Friday, February 28, 2014

Remembering where we are - D'var Torah for Temple Board Meeting on February 27, 2014

Standing before the ark for my Board
"portrait" on February 27, 2014
The Torah readings for last week and this week deals with create the sacred space of the worship of the Israelites and the holy garments worn by the priests as they led daily and holiday rituals
   There was also a reference to holy time – the one day that is set apart and sacred is  Shabbat. 
   Ancient definitions of holy time and holy space apply to us today as well.
   At home, the Shabbat table and the Seder table are certainly social, but they are also holy and special.
    The Sanctuary is holy space.  We tell our Religious School students to remember where they are when they are sitting in the sanctuary.  That applies to all of us during Shabbat and holiday services when sacred time and space come together. 
    Before a minyan at the home of a bereaved family, and our gathering during a funeral service and by the graveside both holy time and holy space.  Conversation, supportive expressions and perhaps even laughter in remembering the loved one who has died all are holy.  Even sharing food after a funeral or at a shiv’ah house is a sacred act.
    Our leadership at Temple is holy as well, where we are called to behave in a way that others would hope to emulate to create a caring, spirited, active and loving community. 

    We know what holiness is and can be.  Let’s remember to strive for that holiness in all we do.

Shaping a Holy Community to bring God close - D'var Torah for Parashat Pekuday - February 28, 2014 (with reflections on the PICO Convocation)

Leading singing with Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews to begin
the PICO Convocation
    Earlier this week, I represented CAFĂ© of Southern New Mexico at the convocation of the national organization PICO, People Improving Communities through Organizing. 
   We gathered for a two-fold purpose. First, we created a new body of leaders that will act as a liaison between local affiliates and the national leadership.  The group will engage in visioning to guide the entire network in non-profit advocacy of pressing issues facing the American people, especially those who may not feel empowered to speak for themselves.
    The other reason we gathered near Atlanta was to seriously discuss the topic of race and how it affects our work.  We tried to make sure that our relationships are giving people of all backgrounds in our network the opportunity to share their concerns and act on their values. 
CAFe Executive Director Sarah Nolan discusses the topic
of race and leadership
   The content of our discussions was really not unlike the reading “May the door of this synagogue” that we recited earlier in the service.  That prayer expresses principles that should direct us in how we treat each other, how we welcome newcomers into our space, and how we can give every person among us a chance to discover meaning inside this sanctuary that can be made real in daily life.
Our first-night communal circle at the PICO Convocation
    One of the speakers at our event, Pastor Antoine Barriere of New Orleans, has worked hard to improve education in his city and to prevent the spread of local for-profit jails that only thrive when they are full, and where laws are passed to make certain that such is the case.   Pastor Barriere spoke about how we need to adopt “God goals” for our work in the community.  He related our efforts to bring about change to the story of Joshua leading the Israelites.  He explained that God had already given the people the land.   To “seal the deal,” so to speak, they just had to take it through their own actions and power.  
     Also this week, the Union for Reform Judaism offered a webinar presentation, led by Rabbi Peter Knobel, that explored biblical stories of redemption.   Rabbi Knobel focused on examples when God and human beings partnered to bring redemption, borne out especially in the tale of Moses as well as the story of Jonah. 
     He also cited examples of human redeemers for whom God barely seemed present, if at all.   Joseph gave credit to God for putting him in the right place to save his family, but God did not act overtly in that story.  In the Book of Esther,  Mordechai and Esther saved the Jews of Persia on their own.  Of course, that book doesn’t mention God even once. 
    One verse in the Torah reading for this week seems to make the point that we need to act with reverence and holiness before we will experience redemption and, ultimately, God’s presence.  I will be reading from the Torah the section that describes the pillar of cloud that would guide the Israelites by day and the pillar of fire that would lead them at night.  If the pillar moved, they would set out on their journey.  If not, they remained where they were.  
     What is important to note is the verse preceding that passage.  Moses was busy putting the finishing touches on the Tabernacle, the Israelite center for worship.  The end of Exodus Chapter 40, verse 33 declares, “When Moses completed the work,” and the next verse continues, “the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting.” 
    It appears to be a pretty simple equation:  no completed work, no divine cloud and fire. Had Moses not finished the tasks of creating a space to commune with God, God would not have come.
     These days, we don’t see God among us as a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire.  When we pray, however, we speak about godliness, or “God goals,” in terms of reverence for all creation, love, and cooperation in building a society based upon justice.  We think of God when we recognize and enhance the holy moments of our lives, when we approach life with gratitude, and when we make peace inside and outside of ourselves.
When we practice these values of our heritage, they, in turn, offer us guidance for the future, serving a role similar to that of the pillar of cloud and fire for the Israelites. 

    This holy space at Temple Beth-El, in which we recite sacred words, can offer us direction if our hearts are open to that possibility. As we heard in the reading that began our service, “May this synagogue be, for all who enter, the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.”  And, in the words of that prayer, may we help those who have “cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture” not only among us here, in this place, but within the greater community and throughout the family of humanity.   That is how we can make God and godliness real in time, in space, in our experiences, and in our souls. 

