Friday, May 20, 2016

Times and Teachings - Judaism and Respect - D'var Torah -Parashat Emor - May 20, 2016

     Today marks 4 weeks – almost a month – since we began counting the Omer for this year of 5776.       The Torah portion for this Shabbat, Emor, established the practice of counting the Omer that has continued for over 2500 years, maybe 3000.   Lag Ba-omer, the 33rd day of this period, which falls next Thursday, is the only day during this time when traditional Jews will hold celebrations of any kind.  Day 33 was identified in the Talmud as the time when a plague ended that had decimated most of the students of Rabbi Akiba.   One of Akiba’s disciples, Shimon bar Yochai, reportedly gained deep insights about God on the 33rd day of the Omer one year.  Bonfires are lit around Israel in Rabbi Shimon’s honor, and many visit his grave at Meron. 
    The section of the Talmud which speaks of the plague that fell upon Rabbi Akiba’s students also gives a reason for the coming of that fatal  mass sickness.   Here is that passage ( ) from Yevamot 62b: “It was said that R. Akiba had twelve thousand pairs of disciples…and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. One Rabbi taught:  All of them  died between Passover and Shavuot.   The world remained desolate until R. Akiba came to our Masters in the South" (one of them being Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai). 
     Whether this really happened or not, there is something very disturbing about the reason for this plague – disrespect - that fell upon Rabbi Akiba’s students.   The traditions that developed surrounding the 33rd day didn’t even begin to give a remedy for widespread disrespect to assure that a lesson would be learned from this sad event.  
   Or maybe it is just that the remedy is embedded somewhere else in Jewish literature.  As it turns out, that may be the case.    One of my favorite passages from the Midrash notes that Rabbi Akiba cited “Love your neighbor as yourself” as the fundamental principle of the Torah.   Was that an answer to the devastating illness that came upon his students?  Perhaps.   And how did that disrespect run so rampant?   The Talmud is silent on that aspect of this ancient tragedy.  
     We know all too well how disrespect can spread from witnessing the conflicts of our own time.   A Princeton University online guide to personal behavior features a section about “calling out disrespect” ( ).  It suggests what disrespect can look like in the present day:     
·         Using words that degrade, demean, or objectify
·         Making statements that attack a person based on one or more social identities
·         Writing and endorsing offensive comments posted in social media
·         Turning away when someone is asking for or needs  help
·         Deciding not to enforce policies meant to protect our community from harm
·         Operating in a way that consistently ignores a group of people or minimizes their collective experiences
·         Choosing to destroy another person's property
The Princeton Respect guide explains: “If someone does or says something that you think is disrespectful (even if you aren't 100% sure) it’s important to be open about your disapproval. If no one says anything, even if the majority disagree with what has been said or done, a message is sent that this kind of behavior is acceptable in the community.”  
    Disrespect can spread easily, as we have seen in expressions related to the 2016 Presidential campaign.  We have recently witnessed two Jewish columnists in open conflict.  One who supports one particular candidate has called another a “Renegade Jew” for advocating the recruitment of a major figure for a third party run for the presidency in the upcoming election.    Jewish reporters who have written articles critical of certain individuals central to the campaign have faced a barrage of anti-Semitic comments and tweets that are well outside the realm of constructive criticism. Some of those responses from the public have at least matched, if not surpassed, the worst expressions of hatred against Jews in the history of our country.  And I am not exaggerating.    
    Using words carefully is very much a part of the Jewish heritage.  Our tradition does not condone nor encourage disrespect.  It is not about being politically correct.   From a Jewish perspective, we are called upon to follow the teachings that have been passed down to us which create a community conducive to cooperation, even when ideological strife is abundant and pervasive.
    The holidays listed in Leviticus Chapter 23 all bear messages that point to respect and civility.  Shabbat is a day of rest and peace that we can translate into action throughout each week.  Passover is about winning and preserving freedom, fighting for the freedom of others, and caring for the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt.  Shavuot, the holiday of first fruits and the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, reminds us to return again and again to our teachings and values, poring over them to the point where we will practice the central precepts of Judaism that will lead to respect, hope and peace.  The holiday of Sukkot teaches that the path to freedom may take a long time to traverse, and that our existence in the wilderness along the journey to that freedom may be fragile and uncertain until we reach our destination.    But reach that ultimate goal of cooperative and respectful community we must, because the alternative is the crumbling of a shared identity as fellow members of a people, or fellow citizens of a neighborhood or nation, or as traveling companions with all people as we move forward towards the future of humanity. 
    So as we continue to count the Omer, let us also count the ways that we can maintain respect in our conversations, in our treatment of all of our neighbors, and in the ways in which we arrive at a vision for our country and our world.    “Out of many, one” is a phrase that can still resonate with us if we are committed to listening to and understanding each other.   It is through the unity that we forge with those who agree with us – as well as with those who disagree with us – that we can infuse meaning into the freedom that is ours and gain a feeling of enduring satisfaction with the cooperation and peace that we may yet achieve.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Rabbi's Message at Annual Meeting of Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, New Mexico - May 10, 2016

