Thursday, May 16, 2013

Harmony, serenity, wholeness and fairness - defining Peace - May 16, 2013

The final word of the priestly blessing in Numbers Chapter 6 is SHALOM – peace.”

  At the Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Board of Trustees meeting tonight, I asked the members to share what peace means to them.   Here are their responses (which include mine as well):
  • A state of bliss
  • Mutual respect among people
  • An absence of disharmony
  • Serenity
  • A feeling of contentment and overall satisfaction with where you/your family are at a certain point in time
  • A sense of contentment with who you are and your place in the world
  • An absence of overt hostilities
  • Completeness/wholeness
  • Being alone on a hillside, watching the sunset.
  • A feeling of well-being and harmony with the world.
  • An absence of strife, internal and external
  • The possibility of resolving any conflicts that arise so that disputes do not grow into greater conflict or war
  • All members of society living amicably (external)
  • To be calm inside and be able to express your feelings (internal)
  • The outgrowth/result of a just society, when people feel they are treated fairly.
  • The calm inside, within and between
How would you define peace?  

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Recipe for Being a Welcoming Community - Shavuot Morning - May 15, 2013

On Shavuot morning on May 15, 2013, I gave a presentation to the Temple Beth-El of Las Cruces Wednesday breakfast on “The Book of Ruth and what it teaches us about being welcoming.” Yes, it was a long title, but it was an important topic. This scroll assigned to Shavuot told the story of a family leaving a community, going to another, and then, due to unforeseen tragic circumstances, moving again, this time with a new family member who would become a focal point of commitment…and kindness.
     We began our discussion by enumerating how many different places we had lived.  I had counted 15 for myself (moving from one dormitory room to another was still a move because it was a change in living quarters). Some people in the group had lived in as few as five places, while others had lived in over 20 different residences over their lifetime.  We linked our own movement to that of Naomi and, eventually, her daughter-in-law Ruth.   I then asked about what it takes to be welcoming.  What should our attitude be to newcomers and guests?  What should we do for them?   Here is our list:
·     Be open to people.
·     Ask what you can do for them.
·     Offer assistance.
·     Invite guest/newcomers to your home.
·     Offer them food and drink.
·     Provide information about the congregation/community.
·     Be friendly.
·     Show compassion/be a good listener.
·     Be open-minded, inclusive and non-judgmental.
·     Treat them with kindness. 
·     Show an interest in them: their lives, their stories, and their hopes for living in this new community. 

As we discussed the main elements of the story of Ruth, we noted how Boaz, who had “gotten wind” of Ruth’s commitment to her mother-in-law, had formed an “assessment” of Ruth as someone who was loyal, kind, thoughtful, selfless, strong, and committed to family.   We discussed how Naomi had said, when her situation was at its worst, “call me Mara/bitter one,” a reflection of the stresses of moving from one place, where she had experienced the deaths of family members, back to her home community, with no reassurance that her life would improve.   Yet, Naomi exuded a rekindled spirit when she learned that Ruth had gone to glean in the field her husband’s relative, Boaz.   During the course of our discussion, we specifically recognized Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi (because she did not leave her side) and to Boaz (because she paid back his kindness to her, a “foreigner”--in her own words—with what was essentially a marriage proposal). 
    We concluded our discussion by reviewing our “recipe for welcoming” in relation to the book of Ruth. One character or another in the story had offered an example of every item on our list.   Between Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, there was much to learn about opening our hearts and even our homes to someone new to our community.
   In the book of Ruth, acts of kindness and openness led to the marriage between Ruth and Boaz that, in turn, made possible the birth of King David several generations in the future.   That passage reminds us that every person who walks through the doors of our congregation to visit, to learn about the community or to join is important.  We never know where a conversation with a newcomer might lead, or how our hand extended in a warm welcome could make a difference.  Pirkei Avot teaches us, “there is no one who doesn’t have his or her time, and there is no thing that doesn’t have its place.”  May this story, and the values it teaches, lead us to see the significance of every human being, both those who are living among us now and those who are yet to come. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Prayer for CAFe of Southern New Mexico (Communities in Action and Faith) Vigil for Citizenship - May 10, 2013

