Friday, September 28, 2012

Singing our own song - September 28, 2012

“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
my speech distill as dew.”
So begins the Song or Poem of Moses,
which appears to foreshadow the coming history
of the Israelites in their land.
The song tells of a people close to God
that strayed far from a path of belief and faithfulness.
Moses could have delivered his message
in a different way, but he chose a form
that has its own rhythm and feel.
It was almost as if words of warning
delivered in the form of a song
had a greater potential to penetrate
the minds and hearts of the people.
The opening words of the song
describe how a message can begin to "sink in,"
Just as rain or dew soaks into the ground
to enhance the growth of plants,
words spoken or sung well can offer us nourishment
that can enable us to grow in knowledge.
We likely have our own personal ways
in which we are inspired to shape our words
into prose, poetry, or song lyrics with melody.
Perhaps the ideas come to us
in the way that rain may suddenly start to fall ‑ in an instant.
It may be a gradual process, whereby thoughts and feelings
come together over a longer period of time,
emerging into something new and complete 
when they are ready.
What is most important is that we be open
to the possibility of expressing ourselves
by singing our own song, even if it has no melody.
Our words voice our feelings, our opinions and our beliefs,
but, mostly, they tell our story.
So may we, like Moses, find new ways to convey
our own personal narrative.
May our creativity flow like a stream.
 May new thoughts penetrate our souls
like a soothing, cleansing rain.
 And may our words, however we express them,
nourish one another with insight, wisdom,
comfort and hope.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

