Thursday, September 25, 2014

“WHAT (is required of us)? – Sermon – Rosh Hashanah Morning (Revised from 5765/5767) – September 25, 2014

Every year is like one part of a journey, providing images, stories and moments along the way that we will remember, hopefully for the good.   We may not think that our life's path resembles, in any way, the tale in the Torah reading today, where Abraham and Isaac traveled together and experienced moments that changed both of them for the rest of their lives – but perhaps we are not so different from them.
    The question on my mind this year as I thought about this test of Abraham and Isaac was, “What is required of us?”  What is it that we have to do in life to be decent human beings who are strong, caring, steadfast and committed to our community and to our relationships?
     What is required of us is to be present.  I first learned about the Biblical Hebrew word for presence, "Hineini," from my first Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Esther Kleiman.   She would call the roll in class and we would use this ancient response to indicate that we were sitting in the classroom, hopefully present in body, mind and spirit.   The next year, the Cantor's wife, a creative educator who introduced us to a more modern Hebrew, taught us instead to say "po,"  which means "here."    So, at this moment, if you asked me where I am, and I said "po," it would mean, "I am on the bimah, standing beside the Torah - where else should I, the rabbi, be on Rosh Hashanah morning when I am ready to give my d'var Torah?"   However, if I said, instead, "Hineini," it would mean, "I am on the bimah, joining you in prayer and celebration, standing beside the Torah in order to share with you lessons that we can take into this new year of 5775."
The word “Hineini” has many levels of significance, especially whenever it appears in a Biblical story.   We know the first part of the word as "Hinei," here - behold, as in the familiar phrase from Psalms,  "Hinei mah tov u-mah naim," Behold - how good and how pleasant it is."   The suffix adds the part of the word that means "I" , "Ani."  "Hineini" expresses an awareness, an ability to see a situation with open eyes, and to recognize that I - ani- may have a responsibility or task that requires my personal attention, concern and commitment.  I never thought that my simple response in Hebrew class could encompass so much meaning, but Mrs. Kleiman was, I believe, trying to teach us that the study of our heritage is at its best when it comes from deep within our soul – from that place of "Hineini," and not just "po."
  My annual struggle with interpreting the Akedah - the story of the binding of Isaac - must necessarily be an exercise in "Hineini" and not "po."  It is unwise to deal only on the surface with this tale of a father and son and their God who, apparently, commands the father to sacrifice his son to demonstrate unwavering faith.   In his book HINEINI IN OUR LIVES, Rabbi Norman Cohen collected statements from rabbis and scholars who told of "hineini moments” from their lives which they related to Abraham’s dilemma as he journeyed with his son Isaac to an uncertain fate.  Some of the contributors to Rabbi Cohen’s book offered stories from their personal experiences that they viewed as actual tests of faith, real examples of "Hineini."   I would agree with the interpretations in that volume that urge us to explore the use of the statement "Hineini" in the Akedah in order to place the entire story in its proper context.  There is something pivotal about each instance in which Biblical characters say "hineini" to God or to one another. That is especially true every time this word appears in Genesis chapter 22.   In each case, Abraham was required to act in consonance with what he believed, even if the request seemed to be pushing him to the limits of his faith.
 The first "Hineini" in the Akedah story was spoken by Abraham as he responded to God's double call of his name, commanding him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.  On one level, we are at least surprised, if not shocked, to hear what Abraham was supposed to do to prove his dedication to God.  We wonder how God could apparently ask for a human sacrifice from a person who had shown only focus and commitment to God's direction until that point.  This divine demand on Abraham can signify for us situations that come to us in our lives, often without warning.  This particular "hineini" moment is relevant to each of us when unforeseen circumstances or events put us in an unexpected place.  At such a moment, we have to drop everything, put our lives on hold, and attend to the tragedy or challenge before us.  This requires all of our energy at a cost of personal sacrifice and, perhaps, the unfortunate, but, hopefully, temporary loss of connection with those who depend on us the most.  There are times when we feel that we must attend to the needs of a particular family member or friend at the exclusion of others who would benefit from our presence.  There are days when work may pull us away from home or friendship or personal pursuits.  We try to address and fulfill all of our responsibilities, but sometimes we cannot even say "po,"  much less "hineini."  There is no choice in some instances but to make a choice, however difficult, if only for a brief time, so that we can later respond with an eventual and heartfelt "hineini" to everyone around us.  In the case of the Torah reading, Abraham felt the pull that he perceived from God, on one hand, and his family on the other.   He chose God and embarked with his son and his servants on a three-day journey to Mount Moriyah.
