Sunday, September 22, 2013

The rewards of working together - special column on Sukkot in the Las Cruces Bulletin - September 20, 2013

Rabbi Karol at the Sukkot Service
in the Temple Beth-El Sukkah
on September 18, 2013
The rewards of working together 

The Feast of Booths looks at randomness, acts of kindness

By Rabbi Larry Karol 

For the Las Cruces Bulletin

In Las Cruces, we have many opportunities to marvel at nature’s beauty, from the mountains to the amazing vistas pro­vided by sunrises and sunsets.

At other times, we know that we need shelter from storms that remind us that some aspects of life are beyond our control, as demonstrated by recent flooding in Colorado and in our locale.

We also know that we do have the power, and a responsibil­ity, to offer a helping hand to the victims of minor and major disasters.

The Jewish festival of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, touches on both the randomness and kindness that we experience in our lives.
This holiday begins five days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonment, a day of fasting and reciting prayers of confession.

The biblical book of Leviticus contains the command to dwell in booths – sukkot – for seven days. Each booth, or “sukkah,” is a temporary structure with walls made of wood or cloth, and a roof that is partially open to the sky and covered with branches from nearby trees. Building a sukkah, whether at one’s synagogue or home, requires a cooperative effort among family members or congregants. A sukkah is decorated with fruits, vegetables or artwork. Just as certain aspects of life are not permanent, the sukkah is taken down after the end of the celebration.

The book of Leviticus also directed the Israelites to take sev­eral natural symbols: palm, willow and myrtle branches and the product of a “goodly” tree (a citron, a yellow, lemon-like fruit – etrog in Hebrew). The branches are held together in a wicker holder to form the lulav. During the holiday, it is customary to hold the lulav and etrog together in one’s hands, shaking them to the east, south, west and north, bringing them to one’s chest (to “point” inside the person), and then up and down. This rit­ual acknowledges the unity of creation.

One classic interpretation relates those natural symbols to how we can reach our highest potential, individually and collectively.

In his prayer book, “Gates of Joy,” Rabbi Chaim Stern said, “The palm resembles a spine. It says: stand straight, be brave; do not fear to be yourself. The myrtle is like an eye. It says: look well upon this lovely world. Look at all its creatures with joy. The willow’s shape is like a lip. It says: sing and smile; say words
 that are tender and kind. The etrog is like a human heart. It says: open your heart to every living being; feel their pain and know their gladness; give your love with a willing heart.”

With such kindness and courage, and with open hearts, we can offer one another the comfort and support that will take us through difficult times, and enable us to see the best in each other. A Jewish prayer envisions the sukkah as a “shelter of peace.” It is we who build that shelter, only and, especially, when we work together.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Eyes, Ears, Mind, Heart....and Change - Reflections on High Holy Days 2013/5774 (an unpublished column submitted to a local newspaper) - August 25, 2013

At a recent Town Hall meeting in Las Cruces, a local public figure, in responding to a question on a particular controversial issue, noted that we need a change of “mind” and “heart” rather than stricter laws that would compromise what he and others consider to be a right guaranteed in the United States Constitution.
What captured my attention was the use of the terms “mind,” “heart,” and change.  
    There are brilliant minds, underused minds, and closed minds.   There are warm hearts, cold hearts, and hard hearts.     
      Change of any kind can elicit fear, or foster progress, or lead us backwards, or create a new opportunity.  
    In addition to “mind” and “heart,”  I believe that “eyes” and “ears” are crucial as we encounter the world.  
      We can turn our eyes away, or look intently and honestly at what is going on around us.  
     We can open our ears to truly listen to what people are saying to us, or close our ears to calls for help or change or progress.   
     In a recent installment in a series called “Jewels of Elul” (Elul is the month on the Jewish calendar preceding the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah), world-renowned singer Achinoam Nini (Noa) shared her thoughts on “The Art of Welcoming”:   “For me, the word ‘welcoming’ is deeply associated with the word ‘opening’ - opening a door, a heart, a mind. Opening your eyes in order to truly see those around you, opening your mind to new ideas, opening your heart, even to what seems threatening, frightening, ominous, with the knowledge that we fear most what we are unfamiliar with. Reaching out to those whom we are suspicious of, those whom we have formed weakly based opinions of, is the key to dissolving fear and making way for growth and acceptance.”
    In any community, we are called to be welcoming, to reach out beyond the labels we place on other people and beyond the labels that may be associated with us. 
     Judaism, and other religions as well, teach that we are created in the divine image, meaning that there is a special spirit that comes from the Oneness that binds us together.   
    In Leviticus Chapter 19, not only does it say “love your neighbor as yourself.”  It further declares: “When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them.  The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” To truly follow these teachings, we must begin by recognizing the humanity and dignity of every person.
       A powerful symbol associated with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the Shofar, which we sound at specific times during our worship for these High Holy Days.   The Shofar is intended to move those who hear its call to be decent, caring and respectful human beings who are willing to look into themselves, see their strengths and failings, and strive for positive change.     The sound of the Shofar is hard to ignore, and that is as it should be.  Changing mind and heart for the better is crucial to living a good life. 
      We must, however, also consider that open eyes and ears might bring about positive change in the world. On the morning of Yom Kippur, Jewish worship includes the reading of an excerpt from Isaiah Chapter 58, which calls on us to “unlock the fetters of wickedness,” to “let the oppressed go free,” and to take the poor into our homes. Only then will our light “shine in the darkness.”   In the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus about the Statue of Liberty, the last line declares, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”  The High Holy Days of Jewish tradition call on us to lift our lamps towards one another, so that we can see, as well as hear, those who are asking us for help, appealing to the compassion that they know is essential to our humanity.
    The rabbis of the Talmud suggested that God prays.  What is God’s prayer?  “May it be that my attribute of strict justice will be overcome and overtaken by my attribute of mercy.”    This is how we can approach each other in communal life.  We have laws, but we can apply them with mercy.  We have definite ideas about how a friend or co-worker or classmate should act, but sometimes we need to give him or her the benefit of the doubt.   We have our own opinions, but perhaps we can see even one valid point in an opposing position, which could lead to a meeting of minds and hearts in the middle.  A community will thrive when it is founded upon compromise and compassion, and when its members are willing to open their minds, hearts, ears and eyes.
        In the months to come, may we consider how we can reach out to each other with concern and offer needed support.  May our hearts be warm as we offer one another a welcoming spirit.  May our ears clearly hear voices calling for change that will benefit us all.  And with our eyes, may we see one another in the most positive light.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Listening to the Cries and Calls of Humanity - Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning - September 14, 2013 - Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, New Mexico

