Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sometimes we forget - Remembering a heritage of Justice - D'var Torah for Shoftim - August 29, 2014 (introduction to a reading on justice)

Sometimes we forget.
Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by the messages we hear around us that we forget.
We forget who we are.
We forget from where we came.
Sometimes we forget what we are supposed to remember: "Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt."
Sometimes we forget that we come from a tradition of a people that created a society that sees the divine image in everyone.
And when those people forgot, sometimes we forget that there were prophets who would call the people back, in the name of God, to their ethical roots: to act justice, equality and fairness.
Sometimes we forget that caring for people in need and creating a safety net for all were part of a biblical and prophetic vision of justice rather than the province of a particular ideological or political group.
Sometimes we forget that the prophets and rabbis knew that people who deserved justice and did not receive it might attempt to take what they thought was due them, which was why they called for acting with justice in the first place.
Sometimes we forget that justice - TZEDEK - through TZ'DAKAH - righteous giving - is an obligation, not a suggestion.

And so, let us remember what we sometimes forget and act in a way that reflects the justice taught by our heritage.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Remarks at Dedication of Sephardic/Anousim (those forced to convert from Judaism) Center in El Paso, Texas - August 10, 2014

It is an honor to bring greetings at the dedication of this center from Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces.
 One of the main symbols in our sanctuary, the Neir tamid, the Eternal Light, is stylized to include the ladder in Jacob’s dream.  After he woke up from his vision of a ladder reaching to the sky and of a conversation with God that gave him reassurance for the future, Jacob named the place, Beit-El, the House of God.   It was in retrospect that he realized God had been with him all along.
This center is like Jacob’s vision.   When any of us explore our roots, we often uncover some aspect of our background that is, even in a small way, essential to who we are.   Jacob finally recognized a divine presence at his side.  Learning about our ancestors and what they practiced and believed can unlock a part of our identity that we always knew was there but for which we had no explanation.  This center will help people find that key to self-knowledge.  
   The rabbis imagined that the ladder in Jacob’s dream represented future history, and that the angels going up and down on it were the great powers of the world that would rise and eventually fall.  In that midrash, God asked Jacob if he wanted to take his turn ascending. He was afraid and no answer is given as to his choice.  I believe Jacob did ascend because, well, here we are.   For this center, the ladder is directed not only to the future but also to the past, to reveal the nature of those angels from the generations that came before us that now want us to ascend by digging deep into our identity and our history on an ongoing path of discovery.  
 May this Anousim Center provide countless opportunities for people to find their forebears and, thereby, to find themselves, with the presence of God guiding every step of that journey.  May the Eternal One bless you with knowledge, hope, inner peace, and a sense of oneness that will unite past, present and future. 
(Note - the photographer took a photo of a scene in Santa Fe for the poster for the center - the ladder coming up from one of the building which is in the photo reminded him, he said, of Jacob's ladder).  

Friday, August 1, 2014

Great shall be the peace of your children - Temple Beth-El Adelante Newsletter Article for August 2014

   “All your children shall be taught of the Eternal One, and great shall be the peace of your children.” This passage from Isaiah, Chapter 54, has been on my mind during recent weeks. A ceasefire was just announced (it’s Thursday, July 31, 2014) that both Israel and Hamas accepted. Hopefully, a longer ceasefire will ensue that will bring quiet and perhaps, in the long term, security (Rabbi’s note—sadly, it didn’t last long).
   A few nights ago, I set that Isaiah passage to music (see video below) and created this English lyric to capture the prophet’s declaration: “Can you hear the sound, the sound of justice driving out the hatred, calling off the warning? (There’s) no need to fear the peace that will surround you.” Forging agreements that will lead to eventual cooperation and peace may seem difficult when set alongside the perpetuation of a less-than-perfect status quo. We human beings are, at least sometimes, afraid of change, even though we know that it is a constant in our lives.
     I had the privilege of helping out with Las Cruces’ Peace Camp on July 21-25. On two days, I took part in discussions on social justice. I led the song session that concluded the pro-gram as well (see photo). Peace Camp was like a respite from the current turmoil of the world, where the children, along with their counselors and teachers, could practice techniques and strategies for resolving conflict that would bring people together rather than keeping them at odds with one another. So much of the work of making peace is about acknowledging one another’s stories, but focusing more on the future and the benefits that productive agreements could bring. Evidently, there were talks going on between Israel and Gaza business leaders over the last few months that might have led to an increasingly open border and commerce that would have benefited everyone concerned. Hamas did not approve of those efforts, but those seeds of partnership may actually be allowed to blossom one day.

    On July 30, 15 congregants came together to join me (see photo in the next column) in discussing a well-known pas-sage from the biblical book of Micah: “It has been told you, O mortal, what is good and what the Eternal One re-quires of you: only to do justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” Participants first had the opportunity to comment on each of the three parts of Micah’s statement. “Do justly” was seen as expressing the societal principle of equality of opportunity along with the elimination of false obstacles to equality. There was an acknowledgment that not everyone sees justice with the same perspective, but it is through justice (legal, personal, cultural and social) and fairness that we survive as a community. “Love kindness/mercy” implies the value of G’MILUT CHASADIM, showing or acting with kindness, and doing so with a whole heart and a generous spirit. This can refer to tzedakah, righteous giving, and it can refer to helping people in all sorts of ways. This is definitely kindness in action. Participants noted that we “walk humbly/modestly with God” when we listen to other people and see the divine spark in everyone. One person commented, “Practicing justice, love, kindness and mercy ensures that you will walk humbly, modestly and wisely.”
We discussed how to apply this passage from Micah to our dealings in our congregation and in the greater community. Intra-congregational dialogue should be based upon mutual respect for each other’s opinions. There was a feeling that we can, through such conversations, develop a common understanding of social justice (to “do justly”) that will serve as a basis for our work as a congregation in the community. We noted that some local coalitions (I am part of one that includes a wide range of faith groups that met recently at Sonoma Springs Church next door) are working on stocking food pantries, serving at El Caldito soup kitchen, providing beds for families in need, and helping with transportation for children going to school and for adults who require assistance. Some faith communities join together in many American cities to deal with immigration reform, prison reform, civil rights, working for changes that can enable people to move out of poverty, and dealing with domestic violence and child abuse and neglect. These issues are linked to many faith traditions, including Judaism, and can be an expression of religious values in action.

This conversation was one of many that I hope will en-sue in the coming months. More and more members can be part of this dialogue to enable us to find out who we are as a congregation and what we would like to do for each other and for our neighbors in Las Cruces. May we work together among ourselves and with partners in our city to ensure the peace and well-being of our children and their children as well.