Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Journey of Change - February 28, 2012 (Published in the Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter for March 2012)

Adam Karol, Rob Tananbaum, Samantha Tananbaum
and Larry Karol
at Congregation Beth Torah
in Overland Park, Kansas on February 18
  In the second week of February, our Wednesday Torah study session and our weekly Torah reading focused on an almost identical passage without being in the same book of the Bible!   The Ten Commandments appear in both Exodus (our Shabbat reading on February 11) and Deuteronomy (which we reached on February 9).  There is a difference in “pace” between our encounters with this central text of our tradition based on our concurrent cycles of reading and study. The weekly Torah readings have a set schedule that takes us through the Torah in a year (some congregations read a third of the portion each week and spread it out over three years).   The Torah study group approaches each chapter on its own time, without a need to quickly move on. We take more time on a particular set of verses when we feel they need more in-depth and extensive discussion.   Either path or pace enables us to fulfill the purpose of  Talmud Torah—learning and/or discovering the insights of our tradition.
At Rose Hill Cemetery
     On the third weekend in February, I joined our son Adam and our niece Samantha (daughter of Rabbi Steve Karol and Mary Karol) and Samantha’s husband, Rob Tananbaum, at the bat mitzvah of a cousin in Overland Park, Kansas.   Among our goals was to take Rob on the “family roots tour” for my family.    Adam and I spent a night in Topeka before the weekend, visiting with friends and treading many of the paths we had taken during our 22 years there.  Much of the city and the people were the same, except for the young people for whom Adam had served as a babysitter who are now as tall as he is!   The theater in which Adam had performed in many musical productions looked the same, but its brand new office looked totally impressive (it was now under the auspices of the county instead of the city, which likely influenced the upgrade).  Once back in the Kansas City area, we noted the growth of our youngest cousins and the growth of the city itself: continued expansion of many neighborhoods, the completion of an impressive performing arts center near the revitalized downtown, and a remodeled Kauffman stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals.  Many of the places may have been new, but the routes on which I drove us on our “roots tour” were the same ones I had taken for years.  We passed by two homes where my parents lived and the apartment complex which was their last place of residence; the elementary school and high school that my brother and I attended; and the cemetery where my parents are buried, where we paid our respects for a few quiet moments. After the Saturday Bat Mitzvah party, Adam, Samantha and Rob went to meet some of Samantha’s blogging friends near downtown, so I was on my own in driving back to the hotel.  I could have taken any route I wanted, including a quick ride on I-35.  I chose to leisurely drive along the roads by which the public bus took me home from my summer job at City Hall back to my neighborhood in the southern part of Kansas City, and then I drove past the shopping center near my old house (it has a Trader Joe’s!) and another shopping center where I had bowled in a league during elementary school.  Then I made my way back to the hotel.  I had selected the path that enabled me to revisit many memories from my past, but I readily recognized the changes that had occurred throughout the years.
         Change does happen, and we move forward, at whatever pace seems best for us.  We look behind us mainly to see what can help and support us on the road ahead.   Congregations also undergo changes as they grow from their original purposes for joining together to an ever-expanding vision that fits the new realities of the membership at any given time.  In Judaism, it is often the journey, not the destination, that is most important, including how we get there, what questions we ask, and the recognition that reaching any stop along the way is only temporary, because the cycles of our faith and our lives beckon us towards greater achievement and progress.  As a reading in Mishkan T’filah states, “there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching  together.”  May our journey take us through a process that will continue to help us grow together as one community!

Neighbors - Prayer delivered at a gathering calling for fair/equal treatment for all citizens by Dona Ana County NM law enforcement officers

