACH – a special spirit that can inspire us,
to more deeply connect us with each other and with the world –
is always there for the taking.
Sometimes we may feel it is has disappeared, when it may be
that we simply need to open ourselves up to its enduring presence
and allow its entry into our souls.
A week ago, I was sitting at services and learning sessions
with many musical colleagues at the Hava Nashira songleaders’ workshop.
What I came to see in attending this program for the tenth time
is that each of us has a little bit of Eldad and Medad inside of us.
At Hava Nashira, that RUACH revealed itself in harmonies, in energy,
in friendship, in enthusiasm, in vocal prowess,
in talented play on an instrument
and in smiles that reflected the joy of musical moments shared.
In our community, that same RUACH may find its way into
our volunteer service to congregation or community,
sharing personal wisdom, giving tzedakah,
contributing a delicacy to an Oneg Shabbat,
offering support to a fellow congregant,
adding expertise to meet a communal challenge,
and giving a special touch to a program that can enable participants
to feel their ties to the Jewish community and the human family
more deeply than ever before.
Would that all of us would feel that RUACH upon us…and, if there are times when we fail to sense the touch of God’s spirit, would that we would know that it is still there, waiting….and ready…to take us to a holy place.
L’shalom,
Rabbi Larry

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Untroubled and peaceful - May 20, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!
“I will grant you peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone.” This declaration from Leviticus Chapter 26 verse 6 offered the Israelites reassurance about their life in the land they were about to enter. They were told that they would know that peace if they kept the divine commandments and walked in godly paths.
Yesterday, President Barack Obama discussed an approach to peace in that same land, which focused on the pre-1967 borders between Israel and the neighboring countries, borders that were actually armistice lines from Israel’s War for Independence in 1949. As I understand it, the President suggested that those borders be used as a basis for arriving at a final peace agreement that would include the creation of a Palestinian state, with “land swaps” as a mechanism for creating flexibility and reassuring Israel and the Palestinians on rights and security. President Obama also commented, “For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist…. As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -- by itself -- against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.”
There is a great deal of ink in the printed media and space on websites that will be devoted to reactions to the President’s speech. Specificity on the exact borders to be established will continue to be a “hot-button” issue. The central question is this: Are enough people on each side ready to accept the other and their state as legitimate and deserving of a right to exist and thrive?
Time will tell if this new attempt to inch closer to an Israeli-Palestinian accord will bear fruit. Our hope for those on both sides of the conflict is that they will know true peace in the land and that they will lie down untroubled by anyone – not because of one side defeating the other in a war employing rhetoric or violence, but because they will come to see their common interests in a shared future. Perhaps, one day, this dream will become a reality.
L’shalom,
Rabbi Larry

Count Us Up and In - May 13, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!
The Jewish tradition of “counting up,” as demonstrated with the celebration of each year added to the history of Israel as a state, as well as through our observance of enumerating the days of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot, offer us a chance to be positive and optimistic. We can always find ways of seeing the glass half-full rather than half-empty, and of taking difficult situations and finding light even in the middle of supposed darkness.
The Torah reading for this week speaks of counting not only days, but years, first in sets of seven (for a “sabbatical year” for the land), and, cumulatively, in a set of seven-times-seven, where the 50th year is called a YOVEIL, usually translated as “jubilee.” In that year, at least in theory, land would return to previous owners, debts would be forgiven, slaves would go free. The sounding of the shofar would proclaim a DROR (a release, but often translated as “liberty”) that would commemorate this “grand equalization.” The jubilee was an admission and affirmation of our stewardship of the earth rather than ownership, where we are God’s representatives on earth, bound to treat the land – and other people – with care.
The jubilee experience must have been humbling, but it also has great meaning. Its message of equality at the end of a series of years of “counting up” could be a source of positive thinking about how we can affect the world. Thinking positive about the world and community is not always easy, but it is possible. One classroom exercise meant to teach that approach has the teacher create a sheet of paper for each student with his or her name on top. The papers are passed around the classroom with the instruction the students write on the paper a positive comment about that classmate. When asked to do so, we are able to “count up” and find the good in each other.
In that spirit, I would like to ask you to imagine that you have been given piece of paper that says “Temple Israel Dover” on top. I would like to ask you to write one positive comment about Temple Israel Dover in an email and send it to me. I will include your comments in my message at the annual meeting on May 22.
As we continue through the counting of the Omer, and moving to the future in general, may the increasing sunshine around us offer us a sense of optimism for the days to come.
L’shalom,
Rabbi Larry