We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
to banish war,
for You have filled the world
with paths to peace
if only we would take them.
We cannot merely pray
for prejudice to cease
for we might see the good in all
that lies before our eyes,
if only we would use them.
We cannot merely pray to You
to end starvation:
for there is enough food for all,
if only we would share it.
We cannot merely pray to You:
“Cast out despair,”
for the spark of hope
already waits within the human heart,
for us to fan it into a flame.
We must not ask of You, O God,
to take the task that You have given us.
We cannot shirk,
we cannot flee away,
avoiding obligation for ever.
Therefore we pray, O God,
for wisdom and will, for courage
to do and to become,
not only to gaze
with helpless yearning
as though we had no strength.
So that our world may be safe,
and our lives may be blessed.
[From Mishkan  T’filah, World Union Edition, as adapted from Siddur Lev Chadash, as adapted from a prayer by Jack Riemer, in New Prayers for the High Holy Days, Prayer Book Press of Media Judaica, Inc., 1971 – from Rosh Hashanah Morning Service draft, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2011]

This reading written by Rabbi Jack Riemer over forty years ago calls on us to respond through word and deed to the specter of war, to the persistence of hunger in our world, and to people who are overcome by disease, inequality, violence and discrimination.  
The first step in taking action is hearing the cries of those who are in despair, who need our support to live in safety and freedom. 
Those calls for assistance often come first to the faith community, which is seen as a source of comfort and
an agent of compassion and change. 
    In the past year,  I have joined other religious leaders in meetings devoted to hearing those cries for help clearly and distinctly.
We have tried to determine in those gatherings how clergy and congregants can effectively step forward to offer the appropriate answer to people in need.   
  In those meetings, I personally have heard about the plight of farm workers in New Mexico who are ill-treated and underpaid for their back-breaking work.
   I have witnessed people lose their fight to keep their homes, where the bank chose foreclosure over the homeowners’ honest attempt to modify their loans.
I have spoken with members of communities where government officials had chosen to invest in jails rather than in schools.  
   Some of you have spoken with residents of Camp Hope who have a place to stay due to the good graces of the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope as they wait for the possibility of being matched with a new place to live to call their own.
    Donations flow from your hands to the Casa de Peregrinos food bank and El Caldito Soup kitchen every month, offering a gift of nutrition and warmth to local residents who depend on our generosity. 
    I have been in the presence of aspiring citizens seeking to be full-fledged Americans someday.  
     I attended a hearing at the immigration court in El Paso for a woman facing deportation who would have been separated from her children born on American soil.   Due to a flood of calls from people in our area and around the country, and the wisdom of the court, her case was closed and she can remain as a member of the local community.  
   Susan Fitzgerald and I had the opportunity to meet some of the participants in a 285 mile walk for citizenship in California from Sacramento to Bakersfield.  That walk ended by reaching its objective: a meeting with Congressman Kevin McCarthy.  Even with major disagreements during their conversation, the congressman indicated his intention to continue open dialogue with the group .  
    Some members of Congress continue to be focused on the “rule of law” in the current debate on immigration reform.
   We, of all people, should remember that it was the “rule of law” that kept thousands of Jews from finding a haven in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.  Due to the immigration quotas established in 1921 and 1924, the waiting list was years long for Jews who sought visas to gain refuge in America.   Some of them survived throughout World War II, but others perished in the Holocaust.
   In this day and age, it is hard not to hear the cries and calls of humanity for genuine concern, for an outstretched hand that can offer support and hope.
    The question is, what do we want them to hear from us?   What should be the response of religious congregations?  And how does Judaism shape our approach to the needs of society and the world?  
      One of my colleagues, Rabbi Dennis Ross, is a national advocate for reproductive choice.    In his book ALL POLITICS ARE RELIGIOUS,  Rabbi Ross characterized the voice of the faith community that he believes people would hope to hear.  Before laying out those principles, he described the type of statements from religious leaders that too easily find their way into the headlines.     Too often, he said, people link religion to the claims of certain clergy that a particular disaster, such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, happened because it was God’s punishment for a community’s moral failures.  We readily hear about religious groups insisting that state or national laws or the curriculum in our nation’s schools should match their own strict interpretations of biblical or religious law and values.   Rabbi Ross suggested an alternative religious message that can bring about positive change based not in strict judgment but in loving and open concern for all people.    He proposed these principles that could guide congregations in their work in the community:
·      caring for the powerless;
·      softening harsh justice with compassion;
·      affirming a positive vision for the future;
·      upholding our right to make our own moral decisions, without the interference of strict secular laws;
·      and strengthening the separation between religion and government, while encouraging a variety of faiths to contribute their views, but in an atmosphere of mutual respect. 
    Another leader in the American faith community supports Rabbi Ross’ idea of providing a new vision for positive change.  Rev. Jim Wallis is an evangelical Christian who attended a church in Detroit when he was growing up.  His church focused on personal atonement for each member of the congregation.   The inaction of his congregation in reaching out to help struggling neighborhoods across town led him to see the necessity of working for social justice and equality if he hoped to make real the message of the prophets in the Bible.    In his book ON GOD’S SIDE,  Rev. Jim Wallis asserted, like Rabbi Ross, that religion has an important role to play in public life.   Wallis explained that religion uses politics all too often to enforce its own viewpoint and its own interests, or tries to make its own beliefs and standards the law of the land.   Wallis asserted that religion is at its best when it leads and proactively sets the agenda for community action based in genuine concern for the welfare of all people.
