Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dignity from without and within - April 30, 2014

   There are some voices in our community and throughout the country who claim that dignity for workers is not conferred by an particular level of wage, but that it comes from within.
    Dignity from within is certainly a faith value.  I was speaking with a fellow participant in CAFe's Regional Leadership training this week about the verse "love your neighbor as yourself" from Leviticus Chapter 19.   She was explaining that she tends to focus on the "loving oneself" part of that verse.  In other words, we need to love ourselves first before we can love others.   I responded that there is a stream of commentary from Jewish thinkers and others that would agree with her.  Self-love, and according dignity to oneself, is a prerequisite of loving others well and treating our fellow human beings with dignity.
    That, however, is not the end of the faith perspective on dignity.  T
he Bible further directs every person to show others respect and dignity through their outward behavior.  It teaches that workers are to be paid on time and promised wages must be paid.  Workers should not face oppression of any type from their employers.    Wage theft, low wages that leave a person left to seek further assistance from the community, and unjust treatment of employees who work with dedication at their jobs run counter to biblical teachings.  
     A living wage (along with a package of benefits) offers an employee a sign that his or her employer has the desire to show respect and to treat him or her with dignity.   It is that approach that truly enhances mutual respect, dedication and a feeling of community in the workplace. The dignity that is offered from without can strengthen and affirm the feeling of dignity that resides within.    

Friday, April 25, 2014

Holy Lives - D'var Torah for Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) - April 25, 2014

In the Yizkor prayers we recited on Tuesday morning, one meditation remembers the victims of the Holocaust, and people who died in previous centuries due to hatred, prejudice, and discrimination.  Here is the translation of that silent remembrance prayer:   May God remember forever our brothers and sisters who gave their lives for the Sanctification of the Divine Name - AL KIDDUSH HASHEIM.  May they be at one with the One who is life eternal.  May the beauty of their lives shine forevermore, and may my life always bring honor to their memory.

KIDDUSH HASHEIM, the Sanctification of the Divine Name, is often translated as martyrdom.   If someone in ancient times chose to die rather than violate a commandment of Judaism, the Jewish community saw that act as one of holiness.    When Jews continued to be the victims of hatred that led to violence, they also spoke of YISURIN SHEL AHAVAH, "chastisements of love." Speaking of love and holiness at such times of persecution was probably the only way that Jews could redeem the difficulties and challenges of their lives, of being Jews in a world that begrudged their very existence.  

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is actually called Yom Hashoah U-g'vurah, a day for remembering the victims of the Holocaust and Heroism at that time. Heroism was embodied during World War II in the many places where Jewish uprisings challenged the Nazis and their collaborators to realize that their control over Europe, physically and ideologically, was not absolute.  Ghetto and partisan fighters, and acts of individuals from many religious and ethnic groups that saved Jews and others from deportation and even death, demonstrated how faith and determination could lead to acts of strength, kindness and even holiness.

Holiness is the theme of this week's Torah reading, KEDOSHIM.   We may not think of ourselves as heroes when we bring food for the Casa de Peregrinos food pantry or El Caldito Soup Kitchen, or when we work to help people leave poverty behind, or when we treat each other with a sense of justice and fairness.   We may not consider ourselves strong when we overcome the impulse to take vengeance or bear a grudge against another human being but, instead, seek a way to relate positively that can lead to reconciliation.   We may not define being considerate of our fellow community members, and any person, as an act that is holy.   The Torah, however, says, YES - when we are generous, giving, considerate, open-minded, fair, and just - we ARE heroic.  We ARE strong.  We ARE enhancing holiness in the world.

And even more - we ARE redeeming the courageous acts of our ancestors when they said NO to someone who sought to force them to say YES in a way that would have left their Jewish heritage in the dust.    Loving our neighbors and the stranger as ourselves - this is the love that is the central essence of leading a holy life.   It may be difficult, at times, to find a way to express and extend that love, but when we do so, we restore the balance upset by humanity's unfortunate acts and examples of hatred. 

So may we continue to be kind, loving, giving, just, and hopeful, even when hard-hearted hatred and prejudice may tempt us to do otherwise.   Then we will be heroes living holy lives that will assure that God and godliness will dwell among us.

Prayer for the New Mexico State University Spiritual Center Groundbreaking - April 25, 2014

NMSU Spiritual Center Groundbreaking 
April 25, 2014
Based on One Hundred Thirty-Seven 
By Debbie Perlman
From Flames to Heaven (my emendations in italics)

Surround Us, Source of holiness, 
with sacred space
Add new growth to this landscape
Fresh roots that will blossom 
in the years to come
Enhancing this environment 
of learning and community
With a special spirit 
of contemplation and hope.

