Friday, November 30, 2012

Psalm 16 - for Ten Minutes of Torah - Union for Reform Judaism - November 29, 2012

Yizkor: Psalm 16
By Rabbi Lawrence P. Karol
     I was sitting by the bedside of my father-in-law, Bert Marks, one day in early March 2004, as he was living out his last days.  My wife Rhonda, our son Adam, and I had traveled to southern California to offer our support. In the quiet of those moments, I reached for a Bible on a bookshelf nearby, resumed my seat by the bed, and recited Psalm 16, which I had been studying around that time with the hope of setting some of its contents to music. I offered those words of the Psalmist as prayer for comfort for my father-in-law and the family.
    Psalm 16 occupies a central place in the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur and the three festivals. Reform prayerbooks have usually included verses 8-11 of the Psalm, but the latest CCAR Rabbi's manual adds some of the beginning verses as well in the funeral liturgy. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov identified this Psalm and nine others as having special power to bring a person facing illness or challenge a Tikkun Hak'lali (Complete Remedy), a true healing of body and of spirit.1 In his book Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity , Rabbi Rami Shapiro noted that Rabbi Yaakov Koppel, a student of the Baal Shem Tov, was known as the "Shivitinik" because of his regular recitation of Psalm 16:8, "I have set the Eternal before me always/Shiviti adonai l'negdi tamid."2 Rabbi Daniel Polish explains that many Jewish homes have a "Shiviti plaque" hanging on the wall "as a constant reminder that we are living under God's protecting care.3
    Psalm 16 expresses profound faith and trust in God. It can enable us to recognize that God is always available for us as a dependable and supportive companion. In this "michtam /golden-song of David," the Psalmist views God as a refuge and a source of goodness and counsel in life.4 God guides us in the right direction towards our destiny.
     Acknowledging God's presence, "setting God before us always," can provide us with encouragement and comfort, even in our grief or at a time of challenge. We can feel that God is with us when we express gratitude for our loved ones who once walked with us and when we admit our amazement at the miracle of life itself. Such realizations can lead us to exultation and joy (verse 9). The pinnacle of Psalm 16, in verse 11, is used in our liturgy to conclude the silent Yizkor prayers: "In Your presence is perfect joy; delights are ever at Your right hand."
The solemnity of a Yizkor service calls for a melody that evokes the Psalmist's pleading for God's ongoing protection and/or a feeling of calm and confidence at the realization that the Eternal One is constantly before us. Transcontinental Music's Shirei T'shuvah/Songs of Repentance collection includes a setting by Nisse Blumenthal, which seems to characterize this Psalm as a humble and solemn request to God.  Nisse Blumenthal Shiviti  For many years, in the Yizkor services which I have led, Michael Isaacson's melody has offered a feeling of reassurance and the sense that our tears of grief also carry within them a touch of joy and gratitude (sung here by Cantor Faith Steinsnyder). Michael Isaacson Shiviti
One of the activities that my father-in-law greatly enjoyed was singing in public, whenever he had the opportunity (he was a "crooner" in the style of Frank Sinatra). As I sat by his bedside and read Psalm 16, I focused especially on the verse 9: "So my heart rejoices, my whole being exults, and my body rests secure." When I created my melody for Psalm 16, I shaped my lyrics in the spirit of Stephen Mitchell's interpretive translation: "You are my food, my drink, my sunlight, the air I breathe. You are the ground I have built on and the beauty that rejoices may heart."Larry Karol Shiviti
May Psalm 16 serve to open our eyes to God's supportive presence that can ultimately lead each of us to joy and to peace.
  1. Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, CSW, ed. Healing of Soul, Healing of Body, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994, page 17.
  2. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity, Bell Tower, 1997, page 78.
  3. Rabbi Daniel Polish. Keeping Faith with Psalms, Jewish Lights, 2004, page 197.
  4. Martin Samuel Cohen. Our Haven and Strength: The Book of Psalms. Aviv Press, 2004, page 41.
  5. Stephen Mitchell, A Book of Psalms, Harper Perennial, 1993, page 8.
Lawrence P. Karol serves as Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces, NM.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Walking with Angels - November 26, 2012

"Walking with Angels" 
A Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19 based on 
The Five Books of Moses, by Everett Fox 
and A Gathering of Angels: Angels in Jewish Life and Literature, 
by Rabbi Morris B. Margolies

The Angels Blessing (Debbie Friedman)
Miy'mini Michaeil, umismoli Gavrieil, Umil'fanai Urieil, umei-achorai R'faeil,
V'al roshi Sh'chinah. (4x)
   מִימִינִי מִיכָאֵל, וּמִשְּׂמֹאלִי גַּבְרִיאֵל, וּמִלְּפָנַי אוּרִיאֵל, וּמֵאֲחוֹרַי רְפָאֵל,
.וְעַל רֹאשִׁי שְׁכִינָה
May our right hand bring us closer to our Godliness. 
May our left hand give us strength to face each day.
And before us may our visions light our paths ahead.
And behind us may well-being heal our way.
All around us is Shechinah. (4x)
[May Michael/God’s being be at my right hand, Gabriel/God’s strength at my left,
before me Uriel/God’s vision, behind me Raphael/God’s healing, and above my head, the Divine Presence.]

