Saturday, December 13, 2014

Dreaming again... and making dreams real - D'var Torah - Parashat Vayeishev (Genesis 37) - December 12, 2014

 Arriving somewhere late
Missing a sock or a shoe – or both – when I really need them
Being unable to get out of a building
Jamming with Paul McCartney
Getting along with people I don’t usually get along with

These are some of the impressions that I carry around
From my dreams
Some of us remember dreams frequently and vividly
Some can recall dreams just every so often
And maybe there are those of us
who never can describe a dream in any sort of detail.

We often hear that dreams speak to us
About who we are
About the order or chaos in our lives
Even though the dreams seem to portray
Events in a state of disarray.
While we sleep, dreams likely help us
shape the seemingly random aspects of the world
Into categories that will make better sense to us
While we are awake.

Of course, we also use the word “dream” to refer
To aspirations, hopes, and visions of improving our society
Or of creating something new. 
One of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century
bore the refrain “I Have a Dream.”
The common translation of Theodor Herzl’s fundamental
Declaration, IM TIRTZU, EIN ZO AGADAH, is not
“If you want it, it is no legend,”
but, “If you will it, it is no dream.” 
Perhaps the dreams that come to us while we sleep
Enable us to further develop our plans and thoughts
For the future so that they will come to fruition. 

The ladder at Beth-El came to Jacob in a dream
After he had fled his home due to the fear
That his brother might take revenge on him immediately
For replacing him as the blessed first-born son.  
The dream of God and a ladder to heaven
elevated a supplanter and deceiver
To a higher level of understanding about his life.  
Jacob finally realized that God was with him,
and that God’s presence mattered
giving him, perhaps, at least a small dose of humility.

And then there was his son Joseph.  Jacob’s favorite.
The one to whom he gave an ornamented tunic,
a KTONET PASIM, which was worn by special young women,
and, perhaps, special young men of his time.  
But there was more to Joseph that no one recognized as unique.
Joseph was truly Jacob’s son, a dreamer,
but Jacob couldn’t even see it as he tried to keep peace in his family.  
Jacob saw only his immediate problem:
he didn’t need this precocious,
narcissistic young man bringing “evil reports,”
gossip, about his brothers,
creating yet another generation of pointed sibling rivalry.
But the dreams – no one, not even Joseph could see
that they were pointing to crucial future events
Which would lead to their survival.  

What caused Joseph to tell his brothers these dreams
that had such potential to inflame their jealousy?
Jewish commentators noted that Joseph was
Too young and naïve to realize the consequences
Of his dream-sharing. 
Perhaps he thought they would respect him more
If he revealed that he was the one to whom others would bow.
Or, was it that he realized that he had been given a message from God
that he had to share? 
Or, in Aviva Gottleib Zornberg’s words, was this just
Joseph the teenager behaving with
“a dangerous unawareness of the feelings of others”? 

In the stories of Joseph, one dream points to a possibility,
and two dreams predict that something will truly come to pass. 
Joseph was right, but he didn’t know
how he was right. 
So he may have shared his dreams
Asking for an answer.  
He received an answer in the form of an envy so deeply held
that his brothers sold him to go to Egypt
And told their father that Joseph was dead
So they would be rid of their annoying, self-centered, bothersome brother. 
What the brothers didn’t realize
is that they were doing exactly
what needed to be done,
which Joseph only would comprehend
once he became the overseer
managing the famine in Egypt
who would witness his brothers bow down before him
just like in the dreams of his youth.
Had the brothers not acted out of their anger and hurt,
Joseph wouldn’t have ended up where he needed to be
to save the life of his entire family. 
How ironic it was that Joseph’s apparent dreams of grandeur
pointed not so much to him having
a position of power
but one of responsibility.  
He eventually understood
exactly why he was where he was by the end.
It is the same with us.
 Our actual paths in life
sometimes look more like disorderly dreams,
even when our aspirations for something great
are based in real talents that we have demonstrated
over and over again. 
Every act and every decision has a consequence,
and the results that we see at first
may not appear to lead  to where we hope to go.  
It may be only when we near our final destination
that the meaning of dreams, visions, and aspirations
that first occurred to us will come clear.  
It is important to express those hopes
at the beginning  with humility, for sure,
but it is even more important to understand
the higher purpose they may represent.  
So may we keep our eyes, ears, minds and hearts
open to those dreams that can drive us to greatness
and fill our lives with meaning.  