“Our Hope: Judaism and Eternity” - Yom Kippur Morning September 26, 2012

ASHER NATAN LANU TORAH EMET, V’CHA-YEI OLAM NATA B’TOCHEINU.  BARUCH ATAH ADONAI, NOTEIN HATORAH.   We have heard these words countless times.   Most of us probably know them by heart.  They are mentioned in the Talmud, and they may be 2000 years old.   We recite those phrases in the blessing after the Torah reading as we take part in an aliyah.    This Yom Kippur morning offers us an opportunity to look at that blessing more closely, to further understand its meaning. 
     This short liturgical paragraph begins with what we could call the “standard blessing formula” -  BLESSED ARE YOU, ETERNAL ONE, OUR GOD, RULER OF THE UNIVERSE – BARUCH ATAH ADONAI ELOHEINU MELECH HAOLAM.   Next comes the “operative language,” the heart of the prayer  - ASHER NATAN LANU TORAT EMET – WHO HAS GIVEN US A TRUE TORAH – OR A TORAH OF TRUTH…..V’CHAYEI OLAM NATA B’TOCHEINU – AND HAS PLANTED IN OUR MIDST (OR INSIDE OF US) ETERNAL LIFE.   BARUCH ATAH ADONAI, NOTEIN HATORAH – BLESSED ARE YOU, ETERNAL ONE, GIVER OF THE TORAH.  This blessing focuses on learning and tradition, like the prayer before the reading, but it seems to add a phrase almost at random.  We probably wouldn’t have expected a reference to eternal life to be part of a ritual that signifies our dedication to the study of this sacred text.  
   The beginning of this morning’s Torah reading from Deuteronomy Chapter 29 may begin to explain how eternity and Torah fit together.  The Torah portion  portrays Moses standing before the Israelites as they reaffirmed the covenant, their special relationship with God.    Moses told the people that God was making a covenant “with those who were standing with them on that day,” and with “those who were not there on that day.”   The statement about those who were not present referred to members of generations yet to come.   By the time the Jewish Bible, the TANAKH, was complete in the year 90 CE, the teachings of the Torah had already transcended time.  At that point in history, our tradition had been passed down many times over from parents to children.   It is not surprising that the great Sage Hillel characterized the words and teachings of the Torah as eternal as early as the first century CE.   We can find his declaration in the Sayings of the Rabbis, Pirkei Avot: “KANA SHEIM TOV, KANA L’ATZMO – When you acquire a good name, you acquire it for yourself, on your own.  KANA LO DIVREI TORAH, KANA LO CHAYEI HAOLAM HABA – when you make the words of Torah and its heritage your own, you acquire life in the world to come –that is, eternal life, or a piece of eternity.   We may think of study and listening to Torah and Haftarah readings during a service as tied only to that very moment of recitation and reflection.   Those very rituals place us in an ever-growing chain of tradition.  We as members of Temple Beth-El derive benefit from eternal Jewish sources for wisdom when we participate in our ongoing Talmud Study and Torah study groups, the Jewish women’s spirituality group and our Religious School.  We can acquire words of Torah by attending Temple Beth-El’s introduction to Judaism class, our upcoming course on the Sayings of the Rabbis, Pirkei Avot, and other classes, series, discussions and one-time lectures that we offer.    It isn’t only wisdom and knowledge that we seek when we study.   We explore the sacred texts of our heritage so that we will act in the best way possible.    We have discussed our values and our words during these High Holy Days.   It is what we do that demonstrates our response to the call in this morning’s Torah reading to “Choose life!”
        Study and action based on Jewish wisdom and values allow us to touch upon something eternal.  We don’t talk much about eternity in our society, so the words of the blessing after the Torah reading that speak of eternal life might regularly pass us by without acknowledgement.   So what is the Jewish view of eternity? The Torah was virtually silent on the topic.  The remaining books in the Bible spoke of eternity in terms of afterlife: an ultimate resting place for the souls of the dead called SHEOL, a dark, non-descript place within the earth where the souls of those who had died knew neither reward nor punishment.  They were just “there.”  To be in SHEOL, which translates as “the pit,” was to be in the lowest possible place, separated from happiness, from loved ones, and from God’s goodness.  It wasn’t until the time of the Maccabees that our tradition developed the idea that those who died valiantly in battle to preserve the Jewish faith and people should be able to share in the glory and reward that they deserved. From that time, the backstory of the holiday of Chanukah, likely came the belief that the souls of those who died in battle would be united with a resurrected body  - perhaps physical, perhaps spiritual – and bask in the light of the divine.  According to the tradition of the rabbis, whenever the world would come to an end, whether then or in the distant future, every righteous person in any generation and among all peoples would be rewarded with life in the world to come – the OLAM HABA.  When people who performed everyday mitzvot, such as study, honoring parents, visiting the sick, supporting their community, and making peace between people, appeared to get little or no reward in this life, the rabbis said that the greater reward would be waiting for them LAOLAM HABA – in the world to come.   That is the central theme of one of our early morning prayers, EILU D’VARIM.  
     During my Reform Jewish upbringing, I often heard the term “Messianic age” to describe a rational view of the world to come, a time of peace and harmony brought about by humanity. Yet, the references to eternity remained in Reform prayerbooks.   The Union Prayer Book, created over 110 years ago, ended ATAH GIBOR, the second prayer of the Tefillah, with a phrase that is reminiscent of the second Torah blessing:  BARUCH ATAH ADONAI, NOTEI-A B’TOCHEINU CHAYEI OLAM– BLESSED ARE YOU, ADONAI, WHO IMPLANTS ETERNAL LIFE WITHIN US.” The new prayerbook MISHKAN T’FILAH, ends that prayer with the phrase M’CHAYEH HAKOL, “Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives life to all.”   
     We know the word OLAM in relation to many of the blessings we recite, where it means WORLD or UNIVERSE as in MELECH HA-OLAM, Ruler of the Universe.  OLAM also means eternal or immortal.     We recite the word OLAM in the second line of the Shema and in other prayers in the phrase L’OLAM VAED, “forever and ever.” L’OLAM expresses the concept of moving “on and on to infinity, to the end of the universe.”  One of the names for a cemetery in Hebrew is BAYT OLAMIM – literally, “House of Worlds or universes” or the “abode of eternity.”  
      One of the prayers that we recite at funerals and at memorial or yizkor services that refers to OLAM – eternity -  is EIL MALEI RACHAMIM – God, full of compassion.   Through this poignant text, we pray that our loved ones who have died will find perfect rest under the wings of God’s sheltering and shining presence, the SHEKHINAH.  We pray for the soul of our loved one who has entered his or her OLAM or eternal existence.  This prayer asks of God, “Source of mercy, enfold our loved one L’OLAMIM – forever – in the shadow of Your wings.” We pray that the souls of those who have died will be bound up in the bond of life, BITZROR HACHAYIM, and that they will be at peace in their eternal resting place. EIL MALEI RACHAMIM offers a sense of everlasting protection, connection with all of existence, and rest and peace before God for the souls of those who have died.  
      We likely would explain what we mean by eternity in many different ways today.  Perhaps we believe that our soul goes back to the universe to be a part of the reservoir of creation.  Maybe our soul remains intact and returns to God and is reunited with loved ones who died before us.  In his book, DOES THE SOUL SURVIVE?  Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz explained that we don’t really know for a fact what happens after we die.  He believes that stories that some people tell from having been unconscious and near death suggest that our soul might very well remain distinct after we die, that we may have an opportunity to look back on every moment of our lives, that we could come into contact with relatives who have died – hopefully unburdened of any pain or despair they knew in life – and that we will rest in peace under the protection of God’s light.  
     We may see eternity in terms of how our memories and the legacies we create through our words and deeds assure some measure of personal immortality.  People can and often do live on in what we remember and in the stories and lessons they have left to us.   Our recollections of our loved ones who have died can enable their love, friendship and incomparable wisdom to endure because they are now a part of us. 
      What can we learn from the many Jewish views of eternity?  Remembering the lives of our loved ones who are no longer with us teaches us about how we should, within every moment, follow the command of this morning’s Torah reading to choose life and good.   As we wish for the souls of those who have died protection, peace, rest and a feeling of being connected to the entire universe, we can strive to feel bound in every moment to all human beings throughout the world. We can resolve to provide shelter and comfort for people in need.  We can take time out of our routines to rest in order to find the inner strength to bring peace to ourselves and to our community. We should take the opportunities now, in what singer Michael Rutherford once called, “the living years,” to reach out in mercy or forgiveness in order to repair broken relationships or to heal the wounds of past hurts, if such reconciliation is at all possible.  Finally, we shouldn’t hesitate to learn from the past.  Yom Kippur is an annual day of life review, when we look into our souls to see who we have been and who we are.  We have the opportunity on this day to decide who we have the potential to be and what we can do to reach for that goal of giving humanity and the world the best of ourselves.   We can emerge from Yom Kippur renewed and refreshed, looking forward to the promise of joy, light and blessing here and now.   
       We read in the 90th chapter of the book of Psalms, “Teach us, Eternal One, to number our days – to count our days in the proper way – that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.”     This verse came to mind as I read Mitch Albom’s new book, The Time Keeper.   The main characters in this book all face death in some way, and are all concerned about the passing of time.  The central character spent his life designing ways to measure time. He became so focused on that task that he almost missed the love that surrounded him.   Another character in the book found that life’s challenges and failures can cause us to feel that fairness, affirmation and a heart of wisdom are beyond our earthly reach.  We may come to believe that there is never enough time to find the comfort and hope that can enable us move forward with courage and confidence. A third character tried to outwit death itself, only to find that time was not to be measured in quantity but in quality.   The Time Keeper reminds us to preserve life’s special moments not only with the most advanced photographic technology but with the camera of the heart and mind.  It teaches that we should not let another person’s cruelty and humiliation, intended to destroy our sense of self, prevent us from living the life of goodness that we deserve to live.  Mitch Albom infused this fable of his own creation with a heart of wisdom of its own.  This tale reminds us that time is not lived only in years, days, hours, minutes and seconds. As one musical so aptly put it, we have the chance to live the time we are given in love, in treasured memories, in nurturing relationships and in bringing light, hope and peace to the world here and now.
     And that is the essential and eternal message of Torah.   The prayer that we recite just before the Shema in morning and evening services says that we were given the gift of Torah out of love so that we would have a path that would lead us to goodness and integrity.  When we walk along that road, we are part of the enduring journey of those who preceded us and those who will follow us in the centuries to come.    The prayer after the Torah reading ends with the familiar refrain, BARUCH ATAH ADONAI, NOTEIN HATORAH – BLESSED ARE YOU ETERNAL ONE – GIVER OF THE TORAH.    Every time we hear this blessing recited, we join with our ancestors, with Jews all over the world today, with the entire human family, and with those who are not yet here with us this day in an eternal search for new knowledge and greater insight into what it means to choose life and to infuse life with meaning and purpose.  
     In February, I traveled home to Kansas City to attend a cousin’s Bat Mitzvah.  Our son Adam, our niece Samantha, and Samantha’s husband Rob were also there to represent our family.   On Shabbat afternoon that weekend, we drove to Rose Hill Cemetery to visit the graves of my parents, Joseph and Ruth Karol.   Rob never had the chance to know my parents, but Samantha and Adam have many memories of times that we shared together as a family through the years.   As I looked at the three members of our family’s next generation standing together at the cemetery, I thought about the passage of time, wondering how it was possible that Adam and Samantha had grown up so quickly.   And I thought about how proud my parents would be of their grandchildren, who practice so many of the values they espoused and lived every day.   Here was a scene that demonstrated how Torah can be eternal, how a legacy can continue across three generations, and, hopefully, many more. 
    May the souls of our loved ones that are now bound up in the bond of eternity inspire us to wholeheartedly choose to live a life of righteousness and compassion, goodness and blessing.  And may their lives teach us to number our days so we will gain, as one community, a heart of wisdom.   So may it be – and let us say Amen.  