The second time Abraham said “hineini” in this portion was in response to Isaac's call and question,  "Father?"  Abraham replied, "Hineini, v'nee - here I am, my son."  Isaac asked, "Here is the firestone and the knife, but where is the ram for the burnt offering?"    That exchange was a potential moment of truth between parent and child that tested Abraham's faith, and, even more, the trust between Abraham and Isaac.   What could Abraham say?  He didn’t say, "God has commanded me to sacrifice you, Isaac, and you know that God is most important in my life, and I have to do what God tells me to do – you have to come along with me."   Nor did he say, "I am going along with God's command to sacrifice you, even though I know that I have been promised many descendants through you.  This is tearing me apart, and I hope that I don't have to go through with this. "  Nor did he say nothing.   Abraham said, "God will provide a ram for the burnt offering, my son."   There was, in Abraham's response, a note of slight resignation, but also a hint of optimism that he and Isaac would somehow get through this trial.   Abraham had to say something to reassure his son so that they could continue on the path to the mountain.   The text at that point declared, "VAYAYLCHU SH'NAYHEM YACHDAV - THE TWO OF THEM WALKED TOGETHER."  Neither of them knew exactly what was going to happen, but they had each other and trusted each other as they moved along a road towards an uncertain end.  
    As I consider this conversation between Abraham and Isaac, I think of adults who have been required to leave their parents, spouses and children in order to engage in work, military service or other necessary personal commitments. I think of those individuals dealing with the death of a loved one who are attempting to create a new perspective on life that offers a measure of comfort to other family members.  I think of individuals who must overcome challenges to their physical, emotional or mental well-being in the presence of their closest relatives and friends, assuring them that their support is valuable even if they sometimes are unable to show appreciation for the help they provide.  To move forward while facing a difficult situation, we are called upon to say "HINEINI", to be there for each other and to walk together, like Abraham and Isaac, with one mind and one heart.
     Abraham said “hineini” a third time in Genesis Chapter 22 as he responded to the call of the angel that directed him to refrain from sacrificing Isaac.    He heard the urgent command, “Do not set your hand upon the boy, and don’t do anything to him, for it is now known without a doubt that you revere God, since you have not withheld your only son.”   We are supposed to feel relieved as the dramatic tension is resolved with the angel’s timely arrival, Isaac’s survival, and Abraham’s successful completion of this trial of faith.  It may have seemed that everything was back to normal. Yes, Abraham would have many descendants through Isaac – God’s promise of progeny was totally intact.   Yet, Abraham and Isaac changed during this traumatic experience.   We have no sense that father and son closely interacted with each other ever again.   Some commentators imagined that tears from the angel that came to stop the test touched Isaac’s eyes, causing his sight to be dim at that moment and increasingly clouded as he grew older.   For us, any test and any challenge to our well-being or to our notions about our own reality will necessarily alter our perspectives on life.    Hineini, at this point in the Torah reading, meant, for Abraham, “I am ready to accept the role of being a loving parent with realistic expectations, a dedicated believer in higher truths, and an example for generations to come of what it means to face, with faith, life’s unexpected trials and tests.”
     When we encounter difficult situations, we are like Abraham, and our Hineini is at least similar to his, if not the same.   We don’t expect everything to be as it was before.  We do change when we deal with illness, the death of a relative or friend, loss or change of employment, surprising shifts in our closest relationships, or events beyond our control.   What is most important in any case is to hold on, to stand up, and to hear the angel calling our name, to which our response of “hineini” will signal that we are present in the moment and ready to take the next step on our journey, incorporating our new knowledge and experience into our outlook and character as we try to make ourselves whole again. 
          At the foundation of who we are, whatever tests we face, are values embodied in texts and sayings from our tradition.   In the last several weeks, I asked our Religious School teachers, Religious School committee members, students and congregants to express what they believe are values that can enable us to say, with confidence, HINEINI - here I am.   Here are some of our own pearls of wisdom that can support us as we face the tests that life inevitably places before us:
Come and learn; act kindly.
Bring your best self; be a friend.
Every day is a new start.
Think before you speak and listen intently to what others have to say.