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Kindling the ongoing lights of faith - article for the Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter for December 2014

     At this writing, I am about to lead the Shabbat service that features the Torah reading VAYEITZEI, which opens with the patriarch Jacob’s dream at Beth-El. This passage is often on our minds and right before our eyes when we attend services. The Neir Tamid in our Sanctuary places the ladder/stairway in front of us every week, uniting the symbolism of light with a connection between heaven and earth.
     The rabbis imagined Jacob to be somewhat hesitant to step onto the ladder because of the risk of failing to rise to the top. In one midrash, God showed Jacob how the great powers of the world (represented by the angels going up and down the ladder) would rise and fall, while the children of Jacob would not suffer the same fate. In those rabbinic interpretations, we never see Jacob taking the step onto the ladder, at least not at that point. In Genesis Chapter 28, Jacob essentially declared that if God took care of all of his needs and saw him through his coming challenges and ad
ventures, then Jacob would fully believe in God. Such a conditional approach has bothered some commentators, but it demonstrates Jacob’s humanity. Even making such a pledge was still a commitment to a future relationship, which only would be fulfilled if Jacob continued on his journey to find a wife and to create and raise a family. We know, from the end of the story, that Jacob did act out of his own initiative without waiting for God to do everything for him.
     Worship in most any context is a lot like Jacob’s relationship with God. The words, the melodies, and the possibility of community are always there, waiting for us to take an active participatory step to make prayers and expressions of belief, commitment, joy, and hope come alive. The generations before us provided us rituals, symbols and an order of a service that reminds us of the wonder of creation, the gift of wisdom, and the trust that can lead us to a sense of security and optimism as members of the Jewish community and of the family of humanity. The Siddur/prayerbook expresses gratitude to our ancestors for establishing a foundation for our community and to God for sharing with us the strength to reach out to others to provide them with freedom, care and support. We focus on aspects of life that are holy and unique that we might consider to be miracles even when we have created them with our own knowledge and insight. We say “thank you” for everything we have and we pray that peace will finally come to our world and encompass all of humanity and all of creation.
     The ways in which we express ourselves vary from week to week on Friday night and Saturday morning. On the first Friday of the month, our 6:00 pm Family Service features the central prayers of our liturgy in a relaxed family setting that is open to members of all ages. A potluck Shabbat dinner follows that brings the generations together in Shabbat joy. The second service on the first Friday is an equally relaxed service that gives congregants a chance to take part in a discussion on an aspect of the weekly Torah portion with the goal of finding lessons for modern life. The “middle Fridays” of the month usually feature a Torah reading with a brief D’var Torah that expresses my current thoughts on the meaning we can derive from the ancient text. On the last Shabbat of the month, the “Shabbat Service for Renewal of Spirit” brings readings and music together to create a context that gives us a sense of peace and healing that can continue to guide us in the coming days. This service will again be preceded by a time for meditation each month.
Shabbat morning services are our most informal, with an opportunity for those present to share “miracles” in our lives, to engage in an in-depth discussion of the Torah portion for the week, and to sing and read prayers that we might not hear on Friday evening. When we reach our minyan of 10, we read Torah and still engage in a lively conversation about the text that has been handed down to us over the centuries.
     We are now looking forward to our celebration of Chanukah, which begins on Tuesday, December 16. We know well that the Chanukiah/Menorah does not light itself. It needs us to put in the candles and kindle each light so that the glow will inspire us to new acts of preserving freedom and justice for all people. Think of our Shabbat worship like a Chanukiah. When we are here, together, the light from our souls will shine brightly and there will be a special spirit emanating from our Sanctuary, creating a stair-way/ladder to lofty places. Each of us can be like Jacob, making it possible to see that “God was in this place, and I, I did not know it.”
    Best wishes for a happy Chanukah, with a hope that we will all find the light that is at the core of our lives and our souls.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Family Legacies (Looking at - not past - each other) -D'var Torah for Toldot - November 21, 2014

