Sunday, October 26, 2014

Song and Creation - Reflections on Shabbat Shira at OSRUI on October 23-26, 2014

       I am sure that if you had asked me about what I would be doing after turning 60, I wouldn't have imagined that I would I be participating in new conferences and ventures.   Just a week after recording my vocal and guitar tracks for my forthcoming album, it was time to join my songleading community at the fall conference "Shabbat Shira" (Sabbath of Song, literally).   This was my 15th time attending a gathering at OSRUI camp.   The 12 previous times were for the late spring songleading workshop, Hava Nashira.   And for two times before that,  I was a camper in the Tzofim session in 1967 and 1968 (I was a non-Boy Scout living in a tent with 5 other boys for 10 days each of those years).   Walking through the Bayit (the main "house" of the camp by the Lac La Belle) carries with it memories of dancing into the room that was once the dining hall with my fellow Tzofim campers as we joined the main program for a Shabbat song session.   
      Once again, "song" was the focus for being at OSRUI.  I already knew over half of the 50-plus participants and had attended sessions led by most of the faculty at one time or another.    I was glad to have the chance to really get to know people I hadn't met before, an opportunity made possible by our numbers.    (Note to veteran Hava Nashira participants: "Try it, you'll like it!"). 
      There were, as always, new melodies to learn and songs and compositions that I had heard before but needed to be reinforced so I could present them "back home."  There was multiple-part harmony during worship and song sessions that was rich and exquisite, demonstrating that we could generate a full sound among ourselves.   The Open mic sessions after our programming ended each day afforded an opportunity for people to share original compositions or "covers" of favorite songs, showing the wide range of talent represented among us.  
       There was a flurry of special moments throughout these few days:  washing our hands in Lac La Belle during our Friday morning service, Noam Katz's session on Songs for Social Change (music has always been a part of movements for change), our "Human bingo" mixer at which we learned a lot about one another and Michelle Citrin's summary of the bingo items with a hands-in-the-air response of "that's me!"; getting to know long-time colleagues and new fellow participants in sessions and at meals; a one-on-one sharing of original compositions with my colleague, Andy Dennen; and time spent with some very good friends.  Many thanks to our faculty for guiding us in these few days of learning and growth, as well as to Camp Director Jerry Kaye for his vision and the staff members for their support!
        The new and "watershed" experience, for me, was Josh Nelson's "Create!" group which was charged with developing a program for the Seudah Sh'leesheet "Third Meal" reflective session that preceded Saturday night dinner.  We divided into three task forces focusing on (I hope I get this right) Creation/Entry, Present/Now, Future/Exit.   Josh asked members of each group to express a vulnerability and a word that characterized each of us in relation to our theme.   Alden Solovy, a widely-known poet and liturgist whose writings I have used in services at my Temple in Las Cruces, NM, was part of our task force,  After listening to our comment, he wrote this:   
There is no empty space
In now. 
No empty space between
You and G-d.
No wound, no loss, Nothing broken,
Wholeness, Only Wholeness
Feet on the ground, connected
Head in the sky, seeing
Hearing.  Now
Only Now
There is no empty space
Between you and the heartbeat
You and the stillness. 
You and the surrender.  
So the precious present is sweet. 
With song, sweet
with joy,  sweet with 
 Each member of our small group contributed his/her own gifts to our presentation:  stories, readings, song (Gesher Tzar M'od - all the world is a narrow bridge), niggun (a melody without words), and an invitation for people to find a comfortable space for contemplation.     
   I had planned to sing one of my already-finished original songs in our section, but the desire to create (or maybe an outside source) presented me with a song-fragment or two during the night.   I wasn't sure if I wanted to write something new based on Alden's reading, or set his words to music.   I realized, after listening to my middle-of-the-night recording, that I had received as a "gift" a musical mode that could be applied to Alden's text. 
    After our inspiring Shabbat morning service (and lunch!), I started working with the text.  And soon after that, I sat down with Alden to share where I was going musically.   Together, we reshaped the reading into a song with a singable chorus in the course of 20 minutes.  We packed a lot of creativity and productive labor into those few moments that yielded something very special (both the song and our working together).  Once the melody and words had taken their final shape, I shared it with our small group, and it was in as the introduction to our section following Alden's reading of the beginning of the reflection.  During the the next two hours, I did all I could to keep the melody in my head!  
     Each of the CREATE groups presented a meaningful and thoughtful compilation/collaboration of expression that included music, dance, prose/poetry, visual images, and community building.  When our section of the program began, Alden read the first lines and then I "jumped feet first" into the song, a product of collaboration that demonstrates the Jewish value of chevurta/partnership at it best.  Every note, chord and the lyrics came out as planned and hoped.   You can hear the song at this link on YouTube (hopefully, a multitrack recording is forthcoming!).
"Only Now," Lyrics by Alden Solovy, Music by Larry Karol
  The lyrics that Alden worked with me to adapt for the song are on the YouTube video page.  Being among the creators of that program was a real honor.
   What I took away from this amazing experience - and Shabbat Shira in its totality - was the importance of being open to NEW experiences, to listening to others, to finding the most positive aspect of the moment, and to enjoying moments that can bring hope and joy.    
    Song has always done that for me, and each of us has the capacity to find joy in our lives.  May we seek discover that SIMCHAH, happiness and contentment, within ourselves and within the miracle of cooperation, collaboration, friendship and the ever-present possibility of making a peaceful community and world.   