   Wallis focused on a set of central religious teachings that can direct our work for social justice, including:
·    caring most about what happens to the poor and vulnerable;
·    protecting human life and dignity;
·     promoting the actual health and well-being of families.
·    lifting up the people who have no political influence, including immigrants who remain undocumented, low-income families and children, and the poorest of the poor globally. 
From his unique position, Rev. Wallis is able to see the value in both conservative and liberal perspectives on how people can improve their lives.   Wallis explained, “I believe the best idea of the conservative political philosophy is the call to personal responsibility: choices and decisions about individual moral behavior, personal relationships, fiscal integrity, service, compassion, and security. And the best idea of the liberal philosophy is the call to social responsibility: the commitment to our neighbor, economic fairness, racial and gender equality, the just nature of society, needed social safety nets, public accountability for business, and the importance of cooperative international relationships.”  To work for the ultimate goal, which Wallis calls the “common good,”  we need to be personally responsible and socially just.  Everyone needs to work together to combine the strengths of these philosophies in order to improve the quality of life for everyone.     
     Both Rabbi Ross and Rev. Wallis outlined values that resonate with people of many faiths as they seek to put their beliefs into practice in the greater community.  The Torah and Haftarah readings in our services this morning and this afternoon echo many of those very principles that can lead us to work for positive change. 
   The Torah reading for this morning from Deuteronomy Chapters 29 and 30 envisions all of the community standing together,  people from all walks of life, all levels of status and importance, in a moment of equality.  They were all commanded to choose “life and good.”   Today, we can choose to seek and work for “life and good” in our diverse community, focusing on human concerns for the common good that unite us.
     In the Haftarah,  the prophet Isaiah declared to his people that the fast that God wanted from them was not one where they meticulously fulfilled their ritual obligations and then oppressed their workers and sowed conflict among their neighbors.   Isaiah assured his people that their light would shine in the darkness, their night would be bright as noon “if they removed the menacing hand, unlocked the shackles of injustice and bondage, made sacrifices for the hungry and satisfied the needs of the afflicted.”
    In the Torah reading for this afternoon from Leviticus Chapter 19, we are commanded to be holy as God is holy through our actions that can further the common good.  This biblical “holiness code” directs us to honor our parents, share our food with the poor and stranger, judge our neighbor fairly, refrain from gossip, treat people of all ages with respect, practice honesty in business and love our neighbors as ourselves.   Verses 33 and 34 of Leviticus Chapter 19 proposed a universal version of the “golden rule”:  “When strangers live with you in your land, you must not oppress them.  The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”    This broadly based standard equated citizens and strangers in the context of a caring and welcoming community.  I would imagine that my grandparents hoped for such a welcome when they immigrated to the United States.   That principle from Leviticus can guide our approach to aspiring citizens who are now living among us. 
    The Haftarah reading for this afternoon further advocates for the values of openness and acceptance not only within a nation but also between nations and peoples.  The prophet Jonah refused to deliver a message to the people of Nineveh to repent and change their lives because they weren’t Hebrews like he was.   He learned the hard way, after spending three days in the belly of a DAG GADOL, a big fish, that God’s love and compassion extended to everyone, no matter who they were or from whence they came.
     The central values of today’s biblical readings form the core of our message to the world, creating a society based on honesty, equality, concern for all people, a willingness to listen and respond, and a sense that faith must lead us to extend a helping hand to offer timely comfort and action that can bring about positive change.   We do have our work cut out for us.
But I know that there are Temple members who are already involved in ongoing efforts to strengthen our communal safety net, to further equality, to eliminate prejudice and discrimination, and to assure that our city, county, state and country are welcoming enough to offer current citizens and aspiring citizens a sense of security and hope.  I believe that my role in the community, and the role of our congregation, is to apply the moral principles of the Torah and the ethical proclamations of the prophets to assure that our light will have a fighting chance to shine in the darkness, and our night will be bright as noon, because of the work we do for the common good of our fellow community members and of all humankind.
   The words we recite today from the Tanakh can lead us to a place of light, hope, balance and mutual respect if we continue to open our ears to truly listen to each other and to hear the cries of people who need our help and support.   The prayers of Yom Kippur continue to call on us to consider how we will be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life in the coming year. We have it within each of us to share the light inside our souls that will provide warmth to our community and to a world that needs our open hands and open hearts.
 Please join with me in a reading by James Conlon that calls on us to provide the world with healing and hope:  
I know
that poverty must cease.
I know this through the brokenness
and conflict in my heart.
I know
that protest is my most prophetic act
and that the world is longing
for a new soul, a new healing moment.
I know
that when we awaken to our origins
and become truly human
we bring hope to the children
and to the earth.
I feel called today
to bring the people together to break the bread
and tell the story.
I feel called today
to be a mystic in action,
aligned to the dynamics of the universe.
I feel called today
to give my gift,
to listen to the heartbeat of the broken world;
to heal the fragmentation of people and planet.
I feel called today
to celebrate the wonder of creation
and respond to sacredness and the
challenges of life.
I feel called today
to participate in the work of my time,
to fall in love,
to feel at home.
I feel called today
to be inflamed with enduring hope,
to be at one with the universe,
to be touched by God.
I feel called today
To compose a new paragraph for life.
[James Conlon, From the Stars to the Streets, Novalis, 2007 – in Rosh Hashanah Morning Service draft, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2011]

May the paragraphs we write in our Book of Life lead us to infuse the world and our souls with goodness, holiness, blessing and peace. 