We should speak less so that we can listen more and hear the voices calling for us to be present.
Know before whom you are speaking and with whom you are living in community - and remember that you are part of that community.
When everyone around you is behaving badly, be a mensch, a decent person.   
Think positive thoughts and apologize if you hurt someone's feelings.
Use quiet voices and kind words.
Find a friend to help guide you through life.
  Those guides are all around us to help us to know when and how to say HINEINI.   Sometimes, after knowing well that THEY have been a beacon for US, we may be required to return the favor.  In one congregation, there was a girl named Emma who was diligently studying several years ago to become Bat Mitzvah. She had started on that path very late because she hadn’t enrolled in Religious School until she was in 7th grade. Still,  she was making great progress and on track as a quick study and a highly motivated student. Emma had many strengths, intellectual, athletic and a deep concern for the welfare of her community and the world. Her peers thought of her as an unassuming leader-by-example and a good friend.    About two months before her Bat Mitzvah date, Emma was hit by a car while skateboarding near her home.  She spent several months recovering at a major hospital over an hour away from where she lived, and then at a facility closer to home.   Once she had made progress on her road to recovery, she was able to resume her studies at school and to continue her participation in Lacrosse and soccer.  The Bat Mitzvah service didn't happen, but Emma's return to her life was like a rebirth, an unplanned coming-of-age milestone in which she had successfully, and with flying colors, faced a difficult challenge.   Two weeks ago, Emma was driving her car with a friend in the passenger seat. She turned onto a major road from a side street and her car was struck by another vehicle.  The passenger survived, but Emma died.  The news spread throughout the community. The principal of her high school commented, “Emma really was a young woman with great potential who was such a good role model for her classmates in terms of the positive attitude that she put forth, her kindness, and her constant striving to achieve.” Emma’s father commented that she had been born, and reborn, and now, he hoped that she would be reborn again in spirit as she endures in the memories of her friends and loved ones. Emma’s peers, out-of-town relatives and school district staff and faculty overwhelmingly responded to the call of HINEINI to offer crucial support.  The family called the only rabbi they really knew, Emma’s Bat Mitzvah tutor, to take part in the funeral.  I was the rabbi who was Emma’s Bat Mitzvah tutor, and while I couldn’t attend, I spoke to Emma’s dad at length and sent my remembrance that was shared at her funeral.  What lasts from the life of such a person – in fact, of any loved one who dies -  is the legacy that remains, and the realization that it is our response of HINEINI at a moment of need that can keep fresh and alive the memory of a treasured soul.  
     In a moment, we will listen again to the tale of Abraham and Isaac, which is, more than we realize, as challenging as some of our own experiences in life. The shofar will call us to remembrance of our actions, to forgiveness of ourselves and others and to the realization of our capacity to change for the better and to step forward to act at a moment's notice, not only to say “po,” that we are present in this space, but also “hineini,” that we are here in the fullest sense.  May this be a year in which we respond to life’s challenges and trials from the depths of our being with new resolve and wisdom, performing the tasks required of us by being prepared to bring our best self to every moment of our lives.   At those times, may we be totally present, with a confident and heartfelt “hineini.”  So may it be – and let us say amen.

“WHO (are we) – Sermon – Erev Rosh Hashanah – September 24, 2014

     And when, in time to come, a child of yours asks you saying, “What does this mean?” you shall reply, “It was with a mighty hand that the Eternal brought us out of Egypt, the house of bondage.”
   We came across this passage from Exodus Chapter 13 in our Torah study group several weeks ago.   We all know well this question and answer from the Passover Haggadah, in the section about the four different types of children.   The Torah cites the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt as a fundamental reason for us to be welcoming to the stranger in our midst, to open our hearts and hands to people in need, and to treat everyone with respect.
    No, your rabbi is not confused, thinking that we are observing Pesach tonight and not Rosh Hashanah.  The Seder table is conspicuously absent this evening, as it should be, but Jewish teachings about freedom never go away.  The message of that "time of our liberation" finds a place in the High Holy Day prayerbook along with other values at the foundation of our heritage such as  wonder, love, hope, memory, respect, and peace.   Mi Chamocha and the prayers around it highlight the importance of liberty as a daily aspiration and consideration.  In the kiddush for Rosh Hashanah, as well as on Shabbat and our holidays, we recite the phrase, ZEICHEIR LITZIYAT MITZRAYIM – this is a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.  Even when we are holding in our hand a cup of wine, which represents joy, we still recall a time of oppression and hardship, so that we can be thankful for whatever freedom and goodness we have and enjoy at a given moment in our lives.  