Friday, May 6, 2011

Marking and Making Time - May 6, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!
EMOR, the Torah reading for this week, includes a complete list of the Israelite holiday calendar, including Shabbat, the counting of the Omer, Shavuot/the Feast of Weeks, the Day of Shofar Sounding (Rosh Hashanah), Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret (the conclusion of the fall holidays combined in many Reform congregations with Simchat Torah), and the New Moon. Judaism still offers us rituals and customs that enable us to engage in regularly making moments holy and special. Most of the above observances are about beginnings, in one way or another, or about “taking time out of life” to refresh and renew ourselves. Most of those celebrations brought the community together (a “holy convocation” means “being called together for a sacred purpose”). Hopefully, we still can hear that call to come together, not only in our many pursuits related to our ongoing activities, but also as members of a Jewish congregation.
The coming weeks present us with a variety of opportunities to congregate, as does every season of the year. A new month began this week; we will continue to “count up” as we enumerate the increasing days of the Omer; we will mark Israel’s 63 years; we will study, share our culture and customs with the greater community (at the Nosharama), join to make decisions for the future (at the Annual Meeting), and celebrate the last major festival of every Jewish year (Shavuot). This is how we, through the Jewish heritage and tradition, mark time. Please join us as we gather to continue to do what our ancestor did so long ago: to make moments special and sacred.
L’shalom,
Rabbi Larry K.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Holiness in our hands and hearts - April 29, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!
During his presentation last night, Rabbi Bill Leffler presented ideas from his book,
The Structure of Religion. Among the aspects of Jewish life that he emphasized was the centrality of making moments and life holy through our behavior. The Torah portion for this week, KEDOSHIM, begins with the declaration: “You shall be holy, for I , your Eternal God, am holy.” Leviticus Chapter 19 continues with a list of ways/behaviors which can lead us to holiness. We read this portion from the Torah on Yom Kippur afternoon to remind us how we can infuse the coming year with the sanctity we sense on the High Holy Days.
I once asked Temple leaders to put some of the verses of Leviticus Chapter 19 into modern terms, with suggestions for actions (doing mitzvot) that we are attainable and relevant today. Here is their list, and you can arrive at your own interpretations as well (feel free to email me with your ideas!).
Revere your mother and father: Be patient....be respectful of seasoned leadership.
Keep my Sabbaths: attend services....rest and study at home or anywhere.
Leave the corners of your fields for the poor and the stranger: Give tzedakah, give donations to local food pantries, support agencies that provide shelter, assistance and hot meals for people in need.
You must not steal: don't take credit for someone else's ideas.
You must not act deceitfully nor lie to one another: Don't go back on your word....Be honest.
Do not oppress your neighbor: Respect differences between people.
The wages of a laborer should not remain with you overnight until morning: Pay bills and employees on time.
Do not curse the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind: make all programs and homes/buildings accessible as much as possible.
Judge your neighbor justly: make fair decisions.
Do not slander others: Don't gossip.
Do not seek vengeance: Don't try to get even with anyone.
Do not bear a grudge: Forgive (but not necessarily forget).
Love your neighbor as yourself: Be considerate....don't do to someone else what is hateful to you.
Treat strangers like citizens: Welcome newcomers to your community.

This “holiness code” is still very much a part of who we are as individuals and as a people/community. Let us continue to strive to make our lives and our actions sacred in the days to come.
L’shalom,
Rabbi Larry K.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Assuring Freedom - April 22, 2011

As we watch the changes happening before our eyes in the Middle East,
we witness cries for freedom
from people who have not truly known liberty of their own choosing
or of their own creation.
The objective of working for freedom by trying, first, to end tyranny,
is to prevent the possibility of the formation of another regime
that would use tactics that could be characterized as dictatorial or tyrannical
but would never admit that it was doing so.
Escaping Pharaoh meant leaving his form of leadership behind
and NOT paving the way for the ascension of yet another Pharaoh.
Achieving freedom carries with it the responsibility to preserve liberty
through an attempt to make everyone feel that they are part of the consensus.
At a Pesach seder, everyone should have a place at the table. It should be the same for citizens of a nation – everyone should feel as if he or she has a place at the table, with values of respect, compromise and partnership serving as the foundation of communal life.
Let us pray that more people will live in nations based on such values
in the days and years to come.
L’shalom,
Rabbi Larry

A Journey to Integrity - April 15, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!
The Seder ritual awaits us. Many of us will gather around a Seder table in our own home, in someone else's home, at a congregation, or perhaps, even, at Temple Israel Dover! We always seem to find meaning in the practices that have become part of the Seder, perhaps because the theme of moving from slavery to freedom resonates with every generation of humanity. The Torah reading for this week begins with a description of the ancient observance of Yom Kippur, the solemn day that offers us a chance to free ourselves from our past mistakes and move forward with a strong resolve to seek a path of integrity. That quest for integrity is also a theme of Passover. The examples of cruelty contained in the tale demonstrate to us that being human means opening our hearts to the cries and needs of others as much as we are able. On this coming Pesach, may we be responsive to global calls for freedom and may we extend our hands to those in need through our own efforts and through the combined generosity of neighborhoods, organizations, states and nations.
Best wishes for a Chag Samayach - a happy Pesach!
L'shalom,
Rabbi Larry