“Two peoples are in your belly, 
two nations shall branch off from each other
[as they emerge] from your womb. 
One people shall prevail over the other; 
the elder shall serve the younger.”
Such was the message Rebekah received directly from God 
as she asked why these twins-to-be
were struggling inside of her with such intensity. 
The message was clear to her: 
The elder, Esau, would serve the younger, Jacob.
Her interpretation set in motion 
all that would transpire afterwards 
as she paved the way for the younger child
to receive the older child's blessing
as Isaac's primary heir. 
So would follow the accusations of deceit
down through the ages of biblical commentary
Or, a strong defense of Rebekah's actions
because of her special insight
into the need for Jacob to be the fulcrum
of the future for the children of Abraham and Isaac. 
Some say that Rebekah did understand correctly
one part of the message,
while failing to grasp the other possible meaning.  
As with ancient oracular proclamations 
that could be taken in more ways than one,
Rebekah may have missed this possible understanding:
The older one the younger one will serve.
So did Rebekah do wrong in setting up Jacob 
as the primary son 
who would succeed Isaac in most every way? 
Perhaps not. 
Perhaps the statement with a dual meaning
Was intended to foretell what would actually happen.
In some ways, 
the younger son would serve the older
in having to leave his home because of his brother's anger, 
in a moment of trepidation before meeting up with him again,
years later
and in two peoples, Israel and Edom,
living in close proximity to each other
whether in calm or in conflict. 
There is here a family legacy
One not of competition 
but of the necessity of mutual recognition.  
In the end, the sons of Isaac and Rebekah had to learn
that even though they might not end up living together,
they couldn't look past each other
pretending that the other did not exist.  
They had to meet each other, eventually, 
at heart of their humanity
in a place where a divine perspective would bring them together
looking into one another's eyes
as if each was seeing the face of God  in the other.
Their legacy bears lessons for the human family throughout the ages.  
Too many times,
In too many places
People look past one another
Seeing those who are different 
those whose background they do not share
as strangers
as the enemy
as objects of scorn
and hatred.
Two men attack people praying in a house of worship.
Young women attack a cab driver with tear gas. 
In the name of security, law enforcement officers or soldiers
think the worst about the people demonstrating in front of them Protesters fail to see the human beings opposite them 
hoping to preserve calm.  
Motives of others are questioned based on rumor
Rather than being understood based on fact.  
Ultimately,  The struggle between these boys
Teaches us not to see others only as we see them
But to see and understand them  
As they see and understand themselves.  
When we reach that goal,
Perhaps our service to one another
Will be for good, for cooperation
And for peace.   

Friday, November 14, 2014

"A New Generation: Isaac remembers" - Parashat Chayei Sarah - November 14, 2014

I never thought I would see him again.
It had been such a long time since we were together.
And that last time was not easy.
He seemed to enjoy picking on me – is that what all older brothers do?  
He is my half-brother, but we were in the same household – all of us - Ishmael, his mother Hagar, my father Abraham’s female servant, my father Abraham
and my mother Sarah. 
I vaguely remember that one last time when he bothered me, even bullied me, and it was too much for my mother.  I didn’t really understand what he had done wrong, but my mother said, “Isaac, he was trying to say that he will always be more important than you.  I knew that he wouldn’t ever stop, especially after how his mother treated me after Ishmael was born and I had no child.” 
  I still didn’t understand – for all the complexities, we were still family.  
  But that day, my mother had had enough.  She told my father that Hagar and Ishmael had to go. 
   And that was just before my father and I had to go on our own journey, one that I would rather forget, but one that has left a lasting mark on me.
   It’s funny that my half-brother’s name is Yishma-eil – God will hear.  My name is YITZCHAK – he will laugh.   I heard all about how my mother laughed when she heard that, after years of not having a child, that I would be born.   She later said that I brought her laughter.  That is probably why she threw out Hagar and Ishmael – they only reminded her of how she was treated for not having had a child – that is, until I was born.  I can only imagine how their presence continued to cause her pain.   For me, my name means that I will laugh even when I might want to cry or feel despair.  It was the perfect reminder for me to keep a positive attitude.   And now that Rebekah is here as my wife,  she has brought warmth and laughter to our family once again. 
    Still, our family was split – until today.   My father Abraham died after a long, long, life.   Even with that difficult trip up the mountain so long ago, I owe him my life, and my wife, since it was he who sent his servant Eliezer to find her for me.  She is a lot like my mother, only different and special – and she has already been a perfect spouse.  
    Back to my father.  He had told me that he had one wish – that Ishmael and I reunite to bury him at the family plot in the Cave of the Machpelah.   
    My father had secretly told me a story about Ishmael.   He never did get to see him again.  But he did tell me that he had visited Ishmael’s tent and met his wife, who treated him with generous hospitality.
   So he said, “Isaac, when I die, leave the past behind.   Respect your brother, and bury me with respect as well.”
    My father would be proud – we had a good-enough reunion that I would never have expected as we laid Abraham to rest.   We didn’t talk a lot, but we did recognize how connected we are, and that we live, really, not too far away from each other.
     So Ishmael went back to his home when we were done.  And I returned to mine.
   And now I wonder – what will the future be like for our families?  For our children and their children?  What will they know of us and our stories?   Will having Abraham as a shared ancestor bring them together?  Or will the jealousy that once drove apart our mothers, Sarah and Hagar, persist from one generation to the next?
    Only time will tell.   It seems to me that, at any time, we have the possibility of taking a step back from conflict so we can change our attitudes towards each other – just like I did today. 
    I didn’t know what to expect – but it was good to see him again – Ishmael, the man that God will hear.  And I, the one who will laugh, will continue to muster a smile that, I can only, pray will reverberate throughout the generations and maybe, one day, bring peace between our descendants when they really need it.  
    So may it be. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Power of One...and Two...and Three - Article for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces NM November 2014 Newsletter

