Friday, January 26, 2018

What kind of freedom do we want? - A Prayer for Shabbat Shirah/Beshallach - January 26, 2018

Eternal God, what kind of freedom do we want?
Is it the liberty that enables us to pursue our goals and dreams with no one to tell us, “never would you be able to do this” but, instead, “consider this path”?
Is it the freedom that allows us to practice our faith without discimination and prejudice?
Is it the opportunity to select our leaders in a voting booth, acting on our own conscience, with no one to prevent us from fulfilling our duty as citizens because of who we are?
Is it the possibility of vigorous discussion that can lead to compromise, where conversation does not turn into denigration and dehumanization?
Is it the chance to welcome newcomers to our community and country with open arms, seeing in their eyes the wonder and optimism that our immigrant forbears must have felt?
Is it the generosity of spirit that leads us to help people in need, viewing everyone as a source of vitality, wisdom, and partnership in preserving the freedom we enjoy?
Is it the understanding that leads to equality for all people, on all levels, which refrains from singling out any particular group as “the source of all of our problems”?
Is it the commitment to building strong ties with everyone around us, with one encouraging another to give their best for the growth and betterment of humankind?
What is the freedom we want? We are at liberty to choose what that might be.
May we choose wisely and in a way that will bring more freedom, love and hope. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Don't just look back - D'var Torah - Parashat Bo - January 19, 2018

The Passover Haggadah tells us that the Torah alludes to four children -
the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.
When we go to the Torah, though, it does no such thing.
What is does is to declare that the children of future generations will be curious, or even interested,
about what happened in the past, especially, when they see roasted meat, bitter herbs, and matzah
laid out before them for a certain spring celebration in remembrance of the Exodus.
In thinking about this section of the Torah, the phrase “don’t look back” came to mind for me this year.   I am not sure why...
 But I do believe that we frequently need to look back, because the foundations of
our culture and our beliefs can be found in what came before us.
What impresses me about this passage is that the Torah, in this passage set as they were first leaving Egypt, was already  looking ahead to a scene in the future. 
There was, at this early stage of their liberation, a clear vision of the former slaves' children and their children’s children asking questions about this tale of leaving Egypt from the safety of their new homes.
Three of the four passages about the “four children” are in this week’s parashah, Bo. 
Here are all four:
And when your child says, “What does this observance mean to you?” you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to ADONAI because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians but saved our houses.”   (Exodus 12:26-27)
“You shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘This is because of what God did for me when I went free out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8)
And it shall be when your child asks you in time to come, saying: “What is this?” that you shall say to him: By strength of hand ADONAI brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage.  (Exodus 13:14)
When your child asks you in time to come, saying: 'What are the precepts, laws and observances which  ADONAI our God has commanded you?  Then you will say to your child: 'We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt; and ADONAI brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.  (Deuteronomy  6:20-21)
     Bible commentator Nehama Leibowitz offered a possible explanation for why the rabbis, in a Midrash collection called “Mekhilta” and in the Palestinian Talmud, recast these verses into the “four children” passage that we know so well:   “In three cases, the child approaches the parent, but in Exodus 13:8, the child does not initiate the conversation. The midrash, therefore, deduces that this is a child that does not know how to ask the question. In the three remaining verses, where the child initiates the conversation, two ask a question, but one (in Exodus 12:26) makes a statement. This child, the midrash concludes, is the wicked child who is not questioning, but challenging.” (Taken from on this passage).
     The rabbis took “What does this service mean to YOU” as an exclamatory remark, rather than a soft inquiry. Each of us likely has at least a glimmer of a similar impulse inside of us, wondering if traditions from the past are still worth keeping, silently but pointedly asking if they still hold meaning for us.
     In the verses I will read tonight, there is one mode of remembrance not contained in the other passages:  "And this day shall serve you as a sign upon your hand and as a reminder on your forehead - in order that the Teaching of ADONAI may be in your mouth - that with a mighty hand ADONAI freed you from Egypt."
     This verse seems to refer to the Tefillin worn the arm and head, just as we read in the V’ahavta early in our service.
    I would suggest another interpretation of these "signs" (as others have), that relates to looking back and looking forward at the same time - here in a paraphrase of the verse in Exodus.
   Let the remembrance of your slavery be a sign upon your hand, so that, in whatever you do, you will act with compassion, commitment, and dedication to the ideal of freedom.
   Let the experience of liberation be a reminder on your forehead, above your eyes, so that when you see new instances of oppression before you, you will act with courage and without hesitation to stop the offenses that could lead to a return to tyranny and bondage. 
  Let the lessons of the ancient experience of moving from slavery to freedom guide you to value liberty and to defend it with your words, with your wisdom, and with your very lives.  It is that important. 
   And so may we do. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Fashioning our circle of acceptance - Invocation - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces -Board Meeting - January 18, 2018

Eternal God,

Who has created every person 

In the divine image, 

Open our eyes to see and sense Your presence 

In our fellow human beings. 