 Eternal One, Creator and Sustainer of us all

We are grateful for the opportunity
To be together
To Stand together
To make our voices heard.
On this morning, the words of the book of Leviticus
Reverberate in our minds and hearts
And they should resonate in the halls of Congress
As senators and representatives deliberate on
Immigration reform and a path to citizenship
for 11 million aspiring Americans who want to officially
Be acknowledged as members of our national community.
Those words from Leviticus to which I refer declare
If we love and respect aspiring citizens,
We will provide them with a timely path to citizenship. 
We will not separate them from their loved ones by arbitrary, impersonal and heartless deportations.
We will welcome them with open arms as our ancestors were welcomed when immigration was encouraged to strengthen our community. 
For too many people, love and respect have turned to fear – fear of the unknown, fear of the stranger, and, on the part of some Congressional representatives, including our own Representative Peace, fear that TOO many people will want to enter our country and overpopulate our land.
In the words of one Jewish popular songwriter, Neal Sedaka,
 who reflected in one song on his own family’s immigration to this country, THERE WAS A TIME WHEN STRANGERS WERE WELCOME HERE.
It is time to open our arms – our hearts – with reasonable standards  - with shorter timetables – to let those people – those children of God – who want to be members of our communities JOIN US in our land of freedom as full citizens.
We read in Leviticus that welcoming the stranger – not oppressing the stranger – is a holy act.
Eternal One, lead us to holiness, to hope as we grow in love and respect for each other.   And let us say amen.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Surrounding an island of fear with a sea of acceptance - Reflections on Diversity - May 5, 2013

       My wife Rhonda and I participated on a panel discussing diversity at a library in a nearby city this past weekend.  We and the other panelists were honored to share our perspectives on libraries and how they help to open up worlds of information about our existence for readers and through discussion of important books.   

       We expected the discussion to be about the topic at hand, and it was a very positive and wide-ranging conversation.  That is, until one person challenged whether or not the event should have happened at all at that library.   Her comments during the event were a departure from the questions asked by the majority of those present.   She was concerned about drawing attention to “diversity” in any way.    Her attempt to redirect the discussion to her viewpoint succeeded only briefly.  Everyone wanted to get back to what we all came to discuss. 
      I felt that I had to speak with her afterwards and thank her for coming.  Yet, in our conversation, she…
·    Accused me of feeling superior because I was seated on the panel in the front of the room and that I was, therefore, necessarily “talking down” to her.
·    Implied that I had nothing to teach her because I was from somewhere else. 
·    Was taken aback when I asked her name, then mocked me for asking as I walked away.  I did go back to continue the conversation.
·    Told me what she meant during the program when she asked, “Where is this discussion going?”  She claimed that the goal of the event was to place inappropriate material on display in the library because “it had happened in Colorado” and it had been attempted in that library as well.  I was told later that her claim was untrue.
·    Objected to tables in the room bearing books on various topics related to diversity, marked with signs defining the materials as dealing with cultural, religious, sexual/gender and ethnic differences.  When I told her that such a display was merely a mirror of reality, she snapped back that WE on the panel were defining diversity to leave HER out.  Of course, the categories of cultural, religious, ethnic, and gender difference included her. 
     Most people gathered at the event responded to this challenge with grace. One audience member spoke about God’s love.  Another attendee reiterated the widely-held religious belief that all are created in the divine image. I quoted Psalm 133,  “How good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity,” noting that this sentiment should be our basis for wanting to understand each other. 
       I felt that this woman, a community leader, behaved towards me and my fellow panelists with inhospitality, hostility, disrespect. She made me feel unwelcome, a stranger.  She besmirched herself and, by extension, the community which she claims to represent.  She was in a room of people, however, who felt differently, who realize that diversity doesn’t mean that we have to agree, but that we do have a responsibility to listen and, if we are able, to disagree agreeably.  
     I have been the rabbi of congregations for many years with members who hold a wide range of political views and diverse positions on issue of the day.  I believe in carrying on lively conversations with congregants while still taking stands on issues that I consider crucial for the well-being of our society.
     Fortunately, the fear in that room was a small island in a sea of acceptance and a desire for mutual understanding.   It was a learning experience far beyond what I imagined it would be.  It reminded me that open-mindedness, agreeable disagreement and genuine dialogue, while affirming one another’s humanity, are essential to creating and sustaining a peaceful community.  I continue to have faith that we are up to the task. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Rabbi's Annual Message for Temple Beth-El of Las Cruces, NM - April 30, 2013


Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam she-asani b’tzelem Elohim - Blessed are You, Eternal One, Sovereign of the Universe, who made me in the image of God. In any congregation, this blessing expresses our basis for shaping relationships and community.    In his recent article, “Is American nonviolence possible?” Clemson University professor Todd May lamented that violence, self-interest and a desire to control and “win” permeate our nation to a point of a lack of concern for the welfare and humanity of others.    May presented a more peaceful approach regarding how people can relate to one another with better results. He said, “We must understand first that nonviolence is not passivity.   It is instead creative activity that takes place within particular limits….those limits are the recognition of others as fellow human beings...worthy of our respect, bearers of dignity in their own right.”  
     This is where we can and, often do begin at Temple Beth-El.  Each of us is created in the image of God and it is our ongoing task to recognize the spark of God in one another. That places upon us a moral responsibility to be patient, compassionate, kind, understanding, to the point where the words “love your neighbor as yourself” reverberate in our minds and our hearts within every interaction in which we engage as fellow human beings and fellow congregants.      
    So we are all partners with God and with each other.  I value, enjoy and relish my partnerships that chart the course of Temple life with the Board of Trustees, the Religious Practices Committee, the Religious School Committee, the Adult Education Committee, the Social Action Committee, Temple Beth-El Sisterhood,  Mensch Club, Beth-El Temple Youth, our Religious School faculty, our planners and participants in our now annual “Night with Judaism” AND with all of you!  In our new “Sharing our Stories” series, I have enjoyed listening to congregants  discuss their life journeys and the values they prize.   This past Shabbat morning, each congregant present recounted a special memory of celebrating Shabbat.   On Sunday, Religious School parents who had gathered to discuss future programming each stated a principle that they learned at home that continues to permeate their lives. Temple Beth-El is a place where we do discuss the essence of our lives with our tradition serving as our guide as we infuse each moment with meaning.
     Throughout this year, a number of us have met on Monday evenings to explore the gems of rabbinic insights contained in Pirkei Avot, the sayings of the founders and sages of Judaism going back nearly 2000 years. Many of us know that these time-honored teachings touch upon every aspect of life.   There is one saying from Rabbi Shimon Ben Zoma that, I believe, can serve us well as a guide for creating a caring and close community. He stated,  “Who is wise?  One who learns from everyone.  Who is mighty? One who controls his or her passions.  Who is rich? One who is happy with what he or she has.  Who is honored? One who honors others.”    
     The first part of Ben Zoma’s saying claims that it is one who learns from everyone who is truly wise, adding, as support, this quote from Psalm 119: “From all who would teach me I would gain understanding.”  In our study and discussions, there is so much that I learn from listening to your perspectives.  While I always meticulously prepare for the sessions I teach, it is really what you add that gives each discussion its depth and character. It is impressive to hear members of the Wednesday breakfast group speak about their areas of knowledge and expertise.  It is a m’chayeh, a live-giving joy, to note how each member of the Tanakh study group brings a unique understanding to ancient texts.   In fact, I view every conversation with anyone at any age as an opportunity to learn something new.  Ben Zoma reminded us and I agree that we reach our greatest potential to be wise when we simply listen and soak in the words of our fellow community members.
      Ben Zoma further declared: Who is mighty? One who control's one's passions.” He quoted the book of Proverbs to further his point: “One who is slow  to anger is better than one who rule's one's spirit and conquers a city.” Showing patience is still very much a virtue and even a personal victory.  Two books from the Harvard  Negotiation project, Getting to Yes and Getting Past No, suggest that, before we enter into a significant meeting with a large group or even with just one person, we should "go to the  balcony". That is, we should imagine that we are looking down at ourselves during that meeting and considering how we would want to see ourselves behave at our best. That “best practice” might include constructive criticism that supports the other person’s heartfelt efforts,  putting yourself in the place of the other person to try to understand his or her actions, and asking how you can help in  the future. As human beings, we have the possibility for great achievement, but we are not perfect – not yet, anyway. And imperfections, mistakes, and surprises lie at the very foundation of the humor that emerges from Jewish community and culture. We know how to embrace moments that don’t go the way we expected, turning them into something positive.  I tell Bar and Bat Mitzvah students and parents before their special celebration,  "Do the best you can to make this service go well, but even if it’s not absolutely perfect, what’s most important is that you make your simchah meaningful and memorable." The same goes for most everything we do in the course of our time spent together at Temple.