      When I think about congregational life, there is always one set of statements to which I return from the Sayings of the Rabbis, Pirkei Avot.  In Pirket Avot, Chapter 1, Saying 6, Rabbi Joshua ben Perachyah who lived in the Second Century BCE declared: 
ASEI L’CHA RAV – Find for yourself a RAV – a rabbi or a teacher. 
U-K’NEI L’CHA CHAVER – acquire for yourself a friend, companion or a partner for study.
VE-HEVEI DAN ET KOL ADAM L’CHAF Z’CHUT – and judge everyone favorably, towards their merit OR give everyone the benefit of the doubt.  
The first two statements of this three part quote sound like they are appropriately paired one to the other. One is about finding someone who knows more than we know from whom we can learn.   The second declares that we should find a peer, an equal with whom to study after sitting at the feet of our chosen RAV.   It may be that ASEI L’CHA RAV doesn’t just mean to find a teacher.  It may challenge each of us to turn ourselves into teachers.  Through our accumulated wisdom and experience, we can all be dedicated and knowledgeable educators and mentors.   Rabbi Joshua, if he were here, would urge us to take the time and energy to make that happen: to be teachers and guides who show care and patience to those we hope to train as leaders through refining skills and sharing new insights. 
    The word CHAVER in modern Hebrew means more than being a colleague, peer or study partner.   Its primary meaning is now "friend."  That notion of friendship in Judaism still comes from the relationship of two people who learn together, side-by-side, or from the teacher-student connection.
    In a story from the Chasidic tradition, a student once professed his love for his rabbi, to which the rabbi responded, "Do you know what hurts me?" The student, confused by the response, said, "My teacher, I said that I love you! Why do I need to have any idea about what hurts you?" The rabbi responded, "If you do not know what hurts me, then how can you say you love me?"             
    Being a CHAVER in a fellowship of study and communal activity in a Jewish context ideally means developing and sustaining a deep friendship and partnership, where two people not only learn and grow alongside each other, but care about each other as human beings.  And it can apply, just as much, to congregants who work together and Temple leaders who make decisions in concert with one another, combining the best of their knowledge to take the congregation forward with a sense of meaning, vision and purpose.  
So what about that third part of the saying?  
“DAN ET KOL ADAM L’CHAF Z’CHUT.  Literally, it means, “judge each person according to his or her merits or good points.” Working and learning in close quarters with friends and colleagues might create moments where our impatience can get the better of us.   Rabbi Joshua was telling us something that we have likely learned time and again in our own lives.  Sometimes we just want other people to accentuate our positive traits when they think about their partnership or friendship with us.   And if we want other people to do that for us, we need to reciprocate in kind.   For the rabbis, that was the key to sustaining relationships within a community. Always tipping our view of people with whom we serve towards the positive side will make any institution or organization to which we belong, including Temple Beth-El, warmer and stronger.  
    This saying of Rabbi Joshua Ben Perachyah is echoed in the new Temple mission statement, which brings us together under this expression of guiding principles: “We strive to be a place where spiritual growth, tradition and ritual provide meaning and comfort to every person who comes through our doors. Temple Beth-El encourages its members to learn, celebrate, serve, and grow together, so that each person will have the fullest opportunity to share the beauty of Jewish expression.”   
   This mission statement embodies the first two parts of Rabbi Joshua's teaching by noting that, at Temple Beth-El, we “learn celebrate, serve and grow together” to seek "meaning" and "comfort." Hopefully, it is not only ritual, tradition and individual spiritual growth that provide each of us with meaning and comfort.  Rabbi Joshua would remind us that it is our partnership and engagement with each other that offers us meaning through the relationships we create and maintain, and comfort through the ways in which we can, should and hopefully do reach out to one another.   A recent article about congregational life described congregations as having the potential to be based either on gratitude for each other, including the clergy person, or on critical and harsh judgment of one another.  In congregations and in any organization, no one is perfect.  No one can do everything, not a lay leader, not a clergy person.   Giving each other the benefit of the doubt means looking at what someone has done over the course of days, months and years.  And if it seems that something that needs to get done is falling by the wayside, rather than offering criticism, it may be a time to reach out a helping hand in patience and genuine camaraderie.   When we see each other as part of the whole who can lift up one another towards communal growth and achievement in the most cheerful, enthusiastic and positive way, there is nothing we can’t make happen. 
    So look at the listing of Temple programs and you will see the blessings that our partnership brings us.  Worship, study, opportunities to socialize, giving back to the community, and hosting our neighbors for our amazing and wildly successful Jewish Food and Folk Festival show what we can do when we are partners, colleagues and friends who work together for the betterment of our Temple and of Las Cruces.    There are many areas in which we can improve and refine how we do what we do in order to be more caring, more open, more welcoming, more inclusive, and more thoughtful. We have established strong foundations in all of those areas upon which we can build to make our congregation a place that reflects the best of the Jewish heritage and spirit. 
    Last August, the bombs that exploded at two local congregations placed everyone on alert.   Even while I was away at a convention that weekend, I still received the news about what happened, and coordinated with local and Temple leaders to open up our Shabbat service that Friday night to the general community.   We had an increased attendance that evening, with guests from a variety of faith groups joining us in our worship.  Without changing the language of our prayers, our service was able to touch our neighbors in a way that they had not expected.    That is the power of what we have as Jews, and that is a gift we can continue to share in many ways with others, and, mainly, with each other within these walls. 
    My deepest gratitude goes to Monika Kimball, the Temple Board, to committee chairs and members, the Golf Tournament committee and participants, Sisterhood, Mensch Club, BETY, Religious school faculty, students, study group participants, singers and musicians of all ages, and all who give to Temple something special from their own essence.  To our newly formalized colleagues in the Jewish Federation of Greater El Paso, we welcome this strengthened connection that will broaden horizons and enhance access to resources and energy for all of us.    To Rhonda, and to Adam and Juli, thank you for being my ever present support, sounding board, purveyors of great wisdom, and cheerleaders, all based in the love of family.  
   On the major festivals, we add a prayer to our service that asks for crops to grow and for the rains to fall to make that happen.  In Temple life, we are the ones who provide nourishment for the congregation to help it grow through our commitment and dedication.   Our ideas, our energy, and our good work nurtures Temple Beth-El into a community that can enrich our lives, individually and together.   So may this holiday blessing for natural growth now lead us towards new vistas in the future that lies before us:
L’vrachah v’lo lik’lalah.
L’chayim v’lo l’mavet
L’sova v’lo l’razon.  
For blessing and not for curse. 
For life and not for death. 
For abundance, and not for want.
May God continue to establish the work of our hands and the gifts that come from our hearts as teachers, mentors, colleagues, and friends who will strive to bring one another meaning and comfort to help make our lives complete.    