Friday afternoon Faculty Music Sharing

Kiddush and Motzi after Shabbat Morning Worship ("That's Me!" on the left)

Singing "Now" with Alden Solovy right behind!
Conclusion of the Seudah Sh'leesheet presentation

Havdalah Service with a Sephardic musical theme!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Road Ahead - and a look back - October 12, 2014

       Returning to the recording studio after a 10-year hiatus made me feel somewhat like the members of the baseball teams in the Championship series in the American League and National League.   Only the Royals (MY Royals), the Orioles, the Giants and the Cardinals remain from all the teams that played an entire season with hopes of being in the position of these four franchises.   Some players have been part of many postseasons series in past, others not at all.   Every at-bat, pitch, and strategic decision is significant.    One of my friends texted me, "Tell your Royals to settle down!"   Those were the next words out of my mouth, but I say, "can you blame them?"
       So as I stepped into the closed room to do my first vocals, with my producer, Scott Leader, looking on and guiding me, I felt that I was in some version of "musical playoffs" mode.  I knew I had to do my absolute best, while understanding that I could go back and correct what wasn't quite right.   
      The recording process is taking me back to special and important times over the last decade of my life.   I created one song before a telephone interview with a congregation.  Another marked my 25 years in the rabbinate, and yet another came to be just hours after our son Adam's graduation from Berklee College of Music.  I wrote two of the songs while serving on the faculty at the Union for Reform Judaism's Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  I set Jewish texts to music to find a way to rise above the conflictual aspects of the 2012 Election and military and societal struggles during the summer of 2014.  
     Our personal expressions of thoughts and feelings at a pivotal moment in our lives or in human history (in a letter, email, article or blog) enable us to look back to that time and to see how those events affected our present.   It is very much the same with a song, but there is a depth that comes with years of presenting songs either in performance or as part of worship gatherings.  I am able to vocally reproduce the melodies and harmonies created up to nine years ago, but the singer is the "me" of today.   New life experiences take the music to a different level.   
      This coming week, Jewish congregations around the world will celebrate Simchat Torah, "Rejoicing with the Torah," ending and beginning the reading of the Torah.   My memories of this holiday go back to when I was in elementary school.   So it's just the same, year after year, right?   No, not exactly.  The  congregants who attend even in the same congregation from one year to the next can change the nature of the spirit at the service.  Perhaps we might even hear in a different way the tale of the end of Moses' career and the story of the beginning of all existence and creation, depending on where we are in our lives.   During one of my years in high school, Simchat Torah fell on my birthday, and I was far from the point of truly relating to Moses as he passed the torch of leadership to Joshua and knew that his people would enter Canaan without him.   Now, having turned 60 on the eve of Yom Kippur, Moses' time of life is much "closer to home."   
      I believe that the reason that we move straight into Genesis from Deuteornomy is to encourage us to see endings as necessarily carrying with them new beginnings.  We have the opportunity to view the vista that still lies before us as "the road ahead."   As we again recite the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, and Abraham and his family, our past understandings of these tales can, if we let them, lead to new notions and fresh insights.   We call that growth, whether inside each of us or outside as we partner with others who join us on the journey of life.   
      Recently, Rhonda (we marked 32 years of marriage this past August) and I visited the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro International Heritage Center in New Mexico. We were impressed at the 300 year history of this "Royal Road to the Interior Lands" that was over 400 miles long, and the vistas around this site were inspiring. 
      Jewish tradition encourages each of us to be like a Ruler who was commanded to keep a scroll of God's law in their possession.   Simchat Torah places everyone in a congregation close to the Torah scroll, giving them a chance to carry it around the sanctuary and to see it read up close.  It makes every person like a Ruler, and reminds us that the Torah is ours to have, hold and keep as a guide every day.   To contradict the singer Lorde, WE CAN ALL BE ROYALS! 
      I believe that our life journeys are like the Royal Road, which had its smooth stretches and its trecherous passages.  So do our lives have both extremes, and we make it through with the help of those close to us who are by our side.   
       I have more songs to sing as I bring this album closer to fruition, and I know that they are not just signposts of paths already traversed.  They represent the road that still lies before us, because we know better where we should go if we understand from whence we came.     
      I look forward to sharing this music, and more, as we move forward to a future filled with joy and hope!  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