A cure to isolation - April 8, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!
Over the years, I have heard many approaches to this week’s Torah portion, Metzora, which focuses on how to deal with “skin affections,” usually identified as leprosy (Hansen’s disease) on people. There is a section that deals with “growths” that appear in homes as well. The goal of this section was not to promote health as much as it was to ensure ritual and spiritual purity. The Torah specifies how someone who had a particular disease was to be quarantined and how that person could again become part of the community as they became whole again.
All of us may have had experiences, not necessarily illnesses, that have made us feel isolated from a community. There are always paths of healing and return available to us. Sometimes we need time to think about our place in the web of relationships in our lives, and what may be required to return to communal life may be a change in attitude, on our part or someone else’s. Rabbinic commentaries chose to discuss this section of the Torah by “playing” with the word for leprosy, metzora, and turning it into “Motzi sheim ra,” meaning someone who spreads “evil talk” or speaks evil about someone, thus defaming their “sheim,” name. They believed that pure, positive and truthful speech was essential to sustaining a productive and sacred community. They cautioned that only listening to gossip or slander, even without repeating it, could compromise the integrity of a community.
We live in a world where words can spread at the click of a button to thousands of people. May we always strive to seek purity inside ourselves and in the words the emerge from our lips.
L’shalom,
Rabbi Larry

Sunday, March 27, 2011

All of My Goodness - March 1, 2011

D’var Torah - Neighbor Night- February 18, 2011
Over the last three years, I have chosen a word from the weekly Torah reading on which to focus for a congregational discussion of its meaning. The word that I chose this week, KAVOD, is not in the sec- tion from which I will be reading tonight from the Torah, but in the verses just preceding it. KAVOD is a word that is usually translated as glory or honor. In the most modern translation, “glory” becomes presence. Here is the section from the end of Exodus Chapter 33: “Moses said to the Eternal, ‘O let me behold K’VODECHA – Your presence!” And God answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name Eternal (God’s 4 letter name YUD HAY VAV HAY) and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show...but you cannot see my face, for a human being may not see me and live.” God then explained to Moses that he would be put in the cleft of a rock as the divine presence passed by, so that Moses would see only God’s back.
In the various Torah commentaries which I consult on the possible meanings of words and phrases, the best explanation I found for the use of KAVOD in this verse came from Robert Alter’s translation of the Torah. Alter explained: “We are not likely to recover precisely what the key term KAVOD – glory, honor, divine presence, and, very literally, ‘weightiness’ – conveyed to the ancient Hebrew imagination. In any case, Moses, who first fearfully encountered God in the fire in the bush, is now ready and eager to be granted a full-scale epiphany, a frontal revelation of the look and character of this divinity that has been speaking to him from within a pillar of the cloud.”
Of course, God didn’t offer to show Moses the divine face or the divine glory. Instead, God told Moses that he would be allowed to see and sense all of God’s goodness – KOL TUVI – defined by the grace and compassion that God would show to Moses and, in turn, to all of humanity. The rest of the definition of divine goodness – and even God’s KAVOD – glory and presence – appeared in God’s declaration to Moses in the verses I am about to chant from the Torah. Specifically, God’s glory and goodness were characterized by mercy, compassion, grace – where grace means a measure of unconditional love and loyalty – patience in the face of possible anger, overflowing kindness, faithfulness, and forgiveness. This was what was revealed to Moses, and, in turn, to the Israelite people after they had forced Aaron the priest, Moses’ brother, to fashion a golden calf for them to wor- ship as if it were God. Moses’ “absence” while he was atop Mount Sinai, like a parent leaving an adolescent child at home alone, had caused the people to lose faith and hope. The revelation to Moses of divine goodness – KOL TUVI-was meant as a reassurance to the people that God, who cannot be seen in a physical way, is still always present.
For our lives, the an important lesson that we can learn from this passage is that we can find footprints or traces of God when we and the people around us put into practice the essence of God’s glory and goodness: mercy, compassion, grace, kindness, patience, loyalty and forgiveness. I am sure that we would all admit that it is next to impossible to exhibit all of those qualities at once, because, of course, we are only human. Yet, the more of those qualities we do practice at once, the better we become as individuals and as a human family. Striving to emulate those divine attributes enables us to create a culture and community of KAVOD, where we truly honor each other by our presence and by giving the best of ourselves. So may we do each day of our lives.

