Monday, December 31, 2012

Yes, there is a blessing (five, actually) for that, too.....Serving the Community - article for Temple Beth-El Adelante Newsletter for January 2013

Praised are You, Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, who hallows us with Your mitzvot and commands us to occupy ourselves with the needs of the community. This is the blessing that our 3rd-5th Grade Religious School class recites before the students put their weekly donation into the class Tzedakah box. On Sunday, December 16, Sarah Mischler, a transition counselor at the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, spoke to our Religious School students about her efforts to find housing for the residents of Camp Hope (an area set aside by the city for people who are homeless and waiting for housing to live in tents next to the building that houses the local food pantry).  That morning, we loaded material donations, brought by Temple Beth-El members during Chanukah, into Sarah’s car. Sarah spoke with our children and faculty about what factors might lead someone to seek to live in Camp Hope and answered our students’ insightful questions. This blessing comes from the prayerbook of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues in Great Britain, and while it was intended to be used prior to a meeting, it can apply to many of the selfless and generous acts we perform for our congregation or for other groups in which we participate.
Praised be the One who has called us to exalt our nation with righteousness, and taught us: “Seek the welfare of your community and pray on its behalf, so that all may share in its well-being” (Jeremiah 29:7).  On December 6, Rabbi Jerry Kane and I hosted the monthly meeting of the New Mexico State University Interfaith Council at Temple. One of the tasks we completed that day was to prepare granola bars to be given to NMSU students during finals week, bearing a sticker that wished them well on their exams.    The Interfaith Council brings together the sponsors of NMSU’s religiously-affiliated organizations to discuss programming and maintaining good relations among group leaders and members. On December 19, Susan Fitzgerald and I attended the holiday party of CAFé, Communities in Action and Faith, an event that provided us with a chance to get to know some of our local partners who work with us to improve life in Las Cruces and Dona Ana County. Many of us at Temple are involved with local organizations, and this second blessing accurately characterizes the good work that we do for the benefit of our community.
Praised are You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, who hallows us with Your mitzvot and commands us to pursue justice. As we approach yet another observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., we will consider what “justice” means to us.  The movie “Lincoln,” so masterfully directed by Steven Spielberg, defined justice, in the context of discussions related to the Thirteenth Amendment, as equality under the law. Yet, underlying this temporary compromise was the deeper sense that equality meant that all people are created in God’s image, an idea that many hoped would, one day, be universally accepted. Perhaps we are closer than ever to that goal.
Praised are You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, for giving us the opportunity to mend the world.  Temple Beth-El provided breakfast for residents of Camp Hope on the morning of December 25. Congregants donated food and offered other types of support for that effort. Our Religious School students had prepared placemats, decorated candles and other enhancements that were used that morning. Fifteen congregants, plus friends of some of our members, were present to serve the meal and meet and talk with some of the residents.  This was an opportunity for TIKKUN OLAM, mending the world, that members of our congregation created by taking initiative. We will likely serve a meal at Camp Hope again in the coming months, an activity that will complement our service to the El Caldito Soup Kitchen and the donations we collect for Casa de Peregrinos and other local organizations.
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, You call us to holiness. We give thanks for all whose labor benefits the world.    This final blessing expresses appreciation for those who freely and generously give of themselves and their positive spirit to improve the lives of others, whether through providing financial contributions, devoting time to crucial volunteer tasks, or offering insight and wisdom towards the many ways in which we can put into practice the words of Psalm 133: “How good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity.”    May we all find new avenues of service, in the coming months, through which our labors will benefit each other and the entire world.

