Friday, March 27, 2015

Sending a message to the future - Shabbat Hagadol - March 27, 2015

What moral message do we want to leave for the future?
And how do we leave that message?
In Hebrew, the phrase  L’DOR VADOR – from generation to generation – expresses one of our main modes of transmitting values across time.  Parents teach children, or teachers teach students, and hopefully, the children listen and, in turn, teach their children.  
The entire Passover Haggadah is one of the best examples we have of a centuries-old text intended to transmit our tradition across past, present and future.  There is something for everyone at a Seder.  Even the adults, as well as the children present, learn something new each year from the written texts and  visual symbols we use to make the Exodus story come alive.  
There are two sections in the Haggadah  that refer specifically to educating a new generation: the Four Questions and the Four Children.   How many of you have been the one at a Seder designated to ask the four questions?   The Torah seemed to anticipate the curiosity of children by stating four times that either a child would ask his or her parents about the Exodus experience or that the parents should tell their children about the tale from year to year.  The Four Questions, which are usually put into the mouth of the youngest child, call attention to the uniqueness of the Passover celebration among all of our holidays and practices.   
   And then there is the midrash of the 4 sons, or children, taken from rabbinic literature.  It utilizes the Torah’s four passages about “telling your child on that day” and turns them into four different types of children:  as we know, the wise child, the skeptical/cynical/doubting child who is usually called wicked, the simple child, and the child who doesn’t know how to ask. 
   If I have to choose, at any Seder I lead, someone to read the wicked child’s part, it has to be a person who is a good sport. I haven’t yet found anyone who has refused the reading or failed to understand the significance of that child.   Perhaps it is that type of child or adult for whom the Passover Seder can have the greatest meaning if the rituals of Passover guide him or her from a place of rejecting the ritual at hand to a deeper understanding of the core value of the entire Seder: that we are not yet free until all people are free.   I have never worried about anyone who is like the wise child, the simple child, and the one who doesn’t yet know how to ask.  I think they understand the message about seeking liberty for all.   I believe that the RASHA, the wicked child, is not RASHA at all, but a person whose ROSH or head is filled with thoughts and feelings that will lead him or her to challenge the status quo if it needs to be questioned or even changed.    In the Four Children passage, the CHACHAM, the wise child, asks about the details of the ritual involved in the Passover observance.  The RASHA, however, says, according to the rabbis, “what does this service mean to YOU??” The original verse from that Torah didn’t have that emphasis.   Perhaps such a person wouldn’t intend any insult or even rejection of the community by saying “to you.”  It could be that “What does this service mean to you?” is the question that we always need to answer on Pesach. It is the challenge that Passover places before us:  What does this tale of moving from slavery to freedom mean to you or to us?  How are we, like Moses, going to notice which people in the world are not yet free and who is enduring harsh treatment of an uncaring overlord?  How are we, right now, going to work for their liberation?
That is why the Haftarah reading from the book of Malachi is so important and why it’s quoted in the Reform Passover Haggadah.   Through Malachi, God tells the people, “Behold, I will send Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Eternal to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents, lest I come and smite the land with destruction.” 
That sounds foreboding, serious, and apocalyptic, but it doesn’t have to be taken that way.  This passage urges the members of any community to listen to one another, to create bonds with each other where no strong ties may exist.  It calls on those who have enjoyed long lives to share their wisdom and experience, and those whose experiences have just begun to offer in return their developing values and positive attitudes, including a tendency to believe that we can trust and have faith in each other as we build a better world.    
  So, with hearts turned towards one another, no matter what our stage of life, we will again celebrate our season of liberation. We will read about the slaves going free, crossing through the parted waters, receiving the Torah, and journeying towards the promised land.