HOW (can we repair the world)? - Sermon - Yom Kippur Morning - October 4, 2014

    It’s likely that they never expected to return to that place after their first visit, as a group, 50 years ago.
   Then, it was to begin to make a point about human equality, and to bring about change.  They were jailed for their actions, but, in their minds and hearts, they knew that what they did was right.  
    And now, this year, they were invited back to commemorate what they had done for people whom they considered neighbors, not strangers.  
    In early June of 1964, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been arrested at the Monson Motor Lodge and Restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida, as he joined residents there in working towards integration.  Dr. King wrote to his friend, Rabbi Israel Dresner, in New Jersey, asking to him to organize, as soon as possible, as many rabbis as he could to come to St. Augustine as they tried to bring change in the face of great challenge.   Sixteen rabbis,  leaving straight from their annual rabbinic convention, made the trip to Florida in response to King’s call.  They were met there by Al Vorspan, director of the Reform movement’s Commision on Social Action.   The members of that delegation were greeted with taunts from demonstrators bearing broken bottles and bricks.  On June 18, 1964, the rabbis led a pray-in at the Monson Motor Lodge.   While they prayed, black and white demonstrators jumped, together, into the segregated pool at the motel.   As noted recently by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, associated Press photos of the angry motel owner pouring acid into the water and an image of a fully clothed police officer jumping in to haul out the protesters were splashed across newspapers the next day, which was, also, the very day that the United States Senate voted 73-27 to approve the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. 
     Six of the rabbis who were arrested in that incident returned this past June at the invitation of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society for a series of commemorative events titled “Justice, Justice 1964.”  Rabbis Allen Secher, Israel Dresner, Jerrold Goldstein, Richard Levy, Daniel Fogel and Hanan Sills participated in this poignant reminder of how faith, the Jewish tradition, and the call of the prophets of old might lead certain individuals to action.  
The rabbis felt that they were not heroes, but partners in a struggle, who joined side by side with people facing a system of discrimination that would not let them be considered full and equal citizens.     
     While they were in jail, the rabbis penned a widely circulated letter, entitled “Why We Went.”  There are excerpts of that letter that I want to share which gave voice to the motivations that led to the presence of those rabbis in Florida on that day: 
  •       We came because we realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us.
  •       We came to St. Augustine mainly because we could not stay away…we could not stand silently by our brother's blood. We had done that too many times before.
  •       We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.
  •       We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler's crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to humanity is loss of faith in the capacity of people to act.
  •       Here in St. Augustine we have seen the depths of anger, resentment and fury; we have seen faces that expressed a deep implacable hatred. What disturbs us more deeply is the large number of decent citizens who have stood aside, unable to bring themselves to act, yet knowing in their hearts that this cause is right and that it must inevitably triumph.
  •       We came to stand with our brothers and, in the process, we have learned more about ourselves and our God. In obeying God, we become ourselves; in following God’s will, we fulfill ourselves. God has guided, sustained and strengthened us in a way we could not manage on our own.

