Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Every song a new world AND a response to the world - thoughts on recent musical creations

   There is so much happening in our country and in the world that it is impossible to keep silent.  My invocations for Board meetings, my divrei Torah/sermonettes at Shabbat Services, and my recent articles in the local press are all meant to put into words some of what I am feeling and thinking about society, about the values that I don’t want to see lost, and about the principles that, I believe, can keep us together.   
   The murders at Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida touched many people deeply, not just in that community but well beyond, because of connections with people who have lived and currently live there, rabbinic colleagues serving congregations in that community, and a national sensibility that must lead us towards preventing, as much as we can, further tragedies in schools or other public places. 
     My response to the Parkland tragedy has, so far,included an invocation at a Board meeting and a sermonette, both reprinted here on my blog. 
     The songs, though, are different. 
     When I am feeling despair for what to do, whether for myself or for a challenge in our nation or in the world, I search for texts in which there might be a lesson for me and for us all. 
      My first thought was to do a search online for “shelter/Psalms.”   As one might expect, several choices were suggested.  I chose Psalm 46, a short chapter which describes God’s great power.  Psalm 46 envisioned the great waters causing mountains to tumble, and proclaimed that God caused - or could cause - all wars to cease.   And then, it offered reassurance: “Be still, for I am God.”   After looking at several translations of the Psalm, the mountains, in my lyric, became “mountains of misunderstanding” tumbling, washed away by God’s cleansing rain.   The misunderstanding that comes to mind for me is exemplified by the unwillingness of some of our leaders to listen and compromise.  They see one view - their own - as controlling, and the only one that matters, even when a majority of people across the country may have another perspective.  My prayer is that having God as a strength and shelter can unify us enough to listen to each other, because God is in each of us.  
Here is the link to the song I created on February 18, 2018:  

       I still had more to say.  
      So I kept looking for more Psalms that presented the notion of God’s power as giving us a chance to meet challenges before us with the right approach.   Psalm 37 rose to the top of my search on February 22.  The central verse in the Psalm that is well known is “The meek/humble shall inherit the earth.”   The Psalm contrasts those who think they have power and wield their arrogance like a weapon, while those who are humble trust in God and godliness.  According to the Psalm, in the end, living a life of good values - and walking through life humbly - is the path that will lead to personal well-being and even quiet victory.   I thought of people of all ages, but especially the groundswell of high school students, currently seeking change.  I heard the pronouncements of leaders who cited a list of Jews who supposedly are using their power to tout a creeping socialism that will destroy our country.   I am not one to believe in conspiracy theories, and this was one that was just too much to take.   The God in whom I believe is a God of justice with whom I am supposed to humbly walk.   The beat of this new song, “Inheritance,” needed to feel strong and resolute.  Hopefully I captured that with this song.  

       And I decided, today, I still wasn’t done.  I was perusing through the Mishkan T’filah for Gatherings prayerbook from the Central Conference of American Rabbis and found an alternative version of the Priestly Blessing.   What intrigued me about this text was that it came from the Community Rule of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  These ancient documents from a Jewish sect that existed over 2000 years ago include interpretations specific for that community.    The familiar three lines that begin with the phrase “May God bless you and keep you” were embellished in this version, translated by scholar Nahum Glatzer: 

MAY GOD BLESS YOU with all good 

and keep you from all evil. 

May God enlighten your heart with immortal wisdom 

and grace you with eternal knowledge. 

May God lift up merciful countenance upon you for eternal peace.

The text offered a unique opportunity to use basically the same melody for both the Hebrew and English.  This one I wanted to be gentle and peaceful, due to the last word of the blessing. 

   The line that led me to want to create a melody for this blessing was the second statement: “and keep you from all evil.”   On February 27, the day before Purim,  the specter of evil, in the person of Haman in the book of Esther, loomed large for me.   We need protection from those who hate without cause, those who spread untrue accusations, and those who seek to dehumanize others.  In the book of Esther, Haman sought the death of the Jews.   Declarations of bigotry intended to take away people’s humanity can cause their “social death,” where people oust them from the human community for no reason other than someone telling them that they should take that approach.  We have seen this all too often.  We need words of blessing to take us in a different direction.   Hopefully, this prayer front he Dead Sea Scrolls offers that opportunity.  

   Will there be more songs to come?   Time - and the events around us - will tell.  

