Friday, October 30, 2015

"Predictions and Promises" - D'var Torah - Parashat Vayeira - October 30, 2015 (with a little baseball thrown in for good measure)

One trait that I believe is common among most members of the human family is this:   We like to know how things are going to turn out before they even begin.
If certain events or situations were a book, we would want to see the last page of the last chapter most every time.
    That is why we have meteorologists, who are right a lot of the time – so we can plan our day’s activities accordingly.  Sometimes weather forecasters have actually saved people’s lives.  And sometimes even they can’t predict the unexpected storm that develops too quickly to forsee.
    At the beginning of a sports season, there are predictions regarding who will win a league or a championship and, then, who will triumph in individual games.  Then, once the season is over, there are further commentaries about which team will win a playoff or championship game. 
   It’s the same with politics.  Nate Silver, who accurately predicted the outcome of the 2008 elections for president and Congress, said in a recent interview that people don’t pay enough attention to the signs around them, especially when they point to an undesired outcome. 
With Adam Karol at Fenway Park on July 18, 2007 to see a 6-5
Royals win over the Red Sox (who won the World Series that year)  
    As a fan of the Kansas City Royals, I am amazed.  I have a sense of wonder at how things have unfolded last year and this year, and, with every game, all I want to see are stellar performances that will make the contests worth watching.    I tend not to believe predictions because they don’t take into account the events in the course of play that can change everything.  Sometimes it’s mood, it’s mind, it’s the weather, it’s the ball that bounced in an unexpected way, it’s the confidence of the player involved at the moment on which the outcome can turn.  We just don’t know until we get there. 
    When we make life decisions, like moving to a new city, everything probably doesn’t turn out exactly as we expected.  So, a quick poll – raise your hand if life in Las Cruces has been 100% what you expected it to be……90%......75%.....50%.....25%.......10%.....1%.
And how many of you had no expectations whatsoever – in other words – you were just taking a chance?
In asking percentage, I am asking you to quantify a feeling based on many aspects of life:  financial, social, health-wise, your participation in local organizations and events, and your ability to travel to get a change from the desert.   It may even be variables in our lives that are outside Las Cruces that can affect us here.  It is likely that most of us had a sense of what life would be like here that brought us to this place.  And we may still wonder how it’s going to turn out – or we will just let it all happen on its own, doing our part to make the best outcome possible or probable.
    The Torah reading for this Shabbat, Vayeira, is full of situations with predictions and probabilities, as well as promises that were almost broken. 
Abraham and the Three Angels
Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari, 1660s
·   First, three messengers came to Abraham to wish him REFUAH SH’LAYMAH after his circumcision AND to tell him that Sarah was going to have a child.  This was not a prediction, it was a promise.  For Sarah, it was a promise that would likely be unfulfilled, because, as she said, “Her husband was old.”  She laughed – and then God asked Abraham why Sarah was laughing about having a child.
·   Next, God told Abraham that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed.  Rather than seeing this as a fait accompli, Abraham challenged God. He turned into a defense attorney for the possible ten righteous individuals who might live in those two towns.  What God proposed, Abraham came close to thwarting altogether.  It would have worked if only there had been some righteous souls in those cities.  There weren’t.  
·   Abraham’s nephew Lot lived with his family in one of those two cities – Sodom.   He escaped, but his wife demonstrated how rules can lead to predictable outcomes.  Looking back at the cities undergoing destruction was a definite no-no.  Lot’s wife gave in to the temptation, and was instantly turned into a pillar of salt.
·   Sarah did have a son, who was named Isaac, meaning “he will laugh.”  She saw that Ishmael, the son of the maidservant Hagar and Abraham, was taunting Isaac in the same way that Hagar had taunted her years before for not being able to bear a child.  Sarah asked Abraham to banish them from their household.  God gave Abraham permission to send them away, which meant that God’s previous promise to Hagar might be nullified.  Once Hagar and Ishmael were in the wilderness, God heard Ishmael crying.  An angel appeared to reassure Hagar that her son would, indeed, become a great nation.  A well of water appeared before them, and Hagar and her son were able to carry on.