Listening to our Conscience - Sermon - Kol Nidre/Erev Yom Kippur - September 13, 2013 - Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Eternal One, Creator and Sustainer of us all,
Maker of Peace,
Source of Hope,
Giver of strength and wisdom,
We need to talk. 
Or, once again, I need you to listen.
I am already exhausted, and Yom Kippur has just started.   There is too much happening all at once.
   Two days ago was the anniversary of 9/11.  When I spoke to my congregation on Kol Nidre night in 2001, I said, “We are still numb and in pain.  Recent events have touched us all – and shocked and awakened people all over the world.” 
Little did I know then that 12 years later, I would feel that the only way to express myself on Erev Yom Kippur would again be through prayer – or, maybe I should call it a conversation with You on which my congregation can eavesdrop.
In 12 years, we have seen two wars in which American troops were fighting on the ground, - and we mourn those who have died.  In both countries, the leadership struggles to maintain stability and opposition to the government remains significant.
  We have seen uprisings in the nations around Israel change the already complex equation of Middle East politics and diplomacy.  
   We have seen leaders in certain countries in that region come and go, with their exit not necessarily leading to greater freedom, almost as if to render prophetic the words, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”   We are left uncertain whether or not we can truly say that we won’t get fooled again.
    Our lives have drastically changed.  The price of freedom is emptying our pockets, removing our belts and shoes, and having a security worker look at a momentary electronic portrait of us to be sure we will be a cooperative and peaceful traveler.   I never minded that on trips to Israel…..I guess I don’t mind it now, but it’s a change.   And the awareness we now have of the privacy we have given up so that someone else’s suspicious conversation can be caught before a disaster occurs may cause some of us consternation, whether we sympathize with the whistleblower or not.
    And then there is Syria – what to do to assure that a chemical weapon attack doesn’t happen again, and how to approach either the punishment or resolution…or both. Rabbis have been all abuzz about whether or not to change an already written sermon for the High Holy Days to speak about the Syrian situation.  Well, I said a couple of weeks ago that I wouldn’t – and I kept my word.   But, the moment is here….or, at least, it seems to be.
    Before I talk about war, or conscience, which is what I will still discuss tonight, I need to mark yet another anniversary or two, one that occurred today on the Jewish calendar and one on the secular calendar.  It is 40 years since the Yom Kippur War, which was a challenging time for the State of Israel and the world Jewish community.  We mourn those who died during those difficult days.  It was twenty years ago today that a leader of a Middle Eastern nation spoke these words, “Let me say to you…We are destined to live together on the same soil, in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood, we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes, we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eyes of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their children, we who have fought against you….We say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free people. We are today giving peace a chance, and saying again to you: Enough. Let us pray that a day will come when we all will say: Farewell to the arms.     We wish to open a new chapter in the sad book of our lives together, a chapter of mutual recognition, of good neighborliness, of mutual respect, of understanding. We hope to embark on a new era in the history of the Middle East. Today…we will begin a new reckoning in relations between peoples, between parents tired of war, between children who will not know war.”     
   Source of Peace, it must have been You who inspired Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to make that bold declaration on the White House lawn.  Even more courageous was Rabin’s handshake with Yassir Arafat.  I know that there are many, many naysayers worldwide who would decry that moment as a major mistake.   Even though the Oslo process did not lead to the desired outcome, peace between Israelis and Palestinians, it did shape a foundation for possibilities.  We don’t know what is happening today, behind the scenes, in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  We do know that because of the Oslo accords, the leaders now sitting across the table from each other in bi-lateral meetings have a history of dialogue.  Even if those discussions have been frustrating and often fruitless, the fact that opposing leaders have been able to sit at a table, even if only to shout at each other, is, in and of itself, an ongoing miracle.   We continue to mourn the death of Prime Minister Rabin, a consequence of his attempt at peace making.  We thank You, Eternal One, for the opportunity to glimpse at least a few moments of rapprochement 20 years ago.  We know that animosities remain, and that hatreds persist – but we also recognize that peace may yet have its day.
    What was it that led Yitzhak Rabin to stand on the White House lawn that day?   It was likely much more than an attempt to help members of his government who initiated the Oslo process save face before their international dialogue facilitators.  Even if Prime Minister Rabin didn’t trust the adversary with whom he shook hands on September 13, 1993, something made him take steps towards negotiation even though he knew that they might fail.  
    I believe that it was Rabin’s conscience that moved him to make that unexpected decision, based on a sincere desire to end a state of virtual war.  
      I asked the children at Temple Beth-El how they would define “conscience.”   They said that “conscience” is a “voice that tells you what to do and when to do it,” “judgment,” “something in your mind or a natural feeling that tells you what is right and what is wrong.”   “Conscience” may tell you that “what you did was wrong and you shouldn’t do it again.”   It is a “combination of self-control, empathy and forethought.”   We closely monitor our behavior, taking into account not only our own feelings but also those of others before we act.  We might carefully think about the results of each possible course of action we could take, and then decide which will create an outcome that is the most positive or, perhaps, the least negative. 
