Friday, November 13, 2015

Struggling Towards our Destiny – Sermon – Parashat Toldot – Rabbi Larry Karol – November 13, 2015 (in conjunction with the meeting of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society)

The boys yet to be born struggled in Rebekah's womb.  She cried out, "If this is what is happening to me, why do I exist?"  So she went to inquire of God. God told her that both sons would become great nations.
As we know from the rest of the story, that greatness would come only with challenge, struggle, disappointment, and then, eventual triumph and tranquility.  That peace was accomplished by Esau going his way and Jacob, who had been asked to follow Esau, going in a totally different direction.
  Still, both Jacob and Esau would emerge as confident adults who had all that they needed for themselves and their families.
    Wherever Jews of previous generations have lived, what Jacob and Esau eventually had is all that they sought and desired: a place to find a comfortable life where they and their Judaism could flourish, a land where they would be safe from discrimination of any kind, a home where they could, in the words of Emma Lazarus, breathe free.
    Reaching that goal never came easily.   James Carroll's master work, Constantine's Sword, accurately portrayed how Jews were treated as the proverbial "out-group" in Europe.  Nevertheless, they succeeded in creating self-sustaining Jewish communities that endured for many centuries.
And then there was the arrival of 23 Jews in 1654 in New Amsterdam.  Governor Peter Stuyvesant used every anti-Semitic epithet he could think of in his condemnation of these weary travelers who were fleeing the arrival of the Inquisition in Brazil.   The Jewish Community of Amsterdam successfully prevailed upon the Dutch West India Company that created that colony in the New World to let the new arrivals remain.
    Within 12 years, New Amsterdam became New York, a city and metropolitan area in which many members of the New Mexico Jewish community were born and raised.
     This past March, I had the opportunity to see the exhibit at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish history which featured George Washington's letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790.   How many of you have visited Touro Synagogue in Newport?  How many of you have been to the National Museum of American Jewish History?
   It was this nation's first president who, by his words, began to erase the possible conflict between being American and being Jewish.  All we had to do to be accepted, he wrote, was to participate as good citizens of this country.  Washington wished the Jews of Newport the opportunity to play a significant role in the growth  of the new nation which he was just beginning to lead.
    We know that the 225 years since Washington expressed those sentiments have included many times of challenge.   There have been incidents of misunderstanding, hatred, prejudice and discrimination.   Those events have existed alongside success stories for unknown individuals as well as people whose names we know well and whose leadership has left a lasting impact on who we are.   Like Jacob and Esau, our struggles in our beginnings gave way to parallel and sometimes shared achievement that is cause for celebration.
  This week, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America met in Washington, DC.  The theme of their gathering was "Think Forward."   It was a well-chosen title in a year when Jews disagreed with other Jews on the issue of how best to approach a nuclear deal with Iran.   The intersection of political partisanship and Jewish identity likely exacerbated levels of internal conflict and consternation.  Hopefully, there is a healing process in progress as we seek to continue to support the State of Israel.  In this same year, I was asked to join other rabbis and Jewish leaders in New Mexico to send comments through the Anti Defamation League that would, hopefully, prevent the success of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions forces at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.   The particular threat from the BDS movement, which often disintegrates into anti-Semitism, has a way of bringing members of the Jewish community together across a wide range of perspectives.   Such issues that touch the very core of our being seem to offer us a chance to demonstrate unity of soul and purpose that should not be so elusive at other times.
    I don't believe that I have ever lived in a state with a Jewish community that encompasses a broader range of Jewish expression.   That is a strength of New Mexico.   Even if we may tend to stay within our own congregations, it is difficult in this era of the internet and social media not to know what else is happening in our corner of the Jewish world.  We know that we have many choices for celebrating Jewish time and space and marking personal and communal milestones.  Like Jacob's and Esau's resulting relationship at the end of their story, we may appear to go our separate ways. Yet, we do know all along that we are still family.  And we realize that, sometimes, it is important to reunite to strengthen who we are so that our path towards a Jewish future will offer us all meaning and inspiration.
     This past week, I was privileged to attend the Union for Reform Judaism's 73rd Biennial Convention.  Our contingent from New Mexico was numerous enough that we frequently happened upon one another as we went from session to session.   There was the usual Shabbat worship with 5000 people that was uplifting and overwhelming.  I had conversations with fellow participants that demonstrated how our personal struggles to apply our Jewish values in daily life are crucial to keeping Judaism vibrant in our communities.  And there is no better way to do that than to develop and tell our own stories of how we got to where we are now.  In that spirit,  I should ask about the beginning of your stories: How many of you are from New Mexico originally?  How many of you were born and raised in the American southwest?  How many of you are from the East Coast?  West Coast?  Midwest?  South?  How many of you are originally from other countries?
We each have our own tale to tell.  And part of that narrative includes our life in New Mexico which, we know, is different from any other place where we have lived before.    Whether we reside in this state for 5 years, 10 years, 25 years, 50 years or more, our time in New Mexico leaves its mark on us. And it is where each of us now considers how our Jewish identity will play out in our own lives and enrich our communities in ways that we and our neighbors may not ever have imagined. 
    In telling the story of Rebekah's reaction to Jacob and Esau struggling in her womb, we are reminded how beginnings are not easy, and how our experiences can pose obstacles and challenges that we must overcome if we are to move forward.   That is very much the Jewish story.  And even if we don’t see eye to eye all the time, and even if we find ourselves on differing spiritual or cultural paths , we know that we are part of one community. We can, if we choose,  move forward in step with each other.   Celebrating holidays and life events, joining our voices in prayer and song, and reflecting on the meaning of our history are reasons that we can be optimistic that we will always recognize the need to stay together as we interact with the greater community in which we live.   For ourselves, for our state, and for our role in making new history, may the words of Psalm 133 guide us - HINEI MAH TOV, UMAH NAIM, SHEVET ACHIM GAM YACHAD - how good and how pleasant it is when we dwell together in unity, sharing our stories from the past so that we can ensure our vitality in the years to come.

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