    When we came across the verse about the child’s Exodus question in our Torah study group, I mentioned to my study partners that I had recently found a photo online of Jewish children who had entered the United States via Ellis Island in 1908 due to circumstances well beyond their control.  These eight children came to our shores through the sponsorship and support of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.  A note at the top of the photograph read, “Orphan children, mothers killed in Russian massacre in October, 1905.”   That particular was difficult and tragic for Jews in Russia, as anti-Semitic attacks on a number of Jewish communities took many lives.   Those 8 children were very fortunate to have made their way to America. In the photograph, a close look reveals a sense of hope in the eyes of those children, as well as gratitude for being taken to a land of freedom.   I would imagine that the children in the photo eventually had the opportunity to enjoy, throughout the decades that followed, celebrations of Jewish holidays and  life events, including reciting those words on Pesach that recall, year after year, our liberation from Egypt.      
       What look do we have in our eyes tonight?  What hopes would we express, living in this country and city, and being present at this congregation as we welcome the New Year?   We come from many backgrounds and many places.  I don’t need to do a show of hands to know that there are multiple countries of origin and cultures represented here, as well as various regions of the United States.   Some of us were born and raised Jewish.  Some of us chose Judaism as adults.  Some of us were raised in other faiths and are enthusiastically supportive of Jewish observance and learning that is an integral part of life at home and, by extension, at this vibrant Jewish congregation.   And, most important, we see ourselves as One community, where each of us can enhance Jewish life for each other.  
    We felt comfortable enough as a congregation this past spring to share the Jewish culture with the greater Las Cruces Community at the Jewish Food and Folk Festival, better known as the JFFF.   Our Las Cruces neighbors learned this past April not only that we put on a great event here, but that we have warm hospitality to offer, an openness which is embedded deep in our tradition.  
   Hospitality, our remembrance of an ancient liberation, and an appreciation of freedom are among the values central to Judaism.  Many of our programs and even worship services have attracted people who want to know more about who we are and what we believe.  Adult Education events on Sundays draw many attendees from the local community, as do our Torah and Talmud study groups and our Introduction to Judaism course. This type of participation happens at synagogues, Temples and Jewish Community Centers in many cities around the United States.  We are often like Abraham and Sarah, who welcomed three mysterious guests to their tent who bore good news for their future.    The guests who join us here for our events strengthen our ties to the greater human family and illustrate over and over again the words with which we are so familiar:  HINEI MAH TOV UMAH NAEEM, SHEVET ACHIM GAM YACHAD – Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity.
    There are, however, some people who are unaware at how hospitality and openness has broadened the background of people who attend programs at Jewish centers and synagogues.    One such person was Frazier Glenn Miller.  A former Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist leader in North Carolina,  Miller had changed his name to wipe out his past associations as he settled in a small Missouri town.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation had given him a protected status because Miller had testified against some of his former fellow KKK members, likely in order to reduce his time in prison.    On April 13 of this year, a lifetime of hatred bubbled over.  Miller had not been known to be prone to violent acts, but it is clear that his testimony against his former hateful associates did not lead him to recant his bigotry.  He went to the Jewish  Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas on a day when the "KC SuperStar" program, similar to American Idol, was holding auditions.    Reat Underwood, a 14 year old student, accompanied by his grandfather William Corporan, a retired and well respected physician, went to the JCC to showcase Reat’s talent.   They were the two people that Miller confronted in the parking lot with his question, "Are you Jewish?" and, not waiting for an answer, shot them both.   Miller then went to Village Shalom, a nearby retirement community, and shot Terri LaManno, who had just visited her mother there.   It was only the Jewish identity of the places that Miller saw, rather than the religion or background of the people he murdered – but it really didn’t matter.  As it turns out, Corporan and his grandson were members of a well-known United Methodist Megachurch, Church of the Resurrection, in Overland Park.    Terri LaManno  was a member of a Catholic Church in Kansas City.     At the recent finals of the KC SuperStar Competition, Mindy Corporan Losen,  daughter of William Corporan and mother of Reat Underwood, made a poignant appearance. In recent weeks, two women who have been leaders in the Greater Kansas City Jewish community for many years formed a dailogue group with women from Church of the Resurrection that would bring their faith communities closer together to explore their similarities and differences and, especially, to strengthen their ties to one another. Their reason for meeting likely assures that their group will continue to build bridges of understanding and respect for a long time to come.  
