Friday, July 21, 2017

When we are responsible... - D'var Torah - Parshat Matot-Mas'ei - July 21, 2017

        Perhaps you heard about the traffic accident in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida in early June which involved tennis star Venus Williams.  She had driven her vehicle out into an intersection, and another vehicle struck her SUV after their light turned green.  The passenger in the second car died from his injuries, and the driver is still in serious condition.   At first, the police report cited Venus Williams with running a red light into the intersection.  Eventually, a surveillance video from a nearby location clearly showed the turn of events.   Williams’ vehicle followed another vehicle into the intersection while the light was still green. Williams had to wait for an oncoming car to turn, and at that point, she was out in the middle of the intersection with her light turning red, and the traffic to her right saw their light turn green.  That was when the other vehicle struck her SUV. 
    It didn’t really matter whether Venus Williams was at fault or not when it came to her response to this sad occurrence.  When she was asked about the accident while at Wimbledon, Williams broke down into tears, saying how devastated she was by what happened.   She held her head in her hand for a few moments and left the room, coming back in several minutes to complete the interview session. 
     The final determinations in this case have not yet been made in relation to the accident. 
      But what we know is this – it was a tragedy.  And Venus Williams found herself in a place where she never would have chosen to be.   And even if she was not at fault, she seems to have felt a sense of responsibility because of her involvement in what occurred.  
      I found in this situation an echo of a passage in the Torah reading for this Shabbat.  
      Generally, the Torah insists that we assume responsibility for what we do, and it outlines the consequences if we choose wrong over right, evil over good.    Ancient rituals directed the Israelites how to overcome sin through sacrifices which they brought to the priests and through resolving to change their ways. 
       Yet, sometimes there are bad things that happen not by choice, but by accident or happenstance.    What if we are party to a tragedy that could not be averted, something in which we were involved by being in the wrong place at the wrong time?  One might think that if our intention was not to do wrong or harm, then we could walk away without taking responsibility. 
     But that is not what the Torah says.   At the end of the book of Numbers, the parashah Mas’ei described the process by which six cities of refuge would be created to where people could flee under certain circumstances in a case where a life was lost.   The section that has always most intrigued me focuses on rules applied to someone who committed an act of unintentional, non-malicious manslaughter.  
     In such a case, a relative of the victim was bound to seek out the person who caused the unintended death in order to restore the balance between their families.    The “blood avenger” usually had the right to take the life the manslayer almost immediately, except for the fact that, in this situation, it was up to the community to judge if the act was intentional or not.  If not, the person could stay in the city of refuge until the High Priest there died, at which point his or her sentence of being under an ancient version of “house arrest” would end. 
     I often wonder how the person guilty of unintentionally causing the death must have felt.  He or she likely was overcome with great remorse, running over in his or her mind what happened and how it could have been avoided.   There was likely a sense of relief at still being alive, free from the threat of death at the hands of the avenging relative of the victim.   Yet, this person was still serving a sentence, unable to leave the city of refuge for an undetermined amount of time.  If anything, these rules reflected an ancient sense of the sanctity of life. Perhaps the sanctuary status provided by the city of refuge enabled the manslayer to understand the notion of responsibility towards the community and to himself or herself, along with a feeling of empathy towards the victim’s family.    
     I have always believed that the sentence of confinement to the city of refuge, in this case, illustrates what it means to acknowledge wrongdoing even when there was no evil motive.  According to the Torah, one’s presence and involvement in a tragic moment carries with it a feeling of guilt and remorse, even if there was no real blame that could be assigned to anyone.  
     Unfortunately, we see too many examples of leaders and public figures who find ways to deflect both responsibility and blame. It may be with a publicly uttered excuse or a dodge offered in a court setting.    Or it may be with a declaration that names someone else who supposedly did something worse, when the situations may have been totally different.    This, of course, may happen in families, in classrooms and in workplaces as well as in the public sphere.  It may seem human to say that “he or she did it,” or “he or she did something worse than I did, so why focus on me”?    But it’s still not right.
      In the Torah, the person who unintentionally caused the death of a fellow human being knew that taking responsibility was the best option.  And so, this person waited patiently in the city of refuge, understanding that there were consequences to most any action, but feeling fortunate to be alive, knowing that freedom would come one day. 

