Monday, April 30, 2012

Favorite Proverbs - April 30, 2012 (from the Temple Beth-El Adelante for May 2012)

Favorite Proverbs – gems from the focus-text of one of our TBE study groups and why they apply to us today!

Proverbs 3:27-28 - Don’t hold back bounty from one who earned it when it’s within your hand’s power to perform. When you have something that can be helpful, don’t say to your friend at the moment you are asked,―Go and come back, and tomorrow I’ll give.  How many times have we seen someone withhold their support when they have the ability and wherewithal to be helpful in a cause through their energy or generosity? There may be reasons that a person can’t give at a particular moment, but this saying seems to refer to individuals who would like to make it appear that they are giving, but that, when an urgent need arises, they are unwilling to come forward. The values of tzedakah, righteous giving, and g’milut chasadim, performing acts of lovingkindness, require us to follow the words of the sage Hillel, “If not now, when?”
6:20-21- Keep your father’s command and do not abandon your mother’s teaching. Bind them on your heart at all times, garland them around your neck. What are some of the lessons you learned from your parents that remain with you? I learned from my father the importance of patiently paying attention to detail in creating something, and from my mother, perseverance and commitment. What did you learn from your parents?
9:10 - The beginning of wisdom is reverence of the Eternal One and knowing the Holy One is discernment.  This is a statement about God, but it is, even more, a statement about us as human beings. This is a way of saying, “Be humbled by the wide-ranging and diverse world that you live in, and the many types of knowledge that you don’t yet know.” Having discernment and wisdom does not only mean knowing what you know – it is also knowing what you don’t know.
11:1- Cheating scales are God’s loathing; a true weight-stone is God’s pleasure.    Honesty in weights is mentioned in the book of Leviticus as well. This reference to honesty in ancient commerce still applies today. It calls for us to be truthful in all types of business, contracts, and negotiations. No one should misrepresent their own abilities and past employment or the value of something they are going to sell (a modern version of NOT turning an odometer to a lower total on a used car – or portraying a forged document or artifact as authentic).
12:19-True speech stands firm always, but a lying tongue for a mere moment.   In this day of the primacy and longevity of both true and false statements on the internet, how does this statement apply to our lives today? Even without the internet, a lie repeated in communal conversation, on television news or in a newspaper can easily persist as a seeming truth. We have to be careful and discerning regarding the statements we hear. It may not only be true speech, but true action, that can dispel a rumor or a falsehood, so that a lie’s “life of its own remains as short as possible.
17:1 - Better a dry crust with tranquility than a house filled with feasting and quarrel.      What is more important – possessions or peace?   This verse sees having a modest but tranquil household, where everyone gets along with each other, as preferable to one that is abundant in possessions and parties but also teeming with strife, disrespect and conflict. Peace prevails over possession in this proverb.
20:28- Let a ruler keep faithful trust that the seat of leadership be upheld in faithfulness. We need only look at the headlines in our area to see how some leaders breached the trust of their constituents. In any election year, we look for candidates who, we believe, will make sound decisions on our behalf, who will stay true to their views and explain any changes in their perspective, and who will remember that he or she is always in a relationship with us. Some people may see positions of leadership as being defined by the power they offer a person when, in fact, what is even more important, is the set of responsibilities that come with being a leader, including preserving the public trust. Being a leader means being wise, humble, hopeful, and being able to inspire, teach and unify a community.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Serving royalty every day - April 24, 2012

