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.
Rabbi Larry

What can be in a name - March 11, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!
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.