·   God commanded Abraham, or so it seems, to take Isaac and offer him up as a sacrifice.  This directive contradicted God’s promise to Abraham that he would be a father of a multitude of nations and that God would make his name great.  The fulfillment of the promise seemed to become impossible with each step towards Mount Moriah.  That is, until an angel came and told Abraham not to harm the boy, because this was a test of faith which Abraham had passed with flying colors. 
 These are all situations where the outcomes came to fruition only after some type of obstacle or challenge.   I believe that is what real life is about – traversing a journey to a particular goal or destination, where the events along the way make the whole experience meaningful.   To quote one of my favorite songwriters, “It’s got to be the going, not the getting there, that’s good” (Harry Chapin, “Greyhound”).    So it’s not the prediction of what will happen that is most important, or even the final result.  It is the unfolding chain of events that leads to the end of the story that can elicit from us wonder or amazement.  If the outcome is not what we had hoped, it is always possible to learn a lesson for the future. What if there had been ten righteous people in Sodom? What if Sarah had been patient with Hagar and Ishmael?  What if the angel had not called Abraham’s name?  And what would Isaac’s name have been if Sarah had not laughed? It all would have been different. 
    I am probably not the only person in the sanctuary who has been fascinated at one time or another with science fiction stories that include time travel, changing the course of events – or trying to change them back.  The television show Quantum Leap, the movie Timecop, several episodes of Star Trek and the two latest Star Trek films, NBC’s Heroes, and Stephen King’s book, 11/22/63, have all played with time.  Philip Roth’s novel, THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, imagined a United States in which Charles Lindbergh had become president instead of Franklin Roosevelt.  It was a dark story, until the very end.   The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon, suggested a State of Israel that did not successfully come to be, so that the only Jewish settlement of refugees that remained was in Sitka, Alaska.  

    The late Yogi Berra would have said about the future, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” While there is no deep thought there, it could mean that we do have many choices before us.  Whatever happens, no matter what the outcome, each of us has a chance to make sure that everything will eventually turn towards a positive end.  Even facing the most dire of situations, Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because, in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us, too. I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty, too, will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”   So, whether or not predictions come true, even if promises made are not realized, there is always a place to go – forward, with hope, with strength, and with wonder at the many possibilities that life sets before us.   May we find ways to allow that wonder to sustain us always.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Vistas to come - A Prayer for Parashat Lech L'cha - October 23, 2015

Prayer for Lech-Lecha, October 23, 2015
Eternal One,
Every one of us has a story of a journey.
Our lives are filled with stops and starts,
With endings and beginnings,
With one chapter of our experiences giving way to yet another
And still another.
Like Abraham, we leave our parents’ home and the land
Of our birth.
Even if we remain in the same city all our lives,
We still travel from one place to another
Perhaps not so much geographically
But in our values
In the responsibility we take on as community members and leaders
In our knowledge that can continue to grow
In the relationships that we preserve from those other chapters of our lives
And new bonds of fellowship and friends
All of which we continue to nurture and deepen with all of our being.  
We celebrate triumphs
We face challenges
And we move as best we can from healing to hope.
God of our days and years, be with us
Every step of the way.
Help us rescue victory from defeat.
Enable us to turn conflict into positive engagement.
Empower us to fill the world with
Your love, Your Oneness, Your glory,
Your holiness.