Proverbs 22:29: Do you see people who are skilled in their work? They will serve before royalty; they will not serve before obscure people.
      When we came upon this verse in our congregational Proverbs study group, I was taken aback for more than a moment.   There is something in this verse that points to greatness, but it seems to do so with a tinge of elitism.   One could interpret this verse to mean that people who do their work well only if they end up serving the most important leaders in society, who have greater value than the "common people."  
   This bothered me, partially because I have served for most of my rabbinate in small congregations.  There may tend to be a lingering sense in American life that "large" means great.  Some people still may believe that larger synagogues in larger metropolitan areas are necessarily great due to their size and location.  They may very well be great, but greatness is not tied only to the size of a community.    My years spent serving congregations of 100-150 families have taught me, over and over, the positive impact that a few people, or even one person, can have on the lives of others, or on my life.  Over the years, there have been many fulfilling and spiritual moments in prayer and song and "aha" insights that emerged from "small but mighty" study groups.   While I have officiated at the same number of Bar/Bat Mitzvah services over 28 years as some large congregations have in the course of two years, working with every student has been a joy.  Small congregations and communities offer the possibility of minimal distance between clergy and congregant.   While no city where I have served has had a population greater than 200,000 people, I have had a chance to meet Senators, congressional representatives, governors, members of the President's cabinet, one future president, mayors, and individuals who made significant contributions to American life.  
    However, none of those encounters with public officials are the essence of my rabbinate.  If I and other rabbis serving small congregations and communities are doing our tasks well and with skill, then, in light of the Proverbs verse, we must be serving royalty.  We can take this verse to mean that every one of our members has the potential to make a valuable contribution to the well-being of a congregation and to our lives.  I would like to think that no one is obscure - and that serving with skill means finding a way to be sure that no one FEELS obscure or insignificant.   
     In recent days, magazines and websites are compiling lists of America's "top rabbis."  I see these efforts of "ranking rabbis" as productive when those lists include some of the very rabbis who have taught me some of the most valuable lessons I have learned.
    Still, I find myself trying to reconcile the "top rabbis" list with Proverbs 22:29.  When I do, it takes the verse to a place where I don't really want it to go in creating a narrow measure of success.   Then I turn to Rami Shapiro's translation of Proverbs 22:29, which can be helpful to all of us in defining our own greatness: "A hard worker can stand tall before kings; there is no greater  honor than honest labor."
     And, finally, there is this Talmudic saying that puts us all on the same level:
“I am a creature of God and my neighbor is also a creature of God.
I work in the city and my neighbor lives in the country.
I rise early for my work and my neighbor rises early for work.
Just as my neighbor cannot excel in my work,
I cannot excel in my neighbor's work.
Will you say that I do great things and my neighbor does small things?
We have learned that it does not matter whether a person does
much or little as long as one directs one's heart to Heaven.”
    So, every day, may we see the royalty and greatness in those we serve and within ourselves as we continue to do our work with dedication, enthusiasm and sincerity. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

No one superior - April 20, 2012

     Seven candles were lit on the candle table on our bimah this past Wednesday night.   Yesterday was Yom Hashoah, our day of Holocaust Remembrance for victims and heroes of that challenging and tragic time in human history.  At our program on Wednesday evening, we watched a short film about rescuers of Jews who had no question in their mind that any action they took to save Jews from the Nazis was the right choice.   The rescuers saw in those they sought to save fellow human beings who had been denied their humanity by a diabolical evil.  These CHASIDEI UMOT HAOLAM, RIGHTEOUS AMONG THE NATIONS, courageously opposed that evil and its associated acts of cruelty with no fear for their own safety.  Those who were hidden and protected likely saw in the eyes and sensed in the hearts of their helpers that there was still a spark of human decency left in the world.  Perhaps they felt that even a spark was enough to thwart any plans for the total elimination of Jews and the continued murder of other targeted groups of people designated for death because of who they were or what they believed.
    In his address on Yom Hashoah on Wednesday, Israeli president Shimon Peres offered these sobering thoughts about the past and the present:
“I am proud to be an arch enemy to the Nazi evil. I am proud of our ancestors' legacy being absolutely opposed to racism.  I am proud of our belief that there is no one human being superior to another.  There is no superior race, only deep roots.  I am certain that this is how our children and grandchildren will be brought up; as the Kaddish is on their lips, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is in their hearts.  My friends, a million and a half Israeli citizens are not Jewish. We are obligated to make sure that none of them are ever discriminated because of their nationality or religion. This is the essence of the existence of the State of Israel. Israel is a defense shield, a safe haven and a great spirit. Had the State of Israel existed during those days, I am convinced that things would have been different. We have paid a high price but we have not lost faith.  We have gathered unusual capacities which emerged from the depths of the Holocaust and from the peaks of our legacy. We have a commitment towards the betterment of the world and respect for humanity.”
    President Peres echoed the ideals of Israel’s Declaration of independence in his address.  There was no threat, no demonization, only a call for human decency that Israeli leaders and citizens can and should realize in their legislation and in their actions towards each other.
     And we can do the same here.  In an election year, levels of demonization tend to run high.   One religious leader in Peoria, Illinois compared the president to Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.  Comments have focused on the religious beliefs of the president and the apparent nominee of the republican party.  There is no doubt that the demonization will, unfortunately, continue in some corners of our nation, but let us pledge not to add to it.  Let us promise ourselves that we will seek to engage in calm discussion with people who both agree and disagree with us.   Let us remember to be guided in what we say and do by statements like “love your neighbor as yourself” and “we are all created in the divine image” or just “be kind and good human beings.”
Touro Synagogue - Newport, Rhode Island
    And let us recall how the first President of our nation, George Washington, responded to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, setting a foundation for how diversity and respect can work in the United States of America: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” Washington concluded his letter by wishing that all Americans would “continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig‑tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
   The first President of our nation and the current president of Israel share a vision – most certainly an ideal that is not always realized, but one that can continue to serve as a goal and a beacon if we truly desire to live in freedom.   May we know, soon in our day, mutual respect, understanding, and peace.