Saturday, June 29, 2013

Thoughts on the Torah portion/parashah Pinchas that emerged during our worship this weekend in light of this week’s Supreme Court Decisions and other legislative developments around the country – June 29, 2013

·     The daughters of Tzelophchad came forward to assert their rights of inheritance after their father died. Given that they had no brothers, they were, at first, denied that right to be their father’s heirs.  They realized that, if they didn’t speak up, no one else was going to advocate for them.  Their plea was called just and they were granted their rights.   Their confident approach serves as a powerful reminder to stand up for what we believe, and to continue taking that stand openly and bravely.  Rights are not gained and/or preserved without vigilance, even when societal sea changes may make it seem that the tide has turned too far to realize one’s goal.  This effort is not only about rights.  It is about being a responsible citizen, which may entail reminding fellow citizens that what you want will not take anything away from them.
·     Moses asked God to appoint a new leader for the Israelites so that the people would not be as “sheep without a shepherd.”  In our Shabbat morning discussion, we suggested that “sheep” might signify those who blindly follow the positions of others, or, it might also refer to people who take their own positions only after weighing various perspectives and viewpoints.  We agreed that the most important aspect of being a “sheep” or a “shepherd” is having the ability to question, to contemplate, to consider, and to gradually develop a personal stance on an issue.   We should express ourselves using our own words, not simply repeating what we heard on the radio or television or read in social media.   

·     Our translation from the Jewish Publication Society (in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition from the URJ Press) translated the word TZIVITA, which usually means “command,” as “commission.”   We wondered if this might be related to the role that Joshua, Moses’ successor, would fulfill as a military commander.  We noted that the word also refers to a particular mission of a nation, people or faith group.   What I would hope, after this week, is that we find ways to come together in developing a mission in which many people can share, even when there is disagreement.   Perhaps that mission could include considering all human beings as created in the divine image and allowing laws to bend enough to treat others with dignity and respect.   I would not expect this only of the nine justices serving on the Supreme Court, or state or national senators and representatives.   It is up to each of us.   May we follow such a path with a generosity of spirit and an acknowledgement of the Oneness that ultimately unites us all. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Better View - A Meditation for Parashat Balak - June 21, 2013

How good are your tents, O Jacob;
Your dwellings, O Israel!
So the foreign prophet Balaam proclaimed
As he gazed down upon the Israelites
Encamped as one people.
Called upon to curse them for Balak,
The King of Moab,
Balaam could only utter words of blessing.
What if our speech was so directed
By similar inspiration?
What if we only saw 
The good before us
And in each other?
Would challenge, conflict, and disagreement
Most likely, difficulties in our lives would remain
But the ways in which we would face unexpected changes,  negativism, and unfounded pessimism might be greatly different.
Before us, we would see, instead
New opportunities that would test our patience and courage,
A fresh approach on how we define goodness and satisfaction each day,
And reasons to embrace hope at all times,
Knowing that we can turn to one another for the strength to face new vistas together.
Balaam said of the Israelites:  “Blessed are those who bless you!”
May we see that when we find b’rachah, blessing, in ourselves, and in our fellow community members, our tents will be good and our dwellings places will emanate SHALOM,  wholeness and peace.  

Friday, June 14, 2013

Opening the Borders of our Hearts - D'var Torah - Parashat Chukat - June 14, 2013