The first time I heard that Debbie Friedman song, I felt a little less than natural or comfortable singing along. I didn't know then that "The Angels Blessing" is based on a traditional Jewish prayer said before going to sleep.  It reads as follows:
"In the name of the Eternal One, the God of Israel, may Michael be at my right hand; Gabriel at my left; before me, Uriel; behind me, Raphael; and above my head, the divine presence of God."  
Over 100 years ago, Reform Judaism banished angels from the prayerbook - but not completely. As we sang "Shalom Aleichem" to begin the service, we mentioned "mal'achei hashareit-ministering angels" and "mal'achei hashalom-angels of peace." When we say, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is God of Hosts" at a morning service, we are repeating words uttered by angels in a vision of the prophet Isaiah. The Eternal Light in our sanctuary illustrates this week’s Torah reading, which recounts Jacob's vision of angels going up and down on a ladder reaching to heaven.  We read the stories from the Bible about angels and messengers from God appearing to Abraham, Sarah's maidservant Hagar, and other characters.  We sing "Eliyahu Hanavi" at Havdalah and at the Passover Seder, remembering Elijah who, because he was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, functions in Jewish tradition like an angel.  Tonight, we focus on the figure of Jacob and his first encounter with angels in a dream.

In This Place (Jeff Klepper)
I was weary, I was tired so  I rested for the night
A stone for my pillow, the moon and stars for light
I saw angels on a ladder, from above and from below
God was in this place and I, I did not know-God was in this place and I, I did not know.
I was chasing after rainbows, I was far away from home
Thinking of my family, so hard to be alone
I was wrestling with feelings, I was trying not to show
God was in this place and I, I did not know-God was in this place and I, I did not know.
There is a ladder to the heavens you must climb it if you can
You can do it if you dream it, if you open up your hand
We are on this road together, we are traveling somewhere
We are all in need of comfort, we could use some love and care
I can still hear Jacob calling from the Torah long ago:
God was in this place and I, I did not know-God was in this place and I, I did not know.
I did not know (3)

Most figures in the Bible that encounter angels do so alone.  The word for angel, "Mal'ach," means "messenger." In most biblical stories, angels were sent as emissaries to fulfill tasks for God.  In later Jewish literature, angels began to take on lives and existences of their own as divine beings who could act without God's knowledge and approval.  That created the possibility of Jewish worship of individual angels.  That is one of the reasons why we hear little about angels in our tradition. The rabbis worried that God would cease to be central to Judaism in the face of angel worship, so they struggled to keep the belief in angels in line with the monotheistic Judaism they hoped to pass on to future generations.   Perhaps that is why this story of angels on a ladder might give us pause, but it still can have deep meaning, even for us today.
[10] Yaakov went out from Be’er-Sheva and went toward Harran. [11] He encountered a certain place.  He had to spend the night there, for the sun had come in. Now he took one of the stones of the place and set it at his head and lay down in that place.
Jacob was alone, having left his family because of the strife that had resulted after he took his brother Esau’s birthright in exchange for food and received his father Isaac’s first-born blessing at his mother Rebekah’s urging.  Jacob was in need of strength and reassurance.  There are times when we, like Jacob, are separated from our family and friends for one reason or another.  The cause of our solitude might be distance alone or it could be a challenge that we feel we have to face by ourselves.  Or, it might be a disagreement or conflict that requires reconciliation.  That is certainly a time we might need help from outside of us to guide us through a difficult passage towards resolution.
[12] And he dreamt: Here, a ladder was set  up on the earth, its top reaching the heavens. And here: messengers of God/angels were going up and down on it. 
[13] And here: The Eternal One was standing over against him.  The Eternal said:  I am the Eternal one, the God of Avraham your father and the God of Yitzhak. The land on which you lie I give to your seed. 
[14] Your seed will be like the dust of the earth; you will burst forth, to the Sea, to the east, to the north, to the Negev. All the clans of the soil will find blessing through you and through your seed. 
[15] Here, I am with you; I will watch over you wherever you go and will bring you back to this soil; indeed, I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you. 
The rabbis imagined Jacob standing at the bottom of the ladder, seeing angels representing the great empires of the world going up the ladder as they ascended to great power, and descending as their power declined and their nation was defeated.  Jacob was unsure if he wanted even to step onto the ladder, but God reassured him that his descendants would ultimately move up, rung my rung, into the future. And here we are, a people that has survived through centuries.  
   Rabbi Morris Margolies further explained, “The angels ascending and descending is at the core of Jacob’s vision, telling him that life is two-directional.  Its valleys are as normal as its peaks, its defeats as frequent as its triumphs.  In this light, exile can be seen as a prelude to going home again – if  you have faith that God is by your side wherever you are, and that even when you hit the bottom rung of the ladder you are still in the company of angels."
[16] Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said: Why, the Eternal One is in this place and I, I did not know it!
[17] He was awestruck and said: How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than a house of God, and that is the gate of heaven! 
Rabbi Morris Margolies speaks of angels as being a part of us.  They "are metaphors for the most basic human drives and emotions: love, hate, envy, lust, charity, malice, greed, generosity...delusion, vision, despair, fear and hope."  The "gathering of angels [often] set in placed right here on earth by Jewish teaching.  That gathering is within each one of us."   Jacob’s vision offered him a way to recognize that God was with him, and not only in that “House of God” where he had rested for the night.  Jacob was, himself, a walking and breathing “Beit-El.”
[18] Yaakov started-early in the morning, he took the stone that he had set at his head and set it up as a standing-pillar and poured oil on top of it.  
[19] And he called the name of the place: Bet-El/House of God – however, Luz was the name of the city in former times. 
Whether we view angels as God's messengers outside of us, symbols of God's inspiration inside of us, or as the many people who help us along the road of life, at the core of the belief in angels is that we can't do everything alone.  When we are in need of someone else's support or assistance, we make our needs known.  When we need guidance and strength, we can pray to God and look to any and all sources of wisdom and courage around us.  In her song, "This is the Day," Debbie Friedman suggests that "WE are as angels in disguise."  May every day be a day for new beginnings, when God's messengers and the message of God's nearness will bring us blessing throughout our life's journey.  And may our eyes be open so that, wherever we may be, we can seek and find the gateway that will lead us from despair to hope.
This is the Day (Music and lyrics by Debbie Friedman)
     Chorus (2x): 
This is the day,  it's whispering new beginnings
The sun's shining over us as we journey on our way.
These are our dreams that fill our lives with blessings.
The angels are by our side 'til the breaking of the day

