Thursday, May 22, 2014

Rabbi's Report - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Annual Meeting - "Who has brought us to seasons of love" - May 22, 2014

Baruch Atah Adonai  Eloheinu Melech Haolam
Shehecheyanu V’kiy’manu  V’higiyanu lazman hazeh.
Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this time. 
 I know that’s a prayer that we usually say when we’re starting something new.   I do think we understand that every ending is also a new beginning.  We will demonstrate that with this meeting tonight which gives us a chance to look back and to look forward as well. 
  This is my third annual message at Temple Beth-El, and my 30th since I became the rabbi at my own congregation.  It’s always a challenge to try to summarize or measure a year in just a few moments.  The concept of “measuring a year” is prominent in the lyrics of the song from the musical “Rent,” “Seasons of Love.”  Through the language of our prayers, we do measure a year in daylights and sunsets.  With our Wednesday Breakfasts, Oneg Shabbat receptions after services, and the spreads that follow our well-attended Adult Education events, we do measure a year in cups of coffee.   With our new brick walkway and biblical garden, we will mark past and future celebrations and hold close our memories of loved ones, measuring in inches the size of each brick, the length of the walkway itself, and the specifications of the remainder of the project.  We measure a year in laughter in the course of programs and conversations, and especially on Purim.   I do have to admit that we measure years in strife, but the meditation that I often say before a meeting declares, “O God, may our controversies be for Your sake.”  We know that some of the best solutions emerge even from disagreement or argument as long as we remember that we are on the same team. The chorus of that song from “Rent” suggests that we should measure our years in love.  And whether we admit it or not, we do just that when smiles are exchanged across the generations, when we celebrate life milestones, and when we remember loved ones who have died in our hearts and minds or in the presence of friends and family.  We measure in love when we open our building to the Las Cruces community for five hours on a Sunday in the Spring, relishing the chance to welcome our many guests with the sacred symbols of our bimah, and the tree of life in the Social Hall as the backdrop for a wide variety of Jewish foods that people in our area crave. When I went to Milagro Coffee to pick up bagels for our April 26 study session, the man who checked me out told me that he needed to pick up his Silent Auction prize.  I thanked him for coming to the Jewish Food and Folk Festival, and he said, “I am from New Jersey, I had to come – where else could I have gotten Jewish food like that in Las Cruces?”  It was a m’chayeh to witness the love and care at the heart of baking sessions, committee meetings, silent auction prize collection, gathering materials for the children’s area, very colorful tickets, and a very high-tech grid for worker sign-up.  We learned some lessons that day like “you can never have too much pastrami,” and “it’s very important to pray for good weather” – I suppose that was my department.  Mainly, we learned that in our own Jewish culinary field of dreams, “if you offer it, they will come.”  Those out-the-door lines may have been a surprise to many of you, but for Rhonda and me, as we watched the constant stream of people coming in, we remembered many years of a similar sight in one of our previous congregations, which was actually doing its similar fundraiser that same day this year.   Here at TBE, the JFFF was successful and enjoyable because of you. Under th leadership of Rebecca Berkson and Aggie Saltman, you banded together, took your best wisdom from past fundraising experience, brainstormed new ideas, got lots of members involved in one way or another, and you did it.  The photo album on the table in the entry foyer contains pictures of the many, many happy faces of our neighbors, community leaders, first-time visitors, and, especially, of us – the Temple Beth-El family.   In the Torah reading for this week, God commanded the Israelites to take a census of the community.  Had we taken a Temple census that day, we would have found most of our congregation right here in this space.  Everyone who attended counted and contributed in some way.  Thank you all, and please remember that we will need you and want you to count and contribute your energy, your hospitality and even your love again next year!  
    And that is what we should strive for in all of our programming at Temple Beth-El: to make our time together a season not only of God keeping us alive and sustaining us, but a season of love.  This week’s Torah reading about taking a census teaches us that counting every person should guide us to value everyone who comes through our door, including newcomers, congregants and community members.  Our programs and events should be as open as possible, and if a limit is necessary due to space, our creativity can guide us in offering an acceptable alternative to demonstrate that we truly care.  
   And caring about each person who counts isn’t just about those who come here.  It extends to our work in the community.  Our tradition teaches us to be advocates for fairness and justice for everyone so that each person will have a feeling of dignity and prosperity.  Two years of offering a December 25 breakfast at Camp Hope, and many years of serving at El Caldito and giving to Casa de Peregrinos and to other agencies are among the ways in which we make a difference.  The prophets of ancient times and the Reform Rabbis of 130 years ago would encourage us to go even further.  At our program on “Work, Wage, Justice and the Economy” this past Sunday, I read this quote from the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of the Reform movement: “In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.”   That charge still reverberates from the past to our present as a reminder to find new and significant ways to love our neighbors as ourselves. 
   I am grateful to have the opportunity to serve you for another three years.  Rhonda and I are happy to continue to be your partners in making Temple Beth-El a place where we can fulfill our Temple mission “to learn, celebrate, serve and grow together.”  I thank Rhonda for her wisdom, support, and her sharing of her talents yet again.   I thank our son Adam at a distance for his unsurprising wisdom, which will stand him in good stead as the eventual spouse of a rabbi.  I mention Juli Schnur, Adam’s fiancĂ©e, for the first time in an Annual Message, knowing she will read these words online and begin to see the impact she will have on our family and, by extension, this congregation.   I am grateful to Temple president Dee Cook, to board members, to committee chairs and members, to the Mensch Club, Sisterhood and BETY, and to everyone who stands up to be counted.  The more we put into our commitment as fellow travelers on this Jewish and communal journey, the more we will gain for our own growth and for the ever-increasing spirit and passion of our community.  So let us continue to praise God, who keeps us alive, sustains us, and brings us to new seasons of connection, hope, joy and love.  

