Wednesday, October 30, 2013

That Thanksgivukkah Spirit - Article for Temple Beth-El Adelante November 2013 Newsletter

     It’s not impossible, but it IS difficult, to avoid calling the beginning of Chanukah this year by its special, one-time name: THANKSGIVUKKAH!   Songs are being written about this intersection of our Festival of Lights and Thanksgiving Day that won’t happen for another 79,000 years.  For families who have ever exchanged Chanukah gifts or lit a chanukiah early because they were together at Thanksgiving, this year is just for you! We will light candles and share Chanukah ON TIME while we are enjoying a holiday at which Americans usually extend their hospitality to relatives, friends and neighbors for a commonly-expanded festive meal and celebration.   Perhaps sweet potato latkes are in order!

      On Friday, October 25, I led a discussion during our Shabbat service about Rebekah’s kindness and hospitality shown to Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, and the relationship of those values to the recently published study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews.”   Thanksgiving is actually a perfect illustration of what now seems to be the place of Jews in America.   Members of the Jewish community and Jewish households are generally comfortable and well-educated.  We experience much less anti-Semitism than in the past, while understanding that prejudice still exists and recognizing that incidents that reflect anti-Jewish bigotry still occur.  Less than half of American Jews belong to a congregation, and most of those who do belong are moving towards a Jewish life that offers more personal choice. “Essential” elements of being Jewish in America in 2013 include remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical/moral life, working for justice and equality, being intellectually curious, caring about Israel, and having a good sense of humor (!).   Jewish pride is at a high level both for those who practice Judaism as a religion and for those who see themselves as ethnically and culturally Jewish.  Most have a strong sense of belonging to the American Jewish community and feel that being Jewish is at least somewhat important in their lives.  The survey found that 7 in 10 take part in a Pesach seder, and 5 in 10 fast for all or part of Yom Kippur.  Ironically, this survey that demonstrates a comfort with American life did not, in this year of “Thanksgivukkah,” highlight a statistic about what percentage of American Jewish households light Chanukah candles. Based on past surveys of American Jews, it is likely somewhere around 8 in 10.   A wide range of beliefs about God exist now, with many noting that they see God as a “universal Spirit.”  About half of those surveyed know the Hebrew alphabet, and 13% understand most of the words they read in Hebrew.  

    This “Portrait of American Jews” tells us who we are, and hints at who we can be, especially when it speaks of morality, justice, equality, intellectual curiosity, remembrance, belonging, pride, and even humor.  Even more, we can learn a lesson about “who we can be” from the hospitality and generosity of spirit shown by Rebekah to Abraham’s servant in giving him water to drink after his journey and then, without being asked, offering to give water to his camels.  Rebekah acted quickly, just as Abraham, Sarah and their servants had done before, when three mysterious messengers visited them to make an unexpected announcement that Sarah was expecting.   The Pew survey says, in many ways, that we need to be welcoming, and non-judgmental, as much as possible, if we want to grow as a thriving and vital community.  

    Thanksgiving and Chanukah both offer us the perfect opportunity to be grateful for our freedom, for all that we have, for family, for the gifts of friendship and true kindness (CHESED VE-EMET, as demonstrated by Rebekah), and for the beauty and bounty of nature.   When I used to speak about the Jewish holidays on my Youth Group panel that informed church groups about Judaism, I made a link between Thanksgiving and Sukkot as both showing gratitude for a bountiful harvest.  The book of Second Maccabees (in the Apocrypha) suggested that the first Chanukah celebration was a “late Sukkot” once the Temple had been cleansed and rededicated.   So, if Chanukah is related to Sukkot, and Sukkot is related to Thanksgiving, then a Chanukah/Thanksgiving connection has always been possible!

    May we celebrate both Thanksgiving and Chanukah this year with pride, with joy, with gratitude for all that we have, and with a sense that those lights that we light every year will continue to be holy and special for all of us, individually and together!   So have a happy Thanksgiving…..Chanukah and….Thanksgivukkah!      

Monday, October 7, 2013

In our image and likeness - message on Installation Shabbat at Temple Beth-El of Las Cruces - September 27, 2013

