Thursday, February 25, 2016

Invocation - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Board Meeting - February 25,2016 - Parashat Ki Tisa

Eternal One,
We read in the Torah
That when Moses ascended
Mount Sinai,
To receive a second set of tablets
Of the Aseret Had'varim (aseret hadib'rot),
The Ten Central standards
For our behavior
As Jews
And as human beings,
Your essence was made known to him
So that he could lead other human beings
In reflecting Your ways
In their actions. 
He heard in his mind's ear
That You are the One Who always exists
And whose eternity supports our existence.
You are merciful and compassionate,
So that we should open our hearts
To understand what may motivate others to 
Think as they think
Or do as they do
So that we will show them a generosity of spirit 
with the hope that the result will be 
a meeting of the minds
And unity of action. 
You are gracious - which means that you give us
Second, third and even fourth chances
Whether deserved or undeserved
So that, by being gracious with others, 
We will earn the grace You show us every day. 
You are slow to anger
And so should we be as well
Even when we are disappointed in or upset by others,
Even when we know that what made us angry could have easily been avoided.
You are full of kindness based in faithfulness and truth
And you call on us to be kind in a way
That will extend Your love to all people
Whether they are family members, friends, neighbors or strangers.  
You forgive sin and wrongdoing 
Especially when we realize that we have erred 
You trust that we will be forgiving
And you remind us that the consequences
Of one mistake
Can last not one but several lifetimes
Affecting people we don't know as well as people 
Whom we know well and love. 
Guide us 
In our daily lives, 
in our leadership, 
in our community partnerships
To be like You
For if we are like You
We will add to our own character 
And to our community
And to our world
a touch of holiness
That is so needed 
So that we make our days fulfilling and even joyous.  
As we share our knowledge, 
Our unique talents, 
Our visions,
Our dreams and our hopes
Watch over us 
So that we can be one
As You are and will always be One.

Friday, February 19, 2016

"What if the lights go out?" - D'var Torah for Parashat Tetzaveh - February 19, 2016

"You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps continually...L'HA-ALOT NEIR TAMID."
Aaron and his sons, the Israelite priests to be, would set up the lampstand of gold - M'NOROT ZAHAV - on which the lights would be kindled. 
 And, as the Torah tells us, so they did.
And there was later a menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem, also with seven branches, that was kept lit with the same dedication and commitment.
That Temple did not endure, nor did the second Temple.
The Arch of Titus in Rome shows someone - likely a Jew from vanquished Judea after the failed Revolt - carrying the Temple menorah in Rome as one of the spoils of a difficult war.
So what happened when the lights went out?
And they did go out - at least, the lights on the Temple lampstand (and lamps designated as perpetual lights in the Temple) did. 
Yet, there were other lights that took their place.
Mosaic Floor, Beit Alpha Synagogu
There was the menorah image that began to grace the walls and floors of ancient synagogues.  The menorah, as well as the Eternal Light, the Neir Tamid, became standards symbol in Jewish houses of worship.  
There were also physical candleholders or lamps and real lights that became part of each Jewish home, in the form of Shabbat and holiday lights.
     There were no priests to kindle those candles or lights, but the responsibility fell upon each family, especially the woman of the household, to be sure that those lights burned every week. 
Menorah - The Temple, Congregation
B'nai Jehudah, Kansas City 
     Where the Torah said that the Israelites would be a dominion of priests, that designation comes true at every Shabbat dinner.  When Shabbat blessings are recited at home on Friday night, the family members are like the priests of old.
    There are other lights that could have gone out.
But they didn't.
    The light of faith in God continued because we learned that God's presence need not be confined to a Temple - it could be anywhere.   We realized it was possible to approach God through prayer wherever we might be, including when we gather in synagogues as a community.  Prayer, the rabbis explained, was the offering of our hearts.  
Menorah - Temple Beth Sholom, Topeka, Kansas
      The light of learning could have stopped 2000 years ago, but it didn't.
    Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who escaped Jerusalem under Roman siege during the revolt of 66-70 CE,  was granted the right to set up a house of study, a BEIT MIDRASH, in Yavneh on the Mediterranean sea coast.
His persuasive powers enabled Jews to continue to discuss, debate, and develop their heritage, a practice that has come down to us today.   Classes for members of all ages in modern congregations are a tribute to the rabbis who sustained our tradition against great odds so long ago.
There is a light of hope that could have been extinguished many times throughout history, but it wasn't. 
So many places where Jews have lived were inhospitable to some degree.  The communities survived because their traditions of prayer, celebration, study and performing acts of lovingkindness strengthened them throughout the centuries.   If one country sent members of its Jewish community packing, they almost always found a new home and thrived once again.  That would include, among other places, the United States and the State of Israel.
    There is a light of freedom that has inspired members of Jewish communities to work for liberty wherever they have lived.
     There are scholars and leaders who claim that freedom may serve for some as a chance to leave Judaism behind. 
    Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University noted that, in 1818, the United States Attorney General, William Wirt, declared that no Jews would be left in our country in 150 years, or by 1968.   In 1964, Look Magazine featured a cover bearing the title "The Vanishing American Jew. " The article of the same title by Rabbi Max Schenk suggested that the American Jewish community would disappear in a generation or two.   The last time I checked, we are still here.  
     Some predictions today claim that all liberal forms of Judaism will die out in the next 50 years due to issues of commitment and demographics.  Will our light, in fact, go out?
Not if we continue to gather as a community.
Not if we find new ways to learn from one another and teach each other.
Menorah - Temple Beth-El,
Las Cruces, New Mexico
Not if we celebrate holidays and special life moments that demonstrate an infusion of new ideas and revitalized spirit.
Not if we remember that the principles of "loving our neighbors" and "loving the stranger" as ourselves direct us to act with kindness towards one another and to engender partnerships with people of all faiths and backgrounds. 
Our light will not go out as long as we pray, and sing, and sustain the ideas and values that lead us along a path of creating a community, a nation, and a world based upon justice and peace. 
    May we keep these lights burning continually as preservers of our faith and tradition and as compassionate members of the human family. 