      Some of the sentiments contained in that letter are echoed in the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, which explains, in one brief sentence, how we can bring repair to the world and a positive quality to life even when life seems harsh and heartless:   UT’SHUVAH – Repentance and return, U-T’FILAH – prayer and establishing a connection with our own spirit and the Oneness of God and all creation, U-TZ’DAKAH – righteousness, righteous giving, or charity – MAAVIRIN ET ROA HAG’ZEIRAH- temper judgment’s severe decree – or give meaning and depth to a world that some could say is random and meaningless.  
     Long ago, our tradition concluded that life does have meaning and that we have it within our power to decide how to apply the values and beliefs which we prize in all that we do for ourselves and for our world. 
    We will read from Deuteronomy, Chapters 29 and 30, in a few moments about the Israelites standing together, ready to reaffirm their covenant with God, which gave them a special responsibility.  They learned that they needed to choose life and good rather than death and evil.  More important, they were told that the secret to choosing life was well within the grasp of every individual member of the community.  “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it down to us, that we may do it?’  Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who will cross the sea for us and bring it over to us, that we may do it?’  No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart and you can do it.”
     Professor Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative movement,  commented on this passage in a way that reaffirmed the trip that those rabbis made to St. Augustine.  He explained, “Moses tests the credibility of his audience here, insisting that although God’s demands are difficult to fulfill, they are by no means out of reach. We are commanded to infuse God’s words into daily life, bring them down from the mountain, practice justice, act with compassion, and do this not just in our private lives but in the streets. Politics and society, foreign policy and business, must be in accordance with God’s instructions, as interpreted by the Prophets and Sages. The law must be equal in complexity to the situations it orders. The task is difficult, very difficult, and rarely mastered. And yet Moses insists that there is an alignment between the regimen of mitzvah and our natures. What God demands and promises is not beyond the realm of possibility. Far from it. “The davar—the thing, the word—is very close to you.” Otherwise, [Moses] seems to say, there would be no chance that we would [ever] heed it.”
    In the Haftarah reading for this morning, the prophet Isaiah listened to his people as they complained that their fasting wasn’t bringing them closer to God as they expected.    Isaiah reminded them that the rituals they claimed to perform so meticulously must be accompanied by action.  Isaiah told his people that God may seem to be distant because, “on your fast day, you think only of business, and oppress all your workers!  Because your fasting leads only to strife and discord, and hitting out with a cruel fist!  Such a way of fasting on this day will not help you to be heard on high….Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house?  Then shall your light blaze forth like the dawn, and your wounds shall quickly heal; then, when you call, the Eternal will answer, when you cry, God will say, ‘here I am- HINEINI!’”  
   The rabbis who went to St. Augustine, Florida acted as if they were responding to Isaiah’s call.  They wanted their worship and their work with their congregations to be complemented by their efforts in dealing with the challenge of the injustice that they saw in human society.  They felt that performing that service to the community would  make their faith substantive and real as they brought divine teachings to life. 
    In the congregation where I was raised,   I had a chance to meet two rabbis who had engaged in struggles for honesty, integrity and justice.   Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg was well known for his persistent and relentless stand opposing the notorious political machine of Tom Pendergast in Kansas City.    His successor, Rabbi William B. Silverman, before he came to Kansas City, had spoken out against violence occurring in Nashville in 1958 as schools began to integrate.   It was Rabbi Silverman who represented the Jewish community at Kansas City’s memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Sunday following King’s assassination in April of 1968.   That was one of the formative moments of my life as I watched, standing with my brother and my parents, how faith, interfaith connections, and a wide-ranging communal concern came together in one watershed moment.   The values that led the rabbis of my home congregation and the rabbis who went to St. Augustine to take action are deeply embedded in our heritage, well beyond a specific historical event or tragedy.