   As I was leading a recent Temple program, I was looking around at those who were there, and thinking about the significance and contributions of each person who attended. On Friday, October 17, we engaged in a discussion about creation and creativity as our communal D’var Torah. The conversation was shaped by each individual comment from the congregants who were present that night, as well as my brother, Rabbi Stephen Karol, who was visiting us for several days. Had even one person who spoke not attended, the course of our comments would not have been the same. 
    In a large congregation, 1-3 people may not make so much of a difference in total attendance. At Temple Beth-El of Las Cruces,   1-3 people can have a great impact on a gathering. We all bring our experiences, our knowledge, and our love of Judaism and the Jewish people with us when we attend a congregational event. That is why YOUR presence enhances most any program or event. 
Judaism teaches us about the importance of one, two and even three people to a community. 
ONE: “For this reason was a single human being created in the beginning: to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes guilt to him/her as though he/she had destroyed an entire world; and whosoever pre-serves a single soul, Scripture ascribes merit to him/her as though he/she had preserved an entire world” (Talmud Sanhedrin 37a). 
“Despise no one, and call nothing useless, for there is no one whose hour does not come, and nothing that does not have its place” (Shimon ben Azzai, in Pirke Avot 4.3) 
TWO: “Two are better than one...If either of them falls , one can lift up the other” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). 
“When two sit together and words of Torah/learning pass between them, the Divine Presence rests with them: (Pirkei Avot 3:2). 
THREE: “If three have eaten together and spoken words of Torah/learning, it is as though they had eaten at God’s table.” (Pirkei Avot 3:3). 
“A triple cord will not be quickly snapped!”(Ecclesiastes 4:12). 
We often forget about the significance of one: one person’s leadership or idea, one vote in an election, one positive comment that can offer support or encouragement, or one gift. One of my favorite coffee mugs bears this statement: “To the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world.” 

The book of Ecclesiastes speaks of two from a pragmatic perspective, rather than considering the emotional benefits of friendship. A partnership of any type begins with two, and such a cooperative arrangement works best when it is characterized by mutual support and the encouragement of sharing wisdom and growing in knowledge. That is why the statement of the rabbis focuses on what one person can teach another. That is what we can do for one another as well. 
     Three represents completeness in Judaism (we have three patriarchs and three major festivals), but it is also the minimum for creating a bond that is even stronger than two. The comment from Ecclesiastes notes that three people together can defend themselves better than two people can hold fast. That strength can also be brought to the sharing of ideas and to the building of community. 
We know that ten people makes a minyan in Jewish wor-ship, and sometimes congregations like ours may be only one, two or three people away from reaching that numerical threshold. Ten is said to represent absolute completeness. Never underestimate the blessing and gift that your presence can bring to a gathering at Temple or anywhere else in the community, because it might be you who adds something to make a program or event even more worthwhile and valuable than it otherwise might have been. 
     I look forward to seeing you soon! 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Song and Creation - Reflections on Shabbat Shira at OSRUI on October 23-26, 2014

