Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Temple Volunteer’s Psalm - June 25, 2012

Eternal One, Creator and Sustainer of all life,
help me to serve my congregation
with a sense of selflessness and a generosity of spirit.
Teach me that even the small tasks that I do can be great
and that every time I step forward,
I am seeking to raise myself to a higher place
as I join others in creating and shaping 
a sacred community.
Help me to see that healing comes 
from the patience and forgiveness
that I offer to others and to myself,
and that warmth is generated 
when I willingly extend an open hand
to a newcomer who seeks a sense of belonging
or to a member who hopes to deepen
his or her commitment to our heritage.
Remind me that I set an example 
every moment I am with my congregation
of what our community can and should be:
a place that reflects the best values of our tradition,
including unity, equality, cooperation, mutual respect, 
compassion, and humility.
Enable me to understand that what I do is for Your sake,
that the reward for my volunteerism 
is the overwhelming feeling of connection 
that I derive from giving.
Instill in me a sense of gratitude 
for the opportunity to give
and with a desire to show others how grateful I am
that they have been willing to serve, to give, to help,
and to create lasting partnerships and friendships
among members of all ages.
Grant me the wisdom to see that I need to be present in many ways for my fellow community members
in times of sorrow, offering support and hope.
Give me the insight to foster a sense of celebration and joy 
when we mark life’s milestones
and when our collaboration yields new ideas, 
ongoing successes and growth.  
May I join with my community to create a culture of honor
which will always highlight how the intangible gifts 
that each of us brings to our community
will make others want to join us along our common journey.
L’chayim – to life – for all of us as we seek the One
who keeps us alive, who sustains us, and who brings us
to each new chance to serve and share. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Burdens of Leadership - Parashat Korach - June 22, 2012

