Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Our Values: Wisdom in Action - Rosh Hashanah Evening - September 16, 2012

Shanah Tovah – Happy New Year to everyone who is here tonight as we begin 5773 together.   Whether you are members or guests, we welcome you.   Whatever your place among the generations – young in age or young at heart, we welcome you.    Whatever your city or town, state or country of birth, we welcome you.  You add a richness to who we are just by being present in this sanctuary at this moment.
    Temple Beth-El is a congregation that numbers around 150 households.   In my 31 years as a rabbi, I have mostly served congregations of this size or even a little smaller.   During a year-long study of the book of Proverbs that concluded in the spring, my study partners from the congregation and I came upon this verse that gave me pause.   Proverbs Chapter 22, verse 29 declares: “Do you see people who are skilled in their work? They will serve before royalty; they will not serve before obscure people.”  That verse points to acts of greatness and significance, but it seems to do so with a tinge of elitism.   One could interpret this verse to mean that skilled individuals are doing their work well only if they serve society’s most important celebrities or leaders. The notion may still prevail that only large congregations can be great in any sense of the word.  My rabbinate has taught me about the positive impact that a few people, or even one person, can have on the lives of others.  Over the years, there have been many fulfilling and spiritual moments in prayer and song and "aha" insights that emerged from "small but mighty" study groups and worship settings.   My rabbinic colleagues across the world and I always try to serve with dedication, skill and insight.  If that is the case, and we are doing our work well and with skill, then it logically follows that YOU are the royalty of whom Proverbs speaks, and each one of you is significant.
      Our tradition teaches us that even royalty and skilled individuals need to remain humble.   The one figure in the Torah whom the Rabbis admired for this quality of humility was Moses, who is central to a passage that we add to our Torah services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
    These verses can be found in one of the Torah’s greatest scenes of return and reconciliation. In Chapter 34 of the Book of Exodus, Moses was ready to ascend Mount Sinai a second time.   As you may remember, when Moses descended the mountain carrying the first set of tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, he saw the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf.  In a moment of anger and frustration, he shattered the tablets that God had just prepared for him.  While God wanted to end the covenant with the Israelites right then and there, Moses successfully pleaded on behalf of his people, and asked if he could see God’s face.   God told him, “you can’t see my face, but I will put you in the crevice of a rock so you can see my back.”  It is ironic that the Golden Calf episode seems to have brought Moses and God into a closer relationship than ever before. So Moses ascended the mountain a second time with two blank tablets of stone.  And, according to Exodus, Chapter 34, verses 6 and 7, this is what God declared to the humble leader of the Israelites;
 Adonai, Adonai, a compassionate and gracious God
slow to anger, abundant in mercy and faithfulness,
extending kindness to the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.
    Chanting that passage from Exodus, Chapter 34 as I stand before the open ark is an awesome and intimate experience. There is already a sense of closeness to our history and our heritage as we remove the Torah from the ark every Shabbat.  These words add the elements to the Torah service of humility, honesty, and return. They express humility and honesty, because this passage assumes that we may have done something wrong that calls for mercy, patience or forgiveness. This passage reflects a sense of "return," t'shuvah, because anyone in the congregation, standing before the open ark, may feel a sense of being, once again, in close proximity to a scroll that bears eternal teachings. That moment in the Torah service puts us in the place of Moses, sitting in the cleft of the rock, unable to see God's face, but comprehending a divine presence that not only passes by at a single moment but accompanies us with every step we take.
   The recitation of the divine attributes from Exodus, Chapter 34 is viewed as a classic characterization of God’s personality.  It can direct us as we shape and enhance our own character and ethical foundation.   As God is kind, compassionate, merciful and gracious to us, we need to act towards others with kindness, compassion, mercy and grace. As God is described as "slow to anger," we need to remind ourselves that there are times when it is best to hold back our temper and allow our patience to direct our words and deeds. In community life, there are so many times when we or those around us may not make the right choice.   Estrangement and conflict will become inevitable unless we remember that asking and granting forgiveness can heal the hurt, repair the breach, and restore wholeness, respect and unity.
    The passage from Exodus, Chapter 34 teaches us that there are second chances for an individual or a community. God wanted to keep Moses and the Israelites close and to have that intimacy pervade the relationships among members of the community.  Today, within the human family, this wouldn’t be possible were it not for our capacity to “let go.” We have it in our power to "write in sand" the deeds of others that have caused hurt, which would best be forgiven.  And we have the possibility in our hearts and minds to inscribe in stone the positive acts of the people in our lives that would enable true fellowship, acceptance, and even love to endure.
      Exodus Chapter 34’s description of God’s character establishes a vision for who we can be and the values that we can espouse together. Author Rachel Naomi Remen once told a meeting of Reform rabbis,  “When we serve others, we serve ourselves – our wholeness that we create inside ourselves can evoke a wholeness in others. Community is the most powerful tool for healing. Compassion sustains the world.” In his book, I’M GOD, YOU’RE NOT, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner made the point time and again that we are at our best when we realize that life isn’t always about us individually, but, rather, about seeing ourselves as one member of a team, whether that team is a family, a congregation, a city, a nation or all humanity. This relates to what we might call the “altruistic impulse” that leads us to selflessly serve others, where “what’s in it for me?” isn’t even a consideration. It is also connected to the times when we say the Shema. When we declare that God is one, whether we are alone or at Temple, we become a part of the Oneness that binds the universe together, taking our rightful place in the greater whole. 