    This afternoon, we will recite, once again, the passage about how we can be holy from Leviticus Chapter 19.  Verse 18 in that chapter teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   Verses 33 and 34 go even further, just to make sure we know whom we are really commanded to love:  “When strangers live with you in your land, you must not oppress them.  The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  I, the Eternal, am your God.”    And if we were still not sure about whom we should have concern, we will recite the story of Jonah, who refused to carry out his mission to tell the people of Nineveh to repent, fearing that those foreign people might actually realize their need to atone for their sins and respond to the prophet’s call for personal change.   Jonah preferred to see them suffer divine punishment rather than to have the chance to right their own wrongs.  As we know, God wouldn’t let Jonah escape his prophetic task, no matter how hard he tried.  Jonah ended up having to deliver his message, the people repented, and all was well, but not for Jonah.  He felt like he had lost his battle of advocating for strict punishment over against the intentions of a compassionate God who considered all humanity to be one family.  At the end of the book, when God raised a gourd plant next to Jonah to give him shade, Jonah was happy.  Then God caused the plant to die.  Jonah was angry because the gourd was no longer alive. And God pointed out to Jonah that he had more compassion for the plant than for human beings, in this case, the people of Nineveh.     Jonah, hopefully, learned that people deserve at least a touch of mercy when they are ready to truly make a change for the better. 
    These High Holy Days ask us to recognize that  compassion for our own humanity and an admission of our inevitable imperfections can lead us to create a more perfect world.   We can discover, as we try to improve ourselves,  that the tools for choosing life and good are inside each of us.  We can turn today’s fasting into tomorrow’s work towards justice and equality.   We have it within our grasp to love our neighbor unconditionally and equally, to the point where no human being needs to be considered a stranger.  And we can act with a commitment to overcome any fear that may hold us back from extending our hands and hearts to our fellow citizens of the world. 
   This has been a difficult year as we watched demonstrators attack synagogues and Jewish institutions in Europe.  Rather than seeking dialogue or discussion in free nations outside the Middle East, rage and rampage has often won the day.   In the Middle East itself, the possibility of peace on the ground between people who have successfully engaged in dialogue, fellowship and friendship is there.  Leaders of nations in that part of the world may not yet be at that place of totally seeing and acting upon common interests due to their disagreement and mistrust.    Yet, some of them know that, ultimately, they will need to set aside their difference and decide to follow higher ideals that may trump their own ideologies.
    Today’s Torah and Haftarah portions teach there are overarching principles that we can still apply even when a community, a nation or a region seems hopelessly divided.  Our biblical heritage remains one of our main guides along a journey towards cooperation and peace.   The Central Conference of American Rabbis, taking up the major themes of our Jewish tradition about how we can and should treat one another, made this declaration in 1999:  We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfill the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all of God’s creation. Partners with God in tikkun olam, repairing the world, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age. We seek dialogue and joint action with people of other faiths in the hope that together we can bring peace, freedom and justice to our world. We are obligated to pursue tzedek, justice and righteousness, to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth’s…natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage….We affirm the mitzvah of tzedakah, setting aside portions of our earnings and our time to provide for those in need. These acts bring us closer to fulfilling the prophetic call to translate the words of Torah into the works of our hands.
   In any way that we choose, with actions that express our own values, we have the opportunity to serve one another with dedication, hope, love and compassion every single day.  It is in our mouths and in our hearts, and we can do it.  So may we do – and let us say amen. 