May we go forth on this Shabbat
And every Shabbat to new horizons
Amazing vistas, to follow our viewing of beautiful sunsets
With the promise of the dawn of each new day.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Diversity to Unity, Darkness to Light - Parashat Noach - D'var Torah -October 16, 2015

     It has been a difficult week in Israel to culminate a challenging several months of violence and murders or attempted murders.  Claims that "the Jews" are trying to take over the Temple Mount are groundless, yet they reverberate loudly in the ears of Palestinian Arabs as they hear their leaders offer what amounts to a "call to arms."  The tomb of Joseph was set fire last night by demonstrators in Nablus, and one headline simply noted that the tomb "caught fire."   Such sites don't catch fire by themselves.  Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem have been placed under tightened Israeli security.   And while even Palestinian leaders like Mahmoud Abbas have been decrying Israeli policies and actions, Palestinian security officials did arrest 19 Hamas members who were planning to stab Israelis today in a declared "Day of Rage."  
     So it was timely this week that three young women from the Creativity for Peace program appeared at Temple on Wednesday night.  "J", 19, is from Kibbutz Harduf in northern Israel.  "N", 17, is from the Israeli Arab community in Jaffa.  "S", 20, is from the Palestinian community in Nablus.  We listened to them tell their stories and offer their views and share their hopes as they had listened to each other in the Creativity for Peace summer camp program held near Santa Fe.  It was extremely emotional for them as they spoke on Wednesday night, and also for those of us listening.   We concluded that what they had done with one another far exceeded what political leaders have been able to accomplish.  They have heard each other's narratives.  Rather than judging each other, they formed relationships that are stronger than their differences.  They are not enemies, but peers with whom they can maintain a friendship.  At the bottom of the map which they display at each presentation, there is a quote which serves as the foundation of the Creativity for Peace approach:  "Your enemy is someone whose story you haven't heard."   Had the basis of the talk been political, or had someone Jewish been sharing the Palestinian or Israeli Arab narrative,  I believe that the reaction would have been much different.  In this case, even if we disagreed with their historical summary, we listened so that we could learn how it might be possible to move forward in the midst of this intractable conflict. 
     For some people, the nature of this conflict is based in dehumanization of "the other" that allows for spontaneous attacks based on the apparent identity of the targeted person.  So, there are Jews being stabbed by Arab attackers.   There was a report of one Israeli Jew who had dark skin who was attacked by fellow Israeli Jews.  In Ra'anana, one Jewish man stopped the crowd from injuring further a young attacker who had already been caught, cornered, hurt and restrained.  The man felt that the police should take control of the boy, not the crowd that had gathered.   
     I had planned to talk about "the blessing of diversity" in light of tonight's Torah reading, the brief tale of the Tower of Babel.  The story presents the Torah's explanation of why so many different peoples with so many different languages exist in the world, rather than having one people with one language.   In the text itself, the people, these "children of Adam,"  believed they could "make a name for themselves" if they built a tower reaching to the sky.   God knew that if they succeeded, they would lose their humility.  The rabbis also believed that the people building the tower in the valley of Shinar lost their sense of human decency.  That is why one midrash (included on your handout) is so crucial to understanding this tale.  The rabbis said, "As the tower grew in height, it took one year to get bricks from the base to the upper stories. Thus, bricks became more precious than human life. When a brick slipped and fell, the people wept, but when a worker fell and died, no one paid attention."
     One people had one language. It was an easy path to unity, but everyone took their possibly enviable togetherness for granted, thinking that they could be greater than God if they combined their efforts.   Instead, they devalued each individual human being, losing all empathy and regard for life.    Their goal, their ideology, their greatness was all that mattered.  In trying to get closer to God, they ended up much further away from God and godliness than they ever could have imagined. 
    On some levels, that may be what is happening now between Jews and Arabs in that small plot of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.   As neighbors, they can choose to see "the other" as a perpetual enemy.  Or, they can decide to view one another as potential partners in finally ending active conflict,  in moving closer towards a return to quiet and calm, and even in making peace.  In this case, I believe that diversity is a blessing because any negotiations that actually accomplish an end to this bloodshed and hatred will be owned by the parties who make peace happen.   They will work hard to keep that peace, much as the young women from Creativity for Peace do all they can to sustain their relationships against all odds, even during this very hard week back home.    They have learned to see one another as neighbors and partners, and their success can give us faith for even greater triumphs in the future for their friends and acquaintances, and for their two peoples.  Still, many people they know still are unable to see each other as if they live in a place of darkness.   These young women, and the many organizations doing similar work to bring Arabs and Jews together, sustain my faith that the darkness will ultimately give way to the dawn.   
