Friday, February 15, 2013

What it means to be free - and American - February 15, 2013

   The PICO Network (People Improving Communities Through Organizing) requested in the beginning of 2013 songs on the theme of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented Americans.   One of the commercials during the Super Bowl, created by, struck me as the most poignant message of the night.  Here are some of the messages it conveyed about American values: 

*We are all American, no matter what we look like and where we come from.
*In America, families stick together, people look out for each other, and hard work should be rewarded.
*It is not what you look like or where you were born that makes you an American
*It’s how you live your life and what you do that defines you here in this country
  In President Barack Obama's inaugural address, he declared: "Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.  We affirm the promise of our democracy.  We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.  What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.'"
    In the last few weeks, I thought a great deal about my grandparents who arrived in 1892 and 1905-1906, at a time when there were no quotas that limited the number of people from their respective countries of origin (it was, most likely, mainly Jews coming from Lithuania/Poland at that time - the quotas came in 1924).  Early in February, I watched a local DREAMer tell her story to the local Catholic priests (in Las Cruces, NM) through her tears.   I was struck by a video of Native American man who, while taking part in a demonstration for immigration reform, confronted protesters with the words "I have been here for many, many centuries - YOU are illegal!"   
     All of these thoughts and expressions came together, after many attempts, in the lyrics below, that waited for the right melody.   This is my statement about American identity in 2013, which, for me, is driven by Leviticus 19:33-34: "When strangers reside with you in your land,  you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens, and you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God."    Justice, compassion and freedom are the value that, I hope, will guide us as we consider how to make many more people living among us feel at home as Americans, our neighbors, and fellow dreamers who will keep before our eyes a vision of liberty enlightening the world. 

Free (L. Karol – Copyright 2/8/2013)

It’s not where we come from
It’s not the color of our skin
It’s not just the faiths we live by
That makes us American
It’s how we treasure one another
It’s what we do, the way we live
It’s working for equality
That makes us American

So bless this land with justice
Bless the people with compassion
Make us proud of what we can be
We are neighbors, we are dreamers
Still learning together
What it means to be free, what it means to be free

It’s not the closing of our borders
It’s not the fear of the unknown
It’s not hatred harbored in our hearts
That makes us American. 
It’s looking out for each other
It’s holding out a helping hand
It’s a pioneering spirit
That makes us American.   CHORUS

Some of us are truly recent arrivals
When some have lived here thousands of years
When aspiring citizens want to join our project in democracy
It’s not the time to close our minds and drive them to tears

Can we overcome our differences and reach an understanding
The possibility of compromise makes us American
We’re a rainbow of community when all is said and done
Our nation’s founders put it best - Out of many One
What it means to be free - what it means to be free

God's Image and Holy Space - D'var Torah - February 15, 2013

     When Jessica Bravo of Costa Mesa, California, went to speak to her congressional representative, Dana Rohrabacher, on February 6, about immigration reform, she received a response she likely didn’t expect.  She told Rohrabacher that she, a college student, was an undocumented American applying for continuing legal status under the DREAM act. Congressman Rohrabacher replied angrily that he hates illegals.  He pointed a finger at Jessica, saying, “Who are you, that you think you are so important?” He asked if she had signed in at his office with her address. She said yes, and he quipped back, “Now I know where you live!”
     In an online article, Bravo declared who she believes she is with these words: Who am I? I am a person who the president of the United States and even members of Rep. Rohrabacher’s own party think should be given a chance at citizenship…I believe that every person is created in God’s image with dignity and unique worth…. I believe in American values of hard work, improving yourself through education and serving your community. But most of all I am a human being — not “an illegal” and not an “alien.” I am a person, and no matter how vigorously you disagree with me I deserve to be treated like one. I am ready and willing to try this meeting again, and I am praying for the congressman to have a change of heart.”   
     In light of Jessica Bravo’s response to her congressman, I was thinking about my favorite verse from this week’s Torah reading, Exodus Chapter 25 Verse 8: VA-ASU LI MIKDASH, V’SHACHANTI B’TOCHAM. Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them – or in their midst.  The “I” in the verse is God, and the question is, “What does it mean to have God dwelling among us?”   I believe that God dwells among us when we see ourselves and other  people with a divine lens.   That is just what Jessica Bravo suggested – she wants to be seen as a human being, created in God’s image.  She wanted to be treated with respect.  When we adopt God’s lens vantage point, we might begin to see more clearly and focus on the strengths of the people around us, rather than dwelling on their faults and limitations.  We would put into practice the saying of the rabbis in Pirkei Avot – Find yourself a teacher, get yourself a study partner/colleague/friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt – think about them as positively as possible.     That is truly the beginning of human equality.  And it is when we reach that goal that our sanctuary, and our community, and the world, truly could be called MIKDASH, a zone of holiness, in which God dwells among us.  May we adopt the vision that will continue to enable us to see the divine in each other.  And let us say Amen. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Prayer offered at a meeting with Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima and CAFĂ© (Communities in Action and Fatih) in support of New Mexico Senate Bill 1 – The Mortgage Fair Foreclosure Act. February 14, 2013