Friday, May 16, 2014

I am a creature of God... - prayer at the "work with dignity" rally on May 16, 2014

Eternal Spirit of the Universe,

Source of our wisdom and talents,

You are the defender of the stranger, the fatherless,

the widow and the worker. 

You have taught us to treat one another with care and respect.

You have directed us to find dignity in ourselves and in our work.

But you have reminded us that dignity on the inside

must be matched with dignity on the outside.

We thank you for employers who see the individuality of every one of their employees.

We pray for stores and corporations that fail to see how workers make their profits possible.

We thank You for the restaurant owner who bails a worker in distress out of jail.

We pray for the boss who refuses to let an employee attend a family funeral.

We thank You for the determination of a single parent who works two or even three jobs to cover household expenses and care for his or her children.

We pray for the store manager who fires a worker for holding down more than one job, which that employee took as a matter of survival.

We thank You for companies that pay for skills training to help workers grow and advance.

We pray for employers who are unable to see in the people who work for them a special spark of creativity right before their eyes that could bring them great benefit if they would only give them a chance to shine.

We thank You for workplaces that generate a true feeling of community, support and concern.

We pray for those employers who create work environments that intentionally keep employees in competition with one another.

We thank You for those business owners who reward the dedication and commitment of faithful and loyal staff members with a living wage, bonuses and benefits.

We pray for those who devalue work and worker alike by claiming that some jobs are inferior to others. 

We learn from this saying of the rabbis of the Talmud that we all deserve respect and to be treated with dignity. 

“I am a creature of God and my neighbor is also part of creation;

my work is in the city and his work is in the field

I rise early to my work and he rises early to his.

As he cannot excel in my work, so I cannot excel in his work.

But you may be tempted to say, 'I do great things and he small things!'

We have learned that it matters not whether it seems that one does much or little,

if only he or she directs his or her heart to serve the purpose of dignity and integrity.”*

That is the type of city and community I want to live in,

one that values every person and his or her work

 and one that provides the means for every individual

 and every family to live without the fear

of hunger or homelessness due to low wages.  

These are ancient teachings in which we believe.  

Our hearts will not be hardened.

Our voices will continue to be heard.

Our hands will continue to be open to reach for each other

 in love, dignity and respect!  

