Monday, September 14, 2015

"Finding Ourselves Again" - Sermon - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776 - September 13, 2015

We are here, once again.
We are here to create community in this place. 
Most of us were here last year, and some of us weren't, which means that the WE that is here tonight
is different and new. 
The words we pray are mostly the same as last year, but we may find ourselves understanding them in a new light.
Some of the music may be familiar, but we can listen with fresh ears and sing as if we had discovered a message in the words and melodies that had previously eluded us. 
  Every New Year concludes one chapter of our lives, and signals opportunities and adventures that await us in the next section of our very own SEFER CHAYIM, our BOOK OF LIFE.
   Some Reform congregations are using the new High Holy Prayer book, MISHKAN HANEFESH, for the first time tonight.    While we will first pray from this new MACHZOR on Tuesday morning, I want to share with you a reflection on Rosh Hashanah from this new source of worship and wisdom, an interpretation written by Rabbi Laura Geller:
"Your book of life doesn't begin today, on Rosh Hashanah.  It began when you were born.  Some of the chapters were written by other people:  your parents, siblings, and teachers.  Parts of your book were crafted out of experiences you had because of other people's decisions:  where you lived, what schools you went to, what your homes were like.  But the message of Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, is that everything can be made new again, that much of your book is written every day - by the choices you make.  The book is not written and sealed; you get to edit it, decide what parts you want to emphasize and remember, and maybe even which parts you want to leave behind.  Shanah Tovah means both a good year and good change.  Today you can change the rest of your life.  It is never too late." 
     What makes us change?  Does change mean doing something new or doe it mean changing back to who we truly are?   And in either case, how do we get to where we want to go? 
     There are signposts in this place, some that you can see, and some that are barely visible, that can guide us towards good change and a good year.  
     Every Temple places symbols right before our eyes that have great power and significance.   During the day, walk into this sanctuary while it’s dark, and you will immediately notice the stained-glass windows representing the 12 tribes.  What will draw you in are the piercingly bright eyes of the lion that represents the tribe of Judah.  The name Judah, of course, gave us the word Judaism and Jewish.  When I look at those eyes, I feel like I am being watched!  Some might say those are the eyes of the divine looking down.   I sometimes imagine those eyes signifying the gaze of our ancestors who want us to carry their heritage into the future.
      In the dark sanctuary, the Eternal Light, the Neir tamid, shines brightly.   This Neir tamid depicts the ladder reaching to the sky in Jacob’s dream, on which angels were going up and down.  After that vision, Jacob declared, “ACHEN YEISH ADONAI BAMAKOM HAZEH, VAANOCHI LO YADATI -  God was most definitely in this place, and as for me, I had NO idea!”   Any Neir Tamid signifies faith and God’s enduring presence.  THIS Neir tamid links us to Jacob, at the site of Beth-El.  It reminds us not to simply expect signs of God and godliness to appear out of nowhere.  We have to be open to recognizing moments and experiences that are special, and unique, and holy in our lives, times about which we might say, “God was there” or “God is here.” 
      The Menorah is our link to the worship of our Israelite ancestors in Jerusalem.   Their modes of prayer and the nature of the setting, which included animal sacrifices, offered sensory input that we do not experience at all in a modern synagogue.   We do know that THIS day, what we call ROSH HASHANAH, the beginning of the year, was, for them, YOM T’RUAH, the day of sounding the shofar, which eventually began a period of ten days of repentance that culminated in the day of atonement, Yom Kippur.   The priests, the Levites, the common people, and others who gathered at the ancient Temple saw the menorah as a reminder of the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest.   We are, in that respect, B’YACHAD, together with our ancestors. We are their legacy, continuing what they began so long ago.
     The memorial plaques on the wall, the Tree of Life in the Social Hall, and, now, the Brick walkway outside offer reminders of special moments and special people.   Look at one of the names on the wall and there is an entire story, one BOOK OF LIFE, one SEFER CHAYIM.    Pick a tree of life leaf or a brick outside and your will find a concise recollection of an individual simchah, the celebration of a life milestone.  Or, there may be on the tree of life or the walkway yet another memorial to those who are no longer with us, whom we remember with fondness and reverence.  Simchahs keep us looking forward to the next landmark event at which we can say MAZAL TOV.  Memorial tributes direct us to think about what was lasting in the lives of our family members or friends who have died and how we want to emulate the best that they had to offer.
