Friday, March 30, 2012

Good hearts reconciled - March 30, 2012

Comments on Leviticus Chapter 6:1-6
[1] The Eternal One spoke to  Moses – [2] Command Aaron and his sons thus - This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it.
The path to peace is one that entails vigilance - the type of devotion that would entail being watchful every moment. all day and all night. Another understanding of “the fire on the altar is kept going on it” is “v’esh hamizbay-ach tukad bo” - the fire on the altar is kept going IN HIM - in the priest.  There must be some sense of the holy purpose on the outside that enters into the soul of the priest.  The same goes with peacemaking - forging a true agreement cannot be done on the surface - it must reach the depths of the soul.      
[3] The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar.
The vestments worn by the priest signify the holy purpose related to each burnt offering and the disposal of the ashes, as if each task is done with an approach based in awe.  We should also consider peacemaking with that same sense of reverence, knowing that an end to conflict and the beginning of cooperation bring us closer to God and godliness.      
[4]He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.
Perhaps the ashes can represent the disposal of old idea - and even old resentments - in the middle of peacemaking - such feelings should not be taken lightly - but given their place in history and then - let go to give way to fresh ideas and new attitudes.
[5] The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being.
Every morning, people who find themselves in the midst of conflict should take note of how their lives would be without that strife ruling their lives - they should focus their energies and channel their deep-seeded feelings of pain toward the alleviation of past hurts not through revenge but through reconciliation.  
[6] A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. 
 The constancy of the fire sustained by human hands should help us realize that our hands can build a world of peace if we set them to peaceful tasks. 
From the Haftarah/Prophets reading - Malachi 3:23-24 
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the ETERNAL ONE to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and their hearts of children to their parents.
The thoughts that I shared about the Torah reading focused on ending conflict by engendering peace and reconciliation within ourselves and within a community.  The desire for peace can and should be like a fire burning within us, leading us to foster unity and understanding that can bring peace.
   Last night, I participated in the New Mexico State University Interfaith Council annual Interfaith dialogue program.   The event began with participants rotating through tables which each had a representative of one religious group.   The two-minute speech about Judaism that I was supposed to give became five minutes, but I enjoyed this opportunity to try to crystallize Judaism down to its essence.  Taking from Jewish theologian Franz Rosensweig’s “Star of Redemption,” I spoke about the interrelationships of the Jewish themes and concepts of God, Creation, Humanity, Revelation (Torah and wisdom), the world where we apply the values we learn from study and ritual, and finally redemption, the ultimate goal of a time of peace and freedom for all people.  Peace, reconciliation and accepting all human beings as created in the divine image formed the essence of my presentation on Judaism.
    During the dialogue portion of the program, we discussed what we look for in another religion that gives it value.  One person suggested that she seeks to know if a particular faith leads a person to develop a good heart.   I didn’t get to share the quote, but one of my favorite sayings in the Wisdom of our Sages – PIRKEI AVOT – echoes her sentiment.  We read in Pirkei Avot Chapter 2 Mishnah 9:   The great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his students, “What is a right path for one to take?”  Rabbi Eliezer said, “A good eye.” Rabbi Joshua said, “A good friend.”  Rabbi Yosay said, “A good neighbor.”  Rabbi Simeon said, “Foresight.”  Rabbi Elazar said, “A good heart.”   Yochanan ben Zakkai said to his students, “I prefer the words of Elazar, ‘a good heart,’ because his words include all of yours.”  
     So at the end of the Haftarah reading for this Great Sabbath/Shabbat Hagadol that precedes Passover, what did the prophet Malachi mean about the hearts of parents and children that would turn one to the other, uniting the generations?   I believe it meant that each generation would follow the path suggested by Rabbi Elazar – to seek to create a good heart within.   Having a good heart means showing consideration and respect and being attentive to and accepting of both similarities and differences.  So what would the prophet Malachi and Rabbi Elazar have told members of each generation, older and younger?  I think they would have said that “hearts of the parents turned to the children” means that the parents need to let go of the past enough for their children and grandchildren to grow and to create their own style of leadership and making an impact on society.   “The hearts of children turned towards their parents” means that children should try to be aware and respectful of the difficulty involved in the parental process of “letting go.”  The new generation can also come to value the wisdom of the past and use it as a foundation for the future, retaining the best of what came before and reshaping it in a way that can fit changing times.   That process of respect and reconciliation, of tribute and honor between the generations, can happen in the best way possible when people follow the words of Rabbi Elazar – act toward each other with a “good heart.”    
       The prophet Malachi was speaking about our ultimate redemption when he envisioned reconciliation between the generations,  between past, present and future.  The traditional Jewish view of the Messiah’s coming suggests that Elijah the prophet will return first before that day of the Messiah’s arrival which many Jews have hoped would come in their lifetime.  I explained at the interfaith program last night that I, as a Reform Jew, speak about a time of redemption or Messianic age brought about by humanity.  In that spirit, I believe that we could interpret the words of Malachi and Rabbi Elazar to mean that we gain a foretaste of redemption whenever we allow our hearts and our spirits to guide all that we do, when we bring peace and reconciliation into our lives and our community.  So from old to new, from past to future, from one generation to the next, may we follow the path of the “good heart” that can bring all people together in unity and in peace.   

