Friday, January 31, 2014

What we all can give - D'var Torah - Parashat T'rumah - January 31, 2014

I read this morning online about a teacher who gives her fifth grade students a piece of paper every Friday afternoon.  She asks them to write down the names of four children with whom they would like to sit the following week.  The children know that their requests may or may not be honored.  She also asks the students to nominate one classmate whom they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen all week.  All of the papers are privately given to her.  Then, she looks at the ballots after the students have gone home, seeking to discover these patterns: 
Who is not getting requested by anyone else? 
Who doesn’t even know who to request?
Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
As she explained to one of the parents, she isn’t looking to set up a hierarchy of exceptionalism or popularity.  She is looking for children who are lonely, who are struggling to connect with others, whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers.  
She hopes to do all that she can to teach children how to make friends, how to join a group, and how to share the best of themselves with their community.  The notes even help her identify who is being bullied, and who is doing the bullying.  
The parent who wrote this piece asked the teacher how long she has been using this system.   The reply – Ever since Columbine. 
   This teacher realizes that helping students create connections with others is the best way to prevent them from becoming disconnected and lonely and angry, so much so that they may find a way to get attention with no regard or consideration for other people and their very existence.    The writer of this piece concluded that this teacher was not only building community – she was also saving lives. 
   The Torah reading for this Shabbat, TERUMAH, presents the command to the Israelites to do something very special and positive for their community.  These former slaves, who had already resorted to complaining about leaving Egypt, and would do so again and again, were offered an opportunity to take part in a wondrous and significant project.  One might call it the first Sanctuary building fund!   Yet, it was more than that.  The Israelites were asked to bring gifts which we might call “in-kind” contributions, for the building of the center of Israelite worship in the wilderness.  This was not a requirement.  The Torah was clear that only those “whose hearts so moved them” should bring gifts.   In order to shape a holy space among the people, their donations had to be voluntary, not mandated.   It had to come from the depth of their being.  They had to believe in the process and the final result of creating a sanctuary –a  MIKDASH.    
    The command from God was accompanied with this divine caveat about the final product – “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”   I can still hear the rabbi of my childhood saying that it doesn’t say – “that I may dwell in it.”  These gifts, and the Sanctuary they would be used to create, would help people feel that  God was a loving and supportive presence in their midst.  The Sanctuary would remind them that God and godliness were intrinsic in the web of human relationships that held together this new community of free people.  
       There is one aspect of the text that is not clear – what about those whose hearts didn’t move them?  Did they feel left out?   Were they they the ones who complained so much during the Israelites’ journeys?  Or, were they being given the space to grow into the heartfelt belief and desire to give to their community?   It would have been counterproductive to have a sanctuary that was the result of the participation of only some of the people.  
    In his commentary on the Torah, Richard Elliott Friedman suggested that we need to understand the phrase “bring me gifts” in its literal sense – VAYIKCHU LI T’RUMAH – take for me gifts.   Friedman proposes that that it wasn’t only the people whose hearts had moved them to give who were involved in this ancient capital campaign.  Those who were not at a point of being ready to give had a task, too.  They would be the ones TO TAKE - to collect the donations and then bring them to Moses.  It doesn’t explicitly say that in the text, but it is comforting to know that at least one commentary suggested that everyone had a role in making the creation of the sanctuary come to fruition.  With everyone involved, the people could truly feel God’s presence in the Oneness that kept them together as a community moving towards their promised land. 
      Any community should do what it can to give all members a chance to participate and to shine, to develop partnerships and friendships with each other, and to feel that they are truly valued as individuals who have something special and unique to contribute.   This applies to congregations, cities, states, nations and schools.  I have been reading about girls in Orthodox schools who are asking for the right to wear t’fillin at regular services held during the week.  Most rabbis who are charged with making the rules in those institutions say that these girls can’t obligate themselves to follow rituals that are reserved only for men. They claim that these girls are “cherry-picking from the law” to gain a right to which they are not entitled.  One woman who had been in an Orthodox school in the past remembered one rabbi who was her teacher who found ways to give girls in his school an opportunity to adopt such rituals as their own. That type of rabbi and teacher, she said, is the one that will be remembered by students as highlighting an important Jewish lesson: that when one’s heart is moved to make a commitment, her or his desire should be honored and affirmed.
     So the message of this parashah, in a way, is to take people where they are at – if their hearts are already moved to take part in a communal task, encourage them – and if their hearts aren’t moved just yet, give them the chance to grow in their desire to give of themselves.  Draw the circle of community as large as possible  so that everyone can feel that they belong.  That is the best way to assure that God will dwell among us, holding us together in bonds of support, commitment, dedication, and love.   So may it be for us, in all of our communities. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Respect your Enemy - D'var Torah and Discussion - January 24, 2014