      As we make our choices every day, may our sense of duty lead to greater honesty, fairness, and goodness for us and for our world. And may our empathy in the face of tragedy lead us to turn tears of sadness into acts of help and hope.   

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Prayer for Arrival - For the first Moon Landing and for the discovering the unity of humankind

Eternal God, 

You have given us great abilities

To dream, to aspire, to inspire,

To design, to build, and to partner

To reach for high places beyond this world. 

Some of us recall crowding in front of our television sets

48 year ago

As two fellow human beings took the first steps on the moon

That belonged not just to the United States of America

But to all humankind.  

For a moment, we were united. 

We were fascinated in ways that put us in step with one another

All across the world. 

Enemies and allies, people who knew of these events at the moment They occurred 

Or learned only later

Shared in this great achievement

That demonstrated not our grandiosity

But our humility and sense of wonder 

At the globe at which we had gazed from afar for so long

And had never touched and explored. 

As we succeeded, at that time, in coming together, if only for a brief instant

So that this lofty goal could be reached,

Lead us now to find ways to work with one another. 

When we lift our eyes to the heavens, 

May we remember that You, our Creator, 

Have provided us with the wherewithal to care for each other, 

To lift up those who need assistance, to share knowledge and teach skills that will enable all people to be self-supporting, 

Grant us health and the resources to provide the means for all to continue to sustain their health and well-being. 

Instill in us a spirit of cooperation that will take us to unimagined vistas and new horizons

That we will yet experience

Whenever we pledge to find ways 

to share our hopes, our talent,

Our respect, our understanding, 

and our love for one another.    

Enlighten our eyes with Your wisdom, Source of Life, 

So that our insight will continue to deepen and grow. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Lessons from Shabbat - Living, learning and caring

  I have been reading about people of other faiths claiming that there are threats to their religious life, even though their faith comprises a clear majority in our country. 
   As for me, I find that there are many programs and events that comport with my views that I would like to attend, but I am, at the time, observing my Shabbat, as a member of a faith that is in an extreme minority.   I, as a leader of my congregation, have only one choice on Shabbat, which is to be in front of my congregation leading worship. 
   So what do I do at that time? 
   I focus on the value of rest after the labors of the week.  Some people will say to me, "You are a rabbi, and you are working on Shabbat. How is that rest?"   Actually, it is, because it is my duty and privilege to create a space for my congregants that enables them to step out of life for a little while,  to join their voices together in prayers that are ancient and always new, and to develop insights through offering my own words or by engaging those present in discussion.  And...the music of our worship is, for me, relaxing, restful, and nourishing, and the voices that I hear back from the congregation nourish and nurture me in return. 
    There is great meaning in the prayers and rituals of every single worship service.   The light of the Shabbat candles, the Eternal light and the lights of the menorah in the sanctuary are an expression of the enduring faith of our community and the persistent presence of God's Oneness among us. 
    The Psalms that welcome Shabbat declare not only the majesty of the divine but essential role of justice in the world and the need for people to be "upright in heart," because that approach brings more light to the world.
    Jewish liturgy leads worshippers on a journey from honoring creation and the daily re-creation happening around us to feeling the love of the divine when we study on our own and with each other. We express the ways in which we can return that love and we recall past moments of redemption so that God can redeem the world through our actions. 
     The central section of the service, The Prayer (T'filah), offers praise for God and as having been with us throughout our history.  We are directed to perform acts in the world as a reflection of godly values and divine character:  lifting up the fallen, healing those who are ill, freeing the captive, and infusing the world with our own life-giving powers.  
      We are called upon to seek ways in which we can be holy (like God is holy) and to make Shabbat holy be regenerating ourselves for our work in the world.  We ask for a special spirit to envelop us every day, and we give thanks for all of the gifts we enjoy in our lives.   Our prayer for peace has endured for centuries, and we recite it over and over, week after week, hoping that we will be alive at a time when nations and people will discover a way to truly make peace a reality.    We pray for a time when the Oneness that we ascribe to God will overcome us and lead us to find the oneness that could be our destiny.   We remember people who have died, whose lives and spirits could move us to act in such a way that expresses the best they had to give while they were among us. 
     I am privileged to live in a nation where I can go to my Temple and practice my faith.   Freedom of religion allows me that right.   
     So, if I can do that, does that make me a threat to those who seek to express their faith, and possibly impose it on others who do not share their perspective, thinking we have "lost our way"? 
     Am I a threat because I insist on living my faith, and writing about it, and singing about it? 
     Am I a threat because I believe in a set of holy books that I consider complete and that continue to teach me many truths? 
     Am I a threat because recurring verses from the Bible about helping people in need resonate more with me than statements that some would construe as blaming people in need for their plight? 
      Am I a threat because I see welcoming the stranger as axiomatic in my faith, and because I would apply that to issues such as immigration, seeing in aspiring citizens from any background the image of my grandparents?   
      Am I a threat because my belief that every person is created the divine image means that what matters most is what is on the inside of a person, so that there is an intrinsic equality that should guide how we treat each other? 
      Am I a threat because I believe both men and women should study, learn, discuss, and serve the community as equal partners? 
      Am I a threat because I affirm the Jewish view that the righteous among all nations can bring about hopeful future by working together?   
       I don't think I am a threat at all, nor are others like me. There is so much work to be done that could improve the world and move humanity in a positive direction.  
        I need the values that emanate from my worship to do my work in the world.   I know that there are people who are my partners int he community who do respect my time, and I would hope they would give me chances to stand together with them at times when I am not in worship.   
        And for those who may not grant me a position among the faithful, perhaps it is time to sit, talk and find a direction that will put us on a path that will make real this verse from Psalms: "Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart."   
       We need more light.  Let's make it happen. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Closing Prayer at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Press Conference in support of current monument on July 10, 2017