Friday, December 28, 2012

May God make us like...we hope to be remembered - D'var Torah - December 29, 2012

Jacob sat
with his grandsons in front of him,
the eldest, Manasseh, to his right,
so he could place his right hand, the hand of strength,
at least in biblical terms,
on the head of Joseph’s oldest son.
To his left was Ephraim, the youngest of Joseph’s sons,
Put there by his father so that he could receive
The blessing of the so-called “weaker hand” of Jacob, his father,
Also known as Israel, the struggler with God.
Joseph had forgotten that he had once been
the youngest son and the favorite of Jacob,
as was Benjamin, both of them the sons of Rachel.
With his grandsons before him,
Jacob extended his right hand across his body and put it on the head of Ephraim,
and his left hand rested on the head of the eldest, Manasseh.
Jacob’s crossed hands demonstrated that
there was blessing enough for both.
In ancient times, and even later,
the oldest son almost automatically received the greatest blessing.
Jacob reminded Joseph that the rule in his family was that any child,
an oldest, a youngest, or one somewhere in the middle, could achieve greatness.
What was even more important was that Jacob was blessing his grandchildren at all.
Jacob and Joseph had many obstacles put in their way that could have prevented them
From being a family again.
Yet, as Joseph explained to his brothers when they reconciled, God had a plan for them to reunite in a way that seemed miraculous.
So Jacob said to his son Joseph, now regaled in likely colorful Egyptian garb,
“I didn’t expect to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children as well!”
When families come together for celebration and
when we take part in reunions
that recall the care and presence of loved ones
no longer with us,
we still see them in our mind’s eye, in the warmth of memory.
The blessing that Jacob gave his grandsons was his legacy for the future. It is now traditionally recited before Shabbat dinner.  
For sons, we say, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
For daughters, we declare, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.
It is not just these names of our ancestors that become legacies. 
Our deeds, especially acts of kindness and compassion that build a community and improve the world, offer inspiration to generations to come.
When Jacob/Israel blessed his grandsons, he also offered a blessing, by extension, to the future generations of his family and people.
And, as we join together as a community in the here and now,
we bless each other when we engage in prayer and study,
when we offer support at challenging times,
when we share moments of celebration,
when we explore beliefs and life’s meaning through prayer and song,
and when we do good works for our community and for the world. 
But these acts are not only our blessings for one another.
They establish a foundation for a bright future in which
the best of our values can endure.
So may God make us like Ephraim and Manasseh,
Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.
May God make us like the loved ones that preceded us.
And may the generations of family and community that follow us
look to our lives, our deeds and our character
as a source of strength, hope and blessing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Preserving life with a great deliverance - D'var Torah - December 21, 2012

   Much of our attention over the last week has been focused on the tragic shootings of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Many Americans and people throughout the world have felt a bond with this community of 27,000 people, likely because such an event has the potential to happen anywhere. 

Last Sunday night, in our home, we watched the interfaith memorial service held in Newtown at which President Obama spoke. Immediately following the service, I turned to the Showtime series “Homeland.” Later that night, I posted this thought on facebook: “At the beginning of  the episode of Homeland tonight on Showtime, a message on the screen noted that some of the content of the show might be too violent in light of the events in Connecticut on Friday, and then it said, ‘Viewer discretion is advised.’ Sometimes we may feel that way about life - that we don't want to see what's out there because it is too overwhelming - but we still have to look...and help.”
  A friend in Topeka, Kansas responded to my post just a few minutes later with a note about a story that made national news on Monday morning...She said:
“This relates to Topekans tonight as we listen to the police helicopter and sirens searching for a man that killed two Police Officers outside a local grocery store.  Robo calls have been letting residents know there is a massive manhunt in central Topeka. Prayers for safety, for the fallen, their families and no more senseless violence. Hold your loved ones close, always.”  The gunman was later found and killed in a standoff with police.
    As these tragedies continued to sink in, NBC reported on Tuesday morning that NBC reporter Richard Engel and his crew had just been freed by Syrian rebels from a Shiite Militia group loyal to the Assad Regime.  As I watched part of Savanna Guthrie’s interview of this reporting team this morning, Richard Engel mentioned that they all thanked the rebels who freed them, but the group, which was religiously based, said that they didn’t deserve thanks.   “This was God,” they said, as they took the NBC crew to safety. 
    That statement, “This is God,” reminded me of a verse in this week’s Torah reading.  Joseph had just revealed his identity to his brothers.  He said, “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold to Egypt; and now, don’t be troubled, don’t be chagrined because you sold me here, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. There have already been two years of famine in the land, and there remain five more years without plowing or harvesting.  So God sent me ahead of you to assure your survival in the land, and to keep you alive for a great deliverance.”
    All that has happened in the last week represents but a few of  the many examples and consequences of violence that persist in our world.   We may not be able to stop every attack like those that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, and earlier this year in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, or at the Sikh Temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.    But the words of the Talmud direct us to take action.  “Whoever destroys one life, it is considered as if he or she destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he or she saved an entire world.”    And the rabbis tell us, “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
    So what we do now is up to us.  I believe that God’s voice and guidance should lead us to save lives and  to offer comfort.  It should remind us that what is important is not political power but sensible policies that will less frequently put weapons into hands that could inevitably cause destruction.  The power we have within us can preserve life with a great deliverance, if only we make that choice. 
In the coming days, may we encourage our leaders to make wise decisions.  And may we, ourselves, build a close, caring and warm community and nation that will offer the support necessary to keep us all, as much as possible, safe and secure as we continue our journey towards a future filled with light and hope.  