Friday, February 16, 2018

"What More Can We Give" - Parashat Terumah - D'var Torah - February 16, 2018

   I wasn’t quite sure this morning how to put into words what I wanted to say tonight.  
 So I attended to a few other tasks to let people in our area (namely, the El Paso Jewish Voice) know, through sharing  a series of photos, what we have been doing over these last few weeks.  That included bringing our congregation together to welcome new members and to enjoy each other’s company at our Erev Simcha dinner, sharing a joint dinner-dessert between our Temple leadership and the leaders of Sonoma Springs Covenant Church next door, celebrating Tu Bish’vat to give the natural world the attention it deserves, and bringing the Las Cruces community into our space to hear powerful words from The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1961.  King’s declarations have reverberated through the decades down to us.  His message resonates with us even still.   And we will learn more about a period in Jewish history when Jews in Spain flourished as we hear Robyn Helzner’s presentation this coming Monday night, February 19.  We are well aware that the aftermath of that often-titled “Golden Age” was not golden at all.  Yet, we also know that actions of hatred and explusion failed to ultimately destroy the spirit of Jews and Judaism in the centuries that followed.
   In the last couple of days, I have been watching the news all too much, and reviewing my Facebook newsfeed, but not just for expressions about policy.  You see, sometimes we become so interconnected with people that we don’t realize when we might be somewhat closely touched either by national tragedy or triumph.
    I have been reading the posts of rabbis serving in or near Parkland, Florida who are now attempting to bring healing to their communities.   I saw the message of a woman whose brother was laid to rest this past October after losing his long battle with 9/11 related cancer…only to have her niece be one of the students who was murdered on Wednesday.    One of our good family friends had been at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School many times, as have some of our own congregants.
    There are statements I could make about my opinions on what should be done to prevent such terror and horror from happening again.     What is on my mind tonight, however, is embodied in the title I assigned to my D’var Torah for this Shabbat, “What more can we give?” 
     The beginning of this week’s parashah, Terumah, directed the Israelites to bring gifts, to offer whatever their hearts moved them to bring, with those offerings specifically going to the construction of the MISHKAN, the Tabernacle, the Israelite house of worship in the wilderness.  This section presented a list of suggested items, much like we do today when we ask for donations for the many causes that we support as a congregation.   Then it said this, “And let them make Me a sanctuary--V’ASU LI MIKDASH-- that I may dwell among them.” 
     The main interpretation of that verse that has come down to me from my past is from Rabbi William B. Silverman at my home Temple.  He probably shared this explanation more than once.  He would comment, “ The verse doesn’t say, ‘Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell IN IT.’”   It wasn’t about building a place for God to live in.  The Bible would, eventually, profess that the God of the Israelites was the One who created everything, who had power over all nations and all national leaders. The Eternal One came to be thought of as an unseen divine source of strength, wisdom and hope who could save us when we need help, inspire us when we seek to create community, teach us when our knowledge is lacking, and comfort us when we are mired in grief and sadness.
     Of all weeks, certainly, this is a week when we need wisdom.  We need hope.  We need greater knowledge and understanding.   We need inspiration. We need comfort.
    And, I believe, we need a new vision for how we see society, human community and the world.
    “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”  It’s not about a building.  It’s about presence.   It is about God being both transcendent – out there – and immanent – right here, next to us, inside of us, around us.   
     And if we believe that God is everywhere, in everything and everyone, then wherever God dwells is….a sanctuary – a MIKDASH.
     Every place and every person person has the potential to be a center and focus of holiness.
     But we know that we have recently witnessed people speaking and acting in modes that are far from holy. 
     Bullying.  Dehumanization.  Hatred.  Violence.   Belittling both the small and the great despite the goodness and kindness of those targeted.   Harassment of all kinds, some focused on women that has led to the growth of a movement for honesty on the part of the victims that calls for apology and repentance on the part of the perpetrators, plus other expressions of harassment that seek, simply, to bring down specific individuals not due to wrongdoing, but because of their views, background, or place in life.  
      Destruction that seeks to sow only chaos and cruelty is not holy.   Pushing others out of the way based on subterfuge and dishonesty is not holy.   Taking out one’s frustrations and hurt on others is not holy.   
     What is holy?   Healing.  Offering support.  Mutual respect. Dialogue based on forthright speech accompanied by true and genuine listening.  Attempting to find those who hurt and ease their pain.   Recognizing the contributions to the community of all people, including those who quietly and simply step forward without a desire for accolades. 
     I was touched this morning by the sharing of an article in Reader’s Digest online by Glennon Doyle Melton.   She told of how she once met with her son Chase’s teacher to receive tutoring so that she could help her son with mathematics (long division) at home.  She and her son’s teacher began to speak about the ways in which the teacher tries to assist students in building a strong class community.    
   The article continued: “And then she told me this.
Every Friday afternoon, she asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student who they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.
And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, she takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her, and studies them. She looks for patterns.
Who is not getting requested by anyone else?  Who can’t think of anyone to request?  Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or ‘exceptional citizens.’ Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down—right away—who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.”    The teacher said that she had been doing this every week ever since Columbine in 1999.   Glennon Doyle Melton continued: “This brilliant woman watched Columbine knowing that all violence begins with disconnection. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness. Who are our next mass shooters and how do we stop them? She watched that tragedy knowing that children who aren’t being noticed may eventually resort to being noticed by any means necessary.
And so she decided to start fighting violence early and often in the world within her reach. What Chase’s teacher is doing when she sits in her empty classroom studying those lists written with shaky 11-year-old hands is saving lives. I am convinced of it. 
And what this mathematician [teacher] has learned while using this system is something she really already knew: that everything—even love, even belonging—has a pattern to it. She finds the patterns, and through those lists she breaks the codes of disconnection. Then she gets lonely kids the help they need. It’s math to her. It’s math.
All is love—even math. Amazing.
What a way to spend a life: looking for patterns of love and loneliness. Stepping in, every single day, and altering the trajectory of our world.”
    There was math – there were patterns and designs – that went into the building of the ancient Tabernacle.   Those patterns could only come alive to create a holy space because people whose holy hearts moved them brought the raw materials out of what they had.  They gave up something tangible to make something more, to gain something intangible and of infinite value: connection, community, a pathway to the sacred that could reside in them and among them and around them.     
   In those ancient gifts, there was love, hope, and commitment. 
   This teacher from the story and many of us try to act with love and offer hope to build a better world. We are committed to these efforts because we believe that every corner of our existence needs at least a little love and holiness.  
    In a week like this, may we not falter, as we seek to overcome the forces of greed, power, fear and cynicism in order to preserve the future of children who deserve to see the lives they envision come to fruition.      And may we reach out in a way that reflects the words of the prayer on your handout, taken from Rabbi Chaim Stern’s holiday prayerbook, GATES OF JOY:
“God, be with all who are alone and lonely;
let them know that they have a Friend.
Hear those who speak but are not heard;
let them know that there is One who understands.
Take all who are afraid and give them hope; take those who have been hurt and give them courage.
Give us strength to make this world a place of peace and mercy. Help us know that You are with us and in us, whenever we work for a better life.”
 May we do that work every day, knowing that there is always more that we can give.  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Invocation - Board meeting - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces - February 15, 2018