     The Hebrew word TZELEM first appears in the Torah in this week’s portion, B'RAYSHEET. 
·       In the ancient Near East, the ruler of a nation was often described as the TZELEM, the image or likeness of a god.   A ruler gained the respect of the people by being singled out as more than a mere mortal. 
·       TZELEM was the term assigned to visible symbols of gods of other peoples, such as idols portraying the sun, moon or very unusual looking creatures. 
·       Yet, TZELEM also described a unique quality that God didn’t give only to sovereign leaders of nations.  God made humanity in the TZELEM of ELOHIM.
·       The great rabbi Akiba said 1900 years ago – CHAVIV ADAM – BELOVED IS HUMANITY – SHENIVRA B’TZELEM ELOHIM – WHO WAS CREATED IN THE DIVINE IMAGE.  God’s TZELEM rested upon every single person, not just upon earthly rulers. We human beings, created in the TZELEM or image of God, are visible signs or reflections of elements in the formation of the universe.  
·       The divine TZELEM or image might be reflected in the essence of our character, or it may be what links us to the vast web of connections within creation. 
·       The Torah and Jewish tradition further teach that we transmit a TZELEM, an image, from one generation to the next.  In Genesis Chapter 5, verse 3, it states that, “When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth.”  The stamp of the divine image, be it spiritual, intellectual, emotional, or even, in some way, physical, resting upon us, is like the image or TZELEM that parents pass to their children in the form of characteristics that are shared either by nature or by nurture.  
·       I believe that a congregation also has a TZELEM.   That TZELEM embodies the contributions of the leaders and members from the past.  It is the reflection of what current members shape in the present, building on the past but adding something unique and special in the here and now.  And what we do now creates the basis for the TZELEM of the future.  
·        So may the TZELEM we shape be one of honesty, humility, respect, compassion, warmth and hope – so that we can look upon our community, as God looked on creation at the end of the 6th day in this week’s Torah reading and say HINEI TOV M’OD – THIS IS VERY GOOD!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Listening to the harmony of life - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces October 2013 Rabbi's column - October 1, 2013

  The most important declaration of faith in our tradition is the Shema, which, of course, means “Hear!” or “Listen!” When I chose my titles for my High Holy Day sermons, every one included the word “Listening.” This was, in part, an outgrowth of our “Sharing our Stories” series from last year, during which participants shared reflections on the values that had emerged from their upbringing and their experiences. 
    There, was, however, a “private irony” in those sermon titles. 
    For the last seven years, both “hearing” and “listening” have become a major challenge for me. 
I often think of my uncle, Harry Karol, who worked at an electronics company in Kansas City. His knowledge led him to become a classic “audiophile. ” He created a stereo system in his home that met stringent specifications for the sound it produced. Uncle Harry used various electronic devices to test his stereo equipment to make sure everything was up to his standards. He had a passion for Baroque music and accumulated an extensive collection of vinyl albums, and, later, CDs. As he moved into his 70s, his ability to hear the “highs” in his favorite recordings was greatly diminished. It was sad to see that area of enjoyment closed off to Uncle Harry in his later years. 
    Like my uncle, I have always enjoyed listening to music in stereo. I marveled at the ways in which music producers could strategically put sounds in different “places” in the left and right channels to create a “spatial” sense in a recording. I was fascinated when I was able to experiment with this process using my “Garageband” software on my Apple computer. 
   About 7 years ago, I began to have some health challenges with my left ear, which led to chronic problems and, finally, an “idiopathic” closing of my left ear canal in 2009. A surgery by my specialist offered a fix that turned out to be only temporary. Tests at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center confirmed the “idiopathic” diagnosis that had no “sure” or “easy” solution. Surgery was a possibility, with a 20% chance of the problem recurring within two years. An implant with a visible electronic “box” to be worn on the outside was proposed, with possibly no coverage under health insurance. I chose not to take action until I knew where I would be and what other choices might be available. 
    In three years of working with the Erev Rosh Hashanah choir, I have let the singers know that I would be standing to their left in order to put them on my “good side.” The sounds that I do hear are not as high in volume as they used to be. In a room full of people, private face-to-face conversations are challenging, which is why I may turn my head so that the sound goes into my right ear. Someone trying to get my attention from my left may think I am ignoring him or her, when I actually cannot hear what he/she said to me. My days of listening to music in stereo, at least with headphones, are behind me, likely never to return. I have an adapter for my iPod earbuds that puts all of the sound in one channel—and that is still satisfying. When I sit at the midpoint between the two speakers in our home office, I regain some sense of the stereo effect that I used to enjoy so much. 
    I am very grateful for what remains in my hearing abilities. I can have conversations. I can play and sing with other musicians and not miss a beat. I appreciate the fact that my hearing on one side is good enough to allow me to relish the sounds of music, supportive and caring voices, and nature. I promise that I will do my best to both hear and listen to everyone, because what you have to say is important to me as we build community together. 
    Many of us may have some limitation that prevents us from doing 100% of what we would like to do. I believe that is how God made us: not quite perfect, “a little lower than the angels,” but good enough to live completely even with the challenges that life may place in our way. 
One of my favorite readings about gratitude is found in Gates of Prayer for Young People. This paraphrase of the daily prayer for thanksgiving, the Modim, declares: “Source of good, thank You for Your many gifts and blessings that fill our lives: sweet smells, delicious tastes, and warm touch; friendship and love and life; Your Torah, which teaches us wisdom. We praise You, God, for all Your goodness.” 
     I would add “beautiful sounds” to that list, whether they are outside of us or inside of us. May the music we create in our souls ever be reflected in the harmony of life all around us.