Monday, December 31, 2012

Yes, there is a blessing (five, actually) for that, too.....Serving the Community - article for Temple Beth-El Adelante Newsletter for January 2013

Praised are You, Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, who hallows us with Your mitzvot and commands us to occupy ourselves with the needs of the community. This is the blessing that our 3rd-5th Grade Religious School class recites before the students put their weekly donation into the class Tzedakah box. On Sunday, December 16, Sarah Mischler, a transition counselor at the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, spoke to our Religious School students about her efforts to find housing for the residents of Camp Hope (an area set aside by the city for people who are homeless and waiting for housing to live in tents next to the building that houses the local food pantry).  That morning, we loaded material donations, brought by Temple Beth-El members during Chanukah, into Sarah’s car. Sarah spoke with our children and faculty about what factors might lead someone to seek to live in Camp Hope and answered our students’ insightful questions. This blessing comes from the prayerbook of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues in Great Britain, and while it was intended to be used prior to a meeting, it can apply to many of the selfless and generous acts we perform for our congregation or for other groups in which we participate.
Praised be the One who has called us to exalt our nation with righteousness, and taught us: “Seek the welfare of your community and pray on its behalf, so that all may share in its well-being” (Jeremiah 29:7).  On December 6, Rabbi Jerry Kane and I hosted the monthly meeting of the New Mexico State University Interfaith Council at Temple. One of the tasks we completed that day was to prepare granola bars to be given to NMSU students during finals week, bearing a sticker that wished them well on their exams.    The Interfaith Council brings together the sponsors of NMSU’s religiously-affiliated organizations to discuss programming and maintaining good relations among group leaders and members. On December 19, Susan Fitzgerald and I attended the holiday party of CAFé, Communities in Action and Faith, an event that provided us with a chance to get to know some of our local partners who work with us to improve life in Las Cruces and Dona Ana County. Many of us at Temple are involved with local organizations, and this second blessing accurately characterizes the good work that we do for the benefit of our community.
Praised are You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, who hallows us with Your mitzvot and commands us to pursue justice. As we approach yet another observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., we will consider what “justice” means to us.  The movie “Lincoln,” so masterfully directed by Steven Spielberg, defined justice, in the context of discussions related to the Thirteenth Amendment, as equality under the law. Yet, underlying this temporary compromise was the deeper sense that equality meant that all people are created in God’s image, an idea that many hoped would, one day, be universally accepted. Perhaps we are closer than ever to that goal.
Praised are You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, for giving us the opportunity to mend the world.  Temple Beth-El provided breakfast for residents of Camp Hope on the morning of December 25. Congregants donated food and offered other types of support for that effort. Our Religious School students had prepared placemats, decorated candles and other enhancements that were used that morning. Fifteen congregants, plus friends of some of our members, were present to serve the meal and meet and talk with some of the residents.  This was an opportunity for TIKKUN OLAM, mending the world, that members of our congregation created by taking initiative. We will likely serve a meal at Camp Hope again in the coming months, an activity that will complement our service to the El Caldito Soup Kitchen and the donations we collect for Casa de Peregrinos and other local organizations.
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, You call us to holiness. We give thanks for all whose labor benefits the world.    This final blessing expresses appreciation for those who freely and generously give of themselves and their positive spirit to improve the lives of others, whether through providing financial contributions, devoting time to crucial volunteer tasks, or offering insight and wisdom towards the many ways in which we can put into practice the words of Psalm 133: “How good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity.”    May we all find new avenues of service, in the coming months, through which our labors will benefit each other and the entire world.

Friday, December 28, 2012

May God make us like...we hope to be remembered - D'var Torah - December 29, 2012

Jacob sat
with his grandsons in front of him,
the eldest, Manasseh, to his right,
so he could place his right hand, the hand of strength,
at least in biblical terms,
on the head of Joseph’s oldest son.
To his left was Ephraim, the youngest of Joseph’s sons,
Put there by his father so that he could receive
The blessing of the so-called “weaker hand” of Jacob, his father,
Also known as Israel, the struggler with God.
Joseph had forgotten that he had once been
the youngest son and the favorite of Jacob,
as was Benjamin, both of them the sons of Rachel.
With his grandsons before him,
Jacob extended his right hand across his body and put it on the head of Ephraim,
and his left hand rested on the head of the eldest, Manasseh.
Jacob’s crossed hands demonstrated that
there was blessing enough for both.
In ancient times, and even later,
the oldest son almost automatically received the greatest blessing.
Jacob reminded Joseph that the rule in his family was that any child,
an oldest, a youngest, or one somewhere in the middle, could achieve greatness.
What was even more important was that Jacob was blessing his grandchildren at all.
Jacob and Joseph had many obstacles put in their way that could have prevented them
From being a family again.
Yet, as Joseph explained to his brothers when they reconciled, God had a plan for them to reunite in a way that seemed miraculous.
So Jacob said to his son Joseph, now regaled in likely colorful Egyptian garb,
“I didn’t expect to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children as well!”
When families come together for celebration and
when we take part in reunions
that recall the care and presence of loved ones
no longer with us,
we still see them in our mind’s eye, in the warmth of memory.
The blessing that Jacob gave his grandsons was his legacy for the future. It is now traditionally recited before Shabbat dinner.  
For sons, we say, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
For daughters, we declare, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.
It is not just these names of our ancestors that become legacies. 
Our deeds, especially acts of kindness and compassion that build a community and improve the world, offer inspiration to generations to come.
When Jacob/Israel blessed his grandsons, he also offered a blessing, by extension, to the future generations of his family and people.
And, as we join together as a community in the here and now,
we bless each other when we engage in prayer and study,
when we offer support at challenging times,
when we share moments of celebration,
when we explore beliefs and life’s meaning through prayer and song,
and when we do good works for our community and for the world. 
But these acts are not only our blessings for one another.
They establish a foundation for a bright future in which
the best of our values can endure.
So may God make us like Ephraim and Manasseh,
Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.
May God make us like the loved ones that preceded us.
And may the generations of family and community that follow us
look to our lives, our deeds and our character
as a source of strength, hope and blessing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Preserving life with a great deliverance - D'var Torah - December 21, 2012

   Much of our attention over the last week has been focused on the tragic shootings of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Many Americans and people throughout the world have felt a bond with this community of 27,000 people, likely because such an event has the potential to happen anywhere. 