Our Words: Prayers, Perspectives and Promises – Kol Nidre/Erev Yom Kippur - September 25, 2012

      I looked at their signs almost every day for 15 years.  I would drive by the various locations around town where they appeared and marvel at what new message might be added to their repertoire of hateful expressions.   GOD HATES AMERICA!  THANK GOD FOR IED’S (IMPROVISED EXPLOSIVE DEVICES)!   As I drove on the side street that led to Temple Beth Sholom in Topeka on Friday nights, the the gauntlet of picketers from the Westboro Baptist Church would greet me and other congregants with the special sign they made just for us, TEMPLE BETH SODOM.  More recently this same group has unveiled signs declaring THE JEWS KILLED JESUS, GOD HATES ISRAEL, and GOD HATES JEWS.    People who have witnessed this group organized around Fred Phelps, Sr. and his family wonder when their members will ever get a life.   But this is their life – bigotry and hatred that they justify as  fire and brimstone preaching that only they can deliver because they are, in their words, God’s elect, God’s chosen few.   

     I spoke openly and often in that community about standing up to hatred by engendering understanding between people of different faiths and backgrounds.  Yes, it did work; yes, it was possible.  Yes, I could have a calm discussion about Middle East politics with a local physician who headed the Islamic center in town.  Yes, my Christian clergy colleagues and I could find common ground, from the most conservative to the most liberal.  That happened after years of working together, talking with each other, and building trust in general, even when our disagreements on certain issues were as wide as the Grand Canyon.  
       I wonder if Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar would have made some of his negative statements about Reform Jews this year if he had engaged in study, at any time, with rabbis and scholars from a wide spectrum of approaches to Judaism.   Such ongoing relationships might have prevented him from asserting that Conservative and Reform Rabbis are “uprooters of Torah” who have to answer for the damage they are doing to the Jewish world.  He might not have advised that it would be better for a secular Jew who was away from home this year on Rosh Hashanah to pray by himself rather than pray in a Reform congregation.     I can’t say that those words don’t hurt, but it is a position I expect.  Still, I am not one to give up on developing mutual respect or, at least, sharing a small slice of the truth. During Passover in 1977, I accompanied a college friend on a trip organized by his Yeshiva to a site in the Judean hills.   I eventually told one of the American Yeshiva students on that trip that I was a Reform rabbinic student living in Jerusalem that year.  He was puzzled, thinking I believed in a different religion than he did. So he asked, “On Yom Kippur, I fast and pray all day in synagogue in order to atone for my sins.  What do you do on Yom Kippur?”  I replied quickly – “I do the same thing you do.”   I would like to think that I brought just a little light of understanding into his world. 
     I still receive the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle to maintain connections with the community that raised me.  This weekly newspaper, during every election cycle, features op-ed articles and letters-to-the-editor that urge people to vote for one candidate – or one party – or another.  Sometimes the rhetoric gets testy, so much so that it elicited this letter a few weeks ago: “When members of our Jewish community write a letter to this newspaper to express a political opinion, they should not be subjected to personal attacks. Is a reasoned response, such as ‘I disagree with so and so’s opinion because…” too much to ask, without resorting to name calling? It doesn’t matter what side of the political aisle you’re on; it’s clear as day that some recent letters have lowered the level of civil discourse in this community. Personal attacks by one member of the community should be condemned by people of all political persuasions. I’m not in favor of censorship, but for the sake of peace in the community, this newspaper might want to refrain from publishing such letters in the future.” 
       I have seen newspapers in the communities in which I have lived print pointed expressions from readers without hesitation.  When I would write a letter in response to sentiments with which I disagreed, I made sure that it was about the topic, not the person.  I tried to couch my language in such a way that people from a wide range of opinions could hear it and think about it. In one case, I was involved in a series of back-and-forth letters-to-the-editor about the right of a local pastor to pray in a way that was particularly Christian in the state legislature (which I opposed).  The other letter writer and I eventually had a face-to-face meeting – he was a deacon at a local Church of God in Christ and came by his view honestly.  He spoke intelligently and without hostility to me.  At the end of our meeting, we were able to agree to disagree.  This man became a regular participant in an interfaith dialogue group where we continued to disagree agreeably and to listen to and reflect on our respective views.
     This is a night that is about our actions but it is, especially, about our words.  What we say can create or destroy a world, where that world may be a relationship between two people or many people.  Words can create expectations that may or may not be met.  Words can express the complexities of our thoughts and opinions on crucial issues.  They can also give voice to personal passion for a particular perspective.  Such passion is well placed as long as it doesn’t prevent a person from hearing crucial information or another opinion that might deserve consideration.
    How we say what is on our minds and in our hearts does matter.   We do use our words to express our opinions but, also, to promise to give or do something either for ourselves or for the benefit of another person or an entire community.   One aspect of human nature that hasn’t changed over the centuries is that, sometimes, we can’t fulfill such promises.  Other concerns and tasks may intervene in a way we didn’t expect.   The rabbis acknowledged this reality, but as much as they discouraged people from making promises they couldn’t keep, their community members did so anyway.  A prayer very similar to KOL NIDREI became popular because people wanted to be unburdened of the guilt of past unfulfilled promises so that they could feel that they were truly forgiven. The original prayer that annulled vows of the previous year was a problem for some rabbis, who felt that we still needed to be bound by the words we spoke  in some significant way.      About 1000 years ago, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel, the son-in-law of the great sage Rashi, proposed that the KOL NIDREI prayer be modified to annul in advance any vows people might make in the coming 12 months, from this Yom Kippur to the next.  That is the wording that we chanted during tonight’s service.  Admitting that we might, in the future, make a promise we can’t keep, could make us think before we speak so that others will be able to trust what we say.  There is a large dose of forgiveness for our humanity built into this prayer.  We make mistakes.  We try to use our words wisely, but we don’t always succeed.  Sometimes we just need a break. KOL NIDREI takes away the feeling that we have to be perfect.  It allows us to be who we are: human beings striving to get as close to perfection as possible. 
    Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman compiled a wide variety of reflections on the Kol Nidre prayer in his book, ALL THESE VOWS.  In one chapter of this anthology, Rabbi and Psychologist Ruth Durchslag specifically addressed the power of words.  She began her chapter in the book with this declaration: “In my life as a psychologist I rely on words to heal.  In my work as a rabbi I rely on words to inspire.  When I write, I rely on words to communicate.  As a mediator, I have learned that words mean nothing at all.”  She noted that KOL NIDREI, on one level, suggests that words don’t really count.  Then she noted that words do count.  In the Torah, God used speech – words – to begin creation by saying “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” The Torah says that God didn’t just write the Ten Commandments on stone, God spoke those words.   Rabbi Durchslag explained that when we recite a blessing, the words we have spoken change our way of being in the world.   She noted how silence, the absence of the spoken word, can also create something new.  Silent reflection on a difficult situation can change a “no” to a “yes” once we have deeply pondered our own feelings and values.   In our silence, we might hear the words we have spoken in the past as harsh or meaningless.  From a place of no words, we may feel a desire to take back some of what we have said.  A moment of meditation or introspection may allow us to better understand how to carefully craft our words so that they will be meaningful and affirming.  The Kol Nidrei prayer gives us permission to feel regret, even in advance, for words indelicately spoken.  It reminds us to speak as though even one phrase or one word can change the state of the universe and the course of history. 
      At most any time in public life, words are flying in countless directions, whether from leaders or news commentators, or proponents of one ideology or another.  Parker Palmer, author of Healing the Heart of Democracy:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, lamented the state of public discourse in a Huffington Post article with this statement: “Want to undermine American democracy? Start by making citizens so distrustful and dismissive of each other -- especially of those who are "different" in their political/religious/philosophical convictions or their sexual orientation/ethnicity/race -- that the power of "We the People" dissipates as we tear each other apart….Political civility is not about being polite to each other. It's about reclaiming the power of ‘We the People’ to come together, debate the common good and call American democracy back to its highest values amid our differences. The civility we need will come not from watching our tongues, but from valuing our differences and the creativity that can come when we hold them well.” 
    In his book, The Third Alternative, Stephen Covey suggested a path that can effectively lead individuals or groups in conflict to a peaceful and productive resolution.   Covey directs people to seek out those who espouse an opposing position and truly listen to their viewpoint.  Listening means to hear clearly what the other person is saying, all the while remembering that he or she is not an enemy, but a human being who deserves respect.  The goal of conflict resolution is not victory for one position or another, but transformation for both sides, so that they can ultimately see that they are really on the same side, bound together as members of a community.
    For Parker Palmer and Stephen Covey, and for us, words can and do create worlds.  The words shared by many of you with me about creating a civil society offer a meaningful guide to how we can say what we need to say in the best way possible. How can we state our perspectives in such a way that they will be heard and understood, as if we are members of the same team?   Listen now to your wisdom and counsel:   
·  Listening and caring matter, being aware that we all make mistakes and can  unconsciously hurt  others perhaps because we ourselves are hurting...and the words "I'm sorry" should be enough matters that we accept each person for who they are and don't try to mold them into what or who we think they should be, but rather celebrate the fact that we are all individuals.
·  Dismissing another’s ideas to promote your own is not a way to discuss issues.
·  Before I judge another's words or behavior, I think about myself on the worst day of my life and try to give that person the break that I needed on that particular day.
·  To have meaningful, collaborative relationships with others you need to think about what you say in the context of the audience you address.  This is true with an audience of thousands or an audience of one.
·  Remind yourself: You Want To Continue A Relationship With This Person Beyond This Conversation: think about maintaining ties, not scoring points or dismissing someone with views that differ from your own. It is possible to have respectful, educated disagreement. It's important that we not view a difference of opinion as inherently problematic!
·  Within the Jewish community, acknowledge and respect that the Torah and Jewish law are open to many interpretations that affirm a wide range of views on tough subjects.
·  Actively listen to what another person has to say. Even if you disagree with it, make sure you understand the meaning before expressing your own ideas, and use that understanding to emphasize common ground.
·  Listen carefully to what is being said.  Don't argue.  Rather, pause before answering and answer softly, sincerely, and succinctly.
·  By completely focusing on notions that make a lot of sense to you, making no attempt to see the other person's point-of-view, that's how evil comes about.
·  Respect others--their values, viewpoints, and overall importance as human beings. All discussions should be at a conversational, low-decibel auditory level. Ask : What do you think/What is your opinion?", do not interrupt as  you listen to the answer, and then say "Thank you"
·  Always consider this question when speaking to another person: “How would I feel if you said to me what I'm about to say to you?”
·  Message content aside, never engage another person using a mean-spirited, hateful tone or abusive language to which you yourself would not favorably respond.
·  Reasoned dialog between disagreeing persons is possible if the discussion is tempered with the realization that unfettered emotions tied to a certain point of view will distort facts and lead to false  accusations and name calling, resulting in a  shouting match.    Perhaps enforce the simple principle of waiting your turn to speak, and speak with respect.   
·  One person is not superior to another and each deserves equal respect.  Where there are ears that truly listen and hearts that truly hear, there is hope for a civil society.
      Through what we say and how we say it, we can hold out hope for reaching true understanding. The KOL NIDREI prayer reminds us to make our words count before we even say them.   Before the T’FILAH, we pray a verse from PSALM 51, “ADONAI S’FATAI TIF’TACH UFI YAGID T’HILATECHA, Eternal One, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise.”  We need to remember that when we speak to any person, he or she is created in the divine image.  We are part of the same family. No disagreement or difference can change that, because diversity is built into the human condition.
     The Talmud tells of how the schools of the great sages Hillel and Shammai were in regular conflict.  In one instance, the debate became so heated that only a heavenly voice could stop their verbal confrontations. The voice declared, “Both of your positions are the words of the living God – both are valid – EILU V’EILU DIVREI ELOHIM CHAYIM – but the law is in agreement with the students of Hillel.”  “Why one side and not the other?” the Talmud asked.  The passage explained that the students of Hillel were kind and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of their opponents, and they were so humble that they would mention the opinions of Shammai before stating their own views.
     And so, in the coming year, from this Yom Kippur to the next, may we speak with humility, with honesty and with respect.  May the still small voice inside of us guide our speech so that what we say will bring us closer together, giving meaning not only to the words “We the People,” but also to one simple expression of unity - “WE.”   So may it be - and let us say AMEN. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Powerful rituals symbolize High Holy Days -for the Las Cruces Bulletin, September 21, 2012