Pure, Proper and Right Giving - March 27, 2011

In the Torah readings over these past few and coming weeks, great care is taken to identify what is pure or impure, what is proper (kosher) or not, and, by extension, what is right or wrong. This theme runs throughout many streams of Jewish tradition, even today.
One of the ways in which we can do what is pure, proper and right is to reach out to people in need. Throughout the year, members of the Temple community serve meals once a month at the Dover Friendly Kitchen. We collect food to be donated to the Dover Food Pantry. We ask for donations for Dover Share. It is likely that all of us have organizations which we support. Our donations of time and energy to those causes make us feel that we have raised ourselves to a higher level, presenting someone a lifeline they may not have had otherwise.
Attached to this email is a letter from the Greater Seacoast United Jewish Appeal which includes information about donating to relief for the victims of the earthquake/tsunami in Japan. I added a link to the Union for Reform Judaism web page on relief. One of the most important aspects of our heritage is that such tzedakah knows no limits, as it offers us a way to reach out to our fellow human beings. I am sure many of you have seen videos of the earthquake and tsunami when they hit Japan. Our hearts go out to that nation, and let us all share what we can to help the victims rebuild their lives.

A Flame to be shared - March 18, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!
“A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar. It shall not go out.”
(Leviticus 6:6)
The Israelite priests
had an almost divine responsibility
in keeping a fire burning on the altar.
God’s first creation was light.
Moses first saw God in a bush that appeared to be burning
but was not consumed.
While ancient offerings on the altar “went up in smoke,”
the priests kept the fire burning.
We have no such offerings today of sacrifices, as did our ancestors.
What we can offer is the flame in our hearts
that can represent the spark of God in each of us
or the fire in our souls when we experience moments
when our personal connection to all of creation comes clear to us,
even if only for a brief moment.
The fire is not ours to keep to ourselves,
but one that we should share with our community,
so that we can say to our children and grandchildren
that we did our part to keep a perpetual and communal flame burning
so that it would not go out.
May that flame provide warmth, comfort and hope within our hearts.
L’shalom,
Rabbi Larry

What can be in a name - March 11, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!
D’VAR TORAH ON MARCH 4, 2011 FOR SHABBAT ACROSS AMERICA
The Torah reading for this Shabbat, Pekuday, is one that is very special to our family. When our son, Adam, was Bar Mitzvah in Topeka, in 1999, he read from this week’s Torah portion (which is usually combined with last week’s portion, Vayakheil). When I gave my obligatory senior sermon as a rabbinic student on March 7, 1981, 30 years ago this weekend, the Torah reading was P’kuday, So, I have had many years to think about the meaning of this section of the Torah. Something struck me in a different way this year about certain words used in this reading,
The words which caught my eye this year aren’t just words: they are names. And they aren’t just any names – they are the names of the two artisans who were put in charge of designing and building the tabernacle, the house of worship for the Israelites in the wilderness. We probably don’t often think about what our names mean, whether in English, Hebrew, Yiddish or whatever their origin might be. For me, my first name in Hebrew – PERETZ – is one of Jacob’s grandsons in the Bible, but it means to “burst forth.” My middle Hebrew name, LAYB, is actually Yiddish for “lion.” Hopefully, those names combine to keep me focused, firm, creative, enthusiastic and energetic, but NOT ferocious!!!
The names of the two chief architects of the Tabernacle offer us a hint at what it takes to build a sacred community – and, perhaps, any type of community. The first of these two specially-skilled Israelites was named BEZALEL ben (son of) URI ben CHUR. You movie buffs out there may have already caught the source in this passage for title of the epic tale Ben Hur. My Dad always told me that the name HUR (CHUR in Hebrew) came right from this passage in the book of Exodus. Chur means child in most ancient Near Eastern Languages. So the grandfather of the chief artisan is a CHILD, perhaps signifying that all human beings are children of the divine. The father’s name is URI – if you know the word OR, which means light, you could guess that URI means MY LIGHT. So the CHILD of the divine, the grandfather, through his son URI, offers LIGHT to the grandson, B’TZAL-EL, which means “in the shadow of God.” Bezalel’s entire name converges into a humble realization of being connected to all members of the human family, who, when they open their eyes, can see a light of wisdom and insight that enables them to realize that they live in the shadow of God. As we look around this sanctuary, we see light, the NEIR TAMID, the Eternal Light, the Menorot, – visual signs of enduring faith and our opportunity to gain light – inspiration, vision and learning. And how do we benefit from the light and from living in the shadow of God? We find an answer in the name of the other artisan, OHOLIAV ben ACHISAMACH. In this case, the father’s name literally translates as “my brother is a support,” reminding us that supporting one another is essential if a community is going to stand and sustain itself.. And the son’s name, OHOLIAV, means something like “The Father/Parent is my tent,” or it could even mean that “The Father/Parent is my guiding light.” One explanation of this name noted that the fires in the tents of people who dwelled in a desert served like a beacon – an early version of a GPS. When we consider the names of both of the artisans, Bezalel, “in the shadow of God,” and Oholiav, “father/parent is my tent or my guiding beacon,” we have a perfect metaphor of what a sacred community can bring to us: a sense of always being in God’s presence, under God’s protection as we move along a path that enables us to see the spark of the divine in each other’s eyes and in every person. It is that realization, in our tradition, that can lead us to support each other by sharing our wisdom, skills, energy and optimism.
There is one more word to add to this list. The name of our congregation – Yisrael – Israel. Some commentators explained that Yisrael means “to struggle with God,” as explained in the section where Jacob wrestled with a divine being and was given his new name. Others have said it could be taken from the words YASHAR EL, where EL means God and YASHAR comes from the root words which translates as upright, straight, and just. YASHAR is the root for the Hebrew word Y’sharim, which means just and righteous people who follow a path of integrity. Psalm 112 verse 7 declares: ZARACH BACHOSHECH OR LA’YSHARIM CHANUN V’RACHUM V’TZADIK – For the Y’SHARIM, the goodhearted, a light of grace, mercy and justice shines in the darkness.
We have heard many cries resounding all over the world in recent weeks calling upon governmental leaders to show greater respect and justice towards people at all levels of society. The best response to those cries is the one that comes from a higher place. We know how much any community enlivens and enriches itself when it sees itself as living in the shadow of God. For any Jewish community, the moral insights and wisdom from our tradition have the potential to take us to that higher place, where we can gain a deeper understanding about the meaning of justice, equity and freedom in today’s world. May we continue to see the light of Torah as it illumines our path, leading us to take refuge under the shadow and protection of the Oneness inside of us and all around us that permeates all creation and leads us to say with sincerity and hope – HINEI MAH TOV U-MAH NA-EEM, SHEVET ACHIM GAM YACHAD – how good and how pleasant it is when people – all people - dwell together in unity.
May this light continue to be our guide – and let us say amen.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Faith and Trust in the unseen - February 18, 2011