   As we pray to You on this Yom Kippur, Source of forgiveness, we know that the words we use to characterize our relationship with You relates to “conscience.”   Some commentators have suggested that “conscience” is expressed in the Hebrew term YIR’AT ADONAI, reverence for You – or fear of You.”   I wonder, do You want to be feared – or revered?   It’s like asking a parent – or perhaps a leader of a business, an organization, or a nation – would you rather have people respect you or be afraid of you?    I almost always say that YIR’AH means reverence, but the word AWE may help us understand as well what YIR’AH truly means.  Making a moral decision can be taxing and overwhelming, and the inspiration that leads us to our final choice may feel like it came from somewhere else.   It is, at least in part, from inside of us, but some people believe that “conscience” is where heaven and earth touch, maybe even embrace.   Reaching that concluding ethical insight can be, for some of us, a moment of awe and amazement, because human life is so emotionally challenging. 
     Guidance for our moral decisions comes from inside of us – and from outside as well.   Eternal Wellspring of Wisdom, You know better than I do what Sigmund Freud had to say about that.   Judaism would recast “superego” with the word Torah in its broadest sense, encompassing biblical and rabbinic teachings and all of their later interpretations.    Jewish philosopher Martin Buber noted, Eternal One, that when it came to choosing between You and the Bible – or any other text – we should choose You.  Better put, we should choose to be like You in applying justice balanced with a heavy dose of compassion.
    When it comes to war, we know that every life is precious, but we know that our heritage has given us standards that can help us determine when to wage war and when to choose peaceful negotiation.   These are some of the questions that Judaism requires us to address:  
Was our nation or an ally attacked directly?
Is there a moral imperative that would justify the use of force?
Will a military action achieve the moral goals for which it is being used?
 Should any nation take such an action alone? 
Could an attack in response to a violation of international rules result in loss of life?  
Will any type of diplomatic approach through negotiation uphold the moral imperative and accomplish the goal of preventing a future violation?
After any action that is taken – military or not – will there be a possibility for future cooperation or, at least, an end to hostilities?
 These are the questions that I hope are on the minds of at least some of the people in the United States and in other nations attempting to determine how to deal with the Syrian government.   Eternal One, we have faith that your Oneness pervades all creation.  But there are those who refuse to recognize the interconnection in our world and in the universe.  They see only their own position and power as important.   They lack genuine concern for the people living in the nation they rule, or that they hope to rule.  They are unable to balance their own interests with a moral approach that could win them even greater support and respect.   Their focus on their own survival eclipses any regard for the lives of civilians.   Once they have determined that their enemies or opponents are no longer human, there is nothing to stop them from using an arsenal of chemical weapons – or for that matter, any weapon – to cause even more death and destruction.  
    The entire force of Jewish tradition teaches that war should be a last resort – that it is an aberration in human life that results all too often from fear or from broken relationships between neighboring or even distant nations.   Even one limited military act to make a moral point should not be taken lightly.  Nor should parties to a conflict enter diplomatic discussions and negotiations with the hope or assumption that they will fail.  
    Eternal God, You have taught us to seek peace and pursue it, to be grateful for the gift of life, and to hope that we can “repair the world” as a place where people understand that they are members of one human family.  If we see Your image in every human being, then we should always first choose to offer peace and assume that even an enemy doesn’t really want war. 
      In his book SAYING NO AND LETTING GO, Rabbi Edwin Goldberg wrote of an incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  On October 22 of that year, President John F. Kennedy had announced a blockade against Cuba and had threatened to attack if Soviet nuclear missiles that had been placed on that island country were not removed.  Several days later, President Kennedy received two separate messages from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.  The first was a message to stop the drift to bloodshed, with an offer to remove the missiles if Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba.  The second message contained hostile language that would have forced President Kennedy to declare war.  The President didn’t know which message reflected Khrushchev’s actual perspective.  But the President’s brother Bobby Kennedy suggested that the United States ignore the second message and focus on the first that offered a compromise.   That was a moment of decision, but it was, especially, a choice that was made based on conscience.   In that case, we know that what was wrong and unwise was taking the world to the brink of nuclear war.  What was right and wise for both nations – and the world - was compromise.    
    So, Gracious Giver of Wisdom, who forgives our failings on this Day of Atonement, this Yom Kippur, there are paths being forged for the future by leaders of our country and other nations.   We cannot make their decisions for them.  We cannot ignore when your children deny the humanity of others and seek to deprive them of their lives with impunity.   Perhaps any solution that will clearly hold Bashar al Assad accountable for his regime’s actions might bring some broader resolution to the strife in Syria, much of it due to Assad’s attempt to hold on to power at all costs.   You know, Eternal One, what is in his heart, and in the heart of Russian President Vladimir Putin.   You know, as well, what is in our hearts – a hope for an end to conflicts that have affected so many innocent people, and a desire to see that there is some level of morality left in this world.
    Eternal One, I prayed the following words 12 year ago, and I repeat them now:  “I believe that You are here with us to help us face the evil that we human beings perpetrate on one another. You are here to help us make the right choices – to cry divine tears when we don’t choose wisely – and to help us steer ourselves back onto the right road when we are ready.”  
    So help us, O God, to stir the conscience of humanity to forge a new path to cooperation and compromise and to guide our leaders in their deliberations by turning their hearts one to the other.  Inscribe us, O God of mercy, for a year of lives preserved, ever-increasing blessing, and abundant peace.   And let us say Amen.  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