 Eternal God,
We learn from holy words, from commandments
That are part of our heritage
That we should love our neighbors as ourselves -
Where neighbor can mean people in our neighborhood or
Our city or our county or our state or our country or our region which may include yet another country – OR our entire planet
Which inhabits this miniscule neighborhood of a vast universe.
We also learn that we should love not only our neighbor
But also the stranger – one who may come from another place -  because we ourselves – if we go back far enough in the histories of our own families – came from another place.  So we should know that we must not oppress the stranger and close our hearts. 
If we are to follow the teachings of God and sages and prophets, we must offer our welcome and open our hands and our hearts.
How is it that we have lost the ability to see all people who reside right next to us as neighbors and as fellow human beings?
How is it that we have forgotten, amid the laws and principles that rule our lives, that there is one basic principle that underlies our relationships, a belief restated by the Jewish sage, Rabbi Akiba 1900 years ago -  – CHAVIV ADAM SHENIVRA B’TZELEM ELOHIM -  Beloved is humankind which is created in the image of God.    That image is the spirit of God that lives inside each of us – that image is where we are all the same.  That image is what unites us and reminds us that we all have feelings, hopes, dreams.  If we see ourselves – all of us -  as reflecting God’s image, there are no borders, there are no rules to keep people out. There are only connections that draw us together, a circle that brings us all into one family.  
So let us pray for the Sheriff, law enforcement officials, the leaders of our county – as well as our city, state and nation – let them show in the way they interpret and enforce laws that we are part of one family – that we are created in God’s image – that each of us deserves respect as a child of our parents, as a member of a family and as fellow children of God.   And may we remember that this applies to  our leaders so that we can help them fulfill their tasks with compassion and wisdom.   

Monday, February 27, 2012

Giving and Giving Even More - February 24, 2012 - Based on Genesis 25:1-9

God spoke to Moses, saying, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts;

There are gifts that we give that are tangible.  We may send contributions to local,  national and international causes, agencies and institutions.  We might save clothing, books, toys, and other items to be donated to local agencies that will then resell those items or give them to people in need.  Other gifts are intangible.  We may volunteer for local organizations that offer support for children or senior citizens or for people of all ages.  Our assistance may take the form of just being present and by showing support and kindness. Or, we may be called upon to be an advocate, to enable others to clearly see that person’s needs. 

You shall accept gifts for Me from all those whose hearts so moves them.

The gifts were not to be brought reluctantly or begrudgingly.  Each person bringing something for the creation of the Tabernacle, the worship space for the Israelites, was called upon to offer something willingly and sincerely.  In the same way, our gifts from the creativity of our minds and the work of our hands need to come from the heart. 

And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;

The closer the object was to the innermost part of Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, the more valuable the metal that was used.  In fact, all of these metals were valuable, and the one missing from the list is iron.  Iron was used more for weapons, making it incompatible with the spiritual ends the sanctuary was intended to serve.

Blue, purple and crimson yarns, and fine linen, goat’s hair, tanned ram skins, dolphin skins.

The yarns and linen described were made using rare and expense dyes.  Some may object to the widespread use of animal skins in the ancient world.  What is important is that all of the furnishings of the Tabernacle, regardless of their source, we made with extensive labor and great care. 
Acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense.

These gifts signify the light that would burn in the Tabernacle to signify faith, and the spices that would create the aromas that would be associated with this holy space.  These items would establish the sanctity of the Tabernacle, as every kind act that we do is sacred in its own way.

Stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. 

Some of the stones were to represent the twelve tribes of Israel.  The stones had different colors, but all together they signified the entire people.  The types of gifts that we give our community may be different, but it takes all of our abilities, strengths, talents and contributions to enrich our community. 

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. 

The passage does not say that God would dwell “in it,” in the Tabernacle, but “among them” – with the people.  The word that means “dwell” in this verse does not have the meaning of God dwelling permanently in the sanctuary, because God cannot be found only in one place.  It means that the Tabernacle and its rituals would make God’s presence seem real to the people, so that they would think about God in their hearts and minds after the rituals were over.

Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it.

Today, the pattern of a Jewish sanctuary takes on many different forms.  No two sanctuaries look exactly alike.  Yet, each one has an eternal light, an ark, windows, a menorah and other symbols of our tradition and faith.  The gifts that we give may look different on the surface, but they are essentially the same, because they all offer support, substance and enrichment to our community. 