 Shabbat Shalom!  I  want to begin by sharing two stories from this week’s news that relate to the Torah reading from Chukat in the book of Numbers.  First, we will examine the contemporary examples, and then then we will look at the Torah reading.
     Before Game three of the NBA Finals this week, San Antonio native Sebastien de la Cruz, a celebrated competitor in last year’s America’s Got Talent, sang the national anthem.  He was wearing a mariachi outfit, but, after all, 63% of San Antonio citizens are Latino.   Some of the immediate responses on twitter to Sebastien’s appearance  were full of prejudice and racism, exemplified by this one:  “This kid is Mexican - why is he singing the national anthem?” That user added the twitter hashtags: #yournotamerican #gohome.”  Because of this reaction, the San Antonio Spurs asked Sebastien to sing the National anthem again last night before Game 4.  On Good Morning America on ABC this morning, Sebastien responded to his detractors with an incredible amount of class.  He said, “To the people that do have hatred in their hearts, I just want to tell them that they should think before they say things.”
     A second story from the news this week comes from Israel. Times of Israel reported the story of Nadrah, a four-year old girl from Syria whose heart had only a single ventricle.  It wasn’t expected that she would survive past her 18th birthday.  She received surgery and follow-up treatment in Israel.  Her 8 month pregnant mother had accompanied her.  This opportunity for treatment was made possible by Shevet Achim, an Israel-based Christian organization that has been arranging for Palestinian, Jordanian, Kurdish and now Syrian children to come to Israel for almost two decades to undergo life-saving heart surgery.
   Among Nadrah’s visitors at the hospital was Meir Hazan, a Syrian Jew who left his home at the age of 17.  He introduced himself to Nadrah and her mother Raha as “Abu Salim,” his name from his childhood. They were afraid that he was one of Bashar Assad’s intelligence agents looking for them.  Hazan explained that he was, simply, a native Syrian Jew who left for greater freedom in Israel. Hazan spoke later about his visit with Nadrah:  “She told me, ‘In Syria people are slaughtering each other, but you came here to visit another Syrian you don’t know, and there is no hatred in your eyes.’”
     Hazan had initially wanted to take the family for a drive to a local Syrian restaurant, but Nadrah’s health wouldn’t allow it. Luckily, in the Syrian tradition, he had prepared kubbeh, tabbouleh, pickled vegetables and other Syrian foods for them, and set them out in the hospital room. . The success of Nadrah’s experience has opened up the possibility for other Syrian children needing heart surgery to come to Israel in the future.  
     And meanwhile, in Syria, it is likely that any group that the United States or any other nation would back would eventually commit some minor or major atrocity or massacre against another group or village, be it Christian or Muslim.
      The Torah reading for this week described the request of the Israelites to peacefully pass through the territory of the Edomites.  They told their story of oppression and their flight to freedom in their plea to the people of Edom. The Israelites promised to pay for any natural resources they might use.   The Edomites, however, responded with verbal refusals at first, and, finally, by sending out an army to be sure that the Israelites would take another route.  
     This passage reminds me of the closed hearts of those who tweeted hateful statements about Sebastien de la Cruz. 
  It makes me think of the ill-fated journey of the St. Louis, the ship with over 938 Jewish passengers on board on its 1939 voyage.   Bound for Havana, Cuba, the St. Louis arrived at its destination, but the 908 passengers who had no valid American or Cuban visas or passports were not allowed to disembark.  Later, the ship set sail for Miami and was turned away by the United States Coast Guard.  All the passengers returned to Europe, receiving permission to settle in a variety of countries.
   The response of the Edomites can relate to times when people close their hearts towards fellow human beings who are in need of help, or support, or refuge.  
    The Edomite approach calls to mind times when individuals or groups judge others only through their own eyes, rather than trying to empathize with those whom they judge in order to truly understand their situation.
  Those who supported Sebastien de la Cruz against an onslaught of hatred, and everyone who helped Nadrah from Syria through her experience of healing and hope, exemplify the best of the human spirit – as expressed by the reading in our prayerbook: 
“May the door of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship.  May it welcome all who have cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture.  May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.  May its threshold be no stumbling block to young or straying feet.  May it be too high to admit complacency, selfishness and harshness.”
And may the words of Torah that we read tonight inspire us, as members of the human family, to keep our attitudes and our hearts open to all who would journey our way. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Going up...with a song on our lips - reflections on 32 years in the rabbinate - June 6, 2013