Preserve in us memory of slavery in Egypt

From stories that we still study and read and consider

Central to who we are

So that we will, in our own time, 

Follow the example of Moses

Who challenged an autocratic ruler who believed himself to be a god

Whose realization that his people should no longer be slaves

Led him to see You in a bush that burned but was not consumed

And guided him on a mission of winning a struggle for freedom. 

Help us to advocate for a freedom

That balances between necessary standards

And acknowledging and valuing the humanity of every person

May the circle of acceptance that we draw in our minds and hearts

Be large and affirming 

Inclusive and thoughtful

Supportive and hopeful

With our hands outstretched

In generosity and love. 

Give us the strength and wisdom 

To make this approach to community

A reality.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Getting our Spirit Back - Parashat Va-era - January 12, 2018

I am the Eternal One.
I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians
I will deliver you from their bondage.
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.
And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.
I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal One.’”
     What a hopeful upbeat message to receive!  
Moses, the newly-selected messenger of God, was totally certain that the people would rejoice. 
In fact, in Exodus, Chapter 4, it says that they did actually believe and accept what they heard.
So why not in this case?  
I could go into an explanation of how various sources from different writers were woven together to form the narrative in the Torah.
Or, I could simply say, that it’s possible to experience a bright, optimistic declaration in different ways based on your mood on a given day, or in a particular moment.
What was the state of the Israelites at that moment?
We can discover that easily, without an opinion poll, with no need for cable or network news.   No tweets are available from that time, of course.
Just this: the Torah states that they couldn’t listen to Moses because of KOTZER RUACH.
KOTZER is from the root that means short.
RUACH is wind or spirit.
So what do we make of this phrase that preceded the words AVODAH KASHAH, which means “hard work” or “difficult labor”?
Some have taken the two phrases together and translated “Cruel bondage.”
However, the phrase KOTZER RUACH deserves attention all by itself.
So….here are some of the translations.  
·      “Crushed spirit” (from The Torah commentary translation, URJ/CCAR Press).  
·      Stunted spirits (from the Eitz Chayim Commentary).
·      Broken Spirit (NRSV – Oxford Annotated Bible)
·      Dejection (Catholic Study Bible – New American Revised)
·      Shortage of spirit (from Richard Elliot Friedman’s Commentary on the Torah).
·      Shortness of spirit (from Everett Fox’s translation, The Five Books of Moses).  
·      Shortness of Breath (by the commentator Rashi)
·      Impatience (Ramban/Nachmanides),
·      Michael Walzer’s suggested rendering, “Dispiritedness.” (the last three were cited by Everett Fox in his translation).
Robert Alter, in his translation and commentary,  accepted Rashi’s suggestion of “shortness of breath,” noting that the people’s bondage had been made harder by Moses’s attempt to free them.  They couldn’t catch their breath due to their exhausting work.
     Perhaps you are feeling like this – with KOTZER RUACH -  just a little bit today as we continue to face the challenge of racism in our nation, and not just in the wake of the tragic and fatal result of the Charlottesville protests.   Where there is one hatred, there tends to be another.  When racism rears its head, anti-Semitism is not too far behind. Some might say that these attitudes go in cycles.  I would suggest that those prejudices are always present.  They go underground when people who espouse such views become marginalized. They resurface when some charismatic leader reactivates the acceptance and even encouragement of expressions of bigotry by using such rhetoric to gain a following.
     That is why the world needs people who will come forth, like Moses, with a message that is hopeful, and affirming of all people.   Moses went to tell dehumanized individuals that they were, in fact, as human and as deserving of respect as their oppressors.   Moses went to their oppressors to tell them that their slaves were, in fact, as human as they were.  Whenever human beings want to minimize the value of a group of people, one adjective that seems convenient to add is “only.”   In the animated film “Prince of Egypt,” Moses, after discovering the slaughter of the first born Israelite sons at the time of his birth, spoke with his adoptive father, the Pharaoh Seti.  Seti told Moses that he should not be concerned.  “They were only slaves” were his words of comfort that stirred Moses’ Israelite soul.   It is one of the most powerful moments in that film, expressive of the message that cries out from the text – that all people are human and deserve to be free. 
    Perhaps the most important message of this passage is about caring.  God told Moses of divine concern and  compassion for the people crying out in pain due to  their KOTZER RUACH.   Moses’ mission was to be God’s eyes, ears, hands and heart on earth – to relentlessly stand truth to power before a ruler who didn’t know what it meant to be compassionate, but who only understood power and its uses and application.   Moses, having been raised in the Egyptian royal court, could not have been accused of dehumanizing those who enslaved his people.  He was familiar with their views and their lifestyles. Because of that, he likely knew what it would take for them to change and to allow those whom they had enslaved to go free.
     I had the opportunity to sit in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta last March and to visit the graves of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.   We learned about the life of King and others who lived in that neighborhood and their place in the greater Atlanta community.   We also visited the Temple -Hebrew Benevolent congregation, a building that was bombed in 1958 because of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s support of the emerging civil rights movement.  He was driven by a belief that all people are created in the divine image.
   This notion of acceptance begins in the loving relationships of one’s home and in community.  It is nurtured over the course of years through the teaching, by one generation to the next, of love, support, empathy, encouragement, and resilience in the face of challenge.   When we band together as a community, we hope that those values are still the hallmark of who we are.     

