Friday, December 25, 2015

Dreaming of peace - column created for Las Cruces Sun-News of December 25, 2015

We are completing a year in which there have been all too many deaths from acts of violence in our country and throughout the world. Some incidents happened on the spur of the moment. Others were the result of premeditation intended to make a political statement or to hold the world hostage.

These words of the prophet Isaiah (chapter 54) come to mind for me in light of such events: "You shall be established through righteousness/justice. You shall be safe from oppression, and shall have no fear. You shall be protected from ruin, and it shall not come near you." The passage itself declares divine providence over those who follow God's teachings. I would take its meaning to another level. When we create a context in which people act towards one another based on fairness, respect and concern for everyone, there will no longer be oppression. There will be nothing to make us afraid, because people will find a way to resolve differences through words rather than weapons.

Is such a world a dream? Perhaps, but it offers a preferable alternative to a world in which violent acts take innocent lives all too often. The passage from Isaiah (chapter 54) also declares, "Great will be the peace of your children." What can we do to promote peace and well-being? We can offer comfort to those who have lost family members and friends to violence and conflict. We can support all those who keep the peace and make peace. We can learn more about our respective backgrounds and listen to each other's stories. We can approach one another based on a trust that recognizes our common humanity. We can teach people how to resolve disputes, even small ones, in a spirit of cooperation and compromise. We can recognize that, as members of the human family, we are traveling along the same road. The peace of our children will be great only if we walk that path together.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"We Can Work It Out" - overcoming dissonance and creating harmony- D'var Torah for Parashat Vayigash - December 18, 2015