Powerful rituals symbolize High Holy Days
Jews mark season of forgiveness and repentance

Rabbi Lawrence Karol For the Las Cruces Bulletin
Forgiveness and repentance are major themes of the Jewish High Holy Day season, which began with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year (this year, it was from sundown Sunday, Sept. 16 to sundown Tuesday, Sept. 18) and ends with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atone­ment, a day of communal prayer and fasting, which will be observed from sundown Tuesday, Sept. 25, until sundown Wednesday, Sept. 26.
    One of the central rituals of the Rosh Hashanah observance is the sounding of the Shofar, the ram’s horn, during our New Year worship.
    The Shofar’s calls remind us to do the work of t’shuvah, repentance or returning to the right path, and s’lichah, seeking forgive­ness for what we have done wrong in the past year and resolving to do better.
     Another highlight of Rosh Hashanah involves going to a local body of water to perform the ritual of tashlich. This ceremony of casting bread crumbs into water derives its name from Micah 7:19. In that verse, the prophet Micah, speaking to God, said, “You will cast (tashlich) all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
    When I teach children about tashlich, we talk about sin (defined as a wrong act) in relation to unwanted habits such as inap­propriate expressions of anger, fighting with siblings or not attending to chores. I explain that tashlich reminds us we don’t have to be bound by past mistakes and undesired hab­its. Throwing bread crumbs into the water visually and physically demonstrates we can truly separate ourselves from our sins of the past and start with a “clean slate” in the New Year.
     Tashlich is a powerful ritual because it vividly illustrates the themes of the High Holy Days. It is one step in the process of
repentance as a return to the right path, because participating in tashlich is an admis­sion that we do make mistakes in action and judgment. It shows our resolve not to repeat past sins.
    Throwing the bread crumbs can be an act of self-forgiveness that reflects a sense of hope for improving ourselves in the future. We also gain a sense that we, as fallible human beings, have the possibility and the opportunity to try again to do the right thing when faced with the same situation in the future.
    Jewish sages saw repentance as a multi­step process. In his book “Minyan: Ten Prin­ciples for Living a Life of Integrity,” Rabbi Rami Shapiro explained the path toward repentance outlined by two important Jewish thinkers.
     Saadiah Gaon (882-942) was an Egyptian Jew who became a leading Jewish philoso­pher of the 10th century. He believed that repentance required four steps: 
1. Experience regret or remorse over the wrong act.
2. Admit to the act and renounce it as wrong.
3. Request forgiveness from those who were wronged.
4. Refrain from repeating the action in the future.
    About 100 years later, Bahya Ibn Pakuda, a Jewish philosopher in Spain, asserted that repentance involved a seven-step process: 
1. Be convinced that you are responsible for the action in question.
2. Realize that the act was a wrongful one.
3. Become aware that there is a conse­quence to your action.
4. Understand that your deed is not being ignored. Remember that even if no one else knows what you have done, you know, and so does God.
5. Realize that repentance alone will re­turn you to the path of righteousness.
6. Realize that the joy you received from
 doing the wrong thing is not as great as the joy of doing the right thing.
7. Sincerely resolve to break with the habits of evil to which you have grown ac­customed.
    The 12th century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides offered a positive view of the healing that repentance can bring: “Repen­tance suffices for forgiveness of sins against God alone, but sins against human beings, such as violence or cursing or theft, are not forgiven until restitution is made and the injured person is satisfied, and restitution by itself is not enough. One must appease the injured person and ask forgiveness.
“By the same token, an injured person must not be cruel and unforgiving. We should be slow to anger and easily appeased.
And when our forgiveness is requested, we should grant it with a whole heart and a will­ing spirit. We should not be vengeful or bear grudges even for a grave injury – this is the way of the upright.”

There may be times when repentance is not enough to elicit forgiveness and engender reconciliation. However, it is still important to try to heal the wounds between people, espe­cially when we believe that all human beings are all created in one spiritual image.
Hopefully, repentance and forgiveness can bring us together so that our unity will ultimately reflect the oneness that unites all creation.

Rabbi Lawrence P. Karol is the spiritual leader of the Temple Beth-El Jewish congregation in Las Cruces.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Our Faith: We Will Live - Rosh Hashanah Morning - September 17, 2012