     And so, on this night when we read of positive words presented to the Israelites, we can think of the ways that we can free one another from the stresses and burdens of our lives so that we can find greater contentment.    We can consider how we can walk with each other with arms outstretched in a way that offers help and hope and endurance.   We can pledge over and over again to be partners with each other in facing each day with strength and courage.    And we can walk with one another as traveling companions towards a land of promise filled with mutual consideration, understanding, and peace.    

Thursday, January 4, 2018

December confers light on givers and receivers - Column for Las Cruces Bulletin on January 5, 2018

December celebrations that have symbols of light associated with them (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and others) reflect the need for brightness to counter the increase in daily hours of darkness as the winter begins.   These observances bear other meanings as well, with light as the foundation of their message. 

   During the celebration of Hanukkah, which commemorates a victory for religious freedom won by Jews in Judea in 165 BC, I asked my congregants at Temple Beth-El to share one word about what the festival meant to them this year.   

    Their responses encompassed a wide range of aspects of the holiday and its relation to our lives today.  The “one-word” descriptions I received included: 

• Gratitude and pride. 

• Triumph and hope.

• Family and Continuity. 

• Endurance and perseverance. 

• Remembrance and tradition. 

• Freedom and survival.

• Empowerment and enlightenment. 

• Dedication and responsibility.

• Commitment and focus. 

   Some of these values naturally flowed from a story about a people seeking to hold on to their house of worship, their faith, and their right to be different in the face of a ruler who sought to change them and insist that they be like “everyone else.” 

   Other principles expressed how we can find ways, today, to be heroic on our own terms and to offer our help to people in need whose circumstances have led them to a place where hope is ours to give them. 

   That is how I view the annual effort of my congregation to serve breakfast at Camp Hope on Christmas morning.   Many Temples and synagogues around the country try to find ways to serve their communities on a day when regular volunteers at hospitals and helping programs may be at home celebrating the holiday that they observe with family or friends.  

  In 2012, members of Temple Beth-El sought to identify a way in which we could make a small impact on people who needed some warmth and cheer on a holiday known for those qualities.  

   We called on congregants to provide donations of food, funds, time and energy so that we would be able to serve a hot breakfast at Camp Hope.    

    As it has turned out over the six years of this effort, we have not only served a meal, but we also have had a chance to speak with the people who came.  We have listened to their stories, and we have tried to provide them with a sense that there are people who care about them.   

    In recent years, our Religious School children have created “goodie bags” that residents could take with them.  This year, they also made greeting cards that, they hoped, would lift the spirits of the recipients.  Several of our students were present to directly deliver these gifts of their hands and hearts.  

    I know that there are other organizations and congregations engaging in this type of activity in order to dispel darkness with light, to replace hopelessness with a spark of hope, and to offer warmth to counter the chill in the air.   

   These acts bring a brightness that can be sensed inside the one who gives and the one who receives.   They reflect every value that my congregants cited in relation to Hanukkah, because it is, through our giving and our dedication, that more people will be able to live well and thrive every day.  May that be a goal for which we continue to strive individually and as a community.