Friday, August 17, 2012

Raining down blessing - August 17, 2012

“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you this day;
and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Eternal your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.  When the Eternal God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal.”
     The Torah portion for this Shabbat, Re’eh, begins with that passage.  It doesn’t say what the blessings and curses would be, but it does offer an illustration of what blessing and curse might look like.  
    Mount Gerizim is just south of the modern city of Nablus, while Mount Ebal stands to the north.   Mount Gerizim has numerous springs at its foot and is the more fertile and green of the two mountains.    Mount Ebal is more desolate and devoid of vegetation. 
     In the Torah, and even in our prayers, blessing is a word that can mean “fertile” or even refer to “rain.”   One of the daily prayers in the T’filah/Amidah section of the service asks God to grant “rain and dew for blessing” on the face of the earth.  We know well in Las Cruces how much rain is a blessing because it is so infrequent.   Many areas in the rest of our nation are experiencing a severe drought this year, and daily news programs have been reporting about  the effect that the lack of rain will have on food prices in the coming months.   
     As much as we do have a need for rain in a literal sense, the image of “rain” also speaks to the intangible blessings that we can bring to the world.   In Isaiah Chapter 45, the prophet Isaiah brought this message of hope to his people while they were still in exile in Babylonia: “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open , that salvation may spring up, and let it cause righteousness to spring up as well. For I, the Eternal One, have created it!”  
   And while the rain comes from nature or, as some would say, from God’s creation, the rain of blessing that we can offer the world is in our hands to make real.   In Gates of Repentance, our High Holy Day prayerbook, we read these words during the Rosh Hashanah evening service:  “Words there are and prayers, but justice there is not, nor yet peace….Although we must wait for judgment, we must not wait for peace to fall like rain upon us….Peace will remain a distant vision until we do the work of peace ourselves.  If peace is to be brought into the world, we must bring it first to our families and communities….Be not content to make peace only in your own household; go forth and work for peace wherever men and women are struggling in its cause.”
    The vision of a fertile mountain filled with blessing in this week’s Torah reading signifies how we can make an impact on the world.   Goodness, kindness, compassion, compromise, understanding, commitment, truth, fairness – these are what can make the soil of human life fertile and the landscape of society lush and green.    Our choice to act with an eye towards blessing can overcome the deeds of anyone who decides to bring the world and society down to a level where the words “community” and even “love” may have little or no meaning .   In our behavior towards each other and in our participation in community life, may all that we choose to do rain down blessing upon the human family and upon all of creation.  And let us say Amen.

What God demands of us - from remarks at the annual meeting of CAFe', Communities in Action and Faith, in Las Cruces, NM - August 15, 2012

 Each Sabbath, we in the Jewish tradition read a predetermined section from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.   In last week’s reading, these words from Deuteronomy Chapter 10 leaped out at me so much that I had to choose them to present to the congregation during our worship:   “And now….what does the Eternal your God demand of you?  Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in divine paths, to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul…for the Eternal your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, mighty and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing.  You too must befriend the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  And in this coming Sabbath’s reading from Deuteronomy 15, there is this challenge: “If there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin.  Rather you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need.”    The United States of America cannot be a country full of people with hardened hearts and closed hands.  If we are to be like God, we must be impartial, fair and just.  We must feel a responsibility to the most vulnerable members of our society who need our support.     I told my congregants last Saturday morning that I look for candidates for public office that I would support to find a way – whether through the public or private sector, or both – to show a commitment to practicing these biblical teachings of extending an open hand and allowing an open heart to lead to legislative compromise and powerful programs that will create the safety net we need to make our communities stronger and to restore hope.   We may sometimes forget that the biblical view is that all that we have is but lent to us during our lives, so that we should remember to share with others.   This is what I believe God demands of us individually and together.  

Thursday, August 16, 2012

God and Humanity: Getting Closer - URJ 10 Minutes of Torah for August 16, 2012

Rabbi Richard Sarason, in a recent explanation of "Festival Additions to the Torah Service," highlighted the inclusion, among those special prayers, of this passage from Exodus, Chapter 34, verses 6 and 7:
 Adonai, Adonai, compassionate and gracious God
slow to anger, abundant in mercy and faithfulness,
extending kindness to the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.

The "scene" in Exodus, Chapter 34 has always intrigued me, even more than the passage in Exodus, Chapter 20 in which God declared, for the first time, the Ten Words/Divine Utterances/Commandments. Moses' return trip up the mountain, with the "two tablets of stone like the first set" in his hands, creates a poignant moment of divine-human reconciliation. I find myself drawn to such tales of "coming back together," whether it is this reaffirmation of the covenant, or the episode in which Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, or Ray Kinsella asking the ghostly apparition of his father, "Hey, dad, you want to have a catch?" Even the Beach Boys' current 50th Anniversary tour qualifies as an exercise in reconciliation.
None of these encounters would touch the human heart so deeply were it not for our capacity to "let go." We have it in our power to "write in sand" the deeds of others that caused hurt, which would better be forgotten, and to inscribe in stone the positive acts that would enable true fellowship, acceptance, and even love to endure.
Chanting the passage from Exodus, Chapter 34 as I stand before the open ark during our festivals and the High Holy Days is both an awesome and intimate experience. There is already a sense of closeness as we remove the Torah from the ark and chant/sing the declarations of the daily and Shabbat liturgy. These words add the elements to the Torah service of humility, honesty, and return. They express humility and honesty, because reciting this passage is an admission that we may have done something that calls for mercy, patience or forgiveness. This passage reflects "return," t'shuvah , because standing before the open ark (even for those not on the bimah) links us physically to God's eternal teachings embodied in the Torah. It is as if we are right next to Moses in the cleft of the rock, unable to see God's face, but comprehending a divine presence that not only passes by us but accompanies us with every step we take.
The recitation of the divine attributes from Exodus, Chapter 34 is not only a characterization of God, but also a guide for us. As God is kind, compassionate, merciful and gracious to us, we need to act with kindness, compassion, mercy and grace. As God is described as "slow to anger," we need to remind ourselves that there are times when it is best to hold back our temper and allow our patience to direct our words and deeds. In community life, there are so many times when we or those around us may not make the right choice, so that estrangement and conflict will become inevitable, unless we remember that asking and granting forgiveness can heal the hurt, repair the breach, and restore wholeness, respect and unity.
Taking the Torah from the ark, bringing it out to the congregation, and reading from its words reminds us to keep those teachings "in our mouths and in our hearts, so we can do them." (Deuteronomy 30:14). The passage from Exodus, Chapter 34 teaches us that there are second chances for an individual or a community. God seems to want Moses and the Israelites to remain close to the divine and to each other. So should we seek that closeness in our families, our congregations, and within and between nations.
Musically, I find many melodies expressive for the Exodus 34 passage, such as the first setting that I learned, composed by Louis Lewandowski. Listen My favorite is Leon Sher's melody, sung with intricate harmonies by Beged Kefet.  Listen The voices come together in such a way to reflect the intimacy of that moment between God and Moses, and the strong bonds that can continue to link us together as we seek to make divine teachings come alive every day. May kindness, compassion, mercy, grace, and forgiveness enable us to create and sustain love and peace within the human family.