     We do live in a world in which people too easily build walls between each other, where only "their kind" can be trusted, befriended or loved as a fellow human being.  The Tower of Babel story may seem to indicate that division is what God wanted.  Instead, differences among human beings and this story in the Torah can teach us that creating peace and unity within the human family has to be OUR prize, OUR victory, OUR own realization.   That way, the resulting harmony totally belongs to us. Only then do the teachings in many faiths that point to finding common ground with others totally emerge from the darkness and see the light of day in our minds and hearts. 
    A rabbi once asked his students, “How do we know when the night is over and the day has arrived?”
    One said: “Rabbi, night is over and day arrives, when you can see a house in the distance and determine if that’s your house or the house of your neighbor.”
Another student responded: “Night is over and day arrives when you can see an animal in the field and determine if it belongs to you or to your neighbor.”
Yet another student offered: “Night is over and day has arrived when you can look at a flower in the garden and distinguish its color.”
     “No, no, no,” thundered the Rabbi, “Why must you see only in separations, only in distinctions, in disjunctions?  No! Night is over and day arrives when you look into the face of the person beside you and you can see that he is your brother, she is your sister. That you belong to each other. That you are one. Then, and only then, will you know that night has ended and day has arrived.”
May we help that day arrive soon so that God who makes peace in the highest heavens can make peace for all the world. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

AYEKA - Where are You? - Fear, Vulnerability and Responsibility- D'var Torah for Parashat B'raysheet - October 9, 2015

AYEKA?  Where are you?
It was the first question asked by God to a human being.
At least, that’s what the Torah says.
It was asked of the man in the Garden of Eden, commonly called ADAM, a word that could refer to all humankind. The word ADAM could include the man’s companion, the female CHAVAH, which means “one who lives” or, perhaps, “the one who is life.”
So why did God ask the question?  
Because the man was hiding – along with the woman.
Wait a minute -  it’s possible to hide from God?  
We hear a lot in the Psalms about God hiding the divine face from us, but can we really hide from God?  
And why was the man hiding along with the woman?
This is a story that many parents who have raised children through their younger years could tell – the sound of the authoritarian figure in the form of a parent walking towards children concealing themselves because they know they have done something wrong. 
And…the parent knows that the children have done something wrong.
Why hide in such a situation?  
Usually, hiding happens because of shame, remorse, and anticipation of the anger that will be thrust forth once the hiding is over.
Those just might be good reasons to hide if you are the child.  
Imagine a parent seeking his or her children at such a moment in order to find out what had happened – or maybe knowing what happened. 
What would he or she say? 
The words would be “Adam - Eve - Where are you.” 
The phrase could be inflected in several ways…
(Singsongy) Adam?  Eve?   Where are you?
Or ADAM!!! EVE!!!  WHERE ARE YOU???!!!???
So what was the tone of God’s question to Adam and Eve?
Was it a light-hearted “ayeka???”  or an insistent “AYEKA?”
Or let’s give God another parental dimension – a contemplative –

In this passage, moral issues were given a physical dimension, first in the form of a sly animal.
The snake in the garden was described as ARUM (same letters as the word AYROM – naked) – the most cunning of all of the animals.  This is the creature that approached Eve to stump her on a question about the Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil in the midst of the garden.   “Die? You will not die!” he told Eve after she spoke of the dire warning against eating from the tree.   The snake was correct in that the man and woman would not die instantly. An honest snake would have said, “Die?  You will not die now, but you will eventually.”   In this tale, human knowledge of good and evil carried with it mortality and a sense of needing at least a layer protection from the often cold and harsh world.    The Garden of Eden was a place of innocence as long as you were an eternal being – it was warm.  There were no decisions to make.  There was no fear.   There was no bodily shame. There was security.  There was no vulnerability, thanks to God. 