     Last Monday was the 10th anniversary, by the Jewish calendar, of the death of my father, Joseph Karol.  I try every day to remember and pay tribute to what he taught me about life – striving for excellence and integrity, showing compassion, and demonstrating an unwavering commitment to a community.  My dad also taught me about writing, which was a major aspect of his job at the Army Corps of Engineers.  That fact, combined with his many years of teaching religious school and volunteering for Temple, may help explain why both children in our family became rabbis. My Dad’s talents live on in my brother and in me, and you see or hear them every time I write a newsletter article or deliver a d’var Torah.
    One of my dad’s hobbies was photography.   Before the days when video-recording technology was affordable or available in our homes, we only had tape recorders to record television audio and a camera set on a tripod in front to the TV screen to capture an image.   On July 20, 1969, my dad and I did our best to preserve on tape and Kodak slide film the first steps of Neil Armstrong on the moon.   Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin seemed larger than life that night.     The same could be said of Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space on June 18, 1983.   Our nation and the world now mourn both of these pioneers of space exploration who died this summer.  Even with their fame, each of these astronaut’s families shared memorial messages with the public that were thoughtful and very unassuming.    Neil Armstrong’s family offered this statement: “Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.  Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job. He served his Nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati….While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.  For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."
    Sally Ride’s sister, Bear, said this of the first American woman in space: “Our parents, Joyce and Dale Ride, encouraged us to study hard, to do our best and to be anything we wanted to be.…They encouraged us to be curious, to keep our minds and hearts open and to respect all persons as children of God. Our parents taught us to explore, and we did. Sally studied science and I went to seminary. She became an astronaut and I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Sally lived her life to the fullest with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless. Sally died the same way she lived: without fear. Sally’s signature statement was ‘Reach for the Stars.’ Surely she did this, and she blazed a trail for all…of us.”
      Both families of these world-renowned space explorers found a way to put into words the aspirations and character of their loved ones.  It wasn’t greatness that permeated their tribute, but the down-to-earth nature of their lives.  Their successes were large, but both families were essentially teaching us that any one of us can achieve our own level of greatness and then share our story so that others can live by our example.   And that can be our goal in life:  to thrive, the make a difference with our lives, and to symbolically write a new passage every day in the book of our lives about the peaks and the valleys, and everything in between, that we encounter.  The Un’taneh Tokef prayer that we recited earlier this morning declares about God: “You write and You seal, You record and recount.”  God isn’t the only writer noted in that prayer, because it also proclaims: “You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.”  This prayer likely imagines that our actions automatically inscribe themselves into an imaginary text, a process that singer Dan Fogelberg once called “burning lines in the book of our lives.”  Yet, our additions to that book are not simply a list of what we have done.  Our full writing assignment demands that we put our deeds into perspective – that we determine how our words and actions can reflect what we want to be inscribed and remembered.  The prayer states, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”   Right now, on Rosh Hashanah, what lies before us is a rough draft, our initial summary of our lives until now.   By Yom Kippur, when the manuscript of our life’s current chapter is due, we can make whatever revisions we consider necessary and adopt new ways of thinking about how we have lived and how we want to live in the months and years that lie ahead. 
     We do take many opportunities to live our rough drafts, with the possibility of turning them into the finished product.  We might find our own “rough drafts” in an email or letter that we write to release anger or disappointment  towards someone and then DON’T SEND IT.  It could be a conversation that doesn’t go well the first time but that we are able to conduct later with a better result.  It could also be a failure or failures that precede success.  In an installment for Craig Taubman’s annual Jewels of Elul series, writer and film director Marshall Herskovitz explained,  “Robert Bly once wrote that failure is a necessary part of life….I’ve come to see that he was right. Failure is freeing, failure is bracing. Failure makes you alive. I now understand, in fact, that my life and career have followed a distinct pattern:   Success. Complacency. Failure. Struggle. Breakthrough. Success.   It started in film school, when I landed my first TV writing job -- and wrote the script in a haze of self-congratulation -- only to find that the producers hated it. Failure number one. I then spent several years in despair, hustling for jobs on bad television shows, realizing finally that I was failing because I wasn’t writing in my own voice. That was the first time I felt that sense of unexpected exhilaration when your back is against the wall – and you discover you have courage after all. With nothing to lose, I renounced my career as a TV writer and wrote a screenplay. In my own voice. And everything changed. People loved the script, studios offered deals. I was made. Until I failed again, and had to find the courage – again – to write from my authentic self. And the result this time was [the television show] “thirtysomething”, from whose success I assumed – finally! – I must be immune to failure. Until my first film as a director bombed – and the process had to begin again.   And so it has continued, for thirty years. I welcome the rhythm now, the struggle, the renewal, the euphoria, and yes, even the despair – because I understand that this is the rhythm of art, of life. Failure is not the opposite of success – they’re part of the same thing. The opposite of failure…is death.”
       Failure, success, learning from mistakes, trying again, succeeding, and failing again, with the hope of another triumph down the road – this is what it means to live.  During the 2012 Olympics, there were too many times when commentators characterized a silver or bronze medal as a loss rather than a win.  American gymnast McKayla Maroney’s well-publicized facial expression on receiving a silver medal in the Olympic vault competition offered a sharp contrast to Aly Raisman’s joy at being award the bronze medal in the balance beam event.   There was the personal story of American Olympic diver Brittany Viola, who gave up gymnastics so that she could compete in a sport that would allow her to stay home in Minnesota with her parents.  Oscar Pistorius of South Africa became the first double-leg amputee to participate in the Olympics. Sometimes, the TV commentators at the summer Olympics did declare that competing in the Olympics at all was an achievement that shouldn’t be minimized. In real life, small triumphs or a one-time amazing performance may offer competitors and, perhaps, any one of us, the deepest satisfaction and a sense that greatness and goodness are within our grasp.
    In the terms of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, we are all still in the game.   Each of us has the chance to give our best to the various roles we fulfill in our families, schools, workplaces or community.   Whatever we do, including, as Marshall Herskovitz noted, our failures as well as our successes, shows that we very much alive, recording in the Book of Life even our smallest achievements and our personal attempts to bring goodness into the world.    But what about those who aren’t trying to bring goodness into the world, people who have veered off the path towards reaching their highest potential for decency and integrity?    The Un’taneh Tokef prayer, in Gates of Repentance, states: “This is Your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive. It is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live.”  We might expect that the Hebrew word for “sinners” in that passage would built upon a root word for sin,  like “CHEIT,” so that the word would be “CHATA-IM.”  That isn’t what the Hebrew says.   The word for sinners in the Hebrew version of the prayer is “MEIT” – literally – “You don’t desire the death of the dead.”  That may sound redundant or almost meaningless.    When that phrase occurs in the Bible, the word meaning “those who are dead” refers to people whose moral misjudgments have taken them down a path devoid of goodness, well beyond the point of no return….or is that really the case?  This prayer says that they can come back at any time.  They can retrace their steps and rediscover their true moral and spiritual selves if they do so honestly and wholeheartedly.   To add to Marshall Herskovitz’s statement about failure being the opposite of death – taking responsibility for our actions, whether we succeed or fail, clearly demonstrates that we are not morally or spiritually dead.   The fact that we care about doing what’s right and making amends when necessary shows that we are very much alive and that striving for goodness is still a reachable goal.   
      In the book WHO BY FIRE, WHO BY WATER, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman compiled a wide variety of interpretations of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer.   In one chapter, Rabbi Gordon Tucker explained a reference in the prayer about the nature of human beings, where it says that “Each of us is a shattered urn.”  How are we like shattered pottery, and how does that image help us at this time of year if we are trying to make ourselves whole, to overcome feeling “broken” or “shattered”?   Tucker described a rabbinic interpretation of a bible passage about what needs to be done with an earthenware pot that has become impure in some way.  The procedure was to break the pot, bury it, and then unearth the pot and put it back together.  Only then could it be considered fit to be used again.  The High Holy Days take us through a similar process on a spiritual level.   We begin Rosh Hashanah, very much alive and rejoicing in the beginning of a new year.  We spend the next 10 days morally dissecting ourselves, trying to determine what we have done well and how we can improve ourselves in the coming year.   On Yom Kippur, we don’t eat, we don’t drink – we deprive ourselves of many of the signs that show we are alive.  We recite prayers of confession, an end-of-life ritual in which we engage so that we can emerge from the High Holy Days to live and thrive once again, with a fresh perspective on how we can strive for spiritual and moral success on our own terms, with our heritage and our faith as our beacon along the way. 
    The journey of Abraham and Isaac to Mount Moriah, which will be retold in the Torah reading this morning, took them far away from where we would have expected them to be.  Some commentators explain that this trek was meant to teach Abraham, called by many “the first ethical monotheist,” not to do what his neighbors were doing – namely, practicing the sacrifice of human children in order to please the gods in whom they believed.   If we are like shattered pots that are disassembled and then renewed during the High Holy Days, we could see Abraham’s and Isaac’s near tragedy as an experience that was meant to remind them that life could take them to the brink, to a point of being “shattered” or “broken,” but that there would always be a sign available to them that could bring them back to where they needed to be morally and spiritually.  In the Torah reading, the sign was the call of the Angel, “Abraham!  Abraham!”  For us, it might be the voice of a friend or family member, pleading with us to step back from the precipice so that we can remember who we are and what we can do to make our lives worthwhile and meaningful.  The Un’taneh Tokef prayer tells us that we can make our lives worthwhile by practicing  t’shuvah, t’filah and tzedakah” – repentance, prayer, and righteous giving, which can make the harshness of life’s stark challenges seems less overwhelming. Reaching within to make ourselves complete, reaching beyond to connect to all of creation, and reaching towards others can enable us to weather the storms of life, whatever they may be.   In the words of Rabbi Brent Spodek and Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World service, when we practice “repentance, prayer and charity” with an open heart, our road may still be bumpy, but we’ll have better shock absorbers.
      As I wrote this sermon, I watched weather reports about tropical storm Isaac and noted posts of my facebook friends who live in Louisiana about power outages that would continue for several days.   I heard about the deaths of several American solders in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.  I read about opinions across the entire political spectrum regarding which presidential candidate or political party can best take our nation into the future.  In the coming year, we will brace ourselves for the winds of unexpected challenges, the storms of sudden disappointments, and a sense of restlessness that makes us feel that our souls are wandering aimlessly without direction.    At the same time, we can focus on what we can control - creating a positive attitude within ourselves, preserving a feeling of gratitude for the blessings that we enjoy, and demonstrating our concern for the world and the human community.   To live, to love, to learn, to extend a helping hand, to overcome obstacles, to take ourselves apart and then put ourselves back together so that we are even more complete than before –we can achieve these goals both on our own and with the support of our sacred community.  May all that we write in the book of our lives – separately and together – bring us hope, strength and peace in this New Year.  So may it be –and let us say Amen.