   The idea of the interconnected nature of humanity is nothing new for us.  This concept of unity and oneness is expressed in a phrase that we recite in morning and evening worship, and that we can also choose to say when we get up in the morning and when we lie down to sleep.  That prayer is the Shema - please say the first line with me - SHEMA YISRAEL ADONAI ELOHEINU ADONAI ECHAD.  It is likely that our first inclination in expressing the meaning of the Shema is to explain that it focuses on God, especially because it mentions God's special name not once, but twice.  The SHEMA, however, is just as much about us.  It begins with the phrase "Hear/Listen, Israel."   ISRAEL refers not just to Jacob the patriarch's new name, or to the entire Jewish people, but to the meaning of that name.  Some translate YISRAEL to mean "struggler with God."   Perhaps we know what a struggle it can be to try to hold God close and to recognize a divine presence in our lives. In that sense, YISRAEL truly encompasses every one of us here tonight.   
    The name for God in the SHEMA, spelled YUD HAY VAV HAY, has its own multiplicity of meanings, all of them pointing to a God who is always existing or causes everything to exist, a God who is ALWAYS THERE and permeates every corner of existence.   In his new book, JUDAISM'S TEN BEST IDEAS, Rabbi Arthur Green suggested this translation to capture the deeper significance of the Shema:  “Listen, all you who struggle, all you who wrestle with life’s meaning! Being is our God, Being is one!” Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson in a new book about Jewish theology, also spoke of how we are interconnected in ways we are just beginning to understand through science, reason and religion.    Put in another way, we can't get away from each other or anyone or anything else, for that matter.  And to quote a slightly dated popular song lyric, "Guess it's true  - I am happy to be stuck with you."    Judaism directs us to be  happy with that reality of all of us bound together within creation. That is a good reason to have those words above the ark from Psalm 100 verse 2:  "IVDU ET ADONAI B'SIMCHAH - Serve God with gladness or happiness."  That is who we are supposed to be, members of a community who live and serve God and others with joy and who see their lives through lens of this teaching of the rabbis: WHO ARE RICH?  THOSE WHO ARE HAPPY WITH WHAT THEY HAVE.
      The sense of oneness that binds us together with and within God's Oneness should bring the human family together in harmony and mutual respect, right?   One would hope so, but more and more that hope seems to be in vain.   Some of us, however, aren't ready to give up.   
   In her book FROM ENEMY TO FRIEND: JEWISH WISDOM AND THE PURSUIT OF PEACE, Rabbi Amy Eilberg commented extensively on what it means to be partners in dialogue within Judaism.   She understands that many people think that all Jews do is argue unabashedly, with no desire for respect or resolution.  That notion, she said, is not entirely true.   Judaism carefully characterizes the type of conversation that is appropriate when two parties disagree.   One of the essential teachings about how we can generate constructive and productive discussion comes from this passage in the Talmud.   "Rabbi Abba said in the name of Sh'muel:  For three years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel debated a matter of ritual.  One said, "The law is according to our position," and the other said, "The law is according to OUR position."  A divine voice came and said, "These and these are the words of the living God, BUT the law is according to the House of Hillel."  Rabbi Abba asked, ‘If these are both the words of the living God, why was the law set according to the House of Hillel?’  It was because [as we know] the students from the House of Hillel were gentle and humble.  They taught both their own words and the words of the House of Shammai.  AND not only this, but they taught the words of the House of Shammai [their rivals] before [teaching] their own."  (BT Eruvin 13b). 
    Rabbi Eilberg explained that the rabbis of the House of Hillel set an example all should follow because "they affirmatively taught their own view and the view they rejected to communicate that both views contain an aspect of truth.  Not only this, but when they taught the two perspectives on the issue at hand, they taught their opponents' position first, to explicitly acknowledge its value and to give honor to those who thought that way.  Only after teaching their opponents' view - with understanding and appreciation - did they proceed to explain why their own opinion was more compelling." 