Praised are You, Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes us holy with commandments and commands us to occupy ourselves with the needs of the community. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Personal Conscience and Religious Freedom - as related to recent national events - February 20, 2012

1) Judaism defines personhood as the moment when the head of a fetus/baby emerges from the womb. Some might define personhood as "viability" - when a child can survive on its own with minimal assistance outside the womb. What begins at conception is potential human life, not full human life. Throughout a pregnancy, the mother's life takes precedence. 2) Judaism has sometimes mandated abortion based on a woman's health - mental or physical. One scholar in this field has stated that "pain" or "shame" can be a reason for abortion. This would likely include rape or incest. 3) Even some Orthodox authorities have approved of stem cells taken from a frozen embryo because if that embryo is not implanted in a mother's womb, it is not potential human life. 4) Reform Judaism and even Catholicism allows for members to exercise informed conscience, coming to a decision on one's own after appropriate consideration and personal contemplation. 5) Government policy should allow for religious people and institutions to have freedom to follow their beliefs in what they do offer but should not be restrictive of all citizens because of the views of one particular group. 6) I would consider any public policy that would define personhood begnning at conception, and that would restrict all uses of contraception, as being against Jewish law. People of all religions should be able to follow their conscience. 7) A compromise that connects each person to a health insurance provider directly speaks to the informed conscience of each individual. This offers freedom from religious coercion and promotes the principle of informed conscience. 8) Any congressional laws that would allow an employer to restrict contraception for any reason could, if the laws are influenced by a particular religious viewpoint, violate the establishment of religion clause of the constitution. 9) No religion should rely on government to enforce its own stands among its members, or claim that a law or rule would discourage its members from following their faith. That relationship should be based on the moral force of a religious group among its members.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Art of Letting Go - February 10, 2012

"The thing you are doing is not right!"
Jethro, the priest of Midian told his son-in-law Moses,
earthly liberator of his people, the Israelites,
a task he accomplished only in partnership with God
and with his brother Aaron, appearing before Pharaoh
again and again
declaring that Pharaoh must let the Israelites go.
Now they had journeyed into the wilderness.
and Jethro came to visit his family.
What was it that Moses was not doing right
that Jethro felt he had to point out?
Moses was sitting in judgment over the people
all by himself
all on his own. 
Perhaps Jethro said to himself some ancient version of
the phrase “Do I hear…burnout?” 
He knew that Moses probably felt that if he held on to this task,
it would be done right. 
But Jethro had another idea for his son-in-law.
As Jethro saw Moses moving towards certain exhaustion, he said,
“You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.
Your task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.
Let me give you counsel:
You shall seek out from among all the people capable individuals
who revere God – trustworthy people who spurn
ill-gotten gain (and therefore cannot be unduly influenced or swayed).
Have them bring every major dispute to you,
but let them decide every minor dispute themselves
If you do this, you will be able to bear up.” 
Jethro reminded Moses
that he didn’t have designated elders for nothing,
chosen leaders of the people.
Moses could take on a new approach
where he didn’t need to rely only on himself.
And – he needed to let go of the idea
that he was the only one who could lead and do it right.
Moses needed to trust that someone else might do a task
as well as he could.
Jethro assured him that he wasn’t giving up
all of his responsibility
as a judge of his people, reminding Moses
that he had set a good example of living by values
that others could follow.
So – the leaders who had personal fortitude and staying power
who revered God
who could be trusted
who would be impartial and wise in their decisions
would be paying tribute to Moses every time they judged between two people in a dispute and
were able to resolve it fairly and peacefully.
This lesson in delegation allowed Moses
to save some of his spirit and energy
For the most important task of all to which he was committed
taking the people forward
teaching them what it meant to be free
demonstrating how all members of the community
were now responsible for each other.
They had won their right to live free from the taskmasters of Egypt
by believing in God and in Moses’ leadership.
Now their challenge was to be worthy of the commandments
that they were about to receive.  
Those commandments would be proclaimed to them in the singular
not the plural.
Every person was to feel that God was talking directly to him or her
when each person would eventually hear – I am the Eternal Your God – you shall not murder - you shall not steal – you shall not covet.
In fact, Moses did have to let go
to enable the people find themselves as free individuals
and to grow into their personal relationships with God and with each other.
Only that way would they own their belief in God, their love for God, and their trust of one another. 
And so, whenever we serve as leaders,
May we remember that leadership can mean letting go of individual tasks that still may be important
In order that we can create a strong foundation
on which a community can move forward
With hope and confidence
as it seeks to find its own promised land.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