    These last two weeks of news, especially news somewhat related to the Jewish community, have featured examples of separation and coming together, dissonance and harmony.    Let me show you what I mean.
      Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett recently visited one of the Conservative Jewish movement’s Solomon Schechter day schools in the United States.  He was immediately criticized by Israeli Chief Rabbi David Lau, who asserted, “To speak deliberately with a specific community and to recognize it and its path, when this path distances Jews from the path of the Jewish people, this is forbidden. If Minister Bennett would have asked my opinion before the visit, I would have said to him explicitly, ‘You cannot go somewhere where the education distances Jews from tradition, from the past, and from the future of the Jewish people.”    Naftali Bennett responded that he was proud to join in community with members of all branches of Judaism around the world.   
There was one more important response to Chief rabbi Lau.  Amichai Lau-Lavie is known for his great work in creating and sustaining Storahtelling, a program that effectively dramatizes Torah readings for congregations to make them come alive during worship.  Lau-Lavie will be ordained as a conversative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in May.  He is also a first cousin of Chief Rabbi David Lau.  Expressing extreme disappointment in his high-placed relative, Lau-Lavie declared in a widely-published open letter: “To Rabbi Lau, my respected cousin: We came together not too long ago at my father’s grave, where we paid joint tribute to the heritage of our forefathers. But let’s bear respect not only for our beautiful past. Here and now, let’s look together toward the future — in which there is great animosity and many foes, but also a great thirst for spirituality and religion and in which there can also be great peace emerging out of mutual support and the discovery of courageous ways to work toward the continuity of our tradition – in all its many faces.”
       The Vatican made a landmark statement this past week about how Catholics should approach members of the Jewish community.   The headlines noted that the Catholic Church will not officially pursue efforts to convert Jews.  Individual Catholics are still called upon to bear witness to their faith to all people.  The document recommended to Catholics to speak about their own faith to Jews in a “humble and sensitive manner,” particularly in light of the Holocaust.   What was clear from the Catholic Church’s statement is that the Jewish covenant with God is still intact, in force, and valid, and that we, as Jews have a path to salvation all our own.
  That statement from the Vatican was not good enough for Jews for Jesus.  David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, claimed that any group  that calls itself Christian must fulfill the Great Commission of the New Testament to convert all humankind to a belief in Jesus as the one true Savior of Humanity.  Brickner stated last Friday that his organization finds the Vatican’s position “…egregious, especially coming from an institution which seeks to represent a significant number of Christians in the world.”  This turn of events seems to confirm that Jews for Jesus is a group that must be defined as essentially Christian.  The aspects of their practice that one could call “outward Jewish trappings” are intended to bring more Jews to the Jews for Jesus mode of belief and practice.  This organizations declared good intentions in its missionary work lost a great deal of luster when Brickner claimed that the Vatican was “pandering to Jewish leaders” with its recent statement.
    Finally, I was intrigued at the responses from both ends of the political spectrum at the inclusion of Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Synagogue in St. Louis at the White House Hanukkah celebration on December 9.  She offered an invocation at the event, speaking from her heart about issues near and dear to her and her approach to Judaism in action, including curbing violence in our communities (including gun violence), justice for Palestinians and security for Israelis and peace for the two sides together, and maintaining calm in our communities at home.  Rabbi Talve, one of my rabbinic school classmates, served as a faith leader in peaceful demonstrations in Ferugson, Missouri, which attempted to foster reconciliation and progress in relations between local citizens and law enforcement officials.  After Rabbi Talve’s high-profile appearance at the White House, and even before, she was roundly criticized by left-wing organizations for her persistent support for Israel while, at the same time, working with the Black Lives Matter movement. Left-wing groups see her as a walking contradiction, with some activists openly decrying her with the hastag “Real Terrorist.”   From the right, one commentator, Daniel Greenfield, wrote that “Rabbi Talve’s behavior at the White House was deeply insulting to the religious Jewish community and made it clear that the White House was determined to hijack even a Chanukah party to promote an anti-Jewish agenda.”   Rabbi Talve made her remarks in the presence of President (and Mrs.) Obama and Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, who both spoke right before her invocation.  What she said had been preceded by similar sentiments voiced by  President Rivlin, as he expressed a hope for peace in the Middle East. He made this statement to the crowd gathered that night: “Today, we see around the world terrible crimes, and danger to humanity which cause a lack of respect, a lack of freedom of faith, and a lack of freedom of religion.  Each night of Hanukkah, we add a new light to the menorah.  Rabbi Abraham Heschel, one of the best friends of Martin Luther King, wrote in his book, Insecurity of Freedom, that people usually follow the path of regression.  They begin high and fall down.  But instead, we should be like the Hanukkah candles and follow the path of progression.  He said that the people will have the strength to ascend if leaders…continue to rise….I would like to light this candle, this little flame, with a prayer and hope that one day, religious, cultural and moral liberty will be enjoyed without question by each and every person in the world.”
     All of these messages that reflect consideration for others uneasily coexist next to declarations that seem to widen divisions between people based on politics, race and ideology.  This persistent conflict called to mind for me the scene in this week’s Torah reading.  Joseph, second-in-command in Egypt, knew that his brothers had come during the famine to provide food for their family.  He concocted an elaborate scheme to see if his brothers would bring down his younger full-brother Benjamin, whom he knew was the apple of his father’s eye that he would not want to leave home.  Once Benjamin did come, and Joseph had his courtiers frame Benjamin as a thief, Joseph had created the ultimate test: would his brothers abandon Benjamin as they once had done to Joseph?   With this threat to their well-being, the brothers spoke with remorse about what they had done to Joseph, not knowing they were standing right before the aggrieved party who heard and understood every word they said.   Joseph realized that his brothers had changed, as had he.  He revealed himself to his family and made reconciliation possible for one major reason.  It was Joseph who finally could interpret his own dreams.  He had arrived at the moment when his family was bowing down to him, but not because he was superior. After Joseph told his brothers that he really was their long-lost sibling, he assured them that he knew that it was God who had sent him ahead to Egypt to save their lives.  There was no higher calling than that for this now-great leader of Egypt who had come from such humble beginnings.  
    I don’t expect full agreement from those who are sitting in front of me or will read this online regarding the examples I have shared tonight of how we find ways to build bridges in some cases towards one another, and, sadly, some construct tall, impenetrable barriers in other situations.  At the very least, we need to listen to one another just in case someone with whom we disagree may have a point.  Even more, we need to ask ourselves if what we are saying and doing follows a higher purpose well noted in Judaism, and included in Rabbi Talve’s remarks at the White House – that we are called upon by our heritage to see the face of God in the faces of all people.  That principle drives much of what I do, including reaching out to Muslim colleagues in my local interfaith work who have had people in local public places harangue and verbally accost them because of their outward appearance.  These individuals with whom I have worked locally, and the vast, vast majority of Muslims worldwide, have no alliance whatsoever with those very few who have perpetrated horrible acts of terror and violence which they, for themselves, associate with their view of Islam.  We know that we, as Jews, don’t like being stereotyped, because that approach leads to generalized hatred.    We should do all we can not to take that approach of stereotyping and generalizing with people of other faiths and backgrounds.  

   The song that gave this talk its title in the Temple’s Adelante newsletter was just entering onto the charts 50 years ago this week.  “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend” should be a watchword for all of our relationships.  We can work it out – all of it – if we see the higher purpose of our existence on earth.  As our prayerbook states, “O may all, created in Your image, become one in spirit, and one in friendship, forever united, God, in your service.”  And further: “May our deeds exceed our speech, and may we never lift up our hand but to conquer fear and doubt and despair…light up the universe, our God, with the joy of wholeness, of freedom, and of peace.”   We can work it out, and build bridges, and foster hope throughout the world, if we rise above conflict and see the higher purposes revolving around us, just like Joseph was finally able to do.  May we find a way to that vision.  And let us say amen.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Light - A Reading for Hanukkah - from the Religious School students and faculty members of Temple Beth-El Las Cruces - December 11, 2015

The menorah is a beautiful light to have in the house, 
especially on Hanukkah.