On Wednesday, February 16, our 6th-7th Grade class engaged in an in-depth discussion on the “Golden Calf” episode from this week’s Torah portion, KI TISA. We read the translation from Chapter 32 of Exodus and then split into three groups that answered questions from the perspectives of Moses, Aaron and the people. The general memories of this episode, whether from the biblical text or “the big screen,” would likely include the quick acquiescence of Aaron to the people’s desires to worship something they could see, the restlessness of the people at Moses’ absence, the shattering of the tables of the Ten Utterances/Declarations/Commandments, and the punishment of some of those who were at the forefront of the creation of the calf. Any tale from the Torah has deeper lessons and messages beyond the action on the surface. When the students got back together after our separate discussions, we talked about the importance of trust, loyalty and faith. We also noted how Torah clearly demonstrates that, in a community, patience and forgiveness are essential. We recognized how the Torah portrayed Moses’ anger, but we marveled at the way in which he pleaded with God on behalf of the people (called “stiffnecked” in the Torah – meaning that they couldn’t see anything but their own views/concerns) to let them learn from their impatience and fear as they were trying to become accustomed to their newly-acquired freedom. Finally, we realized that God did listen to Moses and accept, to a great extent, his request to let him lead the Israelites on their journey so that they could grow along their way.

Not only in Egypt, and not only in the Middle East, but even in certain locations in the United States, there are people who are gathering to declare their opposition to their current leadership or to proposals which, they believe, will make their future less secure. In a democracy, this is a guaranteed right, expressed in the form of demonstrations, letters-to-the-editor, strikes by workers when they feel their needs are not being met, and legislative battles. There are lessons for everyone – leaders and citizens – that emerge from this week’s Torah portion in the form of values on which all people can hopefully agree: trust, a willingness to listen, some flexibility in approach and ideology, faith, mutual loyalty and respect as fellow citizens (including leaders), patience, forgiveness, and a well-intentioned and constructive passion for one’s own views and beliefs. Leadership – and being a good citizen – entails fulfilling our responsibilities to make a community, a country, or the world a place where everyone can live in hope and not in fear. Debbie Friedman’s interpretation of the words of the prophet Zechariah says it best: “Not by might and not by power, but by spirit alone shall we all live in peace.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Larry

Friday, February 4, 2011

Among Us - February 4, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!

“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

These verses, which begin this week’s Torah reading, TERUMAH, established a means for individual participation in creating the holy space for Israelite worship. “Bringing gifts” made the people feel a sense of ownership of the spiritual center of their community. Today, we might feel that same sense of ownership in community life through giving charity/tzedakah, giving our time as volunteers for worthy causes, helping with Temple programs and decision-making, and when we enter a voting booth in an election to make a choice between a number of different candidates (from different political parties).