    In the last several years, we have witnessed a variety of movements calling for drastic change in an organization or a nation.  The Presbyterian Church USA will soon be considering resolutions that would support a boycott of Israel.  A local Presbyterian minister came to meet with me because he will be on a committee that will consider these proposals.   Our discussion covered a lot of ground, much of it hovering around a centrist position, one that admits the many complexities of the Arab Israeli conflict.    We have seen that the Arab Spring in Egypt has likely not yielded the desired results, given that the military is attempting to assert power over Egypt regardless of the outcome of elections. The Occupy movement has stirred the conscience of our country, but we are uncertain as to how it will affect the way we approach finances in the long-term on an individual, national or international level.  Finally, we are in the midst of yet another presidential election campaign, where incumbent and challenger are pitted against each other in a battle for framing the issues and suggesting solutions that might work.  This year, as in past campaigns, citizens are looking back to the years before the previous presidential election and wondering how decisions made by leaders then have affected the state of our nation today. 
    Leadership is difficult, challenging, and, very often, lonely.   Some people who are dissatisfied with their leaders may have legitimate criticisms based on extensive knowledge of their current situation.   Others may not see the whole picture.  They may, instead, be focused primarily on what they believe they deserve in terms of communal or political position and status.   In the Torah reading for this week, KORACH, there are, at least, two rebellions against Moses and Aaron and their leadership. Korach was likely a cousin to Moses and Aaron who came from a priestly family but was not eligible to be among the high priests.  He claimed that, if it was true that all the Israelites were holy, then no one, not even the high priests, should be considered holier than anyone else.  Korach viewed the leadership of Aaron and Moses with a feeling of jealousy, seeking for himself their power, without acknowledging the sense of responsibility they had taken upon themselves and the difficulties involved in leading the people.   Dathan and Abiram were instigators of unrest based in their own dissatisfaction with the plight of the people following their flight to freedom.  They thought that being descendants of Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, gave them the right to be leaders over Moses and Aaron.  Furthermore, they saw the state of the Israelites in the wilderness as less preferable to their former life of slavery in Egypt. In their complaint, they called Egypt  “a land flowing with milk and honey,” using the very phrase that described the lush land of Canaan that they would eventually enter. The Torah recounts that both of these rebellions, which saw leadership as a function only of status and not of inspiration, met their demise at the hand of God.
     We may be understandably uncomfortable with the specter of anyone being crushed by divine power.  These tales of rebellion must be in the Torah for a reason, so that we can derive some lesson on a metaphorical level or gain some insight on leadership and community life.  So what can we learn from this portion?   One way of viewing the disposition of the rebel leaders, Korach, Dathan and Abiram, is to note how they undermined their own cause through their envy, anger and pessimism.  They had disqualified themselves from instilling any sense of hope and confidence among their people.   They saw the plight of the moment, blamed it on their leaders, and tried to convince the people that they could do better, without offering anything more than demagoguery and an utter rejection of the status quo.  They weren’t willing to admit that the current leadership could, in any way, take them along a path towards a better life and welcome change.   They hadn’t moved from the mindset of slavery, where their needs were met with a great measure of disrespect and cruelty. They were not yet free people who could see their new status as an opportunity.  According to the Torah, one reason that the Israelites wandered for so long was that they needed a change in attitude that could only be nurtured over a period of years with patience and perseverance.  The Israelites had to let go of their past before they could adopt a positive outlook toward the tasks of community-building that awaited them in the decades to come.
    True leadership requires an ability to adapt and change, encouraging people to think in new ways and to consider untried ideas and approaches to the challenges before them. Torah commentator Yeshayahu Leibowitz saw Korach’s assertion about the holiness of the Israelites to mean that “we have achieved our goal of being a holy people and nothing more need be demanded of us” to maintain that sanctity. It was as if he was saying, and even boasting, “I am already holy and don’t need to change.” Yet, what the Torah actually says is “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” Holiness is about becoming, not being.  It is a goal, not a present state. Leaders and people like Korach, Dathan and Abiram think they have nothing to learn from anyone or any new experience. Leaders and people like Moses and Aaron see their own imperfections, lament the need to stand firm in the face of overwhelming opposition, and are willing to learn something new to move along the road towards greater effectiveness and even holiness.  It is through learning from what we have done wrong and realizing what we do right and well that we become a KAHAL KADOSH, a holy community. 
    I went to meet with Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima on Wednesday as part of a delegation from CAFĂ©, Communities in Action and Faith.  We sat for nearly two hours discussing concerns about our city and state, focusing first on how to get more people involved in the political process by voting in elections and by staying engaged with the work that needs to be done to improve our community.  It was a relaxed and productive conversation.  Mayor Miyagishima said that he is fortunate to have an effective city council working in partnership with him.  He remarked that some people have told him that the position of mayor is mostly one of figurehead status.   His response to that opinion is that any position of leadership is what  you make of it.  A leader can choose how much, or how little, he or she wants to accomplish.   The same goes with being a member of a group or community.   There are many ways in which we can positively contribute our voices, our wisdom and our energy to bring about productive change and a renewed sense of unity and hope.  We can add our own spirit and insight as congregants of Temple Beth-El and as and citizens of a city, state and nation. May our efforts to move forward towards a better life be borne out of a sense of renewal and mutual respect and concern that will shape a future filled with promise! 

Friday, June 15, 2012

D’var Torah – June 15, 2012 – Wrapping ourselves in the warmth of community

“The Eternal One said to Moses as follows: 
Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them
to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments
throughout the ages; let them attach 
a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. 
That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall
all the commandments of the Eternal One and observe them,
so that you do not follow your heart and eyes 
and give in to urge and temptation.”
The fringes on the corner of the tallit
Are attached to a sacred garment
In which we can wrap ourselves 
to physically feel warmth and God’s embrace.
Our heritage, our prayers, 
our presence with each other in community
And our mutual support for one another
Are like a tallit.
We feel that warmth when we truly care about each other
When we choose our words carefully
When we are long in patience
And quick in forgiveness
And when we act with kindness and selflessness.
Yet, there are times when we may find ourselves tempted 
to be like 10 of the scouts who entered the land of Canaan
To see what the future home of the Israelites was like, 
to collect information about the land and its people.
For two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, all looked well: for them, 
entry into the land was possible and they had limitless faith 
in their eventual settlement there.
But their 10 companions were overcome with fear. 
These supposedly courageous leaders saw a beautiful land
In which the Israelites would find no comfortable place 
amid fortified cities
And people who appeared to tower over them.
Sometimes, our uncertainties and challenges 
may lead us to be like the scouts
Who told their people to remain where they were, 
not to move forward.
Our apprehension may render us unable 
to see the positives, the joys that are around us, 
focusing only on the obstacles in our way.
From such a vantage point,
we may interpret communal or individual strengths as weaknesses,
and stress only failure in a sea of success. 
Still, it may be that the greater community is waiting 
for our personal contribution
To collective warmth and caring
Where our potential for optimism enables us 
to add to a shared sense of spirit.
We are commanded in the Torah to look at the fringes and to recall God’s commandments and acknowledge the godly paths we can follow.
Those paths inspired by mitzvot/commandments 
can help us move forward
When we act with conviction and compassion 
and when we recognize the special gifts
That each of us brings to community.
May we be scouts who see the goodness in one another
So that we can feel the warmth,
the communal embrace that can wrap around our souls
And unite us on Shabbat 
and throughout the days and years of our lives.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