(This D'var Torah was inspired by a session on prayer led by Rabbi Ed Feinstein at Songleader Boot Camp in St. Louis, Missouri on Tuesday, February 16, 2016)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Quantity and Quality - D'var Torah for Parashat Terumah - February 12, 2016

"The erection of the Tabernacle and Sacred Vessels
lllustration from the 1728 
Figures de la Bible;
illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733)
and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague;
 The 1728 depiction of the construction of the ancient Tabernacle on your handout was an attempt to imagine what the Israelite center for worship must have looked like.   You can see Moses in the drawing with rays of light coming off of his head.  That would be Aaron next to him, already wearing the breastplate with stones signifying the 12 tribes of Israel.  All of the furnishings for the Tabernacle appear ready to be moved to their designated spots.    What this drawing illustrates is the nearly finished product.  The question is….how did that project get that far?  How would the Israelites in the wilderness have had anything with them that could have been used in constructing even a portable holy place?  
       One answer to those questions might be, “Don’t ask!  It’s there in the text – it happened – the people must have had something with them to make it happen!”   Some scholars have suggested that there was no Tabernacle in the wilderness, but that it was imagined by later generations of the people of Israel who worshipped regularly at the Temple in Jerusalem.  They likely thought that their ancestors who had left Egypt must have created a portable version of a forerunner of the Temple.   From those notions may have come the detailed descriptions contained in the Torah which were distinctively portrayed in the drawing before us from 1728.
     Whether the Tabernacle and Sanctuary were real or not may not matter. Any community has to start somewhere.  Last Sunday, our 4th-5th grade class went into the storage room behind the sanctuary that houses prayerbooks that we used to use, prayerbooks we use now, old copies of the Hertz Pentateuch, and, unexpectedly, a collection of scrapbooks, photo albums, and envelopes with photos from past events at Temple Beth-El.   We are talking about 60 years of history being depicted in those photos, from the time when this community was just getting started in creating the foundations of its organizational structure and in developing relationships among leaders and members that would make all future growth of Temple Beth-El possible.  Newspaper clippings in the scrapbooks go back to the 1950s.  The photos encompass a time before there was a building, to many events in the building on Parker Road, to photos of the groundbreaking at this location.  Every article, every face in those photos, bears significance to the legacies created in this congregation over the decades.   What our current Religious School students uncovered was a treasure-trove of images and stories that have contributed to making Temple Beth-El what it is today.
   What we have here now, this building and our community, have their roots in the gathering and wanderings of the ancient Israelites.  Whatever their actual history, they were creating memories all their own.    For the moment,  let’s assume that the Tabernacle in the wilderness did exist in some form.   What is crucial is the message contained at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, which is on the handout.   While Moses was on Mount Sinai, God instructed him to command the Israelites to bring gifts that would be used to make the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and the sacred garments for the priests.    To do that would take many, many gifts of raw materials.   So how did the Israelites come to have all that was needed for the project?   Commentators assert that they did have some possessions while they lived in Egypt. And when they left, as we are told in Exodus Chapter 12, the Egyptians urged the Israelites to keep objects of silver and gold as well as clothing that they had loaned to them.   
  So that is how the large quantity of materials for the project came to be in the possession of this formerly enslaved people.     What was more important than the contributions themselves of the items listed in this week’s Torah reading was the requested attitude that would motivate the giving.   God told Moses, “You shall accept gifts FOR Me from every person whose heart moves him/her to do so.”   The donations had to be voluntary, coming from the deepest desires of the people.   It didn’t matter how much they gave, as long as the sum total of the gifts would make the completion of the Tabernacle possible.   Giving willingly and with humility was all that was asked of the Israelites.   The word for gifts, TERUMAH, means something that was “elevated,” “exalted” or “lifted up.”  Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (as noted in the Etz Hayim Torah commentary) explained that offering any gift to God takes the donor to a higher level, no matter what his or her motivation.  