    And their redemption and ours will lie in the hope of freedom to come, and in a touch of idealism that can lead us to call for a new perspective when necessary.  Perhaps that wicked child would quote George Bernard Shaw, as Robert F. Kennedy often did:  “Some see things as they are and say why; others see things as they never were and say why not.”  May Passover guide us to that place of vision, of healing, of redemption, and of hope for a promising year to come. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Opening Prayer for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Board Meeting - March 26, 2015 - As we approach Passover 5775

Eternal God, Author of Liberty,
Be with us as we approach the season of Pesach.
During CHAG HAPESACH, the Feast of Passover, remind us of our humble beginnings and how our ancient and more recent ancestors passed from places of prejudice to lands that offered more freedoms than ever before, freedoms that we must continue to appreciate, defend and never take for granted.
During CHAG HAMATZOT, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, enable us to see that we can get by, survive and thrive at any moment when we have everything we need, but not necessarily everything we want.  May the prayer in the Passover Haggadah inspire us to open our hands and hearts when it says, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” so that those in need can eventually provide for themselves.
During CHAG HAAVIV, the Feast of Spring, may the renewal of the earth at this time of year lead us to renew our spirits and vision, opening our minds to new ideas, especially to the possibility that we are at one not just with nature, but with all human beings, with whom we can enjoy mutual consideration and respect if we only try.
During this Z’MAN SIMCHATEINU, this time of our liberation, broaden the scope of our attention to see where people who live among us and other citizens of the world are not yet free, so that we can do all that we can to help them experience the freedom that we enjoy.

God of all of the generations of our people and of all humanity, teach us to see ourselves as if we went free out of Egypt, so that we can feel what it was like to walk alongside our liberated ancestors and so that our lives and our actions will proclaim freedom and justice in our congregation, in our community, and for all humankind. Amen.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"Holy Work" - Commentary on Exodus 27:20-28:5 (Tetzaveh) honoring the conversion of a community member - February 28, 2015

“The Israelites shall take for themselves clear oil of beaten olives for lighting for kindling lamps always.”
The first verses in this parashah commanded the Israelites to bring oil for lighting.  What was the light they were asked to provide?  It was a symbol of God’s enduring presence.  The Eitz Chayim commentary points out that “we really don’t see the light itself, but we become aware of the light when other things can been seen. It is the same with God.  We become aware of God’s presence when we see the beauty of the world and when we experience the love and goodness of our fellow human beings. 
“You shall make sacral vestments for Aaron and his sons for dignity and adornment.”
The garments that would be made for the priests, described in the next few verses, were created for honor or dignity - and adornment or beauty.  That description is not supposed to fit only what we wear, but how we act.  Our deeds must reflect honor.  We can choose to add beauty to the community through our generosity of spirit and commiment. 
“You shall speak to all the wise of heart whom I have filled with a spirit of wisdom, that they shall make Aaron’s clothes, to sanctify him to serve me as a priest.” 
Artisans who had a special knowledge - perhaps a special awareness of the light of wisdom from God - were charged to make vestments that would adorn the priests and set them apart.  For us, the tallit is a remnant of all these vestments - we each get to choose the tallit we want to wear, even if we take it from the rack outside.  Every one is a remind of the work we need to do to fulfill God’s commandments and to be God’s hands to improve and repair the world.  Even when we are not wearing any special garment for prayer when we are out in our daily lives, we are called to remember the tradition that has guided us and continues to direct every step of our journey. 
CHOSHEN - The breastpiece of judgment - represents fairness and we could add menschlichkeit!  
V’EPHOD - a long five-colored vest with shoulder straps - such a garment was used to decorate idols in ancient times - in this case, it was intended to show how something holy could also be beautiful and stylish
The M’IL or jacket or robe was, according to the rabbis, intended to discourage gossip and to keep our speech gentle and positive.  
U-CH’TONET TASHBEITZ- The fringed tunic - K’tonet is the same word as that used for Joseph’s coat  - was meant as a symbol of human cooperation and choosing peace over violence. 
MITZNEFET - The headdress was a symbol of the status of the priests, but also of the mindfulness of God’s presence we should have every moment.  The rabbis explained that the headdress would protect the priests from arrogance and keep them humble, reminding them that they are always serving the people and God.  
V’AVNEIT - The sash was not just for ornamentation, but also a way to hold complete the garments of the priest, and to hold everything together, to help them find completeness on the outside and on the inside.  
“You shall make holy vestments.” 
These vestments were called holy - separate, special.   It wasn’t just the priests who were asked to be holy in the Torah.  Each of us is called to be holy as well, through what we do, with the pinnacle of that holiness in action being the teaching in Leviticus Chapter 19 - Love your neighbor as yourself.  