Giving and Learning...MORE: Reflections on Songleader Boot Camp 2014 (for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Newsletter for March 2014)

Give 110%!”  
 “Wait…can’t I only possibly give 100%?” 
  Producing/performing at a level higher than our “normal best” (if there is such a thing!) probably falls into that “extra 10%” zone of giving.   The Torah portion Vayakheil refers to a voluntary donation effort that, evidently, reached 110%.   In Exodus Chapter 36, the Israelites were completing their campaign of providing the raw materials for designated artisans to create the holy furnishings for the Tabernacle and  the sacral vestments for the priests.   At one point, the artisans who had been endowed with “skill, ability and knowledge” went to Moses to tell him, “The people are bringing more than is needed!”   Moses sent a message through the camp that the people should not “make further effort” towards the gifts for the sanctuary.   The passage concludes, “Their efforts had been enough for all the tasks to be done…AND MORE.” 
    One of the reasons I attend conventions, conferences and workshops is to be sure that I am doing all I can to develop “skill, ability and knowledge” that will enable me to serve my congregation and community in a way that will inspire and instill growth, confidence, fellowship and optimism. I believe that learning something new at each successive conference enables me to reach some semblance of “AND MORE” in what I hear from teachers and peers. Over my rabbinate, I have attended certain conferences more than 10 times.   However, the last time I was a “newbie” at a convention was in 1999.
Rick Recht leads our opening session!
   On February 16-18, that all changed.   This year, I attended Songleader Boot Camp in St. Louis, Missouri, led by Jewish singer/songwriter/performer Rick Recht (photo above), his wife Elisa Heiligman Recht, and a talented faculty.  This gathering of songleaders, songwriters, educators, rabbis, cantors and cantorial soloists is unique in its focus.   Rick’s approach highlights the components of leadership related to the tone we set with our voices, our bodies, and our development of relationships within our community.   We discussed how we can best prepare ourselves to lead a service, a song session or a class in the right frame of mind and with the tools that will engage congregants, campers or students.  Sessions specifically for clergy encouraged us to discuss how we can prepare ourselves to lead and how we can bring about change when necessary that enables our community members to express themselves as Jews in the 21st Century.  
Rabbi Micah Greenstein and Rabbi Sharon Brous
    These three days were filled with a special spirit and energy, and an opportunity to hear presentations on making the values of Judaism come alive in our communities.  Rabbi Micah Greenstein (see photo) of Temple Israel in Memphis urged us to apply the two levels of the Golden Rule contained in Leviticus, “love your neighbor as yourself” and “love the stranger as yourself.” He said that we should extend our concern to all sectors of our local communities so that we can create effective and significant partnerships across religious, ethnic and cultural lines.   Rabbi Sharon Brous (see photo) of IKAR (meaning “what is central/essential”) in Los Angeles spoke about “the fire within,” where that “fire” motivates us to stretch beyond what we think are our own limitations, to move towards 110% in the goals for our communities, and to achieve the level of “AND MORE” that the Israelites attained in their giving for the creation of the sanctuary.  

Songleader Boot Camp 2014 (I am in first row standing, right of center)
  At our closing session, we were asked to share a word that summarized our experience at Songleader Boot Camp as we held onto a long strand of yarn that would form a web around our circle.  I was asked to be the first to share as I held one end of the yarn.  I said, instinctively, “growth,” before others offered responses including “inspiration,” “confidence,” “courage,” and “community.”  The yarn came all the way around, and I was holding both ends, which felt like a big responsibility, one that was overwhelming, in the “AND MORE” category.  I realized that what I was doing at that moment was a lot like what I have always done along with professional and lay leaders and with Temple members. We hold both ends of the yarn together to sustain and nurture the web of congregational and Jewish life.   
     Over these three days in St. Louis (see the group photo below), we learned more than once about being grateful for the opportunity to lead and to serve, and to approach such responsibility with confidence and humility.   After attending Songleader Boot Camp, I know that I will continue to strive to do just that….and more.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Second know God and each other - D'var Torah - Parashat Ki Tisa - February 14, 2014