Last Sunday night, in our home, we watched the interfaith memorial service held in Newtown at which President Obama spoke. Immediately following the service, I turned to the Showtime series “Homeland.” Later that night, I posted this thought on facebook: “At the beginning of  the episode of Homeland tonight on Showtime, a message on the screen noted that some of the content of the show might be too violent in light of the events in Connecticut on Friday, and then it said, ‘Viewer discretion is advised.’ Sometimes we may feel that way about life - that we don't want to see what's out there because it is too overwhelming - but we still have to look...and help.”
  A friend in Topeka, Kansas responded to my post just a few minutes later with a note about a story that made national news on Monday morning...She said:
“This relates to Topekans tonight as we listen to the police helicopter and sirens searching for a man that killed two Police Officers outside a local grocery store.  Robo calls have been letting residents know there is a massive manhunt in central Topeka. Prayers for safety, for the fallen, their families and no more senseless violence. Hold your loved ones close, always.”  The gunman was later found and killed in a standoff with police.
    As these tragedies continued to sink in, NBC reported on Tuesday morning that NBC reporter Richard Engel and his crew had just been freed by Syrian rebels from a Shiite Militia group loyal to the Assad Regime.  As I watched part of Savanna Guthrie’s interview of this reporting team this morning, Richard Engel mentioned that they all thanked the rebels who freed them, but the group, which was religiously based, said that they didn’t deserve thanks.   “This was God,” they said, as they took the NBC crew to safety. 
    That statement, “This is God,” reminded me of a verse in this week’s Torah reading.  Joseph had just revealed his identity to his brothers.  He said, “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold to Egypt; and now, don’t be troubled, don’t be chagrined because you sold me here, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. There have already been two years of famine in the land, and there remain five more years without plowing or harvesting.  So God sent me ahead of you to assure your survival in the land, and to keep you alive for a great deliverance.”
    All that has happened in the last week represents but a few of  the many examples and consequences of violence that persist in our world.   We may not be able to stop every attack like those that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, and earlier this year in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, or at the Sikh Temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.    But the words of the Talmud direct us to take action.  “Whoever destroys one life, it is considered as if he or she destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he or she saved an entire world.”    And the rabbis tell us, “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
    So what we do now is up to us.  I believe that God’s voice and guidance should lead us to save lives and  to offer comfort.  It should remind us that what is important is not political power but sensible policies that will less frequently put weapons into hands that could inevitably cause destruction.  The power we have within us can preserve life with a great deliverance, if only we make that choice. 
In the coming days, may we encourage our leaders to make wise decisions.  And may we, ourselves, build a close, caring and warm community and nation that will offer the support necessary to keep us all, as much as possible, safe and secure as we continue our journey towards a future filled with light and hope.  

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Higher Purpose - D'var Torah - Parashat Vayeishev - December 7, 2012

     When I discuss values that could be associated with candles on a Chanukiah with most any age group, two of the principles that are often suggested are hope and light.  
    These two aspects of the Chanukah story relate to the Torah portion for this Shabbat, Vayeishev.  In this section of Genesis, we encounter Joseph first as a young boy who dreams of his future status as a ruler over the rest of his family and is sold by his brothers to be a slave in Egypt due to their jealousy towards his dreams. Joseph, however, had no idea at the time what those dreams of rulership and leadership meant.    We then see Joseph, a decade later, as a young man in an Egyptian dungeon, imprisoned there after being framed by the wife of his master, Potiphar.  Even when in such dire straits, seemingly without hope, Joseph was willing to act as an interpreter of the dreams of his fellow inmates, the king’s cupbearer and baker.  The light of Joseph’s wisdom enabled him to see clearly the fate of these two men.  Yet, Joseph wouldn’t take any credit for his ability to explain the meaning of their dreams.  He said to them, “Surely interpretations of dreams are in God’s domain.”   Just as Joseph predicted, the cupbearer was restored to freedom.    It was he who would later mention Joseph’s special insight to Pharaoh at just the right moment.   The baker, as it turned out, had a much different fate, which followed Joseph’s reading of his dream. At that point in the story, Joseph already knew that there was a higher purpose to his presence in Egypt, even as a prisoner, so he held out hope for his eventual release.
      In the story of Chanukah, there are also higher purposes at work.  The Syrian-Greek Ruler Antiochus IV had presented the Jews of Judea with a clear and foreboding choice: adopt Greek ways and worship Greek gods, including the new statue of Zeus at the Jerusalem Temple, and live. OR  refuse this demand and practice Judaism and face death.
    The priest Mattathias, his family (including the hero Judah Maccabee) and many Jews in Judea were disillusioned with the tyranny of Antiochus and his supposedly enlightened  Greek culture.  Unlike other Jews who had adopted a Greek way of life, these Jews realized that their difficult situation didn’t place them beyond the point of hope.  Their heritage taught them about higher values: cooperation, courage, optimism, and the light of knowledge.  Their beliefs offered them inner strength to persist, individually and together, until they won their freedom and their right to be different.
      When we light the chanukiah in our homes and look at the glow of the candles, we have the opportunity to see in the flames how focusing on our higher values can lead us to hope. Conflicts can be brought to peaceful resolution when people with the greatest wisdom and patience are allowed to speak to each other.  Rabbi Ron Kronish of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel still develops programming that bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in Israel to talk about what they have in common and to allow their faith to heal the wounds that may result from political division.    An adversarial culture may often manifest itself in international relations, whether in the United Nations chambers or in consultations between world leaders.   Common interests, however, for peace and stability, can give way to the realization that we don’t want to live on the brink of war.  Concerns about the dwindling of our natural resources and the possible negative effects of human life on the natural world have a way of bringing people together onto the same page to combat those challenges and, if necessary, to change our ways towards greater conservation.    While the President and Congress have not yet reached an agreement on dealing with a looming fiscal crisis, the higher purpose of preserving the well-being of all Americans may yet lead them to, somewhat, see eye-to-eye.  We can view the challenges of caring for family members of all ages as opportunities to grow closer and to strengthen each other.  When a loved one or community member dies, we have a way of recognizing how his or her legacy can lead us to reach for our highest potential, and to do so with a sense of awe and humility.   Finally, our daily lives contain many encounters and conversations with all sorts of people.   It is possible that every one has a higher purpose, which calls on us to always be on our best behavior.
    As Chanukah approaches, we have every reason to continue to hope and to search for light in the darkness, knowing that we have the faith, the strength and the ability to work together to make miracles right before our eyes.   And like Joseph, a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, may our vision lead us to see the higher purposes in our work and our relationships that can make every moment of our lives worthwhile and holy. So may it be – and let us say amen. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Lights we share - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter - December 2012