       I am sure that if you had asked me about what I would be doing after turning 60, I wouldn't have imagined that I would I be participating in new conferences and ventures.   Just a week after recording my vocal and guitar tracks for my forthcoming album, it was time to join my songleading community at the fall conference "Shabbat Shira" (Sabbath of Song, literally).   This was my 15th time attending a gathering at OSRUI camp.   The 12 previous times were for the late spring songleading workshop, Hava Nashira.   And for two times before that,  I was a camper in the Tzofim session in 1967 and 1968 (I was a non-Boy Scout living in a tent with 5 other boys for 10 days each of those years).   Walking through the Bayit (the main "house" of the camp by the Lac La Belle) carries with it memories of dancing into the room that was once the dining hall with my fellow Tzofim campers as we joined the main program for a Shabbat song session.   
      Once again, "song" was the focus for being at OSRUI.  I already knew over half of the 50-plus participants and had attended sessions led by most of the faculty at one time or another.    I was glad to have the chance to really get to know people I hadn't met before, an opportunity made possible by our numbers.    (Note to veteran Hava Nashira participants: "Try it, you'll like it!"). 
      There were, as always, new melodies to learn and songs and compositions that I had heard before but needed to be reinforced so I could present them "back home."  There was multiple-part harmony during worship and song sessions that was rich and exquisite, demonstrating that we could generate a full sound among ourselves.   The Open mic sessions after our programming ended each day afforded an opportunity for people to share original compositions or "covers" of favorite songs, showing the wide range of talent represented among us.  
       There was a flurry of special moments throughout these few days:  washing our hands in Lac La Belle during our Friday morning service, Noam Katz's session on Songs for Social Change (music has always been a part of movements for change), our "Human bingo" mixer at which we learned a lot about one another and Michelle Citrin's summary of the bingo items with a hands-in-the-air response of "that's me!"; getting to know long-time colleagues and new fellow participants in sessions and at meals; a one-on-one sharing of original compositions with my colleague, Andy Dennen; and time spent with some very good friends.  Many thanks to our faculty for guiding us in these few days of learning and growth, as well as to Camp Director Jerry Kaye for his vision and the staff members for their support!
        The new and "watershed" experience, for me, was Josh Nelson's "Create!" group which was charged with developing a program for the Seudah Sh'leesheet "Third Meal" reflective session that preceded Saturday night dinner.  We divided into three task forces focusing on (I hope I get this right) Creation/Entry, Present/Now, Future/Exit.   Josh asked members of each group to express a vulnerability and a word that characterized each of us in relation to our theme.   Alden Solovy, a widely-known poet and liturgist whose writings I have used in services at my Temple in Las Cruces, NM, was part of our task force,  After listening to our comment, he wrote this:   
There is no empty space
In now. 
No empty space between
You and G-d.
No wound, no loss, Nothing broken,
Wholeness, Only Wholeness
Feet on the ground, connected
Head in the sky, seeing
Hearing.  Now
Only Now
There is no empty space
Between you and the heartbeat
You and the stillness. 
You and the surrender.  
So the precious present is sweet. 
With song, sweet
with joy,  sweet with 
 Each member of our small group contributed his/her own gifts to our presentation:  stories, readings, song (Gesher Tzar M'od - all the world is a narrow bridge), niggun (a melody without words), and an invitation for people to find a comfortable space for contemplation.     
   I had planned to sing one of my already-finished original songs in our section, but the desire to create (or maybe an outside source) presented me with a song-fragment or two during the night.   I wasn't sure if I wanted to write something new based on Alden's reading, or set his words to music.   I realized, after listening to my middle-of-the-night recording, that I had received as a "gift" a musical mode that could be applied to Alden's text. 
    After our inspiring Shabbat morning service (and lunch!), I started working with the text.  And soon after that, I sat down with Alden to share where I was going musically.   Together, we reshaped the reading into a song with a singable chorus in the course of 20 minutes.  We packed a lot of creativity and productive labor into those few moments that yielded something very special (both the song and our working together).  Once the melody and words had taken their final shape, I shared it with our small group, and it was in as the introduction to our section following Alden's reading of the beginning of the reflection.  During the the next two hours, I did all I could to keep the melody in my head!  
     Each of the CREATE groups presented a meaningful and thoughtful compilation/collaboration of expression that included music, dance, prose/poetry, visual images, and community building.  When our section of the program began, Alden read the first lines and then I "jumped feet first" into the song, a product of collaboration that demonstrates the Jewish value of chevurta/partnership at it best.  Every note, chord and the lyrics came out as planned and hoped.   You can hear the song at this link on YouTube (hopefully, a multitrack recording is forthcoming!).
"Only Now," Lyrics by Alden Solovy, Music by Larry Karol
  The lyrics that Alden worked with me to adapt for the song are on the YouTube video page.  Being among the creators of that program was a real honor.
   What I took away from this amazing experience - and Shabbat Shira in its totality - was the importance of being open to NEW experiences, to listening to others, to finding the most positive aspect of the moment, and to enjoying moments that can bring hope and joy.    
    Song has always done that for me, and each of us has the capacity to find joy in our lives.  May we seek discover that SIMCHAH, happiness and contentment, within ourselves and within the miracle of cooperation, collaboration, friendship and the ever-present possibility of making a peaceful community and world.   