      We cannot forget about the ark, which houses the Torah scrolls that contain our values, our story, our faith.  I don’t believe, though, that members of every congregation can say that they see a bush that is burning but not consumed every Shabbat and on Jewish holidays!   We know well the story of how God called out to Moses from the bush, giving him his mission to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  The image on these ark doors can inspire us to work for freedom, even without hearing the voice of God, but through perceiving a divine voice speaking directly to us from the teachings of the Torah.   And, according to ancient Jewish commentaries and the movies “The Ten Commandments” and “Prince of Egypt,” the voice that Moses heard was his own.   In other words, the rabbis and those two films were teaching us that God speaks to us in our own voice, in a way that we can each understand, with a familiar sound that will not elicit fear but, hopefully, comfort and confidence.
     And finally, there is the verse from Psalm 100 above the ark – IVDU ET ADONAI B’SIMCHAH – serve the Eternal One – the One who causes everything to come into being – with gladness.   If we so choose, there can be a feeling of joy in every step we take and in all that we do for ourselves, for our families and friends, for our community, and for the human family.
      Remembrance, light, faith, freedom, history, responsibility, celebration, holiness, and wisdom – these values are embedded in the symbols that surround us here.  And there is yet another place to search for these principles of our heritage.    There is something of all of these tenets of Judaism within each of us.  And they are not just “there,” sitting dormant.    We make them come alive in what we do for each other.  We demonstrate them in our work for communal solidarity, social justice, charity, leadership, and even in simply “being here.”   And when asked what is meaningful about being here, we do identify those values and other central aspects of Jewish life.  
   This past May, many of you took the time to respond to my question about what is meaningful about being a member of Temple Beth-El.    Meaning can emerge and become real for us through what we do together, not only as rabbi and congregation, but as congregants working, meeting, volunteering, conversing and studying with each other.   I shared some of your responses in my message at the Temple Annual Meeting in May.   Here, again, are statements about the Jewish meaning that is experienced within these walls:
  • ·      Helping members of all ages find an avenue for Jewish expression and learning,  and practicing Tikun Olam, the repair of the world.
  • ·      Going to services is very important to me as I enjoy the singing and fellowship. Having quiet time to reflect on my week and my life in general is also important, as is praying for the world, my family and my friends. I do believe praying together is powerful.
  • ·      Sharing my Jewish identity through social justice. Being a part of a Jewish community that carries on our traditions of fighting injustices and helping others.
  • ·      A sense of community for us and our children. A place to feel at home. A safe haven where we know others, and where we feel welcome at all times. Somewhere we want to be and feel we belong. We want to volunteer, we want to show up, we want to be counted as part of the whole.
  • ·      Modeling values for the next generations.
  • ·      I am a strongly identified secular Jew who has come to the conclusion that although I personally don't have a strong sense of spirituality, the Jewish community will disappear without the structure and continuity provided by year-round religious observance. Secular/cultural/humanistic Judaism, absent a strong institutional structure, does not appear to be a self-sustaining enterprise. Therefore, I decided that even a Tikkun Olam Jew like myself must support the Temple, so I participate as best I can.  I appreciate that Temple Beth-El has an ongoing commitment to community service.
  • ·      Worship - inspiration - illumination – education
  • ·      The sense of community on Shabbat.
  • ·      The Temple gives me a place where I can be surrounded by the sights and sounds of my Jewish upbringing. It is a place of peace, comfort and acceptance. I know that my Temple is a place where I will have no fear of discrimination. It is a place where I can learn from my Rabbi and other scholars about Torah and Talmud and where my questions will be answered without judgment of my lack of knowledge or understanding. Second, my membership is important as a place where I can become involved and make friends with other Jews. It is a place to celebrate life, the joys and sorrows that touch us all.    Although we may be from other places and may not share the same Jewish education and knowledge of traditions and beliefs, we have much in common with each other which brings us together as family. May Adonai bless our Temple that our Temple be a place of peace, love and warmth to all who enter.