      The Biblical garden project that we are now witnessing come to fruition outside Temple also has required donations from community members.   Every brick, every gift, every idea, and every inspiration related to this effort is like the materials that the Israelites were commanded to bring.   One goal for the Biblical garden outside is that it will offer a special site for meditation – much like the Tabernacle, which was mostly an outdoor space for worship.    That area outside our building will carry with it the sentiment expressed in God’s command to Moses, “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”   Rabbi Kerry Olitzky noted in a recent post online that he retranslates that phrase in this way: “Let them make me a sanctuary…but I will dwell among them.”   In other words, our efforts at creating sacred space offer us tangible reminders of what is intangible in life that comprises our foundation of central Jewish values, such as  love, connection, caring, support, faith, hope, goodness, kindness, and peace.     Creating holiness in space can continue to inspire us to infuse holy principles into our character, which can elevate all that we give to each other to a higher level.  They can lead us to fashion a legacy of holiness that will strengthen who we are as a community, a people, and as members of the human family.  May the gifts we bring, and the spaces we create, add quality and meaning to every day of our lives. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Knowing....and Doing - unpublished thoughts on my current community after the tragic murders at "Mother Emanuel" in Charleston in 2015

An Open Letter to the Las Cruces Community

 "Do not separate yourself from the community." The Jewish sage Hillel suggested that this principle should lie at the foundation of how we live among our neighbors in the city we call home. 

 Events that occur far away from southern New Mexico have a way of touching us and making us wonder how we should respond. The murder of 9 members of "Mother Emanuel" AME church in Charleston, South Carolina is not an exception. Perhaps some of us have visited Charleston. We may have friends who reside in that city. The first Jewish congregational building created as a Reform Jewish Temple, Beth Elohim, is located just a few blocks from "Mother Emanuel" church. 

Our diversity in Las Cruces and in Dona Ana County is a daily aspect of our lives. I am fascinated to learn about the history of this area from community members who have roots in or near Las Cruces. People with rich cultural and religious backgrounds have moved to Las Cruces, which has its own history of culture and faith. All of our stories combine together to shape a rich local narrative. We have so much to learn from one another and to teach each other. 

It is in truly knowing each other, going beyond the surface of who we are, that we transcend any barriers that might divide us and prevent mutual understanding. We need to talk with one another about what it means to be "who we are" without having our stories questioned or judged. Such conversations may include a recounting of moments of hurt that comes from prejudice, bigotry or being considered inferior to others in some way. If that happens, we need to listen. Such feelings should not be denied. If they are felt, they are real. Attitudes that lead to misunderstanding and discrimination are just as real. 

 Accepting what we hear can go a long way towards fashioning solutions to problems we face. Sometimes we can tackle those issues on our own or through the channels of private and non-profit organizations. At other times, government can be an able and appropriate partner, especially when changes in law and policy can bring real progress to the lives of people across the socioeconomic and culture spectrum of our community. 