Friday afternoon Faculty Music Sharing

Kiddush and Motzi after Shabbat Morning Worship ("That's Me!" on the left)

Singing "Now" with Alden Solovy right behind!
Conclusion of the Seudah Sh'leesheet presentation

Havdalah Service with a Sephardic musical theme!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Road Ahead - and a look back - October 12, 2014

       Returning to the recording studio after a 10-year hiatus made me feel somewhat like the members of the baseball teams in the Championship series in the American League and National League.   Only the Royals (MY Royals), the Orioles, the Giants and the Cardinals remain from all the teams that played an entire season with hopes of being in the position of these four franchises.   Some players have been part of many postseasons series in past, others not at all.   Every at-bat, pitch, and strategic decision is significant.    One of my friends texted me, "Tell your Royals to settle down!"   Those were the next words out of my mouth, but I say, "can you blame them?"
       So as I stepped into the closed room to do my first vocals, with my producer, Scott Leader, looking on and guiding me, I felt that I was in some version of "musical playoffs" mode.  I knew I had to do my absolute best, while understanding that I could go back and correct what wasn't quite right.   
      The recording process is taking me back to special and important times over the last decade of my life.   I created one song before a telephone interview with a congregation.  Another marked my 25 years in the rabbinate, and yet another came to be just hours after our son Adam's graduation from Berklee College of Music.  I wrote two of the songs while serving on the faculty at the Union for Reform Judaism's Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  I set Jewish texts to music to find a way to rise above the conflictual aspects of the 2012 Election and military and societal struggles during the summer of 2014.  
     Our personal expressions of thoughts and feelings at a pivotal moment in our lives or in human history (in a letter, email, article or blog) enable us to look back to that time and to see how those events affected our present.   It is very much the same with a song, but there is a depth that comes with years of presenting songs either in performance or as part of worship gatherings.  I am able to vocally reproduce the melodies and harmonies created up to nine years ago, but the singer is the "me" of today.   New life experiences take the music to a different level.   
      This coming week, Jewish congregations around the world will celebrate Simchat Torah, "Rejoicing with the Torah," ending and beginning the reading of the Torah.   My memories of this holiday go back to when I was in elementary school.   So it's just the same, year after year, right?   No, not exactly.  The  congregants who attend even in the same congregation from one year to the next can change the nature of the spirit at the service.  Perhaps we might even hear in a different way the tale of the end of Moses' career and the story of the beginning of all existence and creation, depending on where we are in our lives.   During one of my years in high school, Simchat Torah fell on my birthday, and I was far from the point of truly relating to Moses as he passed the torch of leadership to Joshua and knew that his people would enter Canaan without him.   Now, having turned 60 on the eve of Yom Kippur, Moses' time of life is much "closer to home."   
      I believe that the reason that we move straight into Genesis from Deuteornomy is to encourage us to see endings as necessarily carrying with them new beginnings.  We have the opportunity to view the vista that still lies before us as "the road ahead."   As we again recite the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, and Abraham and his family, our past understandings of these tales can, if we let them, lead to new notions and fresh insights.   We call that growth, whether inside each of us or outside as we partner with others who join us on the journey of life.   
      Recently, Rhonda (we marked 32 years of marriage this past August) and I visited the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro International Heritage Center in New Mexico. We were impressed at the 300 year history of this "Royal Road to the Interior Lands" that was over 400 miles long, and the vistas around this site were inspiring. 
      Jewish tradition encourages each of us to be like a Ruler who was commanded to keep a scroll of God's law in their possession.   Simchat Torah places everyone in a congregation close to the Torah scroll, giving them a chance to carry it around the sanctuary and to see it read up close.  It makes every person like a Ruler, and reminds us that the Torah is ours to have, hold and keep as a guide every day.   To contradict the singer Lorde, WE CAN ALL BE ROYALS! 
      I believe that our life journeys are like the Royal Road, which had its smooth stretches and its trecherous passages.  So do our lives have both extremes, and we make it through with the help of those close to us who are by our side.   
       I have more songs to sing as I bring this album closer to fruition, and I know that they are not just signposts of paths already traversed.  They represent the road that still lies before us, because we know better where we should go if we understand from whence we came.     
      I look forward to sharing this music, and more, as we move forward to a future filled with joy and hope!  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