   The lights of Chanukah offer us moments of warmth and brightness as the daylight hours grow shorter. This ritual of kindling the Chanukiah/Menorah links Jewish practice to all other “festivals of light” at this time of year.
    What makes Chanukah unique is its story of a people whose practices were, at first encouraged, then begrudgingly accepted and, ultimately, forbidden by their rulers.  A recent archaeological discovery bears a declaration by the Syrian Greek Ruler Seleucus IV that overseers would be appointed over the provinces of their empire, including Judea. Their new powers included the right of the Syrian-Greek empire to assume full authority over the treasury of any religious entity in their realm, including the Temple in Jerusalem.  The successor of Seleucus IV, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, is the familiar Antiochus of the Chanukah story, who did, in fact, take over the Temple treasury, choose a high priest (against Jewish practice), turn the Temple into a house of worship to Zeus, and forbid the practice of Judaism under penalty of death.  The struggle to take back the Temple and regain the right to religious freedom, led by the Maccabees, is still the reason that we light the Chanukah candles every year.
     Our observance of Chanukah reminds us how fortunate we are to live in a country that grants us religious freedom.   No government authority can tell us that we cannot join together, build a Temple/synagogue or practice Judaism.  Our ongoing support of Casa de Peregrinos and the El Caldito Soup Kitchen and Beth-El Temple Youth’s “Turkeys from Temple Teens” campaign demonstrates how we can use our religious freedom to bring benefit to the greater community.  My participation in a monthly clergy breakfast, the New Mexico State University Interfaith Council, Communities in Action and Faith (CAFé’), and the board of the local Peace Camp provides avenues for sharing Jewish perspectives and values with our neighbors.
    As a congregation, there are lights that we can light for each other and for the human family.  Our Shabbat worship offers us a chance to be together as members of all ages, uniting our voices in prayer and song. When we gather for worship, we have the opportunity to inspire each other and deepen our feeling of connection with all of creation and with the Creator of all.   Our participation at all types of Temple events is a gift that enlivens the Temple building and generates a spirit of camaraderie and caring.  Joining any opportunity for discussion gives us a chance to enlighten each other in wisdom and insight.   Sharing our talents and strengths, whether they are culinary, musical, intellectual, cultural or spiritual, is a way in which our “lights” can brighten our congregation throughout the year.   Joining together as members of Temple Beth-El to support local, national and international agencies and organizations that help people in need is another way of giving light to others who need more hope in their lives.
     Without our presence, our hands, and our hearts, a Chanukiah would remain on a shelf, abandoned, lonely, and dark.   When we light the menorah, we are like modern-day Maccabees, seeking to sustain our heritage and to work for freedom for all humankind.   May these be the lights we share during Chanukah and throughout the year!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Psalm 16 - for Ten Minutes of Torah - Union for Reform Judaism - November 29, 2012