     It is Jewish tradtion that offers us the framework of a SEFER CHAYIM, a book of life, a lens by which we can take a hard look at our lives, to notice where we have been, to see where we are going, and to identify what is meaningful.  These comments from YOU assert that Jewish life in Las Cruces has the potential to connect us with each other to enagage in learning, to do good works in the community, to communicate our values from one generation to the next, and to create memorable and holy moments.   It is not about generating a feeling of joy and bonds of connection only on the surface.  Judaism demands that we go deeper, that we hear the voice of faith, freedom and hope calling to us from a bush that burns but is not consumed.  
    A statement by Albert Einstein came to my attention a few weeks ago when Lily Labe and her parents, Adam and Robin, suggested that this paragraph be included in Lily’s Bat Mitzvah service.  You might think that the statement was something scientific, like E=MC2.   Not at all!   Here is what one of the greatest scientists in human history had to say about who we really are and how we are truly connected: “Human beings are part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”     It is this type of perspective about life that leads us to create bonds of friendship and family with other human beings, to extend a helping hand to someone in need, and to even begin to seek peace, a difficult challenge in situations and interrelationships characterized only by conflict.  
        And we are in a world rife with dissonance, jockeying for power, hatred, and cruelty.  We see all of that in the emergence of the internationally negotiated deal with Iran on their nuclear weapons program and the many responses to it, in the quandary regarding how to respond to refugee crises around the world, in the still-as-yet unanswered question of how to combat a belligerent and heartless group like the Islamic State that has no regard for either historical landmarks or people different from them, and how to heal the hurt caused by racism and prejudice at home.   We know that we want order, not chaos; peace, not war;  hope, not despair.   The best bumper sticker I saw this year found its way into a song I wrote for Las Cruces Peace Camp: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, there will be peace!”  I didn’t mention love as one of the values intrinsic in Judaism, but we know that love is on the small parchment in a mezuzah, containing two passages from Deuteronomy that direct us to love God and keep God’s commandments, which also means that we need to love each other.
     At the time of the Mother Emanuel murders by Dylan Roof in Charleston, South Carolina, followed by the two small bombs that exploded next to local churches plus one more that was planted, it seemed to me that we had come to a point where nothing, not even the comfortable confines of a religious congregation, was sacred anymore.   My thoughts went straight to chapter 56 of Isaiah, where the prophet left us a message with a universal thrust that reasserts what should be holy in our lives:
“Thus said the Eternal One: Observe what is right and do what is just; for soon My salvation shall come, and My deliverance be revealed. Happy is the one who does this; the one who holds fast to it: who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it and stays his/her hand from doing any evil. As for foreigners and all people who attach themselves to the Eternal One, to minister to God, and to love the name of the Eternal, to be God’s servants--all who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, and who hold fast to My covenant,   I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

    No one is alone in living out life.  Each of us has our own SEFER CHAYIM, but we know we are part of a greater whole, as declared by two great Jewish figures, Isaiah and Albert Einstein, and many others along the way.   They have given us their wisdom that can help us lay out a path towards goodness, justice, and hope.   Their insights, and the meanings of our participation in this community and the symbols that surround us can move us forward to make good choices for change, to reach inside of ourselves for the best of the gifts we can give and then to extend our hands to one another and to the world to make our SEFER HAYIM what it should be:   a book that is filled goodness, blessing and peace.   So may it always be, from one year to the next.

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