Eternal One, Creator and Sustainer of us all,
We read in Deuteronomy that we should write
Your teachings
On the doorposts of our house and upon our gates.
What is written upon the doorways of our homes
and inside them
includes our lives, our history, our routines and our love.
The preceding verse in Deuteronomy commands us to bind God’s words as a sign upon our hands and to set them as a symbol between our eyes.
May we see, before our eyes, a vision of people who are facing challenges in their homes – and may financial institutions and government begin to understand how people have made those homes their own and why they deserve to remain in them.
Binding God’s words on our hands can lead us to join hands in community and to urge financial institutions and government to act on behalf of all who need our help.   May we offer our support as we move forward on this path.

(An after-the-fact version of a spontaneous prayer)

Monday, February 11, 2013

On raising the minimum wages in New Mexico- remarks on Feb. 11, 2013 to the Las Cruces City Council

 I was studying an ancient text today called Pirkei Avot, the wisdom of the sage, a collection of sayings of the rabbis of 1700-2000 years ago.   One of the sayings that I came upon this morning in my preparations for a class at Temple are relevant for this discussion. 
It is likely that you may have heard the word “tithe,” which means, literally, to set aside a tenth of what you earn for charitable and, even holy purposes.  Jacob Neusner, a professor who wrote the book from which I was studying, asked, “When you give away a tenth of the money you  earn in order to help someone else and your community, are you richer or poorer?   On the one hand, you could say you are poorer, because of the mere fact that you have less money.  But since when do we think about rich and poor only in terms of money?  Neusner concluded that when there is a higher purpose for giving, you are actually richer for what you have done.
    I was reading about the annual salary amount that results from minimum wage – where the conclusion was that such a salary would still put the employee below the poverty level if that was the only job he or she worked.  Does that approach – of an employer or a society – make us rich or poor?   

The Bible teaches that an employer should treat an employee with respect and provide for his or her needs.   Not only the bible – but human decency – demands that such principles be at the basis of what we do.   I urge you to include this approach to human values in your deliberations. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Understanding Our World - Considering Theory and Faith - February 5, 2013 (in solidarity with Evolution Sabbath 2013)

 Many of the letters and statements throughout the United States regarding the teaching of evolution in our schools still do not fully explored the roles of science and religion in our lives. Some of those statements see both science and religion as ends, set bodies of knowledge and truth.
 Perhaps both of these perspectives primarily provide us with valuable means for understanding life and the universe around us.
   Science is a method of inquiry, a process of learning from observation. It is about gathering information and trying to describe what is. The scientific method involves stating a hypothesis and designing an experiment to test the hypothesis which could be repeated by others at a later time.
    Space program physicist Andrew Goldfinger, an Orthodox Jew, wrote about the relationship between science and religion in his book, Thinking about Creation. Goldfinger said that conscientious scientists don't speak of learning the truth, because theories have been known to collapse suddenly in the face of one more experiment. Yet, no scientific explanation should be referred to as "just a theory" when it is part of an attempt to better understand the physical world and how it works.
    With regard to understanding the nature of the Earth's formation and distant past, Goldfinger claims that the best scientists can do is to observe the state of the universe and to develop theories that can be projected or extrapolated backward in time.
  Religion takes a different approach to explaining and dealing with our existence. Religion offers us a moral compass. It tells us what ought to be and what we ought to do to improve the world. It is about using poetry, metaphor and prayer as a means to express wonder and gratitude. For example, my tradition provides me with blessings to recite when I see a rainbow (praising God who keeps promises and remembers covenants), a comet (praising God as the source of creation) and the ocean (praising God who made great seas). Many of the Psalms similarly voice amazement at the world and all that is in it. The story of creation in Genesis can fulfill that purpose as well.
    One truth in this controversy is that people throughout the world interpret sacred texts in a variety of ways. Those who totally agree with creationism usually take a literal approach to the Bible. Yet, there are Jews and Christians who have, for centuries, searched for and discovered deeper meanings in a text, even in the story of creation.
    In my heritage of biblical study, it is suggested that the first two chapters of Genesis teach that there is order in the universe, that creation is a process, and that we are God's partners in maintaining creation. Other religions may take similar approaches to their own stories of how the world came to be. This diversity of interpretation and the presence of many religions in our nation are the very reasons why Bible study belongs at home and within faith communities, or as a subject for interfaith discussion groups. 
     Each religious group, not the public schools, should have the primary responsibility to explain and interpret its own beliefs. In public schools, classes in literature, philosophy, history or comparative religion might appropriately teach about stories from various faith groups. However, teaching creation as science would move it out of the realm of poetry, wonder and gratitude and into a discipline where it does not belong.
     Many people have suggested that this supposed conflict between science and religion is likely a political struggle for control, power and authority.  Some people may feel a need to see external symbols of their faith displayed and to hear their particular beliefs declared not only in their homes and houses of worship, but in other public places as well.
     I tell my congregants that the most important place to keep God is within their hearts, hopes and prayers. Putting issues related to God and religion in the midst of this conflict does nothing to express our sense of wonder and gratitude for the gifts of the world and our very existence.
     Science will continue to serve as a means to explain what is and how we came to be. Religion at its best will continue to offer us a means to discover the paths that will lead us to become who we ought to be. Many religious believers and scientists will allow both their search for what is and their quest for what ought to be to guide the process of personal growth and change that is the very foundation of our lives. May we continue to use the best means available to us to evolve into the best human beings we can possibly become.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Light and Love - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Newsletter Article - February 1, 2013