"Listening to God and Spirit" - Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning at Temple Beth-El of Las Cruces, NM - September 5, 2013

     The story is told of a rabbi who went to the circus and saw there a man walking a tightrope.  One of his students asked, “Why’s that man risking his life in that way?" The rabbi answered, “I don’t know why. But I do know this. As long as that man is walking along that tightrope, he is using his whole mind and soul to concentrate on walking along it. If for one moment he stopped to worry about the money that he is earning by walking the tightrope, he would be lost and he would fall. Only when he concentrates on the task at hand, the work that he has to do in walking that thin cord, can he hope to succeed."
        This story was well illustrated by Nik Wallenda during his recent walk high across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope.    Over the course of his 22 minute highwire trek, he used his faith to provide himself with focus, giving thanks for each step that he took along the way.   His successful and daring feat was televised worldwide. I am sure that, even now, over two months later, people still marvel at his amazing abilities to maintain his concentration and his balance. 
             A famous mentor in one of the most widely-watched movies of all time affirmed for his new student, named Luke, the importance of concentration and dedication: “Ready are you? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi….A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. (Heh.) Excitement. (Heh.) A Jedi craves not these things.”
   I imagine that we don’t have any aerialists in our congregation, although I know of members with pilot licenses and there may be some former gymnasts among us.  I am 100% certain that we have no real Jedi Knights.   
   And still, there are times in our lives when we feel that we are walking on a tightrope, high above the ground, or even facing a dialoblical adversary, with only our self-confidence, creativity, ingenuity and concentration keeping us from falling or failing.
        When we face tests and trials in our lives, we don’t choose to undergo those experiences for publicity.  Such challenges are usually unplanned, especially in terms of their timing.   When Rhonda and I traveled to St. Louis this summer to help her mother settle into new surroundings, we had the opportunity to speak to other people whose parents had made the same move.   We discovered that whether from across town or from a great distance, an adult child wants to know that his or her parent is safe and receiving excellent care every moment of the day.  
   And some of us have likely been the parent picking up a child at school who has been hurt or has suddenly become ill.  The parental response in that moment is one of focus and commitment to provide a safety net of protection and comfort by dropping everything and being present.   We had that experience once when our son Adam was in seventh grade.  I was called to leave work to join him in the school nurse’s office until his severe asthma attack subsided.   It was scary for him and for me – and for his mom who wasn’t there.   For any parent who has been there for his or her child in that way, there is a great likelihood that, one day, that child will be doing the same for you, turning aside from his or her own tasks to be of help.  
      The image of a lone individual walking on a tightrope represents only one part of the story of our lives.  Rabbi Nachman of  Bratslav offered yet another interpretation of the journeys we take with this well-known saying: KOL HAOLAM KULO GESHER TZAR M’OD – The entire world is a narrow bridge; V’HA-IKAR LO L’FACHEID K’LAL – the most important and underlying principle of our lives is not to be afraid.”    Sometimes we aren’t only like tightrope artists working alone.   We are walking across a narrow bridge with other family members, or friends, or community members.  
     I have been thinking about some of the journeys and marches in which I have participated this year.    Walking with the local NAACP chapter on a Sunday in January connected everyone present with the ideals and dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I offered this impromptu prayer to begin that march: “Eternal God, Creator and Sustainer of us all, we thank you for this opportunity to come together. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness- only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred- only love can do that.’ May the steps we take today bring light and love to our community.”
           I have met with people over the last year facing foreclosure of their home, deportation, serious illness, loss of a job or a living wage, and too many types of discrimination.  At the National Leadership Training of the PICO Community Organizing Network,  some of my fellow participants spoke about unending gang violence in their communities.  A Muslim woman there told me about instances when she and her family faced stereotyping and profiling. 
    When a difficult situation can’t be resolved, we feel as if we are walking on a tightrope with nothing below to catch us.    It is only when other people are present to show us concern that we feel that we are crossing a narrow bridge and we are not alone.
     In recent months, we have heard about people across the world whose narrow bridge seems to lead nowhere, even though they are members of a community. There are Coptic Christians in Egypt who are the victims of violence at the hand of some fellow Muslim citizens.  There are members of Christian communities in Israel whose churches have been attacked by the TAG M’CHIR –Price Tag – group that begrudges their presence in the Jewish State.   There are people in Syria who have no security in the midst of that raging conflict. There are Jews all over the world facing threats to their well-being due to prejudice and hatred that has emerged from religious beliefs, cultural misconceptions and extremist political ideologies.  Living in an Israeli town that is within reach of rocket attacks from across the border is a trial that we hope will end once there is peace.
     To successfully overcome any of these trials and challenges takes more than one person walking on a tightrope.   It requires that people join together to make a difficult crossing by first overcoming fear and then by moving forward with confidence and resolve.   The images of the tightrope and the bridge both relate to AKEDAT YITZCHAK, the story of the binding of Isaac, our Torah reading for this Rosh Hashanah morning.   This tale raises so many questions.  Was Abraham alone in this trial?  Was Isaac truly a partner in this test?   How does this story apply to us, given that we likely won’t hear a similar call from God?  Or….will we? 
