Friday, October 26, 2012

Journeying into Holiness - D'var Torah for Lech L'cha - October 26, 2012

Lech L’cha – Go forth to the land that I will show you.
The Torah reading for this week portrays the decision of Abram and Sarai 
to leave their home as a life-changing choice in response to God’s command.

The rabbis explained that Abram, the newly minted monotheist,
could no longer abide by the polytheistic ways of his family.
And, they saw Abram and Sarai as a couple destined for something greater.
We are not unlike Abram and Sarai, even on one of the seemingly unspectacular and routine days in our lives.
Every morning is a lech l’cha or l’chi lach for each of us.
The schedule in our minds, our calendar book,
or our personal digital device that constantly connects with cyberspace
tells us where we need to be and when.
But that is not the story of our daylong journey.
Our daily narrative is a reflection on HOW we spent our time
and HOW it changed us, even in small ways.
Did we do something new today – or yesterday – or the day before?
Did we gain a new insight?
Did we receive a challenge from someone
that made us think about how we could grow as a person?
Did we hear someone else’s story that moved us to take on
a new belief or position on a particular issue?
Did we unexpectedly cross a threshold that will forever affect who we are?
For Abram and Sarai, lech l’cha and l’chi lach meant that they would each
Their journey, however, would have consequences for their children,
their grandchildren and other generations yet to come.
For us, every day, every step we take, is significant,
and we may realize that in the moment
or we may only know it later.  
We may even respond to our own “lech l’cha” or “l’chi lach” 
when we stop and see that HOLINESS, k’dushah, 
is all around us, ours for the taking.
Every space can be a MAKOM KADOSH, a holy place,
And when we rise every morning, we can make each day KADOSH, holy,
through what we learn and through what we do
to make that time special and meaningful.
May the words we pray and sing tonight help us,
individually and together, to find the holy, HAKADOSH,
in the where and when of our lives.    And let us say Amen. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Righteous voices in our generation - D'var Torah - October 19, 2012

“The earth became corrupt before God. The earth was filled with CHAMAS – violence.” In Genesis Chapter 6, the beginning of the story of Noah, his family and the flood, this state of the world was enough for God to decide to wipe out humanity and start over again.
    The words corruption and violence are certainly not foreign to us as we listen to the news every day.  The Boy Scouts of America just came out publicly about the abuse that had been perpetrated by scout leaders on young boys over several decades.   An online search for the phrase “accused of corruption” raises many examples of public officials who have ignored laws for their personal gain. 
   Through a successful sting operation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation caught a man from Bangladesh in his attempt to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.     This thwarted act of violence coincided with the arrest of three people who set a Denver bar on fire, murdering five people in the process.  The motive for setting the fire was covering up their robbery of the establishment.  These are isolated incidents, but they reflect  aspects of human life noted in Genesis Chapter 6  that are still very much with us.
    In Jerusalem, a woman who had been arrested Tuesday night was strip-searched and detained overnight.  She had not perpetrated corruption or violence.  She had not tried to murder anyone.  She did not attempt a robbery. Anat Hoffman is a leader of Women of the Wall and Executive Director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.  Members of Women of the Wall were joined by participants in the Hadassah Centennial convention for a Rosh Chodesh service in the women’s section of the KOTEL, the Western Wall on Tuesday night.  
  The Women of the Wall know that Israeli law clearly states:  “No religious ceremony shall be held in the women’s section of the Western Wall. That includes holding or reading a Torah, blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) or wearing tallitot (prayer shawls).”
    Still, the Women of the Wall respond to this law with a dedication to their mission, which is “to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”
   This struggle has been going on for years and seems to have no resolution.   There have been arrests in previous Rosh Chodesh services.  In this case, the police arrested Anat Hoffman for singing the Shema aloud.  Uttering Judaism’s central prayer was the reason she was taken.   The arrest itself and the violent treatment in the police station that followed for Anat Hoffman represent an unfortunate extreme to which the police have been building since they began detaining members of Women of the Wall.  
  There are many issues underlying this conflict, but Tuesday’s incident demonstrates how a liberated Western Wall is only free for some.   Women who want to pray together near the Western Wall should have a place where they can, if they so desire, sing at the top of their lungs.  With regards to the tallit, the Torah itself does not say that only men should wear fringes or tassels on the corners of their clothing to remember God’s commandments.  Women seem to be implicitly included. Even within rabbinic law, women can choose to wear a tallit.  Orthodox authorities who have ruled that a woman should not wear a tallit “like a man” were stating what I believe to be culturally-based opinions intended to preserve their preferred status quo.
   It is likely that this conflict will continue for months or years to come.   What may be needed is a flood of new thought, a fresh perspective that will expand the rights of women and men on the Western side of the Temple mount.  
     No matter how this is resolved,  there is one point on which many people could likely agree – no one, man or woman, reciting the Shema should be subjected to arrest or CHAMAS, violence.   If we truly believe in being TZADIK, righteous, there has to be a better way.  May Jews around the world come together to find a path that will lead to justice, understanding and even unity.  Amen. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"That's not love" - A reflection on faith and political leadership - October 14, 2012