The events in the Middle East (Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and perhaps other nations as well) demonstrate how the feeling of valued and equal participation in political life is integral to the stability of a government and the collective community of citizens. I wrote a few days ago (in my “Facebook” status message), “In light of the events in Egypt and Jordan, I suppose that the strength of our own political process to sustain itself, even with what we might call ‘vociferous discourse,’ has been put into proper perspective. Here is hoping that any changes in the Middle East will be peaceful but will also allow for diversity of opinion without the threat of violence.” In Egypt and other nations, there are many forces and views coming into play, including supporters of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian army, and the “people on the street.” The fact that apologies for violence against protesters have been forthcoming from some government officials offer a sign that the voices of the people have been heard, to some extent. Some analysts are concerned that the protests will be “commandeered” by a group that would enter power and adopt repressive policies. One article I read noted that democratic governments lasted only for a very brief time prior to the Communist takeover in Russia and the ascendancy of the current regime in Iran. What seems to be certain is that people who feel oppressed for too long, or perceive that they have been denied a true opportunity to take part in the political process, will eventually make sure that their voices are heard. I would be interested to hear perspectives from congregants/community members on these current events (perhaps at a face-to-face discussion program – let me know if you are interested).

***************************

Rhonda and I attended the tribute event to honor the memory of Debbie Friedman at Temple Israel in Boston last Sunday. That gathering was also an illustration of “bringing gifts” to the community. First, there was the gift of Debbie Friedman’s leadership and music that pervaded the event as individual Jewish singers/songwriters/performers offered renditions of Debbie’s songs: Rabbi Larry Milder, Sue Horowitz, Cantor Jeff Klepper, Cantors Jodi Sufrin (her late brother Kerry was at Kutz camp with me and Lynne DeSantis in the summer of 1970 for a seven-week program) and Roy Einhorn, Julie Silver, Peri Smilow, Josh Nelson, Peter and Ellen Allard, and Rabbi David Paskin. Local cantors joined in Debbie’s “Mi Shebeirach,” a Boston Jewish community chorus sang Debbie’s “Oseh Shalom,” and over 50 “cantors, songleaders and soloists” (a group in which I participated) joined the others on the bimah at the beginning of the gathering to sing Debbie’s Havdalah blessings and “Im Tirtzu,” and at the end for “L’chi Lach” and “Miriam’s Song.” You can find a video of the entire concert at www.rememberingdebbie.com (there are links on the main page of this website for the video as well as photos of the event). Also, if you click the “tributes” link at the top of the home page, you will go to a screen with a video “box” on the right (which starts with “Remembering Debbie: David Paskin) – that also has a number of videos sent to the site which you can see if you click on the arrows on the left or right side of that box/screen. One of the videos is my “cover” of Debbie’s “Shelter of Peace.”


What was powerful about the event last Sunday was the music and the people. I knew almost everyone sitting around me from one convention or another, and sat next to Rabbi Shaul/Paul Levenson, my 9th Grade teacher whom some of you know from his short time filling in here at Temple Israel Dover in the early 1980s. There are so many songs composed by Debbie that I haven’t had a chance to share, which I hope to include in services and in Religious School song sessions in the coming months. Debbie’s songs are not just songs. They each bear a lesson, or bring a Jewish text and teaching to life. There is so much to learn, and music with a message offers a special spiritual means for incorporating Jewish values into our lives. Please be a part of our chorus of voices as we bring our own gifts to Temple gatherings to allow God to dwell among us in the sanctuary of community.

L’shalom,
Rabbi Larry
Shabbat Shalom!

“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

These verses, which begin this week’s Torah reading, TERUMAH, established a means for individual participation in creating the holy space for Israelite worship. “Bringing gifts” made the people feel a sense of ownership of the spiritual center of their community. Today, we might feel that same sense of ownership in community life through giving charity/tzedakah, giving our time as volunteers for worthy causes, helping with Temple programs and decision-making, and when we enter a voting booth in an election to make a choice between a number of different candidates (from different political parties).

The events in the Middle East (Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and perhaps other nations as well) demonstrate how the feeling of valued and equal participation in political life is integral to the stability of a government and the collective community of citizens. I wrote a few days ago (in my “Facebook” status message), “In light of the events in Egypt and Jordan, I suppose that the strength of our own political process to sustain itself, even with what we might call ‘vociferous discourse,’ has been put into proper perspective. Here is hoping that any changes in the Middle East will be peaceful but will also allow for diversity of opinion without the threat of violence.” In Egypt and other nations, there are many forces and views coming into play, including supporters of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian army, and the “people on the street.” The fact that apologies for violence against protesters have been forthcoming from some government officials offer a sign that the voices of the people have been heard, to some extent. Some analysts are concerned that the protests will be “commandeered” by a group that would enter power and adopt repressive policies. One article I read noted that democratic governments lasted only for a very brief time prior to the Communist takeover in Russia and the ascendancy of the current regime in Iran. What seems to be certain is that people who feel oppressed for too long, or perceive that they have been denied a true opportunity to take part in the political process, will eventually make sure that their voices are heard. I would be interested to hear perspectives from congregants/community members on these current events (perhaps at a face-to-face discussion program – let me know if you are interested).