“Eternal God, Creator and Sustainer of us all, we thank you for this opportunity to come together as a community. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness- only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred- only love can do that.’ May the steps we take today bring light and love to our community in the months and years to come.”
        Those were the words I spoke when I was asked to offer a prayer to begin the Dona Ana NAACP march on January 20 to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.    Over 100 people had gathered for the event, including Mayor Miyagishima, state and national NAACP leaders, members of New Mexico Americorps and the Border Servant Corps, and many local citizens.    I delivered the prayer through a megaphone (see photo), in much the same way as some speakers at the Civil Rights rallies of the 1960s did (at that moment, the image also flashed in my mind of law enforcement officials who used megaphones to forcibly control Civil Rights demonstrators).   On this day, we marched together along a portion of Main Street in downtown Las Cruces, rich in our diversity and confident in our steps.   At the conclusion of the march, we all took part in a responsive reading of a portion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in English and Spanish.   That was appropriate for this community, but, even more, it highlighted the universality of Dr. King’s message from 1963, still poignant and meaningful in 2013.    The next morning, I delivered the benediction at the NAACP’s Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday breakfast.  Right after I was finished, television screens provided enabled those who remained after the event to watch President Obama deliver his second inaugural address, including his declaration that “our journey is not complete.”
    For us at Temple Beth-El, we know that our journey is not complete.   We know that we need to march into the future with a sense of unity and hope.   As with the march on January 20, our steps forward should bring us light and love.   What does that mean for us?    “Light” can mean new ways of thinking about how we can give to the congregation, and developing new programs that will include all of us and the greater community. “Light” can mean being open to listening to each other when we speak, and making sure that what we say shares the best of our wisdom.   “Love” can mean engendering a feeling of closeness with each other, offering words of kindness or comfort at the right moment, and respecting the privacy of others when necessary.  “Love” can mean finding ways to state our opinions in a way that is respectful, clear enough to make the point but measured enough that the words will be taken as supportive and helpful.  
     In Pirkei Avot/Wisdom of the Sages, Rabbi Joshua ben Perachya said, “Find yourself a teacher, get yourself a colleague/friend/study partner to sound out ideas and thoughts with you, and, when you judge others, give them the benefit of the doubt.”    In a congregation or community, we have the opportunity to see everyone as a potential teacher because of his or her own experiences and expertise.    When we learn from each other, we become like colleagues, study partners, and perhaps, friends.    The saying says, though, that we need to “get” a teacher and “find” a colleague/friend.  Rabbi Joshua taught that we should not sit back and wait.  It is up to each of us to do the engaging, to take a first step, or even a risk, to share our ideas with humility and openness and to listen to others in that same spirit.   Once we get to know our fellow congregants and community members, we will begin to understand their personalities and learn a little about what is going on in their lives that might require us to offer them “space,” understanding or counsel.   We also need to be aware of how our own words or actions might sometimes lead to misunderstanding, where the Jewish values of repentance and forgiveness can guide our path towards maintaining positive relationships with the people with whom we pray, study, socialize and work to make our community a better place.
     So may we be teachers and partners who offer wisdom, understanding and support to one another so that the steps we do take together will bring light and love to our Beth-El, the house/abode of the Eternal.