      “Let us by all means go up!”  
    These were the words of the scout Caleb, who, along with his fellow scout, Joshua, brought back to the Israelites a positive report about the land of Canaan.   Numbers Chapters 13 and 14 recounted that the Israelites greeted their optimism with fear and reproach.   It was easier for the masses to believe the pessimistic majority report of ten of the scouts than it was to realize their own potential for success.  “The Israelites did “go up,” but only much, much later than they should have, and only when they truly knew what it meant to be free.   
      “Going up” can refer to facing many types of challenges in our lives.  32 years ago today, I ascended the bimah of Cincinnati’s Plum Street Temple, first to sing Bonia Shur’s melodies for the prayers of the Torah service, and, later, to be ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion President Alfred Gottschalk. That “going up” was the first step in my rabbinic journey, which officially began, for me, when I served for three years as assistant rabbi at Temple Israel in Dayton, Ohio.   While I said in my interview with Temple Israel’s search committee that “I didn’t necessarily need to be known as the ‘singing rabbi,’” I was on the bimah with my guitar three weeks into my rabbinate. That rabbi-guitar partnership continues to this day.
     I don’t know if, back then, I fully realized what I was “getting into” as a rabbi.   This past week, I attended, for the 12th time, the Hava Nashira Songleaders’ workshop at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.  Our Thursday morning service on May 30 began our consideration of the story of the scouts’ travels in the land of Canaan.  During Torah study at breakfast on Shabbat morning (which I was privileged to facilitate), we first shared stories of times when we had to overcome hesitation or apprehension in order to do to something we had never done before.  Later, the Shabbat morning service offered each of us a chance to join in group aliyot based on aspects of this biblical tale.  I took part in two of the aliyot: one for those who had felt, at some point in recent months, like the ten scouts, who “considered themselves as grasshoppers in the view of the Canaanites and in their own eyes”; and another aliyah for those who had exhibited and maintained, at some point in the last year, the positive outlook of Caleb and Joshua, even when some community members doubted our goals or beliefs.    Both of those extremes, and everything in between, characterize the rabbinate.  My goal as a rabbi has always been to communicate personal values and vision, even in subtle ways, and to have community members learn by example from me and, mainly, from one another, so that we can “go up” and journey on together.
   Over the years, Hava Nashira has offered me and many rabbis, cantors, cantorial soloists, songleaders and Jewish educators an opportunity to “go up,” to approach and arrive at a place where we had never been before in terms of our own experiences and abilities.  At Hava Nashira, that can include teaching and leading music in front of talented, knowledgeable and, especially, supportive music colleagues.  “Going up” might mean leading a service or song session with the composer/songwriter sitting right in front of you, adding his or her voice to the mix.  It might mean singing an original song or a cherished favorite at a late-night coffeehouse, or presenting a new original melody for a particular prayer at a sharing session or during worship.   Many participants enjoy attending primarily to receive, to listen and to learn.   The Hava Nashira community maintains an ongoing online network that nurtures friendships, professional partnerships, and interconnections that impact all corners of the Jewish world.  As for me, Hava Nashira continues to infuse my rabbinate – and my soul - with a renewed enthusiasm for Jewish life and with a constant reminder of the power of communal song.

     As I wrote this reflection, someone I know shared this quote (here in slight paraphrase) on Facebook from poet/writer Roy Lessin: “Life’s an adventure, for we don’t know how God will direct us from where we stand now. We need only to trust God to show us the way, who will reveal it in love day by day.   I am grateful to my partners in this, my life’s adventure: my wife Rhonda; our son Adam; my brother and (rabbinic colleague) Steve and other family members; my classmates and other Jewish professional colleagues (rabbis, cantors, educators, soloists, songleaders, and many others); our many partners in enhancing Jewish life in Dayton (Ohio), Topeka (Kansas), Dover (New  Hampshire), and Las Cruces (New Mexico); the many members of the greater community with whom I have had the privilege of  creating common cause and mutual understanding; and my comrades in song both at “home” and at Hava Nashira, who have helped me make my rabbinate an ever-growing song to God and to the world.