Yizkor: Psalm 16
By Rabbi Lawrence P. Karol
     I was sitting by the bedside of my father-in-law, Bert Marks, one day in early March 2004, as he was living out his last days.  My wife Rhonda, our son Adam, and I had traveled to southern California to offer our support. In the quiet of those moments, I reached for a Bible on a bookshelf nearby, resumed my seat by the bed, and recited Psalm 16, which I had been studying around that time with the hope of setting some of its contents to music. I offered those words of the Psalmist as prayer for comfort for my father-in-law and the family.
    Psalm 16 occupies a central place in the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur and the three festivals. Reform prayerbooks have usually included verses 8-11 of the Psalm, but the latest CCAR Rabbi's manual adds some of the beginning verses as well in the funeral liturgy. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov identified this Psalm and nine others as having special power to bring a person facing illness or challenge a Tikkun Hak'lali (Complete Remedy), a true healing of body and of spirit.1 In his book Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity , Rabbi Rami Shapiro noted that Rabbi Yaakov Koppel, a student of the Baal Shem Tov, was known as the "Shivitinik" because of his regular recitation of Psalm 16:8, "I have set the Eternal before me always/Shiviti adonai l'negdi tamid."2 Rabbi Daniel Polish explains that many Jewish homes have a "Shiviti plaque" hanging on the wall "as a constant reminder that we are living under God's protecting care.3
    Psalm 16 expresses profound faith and trust in God. It can enable us to recognize that God is always available for us as a dependable and supportive companion. In this "michtam /golden-song of David," the Psalmist views God as a refuge and a source of goodness and counsel in life.4 God guides us in the right direction towards our destiny.
     Acknowledging God's presence, "setting God before us always," can provide us with encouragement and comfort, even in our grief or at a time of challenge. We can feel that God is with us when we express gratitude for our loved ones who once walked with us and when we admit our amazement at the miracle of life itself. Such realizations can lead us to exultation and joy (verse 9). The pinnacle of Psalm 16, in verse 11, is used in our liturgy to conclude the silent Yizkor prayers: "In Your presence is perfect joy; delights are ever at Your right hand."
The solemnity of a Yizkor service calls for a melody that evokes the Psalmist's pleading for God's ongoing protection and/or a feeling of calm and confidence at the realization that the Eternal One is constantly before us. Transcontinental Music's Shirei T'shuvah/Songs of Repentance collection includes a setting by Nisse Blumenthal, which seems to characterize this Psalm as a humble and solemn request to God.  Nisse Blumenthal Shiviti  For many years, in the Yizkor services which I have led, Michael Isaacson's melody has offered a feeling of reassurance and the sense that our tears of grief also carry within them a touch of joy and gratitude (sung here by Cantor Faith Steinsnyder). Michael Isaacson Shiviti
One of the activities that my father-in-law greatly enjoyed was singing in public, whenever he had the opportunity (he was a "crooner" in the style of Frank Sinatra). As I sat by his bedside and read Psalm 16, I focused especially on the verse 9: "So my heart rejoices, my whole being exults, and my body rests secure." When I created my melody for Psalm 16, I shaped my lyrics in the spirit of Stephen Mitchell's interpretive translation: "You are my food, my drink, my sunlight, the air I breathe. You are the ground I have built on and the beauty that rejoices may heart."Larry Karol Shiviti
May Psalm 16 serve to open our eyes to God's supportive presence that can ultimately lead each of us to joy and to peace.
  1. Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, CSW, ed. Healing of Soul, Healing of Body, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994, page 17.
  2. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity, Bell Tower, 1997, page 78.
  3. Rabbi Daniel Polish. Keeping Faith with Psalms, Jewish Lights, 2004, page 197.
  4. Martin Samuel Cohen. Our Haven and Strength: The Book of Psalms. Aviv Press, 2004, page 41.
  5. Stephen Mitchell, A Book of Psalms, Harper Perennial, 1993, page 8.
Lawrence P. Karol serves as Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces, NM.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Walking with Angels - November 26, 2012

"Walking with Angels" 
A Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19 based on 
The Five Books of Moses, by Everett Fox 
and A Gathering of Angels: Angels in Jewish Life and Literature, 
by Rabbi Morris B. Margolies

The Angels Blessing (Debbie Friedman)
Miy'mini Michaeil, umismoli Gavrieil, Umil'fanai Urieil, umei-achorai R'faeil,
V'al roshi Sh'chinah. (4x)
   מִימִינִי מִיכָאֵל, וּמִשְּׂמֹאלִי גַּבְרִיאֵל, וּמִלְּפָנַי אוּרִיאֵל, וּמֵאֲחוֹרַי רְפָאֵל,
.וְעַל רֹאשִׁי שְׁכִינָה
May our right hand bring us closer to our Godliness. 
May our left hand give us strength to face each day.
And before us may our visions light our paths ahead.
And behind us may well-being heal our way.
All around us is Shechinah. (4x)
[May Michael/God’s being be at my right hand, Gabriel/God’s strength at my left,
before me Uriel/God’s vision, behind me Raphael/God’s healing, and above my head, the Divine Presence.]

The first time I heard that Debbie Friedman song, I felt a little less than natural or comfortable singing along. I didn't know then that "The Angels Blessing" is based on a traditional Jewish prayer said before going to sleep.  It reads as follows:
"In the name of the Eternal One, the God of Israel, may Michael be at my right hand; Gabriel at my left; before me, Uriel; behind me, Raphael; and above my head, the divine presence of God."  
Over 100 years ago, Reform Judaism banished angels from the prayerbook - but not completely. As we sang "Shalom Aleichem" to begin the service, we mentioned "mal'achei hashareit-ministering angels" and "mal'achei hashalom-angels of peace." When we say, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is God of Hosts" at a morning service, we are repeating words uttered by angels in a vision of the prophet Isaiah. The Eternal Light in our sanctuary illustrates this week’s Torah reading, which recounts Jacob's vision of angels going up and down on a ladder reaching to heaven.  We read the stories from the Bible about angels and messengers from God appearing to Abraham, Sarah's maidservant Hagar, and other characters.  We sing "Eliyahu Hanavi" at Havdalah and at the Passover Seder, remembering Elijah who, because he was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, functions in Jewish tradition like an angel.  Tonight, we focus on the figure of Jacob and his first encounter with angels in a dream.

