Thursday, September 25, 2014

“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.  

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