Eternal God, Creator and Sustainer of us all, 
We thank for you for community.
We thank you for partnership among ourselves and with You
We thank you for this amazing and inspiring place
The beauty that you have placed in the world
The history that has been developed here. 
We are Your partners
We are Your representatives in this world
To preserve what's here
There are some who might say
That You put this world here to use in any way we want to
But we know that to be Your partners
and to be Your representatives on earth means
to act as if the mountains need a voice
the history needs a voice
Every single day
Every single moment.
We have done our best to be that voice
and Eternal One, we ask You to open minds and hearts
of those who may not understand what it means to be stewards
What it means to be Your partners totally. 
So help us in that path
Walk with us, walk with anyone who comes through these mountains,
through the whole monument area
So that they can get a sense of Your work in our world every day, 
continually renewing creation.
Be with us and guide us as we work with each other. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

L'chulam - A Gift of New Songs from my home studio

So what happens to a singer/songwriter in between and after albums have emerged from recordings in the studio?   
My songwriting of original Jewish music has never stopped since the creation of "Let Me Sing My Way into Your Night" in October, 1999 and "Two are Better Than One" in November, 1999.   Each time I went to the studio, there were several songs that were not included in the recordings, but not because they were less favorite or meaningful to me.   I have now created multi-track recordings of many of these songs in my home studio, using the resources I have available for myself.   At some point, other people's voices and instruments may be added.  For right now, here is what I have done on my own.   All of these tracks are posted on and you can find them there, but here they are with brief introductions and explanations.  As always, it is an honor to share these songs with you! 


1) One Voice - created in 2005 as part of a songwriting workshop at Have Nashira led by Craig Taubman, the chorus emerged in response to a request for a sort of Jewish haiku.   The verses were added a few weeks later.   This was intended as a statement of who I am - and it still expresses my sense of self as part of a community. 

2) Lev Tahor (A Pure Heart) - Based on Psalm 51. 

3) Good to Me - This is based on the hopeful message that is contained in Psalm 13, created in February of 2006 to express gratitude for a fruitful 22-year run in Topeka, KS at Temple Beth Sholom.  

4) Eilu V'Eilu-  Jocelyn Segal Tarkoff asked me to come to her Cohen Hillel Academy 3rd Grade class in February 2008 to work on a song that expressed the values of being in a meaningful and productive study partnership.  I wrote the first two verses and the chorus, and the students wrote verse 3 and joined me on the vocals.  This was recorded on my iBook but I still love listening to these wise children add their harmonies.   