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Higher Purpose - D'var Torah - Parashat Vayeishev - December 7, 2012

     When I discuss values that could be associated with candles on a Chanukiah with most any age group, two of the principles that are often suggested are hope and light.  
    These two aspects of the Chanukah story relate to the Torah portion for this Shabbat, Vayeishev.  In this section of Genesis, we encounter Joseph first as a young boy who dreams of his future status as a ruler over the rest of his family and is sold by his brothers to be a slave in Egypt due to their jealousy towards his dreams. Joseph, however, had no idea at the time what those dreams of rulership and leadership meant.    We then see Joseph, a decade later, as a young man in an Egyptian dungeon, imprisoned there after being framed by the wife of his master, Potiphar.  Even when in such dire straits, seemingly without hope, Joseph was willing to act as an interpreter of the dreams of his fellow inmates, the king’s cupbearer and baker.  The light of Joseph’s wisdom enabled him to see clearly the fate of these two men.  Yet, Joseph wouldn’t take any credit for his ability to explain the meaning of their dreams.  He said to them, “Surely interpretations of dreams are in God’s domain.”   Just as Joseph predicted, the cupbearer was restored to freedom.    It was he who would later mention Joseph’s special insight to Pharaoh at just the right moment.   The baker, as it turned out, had a much different fate, which followed Joseph’s reading of his dream. At that point in the story, Joseph already knew that there was a higher purpose to his presence in Egypt, even as a prisoner, so he held out hope for his eventual release.
      In the story of Chanukah, there are also higher purposes at work.  The Syrian-Greek Ruler Antiochus IV had presented the Jews of Judea with a clear and foreboding choice: adopt Greek ways and worship Greek gods, including the new statue of Zeus at the Jerusalem Temple, and live. OR  refuse this demand and practice Judaism and face death.
    The priest Mattathias, his family (including the hero Judah Maccabee) and many Jews in Judea were disillusioned with the tyranny of Antiochus and his supposedly enlightened  Greek culture.  Unlike other Jews who had adopted a Greek way of life, these Jews realized that their difficult situation didn’t place them beyond the point of hope.  Their heritage taught them about higher values: cooperation, courage, optimism, and the light of knowledge.  Their beliefs offered them inner strength to persist, individually and together, until they won their freedom and their right to be different.
      When we light the chanukiah in our homes and look at the glow of the candles, we have the opportunity to see in the flames how focusing on our higher values can lead us to hope. Conflicts can be brought to peaceful resolution when people with the greatest wisdom and patience are allowed to speak to each other.  Rabbi Ron Kronish of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel still develops programming that bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in Israel to talk about what they have in common and to allow their faith to heal the wounds that may result from political division.    An adversarial culture may often manifest itself in international relations, whether in the United Nations chambers or in consultations between world leaders.   Common interests, however, for peace and stability, can give way to the realization that we don’t want to live on the brink of war.  Concerns about the dwindling of our natural resources and the possible negative effects of human life on the natural world have a way of bringing people together onto the same page to combat those challenges and, if necessary, to change our ways towards greater conservation.    While the President and Congress have not yet reached an agreement on dealing with a looming fiscal crisis, the higher purpose of preserving the well-being of all Americans may yet lead them to, somewhat, see eye-to-eye.  We can view the challenges of caring for family members of all ages as opportunities to grow closer and to strengthen each other.  When a loved one or community member dies, we have a way of recognizing how his or her legacy can lead us to reach for our highest potential, and to do so with a sense of awe and humility.   Finally, our daily lives contain many encounters and conversations with all sorts of people.   It is possible that every one has a higher purpose, which calls on us to always be on our best behavior.
    As Chanukah approaches, we have every reason to continue to hope and to search for light in the darkness, knowing that we have the faith, the strength and the ability to work together to make miracles right before our eyes.   And like Joseph, a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, may our vision lead us to see the higher purposes in our work and our relationships that can make every moment of our lives worthwhile and holy. So may it be – and let us say amen. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Lights we share - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter - December 2012