Eilberg continued: "Many Jewish leaders have suggested that the tradition of Talmudic debate is evidence of the fact that we are an innately argumentative people.  I disagree. Rather, the Talmud models on virtually every page the art of living with difference and conducting passionate debate on vital issues without violating the most basic Jewish and humanistic values of dignity, respect  and reverence for all God's creatures."    This is wisdom and an approach that  we definitely need in our society.
     One more passage from the Talmud cited in Rabbi Eilberg's book was striking to me. It discussed how community connections, friendships and family ties can and should take precedence over ideology. “Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said, ‘If a parent and child or a teacher and student who are studying Torah in one place become enemies one to the other, they should not move from there until their love for one another is restored.’” Rabbi Eilberg explained: "I take this text to mean that when any precious relationship between two people who love each other very much becomes endangered by an argument, all other pursuits should stop until love and connection are reestablished.  The relationship is far more important than the content of the debate.   Such restoration requires rigorous self-awareness and clarity of vision in order to resist the powerful temptation to allow the content of the debate to damage priceless human ties."
    I am not going to suggest that the Temple doors be locked at this very moment until all disagreements lingering among us are resolved.  The High Holy Days do strongly suggest that peace and love be restored between those mired in ideological conflict.   Apologies in the spirit of the High Holy Days can focus on how we communicate our views.  And furthermore, the Jewish tradition would remind us that, even if we disagree with each other, we are called upon to see any opponent in thought as a part of a "loyal opposition."   Yet, we have to earn that loyalty by expressing our views in a way that can generate dialogue that can help everyone involved in the discussion grow in understanding.    And, I would add, it's crucial, as members of a Jewish community, to listen to and explore the teachings of our tradition together.    Judaism features many ancient, time-honored principles that were held by a community that often faced so many threats from without that they did all that they could to create mutual respect within.  We ourselves, and people throughout our country and the world, could learn a lot from the civil discourse at the heart of the Jewish heritage of learning.    One of the best recent examples of ideological opponents being locked together in a small space happened due to the reality of the summer ordeal in the Israel-Gaza conflict.     I was fascinated by the report of a July 12 demonstration against the war in Gaza by Israelis on the left at Habima Square in Tel Aviv.    Right wing counter demonstrators were right there with them, shouting at them whatever slogans they could muster.   Then the sirens sounded. Then, they all went to a nearby MIKLAT - a shelter - together.   Yes, right-wing and left wing Israelis - in a shelter – together, suspended their conflict for a moment as they sought refuge from the common existential threat from Hamas.  Once the all clear was sounded, they went back up to the square and resumed their positions, shouting at each other in disagreement once again.
    For a moment, the shelter - the MIKLAT - was not only a haven and refuge from rockets.  It was also a place where these Israelis automatically, almost unconsciously, set aside their differences and recognized that they were all part of one community.

    Perhaps that experience, and wisdom from our time-honored texts about mutual respect, can give new meaning to the blessing we sang earlier in the service: "BARUCH ATAH ADONAI HAPOREIS SUKKAT SHALOM ALEINU, V'AL KOL AMO YISRAEL, V'AL Y'RUSHALAYIM" - Blessed are You, Adonai, who spreads a shelter of peace over us, over all human beings who struggle with God and with life's meaning, and over Jerusalem, the city of peace."   Every place in the world can reflect peace, respect, compassion, holiness, and love if we offer those gifts from our minds, hands and hearts.     It is we who have the responsibility to spread a shelter of peace over one another because we live together as fellow members of the human community. That is who we are:  people who have the potential to overcome the fear of difference and who can reach out to one another to build bridges instead of walls, to offer acceptance rather than rejection, and to use the gift of understanding and wisdom to bring all people into a circle of humanity so that the God we call One will be reflected in the oneness we inevitably share.    May that oneness lead us to a year of blessing and goodness and peace within each of us and with one another.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

"Standing Together" - D'var Torah for Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-14) - September 19, 2014

What does it mean to stand together?
For the Israelites, poised to enter the Promised land,
the nature of their unity was clear.
The beginning of this week's Parashah depicts the scene that included all of the people who were gathered as a community to declare their acceptance of a special relationship with God:
"You stand this day
All of you
Before the Eternal your God
You tribal heads, you elders, you officials,
You men, women and children
The stranger who is with you in your camp
From your woodchopper to your water drawer
To enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God."
Everyone had a common sense of purpose: to reaffirm the original experience at Mount Sinai , when they perceived that God, who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, was offering them rules that would  guide them in their lives.