Who….or God?
  My father, who taught 7th-10th Grade Religious School classes for 15 years,  had what might be the best answer of all, “I just don’t try to define God.”   For him, God was definitely a presence, maybe even a feeling, because I didnt attend services with my parents nearly every Friday night of my growing years for nothing.  We were committed and dedicated members of a worshipping community.  We enjoyed melodies with which we could sing along. We appreciated a meaningful Dvar Torah, in whatever form it was presented.    We had a sense that our prayers could change us spiritually and challenge us to practice the positive values of Judaism.   God, defined or not, was definitely there.
     This past Tuesday night, I taught the session of Temples Judaism: Roots and Rituals class that focuses on Jewish philosophy and theology.  In 90 minutes, we reviewed 2500 years of Jewish thought.  We were guided by succinct descriptions of Jewish belief from George Robinsons book ESSENTIAL JUDAISM , and FINDING GOD: SELECTED JEWISH RESPONSES by Rabbis Daniel Syme and Rifat Sonsino.    What struck me this past Tuesday night was the particular set of values reflected in the perspectives we discussed.  Here are the thoughts and ideas about God which emerged from our study:
·      God is present within all the interconnections in the Universe. 
·      All religions can lead a person to God and salvation.
·      Human relationships can reflect divine love. 
·      The most godly type of relationship is one where two people stand together in dialogue, characterized by mutuality, openness, directness and human sympathy. 
·      We best reflect what God asks of us when we transcend our petty, egocentric interests and respond to creation and to our fellow human beings with love and devotion. 
·      The key to ethics is “seeing the face of the Other” –meaning anyone we encounter – and acting towards him or her out of goodness because we recognize that there is common ground between us. 
·      We are partners with God in bringing goodness into the world.
·      God is “our sense of self and our innermost essence” which we can discover in Gods creation.  
·      God is the totality of all those forces, powers and processes which help us become the best that we are capable of becoming.  
     What do all of these beliefs about God have in common?   Nothing tangible and nothing material, for sure!    Every one of them is about what we know and what we feel but what we cant touch.  On a day like today when so many people focus on love – yes, even in Israel – it is appropriate to talk about feeling, mutuality, goodness, empathy, and trust.
     When did Moses truly get to know more about God’s essence?   It was only after the episode of the Golden Calf.   It took the backsliding of the people into the need for a visible symbol of the divine to reveal to Moses what was special about God.
    Moses pleaded to God on behalf of the people to give them another chance.  Yes, they had made an idol, yes, the tables of God’s 10 utterances were broken, but there could be healing between God, Moses and the Israelites.  It was that renewal of their commitment and relationship that brought them closer than ever before.  God said to Moses: “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Adonai/Eternal, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.  But you cannot see my face.”   God then told Moses that he could only see the “back of God,” which some interpret as the “after-effects” of Gods presence.  And while passing by Moses, who was standing in the cleft of a rock, God declared the divine attributes that are stated in the portion I will read from Exodus Chapter 34.  Those traits included kindness, compassion, faithfulness and forgiveness.   The judgment noted in verse 7 – “yet I will not remit all punishment” would occur only if the people lost their focus on the value of intangible aspects of life and if they succumbed to the “golden calves” of power, excessive wealth, the need to control others, and the absence of equal respect and consideration towards every human being, created in the divine image. 
    Second chances can lead us to realize that we need to acknowledge that what we cant see is more important than what is visible to our eyes.  Last Sunday morning, our youngest Religious School students were sitting on the bimah for their music session, in which we were talking about the Shema.   Before we sang the Shema, I had them recite it, first with their eyes closed, then with their eyes open.   I asked them whether it is easier to feel that everything is connected – that God is One and that we are One – when their eyes are open or closed. They said it is when their eyes are closed that they have a greater sense of the unity that binds all of creation together.  
     Living in this world does require us to keep our eyes and ears open, especially to note whether people are acting with generosity or selfishness, love or hatred, compassion or cold-heartedness.   That is why Judaism demands that when we see injustice in the world, we must give voice to the teachings about God that have guided our heritage throughout the ages.  It is we who are God’s eyes, ears, hands and heart to be sure that people approach one another with kindness, consideration, grace and goodness.  People in need, those whose rights are denied, those who need hope restored, need us to bring God’s compassion to their lives. So may we do!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Standing taller - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Newsletter article for February 2014

On January 12, our Religious School community planted a new tree just outside the playground. As I looked at these trees of different sizes—small and new, to “medium” to “taller” — I thought about how they represented life, growth and continuity.
They are all at different points in their life cycle. The new tree is like a child who is beginning to write his or her own “book of life” with deeds and experiences, accumulating what will be a wealth of memories, represented by the two trees flanking it.
    The newest tree has a wooden stake beside it to provide stability, which is necessary for the winds that blow strongly in Las Cruces. The taller trees have a stronger foundation and are more rigid, but they can endure the wind because they are also flexible. We have that possibility in our lives as well. Over the years, we establish our personalities and our values, our perspectives and our interests. We might think that we necessarily become set in our ways, but that may not be the case. Even the tallest tree in the photo can bend. It still grows and can change its shape. We can emulate that possibility for growth as we move forward in our lives, one year to another, and one decade to another.
  These trees can also represent our relationships. The smallest tree signifies the beginning of a friendship, community connection or a family bond. The neighboring trees demonstrate how relationships can deepen as we engage in interactions that nurture the many aspects of fellowship and partnership that can hold us together
   As has been announced, I will be continuing as rabbi of Temple Beth-El for another three years. As I look at those trees outside the playground, I think about how they represent the ties that Rhonda and I have developed with many of you and will continue to sustain along with you. I think about how we have, in many ways, grown together through sharing celebrations and challenges, study and worship, beginnings and endings, achievements and new opportunities. That is the essence of community. We look forward to continuing to grow together with you, as those trees will grow, in the coming years.