In This Place (Jeff Klepper)
I was weary, I was tired so  I rested for the night
A stone for my pillow, the moon and stars for light
I saw angels on a ladder, from above and from below
God was in this place and I, I did not know-God was in this place and I, I did not know.
I was chasing after rainbows, I was far away from home
Thinking of my family, so hard to be alone
I was wrestling with feelings, I was trying not to show
God was in this place and I, I did not know-God was in this place and I, I did not know.
There is a ladder to the heavens you must climb it if you can
You can do it if you dream it, if you open up your hand
We are on this road together, we are traveling somewhere
We are all in need of comfort, we could use some love and care
I can still hear Jacob calling from the Torah long ago:
God was in this place and I, I did not know-God was in this place and I, I did not know.
I did not know (3)

Most figures in the Bible that encounter angels do so alone.  The word for angel, "Mal'ach," means "messenger." In most biblical stories, angels were sent as emissaries to fulfill tasks for God.  In later Jewish literature, angels began to take on lives and existences of their own as divine beings who could act without God's knowledge and approval.  That created the possibility of Jewish worship of individual angels.  That is one of the reasons why we hear little about angels in our tradition. The rabbis worried that God would cease to be central to Judaism in the face of angel worship, so they struggled to keep the belief in angels in line with the monotheistic Judaism they hoped to pass on to future generations.   Perhaps that is why this story of angels on a ladder might give us pause, but it still can have deep meaning, even for us today.
[10] Yaakov went out from Be’er-Sheva and went toward Harran. [11] He encountered a certain place.  He had to spend the night there, for the sun had come in. Now he took one of the stones of the place and set it at his head and lay down in that place.
Jacob was alone, having left his family because of the strife that had resulted after he took his brother Esau’s birthright in exchange for food and received his father Isaac’s first-born blessing at his mother Rebekah’s urging.  Jacob was in need of strength and reassurance.  There are times when we, like Jacob, are separated from our family and friends for one reason or another.  The cause of our solitude might be distance alone or it could be a challenge that we feel we have to face by ourselves.  Or, it might be a disagreement or conflict that requires reconciliation.  That is certainly a time we might need help from outside of us to guide us through a difficult passage towards resolution.
[12] And he dreamt: Here, a ladder was set  up on the earth, its top reaching the heavens. And here: messengers of God/angels were going up and down on it. 
[13] And here: The Eternal One was standing over against him.  The Eternal said:  I am the Eternal one, the God of Avraham your father and the God of Yitzhak. The land on which you lie I give to your seed. 
[14] Your seed will be like the dust of the earth; you will burst forth, to the Sea, to the east, to the north, to the Negev. All the clans of the soil will find blessing through you and through your seed. 
[15] Here, I am with you; I will watch over you wherever you go and will bring you back to this soil; indeed, I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you. 
The rabbis imagined Jacob standing at the bottom of the ladder, seeing angels representing the great empires of the world going up the ladder as they ascended to great power, and descending as their power declined and their nation was defeated.  Jacob was unsure if he wanted even to step onto the ladder, but God reassured him that his descendants would ultimately move up, rung my rung, into the future. And here we are, a people that has survived through centuries.  
   Rabbi Morris Margolies further explained, “The angels ascending and descending is at the core of Jacob’s vision, telling him that life is two-directional.  Its valleys are as normal as its peaks, its defeats as frequent as its triumphs.  In this light, exile can be seen as a prelude to going home again – if  you have faith that God is by your side wherever you are, and that even when you hit the bottom rung of the ladder you are still in the company of angels."
[16] Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said: Why, the Eternal One is in this place and I, I did not know it!
[17] He was awestruck and said: How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than a house of God, and that is the gate of heaven! 
Rabbi Morris Margolies speaks of angels as being a part of us.  They "are metaphors for the most basic human drives and emotions: love, hate, envy, lust, charity, malice, greed, generosity...delusion, vision, despair, fear and hope."  The "gathering of angels [often] set in placed right here on earth by Jewish teaching.  That gathering is within each one of us."   Jacob’s vision offered him a way to recognize that God was with him, and not only in that “House of God” where he had rested for the night.  Jacob was, himself, a walking and breathing “Beit-El.”
[18] Yaakov started-early in the morning, he took the stone that he had set at his head and set it up as a standing-pillar and poured oil on top of it.  
[19] And he called the name of the place: Bet-El/House of God – however, Luz was the name of the city in former times. 
Whether we view angels as God's messengers outside of us, symbols of God's inspiration inside of us, or as the many people who help us along the road of life, at the core of the belief in angels is that we can't do everything alone.  When we are in need of someone else's support or assistance, we make our needs known.  When we need guidance and strength, we can pray to God and look to any and all sources of wisdom and courage around us.  In her song, "This is the Day," Debbie Friedman suggests that "WE are as angels in disguise."  May every day be a day for new beginnings, when God's messengers and the message of God's nearness will bring us blessing throughout our life's journey.  And may our eyes be open so that, wherever we may be, we can seek and find the gateway that will lead us from despair to hope.
This is the Day (Music and lyrics by Debbie Friedman)
     Chorus (2x): 
This is the day,  it's whispering new beginnings
The sun's shining over us as we journey on our way.
These are our dreams that fill our lives with blessings.
The angels are by our side 'til the breaking of the day

May you be blessed with strength to struggle with your dreams.
May the angels surround you and shelter you from above.
May you bless the world with mercy and with justice.
May you bless the world with your open heart filled with love. Chorus (lx)
May you see the light in every living soul -  We are as angels in disguise.
May you have the courage to forgive and start again. 
May you see the holiness that's in our eyes.   Chorus (1x)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Visualizing a sea of peace - November 16, 2012

The sea, the sky, and even the people....not too 

different on the coast of Tel Aviv (as seen in 

February 2008) as compared to the coast of 

Gaza. There is a Oneness in the universe that 

transcends human conflicts and politics. May 

the Eternal Source of Wisdom and Peace guide 

us toward reconciliation, respect and 

acceptance that can lead to true peace.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Building holiness among us - Article for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Newsletter - November, 2012