From my Yom Kippur morning sermon – September 23, 1996

 Last Tuesday morning, I was invited to attend a meeting of clergy with senatorial candidate Sam Brownback.  As I sat down at the table, I looked around and realized that I only knew two of the pastors present.  Not only was I the only rabbi there, but I was also the only non-evangelical clergy person in the room!
    Representative Brownback asked the group what the religious community can do to take care of people in need in this era of welfare reform.  On the issue of church burnings, he stated that the government can do a great deal to create standards that indicate zero tolerance for hate crimes and other violent acts.  He lamented that those laws do not reach the heart and soul of people to change them for the better. 
   You can imagine what the pastors sitting around the table with me claimed would offer a renewed sense of values.  At first, there were calls for the candidate and more citizens to take a firm pro-Christian stand (the exact request was, “You should stand up for Christ!”).  As the discussion continued, I spoke up several times to emphasize that we do hold many values in common, and that when we combine our energies, we make a stronger impact on our community than we can make alone.   
  For example, some of the ministers were concerned about how separation of religion and government prevents their churches from helping the poor and the hungry.  I reminded them that many congregations in Topeka regularly unite to provide food, clothing and shelter through  Doorstep, Let's Help, Cornerstone and other agencies that receive funding from a variety of sources.  
   During our discussion, we outlined the partnership between government, families, non-profit organizations, businesses, faith groups and schools that can enhance the well-being of our community.  One minister suggested that schools house Youth for Christ programs. I immediately commented, "I don't think my family would be too happy about that!"  I explained that a program advancing one particular faith group in school would create an "in" group and an "out" group. Such a plan could ostracize non-Christian children and some Christian students as well. I also mentioned that Rhonda and I have successfully worked with teachers and a principal who are deeply religious Christians who apply their beliefs as we do - by engendering cooperation, respect and self-discipline that can enable a student to grow in knowledge and contribute positively to any class, group, or community.
  At the end of the meeting, one participant called for a prayer before we adjourned. Another pastor suggested that I deliver that benediction.  I prayed that the God whom we love and who loves us be with us and with our government and community leaders so that we can provide all people with a sense of belonging and hope.
     It was clear that my presence changed the entire complexion of that meeting.  One minister said that he and his colleagues tend to be too parochial at times, thinking only about their own beliefs.  I replied that we all have our particular beliefs that we can use for universal purposes, to make a positive impact on the world outside our homes and beyond our houses of worship.