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

No longer a stranger - March 27, 2012

       I was recently looking through some memorabilia from my Dad’s family, where I found some important documents that marked milestones for my grandparents, Mendel Karol and Anna (Wolf) Karol.  My bubby Anna/Nechame came to Kansas City to join other relatives there after arriving at Ellis Island on the S.S. Bremen (a German ship built in 1897) on May 17, 1904. My grandpa arrived within the next two years (he had family in Kansas City as well) after a decade-long sojourn in South Africa (he left Akmine, Lithuania most likely to avoid being drafted into the Russian army). They were married on March 17, 1907, in Kansas City, Kansas. What allowed both of my dad’s parents to enter the United States was the open immigration policy of the time.   As I understand the history, as long as there was someone in the United States to offer support, a new arrival was allowed to pass through the gates at their point of entry.      Mendel became an American citizen on April 28, 1924, and Anna was naturalized on September 22, 1941, a few weeks after my parents’ wedding. She was among the residents of the United States required to register in compliance with the Alien Registration Act of 1940. That act established a program to fingerprint and create a record of every non-citizen within the United States.    This legislation also explicitly declared, as one of its purposes, to prohibit “certain subversive activities.” It became known as the “Smith Act” because Virginia Representative Howard W. Smith authored the Act’s anti-Sedition section. So, my grandmother had to tell a local registration officer, sometime late in1940, not only that she had hazel eyes and gray hair and that she was from Nowogrodek, Russia in the district of Minsk, but also that she had not “been affiliated with or active in organizations, devoted in whole or in part to influencing or further the political activities, public relations, or public policy of a foreign government.” I admire the fact that my bubby became a naturalized citizen following that experience! After many years of operating a dry goods store (which closed on January 7, 1939), I am sure that she had nothing to hide!
     These documents reminded me that my grandparents were, at one time, strangers in this country, and that officially becoming an American was part of a long process of acculturation. They became citizens when quotas had been established that prevented the entry of many people who, if they had been given safe harbor here, would likely have added to quality and character of our nation.  Many controls on immigration still exist today that prevent the possibility of citizenship for some who might want to add the best of what they have to offer to the collective American personality. Quotas likely originated, at least in part, out of fear of the stranger or foreigner, which seems to persist even today, even when the diversity of our country should provide Americans from different national or cultural back- grounds with ample opportunities to get to know one another better.
     Attitudes based in fear and misunderstanding still continue to guide the words and actions of some political leaders as well as private individuals who feel they must take the law or their ideology into their own hands, here and in other places around the world.   The murders perpetrated by Muhammed Merah in Toulouse, France, and the case of George Zimmerman, who shot Travyon Martin when Zimmerman had been told by a police dispatcher not to pursue Martin, are two situations that illustrate what can happen when people act out of anger, hatred or personal assumptions that fail to view others as fellow human beings but through the lens of a label placed on those people.
    “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” “In every generation, we should see ourselves as if we went free from Egypt.”  I am glad that my grandparents had the courage to make a change in their lives and come to the United States.   What I hope is that the land that they envisioned – a land of freedom, in a world of freedom – is still within our reach. Let us do what we can to create freedom, peace and understanding in our corner of the world.

Wedding of Joseph and Ruth Karol, August 31, 1941, Kansas City, Missouri
Top Row - Joseph Karol and Ruth (Glazer) Karol, my parents
Bottom Row - Anna Karol, Mendel Karol, and Pearl Glazer (my Mom's mother) 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

For Oneness, For Hope, For Peace – March 22, 2012

Eternal One,
In whose image we are all created,
You have taught us to see Your face
And sense your presence in all of Your children.
There are times when conflict that divides people
Ideological and geographically
Prevents us from truly seeing those who may seem to oppose us
As our brothers and sisters.
Nevertheless, help us to remember that we are brothers and sisters, even when we disagree,
Or when we find ourselves on opposite sides of a dispute or a war.
From recent events in Florida, in France, and in other places around the world,
We know that one individual’s idea of how to live out an ideology
Or how to provide proper neighborhood protection
Can shatter the peace that we strive so hard to preserve. 
It is fear of the unknown, of difference, of the stranger, that leads human beings to commit acts of violence that often cannot be taken back.
Teach us to apply the lessons of the Exodus experience every day, to remember the feelings of the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. 
Enable us to reach out to would-be foes, as did one Israeli couple who successfully reached over the wall between Israel and Iran to share thoughts on politics, on personal connection, and on peace that could exist if only the proper context could be created.
  Where there is not yet peace, be with the families of those who have died, and strengthen our ability to offer them comfort that will lead to a determination to step across lines that divide.
   Where there is or can be peace, grant us the wisdom to replace fear with understanding, hatred with love and concern, strict justice with tender mercy, oppression with freedom, and closed eyes with a vision of the unity that rests within your Oneness, which touches us all.

(Delivered at Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, NM Board meeting on 3/22/2012)