    This section proclaims that even members of future generations who hadn't yet been born would be a part of this timeless relationship.   And today, all branches of Judaism speak of the B’RIT, the covenant, each in their own way, but with a sense of the biblical foundation that encompasses all Jews today and in the past. 
    This past Wednesday marked the 227th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution.    There is no description in the annals of our nation’s history of a scene where "all the people" were standing together to accept this newly created document that would direct our national life, outlining rights and responsibilities for America's citizens.    What we do have is the written Constitution itself with signatures of those who met to craft its contents.    The Constitution's signers included some of most prominent members of the founding generation of leaders of the United States.  We know more and more about how some of them vehemently disagreed with one another on certain issues.   We also know that they deeply cared about their respective visions for our country as a land of freedom.  And now, one would hope that the symbols, customs and practices of our nation, including the run-up to national elections, continue to affirm that we do still stand for the value of E PLURIBUS UNUM – “out of many, One.” 
       Some Americans have suggested that our understanding of the constitution should reflect what they call "the intent of the framers" and nothing more.   That assertion echoes passages in the Torah which declared, "You shall not add anything to this law, nor shall you take anything away from it."  Even with that statement in the Torah, rabbinic Judaism and contemporary Jewish movements developed their own understanding of Jewish law, arriving at new interpretations and adding practices not contained in the original Torah text. The call of sages like Rabbi Akiva, who reportedly suggested that the rabbis "go out and see what the people are doing," recognized how a body of law could gradually and organically grow.   In Judaism, the "intent of the framers" may be claimed by one group or another, but most Jewish movements believe that even the rabbis of old wanted future generations to make Jewish law their own.   The term used in relation to interpreting the American constitution, "loose constructionism," would apply in a Jewish context not only to Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, but to some modern Orthodox rabbis as well.     
     Constitutional scholars, judges and many Americans continue to discuss how we can enable the document signed on September 17, 1787 to grow as our nation continues to move forward with changing demographics and newly-developing  economic and geo-political realities.  When it comes right down to it, we need to stand together as citizens of the United States in the way that the Israelites stood together so long ago.  We are part of a covenant of community in this country, reflected in the prayer for our country that we recite in our worship.  So may we find new ways of taking a vision of unity in the Torah and sharing it with our fellow citizens so that a vision of America will be one that reflects equality, inclusiveness, wisdom, justice and hope. 


Friday, September 12, 2014

"I Couldn't Have Done It Without You" - D'var Torah - Parashat Ki Tavo - September 12, 2014 (Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Installation Shabbat for Temple leaders)

What is our story?  How would we recite it in one paragraph?
Each of us would likely craft a narrative that speaks about our birthplace, our family, where we lived the longest, and what were the most important achievements in our lives. 
When I was asked to provide information for the inscription on my Doctor of Divinity degree, it had to hit what we might call the “high points” of what was then a 25 year career.   It mentioned leadership both inside and outside the congregation, and it still serves as an accurate reflection of who I am and what I do.  That paragraph was read by the president of Hebrew Union College as he was about to offer me words of blessing at a special ceremony.
In this week’s Torah reading, the Israelites learned that they would be asked, after settling in the promised land, to bring the first fruit of the harvest as an expression of humility and gratitude for making their way to that land after centuries of slavery in Egypt. 
After they presented the basket of produce to the priest, each Israelite was required to recite a formula which traced their story, from wanderings to a sojourn in Egypt filled with hardship, to God’s deliverance, to their entry into the land where they would make their home.  It was their way of saying, “God, thank you – we couldn’t have done it without you.”   
Perhaps that is the essence of the combined message of the words we pray in every service.   That could be the reason that we do what we do for this congregation.  Our involvement does keep us connected to each other and strengthens our feeling of Jewish community.   But maybe, just maybe, our presence and our work for Temple is like the Israelite’s presentation of the basket of first fruit to the priest.   That act was a reflection of pride, thanksgiving, humility, faith and remembrance.   And those values can permeate our service to this congregation, no matter what we do.  So as we continue to strengthen Temple Beth-El, let us always have that phrase in the back of our minds, recognizing that every act on behalf of Temple is touched by holiness.  And may this be our thought at the beginning and end of each day, so that we can find the best in our giving and living: “God, thank you – I couldn’t have done it without you.”