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.