Creator and Sustainer of us all,

We ask you now for strength, for help, and for hope

And may your Oneness inspire our oneness and unity. Amen

*Original text – “directs his/her heart to heaven

Friday, May 9, 2014

Proclaim Respect Throughout the Land - On the Jubilee and Public Prayer - D'var Torah - May 9, 2014

A replica of the Liberty Bell in Jerusalem's Liberty Bell Park
(Gan Pa'amon HaDror) which was founded in 1976. 
"Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof."   Those words from Leviticus Chapter 25 Verses 10, inscribed on the Liberty Bell, have served for over 200 years as a beacon leading us to claim our individual rights as Americans and to throw off the yoke of tyranny of a ruler from a distant shore or a far away city.   
    What we don't often consider is that the actual meaning of the word translated as liberty, D'ROR, is  "release."   It is used in that verse which established that the jubilee year would occur every 50 years on the ancient Israelite calendar.  Jubilee comes from the Hebrew word YOVEIL, which actually means a blast of the shofar.  The shofar sounded the call to begin a special time when slaves could go free, debts would be forgiven, and land would go back to its previous owners.
    The Eitz Chayim Torah commentary notes that the jubilee year was intended to prevent society from turning into a two-tiered system of "haves" and "have-nots." It explained: "Behind this plan are two religious assumptions.  Because all the earth and all of its inhabitants belong to God, human beings cannot possess either the land or people in perpetuity.  And no human being should be condemned to permanent servitude."   This practice was not as much economic as it was spiritual.   It hoped to restore a sense of unity among all people under God in a community and to bolster self-respect for those overcome with poverty and with a sense of failure.
       Later in Leviticus Chapter 25, the basis for godly behavior is clearly defined:   "Do not wrong or persecute one another, but fear your God: I the Eternal am your God."  The rabbis applied this verse to all types of commerce and transactions.  They further asserted that this passage teaches us that we shouldn't wrong other people with harmful words, no matter what the context.
       As we live our lives as citizens of our city, state and nation, we often think about rights - our freedom to do what we believe we should be able to do.  We also think about our responsibilities to follow laws and rules that assure that we will treat each other with decency, respect and fairness.   The belief that everything and everyone belongs to God can take our views about law and even politics to a higher level.  We can work for the greater good by focusing on how common ground and interests unite us, and how we can realize the hope that all people will be able to reach a level of subsistence and personal well-being.    The Torah, in its own way, creates a path to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for all of us - "we, the people."    Cognitive linguist George Lakoff cited these values as central to the vision that created our country when he said,  "American democracy is based on empathy — citizens caring about other citizens and working through their government to provide public resources for all."   Israelite society accepted as a mitzvah the need to provide everyone a feeling that they would find help, connection and support in their communities in times of both prosperity and challenge.  
      One might think, with such a broad vision expressed in Leviticus Chapter 25, that calling upon God would naturally lead to unity. 
     We know, all too well, how the presence of many faiths in our country has been a source of both strength and conflict.  The strength is the great potential to learn about each other’s traditions and to be enriched by that knowledge.  The conflict comes when one religious viewpoint seems to be favored over another.
     That was the feeling of the plaintiffs in Greece NY vs. Galloway, the case decided Monday this week by the Supreme Court in favor of allowing an overwhelming majority of the prayers at town council meetings to be Christian in their wording and expression.   In a statement following the decision, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center commented: "Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that requiring invocations to be nonsectarian would call on the legislatures sponsoring these prayers and the courts to intervene and ‘act as supervisors and censors of religious speech.Yet, Justice Kennedy did suggest there were limits to such prayers, among them: denigrating non-believers or religious minorities, threatening damnation, or preaching conversion—leaving courts in exactly the same role as line-drawers.”
       I see this decision as one that ignores the importance of one person being considerate of another in a public setting.   At the New Mexico State University Interfaith Council, we apply these standards to our opening and closing prayers: any particularistic language is prefaced with the pronoun "I" rather than "we.” We always acknowledge the presence of believers in a variety of traditions.  The sentiments in the body of almost all of the  prayers we offer are expressive of common and universal hopes and feelings.  
   That was not the case in Greece, New York. It is not the case in many halls of government, where clergy and others are free to offer sectarian prayers filled with themes that narrowly apply only to one religion.  Invocations or benedictions that assume that all people present are members of one faith community automatically disparage those who are not part of that circle of belief.    
     From my own experiences with this very issue, I have chosen to use, in my public prayer, the most universal language possible from the Jewish tradition.  Fortunately, we have many choices for names of God and for sentiments to express that easily apply to everyone.   
     Tomorrow, I will be delivering the invocation at the NMSU afternoon graduation after leading our Shabbat morning service here.   I chose to take part because I felt that there is a special message that our heritage can add to such a gathering.  Based loosely on a blessing from the Talmud, here is the prayer I will share tomorrow: 

