On Thursday, May 4, I decided to do something in the community that I had never done before anywhere where I have served. It was time to witness, with my own eyes and ears, local National Day of Prayer observances. These events were sponsored by Dona Ana County and by the City of Las Cruces. In both cases, the endorsers from the county and city had declared that the gatherings were open to members of all faiths. So, I went, wearing my sunglasses, my Indiana Jones hat and my usual Friday night attire, standing on the perimeter of each event. There were proclamations about church and God, prayers for various aspects of society and for public officials, and a call for all citizens to direct people in our area to witness to God’s glory. The scriptural readings, songs, and meditations were all from one faith tradition. It was as if I had gone to visit a local evangelical church on a Sunday morning to learn about their worship. And learn, I did, for sure.
The people gathered exhibited a deep sense of belief, and fervor, and a feeling of God’s immediate presence all around.
Missing, though, were people outside the realm of that religious cohort. There were no representatives from a wider range of Christian denominations or from other religions.
I believe that Las Cruces and Dona Ana County are much more than the expressions of faith that I saw on May 4. And as for us, here at Temple Beth-El, we are here, too, and we have been here for a long time.
Our beliefs and our teachings call on us to sense God’s glory or presence among us. Our expressions of our tradition are just as sincere, heartfelt and powerful as what I saw by the County Building and City Hall.
In preparation for the Jewish Food and Folk Festival, I helped Rhonda put up decorative “Shaloms” in Hebrew and English, Israeli flags, and posters that would inform our guests about Jewish holidays and symbols. This year, I added something special. As an extension of the PJ Library program which provides Jewish books for young children, the Grinspoon Foundation prepared, over the last 2 years, a series of posters entitled “Voices and Visions.” The posters feature quotes that reflect essential tenets of our heritage, with accompanying artistic interpretations to illustrate the quotes. I decided to post my favorite statements from this series up on the wall for the JFFF, and I left them up for tonight. For the next few moments, I want to lead you on a tour through these quotes to see how they can guide us as we sustain our sacred partnerships with each other.
“Serving others is one of the pillars on which Judaism rests.” Lynne Schusterman, a well-known philanthropist, is credited with this thought. We serve each other when we put at the center of our Jewish observance TORAH, learning, AVODAH, worship and holy work, and G’MILUT CHASADIM, performing acts of love and kindness. Each of those three “things” upon which the world stands directs us to be a part of a community, where no one is more important or less important than anyone else. Service means taking on positions of authority which carry with them responsibilities, specific duties to fulfill in the best way we are able and with all of our talents, skills and abilities applied to the tasks before us. It means lifting each other up and not letting anyone down, including ourselves, and asking for help when we need it. Service means being selfless about what we do and regarding what and how we give. Our service and our giving should not be about any one person. They should enable us to produce the “we” that grows out of our joining together as a congregation.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Albert Einstein said this one. Are you surprised? It is likely that an Albert Einstein with no imagination could not have come up with the Theory of Relativity. Einstein’s work has served as a foundation for further refinements of the way scientists currently think about the Universe. One of the best examples of imagination for Temple Beth-El continues to be the Jewish Food and Folk Festival. The collective knowledge gained from past TBE fundraisers came to be applied to the genesis of this community event alongside new ideas and fresh approaches. The JFFF is fast becoming a “hit” for Las Cruces and Dona Ana County. It is also significant for us, as 90 congregants and community members worked in year #4 as cashiers, servers, performers, and volunteers in other tasks. Each year, there is a little more imagination that adds something new to this amazing event of culture and hospitality. The JFFF can serve as a model for the many programs which we create for ourselves and for sharing with our neighbors.
The next three quotes go together, at least in my opinion. Natan Sharansky, head of Israel’s Jewish Agency and former Soviet Prisoner of Zion, said, “We must believe not only that all people are created equal but also that all peoples are created equal.” Emma Lazarus, famous for the “New Colussus” poem on the Statue of Liberty, once said, “Until we are all free, none of us are free.” Finally, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg taught, “Judaism is founded on human faith and divine promise that the world can be perfected.” These statements ask us to look at who we are in relation to Jews around the world and to all of humanity. They remind us that the Jewish people has something important to teach everyone about loving our neighbors as ourselves, about caring for the most vulnerable in society, about “lifting up the fallen and freeing the captive,” and about seeking liberty for all people. We know, from our life experiences, that working for equality and freedom, and helping people in need, requires action. At Temple Beth-El, we serve breakfast at Camp Hope on December 25. Members serve at the El Caldito Soup Kitchen every Monday. We have hosted discussions for the community on poverty, gratitude, humility, and other topics. We have held candidate forum programs so that people can exercise their right to vote being fully informed about the candidates running for office. There is always more to be done, but anything we do derives from the teachings of our tradition. When Micah declared that we should do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God, he wasn’t only talking about love in relation to mercy. He meant that we should love performing acts of kindness and mercy, leading a society to a greater level of equality and freedom for all citizens. We will continue to explore what that ancient call demands of us in the coming months.
“It’s when the winds blow hardest that you need the deepest roots.” This is a quote from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. Those roots of which he spoke relate to our heritage, that can continue to give us confidence and fortitude in the face of never-dying anti-Semitism, ignorance and hatred. Our roots can direct us individually and collectively to extend a helping hand to each other when we need support as we face life’s challenges. Finally, that statement reminds us not to be stormwinds for each other. That means that our relationships must be grounded in respect, cooperation, active listening, sharing of stories and hopes and dreams, and making our needs known so that we can offer our assistance when the tempests of life visit us all too unexpectedly. Judaism’s central teachings point the way to forming bonds of community that will keep us strong and hold us together.
“I am blessed to be a voyager on an ancient pathway.” This is a gem of wisdom from Rabbi Rachel Cowan. A number of us engaged in conversations from December through March on the book WISE AGING, written by Rabbi Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal. Those of us who participated in those sessions had a chance to reflect on the meaning of the many and varied aspects of our lives as we move along the life-cycle. I believe that we, during our discussions, discovered ways in which we are voyagers along the same path, trying to determine how to live each day in the best way possible, and how to fashion a lasting legacy that will offer blessing to our family members, friends and community.
We at Temple Beth-El are all blessed to be fellow voyagers on an ancient pathway. As I reviewed the photographs from Temple events over the past year, one aspect of those photos is clear: there is no one who is alone, or, at least, there shouldn’t be. There are faces that, whether smiling or serious, reflect the significance of what we do and what we create alongside each other at Temple Beth-El. I feel privileged to be a fellow voyager with the Board of Trustees, led so well this year by Temple President Ellen Torres. I am enriched by my work with committee chairs and committee members; volunteers; Mensch Club and Sisterhood leaders and members; BETY BEMY members; Religious School faculty, aides and students; and congregants and community members with whom I meet and study and from whom I learn so much.
I am, as always, blessed to be a fellow voyager with Rhonda, as our path here in Las Cruces continues to move forward as we work with you to sustain Jewish life here in tried and true ways and with new creative touches. And to Adam and Juli in New York, I extend a special gratitude for their valuable counsel and reassurance.
We fellow voyagers on an ancient pathway are blessed to be together, nurturing the divine spark inside of us, with all of us under God’s protection. We read in Psalm 61: Hear my cry, O Eternal one…from the end of the earth, I call to You: You lead me to a rock that is high above me…O that I might dwell in Your tent forever, take refuge under Your protecting wings.” May we be God’s wings for each other, as we support one another in times of trial and triumph, and in moments of sorrow and joy.