Postscript – October 14, 2012
Several months later, I saw Senator Brownback at the Kansas State commemoration of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.   I reminded him of the meeting held at what was then the Village Inn Pancake House at Fleming Place Shopping Center.  I remarked that his staff called to together quite a meeting.  He said, “Well I was surprised.”  I asked him why.  He responded, “Well, for me, Christianity is love, and that was not love that was being expressed by the ministers present.”  I replied that he should only know that I was used to hearing calls for one religion to be considered primary over all others.
     It has been six years since Rhonda and I moved away from Topeka.  The last time I saw Senator Brownback (and his wife Mary) was when he appeared at the University of New Hampshire Student Union (the “MUB”) in September of 2007 on a campaign stop.   I lived six miles away in Dover, New Hampshire where I served the at the local Temple (2006-2011).   I knew that the Senator had been through many changes both in his faith and in his politics. We did get a chance to speak for a few minutes in what was a very congenial conversation. We discussed the campaign trail, and about being the parents of children in their late teens and early 20s.   I was glad I took the time to see him.
    The policies of the current Brownback administration in Kansas do not surprise me.  I  always knew that the Governor had the potential to move in the direction of the wing of the Republican party that does not know about or care about moderation or about representing all Kansans, not just their ideological peers and partners on the right wing of the political spectrum.
   During a sermon on civility to my congregation in Las Cruces, New Mexico on Yom Kippur evening this year,  I referred to a story in the Talmud that relates to how we can constructively deal with diverse views in society. The Talmud tells of how the schools of the great sages Hillel and Shammai were in regular conflict.  In one instance, the debate became so heated that only a heavenly voice could stop their verbal confrontations. The voice declared, “Both of your positions are the words of the living God – both are valid – EILU V’EILU DIVREI ELOHIM CHAYIM – but the law is in agreement with the students of Hillel.”  “Why one side and not the other?” the Talmud asked.  The passage explained that the students of Hillel were kind and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of their opponents, and they were so humble that they would mention the opinions of Shammai before stating their own views.
    I didn’t speak about the meeting held at the Village Inn sixteen years ago when I wrote that sermon, but I did think about that encounter.  I am sad to see the direction in which my former state of residence is going on the level of politics and policy.  If I had the chance, I would ask state government leaders, at the very least, “Where is respect for diverse views?”   However, in light of my conversation with then-new-Senator Brownback in the Kansas Capitol rotunda, I have to go one step further and ask, “Where is the love?”   Respect, love, and concern – that is what community is about.  It is not about “me” or “my kind only.”  It is about “us.” 
    I pray that respect, concern and love will overcome any obstacles that may be placed in their way in any state in our union and in every corner of the world.  

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Challenges of New Beginnings - D'var Torah - October 12, 2012

  “All beginnings are hard. . . . and sometimes I add what I have learned on my own: ‘Especially a beginning that you make for yourself. That's the hardest beginning of all.’"