Invocation - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces, NM Annual Meeting - May 10, 2016

Ashreinu!  How happy we are!
Mah Tov chelkeinu!  How good is our portion
U-mah naim goraleinu.  How pleasant our lot
U-mah Yafah Yerushateinu - How beautiful our heritage!
Eternal God, you have given us the ability
To see what is joyous and sweet in our midst
To sense the ways in which we bring blessing to one another and to ourselves.
You have been with us every step of the way
As we observed holidays and marked life milestones
When we planted trees and set in place bricks of remembrance and tribute
When we lit candles on our chanukiot alongside our mayor
When we joined together as members to celebrate who we are for no reason other than to add joy to the moment
When we opened our doors to a community that seeks from us new knowledge, and, every so often, a savory bite from a pastrami sandwich
Source of wisdom, you have inspired our discussions of sacred texts and conversations on short stories and books that express the essence of who we are. 
Wellspring of holiness, you have brought us together for the solemn burial of worn sacred books and the dedication of this space to the memory of builders of this congregation
Loving Creator, you have opened our minds and hearts to share the love of our heritage with a new generation, finding a renewed commitment in ourselves as our youth declare their coming of age in the context of Jewish life
God of Righteousness, You have taught us to open our hands to neighbors in need, and to consider ways in which we can offer assistance to the destitute, the poor, the homeless,  turning hopelessness into a glimpse of a glimmer of optimism
You have gifted us with creativity to generate new ideas, and to appreciate the beauty expressed in art and in song, and in the wonder embodied in the natural setting that surrounds us
Mah Rabu maasecha Adonai
How great are your works, Eternal One,
And how privileged we are to be Your partners in sustaining creation
Through our work together in this congregation and community
And in the beliefs and values we convey through our actions
Every single day of our lives. 
Be with us at every turn, O God,
In every holy, amazing moment.