This commentary was developed over the course of a week with members of different classes and groups commenting on these verses.  In our discussion at the service, some of the key points shared were:

  • "Enemy" in Hebrew in these verses is "the one who hates you." 
  • The Torah started with being considerate of the animal of one's enemy.  We agreed that it is easier to be positive to the animal of your enemy than to treat your enemy himself/herself with respect. 
  • This section goes from fairness/justice regardless of the person - a change in behavior, not a change in attitude - to the quotes in Proverbs and from Avot D'Rabi Natan, which call for us to change our attitude and have a generous spirit towards our enemy, at least from afar, or to engage that enemy enough to become a friend.   In Pirkei Avot, the "hero" is one who subdues/conquers his/her evil inclination.  In Avot D'Rabi Natan, one who turns an enemy into a friend is an even greater hero.  

Testimony prepared (but not presented) for the hearing on the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument proposal - Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich presiding - January 24, 2014

When I was a rabbi in Topeka, Kansas, 10 years ago, I had the honor of taking part in festivities that were part of the dedication of the Brown v. Board National Park, which now includes a museum that tells the story of the move from segregation to integration in our nations schools.
  Here in southern New Mexico, it is the land that tells a story and is, in and of itself, a museum created by nature with many signs of those who have lived here before us.
   It is our responsibility and our task to protect the beautiful view we see every day and to preserve the history associated with our corner of the world. 
It is we who can assure that ancient drawings and modern landmarks remain untouched. 
   As a local clergy person and Board president of CAFé of Southern New Mexico, I wholeheartedly support the designation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument as a way of preserving and protecting our local environment, and engendering a sense of sanctity regarding the history of our region. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Guidance from without...and from within - D'var Torah - Parashat Yitro - January 17, 2014

Jebel Musa/Mt. Sinai - 1977
     In our work, in our volunteer service, and, to some extent, in our families, each of us has individual roles or responsibilities that we fulfill that are part of a greater whole.  Most of the time, we expect not to have to do an entire task alone, although there are times when we know we have take personal initiative to complete an important project.  
      We may be fortunate enough to receive reminders, in one way or another, that we are not alone and can (and should) turn to others for help.   This is the lesson Moses received from his father-in-law, Jethro (Yitro), for whom this week’s Torah portion is named.  Paying his family a visit, Jethro, Moses’ priestly Midianite mentor, noticed that Moses was approaching burn-out as he judged the disputes among the Israelites every day, from morning to evening. In this passage in Exodus Chapter 18, Jethro asked Moses why he was working by himself.  He wondered why Moses believed that only he could make decisions to bring a conflict to resolution based on divine guidance.   Jethro spoke to Moses in words that would appropriately come from a modern-day management consultant: “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. Your task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone….I will give you counsel….You shall seek out from among all the people capable individuals who revere God – trustworthy people who spurn ill-gotten gain (so that they cannot be unduly influenced or swayed)….Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves….If you do this, you will be able to bear up.” 
       Jethro offered Moses criteria for this new intermediate level of leadership among the people.  The most important qualifications were being and the ability and insight necessary to perform the tasks of judgment.  What is most significant in this passage is that Jethro taught Moses that he could empower others to convey the values of their community in their decisions, and that Moses was wise enough to listen to this advice.  
     It wasn’t only Moses who needed to listen. The word “listen” is prominent in the next chapter, in Exodus Chapter 19, verse 5, in which God declared, “Im Shamoa Tish-m’u b’koli – Now then, if you listen to My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.” The next verse took the special nature of the Israelites even further: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”   
    God’s words were somewhat conditional: You will be a treasured people, a kingdom of priests, and a holy people IF you keep the covenant, a promise that carried with it the implication that the people needed to hear and take to heart the divine teachings about to be presented to them, namely, the Ten Commandments.  This parashah highlights, as integral to that covenant, truly listening to each other and to a still, small voice that offers guidance and strength that leads us to constructively act upon what we hear; being humble enough to see oneself as part of the people, willing to put collective needs before personal concerns; recognizing that everyone has the potential to be a treasure and to offer a unique contribution and spirit that can enrich the entire community; and, finally, giving each person a chance to enhance the greater good by offering his or her own ideas and energy.