    David Lurie, the main character of Chaim Potok’s book, IN THE BEGINNING, delivered that message two pages into the novel.   This declaration resonates with us on this Shabbat as we begin again our cycle of reading the Torah with this week’s parashah, b’raysheet.  It expresses the values embodied in the biblical narratives about humanity’s first family, which seems to never miss an opportunity to receive a rule and then disobey it.
     The unwise ethical choices of Adam and Eve and their son Cain were very much a part of what made humanity’s beginnings hard in the biblical story.   There are, however, positive insights embedded in Genesis Chapter 2 about what it means to be a community. Verses 15 through 23 of Chapter 2 begin with God placing the man in the Garden of Eden and conclude with the Adam’s first words, a verbal response to the sight of the woman, his EZER K’NEGDO, his helpful and equal counterpart. 
    As Rhonda and I have been in Las Cruces for 15 months, and now that our home in our previous community is no longer ours, it seems appropriate to reflect on beginnings.   Any of you who have moved from one community to another without successfully selling the house you left behind know the feeling well.  It is as if you have ALMOST taken your “giant leap” into a new life, but no more than “almost.”   You may feel like you are not yet home in a place that you are trying to make your home.    So when the “old home” sells, it is like a new beginning, a conclusion to a process that you hoped would take less time.  
      That is not the only challenge of moving from one community to another.    We are required to learn new names and faces; street names and directions; customs; laws; and the ways in which people are related to and relate to each other.  Beginning in a new community means having to reestablish yourself in a neighborhood and, perhaps, in a professional position,  all over again.   There are aspects of this process that are like a rebirth, which can be invigorating.  Yet, it can also be discouraging, when the process of integration in a new city doesn’t move as quickly as one would hope.   Along with the adage “all beginnings are hard” at the start of Chaim Potok’s novel is the statement, “be patient.”   Patience is a virtue while moving through a transition and it is important to identify the challenges that are central to any new beginning.
      Genesis Chapter 2 actively hints at what those challenges might be.   When we move to a new place, we need food and shelter.   The man, ADAM, upon being placed in the Garden of Eden, had ready-made shelter – the Garden itself, which was under God’s watchful protection.  There was abundant food, so there was no need to go the local grocery store or farmer’s market.  The ADAM could eat all he wanted from any tree in the garden.  Well, not any tree – there was one exception.  If he ate of the tree of all knowledge, he would “die,” but not immediately. Eating of that tree would let the human being know whether or not he was satisfied with his life.  He would have to make decisions, moral and otherwise.   Mostly, he was not allowed to possess the many types of knowledge that we take for granted and still retain his immortality.   So that was the one “NO” for the ADAM’s existence. All the rest was a resounding YES – almost. 
      God had said in Chapter 1 of Genesis that everything was TOV – good – and that making human beings rendered all of creation VERY GOOD – TOV M’OD.   Many scholars say that Genesis Chapter 2 is a second creation story in the Torah that serves a different purpose than the narrative in Chapter 1.  The central lesson of the passage that I am about to read is that God saw that it was LO TOV – NOT GOOD - for the ADAM to be alone.  The order of creation didn’t matter here.  What was important was that feeling of a lack of completeness in the human being’s existence.  ADAM needed a counterpart – an equal – who could be a challenger when necessary, but, mainly an EIZER K’NEGDO, an equal and opposite helper and source of support.   Don’t think for a minute that this phrase meant that the helper would be subordinate to the ADAM.   The language and several commentaries agree that God was hoping to provide the ADAM with a true partner to stand by his side and carry the burden of their shared life, whatever it might be.
      In the same way that we familiarize ourselves with the names of new people we meet and the streets on which they live when we move to a new place, the ADAM gave names to all of the animals who potentially could have been an equal helper.   They could offer the man EZRA, assistance, to some extent.  None of the animals fit the requirement of K’NEGDO – opposite him, a definite equal who would complement and supplement the ADAM.    What was missing from the Garden of Eden was true human community.   So GOD gave the ADAM the best divine anesthetic available in the Garden, and engaged in the first episode of human cloning, using a rib.   God didn’t just MAKE – OSEH – the human counterpart for the ADAM who would be called ISHAH.  God BUILT – BONEH – the ISHAH.   God had fashioned – VAYITZER – the ADAM from the dust of the soil like a sculptor.   God built the woman like an architect would create a building, indicating that the EZER K’NEGDO needed to be strong in living alongside the ADAM.   The words fashion, create and build all refer to what we do to foster a sense of community.  This building process doesn’t just happen by itself.  It takes work, time, patience, fortitude, energy, and partnership.    It isn’t good to be alone, and that is what being a community is all about.  We seek the ties of community so we will have people around us with whom to make our lives meaningful and to whom we can turn when the challenges of inevitable changes come our way.   Fellow community members can be our very own OZRIM – helpers to see us through difficult times. 
    Finally, at the end of this section that I will be reading, the ADAM saw the ISHAH and spoke for the first time, offering what is actually a poetic form of address:
This time – or, perhaps, at this moment
Bone of my bone
Flesh of my flesh
Let this one be called woman – ISHAH
For this one is taken from ISH – man.
   Up to this point in the text, only the word ADAM meant a human being.  This short poem uses  two words for human beings: ISH for the male and ISHAH for the female, with both of them as part of ADAM, humanity.   The declaration of the ISH was not meant to lay a claim of superiority or ownership on the ISHAH.  It was an exclamatory acknowledgement of the arrival of his EZER K’NEGO – his counterpart that turned his solitude into community.
     One of the reasons that I like to sing “HINEI MAH TOV” at the beginning or end of a service is that it is one of the most classic and accessible Jewish statements about what community should look like, especially because it includes the words SHEVET – dwell – and YACHAD, together.   We know that the tale of the man and woman, commonly known as Adam and Eve, continues in Genesis with unfortunate violations of God’s rules about the tree of ALL KNOWLEDGE and about the value of human life.    Even then, the portion B’raysheet concludes with the beginning of a human community that was called upon to face life’s challenges with strength and wisdom.  This story is likely in the Torah to remind us that all beginnings are hard, but that they are just a little easier when we face them together, even when we ourselves choose to leave everything behind to start a new phase of our lives.  So when we see people in our community engaging in new beginnings of their own, may we offer EZRA – help – and CHOCHMAH – wisdom – to make their path smooth and fruitful in a way that will offer all of us strength and hope.  And let us say AMEN.