Our Values: Wisdom in Action - Rosh Hashanah Evening - September 16, 2012

Shanah Tovah – Happy New Year to everyone who is here tonight as we begin 5773 together.   Whether you are members or guests, we welcome you.   Whatever your place among the generations – young in age or young at heart, we welcome you.    Whatever your city or town, state or country of birth, we welcome you.  You add a richness to who we are just by being present in this sanctuary at this moment.
    Temple Beth-El is a congregation that numbers around 150 households.   In my 31 years as a rabbi, I have mostly served congregations of this size or even a little smaller.   During a year-long study of the book of Proverbs that concluded in the spring, my study partners from the congregation and I came upon this verse that gave me pause.   Proverbs Chapter 22, verse 29 declares: “Do you see people who are skilled in their work? They will serve before royalty; they will not serve before obscure people.”  That verse points to acts of greatness and significance, but it seems to do so with a tinge of elitism.   One could interpret this verse to mean that skilled individuals are doing their work well only if they serve society’s most important celebrities or leaders. The notion may still prevail that only large congregations can be great in any sense of the word.  My rabbinate has taught me about the positive impact that a few people, or even one person, can have on the lives of others.  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 and worship settings.   My rabbinic colleagues across the world and I always try to serve with dedication, skill and insight.  If that is the case, and we are doing our work well and with skill, then it logically follows that YOU are the royalty of whom Proverbs speaks, and each one of you is significant.
      Our tradition teaches us that even royalty and skilled individuals need to remain humble.   The one figure in the Torah whom the Rabbis admired for this quality of humility was Moses, who is central to a passage that we add to our Torah services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
    These verses can be found in one of the Torah’s greatest scenes of return and reconciliation. In Chapter 34 of the Book of Exodus, Moses was ready to ascend Mount Sinai a second time.   As you may remember, when Moses descended the mountain carrying the first set of tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, he saw the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf.  In a moment of anger and frustration, he shattered the tablets that God had just prepared for him.  While God wanted to end the covenant with the Israelites right then and there, Moses successfully pleaded on behalf of his people, and asked if he could see God’s face.   God told him, “you can’t see my face, but I will put you in the crevice of a rock so you can see my back.”  It is ironic that the Golden Calf episode seems to have brought Moses and God into a closer relationship than ever before. So Moses ascended the mountain a second time with two blank tablets of stone.  And, according to Exodus, Chapter 34, verses 6 and 7, this is what God declared to the humble leader of the Israelites;
 Adonai, Adonai, a 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.
    Chanting that passage from Exodus, Chapter 34 as I stand before the open ark is an awesome and intimate experience. There is already a sense of closeness to our history and our heritage as we remove the Torah from the ark every Shabbat.  These words add the elements to the Torah service of humility, honesty, and return. They express humility and honesty, because this passage assumes that we may have done something wrong that calls for mercy, patience or forgiveness. This passage reflects a sense of "return," t'shuvah, because anyone in the congregation, standing before the open ark, may feel a sense of being, once again, in close proximity to a scroll that bears eternal teachings. That moment in the Torah service puts us in the place of Moses, sitting in the cleft of the rock, unable to see God's face, but comprehending a divine presence that not only passes by at a single moment but accompanies us with every step we take.
   The recitation of the divine attributes from Exodus, Chapter 34 is viewed as a classic characterization of God’s personality.  It can direct us as we shape and enhance our own character and ethical foundation.   As God is kind, compassionate, merciful and gracious to us, we need to act towards others 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.   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.
    The passage from Exodus, Chapter 34 teaches us that there are second chances for an individual or a community. God wanted to keep Moses and the Israelites close and to have that intimacy pervade the relationships among members of the community.  Today, within the human family, this wouldn’t be possible were it not for our capacity to “let go.” We have it in our power to "write in sand" the deeds of others that have caused hurt, which would best be forgiven.  And we have the possibility in our hearts and minds to inscribe in stone the positive acts of the people in our lives that would enable true fellowship, acceptance, and even love to endure.
      Exodus Chapter 34’s description of God’s character establishes a vision for who we can be and the values that we can espouse together. Author Rachel Naomi Remen once told a meeting of Reform rabbis,  “When we serve others, we serve ourselves – our wholeness that we create inside ourselves can evoke a wholeness in others. Community is the most powerful tool for healing. Compassion sustains the world.” In his book, I’M GOD, YOU’RE NOT, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner made the point time and again that we are at our best when we realize that life isn’t always about us individually, but, rather, about seeing ourselves as one member of a team, whether that team is a family, a congregation, a city, a nation or all humanity. This relates to what we might call the “altruistic impulse” that leads us to selflessly serve others, where “what’s in it for me?” isn’t even a consideration. It is also connected to the times when we say the Shema. When we declare that God is one, whether we are alone or at Temple, we become a part of the Oneness that binds the universe together, taking our rightful place in the greater whole. 
    In his book BEYOND RELIGION, the Dalai Lama lamented the external challenges we face which can cause stress and anxiety in our lives that can take us away from developing our best character and inner values.  He explained, “By inner values I mean the qualities that we all appreciate in others, and toward which we all have a natural instinct, bequeathed by our biological nature as animals that survive and thrive only in an environment of concern, affection and warmheartedness -- or in a single word, compassion. The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being.   This is the spiritual principle from which all other positive inner values emerge. We all appreciate in others the inner qualities of kindness, patience, tolerance, forgiveness and generosity, and in the same way we are all averse to displays of greed, malice, hatred and bigotry. So actively promoting the positive inner qualities of the human heart that arise from our core disposition toward compassion, and learning to combat our more destructive propensities, will be appreciated by all. And the first beneficiaries of such a strengthening of our inner values will…be ourselves. Our inner lives are something we ignore at our own peril, and many of the greatest problems we face in today’s world are the result of such neglect.”
      As part of a program supported by the Kellogg Foundation, government and community leaders in New Mexico have begun a process of identifying the values prized by citizens of our state individually and collectively.   CAFÉ, Communities in Action and Faith, has taken up the challenge to initiate a similar process in the faith communities of Southern New Mexico.   In July, CAFÉ director Sarah Nolan came to Temple Beth-El to help us identify our values as a congregation and to highlight principles that we share with the culture of our state. We first listed core values of Temple Beth-El:  education based on an approach that involves questioning, partnership and discussion; wisdom; tzedakah, righteous giving that supports our Temple and worthy causes in the community and around the world; fairness; humility; survival; and equality that crosses gender and personal background.   Echoing the Dalai Lama, Rachel Naomi Remen, and Lawrence Kushner were the tenets of interdependence and the sense that we are all in this together.  Our shared New Mexico values included respect of other cultures; spirituality; family, survival in harsh conditions; tradition; a border identity; independence; rugged individualism; regard for our elders; a connection to both history and land; and hope.   This was the beginning of a process of discussion that we intend to expand to a greater number of congregants in the coming months.    Noting the values that guide us can further enable us to discover who we are and what we can do to make a difference in the world. 
     On a recent Shabbat morning, I chose to read a Torah passage that I have never before recited, and I am not sure why I had overlooked it for so long because of the values it so clearly contains. We read in Deuteronomy Chapter 10   “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 - HAEIL HAGADOL HAGIBOR V’HANORA - 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 Deuteronomy Chapter 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.”   Our world cannot be full of people with hardened hearts and closed hands.  If we are to be like God, we must be compassionate, impartial, fair and just.  We must feel an altruistic responsibility to the most vulnerable members of our society who need our support.   We have ongoing opportunities at Temple Beth-El to practice these mitzvot by bringing food to donate to the Casa de Peregrinos food pantry and the El Cadito Soup Kitchen.  Beth-El Temple Youth is also asking you to bring non-perishable foods to Temple during these High Holy Days so that we can add a small dose of nourishment and hope to those who would otherwise go hungry.
   In his book BEYOND RELIGION, the Dalai Lama asserted that many values found in the world’s religions transcend any one particular faith group.  He went as far as defining those values as secular first, and religious second.   I tend to agree, but I believe that meaningful teachings from our heritage can steer us on the right path towards integrity and decency.   Please turn to Pages 368 and 369 in Gates of Repentance as we join in a reading that expresses the essence of the Jewish moral heritage:
Our rabbis taught: Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses. Micah reduced them to three Mitzvot: “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.’’
Isaiah based all the commandments upon two of them: “Keep justice and righteousness.”
Amos saw one guiding principle upon which all the Mitzvot are founded: “Seek Me and live.”
Habbakuk, too, expounded the Torah on the basis of a single thought: “The righteous shall live by their faith.”
Akiba taught:  The great principle of the Torah is expressed in the Mitzvah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But Ben Azzai found a principle even more fundamental in the words: “This is the story of humanity: when God created us, God made us in the divine likeness.”
And Hillel summed up the Torah in this maxim: What is hateful to you, do not do to others.  That is the whole Torah - the rest is commentary: you must go and study it.
   Justice, mercy, humility, mutual respect and consideration, righteousness, and seeing and seeking the divine in each other – these are values that can accompany us throughout each year, from one Rosh Hashanah to the next.  There is a great deal of time to reach our personal and communal objectives over the months to come – but the resources for doing mitzvot that will enable us to improve our community are always within our grasp. We read in Proverbs Chapter 3, verses 27 and 28:  Don’t hold back bounty from one who earned it when it is within your power to give it and share at that moment. 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.” Our tradition teaches us that, at any moment, we should be ready to offer both tangible and intangible assistance to one person or to an entire community that could truly benefit from our wisdom and our energy. May 5773 be a year in which we see the urgent needs around us that will move us to act upon the values of compassion, fairness, justice, equality, patience, and generosity to bring greater hope and blessing to a world in need of our special spirit.   So may we do – and let us say Amen. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Vistas Past and Yet to Come - September 1, 2012 (from the Temple Beth-El Las Cruces newsletter)