WHY (are we here)? - Sermon for Kol Nidrei/Yom Kippur Evening - October 3, 2014

 "For 2 years, the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel debated whether or not God should have created humankind. Shammai's school said it would have been better if people had not been created; Hillel's school held that it was good that humanity had been created.   
Finally, they voted. The majority decided that Shammais school was right:  it would have been better if humanity had not been created. But, they said, since humankind was created, each person must examine his or her own past deeds and act carefully in the future." (Talmud, Masekhet Eruvin 13b).
    This is one of the most fascinating discussions in all of Jewish tradition. At first, this debate sounds like a harsh judgment of our place the world.  We are here, but it would be better if we weren't here.   I am sure that many of you have read books or seen portrayals of a future in which there was no more electricity, no more humanity, or, perhaps, just a few people remaining after a major worldwide cataclysm. The point of such stories is to demonstrate human beings at their worst – playing a role in their own destruction – and their best – starting over and building society anew.  
   So why would the rabbinic sages of our tradition have concluded that it would have been better if humanity hadn't been created?   Perhaps because they witnessed, even in their time, war, cruelty, oppression, bullying, physical and emotional abuse, hatred, discrimination, selfishness, greed, and people asserting power over others without regard for the feelings of their victims. The rabbis didn't say that, because of all of those failings, we should be destroyed.   They said this:  "It would have been better if we hadn't been created, but since we are here, we should be very careful with what we do."  They knew that the consequences of giving in to what they called the yetzer hara - the evil impulse - could be dire and destructive.  They recognized that it's difficult for some people to follow the yetzer tov, our good inclination, especially when it might mean that such a path would lead to less power, wealth and influence.  It seems that our sages rejected “instant gratification” in favor of  the long-term benefits of practicing mitzvot,  the commandments of our tradition.  YMASHMEISH B'MA-ASAV – promising to carefully examine our actions – assures that we will always consciously try to do our best.   The rabbis may have been sending us a warning all these generations later to look with concern and skepticism at those who see themselves as holier, superior and more valuable than others, dehumanizing people whom they consider different from them.  Perhaps the rabbis were insisting that we stand up to inhumanity whenever we see it.  Their debate was also a strong suggestion that we work for personal and communal change when we stray from a path of respect and goodness.  That discussion about our creation was like a note inscribed in large red letters on the ongoing intergenerational report card of humanity that read, "NI - Needs improvement."   What the rabbis hoped, I believe, was that we would realize that reaching our potential requires us to live with honesty, integrity, and compassion, loving ourselves, all people and all of creation. 
     We know that we don’t often get to that place as a human family and as individuals. Ernest Hemingway once said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."  The High Holy Days provide us with a roadmap to wholeness and holiness that first requires an admission from us.  Our prayers on Rosh Hashanah and, especially, on Yom Kippur, lead us to declare, over and over again, that we aren't perfect.   We make mistakes.  We are broken, but we have the capacity to heal ourselves and to repair and sustain our relationships, and that once we have brought resolution and restoration to those human ties, we will be stronger.    We simply have to be willing to take the necessary steps towards making a change, asking for and granting forgiveness, and charting for ourselves a new direction and mission.
     The rabbis asked, “Should we be here?”  They said no, but we can’t change that, so let’s make the best of it.  As I considered their discourse of so long ago, I found myself asking a related question: "Why are we here?" What has led us to where we are, and what values and purposes will lead us to our next destination?  Some of us may be taking a look back at our lives tonight with a feeling of total satisfaction.  Others may harbor regrets and engage in ongoing self-criticism for not taking the fork in the road that we just know would have yielded a better outcome, when that actually may not be the case.  Some people may find themselves asking the question, "Why am I here, in a place where I didn't plan or expect or want to be?"   When Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote his best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, he suggested that we reframe the question, "Why did this happen to me?"  He encouraged us to ask, instead, "Now that this has happened to me, what can I do to make myself whole again?"    I believe that the rabbis in the Talmud were redefining the issue of the appropriateness of our existence in the same way.   They didn't say, "It would have been better if we weren't here on earth, so let's stop living."   They were teaching us, "Our reality is that we are here, now, in this place.  What is it that we can do to give our existence the deepest possible meaning and to generate the most positive impact on ourselves, on our fellow human beings and on the world?" 
   Recently,  singer/songwriter Alicia Keys wrestled with this very question of “why are we here?”  Her answer is embodied in her new song, "We are here." She recently explained how she came to write a song asserting a productive purpose for our existence:   “The day I wrote this song, I was sitting in a circle of people of all ages and we were asked, ‘Why are you here?’  Why am I here?? This really hit me on a deep level. I realized no one had ever asked me that question before….No matter where we come from, when we see the state of the world today, we can all feel the growing frustration and desire to make a difference. And we all have a voice - we just need to know how to make it heard. I have a vision that I believe is more than a dream....I believe in an empowered world community built on the true meaning of equality – where we are all considered one people....I believe in mutual respect and cooperation among all peoples and all nations. I believe we have an ability to end racial injustice, poverty, oppression, and hopelessness that often breeds despair, terror, and violence....And, its not about me. Its about WE....We are here for all of us.”
     In recent weeks, I asked a number of people how they would answer the question, "Why are we here?"  Their statements encapsulated many values that are central to our heritage.   Here are their multi-facted responses to my question:    
·      "I think we are here to learn to understand and care for each other.