5) Turn to Me - Based on Psalm 84, this was a song of reaching out for help and hope.   No one wants to feel alone, the presence of God or supportive friends can guide us through difficult times.  

6) How Good - this was a song created in two stages.  The chorus was premiered at an Interfaith Thanksgiving service in Dover, NH.  The bridge in this song was written for a Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday celebration at the University of New Hampshire.   

7) Remember Us (Ya-aleh V'Yavo) - This song "anglicizes" a prayer recited on the Jewish holidays, and its meaning reaches beyond those special times. 

8) What Peace Is - This was created for the Peace Village of Las Cruces Peace Camp summer program in 2015.    

9) Feel the Blessing - I wanted to write about the Priestly Blessing (May God Bless You and Keep You) but from the perspective of the one giving blessing and the one receiving blessing.    This is what emerged. 

10) House of Prayer - After the shooting at the church in Charleston, South Carolina, I thought about texts that spoke of holy places from the Bible, focusing on the Isaiah Chapter 56 message: "My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples." 

11) Nigun Refuah/Esa Einai - I created this melody during a time of healing for myself in 2005.   The Nigun came first, then I realized that Esa Einai fit the melody.   

12) Asei L'cha Rav - I wrote this to mark the 35th anniversary of my ordination as a rabbi in 2016.  

13) Yosheiv B'Seter Elyon - This song incorporates text from Psalm 91, which is recited at funerals in Jewish tradition and at other times.  I wrote this the day after I wrote Asei L'cha Rav as a response to the attack at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv on June 9, 2016.  

14) Or Lay'sharim - This song was created in late January, 2017, as a way of generating a sense of resolve and action to reiterate values that we prize in our society and country - and the world. 
Or Lay'sharim (Light of the Upright)

15) Hak'shivah- Listen to My Prayer - Psalm 16 seeks a sense of God's presence, which can be realized when we are present for each other.   It is about companionship, love and hope.   
Hak'shivah (Listen to My Prayer)

16) L'chulam (For Everyone) - The naming ceremony in the Reform movement's Rabbi's manual includes a reading that was part of my rabbinic ordination service based on a quote by Martin Buber, that each of us is here to fulfill our particularity in the world.   I added to the mix a saying of the rabbis that "there is no one who doesn't have his/her time and no thing that does not have its place."   This was written in honor of the impending birth of a Joshua Moise Karol, born on 6/1/2017, this is for you! 
L'chulam (For Everyone)

17) What it Means to Be Free - originally created in 2013 during the push for new immigration legislation, I broadened the message of the song in 2016, and made it multitrack on 7/4/2017.   
What It Means to be Free

18) Owe It All - In 2007, I asked my students at Temple Israel in Dover, NH to say what they were thankful for and, if they were asking God for strength, for what would they make the request.  In 2017, I added comments about peace from the 2016 Las Cruces Peace Camp staff and campers.   
Owe It All

19) Nashirah (Let Us Sing) - I wrote this song soon after a visit to B'nai Jeshurun in New York City.   It is about how music can lead us to joy, soulful expression, gratitude and love.  I added to the original 2005 recording additional vocals in 2017.  
Nashirah (Let Us Sing)

20) Offerings - I have had the honor of setting to music three of Alden Solovy's liturgical poems that inspired me to create a melody tailor to his words.   This is the song which I have recorded with harmonies, with the other two waiting in the wings.   
Offerings (Words by Alden Solovy, Music by Larry Karol)

There are even more songs than these that can/will be shared.  Please listen and enjoy.   That is why this music is here, whether from me or anyone else. 