Cantor Barbara Finn and Yours Truly!

Rhonda and I took the opportunity to travel (by car) in August both north and west of Las Cruces.  Like the Midwest, and unlike New England, it takes a long time to get from one place to another!   However, the vistas that nature offers along I-25 and I-10 offer a great benefit for both driver and passenger.  The diverse shapes of the mountains and the variety of desert vegetation are fascinating.   On our drive back to Las Cruces from Phoenix, I noted that, given the clouds on that particular day, the Organ Mountains were visible from about 40 miles to the west.   
Rhonda and Larry Karol and
the Temple Beth-El contingent at
Camp Oranim
       Each of our trips offered communal “vistas” of their own.   In Albuquerque, Rhonda and I attended the Shabbat Evening service at Congregation Albert, in which I participated musically along with my fellow Kansas City native, Cantor Barbara Finn.  We visited Congregation Albert’s Camp Oranim for Havdalah that weekend, which was attended by three Temple Beth-El students.  
        I led Havdalah that night with Congregation Albert’s Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld, my classmate at HUC-JIR (and one of the chuppah holders when Rhonda and I were married) and summer rabbinic intern Sydney Henning.  
Rabbis Karol and Rosenfeld
       On our August trip to Phoenix, we watched our son Adam and his friend Kris Rogers record some of Adam’s original songs at the studio of Scott Leader, who produced my CD of original Jewish music, “A New Beginning” in 2005.    It was an honor to see Adam put his music education to work as he brought his songs to life with his own special touch and spirit.  
       The approach of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur every year presents us with the challenge of putting the preceding year into perspective, evaluating how, in the last 12 months, we were able to grow in character, to practice our values, to learn more about ourselves, and to be loving and compassionate individuals in the context of our family and community.   During the High Holy Days, we may view our lives as an ever-expanding landscape with new vistas that we may never have imagined would be set before us.  We may think of the last year in terms of our relationships, considering friendships that have developed and deepened, ties to family that we have tried to sustain and nurture, or new connections we have made within an organization, neighborhood, or interest group.   We might review 5772 in terms of the choices that we have made, where some decisions reflected our best wisdom, while others may have taken us away from where we wanted to be.  
At Brick Road Studio, Scottsdale:
Scott Leader,
 Kris Rogers and Adam Karol 
     In my piece written for Ten Minutes of Torah for the Union for Reform Judaism, “God and Humanity: Getting Closer” (featured on August 16), I focused on the theme of building community through forgiveness and reconciliation, noting the following truth about living with others: “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.”
Picacho Peak near Tucson, Arizona
     Every new year provides us with a chance to heal the hurt and repair the breach, AND to look at life’s amazing vistas with fresh eyes, as if each step of the journey was new, even if we had “passed that way before.”   The benefit of the passing of the years is that we have more accumulated experience on which to draw, so that we may realized how to strengthen our own moral GPS, realizing that we can move beyond past hurts and offer forgiveness, losing nothing in the process but emotional baggage that would only slow us down in the long run.   This process includes having compassion for ourselves, recognizing our own humanity and giving ourselves a chance to do better in the coming months and years.
     So may be begin the year of 5773 with a new outlook on vistas familiar and unexplored, an approach that will lead us towards hope and joy.   Shanah Tovah!!