Eternal God,

Creator of every person,

Sustainer whose strength and support

Is waiting for all who would seek it

And accept it

Be with us as we face challenges

And tragedy

That affect us 

Directly and indirectly. 

Help us communicate comfort and hope

To those who have been devastated by sudden loss

Bereft of children taken before their time

Or adults who guided them to greater knowledge

And deeper vision for a future that some will not know. 

Remind us all that every life is precious

So much so that crafters of laws will make us

A society responsive to people in need of healing from the wounds

That life may sadly bring

Remembering that we have at our disposal




And love. 

And direct us to convey to others a message that must penetrate every soul: 

Love yourself so much, so deeply, no matter what, and if you don’t, know that there are those who can lead you back to that love. 

Love others so much, so deeply, that you will be able to reach out with genuine concern to anyone who needs solace and may you feel your giving as a source of healing for yourself. 

Love all creation, and love God, so much

That you will be able to recognize a divine image, an ancient common spark, residing in every human being, so that when you look into another person’s eyes, you will see what all people have in common, and because of that, before you might even try to perpetrate harm through harsh words, denigration, hatred and violence, you will stop

And breathe

And, in your breath, you will begin again to seek an everlasting love

That is always there for you and for us all.  


Friday, February 9, 2018

Just Rules, Just People - An Interpretation of Exodus 23:1-9 (Mishpatim)- February 9, 2018

Just rules try to assure that only words that are true are believed, even when those who know they are guilty seek to use words to subvert the truth. 
Just people refrain from spreading false information and making accusations with no basis whatsoever, refusing to join any person or group who would perpetuate a hurtful lie.

Just rules attempt to prevent people with power from skewing the process of due justice.
Just people realize that preserving a just society requires them not to bow or to give in to anyone only because of the power they possess. 