       Rabbi Bradley Artson’s new book, Passing Life’s Tests, offers many levels of interpretation of this tale of the binding of Isaac.   When speaking about God in the AKEDAH, Artson distinguished between the two words used for God in the story.   The command to take Isaac came from ELOHIM.   Rabbi Artson suggested that ELOHIM signifies God’s attribute of strict justice.  ELOHIM may also point to the reality of random events that occur in our lives.  Death, suffering, and evil are a part of life and creation.   They make us feel that the world is a place of chaos that only causes us despair and elicits fear in our hearts and souls.  How do we get beyond that fear?   The name for God in the last part of the tale is YUD-HAY-VAV-HAY, ADONAI, the One who is Eternal, who causes all of creation to exist.  This name represents God’s mercy, compassion, support and comfort.   It is the ANGEL of ADONAI that stops Abraham from taking this test of faith to its inevitable end.   At the conclusion of this passage, Abraham named the site of this test ADONAI YIR’EH – the God of mercy will see, not ELOHIM YIR’EH – the God of randomness and strict justice will see.   This interpretation is echoed in the Talmud.  The rabbis suggested that God prays.  What is God’s prayer?  “May it be that my attribute of strict justice will be overcome and overtaken by my attribute of mercy.”    As it is with God, so it should be with us.  Yet, there are times when we, as individuals, as parents, employers, employees, or friends, may put someone else to a test to see how he or she responds.   Or we may be the one who is tested.  In fact, the tests and trials never end.  What is important is how we act at that moment.  It is crucial for us to hear the voice not only of pure objectivity and strict justice but also the still, small voice that leads us to mercy and even forgiveness of others and of ourselves.  
       The story of the binding of Isaac is a tale of faith and, ultimately,  of love.  And while there is almost no dialogue between father and son along this journey, there is so much in between this story’s beginning and end.
    In the context of this tale, Rabbi Bradley Artson defined faith as the ability to view every encounter as a test of our integrity.  We have the power to choose how we are going to act when we face an unexpected divergence from our normal path.    Faith offers connection and trust, but faith doesn’t mean that we will get a better deal because of our piety.   It means that we have to be up to the challenge at hand.   Abraham was asked to do something unimaginable to him or to any of us.   Take away the content of his trial, the command to sacrifice his son, and we can begin to relate to Abraham.  We are often called to give up something.   The sacrifice may be precious moments that we thought we could devote to family, or friends, or a project we needed to complete, but we were, on the spur of the moment, called to fulfill another purpose. Such an experience puts us in Abraham’s position.      Rabbi Artson explained that  “life's tests come  unannounced and unlabeled.    Recognizing that a challenge or a tragedy is also an opportunity for community, faith or personal growth is the first step in passing the test.”    Life’s interruptions, both major and minor, can teach us new lessons about ourselves, our beliefs and our character.  What may seem to take us off of our planned itinerary may actually lead us to our true destination, including a deeper understanding of ourselves.   This will only happen if we accept the duty of the moment.  The command LECH-LECHA, go forth, can mean “go for yourself” – take this path so that you will grow in a way you never expected.   It may be a walk on a tightrope, all by yourself, or you may end up on a bridge with traveling companions who will make you see yourself in a new light.  
    In this case, Abraham’s traveling partners were Isaac and two servants.   Some commentators claim that Isaac could have refused to go with his father in the first place, or that he could have stopped the test as soon as he was bound on the altar.  Isaac may have been acting in solidarity with Abraham, based in trust and in love.   This passage marks the first time that the word AHAVAH, love, is used in the Torah.   As soon as Abraham raised the knife to complete the test, a voice called out his name:  “ABRAHAM!  ABRAHAM!”   The first call was to the Abraham who acted solely out of faith.   The second call was to the Abraham who had gained a new spirit, a fresh understanding of himself.  He realized that he could go the distance in a difficult trial, but he also recognized that he didn’t have to finish what he had started.  He remembered that there was a component of faith and trust that hadn’t occurred to him until that crucial moment: LOVE - AHAVAH.    The cry of the Angel of Adonai reached the loving father, who put down the knife.   And what new insight did God gain from this test?  Rabbi Artson asserted that God learned not to test love.  God pulled back from the demand that we offer exclusive devotion to a higher cause by setting aside everything else. God recognizes that we each do the best we can, balancing busy schedules, multiple relationships and separate commitments.   And it may be that the tests of our lives, the most difficult situations we face, will deepen our character so that everyone around us will benefit.  At that point, we will join our family and community, walking across the narrow bridge of life, without fear. 
    So what do we learn about Judaism and Jewish life from this tale?   One of Rabbi Artson’s concluding statements in PASSING LIFE’S TESTS was this: “Religion is true when it can produce godliness among its practitioners, justice among its disciples, and a deep sense of belonging and peace.”  Producing godliness, justice, belonging and peace requires us, at times, to set aside our plans to take on tasks that will benefit our community and from which we will grow.  And when we work for godliness, justice, belonging and peace, our children will see and learn from us.  When we strive for those ideals, are we not doing it for the children of our world, wherever they may live, so that they will have a secure future, just as Abraham hoped for his son Isaac?   In Rabbi Artson’s words: “Our children are our still, small voice.  They summon us to put down our plans, set aside our studies, attend, and live.”  Seeing our future in the eyes and smiles of children can give us hope, resolve, courage, focus and balance in the present and in the days and years to come.
    A local church recently put this message on their congregational sign:  “Prayer is the bridge between panic and peace.”  For Abraham and Isaac, it was their bonds of faith and love that took them to their destination and through their shared trial, from panic and uncertainty across a bridge to peace and hope for the generations to come. 
     At this time of year, we think of our own challenges, our tests, our trials, and our triumphs.  We consider where we have been and where we have to go.    We hear the sound of the shofar that calls us to turn all that we have done into a foundation for the future that will lead to our own personal improvement and to the betterment of our world.   