HOW (can we repair the world)? - Sermon - Yom Kippur Morning - October 4, 2014

    It’s likely that they never expected to return to that place after their first visit, as a group, 50 years ago.
   Then, it was to begin to make a point about human equality, and to bring about change.  They were jailed for their actions, but, in their minds and hearts, they knew that what they did was right.  
    And now, this year, they were invited back to commemorate what they had done for people whom they considered neighbors, not strangers.  
    In early June of 1964, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been arrested at the Monson Motor Lodge and Restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida, as he joined residents there in working towards integration.  Dr. King wrote to his friend, Rabbi Israel Dresner, in New Jersey, asking to him to organize, as soon as possible, as many rabbis as he could to come to St. Augustine as they tried to bring change in the face of great challenge.   Sixteen rabbis,  leaving straight from their annual rabbinic convention, made the trip to Florida in response to King’s call.  They were met there by Al Vorspan, director of the Reform movement’s Commision on Social Action.   The members of that delegation were greeted with taunts from demonstrators bearing broken bottles and bricks.  On June 18, 1964, the rabbis led a pray-in at the Monson Motor Lodge.   While they prayed, black and white demonstrators jumped, together, into the segregated pool at the motel.   As noted recently by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, associated Press photos of the angry motel owner pouring acid into the water and an image of a fully clothed police officer jumping in to haul out the protesters were splashed across newspapers the next day, which was, also, the very day that the United States Senate voted 73-27 to approve the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. 
     Six of the rabbis who were arrested in that incident returned this past June at the invitation of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society for a series of commemorative events titled “Justice, Justice 1964.”  Rabbis Allen Secher, Israel Dresner, Jerrold Goldstein, Richard Levy, Daniel Fogel and Hanan Sills participated in this poignant reminder of how faith, the Jewish tradition, and the call of the prophets of old might lead certain individuals to action.  
The rabbis felt that they were not heroes, but partners in a struggle, who joined side by side with people facing a system of discrimination that would not let them be considered full and equal citizens.     
     While they were in jail, the rabbis penned a widely circulated letter, entitled “Why We Went.”  There are excerpts of that letter that I want to share which gave voice to the motivations that led to the presence of those rabbis in Florida on that day: 
  •       We came because we realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us.
  •       We came to St. Augustine mainly because we could not stay away…we could not stand silently by our brother's blood. We had done that too many times before.
  •       We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.
  •       We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler's crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to humanity is loss of faith in the capacity of people to act.
  •       Here in St. Augustine we have seen the depths of anger, resentment and fury; we have seen faces that expressed a deep implacable hatred. What disturbs us more deeply is the large number of decent citizens who have stood aside, unable to bring themselves to act, yet knowing in their hearts that this cause is right and that it must inevitably triumph.
  •       We came to stand with our brothers and, in the process, we have learned more about ourselves and our God. In obeying God, we become ourselves; in following God’s will, we fulfill ourselves. God has guided, sustained and strengthened us in a way we could not manage on our own.