    Once Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, which, by the way,  is not called an apple anywhere in the text, they realized that they were physically exposed.  They immediately wanted to cover themselves. God’s security shield of innocence was gone. And, for the first time, their opened eyes and minds recognized not only their lack of clothing but also the sudden responsibility to deal with the consequences of their actions.   And the flood of moral knowledge that hit them in an instant made them realize that they were already guilty of disobedience.  So they did the first thing that came to mind so as not to have to deal with their misstep.  They hid.   
    So what would have been the right answer to God’s question? 
Was God asking Adam and Eve about their physical location?   Probably not.  Even in this passage in which God had legs and took a stroll in the garden, God was still likely omniscient.  All God wanted was for the newly morally infused human beings to fess up – to admit what they had done.  So, “Where are You” can mean, “Are you in a place where you can calmly and honestly tell me what you have done and take responsibility for it?”  Had Adam and Eve done that, the punishments to come may have been different. At that moment, the “Where” of Adam and Eve was a place of shame, shock, fear, and the trepidation that death would come immediately for what they had done.  They were morally denuded by their act.  They were totally vulnerable, even though God was still present with them.   And in that situation, the Torah imagines the first human beings doing what many people in the generations of humanity have attempted with the great skill in their verbal response to an accusation of an obvious misdeed.  As it says in the text: “God  said: ‘Who told you that you are nude? From the tree about which I command you not to eat, have you eaten?’  The human said: ‘The woman whom you gave to be beside me, she gave me from the tree, so I ate.’ The Eternal, God, said to the woman: ‘What is this that you have done?’  The woman said, ‘The snake enticed me, and so I ate.’”
“He made me do it!” and “She made me do it” are phrases that still comes out of the mouths of human beings today in too many situations. It is no more effective of an explanation now than it was in the Garden of Eden.   And the punishment that followed was much more serious than “Adam, Eve, it’s five days of school dentention” or “100 days of community service for you!”   
   Adam and Eve moved from an idyllic existence to a place – to a life – that would expose them and all humanity, as the Torah tells us, to our fears, to our vulnerabilities.    We become less vulnerable when we make our moral decisions wisely.   We have no fear when we recognize that there are many sources of guidance that can lead us through life’s harshness and challenges.   
AYEKA – Where are you? is about how we take a stand in order to do something right and how we assume responsibility and make amends when we have done something wrong.     Rather than hiding, we can come out into the open with the confidence that the net result of what we do will reflect goodness, righteousness and love and that our actions will ultimately lead to peace.  Following those godly paths bring us back to God, even if not to the garden itself.
   Even so, I found these lyrics running through my head this morning in relation to this story from the Torah: 
“We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
   Perhaps all it would take to get back somewhere close to the garden is for humanity to stop fanning the flames of fear and hatred, for people to recognize the value of helping others rather than amassing power and only caring for themselves, foreswearing violence as a replacement for verbal expression, for nations to search extensively for areas of agreement rather than causes for conflict, and for everyone to see the face and spark of God in one another, so that one person would never hurt another. At that point, there would be no reason to hide.
 AYEKA?   Where are you?
 Just outside the garden, God, trying to do enough good that maybe, one day, we will make our own garden right next to yours

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Willow and our Words - An Invitation to Dialogue Part II (for the Temple Beth-El Las Cruces October 2015 Adelante Newsletter

Earlier this year, I read ON HEAVEN AND EARTH, a book chronicling the ongoing dialogue between Pope Francis (while he was still in Argentina) and Rabbi Abraham Skorka. Pope Francis began his introduction to the book with a poignant statement about interreligious dialogue: 
"Rabbi Abraham Skorka, in one of his earlier writings, made reference to the facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral (see photo above) that depicts the encounter between Joseph and his brothers. Decades of misunderstandings converge in that embrace. There is weeping among them and also an endearing question: Is my father still alive? During the times of national organization, this was the image they proposed, and not without reason. It represented the longing for a reuniting of Argentinians. This scene aims to work to establish a "culture of encounter;" instead it seems that we are seduced into dispersion and the abysses that history has created. At times, we are better able to identify ourselves as builders of walls than as builders of bridges. We lack the embrace, the weeping and the question about the father, for our patrimony, for the roots of our Fatherland. There is an absence of dialogue.”