May you be blessed with strength to struggle with your dreams.
May the angels surround you and shelter you from above.
May you bless the world with mercy and with justice.
May you bless the world with your open heart filled with love. Chorus (lx)
May you see the light in every living soul -  We are as angels in disguise.
May you have the courage to forgive and start again. 
May you see the holiness that's in our eyes.   Chorus (1x)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Visualizing a sea of peace - November 16, 2012

The sea, the sky, and even the people....not too 

different on the coast of Tel Aviv (as seen in 

February 2008) as compared to the coast of 

Gaza. There is a Oneness in the universe that 

transcends human conflicts and politics. May 

the Eternal Source of Wisdom and Peace guide 

us toward reconciliation, respect and 

acceptance that can lead to true peace.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Building holiness among us - Article for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Newsletter - November, 2012

Some of our congregants who attended the Candidates Forum on October 21 remarked that our guests, who are running for local judicial positions and for district attorney, seemed so relaxed when they were at Temple Beth-El.  They shared information about themselves and their views with ease in a spirit of civil discourse.  That is due, in part, to the leadership of congregants who chaired the program in developing and posing the questions.  I believe that there is also something about being in a MAKOM KADOSH, a holy space, that has the potential to bring out the best in people. Perhaps the room itself, the stained glass windows, the image of the burning bush on the ark doors, and the words “SERVE GOD WITH GLADNESS” attached to a beautiful wooden frame above the ark all combine to remind us of the timelessness of our heritage.  The belief that our faith and tradition transcend time should guide us to see our participation in worship as part of a “timeless” enterprise.  The words of the prayerbook are there for a reason: they are the script for prayer leader and congregation in a drama that has lasted for over 3000 years.  Judaism comes alive when we are active participants in prayer, whether from our seats or on/near the bimah.    Through our combined voices in readings and song, we become a KAHAL KADOSH, a holy congregation, and an AM KADOSH, a holy people. 

    One of the congregants who brought her grandchildren to the Simchat Torah service (see above) on October 7 said that Simchat Torah was her favorite holiday while she was growing up.  You can see in the photo with the open Torah scroll on this page (we were looking at the book of Genesis) how awesome it is to have the scroll open to show many columns at once.  It gave us an opportunity to highlight the location in the scroll of the stories from creation through Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis Chapter 32.   It was a reflection of the richness of our sacred text that we continue, in the words of Rabbi Ben Bag Bag, to “turn, turn and turn again.”   In marching/dancing with the scrolls, singing, and reflecting on the ending and beginning of the Torah, we were a KAHAL KADOSH, part of an AM KADOSH, sustaining a time-honored tradition of seeing the Torah as a source of wisdom and guidance for our lives.
    On October 18, I spoke about Judaism to a group at Morning Star United Methodist Church that was looking at different faiths in relation to Christianity.  They had good questions and comments and were gratified that I had come to enlighten them on what we believe and practice.  