That God's song may be with me - Reflections on Hava Nashira 2012 - June 11, 2012

Faculty members Rabbi Noam Katz, Merri Arian, and
Rabbi Ken Chasen (confirmed at my home congregation)
teach a song with Basya Schechter at right
looking on (and probably adding percussion)
    On May 31, 2012, I was ready for my first learning session at the Hava Nashira Songleading and Music workshop at Olin-Sang-Ruby Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.  I had decided to attend a songwriting intensive with Basya Schechter, whom I had seen in concert in Lawrence, Kansas with her group, Pharaoh’s Daughter, in 2005.   After each member of our songwriting group shared something about his or her background in Jewish music, Basya gave us our first challenge: to compose a melody to go with a text.  I don’t know if she gave us these small pieces of paper at random or if there was a reason that we each received a particular text.   She gave me a sheet that bore the text of Psalm 42, verses 1 and 2:
Like a deer cries for water, my soul cries for you, God;
My soul thirsts for God, the living God;
When will I come to appear before God?
    I really didn’t know if I would be able to create a melody on the spot, but the notes came quickly as I sang the Hebrew text to myself.  When it was my turn to present what I had composed, I sang what became the beginning to a new song, to which I added other verses from Psalm 42 after I returned home:
By day, may the Eternal command kindness
so that, at night, God’s song may be with me,
a prayer to God, the God of my life.
I will yet praise God, my ever-present help, my God.
 You can find the completed song at this link (play the song "Tzam'ah Nafshi"on the player):
    I have been thinking about the meaning of that text in relation to the Hava Nashira experience. 
"Jamming" on Shabbat afternoon
 This year, my eleventh time attending this incredible workshop, provided opportunities to hear new music, to exchange newly-created songs with fellow participants, to perform in front of our peers, to “jam” on our favorite songs (Jewish and/or secular), and to build community that continues past these few days spent in Wisconsin.  I watched our talented faculty lead us in learning, communal singing and worship that easily elicited our enthusiastic participation. I marveled at the webs of relationships across Jewish communities that this event engenders and strengthens. 
With rabbinic students
Rachael Klein and Bess Wohlner,
fellow Congregation B'nai Jehudah confirmands
     In light of the words of Psalm 42, I believe that one of our goals in attending Hava Nashira is to feel that God’s song is with us as we join our voices together and as we hear expressions of biblical texts, prayers and songs that express the depth of the Jewish spirit.  A second goal for each of us is to learn how music can help us as individuals, and enable members of the communities which we serve, to feel that God’s song is within us and accompanying us along our way.  Music can help us reach into our souls and outward to others to reveal the many ways in which we can grow closer together within our congregations, at camps and community centers, and between faith groups, seeing more clearly the spark of the divine in one another.
Erev Shabbat Song Session
    I am thankful for new friendships and for relationships that continue and deepen with my fellow “Hava Nashirites,” for the life connections that are brought to light (such as four of us present who were all confirmed at Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City – all rabbis or rabbis-to-be), and for the inspiration, the song, that we take with us as each Hava Nashira workshop concludes.   Todah rabbah to faculty and participants for being wise and supportive fellow travelers along our spiritual and musical life’s journey!