Just rules demand impartial judgment, whether one is rich or poor, well-known or little-known.
Just people believe in holding all people accountable for their actions, no matter what their status in society or their place in life.

Just rules are blind to whether people approach one another in friendship or in animosity, directing everyone to treat others with decency.
Just people approach friends, acquaintances and “enemies” alike with respect and full consideration when their assistance could be valuable and crucial.

Just rules do not present one set of standards for those who are well-to-do and another set of laws for those who are in dire straits.
Just people do all they can to be sure that people of all means have the possibility of competent advocacy for their case in the midst of a dispute.

Just rules intend to prevent untrue accusations from leading to a conviction and sentence that cannot be undone.
Just people seek to uncover charges that are inaccurate and untrue, and try to assure that the system of justice will, as much as possible, protect those who are innocent.

Just rules prohibit promises of money, power, or favors to produce a result not based in fairness and honesty.
Just people do not offer or take bribes, and seek to expose those who do.

Just rules treat all people living in a community with equal consideration, whether they are native or newcomer, resident or visitor.
Just people try to be welcoming and respectful, helpful and generous, always remembering from where they came.

Exodus 23:1-9
1] You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness: [2] You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong - you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty, [3] nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute. [4] When you encounter your enemy's ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back to him. [5] When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him. [6] You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.   [7] Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on the innocent and the righteous, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer.  [8] Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of the just. [9] You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.                 

Friday, February 2, 2018

True Friendship embodies the best of human traits - Column for Las Cruces Bulletin - February 2, 2018

Over the years of teaching students in the congregations which I have served as rabbi, one lesson I always try to teach (during the adolescent years) about friendship. By the time they reach middle school age, our growing children in our communities seems to have a definite idea about the most desirable and important elements of friendship. 
     In a recent discussion with my sixth-seventh grade class at Temple Beth-El on this topic, the students noted that they expect a friend to be honest, trustworthy (able to keep secrets and refrain from gossip), cooperative, intelligent (which can include common sense!), caring, mutually respectful, understanding, sharing/giving, helpful, friendly, loyal, creative, brave and inclusive. 
     This was a thoughtful and comprehensive list. To add some depth to our conversation, I collected quotations from the Jewish tradition, about which I had students write their comments. Here are some of those quotations, which may also help you define and refine your perspective about friendship. 
 “Your best friend is the one who is a friend without expecting anything (Rabbi  Leon of Modena, 16th Century, Italy).” Rather than seeing a relationships as a negotiation, there is an unconditional aspect to friendship that is mutual. 
 “My friend is a person who will tell me my faults, in private (Solomon Ibn Gabirol, 11th Century poet, Spain).” This is component of friendship directs us to go beyond the path of least resistance and into the realm of deep honesty, with the intention  of making personal improvement possible. 
 “Friendship is like a treasury: you cannot take from it more than you put into it (Benjamin Mandelstamm, 19th Century, Russia).” Friendship requires attention and work based upon a desire to deepen a valued relationship. The “treasury” may even be the simple knowledge that the other person is there for you, even at a distance, but that only comes with years of dedication and commitment to each other. 
    “Who keeps a secret is a close friend (Wisdom of Ben Sira 31:2, 2nd Century BC, Apocrypha).” My students understood this crucial element of friendship based on their own experiences. Many of us know how important keeping confidences can be and how we need people in our lives to whom we can say almost anything, knowing it will go no further. 
    “A friend will prove himself/herself in time of trouble (Moses Ibn Ezra, 11th/12th Century Poet/Philosopher, Granada, Spain).” Our real friends are the ones who remain by our side to see us through even our most difficult challenges. 
    “Who is the greatest of heroes? A person who makes an enemy into a friend (Rabbi Nathan’s commentary on the Sayings of the Rabbis, 9th Century).” We might think, “Is this even possible?” Some people who agree with each other on everything may be unable to be friends. People who vehemently disagree on a wide range of issues are sometimes able to maintain a strong friendship. This may belong in the realm of “expect the unexpected,” but our world could use a lot more people who can transform enemies into true friends. 
    Any definition of what makes a true friend will likely grow and change as we move along the life cycle, based upon our own relationships and situations which have demonstrated to us the resilience and persistence of the bonds we develop with people close to us. We know that we need friends because they do enrich our lives and hold us up, as stated nearly 2200 years ago in the Wisdom of Ben Sira: “A good friend is a tower of strength; to find one is to find a treasure.”