Swirl around us a space of holiness
Of community and truth, 
of justice and celebration
Winding back to our varied roots
that join us together 
in common humanity and struggle,
Rolling forward to eternity.
A gathering place, a home-away-from- home.

Then we shall offer praise to the Spirit of the Universe
For the courage and vision inside each of us,
For tasks in partnership with all of creation.
All voices rising up in one united chorus of rejoicing.

May the Spiritual Center that will rise here be
a place of gathering, of direction, of solitude,
of diverse expression, of affirmation for the value of every person.
May the building that will stand here frame 
wondrous, separate, parallel 
yet harmonious declarations of faith and of faiths.
As we break ground today,
may we begin to imagine how
the inquisitive voices of youth
and the supportive and enlightened guidance
of experienced mentors and teachers
will be transformed
Into a symphony of the soul
That will, every day,
play and sing a holy song

along with the desert wind.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Do not harden your heart - Thoughts on the 8th Morning of Passover (a Facebook status post) - April 22, 2014

Hi - my name is Larry...I am a Reform Rabbi who observes Passover for 8 days instead of 7, as does my congregation. So, as I eat my Matzo Brei for breakfast this morning before I go to Temple for our service for the last morning of Pesach, I am thinking about the reading from the Torah I will be doing this morning. Moving out of slavery to freedom, even for our ancestors, was no guarantee of a life of comfort. The verses in Deuteronomy 15 that I will read first say, "There need not be needy people in your land," but go on to admit that "there will never cease to be needy ones in your land." It follows with this command, "Therefore, open your hand to the poor and needy in your land." We look at unemployment levels and congratulate ourselves when they decrease, even though many people still don't have jobs. We think we are making progress when poverty rates go down, even as many people are still living in dire conditions in our country and around the world. This section in Deuteronomy also says, "do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman." That sounds a lot like Pharaoh with a hardened heart against the slavery which he used for his own purposes. There may be many views on how best to open our hand to people in need. This passage says: "Be aware! Don't stand by! Do something to help!" Maimonides said that the highest degree of tzedakah, righteous giving, is to help people be self-supporting. Private giving, communal help (which can include government, which is part of community), teaching new skills - there are all sorts of ways to create a safety net. So this is what the 8th day of Passover has brought me - this reminder to keep my own eyes and hands open and to help others do the same. Perhaps, then, we will truly be free.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Only love can drive out hatred - D'var Torah - Shabbat Pesach - April 18, 2014 - for everyone back home on the tragic events of April 13