 Menorah light 

is always plentiful 
near Chanukah. 
Burning so bright, 
and showing off its flicker.  S

I have been 
a light 
to someone 
when they 
need help.  

Thank you 
for everything 

Being a light to others…
·    Is about honesty caring and sharing
·    is giving without being asked
·    is being there even if it seems that
the person does not want you.

To be a light 
to cheer someone up 




A light means 
if someone is dark and empty,
you will bring light 
and happiness 


Bringing light means

   Involved with others
   Greeting someone

To bring light 

is to bring 
happiness to an otherwise 
dark and sad person 


I bring light by making people feel special and welcome when they are new. Also, if someone is sad and if you say something nice to them, you can bring happiness and light to them

Sharing my light means to bring people happiness and
to make people feel good about themselves
Hannah Saltman

I have been a light 
to someone else 
when I helped her 
finish her math

 How can we spread light to others?
· Do community service
· Smile at everyone you see
· Give a hug
· Say kind words
· Help people in need
· Make people laugh
Lily - Olivia -Claire 
Elizabeth -Ben - Aaron

Bringing light to others means giving
·     Warmth
·     Wisdom
·     Hope
·     A listening ear
·     Joy
·     Love
Rabbi Larry

We - like Hanukkah lights - can coexist in harmony - November 30, 2015

Lighting Chanukiot at Temple Beth-El on
Friday, December 11, 2015
    I have found myself thinking in recent days about how we deal with diversity in the United States, and, specifically, in our own city and community.   Our differences are real.  What is also real is our basic and intrinsic similarity as members of the human family.  Unfortunately, differences may unnecessarily lead to divisions that drive us apart.  Differences, however, can also offer opportunities to learn about philosophies, ideologies and beliefs that we may not share so that we can better know and understand our neighbors.
   Temple Beth-El recently hosted "Ever Grateful - An Interfaith Conversation," which featured a panel that included Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Baha'i participants and an audience that broadened the range of faith groups represented that day.   We heard about prayers, stories, and perspectives that illustrated a tapestry of religious approaches that were connected by common threads of thankfulness for the gifts of life and community.   This event took place nine days after the attacks in Paris.  One question that was submitted wondered if all of us believe that our faiths can lead us to cooperatively improve the world.  We all responded with a resounding "yes"!
     The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is being celebrated this year beginning on the night of December 6 through sunset on December 14.  Hanukkah commemorates a victory for religious freedom by Jews in Judea in 165 B.C. against their Syrian-Greek rulers, who had demanded everyone in their empire to follow Greek culture and beliefs.  The Temple in Jerusalem, which had been turned in a place of exclusive tribute to the Greek pantheon of gods, was recaptured by Jewish fighters and rededicated as a Jewish house of worship.  Some Jews who had adopted Greek practices prior to the takeover of the Temple realized that there was greater value in their own faith. They willingly joined in this struggle for the right to be different. 
With Rhonda Karol at the Las Cruces Public Schools
Amistad Pre-school during a Chanukah Presentation
     Every Hanukkah menorah, with its eight branches for the eight nights of the holiday, plus the branch for the shamash/"helper" candle, is lit with one new candle each night, until we see the brilliance of nine lights on the last night of the festival.  Most boxes of Hanukkah candles provide a rainbow of colors (for which there is no religious significance).   Placing candles in a menorah (specifically called a Hanukkiah, by the way) is, therefore, always an exercise in creativity and diversity
     The Hanukkiah/Menorah reminds me of who we are as a nation and as a world community.   When the multi-colored eight-candles-plus-one are kindled on the last night of Hanukkah, it is an amazing sight, one that elicits wonder as the flames dance, seemingly in a coordinated movement.   These lights are a source of warmth, holiness and joy.   They call to mind our passion for what we believe, even as we acknowledge the devotion of our neighbors to their perspectives, with the possibility that we will discover ways in which we can work towards common goals.

    On Hanukkah, lights coexist in harmony.  In the same way that they stand side-by-side,  we can all be like the candles on a menorah, offering warmth and the promise of unity and respect towards one another.  For our well-being as a human family, that continues to be my hope.   

Last Night of Chanukah at the Karols' - December 13, 2015

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