Friday, June 16, 2017

"Let us by all means go up" - Moving ahead with optimism and courage - Parashat Sh'lach L'cha - June 16, 2017

   This has been a multi-faceted week – or we could extend it back for weeks.
   We are watching – or ignoring -hearings on decisions made for conflicting reasons and, some say, questionable motives. 
   We have witnessed violence from opposite ends of the political and ideological spectrum, with stabbings of two defenders of women on a train in Seattle by a man who called himself a patriot. 
    We followed, just after happened and since, the shooting on Wednesday of Congressman Steve Scalise and several other people who were at the baseball practice of the Republican team preparing for last night’s charity game.   At the end of the game, the manager of the winning team from the Democratic side gave the trophy to the manager of the Republican team so that that the trophy could be displayed in Scalise’s office.
   We never know where opinions strongly and militantly stated might take someone.   We tell young children to use their words after we see them hit another child, reminding them that there are choices to how one can express anger or frustration.
    While in New York last week, Rhonda and I went with friends to the National September 11 Museum at the site where the two towers once stood.   It was somber, chilling, and overwhelming.    And it was a reminder of what havoc and devastation a small group of individuals, driven by extreme views, could do to drastically alter the course of world history.   
   What struck me about going through the museum was the diversity of the people visiting and viewing the exhibits, and the stories of the victims and first responders chronicled on the timeline on the wall and in the displays and tales from survivors.
    There was the Ladder Company 3 fire truck that was partially crushed when the towers fell.  All the firefighters in Ladder company 3 died during their attempts at rescue.
   There was the red bandanna honoring Welles Remy Crowther, who was credited with sending many people to safety in the south tower, and who died during his heroic efforts.
    There were images of signs created to try to locate people who were missing after the attack posted by their relatives and friends.   
    There was an extended profile of the rise of Al Qaeda, something on which Rhonda and I chose not to focus as we went through the museum.  
   And there was the quote from Virgil, “No Day Shall Erase You from the Memory of Time,” against a backdrop of panels in shades of blue, each one an attempt to capture the color of the sky at various times in New York city on September 11, 2001. 
   As I read my favorite section of the Torah reading for this week, Sh’lach L’cha,  there was a passage that, I thought, resonated on some levels with the quote from Virgil’s Aeneid. 
    The narrative about the scouts who entered the land of Canaan in Numbers chapters 13 and 14 does list the names of all of the tribal representatives charged with that important task. 
   Moses instructed them as follows: “Go up there into the Negev and on to the hill country and see what kind of country it is.  Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?  Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?  Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor?  Is it wooded or not?  And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” 
   And so they went, bringing back a large cluster of grapes that had to be carried by two of them.  
   But 10 of them were overcome with pessimism, reporting that any attempt to enter Canaan would be disastrous. 
    Two of the scouts, Caleb the son of Jephuneh and Joshua son of Nun, both believed that the people could proceed into Canaan and make a home there. 
    The Torah mentions the names of Caleb and, of course, Joshua, many times.   The names of the other scouts, while chronicled in detail in Numbers Chapter 13, are not mentioned again in the Torah in such a way as to be easily recalled.  
   We have choices in our lives to be positive, optimistic, and hopeful even when our approach is grounded in realism.    “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best” might describe one way of recognizing both the challenges and the many possibilities before us that can enable us to realize our vision and our dreams.
   Caleb and Joshua exemplify that lens and the courage it takes to speak up and share reasons to “reach for the sky” rather than to hang one’s head in disappointment and to mire oneself in a state of inaction. 
   During our visit to New York, Rhonda and I, of course, had a chance to join family, friends and community members to wish our grandson, Joshua Moise Karol, a joyous sendoff as he begins his life’s journey.  
   The significance of his names was not lost on anyone in the family.   His Hebrew name, Yehoshua Moshe, remembers the first leaders of the Israelites, embodying long experience and youthful exuberance, humility and inspired guidance, bravery and patience, strength and wisdom, and a focus on a distant but attainable goal.  
    Joshua’s names also recall his great-grandmother Jeanette, his great-grandfather Joseph and his great-great grandfather Moise.  Adam and Juli spoke about their lives and the essence of their personalities before the naming at the brit milah ceremony.
   A museum can create a place of remembrance for those who made an impact on their families and were wrenched from life too soon.
   And it is what we do during our lives that gradually creates our own legacy, the way we want to be remembered.  
   I wish for Joshua Moise that he will create a path by which he will be remembered for courage, insight, compassion and goodness.

    And may we all live in such a way that our names and our deeds will be recalled for good and for blessing.  

Friday, June 2, 2017

Turning enemies into friends? A dream....a goal - Column for Las Cruces Bulletin on June 2, 2017

      I once had a congregant who claimed that the "us/them" approach to community and the world primarily came from the Bible.  
      I didn't agree with him when he first suggested the idea. As I think about it, he may have been right up to a point, given the dividing lines between peoples and nations that are expressed in a wide range of passages and that, sadly, come to fruition in real life. 
     I believe, however, that sacred texts, such as the Bible, also provide a partial antidote to the "us/them" perspective.    
     A small dose of that antidote comes in a passage about enemies in Exodus, Chapter 23. 
    In verse 4 of that chapter, the word for enemy is the common Hebrew term oyeiv. In verse 5, the word for enemy, sona-a-cha, means "one who hates you."
     The presence of these terms seems to acknowledge that we will, inevitably, have people in our lives with whom we may never have positive interactions.
    These verses present guidance on how to act if one should come upon certain situations.  Here is the passage: "When you encounter your enemy's ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back (to the owner).  When you see the donkey of one who hates you collapsing under its burden and you would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help raise it (that is, you must help your enemy raise the animal)." 
    One commentator notes that the primary concern expressed here is for the animal that is lost or overburdened. Still, assisting the animal leads to helping one's enemy, whether the "helper" likes it or not.
    Members of study groups I led in recent years discussed this passage. In their comments, they expressed the importance of "taking the high road," not missing out on an opportunity to reduce enmity with one's enemy, showing respect for all people (whether enemy or friend), loving one's enemy (echoing Jesus' teaching in the New Testament), and considering all people as deserving of help or assistance based in justice, fairness and impartiality.
    This passage from Exodus was not the first one that crossed my mind regarding enemies. I have recently been thinking about Proverbs Chapter 24, Verse 17: "Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and don't be happy when they stumble." 
     When we consider what is happening in the world around us, this statement may seem relevant and helpful, or it may seem impossible to put into practice.  
    It is clear that both teachings from Exodus and from Proverbs suggest that we human beings do have it in us to step away from conflict and hatred, even for a brief moment. 
     There is a rabbinic story about what could have been happening in heaven after the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds, when they became free after having been slaves for so long. As the Egyptian army drowned, the angels were rejoicing.  God offered them a quick rebuke, "My creations - these people - are drowning, and you sing praises?" 
     In that tale, even the angels gave in to the impulse to celebrate the defeat of the foe.   The purpose of the story is to remind us to consider choosing another response when an adversary meets his or her demise. 
      The ultimate goal of our relationships and community ties might be best expressed in this teaching from a 1300 year-old rabbinic wisdom text:  "Who is a hero?  One who turns an enemy into a friend." 
      Even if it seems unrealistic to do so, perhaps it's time to get to work, taking small steps towards becoming that kind of hero.