     In this New Year of 5774, may we continue to walk across the narrow bridge of life, together, without fear, journeying towards the place where ADONAI YIREH: where God will see and where we will see, as well, that we CAN make real the best that we can be.   So may we do and let us say amen.

"Listening to our Stories" - Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening at Temple Beth-El of Las Cruces, NM - September 4, 2013

   We had been there before.   It was our first stop after we entered the long-familiar city.  This time, we had stones with us that we planned to leave in their appointed spots.   We arrived at the place that we now visit like a pilgrimage.   We knew exactly where to go, so much so that I was recently able to direct a friend from long-distance to find that same spot and pay his respects.   We parked on the tree-lined drive and walked over to the markers that have sat side-by-side for nearly a decade.   Joseph Karol - Ruth Karol - you will never know them, but you can see them in what Rhonda and I do for the community in which we live.    We were silent for a moment....and, as if they could answer, we asked for their continued support.   Then we put the stones down on each marker and stood silent again.   We returned to our car and continued along our way, on a day when we later visited my now 105 year old aunt.  We ended the weekend attending a  gathering of my extended family, who, along with us, continue to keep alive the memories and the stories of my parents.
    Such moments are holy, special, treasured, and cherished, almost as much as the time that we were able to spend with my parents over the years.    We really do like to revisit and rediscover how we came to be who we are, and how our background and origins affect the ways in which we deal with change and challenge in our lives.  
     Part of our origin story is embedded in our genetic make-up.  That is why I was intrigued at the presentation at my rabbis' convention this past March by Ann Wojcicki, co-founder of 23andme.  This organization provides individuals with their own genetic information.   Their website explains, "At 23andMe, we believe genetic research can and should be used to give us a deeper understanding of the role genes play in our individual lives."   23 is significant because it refers to the 23 pairs of chromosomes which determine our personal characteristics.  We can learn from our genes why we might be predisposed to certain health conditions.  Our genes can help us discover as-yet-unknown facts about our family roots. So let me tell you a little bit about myself based on the 23andMe analysis of my genetic information.   I am 93% Ashkenazi, 99.5% European.   My ancestors lived in the Near East and then in Europe.  According to my genetic information, my eyes are likely blue, my hair is slightly curlier than average hair, and I have decreased odds of losing my hair.  There was health information included in the report that I received about my risk for certain conditions and diseases.   What I was most interested in was filling out my own family story, finding relatives I didn't know I had.   Through 23andMe, I am now connected to at least 150 2nd to  4th cousins, but not one of them bears a name that I can connect to my family history.  One of my new cousins was a fellow member of Hillel at University of Illinois in the 1970s. We just don't know yet how we are related, and we may never know.    So, even with all of this information, I would have to say that my story is incomplete. 
    Fortunately, we are not just the sum total of our genetic makeup.   We are multifaceted human beings, and by being here tonight, we identify with the Jewish community in some way, whether by ancestry or by choice, whether by heritage or by marriage, whether by interest in Judaism or by raising a child to live a Jewish life.   We come together this night to celebrate our New Year. We are united in this sanctuary and this community as we contemplate who we are and consider who we will be in the year to come.   We do this as an expression of our heritage, our religion, our personal spirituality and faith, and our ongoing, ever-growing life story.   
    And we have many stories to tell!   We heard during Passover from some of our TBE Pioneers as they regaled us with tales of their experiences at Temple Beth-El and in Las Cruces.   At several "Sharing our Stories" sessions held in recent months, community members spoke about the values they learned from being raised in their families and home communities. Some of the principles that were articulated at those meetings are the very building blocks of community, including finding beauty in life; treating others with kindness; treating people equally while accepting the individuality of each person; honesty; working for social justice and improving the world; being humble; feeling a sense of responsibilty for others; mutual respect; patience; strength; living simply and with authenticity; and encouraging questioning, which can lead to deeper understanding.
    In this year’s Jewels of Elul series, internationally acclaimed singer Achinoam Nini  expressed values that are central to Judaism as she wrote about what it means to be welcoming.  She said, “For me, the word ‘welcoming’ is deeply associated with the word “opening” - opening a door, a heart, a mind. Opening your eyes in order to truly see those around you, opening your mind to new ideas, opening your heart, even to what seems threatening, frightening, ominous, with the knowledge that we fear most what we are unfamiliar with. Reaching out to those whom we are suspicious of, those whom we have formed weakly- based opinions of, is the key to dissolving fear and making way for growth and acceptance.”  
   Reaching out to each other and acceptance are essential to community, and can lead us to intently listen to one another’s stories and current concerns and hopes. A few weeks ago, I offered you an opportunity to articulate the dominant theme in your lives.   Let’s take a moment to listen to these reflections that came from you:
·      Staying healthy, physically, emotionally and spiritually
·      Staying independent
·      Visiting new places to see and learn about;
·      “Letting go" and "getting unstuck"
·      Surviving is good, but living is better.
·      The birth of a first grandchild and a family reunion -  it is interesting that the the older we get, the more we turn to family.  
·      A death, an unexpected terminal illness, two pregnancies, a lay-off and new chapters of experience opening with each event.
·      Focusing on family life and Judaism.
·      Appreciation
·      I want enough energy to get through the day without several cans of caffeine.
·      Shedding the accumulations of a lifetime – we swamp ourselves with more than we need or can use, and should spread around what others can use.
·      Hoping for peace in the world, fewer senseless shootings here and everywhere in the world.
·      Looking forward to the coming 20 years ahead, feeling everything is great now, having a nagging feeling that we're going to " get out" just in time, and wondering if every generation feels like this towards the end of life.
We need to make time to discuss these types of concerns with each other if we are truly a community.    Being a congregation means that we are a network of relationships, not just a “religious institution” that offers a variety of programs.   Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, in his book JEWISH MEGATRENDS, outlined an approach that, he believes, will sustain Jewish communities into the future.   To succeed, Rabbi Schwarz advises congregations to convey the wisdom of Judaism and other spiritual paths;  to advance social justice so that Jews can fulfill the charge of the Hebrew prophets to ally with "the orphan, widow and stranger in your midst”; to offer a place where people can form rich and deep relationships; and to provide a glimpse of what it looks like to live lives of sacred purpose.
     In his book RELATIONAL JUDAISM, Dr. Ron Wolfson defined what it means to live a life of sacred purpose within the Jewish concept of building a KAHAL KADOSH, a holy community.  We form a KAHAL KADOSH within a congregation when we continuously celebrate and enhance the web of fellowship that we create together.  Wolfson identified nine levels of relationship that we can explore and develop in a congregation:
·      Between you and yourself, developing your own individual, communal and spiritual identity;
·      Between you and your family
·      Between you and your friends
·      Between you and Jewish living and learning 
·      Between you and your community
·      Between you and Jewish peoplehood, whatever your connection might be
·      Between you and the State of Israel
·      Between you and the whole world
·      Between you and God, however you define God.
  Over the course of a year, we touch upon all of these levels of relationship in our planned discussions, in meetings, in worship, in study sessions, and in spontaneous and worthwhile conversations.   In our learning, in our living, in our praying, in our giving, this is who we are and why we gather together. We have the opportunity to offer  comfort, support, wisdom, connection, warmth, welcoming, counsel, and hope within these walls and in the greater community. Over the course of years, there can develop a sacred sense of family between members, as long as we are willing to let it happen.   We don't have to agree with each other - God knows that family members certainly don't always see eye to eye.   However, if we are committed to being a sacred community, we can make the sum total of who we are special in our own eyes and in the eyes, minds and hearts of those who would join us. 
      Standing by the graves of my parents, Rhonda and I knew that our combined experiences in Jewish life - and now we can add the experiences of our son Adam as well - were enriched by the many years that my mom and dad volunteered their time and energy for their congregation, enough to still be missed even now.   And I have heard from you the stories of those who were once part of this congregation who are missed, on whose shoulders we all stand tonight as we enter the new year of 5774.    This legacy can be one of sharing and of deep concern about each other if we only choose to make it so.
       So let us take the opportunity during this new year to share our stories - our hopes, our triumphs and our challenges - so that we can get to know each other well within a community committed to making moments and our very lives holy and special, creating meaningful relationships and lines of ever-strengthening connection.
   One installment in the Jewels of Elul series this year featured this simple but poignant statement about welcoming from Harve Humler of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company: “At Ritz-Carlton, every one of the ladies and gentlemen who work for us carry a wallet-sized credo card with them at all times. It states our three steps of service:
1. Extend a warm welcome.
2. Anticipate and fulfill stated and unstated needs.
3. Provide a fond farewell.
As you can see from number one, welcoming is our top priority. But, in fact, all three steps are about welcoming. Only if the totality of an experience is authentically meaningful can a person truly feel welcome.
What is true of a hotel is true of a home. How often are we all guilty of asking, ‘How are you?’ without expecting or being interested in a real answer about the other person’s successes or challenges, frustrations or fears. To truly welcome another requires truly caring about another.”

   This is the pinnacle of community: creating a place where we can truly know one another so well that we will be present and ready to help in times of challenge and to be prepared to celebrate in moments of joy.   May this be a year of listening and of caring here at Temple Beth-El, in our community, and throughout the human family.