   The lights of Chanukah offer us moments of warmth and brightness as the daylight hours grow shorter. This ritual of kindling the Chanukiah/Menorah links Jewish practice to all other “festivals of light” at this time of year.
    What makes Chanukah unique is its story of a people whose practices were, at first encouraged, then begrudgingly accepted and, ultimately, forbidden by their rulers.  A recent archaeological discovery bears a declaration by the Syrian Greek Ruler Seleucus IV that overseers would be appointed over the provinces of their empire, including Judea. Their new powers included the right of the Syrian-Greek empire to assume full authority over the treasury of any religious entity in their realm, including the Temple in Jerusalem.  The successor of Seleucus IV, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, is the familiar Antiochus of the Chanukah story, who did, in fact, take over the Temple treasury, choose a high priest (against Jewish practice), turn the Temple into a house of worship to Zeus, and forbid the practice of Judaism under penalty of death.  The struggle to take back the Temple and regain the right to religious freedom, led by the Maccabees, is still the reason that we light the Chanukah candles every year.
     Our observance of Chanukah reminds us how fortunate we are to live in a country that grants us religious freedom.   No government authority can tell us that we cannot join together, build a Temple/synagogue or practice Judaism.  Our ongoing support of Casa de Peregrinos and the El Caldito Soup Kitchen and Beth-El Temple Youth’s “Turkeys from Temple Teens” campaign demonstrates how we can use our religious freedom to bring benefit to the greater community.  My participation in a monthly clergy breakfast, the New Mexico State University Interfaith Council, Communities in Action and Faith (CAFé’), and the board of the local Peace Camp provides avenues for sharing Jewish perspectives and values with our neighbors.
    As a congregation, there are lights that we can light for each other and for the human family.  Our Shabbat worship offers us a chance to be together as members of all ages, uniting our voices in prayer and song. When we gather for worship, we have the opportunity to inspire each other and deepen our feeling of connection with all of creation and with the Creator of all.   Our participation at all types of Temple events is a gift that enlivens the Temple building and generates a spirit of camaraderie and caring.  Joining any opportunity for discussion gives us a chance to enlighten each other in wisdom and insight.   Sharing our talents and strengths, whether they are culinary, musical, intellectual, cultural or spiritual, is a way in which our “lights” can brighten our congregation throughout the year.   Joining together as members of Temple Beth-El to support local, national and international agencies and organizations that help people in need is another way of giving light to others who need more hope in their lives.
     Without our presence, our hands, and our hearts, a Chanukiah would remain on a shelf, abandoned, lonely, and dark.   When we light the menorah, we are like modern-day Maccabees, seeking to sustain our heritage and to work for freedom for all humankind.   May these be the lights we share during Chanukah and throughout the year!