      Some of the sentiments contained in that letter are echoed in the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, which explains, in one brief sentence, how we can bring repair to the world and a positive quality to life even when life seems harsh and heartless:   UT’SHUVAH – Repentance and return, U-T’FILAH – prayer and establishing a connection with our own spirit and the Oneness of God and all creation, U-TZ’DAKAH – righteousness, righteous giving, or charity – MAAVIRIN ET ROA HAG’ZEIRAH- temper judgment’s severe decree – or give meaning and depth to a world that some could say is random and meaningless.  
     Long ago, our tradition concluded that life does have meaning and that we have it within our power to decide how to apply the values and beliefs which we prize in all that we do for ourselves and for our world. 
    We will read from Deuteronomy, Chapters 29 and 30, in a few moments about the Israelites standing together, ready to reaffirm their covenant with God, which gave them a special responsibility.  They learned that they needed to choose life and good rather than death and evil.  More important, they were told that the secret to choosing life was well within the grasp of every individual member of the community.  “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it down to us, that we may do it?’  Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who will cross the sea for us and bring it over to us, that we may do it?’  No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart and you can do it.”
     Professor Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative movement,  commented on this passage in a way that reaffirmed the trip that those rabbis made to St. Augustine.  He explained, “Moses tests the credibility of his audience here, insisting that although God’s demands are difficult to fulfill, they are by no means out of reach. We are commanded to infuse God’s words into daily life, bring them down from the mountain, practice justice, act with compassion, and do this not just in our private lives but in the streets. Politics and society, foreign policy and business, must be in accordance with God’s instructions, as interpreted by the Prophets and Sages. The law must be equal in complexity to the situations it orders. The task is difficult, very difficult, and rarely mastered. And yet Moses insists that there is an alignment between the regimen of mitzvah and our natures. What God demands and promises is not beyond the realm of possibility. Far from it. “The davar—the thing, the word—is very close to you.” Otherwise, [Moses] seems to say, there would be no chance that we would [ever] heed it.”
    In the Haftarah reading for this morning, the prophet Isaiah listened to his people as they complained that their fasting wasn’t bringing them closer to God as they expected.    Isaiah reminded them that the rituals they claimed to perform so meticulously must be accompanied by action.  Isaiah told his people that God may seem to be distant because, “on your fast day, you think only of business, and oppress all your workers!  Because your fasting leads only to strife and discord, and hitting out with a cruel fist!  Such a way of fasting on this day will not help you to be heard on high….Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house?  Then shall your light blaze forth like the dawn, and your wounds shall quickly heal; then, when you call, the Eternal will answer, when you cry, God will say, ‘here I am- HINEINI!’”  
   The rabbis who went to St. Augustine, Florida acted as if they were responding to Isaiah’s call.  They wanted their worship and their work with their congregations to be complemented by their efforts in dealing with the challenge of the injustice that they saw in human society.  They felt that performing that service to the community would  make their faith substantive and real as they brought divine teachings to life. 
    In the congregation where I was raised,   I had a chance to meet two rabbis who had engaged in struggles for honesty, integrity and justice.   Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg was well known for his persistent and relentless stand opposing the notorious political machine of Tom Pendergast in Kansas City.    His successor, Rabbi William B. Silverman, before he came to Kansas City, had spoken out against violence occurring in Nashville in 1958 as schools began to integrate.   It was Rabbi Silverman who represented the Jewish community at Kansas City’s memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Sunday following King’s assassination in April of 1968.   That was one of the formative moments of my life as I watched, standing with my brother and my parents, how faith, interfaith connections, and a wide-ranging communal concern came together in one watershed moment.   The values that led the rabbis of my home congregation and the rabbis who went to St. Augustine to take action are deeply embedded in our heritage, well beyond a specific historical event or tragedy.
    This afternoon, we will recite, once again, the passage about how we can be holy from Leviticus Chapter 19.  Verse 18 in that chapter teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   Verses 33 and 34 go even further, just to make sure we know whom we are really commanded to love:  “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.  I, the Eternal, am your God.”    And if we were still not sure about whom we should have concern, we will recite the story of Jonah, who refused to carry out his mission to tell the people of Nineveh to repent, fearing that those foreign people might actually realize their need to atone for their sins and respond to the prophet’s call for personal change.   Jonah preferred to see them suffer divine punishment rather than to have the chance to right their own wrongs.  As we know, God wouldn’t let Jonah escape his prophetic task, no matter how hard he tried.  Jonah ended up having to deliver his message, the people repented, and all was well, but not for Jonah.  He felt like he had lost his battle of advocating for strict punishment over against the intentions of a compassionate God who considered all humanity to be one family.  At the end of the book, when God raised a gourd plant next to Jonah to give him shade, Jonah was happy.  Then God caused the plant to die.  Jonah was angry because the gourd was no longer alive. And God pointed out to Jonah that he had more compassion for the plant than for human beings, in this case, the people of Nineveh.     Jonah, hopefully, learned that people deserve at least a touch of mercy when they are ready to truly make a change for the better. 
    These High Holy Days ask us to recognize that  compassion for our own humanity and an admission of our inevitable imperfections can lead us to create a more perfect world.   We can discover, as we try to improve ourselves,  that the tools for choosing life and good are inside each of us.  We can turn today’s fasting into tomorrow’s work towards justice and equality.   We have it within our grasp to love our neighbor unconditionally and equally, to the point where no human being needs to be considered a stranger.  And we can act with a commitment to overcome any fear that may hold us back from extending our hands and hearts to our fellow citizens of the world. 
   This has been a difficult year as we watched demonstrators attack synagogues and Jewish institutions in Europe.  Rather than seeking dialogue or discussion in free nations outside the Middle East, rage and rampage has often won the day.   In the Middle East itself, the possibility of peace on the ground between people who have successfully engaged in dialogue, fellowship and friendship is there.  Leaders of nations in that part of the world may not yet be at that place of totally seeing and acting upon common interests due to their disagreement and mistrust.    Yet, some of them know that, ultimately, they will need to set aside their difference and decide to follow higher ideals that may trump their own ideologies.
    Today’s Torah and Haftarah portions teach there are overarching principles that we can still apply even when a community, a nation or a region seems hopelessly divided.  Our biblical heritage remains one of our main guides along a journey towards cooperation and peace.   The Central Conference of American Rabbis, taking up the major themes of our Jewish tradition about how we can and should treat one another, made this declaration in 1999:  We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfill the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all of God’s creation. Partners with God in tikkun olam, repairing the world, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age. We seek dialogue and joint action with people of other faiths in the hope that together we can bring peace, freedom and justice to our world. We are obligated to pursue tzedek, justice and righteousness, to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth’s…natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage….We affirm the mitzvah of tzedakah, setting aside portions of our earnings and our time to provide for those in need. These acts bring us closer to fulfilling the prophetic call to translate the words of Torah into the works of our hands.
   In any way that we choose, with actions that express our own values, we have the opportunity to serve one another with dedication, hope, love and compassion every single day.  It is in our mouths and in our hearts, and we can do it.  So may we do – and let us say amen.