“Celebrating as One” – February 3, 2012

(This was presented at Temple Beth-El Las Cruces, NM as the sermonette at "A Night with Judaism," a service to which congregants invited friends. relatives and neighbors and which was open to the community) 

Some of us are preparing to watch the sporting event of sporting events, the Super Bowl, on Sunday.  There are those of us who will really watch the game, those who will watch the gems of advertising in the breaks between each set of downs, and others who will revel at this year's musical performer, Madonna.  Reports are that she will sing her song “Holiday” and possibly “Ray of Light,” a song inspired by her interest in Jewish mysticism.  Still others will go to Super bowl parties primarily to be with friends or family.  As a Kansas City Chiefs fan, I haven't been rooting for my own team in the Super Bowl since 1970.  Still, watching that Chiefs 23-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV with my dad and his brothers Harry and Jacob at their place - they had the color TV - is a great personal and family memory. 
    In our annual cycle of Torah readings, the passages assigned to this week and next week combine to be the Super Bowl of portions.  Instead of Madonna singing, we get Moses and Miriam.  Instead of the Patriots and Giants, we get the Israelites and the Egyptians.  Instead of two great coaches, we have God directing Moses this week and Moses' father-in-law next week offering advice about delegating.  Instead of razzle dazzle plays, incredible catches, astounding runs and amazing defense, even quarterback sacks, we have the parting of the Sea as the centerpiece of the first of these portions and, next week, there is thunder, lightning and an overwhelming divine voice presenting to Moses and the Israelites the great trophy of ethical teaching, the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.
       But there was no Sinai experience without first crossing the sea, the section that we are about to read.  We likely know the story well. The Israelites were by the Red Sea or, some say, the Sea of Reeds.  The Egyptian were pursuing them and closing in.  Moses raised his staff, but the sea wouldn't part until the people actually started to walk into the sea to prove that they had faith that the waters would part so they could cross on the sea bed.  The wind swirled up, the waters split, and the Israelites crossed to the other side where they were safe.  They turned and watched the Egyptians enter the sea, only to have the wind stop and the waters fell back to their normal state, catching the soldiers of Pharaoh in the depths of the sea.  The Israelites were astonished, and both Moses and Miriam began to sing.   Miriam and the women took up their timbrels and sang to God in gratitude for this great saving act, expressing their feelings very freely.  One commentary explains that Moses had to think for a moment about how to respond to this miraculous event.  He let a song rise from the depths of his emotions as well, but not only because of what he saw with his eyes.  He realized that the people had shown a glimpse of their internal spirit of optimism by entering the sea.  The passage before the song says that the people believed in God.  The song at the sea, for Moses or Miriam, wasn't just exultation.  It was a song of affirmation that moving from slavery to freedom was possible, inspired by a God who loves freedom and justice.
    The celebratory Song at the Sea, SHIRAT HAYAM, took note of the deaths of the Egyptians, but we are taught not to rejoice in their demise.  The rabbis of our tradition imagined that angels in heaven were shouting for joy as the waters fell onto the Egyptian army and the Israelites were saved and free.  God gave the angels a quick rebuke, saying, "My children – that is, the Egyptian soldiers-  have died, and you sing praises?"   From this one explanation or midrash,  we learn that it’s best that we not derive joy out of the defeat of our enemy or someone we don't like.  This is a lesson we can put into practice in the realms of sports, politics, and in our relationships throughout our lives.
    As we listen to the song at the sea, with some of the verses chanted with a special melody, may it represent for us a thoughtful and heartfelt exprssion of gratitude for our freedom.  It is that freedom that allows us to root for whomever we want on Sunday and then, like the players, to shake hands at the end and return to being one people moving from life on the field to life in our world that can give us so many gifts every day, including friendship, understanding, healthy competition, true liberty, and, finally, peace.   So may it be - let us say amen.