    In his book BEYOND RELIGION, the Dalai Lama lamented the external challenges we face which can cause stress and anxiety in our lives that can take us away from developing our best character and inner values.  He explained, “By inner values I mean the qualities that we all appreciate in others, and toward which we all have a natural instinct, bequeathed by our biological nature as animals that survive and thrive only in an environment of concern, affection and warmheartedness -- or in a single word, compassion. The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being.   This is the spiritual principle from which all other positive inner values emerge. We all appreciate in others the inner qualities of kindness, patience, tolerance, forgiveness and generosity, and in the same way we are all averse to displays of greed, malice, hatred and bigotry. So actively promoting the positive inner qualities of the human heart that arise from our core disposition toward compassion, and learning to combat our more destructive propensities, will be appreciated by all. And the first beneficiaries of such a strengthening of our inner values will…be ourselves. Our inner lives are something we ignore at our own peril, and many of the greatest problems we face in today’s world are the result of such neglect.”
      As part of a program supported by the Kellogg Foundation, government and community leaders in New Mexico have begun a process of identifying the values prized by citizens of our state individually and collectively.   CAFÉ, Communities in Action and Faith, has taken up the challenge to initiate a similar process in the faith communities of Southern New Mexico.   In July, CAFÉ director Sarah Nolan came to Temple Beth-El to help us identify our values as a congregation and to highlight principles that we share with the culture of our state. We first listed core values of Temple Beth-El:  education based on an approach that involves questioning, partnership and discussion; wisdom; tzedakah, righteous giving that supports our Temple and worthy causes in the community and around the world; fairness; humility; survival; and equality that crosses gender and personal background.   Echoing the Dalai Lama, Rachel Naomi Remen, and Lawrence Kushner were the tenets of interdependence and the sense that we are all in this together.  Our shared New Mexico values included respect of other cultures; spirituality; family, survival in harsh conditions; tradition; a border identity; independence; rugged individualism; regard for our elders; a connection to both history and land; and hope.   This was the beginning of a process of discussion that we intend to expand to a greater number of congregants in the coming months.    Noting the values that guide us can further enable us to discover who we are and what we can do to make a difference in the world. 
     On a recent Shabbat morning, I chose to read a Torah passage that I have never before recited, and I am not sure why I had overlooked it for so long because of the values it so clearly contains. We read in Deuteronomy Chapter 10   “And now….what does the Eternal your God demand of you?  Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in divine paths, to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul…for the Eternal your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, mighty and the awesome God - HAEIL HAGADOL HAGIBOR V’HANORA - who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing.  You too must befriend the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  And in Deuteronomy Chapter 15, there is this challenge: “If there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin.  Rather you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need.”   Our world cannot be full of people with hardened hearts and closed hands.  If we are to be like God, we must be compassionate, impartial, fair and just.  We must feel an altruistic responsibility to the most vulnerable members of our society who need our support.   We have ongoing opportunities at Temple Beth-El to practice these mitzvot by bringing food to donate to the Casa de Peregrinos food pantry and the El Cadito Soup Kitchen.  Beth-El Temple Youth is also asking you to bring non-perishable foods to Temple during these High Holy Days so that we can add a small dose of nourishment and hope to those who would otherwise go hungry.
   In his book BEYOND RELIGION, the Dalai Lama asserted that many values found in the world’s religions transcend any one particular faith group.  He went as far as defining those values as secular first, and religious second.   I tend to agree, but I believe that meaningful teachings from our heritage can steer us on the right path towards integrity and decency.   Please turn to Pages 368 and 369 in Gates of Repentance as we join in a reading that expresses the essence of the Jewish moral heritage:
Our rabbis taught: Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses. Micah reduced them to three Mitzvot: “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.’’
Isaiah based all the commandments upon two of them: “Keep justice and righteousness.”
Amos saw one guiding principle upon which all the Mitzvot are founded: “Seek Me and live.”
Habbakuk, too, expounded the Torah on the basis of a single thought: “The righteous shall live by their faith.”
Akiba taught:  The great principle of the Torah is expressed in the Mitzvah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But Ben Azzai found a principle even more fundamental in the words: “This is the story of humanity: when God created us, God made us in the divine likeness.”
And Hillel summed up the Torah in this maxim: What is hateful to you, do not do to others.  That is the whole Torah - the rest is commentary: you must go and study it.
   Justice, mercy, humility, mutual respect and consideration, righteousness, and seeing and seeking the divine in each other – these are values that can accompany us throughout each year, from one Rosh Hashanah to the next.  There is a great deal of time to reach our personal and communal objectives over the months to come – but the resources for doing mitzvot that will enable us to improve our community are always within our grasp. We read in Proverbs Chapter 3, verses 27 and 28:  Don’t hold back bounty from one who earned it when it is within your power to give it and share at that moment. When you have something that can be helpful, don’t say to your friend at the moment you are asked, “Go and come back, and tomorrow I’ll give.” Our tradition teaches us that, at any moment, we should be ready to offer both tangible and intangible assistance to one person or to an entire community that could truly benefit from our wisdom and our energy. May 5773 be a year in which we see the urgent needs around us that will move us to act upon the values of compassion, fairness, justice, equality, patience, and generosity to bring greater hope and blessing to a world in need of our special spirit.   So may we do – and let us say Amen. 

No comments:

Post a Comment