Some of our congregants who attended the Candidates Forum on October 21 remarked that our guests, who are running for local judicial positions and for district attorney, seemed so relaxed when they were at Temple Beth-El.  They shared information about themselves and their views with ease in a spirit of civil discourse.  That is due, in part, to the leadership of congregants who chaired the program in developing and posing the questions.  I believe that there is also something about being in a MAKOM KADOSH, a holy space, that has the potential to bring out the best in people. Perhaps the room itself, the stained glass windows, the image of the burning bush on the ark doors, and the words “SERVE GOD WITH GLADNESS” attached to a beautiful wooden frame above the ark all combine to remind us of the timelessness of our heritage.  The belief that our faith and tradition transcend time should guide us to see our participation in worship as part of a “timeless” enterprise.  The words of the prayerbook are there for a reason: they are the script for prayer leader and congregation in a drama that has lasted for over 3000 years.  Judaism comes alive when we are active participants in prayer, whether from our seats or on/near the bimah.    Through our combined voices in readings and song, we become a KAHAL KADOSH, a holy congregation, and an AM KADOSH, a holy people. 

    One of the congregants who brought her grandchildren to the Simchat Torah service (see above) on October 7 said that Simchat Torah was her favorite holiday while she was growing up.  You can see in the photo with the open Torah scroll on this page (we were looking at the book of Genesis) how awesome it is to have the scroll open to show many columns at once.  It gave us an opportunity to highlight the location in the scroll of the stories from creation through Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis Chapter 32.   It was a reflection of the richness of our sacred text that we continue, in the words of Rabbi Ben Bag Bag, to “turn, turn and turn again.”   In marching/dancing with the scrolls, singing, and reflecting on the ending and beginning of the Torah, we were a KAHAL KADOSH, part of an AM KADOSH, sustaining a time-honored tradition of seeing the Torah as a source of wisdom and guidance for our lives.
    On October 18, I spoke about Judaism to a group at Morning Star United Methodist Church that was looking at different faiths in relation to Christianity.  They had good questions and comments and were gratified that I had come to enlighten them on what we believe and practice.  

On Sunday, October 21, the Confirmation class of First Presbyterian Church in Las Cruces  came to Temple at the time that our Machon class meets on Sunday morning. Our Temple students helped me to explain about Jewish symbols and, I have to add, they chanted the beginning of the V’ahavta with great skill and on the spur of the moment!  I had asked our students for questions to pose to our visitors about what is special about the Presbyterian Church in relation to other denominations and what they believe about Jesus (including how they view his Jewish roots).  To end our session, I opened up the Torah scroll from which we read every week (see photo above) so our guests could see that this text (and its teachings) is special—HOLY—for us, so much so that a Torah reader must practice extensively in advance to recite or chant a passage with no vowels or punctuation.  
     So how are we a KAHAL KADOSH, part of a worldwide AM KADOSH, in our daily lives?  When we treat other people with respect wherever we are, we are a KAHAL KADOSH.  When we help people in need through donations of any kind, we are a KAHAL KADOSH.  When we volunteer with an organization that works to make our community—or the world—better, we are KAHAL KADOSH.   When we, as men and women (and boys and girls), join as a community to unite our voices in prayer, in a congregation where either women or men are welcome to lead worship, we are a KAHAL KADOSH. When we engage in discussions about the future of our congregation or our nation based on the principle of civility, we are KAHAL KADOSH.  And, when we see the face of God in each other, we, most definitely, are a KAHAL KADOSH.   May we continue to come together as a Holy Congregation that  sees the timeless wisdom and value of our heritage as integral to our lives and to the betterment of the human family. 

Campaign reflections - before and after - November 7, 2012

This is a collection of comments (meant for all) before and after election day that came to mind for, one favorite prayerbook text set to music.   

November 3, 2012

I am going to try to say this carefully - these thoughts came to me when we read the Prayer for our Country this morning.
1) I pray that every citizen who wants to vote will have a chance to vote and that his or her vote will count.
2) I pray that those who may be trying to stop other people from voting will stop what they are doing when they realize that their actions are counter to the spirit 
of our democracy, and that if their candidate wins, their actions will cheapen that victory (I say this with full knowledge of the effect of "political machines/bosses" on elections of the past - my home town, Kansas City, included).
3) I pray that, when the election is over, winners and losers will be able to even begin to strive to live out the motto on the Great Seal of the United States - E Pluribus, Unum - Out of Many, One. Our diversity of ideas can make us stronger, but it will take some work to get to that point. For all of our sakes, let's hope we still can get there.

November 5, 2012
In preparing for my Pirket Avot - Sayings of the Sages - class tonight at Temple, I came across a famous statement that certainly has implications for the American voter tomorrow....
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when? 
Thank you, Hillel, for your all-purpose declaration!

November 6, 2012
I woke up this morning thinking about the polarization in our country, the passionate feelings that sometimes keep us from recognizing our highest shared values. Some of those values are expressed in one of my favorite readings from the Ref
orm prayerbook, Mishkan T'filah, which I set to music this afternoon as election day was winding down. May all of us blessed with unity, wholeness, freedom and peace.
Based on a reading from the Mishkan T'filah prayerbook
May we gain wisdom in our lives 
overflowing like a river with understanding
Loved, each of us, for the peace we bring to others
May our deeds exceed our speech
And may we never lift up our hand but to conquer fear and doubt and despair

V'neemar v'hayah adonai l'melech al kol ha-aretz
Bayom hahu yihiyeh adonai echad ush'mo echad
(Thus it has been said, the Eternal One will be Sovereign over all the earth
On that day, the Eternal will be One, and God's name will be one). 