     Spirit of the universe, Eternal Source of wisdom, we thank You for the knowledge you have implanted within us, and which always seeks to express itself in daily life. 
 As we celebrate this time of achievement,
which is both an ending and a beginning for faculty and students, parents and children, we ask for the perseverance to achieve our highest goals. 
May our ideals persist in our work towards a world filled with greater justice, peace and equality.
May our hearts be filled with understanding.
May our mouths give expression to insights that will enable us to live by the values we prize.
May our eyes shine with the light of continued learning.
May our ears remain sensitive to the cries of those in need.
May our hands work for peace and harmony among all people.
May our feet follow pathways that will lead us to a future filled with hope.
May we always be favored with nourishment for body, mind and soul that will sustain us all and help us grow as individuals and as members of the family of humanity.

    And my prayer for us as we read this section from the Torah is this: that we remember and understand that our individual rights carry with them sacred public responsibilities to preserve our land, to work for the well-being of our fellow citizens, to support people in need so that they will no longer be in need, and to act as God's partners in maintaining and renewing daily the works of creation.  

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Central intangibles - Temple Beth-El Adelante Newsletter May 2014 Article - May 1, 2014

On the Shabbat evening before we hosted our first Jewish Food and Folk Festival, I asked congregants gathered for that service to list, from their perspective, aspects of Judaism about which our neighbors should know. Before a day when we shared the sights, tastes and sounds of Judaism with such enthusiasm, I wanted to get a sense of which intangible values are central to our heritage. This is an impressive list! 

  •  Personal responsibility. 
  • We are still here! 
  •  Judaism is not just Christianity without Jesus. 
  •  We are not one monolithic block that all think and act alike. 
  • Torah is the most important thing and everything else is commentary. The values of the Torah are the guideposts of our lives. 
  • We try to be a moral and ethical people. 
  •  We believe in one God. 
  • A direct and personal experience and relationship with God is available to all of us regardless of social standing or background. 
  • With our prayerbook in both Hebrew and English, we reaffirm that Hebrew, the language of our ancestors, has meaning and significance for us. 
  • Acceptance of other peoples views: we believe that it's everyone's right to believe what they want, and we want that same consideration. 
  • Working for peace for all peoples and standing up for the oppressed are central to our faith. 
  • Tikkun olam--repairing the world. 
  • Advocating for justice: tzedek and tzedakah
  • Shabbat has kept the Jewish people. The values of the Sabbath – rest, consideration, joy and reverence for creation - are central to Judaism. 
  • Tikkun midot--repairing oneself. 
  • We were once slaves in Egypt, but now we're free. 
  • It's important to make distinctions between what is proper and not proper, right and wrong, and secular and holy 
  •  Love 

     The murders at Village Shalom and the Jewish Community Center of Overland Park, Kansas on April 13 put some of these values to the test. A memorial service at the JCC on April 17 brought together a cross-section of the Kansas City interfaith community to offer prayers and words of comfort, reassurance and hope. The fact that none of the victims—Reat Griffin Underwood, William Lewis Corporon, and Terri LaManno—were Jewish demonstrates the reality that we know so well in Las Cruces. No faith community is an island. We all live together. Residents in a city should seek to strengthen ties with each other across any “definitions” of identity that might have a potential to create division. We sing often the words of Psalm 133:1: “How good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity.” We have the opportunity, every day, to strengthen and deepen that sense of interconnectedness. 

 On Sunday, April 20, as we continued our Passover celebration and the Christian world observed Easter, I shared this thought on my Facebook profile: “Redemption...deliverance...freedom. These themes suffuse this day with meaning for many people around the world. May we work together throughout the year with these values as our goal.” 
     Those principles, along with peace, constitute a thread running through every Shabbat and holiday worship service. And with Israel Independence Day approaching, we continue to look for progress along the path to reconciliation within Israel, between various ideological sub-communities, and between Israel and her neighbors. Our impromptu summary of central Jewish tenets can and should serve as a guide in the relationships we develop and maintain throughout our lives. 

      Shalom, which we usually translate as peace, can also mean “wholeness” or “completeness.” When we say or sing “Oseh Shalom,” that prayer reminds us that the tranquility and growth within creation can be ours if we work in harmony with one another. May the teachings of our tradition continue to guide us towards that ultimate destination.