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.