Rise up like the sun, O God, over all humanity 
Cause light to go forth over all the lands between the seas
And light up the universe with the joy of wholeness, of freedom, and of peace. 

November 7, 2012
 I got in my car this morning to go buy the morning newspaper to see what happened in local elections, having been well-schooled in the national results. As I started on my short drive, the words of a central declaration from Deuteronomy about God's oneness came to mind. The first and last word of Deuteronomy Chapter 6 verse 4 leaped to prominence:
SH'MA - Hear/truly listen - to yourself and to o
ECHAD - One - unity, oneness, interconnection
Communication - both expressing ourselves AND listening, whether we agree or disagree, is priceless because it necessarily creates interconnection.
Perhaps there is a path that we can tread together, on which we can speak, and listen, and do it over and over, until we find an unexpected place of intersection of ideas and commonality in feelings and objectives.
That is my hope tod

Friday, October 26, 2012

Journeying into Holiness - D'var Torah for Lech L'cha - October 26, 2012

Lech L’cha – Go forth to the land that I will show you.
The Torah reading for this week portrays the decision of Abram and Sarai 
to leave their home as a life-changing choice in response to God’s command.

The rabbis explained that Abram, the newly minted monotheist,
could no longer abide by the polytheistic ways of his family.
And, they saw Abram and Sarai as a couple destined for something greater.
We are not unlike Abram and Sarai, even on one of the seemingly unspectacular and routine days in our lives.
Every morning is a lech l’cha or l’chi lach for each of us.
The schedule in our minds, our calendar book,
or our personal digital device that constantly connects with cyberspace
tells us where we need to be and when.
But that is not the story of our daylong journey.
Our daily narrative is a reflection on HOW we spent our time
and HOW it changed us, even in small ways.
Did we do something new today – or yesterday – or the day before?
Did we gain a new insight?
Did we receive a challenge from someone
that made us think about how we could grow as a person?
Did we hear someone else’s story that moved us to take on
a new belief or position on a particular issue?
Did we unexpectedly cross a threshold that will forever affect who we are?
For Abram and Sarai, lech l’cha and l’chi lach meant that they would each
Their journey, however, would have consequences for their children,
their grandchildren and other generations yet to come.
For us, every day, every step we take, is significant,
and we may realize that in the moment
or we may only know it later.  
We may even respond to our own “lech l’cha” or “l’chi lach” 
when we stop and see that HOLINESS, k’dushah, 
is all around us, ours for the taking.
Every space can be a MAKOM KADOSH, a holy place,
And when we rise every morning, we can make each day KADOSH, holy,
through what we learn and through what we do
to make that time special and meaningful.
May the words we pray and sing tonight help us,
individually and together, to find the holy, HAKADOSH,
in the where and when of our lives.    And let us say Amen. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Righteous voices in our generation - D'var Torah - October 19, 2012

“The earth became corrupt before God. The earth was filled with CHAMAS – violence.” In Genesis Chapter 6, the beginning of the story of Noah, his family and the flood, this state of the world was enough for God to decide to wipe out humanity and start over again.
    The words corruption and violence are certainly not foreign to us as we listen to the news every day.  The Boy Scouts of America just came out publicly about the abuse that had been perpetrated by scout leaders on young boys over several decades.   An online search for the phrase “accused of corruption” raises many examples of public officials who have ignored laws for their personal gain. 
   Through a successful sting operation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation caught a man from Bangladesh in his attempt to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.     This thwarted act of violence coincided with the arrest of three people who set a Denver bar on fire, murdering five people in the process.  The motive for setting the fire was covering up their robbery of the establishment.  These are isolated incidents, but they reflect  aspects of human life noted in Genesis Chapter 6  that are still very much with us.
    In Jerusalem, a woman who had been arrested Tuesday night was strip-searched and detained overnight.  She had not perpetrated corruption or violence.  She had not tried to murder anyone.  She did not attempt a robbery. Anat Hoffman is a leader of Women of the Wall and Executive Director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.  Members of Women of the Wall were joined by participants in the Hadassah Centennial convention for a Rosh Chodesh service in the women’s section of the KOTEL, the Western Wall on Tuesday night.  
  The Women of the Wall know that Israeli law clearly states:  “No religious ceremony shall be held in the women’s section of the Western Wall. That includes holding or reading a Torah, blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) or wearing tallitot (prayer shawls).”
    Still, the Women of the Wall respond to this law with a dedication to their mission, which is “to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”
   This struggle has been going on for years and seems to have no resolution.   There have been arrests in previous Rosh Chodesh services.  In this case, the police arrested Anat Hoffman for singing the Shema aloud.  Uttering Judaism’s central prayer was the reason she was taken.   The arrest itself and the violent treatment in the police station that followed for Anat Hoffman represent an unfortunate extreme to which the police have been building since they began detaining members of Women of the Wall.  
  There are many issues underlying this conflict, but Tuesday’s incident demonstrates how a liberated Western Wall is only free for some.   Women who want to pray together near the Western Wall should have a place where they can, if they so desire, sing at the top of their lungs.  With regards to the tallit, the Torah itself does not say that only men should wear fringes or tassels on the corners of their clothing to remember God’s commandments.  Women seem to be implicitly included. Even within rabbinic law, women can choose to wear a tallit.  Orthodox authorities who have ruled that a woman should not wear a tallit “like a man” were stating what I believe to be culturally-based opinions intended to preserve their preferred status quo.
   It is likely that this conflict will continue for months or years to come.   What may be needed is a flood of new thought, a fresh perspective that will expand the rights of women and men on the Western side of the Temple mount.  
     No matter how this is resolved,  there is one point on which many people could likely agree – no one, man or woman, reciting the Shema should be subjected to arrest or CHAMAS, violence.   If we truly believe in being TZADIK, righteous, there has to be a better way.  May Jews around the world come together to find a path that will lead to justice, understanding and even unity.  Amen. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"That's not love" - A reflection on faith and political leadership - October 14, 2012