50 years ago - A Jewish summer camper was "born"

I figure that I should post this at some point.   In late June of 1967, I left home (in Kansas City, Missouri) for the first time to spend 11 days away on my own...well, sort of on my own.  This non-boy scout actually agreed to attend the inaugural session of Tzofim at what was then Olin Sang Union Institute Camp 50 years ago.  After a visit to my congregation from camp director Irv Kaplan, I had tried to sign up for the regular cabin session, Kallah.  After I was notified that it was closed, I was disappointed, but soon a green post card came to my house.  It said that there was a possibility for a tent-based session to be created, which would have the same basic programming as the Kallah session.   I said yes, and so I had my opportunity to get a taste of Jewish summer camping. 
  Full disclosure - I am the one in the front row on the far left in the photo below, it's true.  They did try to teach me to swim, but that didn't take.  Still, it was a great experience. 
      During one of my years at the camp for the Hava Nashira Songleader workshop (around 2003, maybe) we were all sitting in the Bayit, the main building that was near Lac La Belle.    One of the faculty gave us this direction during a service: "Think about the first time you were away from home."   As I sat on my chair in the Bayit, I said to myself my answer to the question.  "Here.   This is THE place where I spent my first time away from home."   I have had contact over the years with a few people in this photo.  I would have never thought that I would have been a part of something like this that was a first.   Tzofim 1967 was full of real Tzofim, because we were the ones who helped the camp "scout out" whether this program would work. And did it ever!  I returned for Tzofim Bet in 1968, and didn't make it back to OSRUI until 1999 for my first Hava Nashira workshop.  The distant memories of Tzofim added very much to my Jewish foundation of learning and connections that have continued during my time at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, at HUC-JIR, and throughout my rabbinate (of 36 years now).  So, thank you, what is now OSRUI, for adding an important dimension to my Jewish life!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Strong Leadership inspires unity rather than division - Las Cruces Bulletin column - July 7, 2017

    Leadership - and what makes a good leader - has been on my mind for many years.   I have seen members of the congregations I have served assume positions of responsibility and exhibit a wide variety of approaches to fulfilling their responsibilities.   My hope is always that what will result from anyones leadership style is collaboration among members that creates a team spirit and a feeling of unity on many levels. 
      Every week, in synagogues around the world, the same section of the Torah (the first five books in the Bible) is read, explained and discussed.   That means there is ample opportunity to focus on the figure of Moses as a leader of the Israelites.   Recently, we read about the rebellion against Moses (and against his brother, Aaron) that was based on manufactured charges that gave Moses no credit whatsoever for his accomplishments.  That passage in the book of Numbers sees the people accuse Moses and Aaron of being arrogant and out of touch.  It was asserted that they portrayed only themselves as holy, when, according to the rebels, all the people were holy.  In fact, these two brothers were dedicated to the people and doing the best they could to serve a large multitude of individuals with different needs.  In modern terms, we could redefine the holiness of each person in reference to his or her intrinsic significance.  Every person counted.  In Jewish tradition, Moses was known for his humility, so he did value every individual. That made him a better leader.  
     There are aspects of Mosess leadership from which we can learn today.  We see and hear, at times, about too many leaders who believe that it is their mission only to amass power and influence, to impose their will rather than to create partnerships, and to stir up their followers in order to create an us/them framework where life is about conquest rather than compromise.  
    When I seek out a list of the characteristics of a good leader, I usually turn to historian Doris Kearns Goodwins classic summaries of leadership traits based on her studies of presidents from our nations past.  She has noted that successful leaders are good-natured and learn from failure by being humble and persistent so that they can stand up and try again.  Successful leaders surround themselves with people who agree with them and people who may not agree with them in order toarrive at the best decision possible, based on a variety of opinions.    Leaders who are successful inspire those working for them and with them to do their best.  They are able to relax and to replenish their energy.  Successful leaders can cool down and control their emotions.  Leaders are at their best when they learn how to speak to people so that they will listen and feel inspired in a way that creates unity among them rather than division. 
    Hopefully, we see around us leaders who are able to sow seeds of understanding and cooperation, who can seek out the truth and hold up the importance of personal integrity. Sometimes, the ones who live by the highest values, the true heroes, come from among the rank and file of a society.  These are special individuals who are more concerned about doing good than about gaining power.       
    There are many ways to lead, and to follow, but the goal can always be to bring people together in a spirit of unity, beginning with the recognition of their common humanity.   So let us talk, listen, learn, and hope as we continue to guide one another on our journey together.