Joining a community is about love - and there is love in this sanctuary today - a love of tradition and heritage, a love of our partners on our common path, and a love of welcome to a new fellow traveler. 

"More Than Enough" - D'var Torah for Parashat Vayakheil/Pekuday (Exodus 36:1-7) - March 13, 2015

In recent days, we have heard about a student at UCLA who was nearly rejected from a student review board because she was Jewish. Some students on the board felt that, even though she was eminently qualified, her Jewish identity would cloud her judgment.
We heard of racist chants on a fraternity bus that led to the SAE Fraternity National Organization closing the University of Oklahoma fraternity chapter altogether.
   We hear voices in our community accusing various types of leaders not of gross misconduct, but of the sin of disagreeing with them, or not affirming their tactics and strategies even when agreeing in principle.
And the Westboro Baptist Church tried to picket the funeral of actor Leonard Nimoy, at which one of my colleagues officiated.  They failed in their effort because they couldn’t find the location of the funeral home.
   These events and situations are examples of characteristics that we don’t consider gifts and that we don’t want to keep on giving.   There is too much bigotry, too much hatred, too much arrogance, too much prejudice, and too much racism, because even one example of each is too much.
  Jewish tradition makes plenty of suggestions about how to prevent the preponderance of undesirable expressions and attitudes that fail to create warmth and peace in a community.
   This week’s Torah reading makes a strong statement about positive gifts that can keep on giving, both on the material and spiritual level. 
   The Israelites were bringing raw materials to the chief artisans, Bezalel and Oholiab, and their fellow workers so that the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary used in the wilderness, could be fashioned in a way that made it beautiful and impressive.  In these verses, something amazing happens, something that most any modern religious congregation would see as a miracle.   The people brought too much.  The artisans had to tell the people to stop giving.   By the end of the passage, it says that the Israelites had not just brought enough – DAI – they had brought MORE than enough – “HOTEIR.”   Would that most any effort to raise funds or volunteer sign-ups in a congregation would reach the level of more than enough!!!  It does happen sometimes.  When does it happen?
   The Torah gives a hint of what it takes to reach the “more than enough” level.   The Israelites brought “N’DAVAH” – voluntary contributions.  And when did they bring them? BABOKER BABOKER – a repetition of the phrase “in the morning” that means “every morning.”   One commentator noted that not only were those donations brought in the morning: they were brought at dawn, when the givers could not be seen because the sun had not totally risen.  Their identities were concealed.  They didn’t care about personal credit for what they were doing. They only wanted to give. 
   In his commentary on the Torah, Richard Elliot Friedman quoted one of his teachers with regards to this passage: “My teacher Yohanan Muffs pointed out a paradox about sacrifice: ‘people are commanded to do it, yet sacrifices are regarded as a freewill offering.’  The same applies here at the point of the establishment of Israel’s entire ritual structure.  They people are COMMANDED to bring donations in Exodus Chapter 25, yet they act with a kind of zeal that reflects more than just obedience to a commandment.  They bring far more than was required of them.  This is an essential concept ultimately for the entire notion of law and commandment in Judaism.  The law is not regarded as a burden.  It is mandatory, yet one fulfills it out of choice and with joy.  Thus the word for commandment, MITZVAH, has two meanings to this day: it means a law that must be obeyed, but Jews also commonly understand it to mean a good deed, freely performed.”
    I would take this one step further.  The Torah reading speaks of gifts that are tangible – items contributed for fashioning a physical structure.  We know that a faith community is more than the building in which it meets.  The creation of a warm, loving and holy congregation also requires intangible gifts that come from our hearts.   What do we bring to our religious communities – or to any group to which we belong – that has no limit?  What are some examples of those donations from the heart that sustain a community of which we can give more than enough?  What would you put on that list???
For me, that list would include:
• Kindness
• Hope
• Generosity (including generosity of spirit)
• Righteous giving/Tzedakah
• Understanding
• Empathy
• A desire to help and guide people close to us when they come to us for help.
Like Bezalel and Oholiab, we can be artisans and experts in giving, people who are wise in mind and heart, who can instinctively know what is needed by the people around us and by our community.  May the Tabernacle that we create together be one that is made of cooperation, consideration, mutual respect, love and peace. 
And let us say Amen.