Thursday, January 26, 2012

One light above, Two Lights below - Symbols of Jewish Identity - January 26, 2012

When I wrote "Ami" (lyrics below),  I had just read THE JEW WITHIN, by Arnold Eisen and Steven Cohen. That book emphasized the concept in the Sociology of Religion of "The Sovereign Self," which suggests that people, more than ever, take charge of their own decisions regarding their participation in a faith community. Eisen and Cohen explained, "Jewish tradition is a meaning-making and interpretive structure through which they seek coherence in their lives." Ami was my attempt to show that there are still meanings that people share, and that when we choose to practice Judaism, it is as if we, whether male or female, are becoming like Ruth all over again, following a path as it we were doing so for the first time. I tried to think of three symbols, one for each verse of the song, that were central to Judaism to which, I felt, members of the Jewish community can and do easily relate. 
    First, I chose the Eternal Light ("One Light Above") and the synagogue/Temple, where that beacon that does not go out signifies our enduring communal commitment - there is always someone who keeps us going. It is also a symbol of God's presence with us when we join together as a community. 
    Second, I chose the Shabbat and Holiday candles, because they are central to Jewish observance in the home, which we call a "Mikdash M'at" - a small sanctuary. They are also beacons that signify commitment, but they represent the first place where children learn about their Jewish identity. When candles are lit in the home, they are like the Ner Tamid in the sanctuary, but they demonstrate the power of parents in the context of family to carry on a tradition, and to show that the warmth of the divine can be close at hand. 
    Third, I chose the moon, which is the marker of Jewish time. Any time we look at the sky and see the crescent moon just after new moon, it's the beginning of a new Jewish month and a reminder that we "tread to its beat" when it comes to the celebrations and special days on our calendar. We try to be "not quite out of step" with the secular or Gregorian calendar, but we always take note of when the holidays occur, whether early, late or on time, because we want to know - when do we get to hear the shofar? When do we build a sukkah? When do we light that first Chanukah candle? When do we cheer for Mordechai and Esther or show Haman our utter disdain? When do we celebrate our freedom as if we ourselves went out of Egypt to be slaves no more? We acknowledge God every step of the way through the blessings we recite, which infuse those observances with meaning, in relation to the values they teach, which we learn as members of families and as a community. God's presence is always there with us, when we are with our community, when we are in our homes, and when we acknowledge the special Jewish rhythm of each year. And as we join together, we hopefully find strength from our unity, and in that unity, we sense the unity of the divine which strengthens us and blesses us with every step we take along our life's journey.

Ami (By L. Karol)
One light above, suspended in time, leading us on the way 
In centuries gone, in ages beyond and burning for us today 
In this house, we dwell together - in our praise, a single voice 
from differing inspirations comes a common choice
B'ruchim haba-im b'ruchot haba-ot b'shaym adonai 
Ameich ami vayloha-yich elohai, ameich ami vayloha-yich elohai*
Two lights below, warmed by the hands that seek to sustain their glow 
Remembering days when we were not free and lessons from long ago 
In our house, we see reflections of sacred moments past 
Will the coming generations make these traditions last? B'ruchim haba-im...
One light above, still marking our time in a rhythm all its own 
We tread to its beat, not quite out of step, but feeling, at times, alone 
So we join the celebration, the silence and the song 
In the questions, not the answers is where we belong; B’ruchim ha-ba-im.... Ameich ami vayloha-yich elohai (2)
[*Blessed are those who come here in God's name - Psalm 118:26 Your people are my people - Your God is my God - Ruth 1:16]

Rabbi Larry Karol sings "Ami"

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Leaving Narrow Places - January 20, 2012