     “Is it true that we Argentinians do not want dialogue? I would not say it that way. Rather, I think that we succumb to attitudes that do not permit us to dialogue: domination, not knowing how to listen, annoyance in our speech, preconceived judgments and so many others. Dialogue is born from a respectful attitude toward the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It supposes that we can make room in our heart for their point of view, their opinion and their proposals. Dialogue entails a warm reception and not a preemptive condemnation. To dialogue, one must know how to lower defenses, to open the doors of one's home and offer warmth. There are many barriers in everyday life that impede dialogue: misinformation, gossip, prejudices, defamation and slander. All of these realities make up a certain cultural sensationalism that drowns out any possibility of openness to others. Thus, dialogue and encounter falter. But the facade of the Cathedral (with its depiction of the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers) is still there, like an invitation."
Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time
       It was fortuitous that Pope Francis’ visit to the United States ended on September 27 with a surprise blessing of a sculpture commissioned by the Institute for Catholic-Jewish relations at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. The keynote speaker at the dedication on September 25 was Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who had likely coordinated the timing of the ceremony to coincide with the Pope’s presence in Philadelphia. The sculpture, “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time,” depicted two women sitting next to each other. As reported at, “One holds a book, and the other a scroll, and  they are looking at each other’s sacred texts in mutual respect. The work was designed to counter a medieval motif depicting the triumph of Christianity over Judaism. In the ancient sculptures, found in churches all over Europe, the Christian “Ecclesia” stands proudly, wearing a crown, while the defeated “Synagoga,” is blindfolded by a serpent, her staff broken, her tablets slipping from her hand. The pedestal of the new sculpture (created by sculptor Joshua Koffman) bears a quote from Pope Francis, ‘There exists a rich complementarity between the Church and the Jewish people that allows us to help one another mine the riches of God’s word.’”
Waving the Lulav/Etrog at the Temple Beth-El Las Cruces
Sukkot Evening Service on September 27, 2015
     The connection with Sukkot that came to mind for me is in the rabbinic explanation of the significances of the willow branch, one of the natural symbols of this festival which the Torah calls HECHAG, THE HOLIDAY. In his prayerbook Gates of Joy, Rabbi Chaim Stern expressed the meaning of the willow in this way: “The willow's shape is like a lip. It says: Sing and smile; say words that are tender and kind. Let all who hear you be blessed!”
     On Pope Francis’ first full day in the United 
At Rose Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri
September 24, 2015
States on September 24, he took part in an interfaith service at the 9/11 memorial. Later that day, Rhonda and I visited Rose Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri, to pay our respects to my parents, Joseph and Ruth Karol. Standing right next to the grave of my dad is a “weeping willow” tree. Even that particular willow tree is connected with the importance of words, because my father was a wordsmith in his work for the United States Army Corps of Engineers. He taught my brother and me how to effectively use words in essays, papers for school and, yes, even sermons. My father also served as an advisor to the “We Speak for Judaism” Panel of our Temple Youth Group, in which both my brother and I participated, which visited local churches to teach about Judaism. During those programs, the words we used and the way we answered questions posed to us served as a way of building bridges. Each panel presentation reflected the spirit of Pope Francis’ reflection on respectful conversation and represented a moment of at least some degree of warm reconciliation.
     Words and the way we use them are fundamental to creating and sustaining positive relationships with our fellow community members. So may we always remember to speak words that are tender and kind, words that open doors and offer warmth, words that offer an invitation to deeper understanding and friendship.