     In any group or organization of which we are a part,  we need to be attentive to our own responsibilities and share our thoughts about communal growth and improvement.  We can also be open, like Moses, to the suggestions of others, listening with a sense of trust to the possible partners around us who can assist us in accomplishing our goals. May we continue to work together in this spirit both inside and outside our congregation as we create a KAHAL KADOSH, a sacred community, wherever we may be.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Singing our Songs of Triumph and Celebration - D'var Torah for Beshallach and Torah dedication - January 10, 2014

    Tonight we dedicate this Torah that has come to us from Congregation Ner Tamid of the Suburban Jewish Center in North Syracuse, New York.   As his congregation was closing, the brother of one of our members thought of our congregation as a place to send their long-used scroll.
   We are grateful for the transfer of a Torah to Temple Beth-El, demonstrating both community and continuity.
  As the Torah arrives here, it is a time of dedication and celebration, and, perhaps, even the triumph of the Jewish spirit.  This Torah scroll will continue to be a source of inspiration and learning for us in our vibrant congregation that we sustain every day.
   It is fitting that the first portion we will recite from this newly-arrived scroll is the Song at the Sea, Shirat Hayam.   The words of jubilation in Exodus Chapter 15 are thought to be among the oldest in the Torah.  
    Preceding the song, Exodus Chapter 14 focused on the scene with which we are so familiar.   The Israelites were at the edge of the Sea of Reeds. The Chariots of Pharaoh’s army were approaching in the distance.  The waters parted miraculously as an angel of God, in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, moved into position and Moses raised his arms so that dry ground would appear.  The Israelites crossed, and then, once they were safely on the opposite shore, Moses again raised his arms so the waters would return to their normal state, covering the approaching chariots and horses and the Egyptian horsemen.
   The song, in chapter 15, didn’t mention Moses, or the angel or the pillar of cloud and fire.  It focused on God’s role in a wondrous victory over the former oppressors of the Israelites.
    According to one midrash, it was such a moment of emotional outpouring that the angels in heaven wanted to join the Israelites in singing from the start in this first instance in the Torah of a song of praise offered to God.  Rabbi David of Kotzk explained that God stopped the angels for just a moment, telling them, “Wait, and let the Israelites sing first.  Human beings are able to praise only when they are inspired.  If we don’t give them the chance, their desire to praise will pass.”    So the Israelites began the song on their own.
      That comment about human inspiration is appropriate for tonight, as we dedicate this Torah.  
    We read from the Torah and discuss its contents every Shabbat in one way or another.  We take the Torah from the ark with special songs that enable us to accept this scroll as ours, reliving the story of Sinai, if just for a moment.   Tonight, I will chant several of the verses of the Song at the Sea with a traditional melody that has been passed down to us over the centuries. 
    We might be tempted to view our weekly Shabbat worship and reading from the Torah as routine, to the point where the sanctity of these rituals is lost on us.   We might think of our gathering as a community for prayer as normal, rather than as a special opportunity to unite our voices in praise, thanks, and hope.  
    The inspiration of which Rabbi David of Kotzk spoke comes from being open every moment to the possibility that a word, a tune or a thought could take us to a different place.    The Israelites’ spontaneous praise of God followed an experience of salvation and triumph which moved them to song.    Participating in prayer and hearing the sacred words of the Torah and our heritage can move us if we let our minds and hearts uncover the depth of meaning of what is right in front of us.   And beyond this holy space, outside these walls, there are countless opportunities to discover something sacred that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

     The Song at the Sea, Shirat Hayam, offers us an example of how to sing or talk about our own victories in life, times when we have made it through a difficult passage or succeeded when we thought we might fail.   The Torah says that “Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Eternal One.”  All of the people  – men, women, and children – and Moses, their leader, were partners in that experience of relief and triumph. They shared in that moment of inspiration that led them to sing out to express their joy at finally being free.      This passage reminds us that we are partners, too, and that we can sing together of our triumphs of the past and our hopes for the days to come.  So may we do and let us say Amen.