·      "We are here to do mitzvot and hasten the coming of a Messianic time."
·      Quoting George Elliot: "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?"
·      So WHY do we exist? I believe life is an experiment just to see what we would make of this world….Maybe it’s possible that our collective purpose is to find out the answers to WHY and HOW we came to be here.
·      We are here to evolve spiritually, to bring peace to the planet, and to learn to LOVE!
·      We are here to find and share the unique gifts, with each other and with our world, that were breathed into each of us upon our birth.
·      We are here to seek communal and congregational support as we acknowledge we are far less than perfect. We need to grow and improve. As a congregation we can nurture and support each other in this facet of life's journey.
·      We are here to be a part of a caring community to make sure that our heritage continues into the future.  Each of us who participates adds one little piece.
·      We are here to support each other, and to partner with God to make this world a better place.
·      We are here for the Eternal One to challenge our souls, to show that we can maintain our commitment to kindness…in a topsy turvy world, to cross the narrow bridge with faith and without fear.
·      "We need to be reminded that we are but a mote in the  universe, cosmic dust, and as such, we are here to be conscious of what a small place we occupy in the infinite.  With that comes a large responsibility to be accountable for our community.  We must be…reminded of this perspective that we are not the center of the universe, which is quite humbling.
·      "Socrates is reputed to have said,  "The unexamined life is not worth living."  We are here to have an "examined life" that leads to considered, thoughtful, moral, ethical and humane action to assure our survival and for the betterment of humankind."
·      We are here to prove that you can move from one side of the country to the other and know you can find a home… There can be a feeling of warmth and welcome in a new place. For the “we” that is the Jewish people, I strongly believe in the importance of the continuity of Judaism. Support of congregations that are welcoming and inclusive is vital if we are to continue as a people.
·      We are here to try in our own way to improve the world and to teach this to our children.
The principle from the V’ahavta paragraph, V’SHINANTAM L’VANECHA, "teach them to your children," is fundamental for any community.    Children see what adults do and the behavior that they model. In turn, younger children see what older children are doing.  We are all watching each other.   Perhaps that is what Rabbi Chanina meant when he said, "I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but from my students I have learned most of all."   We are always simultaneously teachers and students.  Any person of any age has some lesson or wisdom to offer to help us grow in knowledge and to sustain a caring approach towards the people who are part of our lives. 
    Rabbi Joshua ben Parachyah, quoted in the Sayings of the Rabbis, Pirkei Avot, also recognized that learning and teaching are bound up with being a member of a community that seeks wisdom.  He said, "Find yourself a teacher - a RAV, and get yourself a CHAVEIR, a colleague, study partner, or friend."   Friendships often develop because we find ourselves able to discuss life's important questions with those people who are closest to us.  In that case, our reason for being here is to make a solemn promise to partner with each other as learners and teachers.   
   Rabbi Joshua didn't stop there in his ancient declaration.   He concluded by saying, "Give each other the benefit of the doubt."  He may have meant that we need to provide one another with space and time to grow. Being a member of a community requires us to be patient.  Rabbi Joshua believed that we should be accepting of what our friends or study partners say even if they end up disagreeing with us at some point along the way.   He was also reminding us that living with each other in a community carries with it times when we will be angry with each other, when we will say the wrong thing, when we will upset each other, or when we will say one thing and appear to do another.  These eventualities are part of life with people, so, to keep our relationships intact, we need to be able to "give each other the benefit of the doubt."   That doesn't mean that we should refrain from offering constructive criticism in private, but it does mean that we need to forgive, and, especially, to let go of feelings from the past and to move forward with a renewed sense of trust in  the people who mean the most to us.   
   We know that, sometimes, we have a hard time letting go.   About 40 years ago, a rabbi went to visit one of his congregants who hadn't been at Temple for awhile.   He said to her, "I haven’t seen you much lately at Temple.  Is there a possibility you would come more often?"   The woman replied, "No, rabbi, I am still angry about the building fund." 
    The rabbi said, with great surprise in his voice, "The building fund was in 1953 - don't you think enough time has passed since then?"  She said, "Rabbi, I was NOT talking about the building fund of 1953.  I was talking about the building fund of 1925!"   
    Resentment from 50 years ago or more can seem like yesterday, but these High Holy Days call on us to give each other and ourselves the benefit of the doubt, to seek and offer forgiveness, and to admit when we have made the wrong choice so that we can try to right a situation or relationship as best we can.   The past can't be undone, but we can learn from what has happened and move into the future with a new sense of resolve to accept where we are at any given moment and proceed  from there. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said,  "Life must be lived as it is and you cannot live at all if you do not learn to adapt yourself to your life as it happens to be."  
    So we are here to live, to love, to learn, to teach, to care, and to make life easier for each other. 
    We often sing the words from Pirket Avot, Al shloshah d'varim haolam omeid - al hatorah, v'al haavodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.   On three things the world stands – on learning, on tending to the life of the spirit through prayer and meditation, and, finally, on showing kindness by doing loving deeds.     

    At this moment in my life, as I begin a new decade of my own, I would answer the question "Why are we here?"  with a simple phrase:  We are here to be kind.  We need to be kind even when we disagree, and even when we know that such kindness may not come back in return.   My prayer for 5775 would be that we bring more kindness into the world that can lead to greater contentment, hope, and peace.  And may our attitudes and actions provide a new outcome for that vote of the rabbis so long ago.  Was it good for humanity to have been created?  May our answer, and the response of people all around the world, be a resounding yes!   So may it be - and let us say amen.