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.

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