On Sunday, October 21, the Confirmation class of First Presbyterian Church in Las Cruces  came to Temple at the time that our Machon class meets on Sunday morning. Our Temple students helped me to explain about Jewish symbols and, I have to add, they chanted the beginning of the V’ahavta with great skill and on the spur of the moment!  I had asked our students for questions to pose to our visitors about what is special about the Presbyterian Church in relation to other denominations and what they believe about Jesus (including how they view his Jewish roots).  To end our session, I opened up the Torah scroll from which we read every week (see photo above) so our guests could see that this text (and its teachings) is special—HOLY—for us, so much so that a Torah reader must practice extensively in advance to recite or chant a passage with no vowels or punctuation.  
     So how are we a KAHAL KADOSH, part of a worldwide AM KADOSH, in our daily lives?  When we treat other people with respect wherever we are, we are a KAHAL KADOSH.  When we help people in need through donations of any kind, we are a KAHAL KADOSH.  When we volunteer with an organization that works to make our community—or the world—better, we are KAHAL KADOSH.   When we, as men and women (and boys and girls), join as a community to unite our voices in prayer, in a congregation where either women or men are welcome to lead worship, we are a KAHAL KADOSH. When we engage in discussions about the future of our congregation or our nation based on the principle of civility, we are KAHAL KADOSH.  And, when we see the face of God in each other, we, most definitely, are a KAHAL KADOSH.   May we continue to come together as a Holy Congregation that  sees the timeless wisdom and value of our heritage as integral to our lives and to the betterment of the human family. 

Campaign reflections - before and after - November 7, 2012

This is a collection of comments (meant for all) before and after election day that came to mind for, one favorite prayerbook text set to music.   

November 3, 2012

I am going to try to say this carefully - these thoughts came to me when we read the Prayer for our Country this morning.
1) I pray that every citizen who wants to vote will have a chance to vote and that his or her vote will count.
2) I pray that those who may be trying to stop other people from voting will stop what they are doing when they realize that their actions are counter to the spirit 
of our democracy, and that if their candidate wins, their actions will cheapen that victory (I say this with full knowledge of the effect of "political machines/bosses" on elections of the past - my home town, Kansas City, included).
3) I pray that, when the election is over, winners and losers will be able to even begin to strive to live out the motto on the Great Seal of the United States - E Pluribus, Unum - Out of Many, One. Our diversity of ideas can make us stronger, but it will take some work to get to that point. For all of our sakes, let's hope we still can get there.

November 5, 2012
In preparing for my Pirket Avot - Sayings of the Sages - class tonight at Temple, I came across a famous statement that certainly has implications for the American voter tomorrow....
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when? 
Thank you, Hillel, for your all-purpose declaration!

November 6, 2012
I woke up this morning thinking about the polarization in our country, the passionate feelings that sometimes keep us from recognizing our highest shared values. Some of those values are expressed in one of my favorite readings from the Ref
orm prayerbook, Mishkan T'filah, which I set to music this afternoon as election day was winding down. May all of us blessed with unity, wholeness, freedom and peace.
Based on a reading from the Mishkan T'filah prayerbook
May we gain wisdom in our lives 
overflowing like a river with understanding
Loved, each of us, for the peace we bring to others
May our deeds exceed our speech
And may we never lift up our hand but to conquer fear and doubt and despair

V'neemar v'hayah adonai l'melech al kol ha-aretz
Bayom hahu yihiyeh adonai echad ush'mo echad
(Thus it has been said, the Eternal One will be Sovereign over all the earth
On that day, the Eternal will be One, and God's name will be one). 

Rise up like the sun, O God, over all humanity 
Cause light to go forth over all the lands between the seas
And light up the universe with the joy of wholeness, of freedom, and of peace. 

November 7, 2012
 I got in my car this morning to go buy the morning newspaper to see what happened in local elections, having been well-schooled in the national results. As I started on my short drive, the words of a central declaration from Deuteronomy about God's oneness came to mind. The first and last word of Deuteronomy Chapter 6 verse 4 leaped to prominence:
SH'MA - Hear/truly listen - to yourself and to o
ECHAD - One - unity, oneness, interconnection
Communication - both expressing ourselves AND listening, whether we agree or disagree, is priceless because it necessarily creates interconnection.
Perhaps there is a path that we can tread together, on which we can speak, and listen, and do it over and over, until we find an unexpected place of intersection of ideas and commonality in feelings and objectives.
That is my hope tod