We read in this week’s Torah reading the five promises that God made to Moses and the Israelites about their future.  God commanded Moses:
“Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: ‘I am the Eternal One.  I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and 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. And you shall know that I, the Eternal One, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. 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.’”
       The word MITZRAYIM, Egypt, is often reinterpreted as meaning a place that is TZAR, narrow.  For the Israelites, the narrow place was slavery in Egypt.    For us, our narrow places may be the pressures that we feel, be they financial, emotional, social, occupational, communal or personal, whatever their source.   It is likely that we can all see, somewhere, a promised land where most of those narrow places would no longer constrain us.     That isn’t always possible, at least for all aspects of life all at once.      
       So, for those times when the pressures seem to be too many, in order that we can find joy, perhaps words of prayer can lead us to our own personal place of promise that is no longer narrow.   This prayer from the Reform home prayerbook, On the Doorposts of Your House, is one that I find to be a source of hope that life’s promised lands - and the light at the end of the tunnel, are accessible and waiting for us to arrive.    We pray:
“We come to You, O God, for Your gracious help.  You dwell within our hearts, You feel our distress, You know our pain and how burdened we can become.  Give us strength to bear our burdens with courage, wisdom and grace.  Help us to be true to our better selves, to discern our real work in life, and to do it will all of our might.  When we struggle in our own hearts, stay by our side.   Then will we be able to say with your prophet, “But those who hold fast to Adonai shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings of eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk, and not grow faint.”   May our work, the ties that bind us to family and friends and community, make life rich for us, so that each day we live might be another step nearer to You."   And let us say Amen.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Whose Dream is It? - January 14, 2012

Nearly 49 years after the march on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr.'s declaration  "I have a dream" still echoes in our society.  His vision of a national community based on equality and acceptance is a goal that guides us and, at times, eludes us. 
    In late 1993, a group of clergy in Topeka, Kansas had been meeting to plan an interreligious worship event to honor the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  As we tried to come up with a title for our service, one of my clergy colleagues suggested that we needed to think of Dr.King's dream in terms of a question.  That question was "Whose Dream is it?" Pastor John DeVeaux felt that, if we tried to define the dream with our title, it would make Dr. King's vision of equality  too narrow.  He believed that people in our community related to Dr. King's dream on their own terms, based on their own experience. That reality had the potential to bring more and more people of diverse backgrounds together to tell their own stories or to relate their own experiences to a journey that moved from oppression towards freedom.  
     Last night, I was part of a local program that did just that.  Cafe, communities in action and faith, facilitated a discussion on race, diversity and multiculturalism.   At one point, we were divided into groups of three to talk about experiences when we were the target of discrimination and also a time when we were not a target and how we dealt with those who did face exclusion or oppression.  When the group got back together, I commented that when we share stories, we begin to empathize with each other based on our common experiences, thus creating the possibility of camaraderie and a desire to make changes to prevent any type of exclusion and discrimination. 
     The story of the Exodus that begins with this Shabbat’s Torah reading is a tale of oppression that many people share.  In his book America's Prophet, Bruce Feiler chronicled the many ways that groups in American history have identified within Moses as a model leader and adopted the Exodus experience as their own. The pilgrims, the citizens of the newly created United States of America, all those involved in the struggle against slavery in the 1800s and participants in the 20th Century civil rights movement viewed themselves as the Israelites leaving Egypt for a promised land.   In a way, Martin Luther King's dream began with the episode of the burning bush, when Moses gained a glimpse of the possibility of his people's liberation. 
     Dr. King emphasized in his work the importance of not hating one's oppressor, because hatred can be like a consuming fire for the one who hates.  King believed that love of others should be extended to all people.  Moses's encounter with the divine demonstrated how escaping oppression could be like kindling a fire that would not consume anyone, one that would burn brightly and offer warmth and hope for the future.
      Today, we may still ask, "whose dream is it? - who needs to hold on to hope that they will be able to gain or maintain equality in their own neighborhood or nation? 
       Recent events in Israel have shown how women's rights in the secular sectors of society are safe, but that the intersection of the Haredi, modern orthodox and secular communities has become a breeding ground for violent and hateful tactics of a small group of Haredim who have no tolerance for people not like them.    Demonstrations in Beit Shemesh that drew from the entire country, an all-female flash mob dance to a song by the group Queen, and declarations from government officials reiterating the rule of law, not hatred, have stated loud and clear how people should treat one another in public places in Israel.  Bullying, spitting, vandalizing Jewish schools or setting fire to Muslim houses of worship, a tactic of the “Price tag” group,  are not sanctioned by the breadth of Jewish tradition.  Prejudice against Ethiopian Jews because of their skin color has no place in a state that espouses Jewish teachings at its foundation.  I was reminded last night at the Cafe program that diverse populations in a society that have no contact with each other cannot reach a point where they can begin to understand their respective triumphs and trials.  They can only begin to come together when they are ready and willing to talk and and to listen.  That includes residents of many communities between the Mediterranean sea and Jordan river – some of whom are engaging in dialogue on a regular basis - and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders meeting in Amman to see if they can, finally inch toward peace.
    And that applies to us in this community as well.   Our own family stories of immigration from even 100 years ago may relate to the diverse groups in New Mexico more than we know, enough that we can offer wisdom and an open hand instead of a closed mind or heart.  Our own moments of financial distress that we have resolved can be a basis for reaching out to those facing foreclosure due to nothing they did, other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any moment in our lives when we experienced an unfortunate glimpse of anti-Semitism can give us insight into what it feels like to be discriminated against based on race, religion, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or socioeconomic status.   Most of all, we have this week's Torah reading and its eventual conclusion that we can contribute to our neighbors - illustrated so well on the ark behind me- that the hope of liberation based in a divine vision of equality and free of hatred is like a burning bush that is, wonder of wonders, not consumed.  
       One of the songs about the Exodus, Man Come Into Egypt - I am saving that one for Passover - declares about Moses that "in his heart there burned a flame."   The flame and the dream needs to come from inside each of us, but it needs to find and join with the flame and the dream of our fellow community members, so that they become one.  Whose dream is it?  It is our dream, and as we try to make that dream real, may we speak with words that are kind but firm and act with determination to make God's oneness our own.  