     Ben Zoma said in Pirkei Avot: Who is rich? One who is happy with what one has.  A quick anecdote: With two sets of families unable to attend training wheels on April 21 that were going to lead the session, I told the parent who ended up in charge for the day, "there is always a good result from using the talent available right at the moment- whatever  you do will be great!"  And it was!   At last Friday night's service, the  congregation was given the task of leading its own responsive reading, with  those on one side beginning and the other side responding.  When we came to  Shalom Rav, I sang harmony as the congregation sang the melody beautifully.  Each person who attends our Shabbat morning services has the chance to lead at least one prayer or reading.  At all sorts of gatherings at Temple, we enrich each other with our wealth of knowledge, ability, creativity and talent.  All that we need is often right here among us.   We also learn about being happy with what we have by sharing with those in need.   Our ongoing contributions and special donations offered to Casa de Peregrinos, the El Caldito Soup Kitchen, Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary and other organizations enable us to fulfill the mitzvah of giving Tzedakah and performing GMILUT CHASADIM, deeds of kindness.  Turkeys from Temple Teens and the December 25 Breakfast at Camp Hope were projects of generosity deeply rooted in our faith.   Our participation with CAFÉ, Communities in Action and Faith, of Southern New Mexico provides our congregation with a valuable avenue for putting into practice the timeless prophetic values of our heritage.
     Shimon Ben Zoma concluded his saying with this teaching: Who is honored? One who honors others, as it was said by God in the book of First Samuel, "I will honor those who honor Me.”  The medieval commentator Rashi explained that if God will honor those who honor God, then how much more fitting it is that we human beings should honor those who honor  us.   Giving honor to others means saying thank you to someone who completes even a small task.  That would naturally motivate us to thank those who lead a larger or more ambitious project or program.   In congregational and community life, we should accept honor as it comes. It may not come when we might expect, or in the form we anticipated, but it will come, especially if the honor you have shown others has been heartfelt and genuine and respectful.
    If you haven’t already done so, take a moment to look at the posters featuring photos and articles about our many Temple activities and programs held over the last year.  Peer into the faces in the photographs – find yourselves – know that your presence as part of the Temple community makes a difference.  Each of us adds something special to this congregation, and, together, we can be a source of blessing.  People from the greater Las Cruces community who have attended programs at Temple gain a sense of warmth and enrichment from being with us.   We often do just that for each other.
     A warm thank you to Mel Taylor for leading the congregation this year.  Our conversations, Mel, during your tenure, naturally flowed from discussions that we had already begun before you had any inkling you would be taking on this leadership position.  You have successfully served as President while being true to yourself, doing all  you could to set an example of balance, fairness, and dedication with an appropriate dose of much-needed laughter.  I know that Dia has strongly supported you over this last year and kept you grounded when you needed it most.   Rhonda, as always, you are a source of strength, insight, support, love, caring and creativity, and a sounding board not just for me but for many members of this congregation and community.  And to our son Adam, whom we hope all of you will get to know more in the coming years, both Rhonda and I appreciate words of wisdom and support that he offers from New York City that nurtures us and, in turn, everyone at Temple. 
    We began tonight with a blessing that acknowledges our common humanity.  Let us conclude with the words we know so well that express our joy and hope at times of new beginnings: BARUCH ATAH ADONAI ELOHEINU MELECH HAOLAM SHEHECHEYANU V’KIY’MANU V’HIGIYANU LAZMAN HAZEH.  Blessed are You, our Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, who keeps us alive, sustains us, and brings us to new vistas that we will face together with the shared vision of an all-encompassing presence and Oneness leading and inspiring us along our continuing journey.   And let us say Amen.