***************************

Rhonda and I attended the tribute event to honor the memory of Debbie Friedman at Temple Israel in Boston last Sunday. That gathering was also an illustration of “bringing gifts” to the community. First, there was the gift of Debbie Friedman’s leadership and music that pervaded the event as individual Jewish singers/songwriters/performers offered renditions of Debbie’s songs: Rabbi Larry Milder, Sue Horowitz, Cantor Jeff Klepper, Cantors Jodi Sufrin (her late brother Kerry was at Kutz camp with me and Lynne DeSantis in the summer of 1970 for a seven-week program) and Roy Einhorn, Julie Silver, Peri Smilow, Josh Nelson, Peter and Ellen Allard, and Rabbi David Paskin. Local cantors joined in Debbie’s “Mi Shebeirach,” a Boston Jewish community chorus sang Debbie’s “Oseh Shalom,” and over 50 “cantors, songleaders and soloists” (a group in which I participated) joined the others on the bimah at the beginning of the gathering to sing Debbie’s Havdalah blessings and “Im Tirtzu,” and at the end for “L’chi Lach” and “Miriam’s Song.” You can find a video of the entire concert at www.rememberingdebbie.com (there are links on the main page of this website for the video as well as photos of the event). Also, if you click the “tributes” link at the top of the home page, you will go to a screen with a video “box” on the right (which starts with “Remembering Debbie: David Paskin) – that also has a number of videos sent to the site which you can see if you click on the arrows on the left or right side of that box/screen. One of the videos is my “cover” of Debbie’s “Shelter of Peace.”

What was powerful about the event last Sunday was the music and the people. I knew almost everyone sitting around me from one convention or another, and sat next to Rabbi Shaul/Paul Levenson, my 9th Grade teacher whom some of you know from his short time filling in here at Temple Israel Dover in the early 1980s. There are so many songs composed by Debbie that I haven’t had a chance to share, which I hope to include in services and in Religious School song sessions in the coming months. Debbie’s songs are not just songs. They each bear a lesson, or bring a Jewish text and teaching to life. There is so much to learn, and music with a message offers a special spiritual means for incorporating Jewish values into our lives. Please be a part of our chorus of voices as we bring our own gifts to Temple gatherings to allow God to dwell among us in the sanctuary of community.

L’shalom,
Rabbi Larry

Friday, January 28, 2011

Not strangers... - January 28, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

This verse from this week’s Torah reading, MISHPATIM, resonates with two anniversaries remembered this week.

January 27 is designated by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the liberation of the Auschwitz/Birkenau Nazi concentration/extermination camps in 1945. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon paid special tribute this year to the women who suffered in the Holocaust in his official statement for this commemoration: "Mothers and daughters, grandmothers, sisters and aunts, they saw their lives irrevocably changed, their families separated and their traditions shattered. Yet, despite appalling acts of discrimination, deprivation and cruelty, they consistently found ways to fight back against their persecutors. They joined the resistance, rescued those in peril, smuggled food into ghettos and made wrenching sacrifices to keep their children alive. Their courage continues to inspire. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us honor these women and their legacy. Let us pledge to create a world where such atrocities can never be repeated.”

Today is the 25th anniversary of the Challenger Space Shuttle accident which many of us, I am sure, vividly remember. The deaths of Dick Scobee. Michael Smith. Ellison Onizuka. Judith Resnik. Ronald McNair. Christa McAuliffe and Gregory Jarvis were a tragedy that touched everyone. It was a crew that was multicultural, multiethnic, multifaith, united in their quest for knowledge that would enhance the human experience. Many people in New Hampshire knew Christa McAuliffe because she was teaching in Concord, New Hampshire. Because Christa McAuliffe was a teacher, she seemed close to all of us - a woman representing any personal quest we may undertake to broaden our horizons. Rhonda and I were shopping for a crib for our soon-to-be-born child when we saw the first news of the accident on the television in that store. We quickly found out that one of our congregants in Topeka, who grew up in Cleveland, knew the Resnik family, and that Rhonda’s brother, Alan, had gone to school in Framingham with Christa’s sister. In all such tragedies, the world should seem close, even without trying to determine our “degrees-of-separation,” because we are all part of one human family. All of us have challenges through which we must find a way to move forward, and, also, to appropriately and sensitively remember so that we can continue to discover and generate hope and light for the future.

It isn’t easy to create a community where no one feels like a stranger. Yet, the best of our tradition calls on us to try our best to bring down barriers and see the interconnections between us all that can enable us to find healing and renewal together. May we continue to join in this task and calling.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Larry

Friday, January 21, 2011

Every One - and Everyone - a Treasure - January 21, 2011

FROM THIS WEEK’S TEN MINUTES OF TORAH
From the Union for Reform Judaism-January 17, 2011
Parashat B’shalach
http://tmt.urj.net/archives/1torahstudy/011711.html
DAVAR ACHER (Alternate Interpretation)
Every One—and Everyone—a Treasure
Lawrence P. Karol

Over the years of my rabbinate, I have written, spoken, and composed songs about creating community. Through these kinds of activities, we can do what Rabbi Dan Levin describes (in his featured interpretation for this week) as “weaving a web of relation with each other,” which can, in turn, build a relationship with God. Weaving that web of relationships requires listening to much-needed counsel, as Moses did with his father-in-law Jethro, and, at times, “taking oneself out of the equation,” which Moses learned to do as the Israelites, united as one, promised to follow God’s commandments. Moses, the leader, was reminded that he was both a leader and, still, one of the people.