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Old and New - December 30, 2011

With the coming of a secular New Year, four months after Rosh Hashanah,
We have a second opportunity to reflect on what it means to move from “old” to “new.”
   In many ways, what is new closely mirrors what is old.
   The words of a 46 year-old popular song echo in my mind on this theme:
“It is the evening of the day
I sit and watch the children play
Doing things we used to do
They think are new
I sit and watch as tears go by.”

The juxtaposition of sadness and the joyful image of children at play captures a truth of our lives that is also expressed in Psalm 126: HAZOR’IM B’DIM’AH B’RINAH YIKTZORU – Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.   This verse offers a message of hope – the tears of the past can be transformed into happy moments in the future. The old year’s pitfalls and valleys can become the new year’s heights and peak moments.

That is not to say that what is “new” will be without challenge, but our own positive attitude can preserve the best of the “old,” and, through that lens, enable us to see possibilities for success where failure might have loomed in the past.

In this week’s Torah reading, Joseph and his relationship with his brothers offer perfect examples of how something “old” that would best be forgotten can give way to something “new” and promising. Joseph was no longer the boy caught up in his dreams of ruling over his family – he was ruling over his family in actuality, but not in the way he imagined. He began to see a force beyond human interaction at work. Once he saw his brothers come to Egypt and bow down to him,Pharaoh’s second-in-command, he began to realize that he had been sent to Egypt to save his family.   Even though that process included being sold into slavery and being imprisoned based on a false accusation, Joseph had taken on a new appreciation for freedom and for his gift of insight and interpretation.

But Joseph was not willing to totally trust his brothers who had once seen him as expendable until he witnessed them demonstrate a new attitude of their own.   Insisting that they bring Benjamin to Egypt so that he could test his brother’s love for their youngest sibling was Joseph’s way of seeing if his family was “old” or “new.” He had to know if they would abandon their brother Benjamin as they had abandoned him. Secretly placing his silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag, Joseph set up this test of familial loyalty. When the supposed theft was discovered, Joseph’s decree that Benjamin would become his slave led Judah to make an impassioned plea for his younger brother and to offer himself as a slave. What Joseph discovered was that the “old” had, in fact, been replaced with the “new.” It was at that point that the Torah states – V’LO YACHOL YOSEIF L’HITAPEIK – Joseph wasn’t able to restrain himself. He then revealed his identity to this brothers, bringing his family back together.

As we think about the “old” in our lives, looking back on the past, we have a unique opportunity to see how even the trials through which we have passed can lead us to “new” possibilities that could bring success or, at least, greater satisfaction.

Joseph sowed in tears and reaped in joy as he set the stage for his family to be together once again. The “new,” whether it be a new year or a new place, can assure us that tears can “go by” and disappear and that we can reap in joy like children at play.

May this new year of 2012 bring us moments of joy, insight, peace and hope. And let us say amen.