 "Do not separate yourself from the community" means that we can do this important work together and, in the process, become more familiar with our neighbors and challenges that arise in our lives. And there is work we can do face to face, on an individual basis. Jewish tradition states that "if you save one soul, it is as if you have saved a whole world. And if you destroy one soul, it is as if you have destroyed an entire world." 

 Now is a good time to do what we can to "save", that is, help and support, our community one person at a time. We can ask "How are you?" "Are you all right?" "What do you need?" "I know of a group/organization that can make things better for you." And we can do this with people whom we know and whom we don't know. If we are all part of this community, we are already connected to each other. 

Let us hope that we can develop these ties further and deeper in the months to come. 

A kippah, a tallit - external symbols that defy stereotypes - articlefor Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter for February 2016

Rony Brauman, a former president of Doctors Without Borders responded to the January 11, 2016 stabbing of a Jewish resident of Marseille, France by claiming that wearing a kippah is now “an affirmation of loyalty to the State of Israel” and “a sign of a kind of allegiance to the policies of the state of Israel.” This was evident, Brauman said, because the boy who committed the attack saw the man wearing a kippah, and identified that aspect of his appearance as a reason to stab his victim.
This is not be the first time that a Jewish religious item has had its meaning reinterpreted by an outside group. In the 1970s and 1980s, as part of a program of oppression against Soviet Jews, the tallit was labeled as a piece of “Zionist propaganda.”
A kippah. A tallit.
Both items, both expressions of our faith, have now been identified as more than religious symbols.
We do know that the Israeli flag, originally the flag of the Zionist movement, used the tallit, with its white background and stripes that were often blue, as a pattern and an inspiration. Still, the tallit is, in itself, a biblically-based item worn during worship.
And well we know that wearing the kippah was, at first, a custom that was followed in some, but not all, communities. It likely took on greater significance when Jews in Europe sought to distinguish their practice from religious groups around them that did not require a head covering for prayer. The kippah/yarmulke became a sign of respect for God as men (and, more recently, women) adopted the practice of wearing it throughout the Jewish world.
When I was growing up, I wore a kippah (and tallit) only when I attended Orthodox and Conservative synagogues. My home congregation, which could have been characterized in the mid-20th century as “Classical Reform,” took its time in warming to the practice of anyone present wearing a kippah and tallit. University of Illinois Hillel changed that for me, as participation in worship there led me to fre- quently wear a kippah and, eventually, to bring my father’s tallit to college with me. The first time I wore a kippah (and tallit) in my home Temple was when I was serving as a rabbinic intern in 1978, and even, then, only on Shabbat morning.
One classic photo of religious leaders marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. portrays Rabbi Abraham Josh- ua Heschel wearing a hat (with a kippah underneath), and Reform movement leader Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath carrying a Torah (but not wearing a kippah). Both rabbis represented their heritage in their own way. What they shared in common was their commitment to social justice that led them to join a civil rights march in order to put into practice the message of the prophets of Jewish tradition.
The basis of wearing a kippah today is related to one’s personal approach to recognizing God’s presence, whether at all times or in association with specific activities. I wear a kippah when I pray and when I study, but not usually when I shop or go to secular community events. Other Jews make choices for themselves, and there are Reform Jews I know who regularly wear a kippah in public.
Connecting the kippah solely to the state of Israel, thus making a person wearing a kippah any place in the world a target for a politically-motivated attack, says more about a perpetrator’s penchant for generalization and stereotyping than about the views of a person who could become a victim. People wearing kippot in Israel (yes, men AND women) represent a wide range of views about Israeli politics; the potential for peace; engaging in ongoing dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims; and challenging the government’s policies, whether from the left, center, or right.
In fact, there are victims of attacks in Israel (who were wearing head coverings) who have been engaged in creating positive ties with members of neighboring Arab communities. It is unfortunate that such efforts towards a measure of cooperation get lost in a world where appearances mean more than the essence of a person and his/her perspectives and the respectful attitudes that could emerge from his or her faith.
So may we always remember to look beneath the surface, extending our hand in love and understanding when possible, but realizing that it is we alone who have the ultimate right to define what a kippah – or any external symbol – means to each of us.