The word “listen” is prominent in Exodus 19:5, in which God declared, “ ‘V’atah im shamoa tish’m’u B’Koli—Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully [literally, “listen to My voice”] and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.’ ” The next verse takes the special nature of the Israelite people even further: “ ‘but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ ”

God’s words were conditional: You will be a treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy people if you keep the covenant. This parashah highlights, as integral to that covenant: truly listening to each other and to a still, small voice that offers guidance and strength, and acting upon what we hear; being humble enough to see oneself as part of the people, willing to put collective needs before personal concerns for the greater good; and recognizing that everyone has the potential to be a treasure and to offer a unique contribution and spirit that can enrich the entire community. May each of us fulfill this for ourselves and lead others along that path to creating a kahal kadosh, a sacred community, wherever we may be.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Beloved Community - January 14, 2011

Shabbat Shalom.

“There are certain things we can say about this method [of non-violence] that seeks justice without violence. It does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. I think that this is one of the points, one of the basic points, one of the basic distinguishing points between violence and non-violence. The ultimate end of violence is to defeat the opponent. The ultimate end of non-violence is to win the friendship of the opponent…the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Martin Luther King, Jr, from “Justice Without Violence,” April 3, 1957 and “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” 1956

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s concept of the “beloved community” came to mind for me in a variety of ways this week. Tonight is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, when we remember the Israelites rejoicing by the Sea of Reeds after escaping the pursuit of the Egyptians, who had hoped to recapture the Israelites to make them slaves once again. The rabbis wondered why the women happened to have timbrels with them by the sea so that they could break into song and dance, led by Moses’ sister Miriam. They explained that the women had faith that miracles, such as gaining their freedom, awaited them, so that they would have a reason to celebrate. The women carried with them the hope and love of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke.

Many members of the worldwide Jewish community have mourned this week the death of songwriter/songleader/performer/teacher Debbie Friedman in California at age 59. I posted some extended comments about Debbie on my personal blog, http://rabbilarrykarol.blogspot.com, recounting some of my more memorable moments with Debbie, beginning even before I met her in 1975. Rhonda and I watched the funeral (you can see it at www.urj.org/debbiefriedman or, along with the evening minyan, at http://www.tbsoc.com/debbie/index.html) this past Tuesday, hearing eulogies from well-known rabbis and teachers, and marveling at the strength of the musical performances by Craig Taubman, Josh Nelson, Julie Silver, and Cantor Linda Kates. Debbie had a way of bringing people together, not only through song, but through prayer and study that emerged from the lyrics and melodies she composed. Her concert performances, workshops at conventions, healing services in many communities, and teaching at camps, congregations and at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion gave many people a common experience and a shared musical language. That unity has been evident in comments that have pervaded several e-mail digests and facebook over the last few days. The lyrics of Debbie’s song, “One People” reflect Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a beloved community: “We are one people seeking justice, one people seeking freedom, one people seeking hope, one people seeking peace.” Her English setting of a phrase from Psalm 126, “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy,” also conveys a similar message of hope which can guide us in how we view our relationships, including within congregational life.

The tragedy in Tucson this past Saturday has touched our entire nation, and perhaps the world as well. Congressional representative Gabrielle Giffords continues on her difficult road to recovery. I am sure that many of us read in Foster’s Daily Democrat that our congregant Todd Selig has met and gotten to know Representative Giffords:
http://www.fosters.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110112/GJNEWS_01/701129924/-1/fosnews
I was in contact on Wednesday with two rabbinic colleagues who were touched by this sad event, one who serves the Conservative synagogue in Tucson, the other who was organizing a candlelight vigil at the Claremont Colleges in California for Representative Giffords, who is an alumna of Scripps college. Such ties make the shootings in Tucson seem even closer to us. In an email last Friday night to Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (soon to be director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics), Giffords told her friend from the Republican party: “After you get settled, I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation. I am one of only 12 Dems left in a GOP district (the only woman) and think that we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down,” This vision represents a step towards “beloved community.” President Obama echoed that vision as he memorialized 9 year-old shooting victim Christina-Taylor Green: “Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted….I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

In our nation, in our community, in our congregation, the vision of a beloved community can guide us along a hopeful and productive path, one on which we are traveling companions who are able to engage in civil conversations that can take us forward to achieve our shared goals. May the thoughts we share with one another and the songs we sing continue to make us one people seeking freedom, justice, hope and peace.

L’shalom,
Rabbi Larry