From my Yom Kippur morning sermon – September 23, 1996

 Last Tuesday morning, I was invited to attend a meeting of clergy with senatorial candidate Sam Brownback.  As I sat down at the table, I looked around and realized that I only knew two of the pastors present.  Not only was I the only rabbi there, but I was also the only non-evangelical clergy person in the room!
    Representative Brownback asked the group what the religious community can do to take care of people in need in this era of welfare reform.  On the issue of church burnings, he stated that the government can do a great deal to create standards that indicate zero tolerance for hate crimes and other violent acts.  He lamented that those laws do not reach the heart and soul of people to change them for the better. 
   You can imagine what the pastors sitting around the table with me claimed would offer a renewed sense of values.  At first, there were calls for the candidate and more citizens to take a firm pro-Christian stand (the exact request was, “You should stand up for Christ!”).  As the discussion continued, I spoke up several times to emphasize that we do hold many values in common, and that when we combine our energies, we make a stronger impact on our community than we can make alone.   
  For example, some of the ministers were concerned about how separation of religion and government prevents their churches from helping the poor and the hungry.  I reminded them that many congregations in Topeka regularly unite to provide food, clothing and shelter through  Doorstep, Let's Help, Cornerstone and other agencies that receive funding from a variety of sources.  
   During our discussion, we outlined the partnership between government, families, non-profit organizations, businesses, faith groups and schools that can enhance the well-being of our community.  One minister suggested that schools house Youth for Christ programs. I immediately commented, "I don't think my family would be too happy about that!"  I explained that a program advancing one particular faith group in school would create an "in" group and an "out" group. Such a plan could ostracize non-Christian children and some Christian students as well. I also mentioned that Rhonda and I have successfully worked with teachers and a principal who are deeply religious Christians who apply their beliefs as we do - by engendering cooperation, respect and self-discipline that can enable a student to grow in knowledge and contribute positively to any class, group, or community.
  At the end of the meeting, one participant called for a prayer before we adjourned. Another pastor suggested that I deliver that benediction.  I prayed that the God whom we love and who loves us be with us and with our government and community leaders so that we can provide all people with a sense of belonging and hope.
     It was clear that my presence changed the entire complexion of that meeting.  One minister said that he and his colleagues tend to be too parochial at times, thinking only about their own beliefs.  I replied that we all have our particular beliefs that we can use for universal purposes, to make a positive impact on the world outside our homes and beyond our houses of worship.

Postscript – October 14, 2012
Several months later, I saw Senator Brownback at the Kansas State commemoration of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.   I reminded him of the meeting held at what was then the Village Inn Pancake House at Fleming Place Shopping Center.  I remarked that his staff called to together quite a meeting.  He said, “Well I was surprised.”  I asked him why.  He responded, “Well, for me, Christianity is love, and that was not love that was being expressed by the ministers present.”  I replied that he should only know that I was used to hearing calls for one religion to be considered primary over all others.
     It has been six years since Rhonda and I moved away from Topeka.  The last time I saw Senator Brownback (and his wife Mary) was when he appeared at the University of New Hampshire Student Union (the “MUB”) in September of 2007 on a campaign stop.   I lived six miles away in Dover, New Hampshire where I served the at the local Temple (2006-2011).   I knew that the Senator had been through many changes both in his faith and in his politics. We did get a chance to speak for a few minutes in what was a very congenial conversation. We discussed the campaign trail, and about being the parents of children in their late teens and early 20s.   I was glad I took the time to see him.
    The policies of the current Brownback administration in Kansas do not surprise me.  I  always knew that the Governor had the potential to move in the direction of the wing of the Republican party that does not know about or care about moderation or about representing all Kansans, not just their ideological peers and partners on the right wing of the political spectrum.
   During a sermon on civility to my congregation in Las Cruces, New Mexico on Yom Kippur evening this year,  I referred to a story in the Talmud that relates to how we can constructively deal with diverse views in society. The Talmud tells of how the schools of the great sages Hillel and Shammai were in regular conflict.  In one instance, the debate became so heated that only a heavenly voice could stop their verbal confrontations. The voice declared, “Both of your positions are the words of the living God – both are valid – EILU V’EILU DIVREI ELOHIM CHAYIM – but the law is in agreement with the students of Hillel.”  “Why one side and not the other?” the Talmud asked.  The passage explained that the students of Hillel were kind and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of their opponents, and they were so humble that they would mention the opinions of Shammai before stating their own views.
    I didn’t speak about the meeting held at the Village Inn sixteen years ago when I wrote that sermon, but I did think about that encounter.  I am sad to see the direction in which my former state of residence is going on the level of politics and policy.  If I had the chance, I would ask state government leaders, at the very least, “Where is respect for diverse views?”   However, in light of my conversation with then-new-Senator Brownback in the Kansas Capitol rotunda, I have to go one step further and ask, “Where is the love?”   Respect, love, and concern – that is what community is about.  It is not about “me” or “my kind only.”  It is about “us.” 
    I pray that respect, concern and love will overcome any obstacles that may be placed in their way in any state in our union and in every corner of the world.