     It was Sunday afternoon.
    A woman visited her mother at a retirement home.
    A grandfather took his grandson to audition at a local talent competition.
    These were both acts of support and of love.
    Love should have conquered all on that day.  
    However, there is hatred in people’s hearts, hard-hearted prejudice worthy of the Pharaoh of the Exodus. 
     One man was also out on that Sunday afternoon. He has harbored notions against Jews for decades that have become deeply ingrained in his being. He was well known for his anti-Semitism and for denying humanity to other specific groups of people in America. He was also known for turning on his fellow purveyors of hate in order to receive a reduced sentence for his own incarceration.   Perhaps he hated his compatriots as well.   On this day, he sought to turn his views into violent acts at two Jewish sites in the Kansas City area.
    The Jewish Community Center of Overland Park is familiar territory for my family.  We attended many events there.  I was on stage to perform at three of their bi-annual Jewish Arts Festivals.  I have family members who frequent the facility.  A high school classmate of mine serves as its Jewish Life and Learning director.   Village Shalom, the senior care and residential facility, was where my aunt, who died 7 weeks ago, had been living for a number of years.   
    Those are the places that Frazier Cross chose as his targets on that day before the beginning of Passover earlier this week.  He was reported to have asked, “Are you Jewish?” to some of the people he encountered in the parking lot at the JCC.  Ultimately, his hatred of the Jewish people spread to the greater human family in two instants.   The grandfather and grandson whom he murdered attended a large United Methodist “Megachurch.”  The woman visiting her mother was a devout Catholic. 
    Many individual Jews and Jewish leaders have tried for ages to tell people that prejudice against one group could easily lead to dire consequences for all of society.  Hatred knows no bounds, a phenomenon proven day after day by the picketers of the Westboro Baptist Church.
     This event happened in Kansas, but it touched us here in Las Cruces. A cousin of mine was involved with the talent competition at the JCC on Sunday. One of our congregants had a granddaughter at the JCC at the time of the shooting.  
     In the aftermath, we have learned much about Frazier Cross and his extremism and how pervasive the network of hate remains across our country.  One map showed that there are several Ku Klux Klan groups in our state.  
    The greater lesson we can learn is in the nature of community.  Frazier Cross and those like him don’t like a world where cooperation and love cross religious and ethnic lines.   They can’t stand it when people join one another in programming that is enriching and fulfilling.   The service held at the Overland Park JCC yesterday was visually moving.  I read the words that my Religious School and Rabbinic school classmate, Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff, who is now my “home rabbi,” delivered at that gathering.  One of the comments he made was about love, quoting next week’s Torah reading: “Love your neighbor as yourself. How do we do that? It is not a narcissistic approach to life, where we give and do for others only that which you yourself would want. Rather, it is just the opposite: when we put ourselves in another’s shoes, and imagine what he or she needs...and we then are able to provide it...that is true love. That is when we love our neighbors as ourselves.”
   On this Shabbat during Pesach, I will chant a section from the Song of Songs.  Yes, it is unabashedly a book of love poetry.  But the rabbis included this book in the Bible because they saw it as an expression of the love between God and the Jewish people, which I would extend to all of humanity.  We need to love our neighbors as ourselves with the commitment and depth reflected in the Song of Songs.  We need to see that loving our neighbors is a small part of the love that envelops the world through all creation, and through life. Our very lives are a loving gift from the Creator to each of us.
    In the Torah reading for this week, Moses demonstrated his love for his people despite their flirtation with idolatry in the Golden Calf episode.  Through that love of community, Moses convinced God to show mercy to the Israelites and to allow them to gradually learn and grow into their love for the Eternal One.   Then Moses, in a loving request, asked to see God.  The Divine replied that Moses could only see God’s back while standing in the cleft of a rock as the Divine presence passed by.  Moses took up to the summit of Mt Sinai, a second time, two tablets of stone that he had carved this time.  While stationed in the position God had set for him, Moses heard a declaration of the attributes of God’s essence. He was reassured that the Divine is Eternal, causing everything to come into being, gracious, merciful, patient, kind, truthful, trustworthy, forgiving, and just.   He realized that these were qualities that he needed to practice as a leader, and that his people needed to internalize these values in their treatment of one another.    We could say that all of those attributes, together, create a strong foundation for love within a family or a community.  
     That is a love that can combat hatred.   That is a love that can give us the wisdom and the determination to stand with each other because we are part of one human family.    That is a love that can help us through difficult times and enable us to work together to engender understanding, cooperation and respect in a world that presents us with too much division and violence and war.  
    Our hearts go out to the families of those three community members, Reat Griffin Underwood, William Lewis Corporon, and  Terri LaManno, murdered in Overland Park, to my home Jewish community and their neighbors, and to people all over the world who are victims of senseless violence and oppression.

     May this holiday of Pesach inspire us to work for the redemption of our world through love, commitment, mercy and hope. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Local Values with Faraway Foundations - April 13, 2014

     As the Board chair of a local group seeking to raise the city minimum wage, I am fascinated by claims that "outside influences" are dictating this campaign.  
      Of course, it would be easy to claim that certain forces in at least one state in which I have lived in the past (see below) are directing opposition to anyone who would suggest raising the minimum wage in any state.  The "prosperity" of which those forces speak will likely be shared mainly by those on the higher rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. 
     However, I don't feel I need to go there.   Where I want to go is somewhere much higher than those supposedly lofty rungs, a sacred place that lies within the realm of values.
     Yes, the values that I espouse emerged from the Ancient Near East over 2000 years ago.  The Torah, preserved and transmitted to the world by the Jewish people, speaks over and over about what employers are supposed to do for their workers.   I suppose that could be called an "outside influence," except for the fact that those very scriptural references are contained in houses of worship in and around Las Cruces.   These teachings inspire many people to contribute good ideas and energy to our city.   The "outside influence" stirs people inside to make Las Cruces a better place to live. 
     My grandparents immigrated to the United States from Lithuania over 100 years ago.  They all ended up in the Kansas City, Missouri, where I was raised.  I attended college at the University of Illinois, and served as a rabbi in Ohio, Kansas and New Hampshire.   Perhaps that makes me an outsider.  Or, it might have given me experiences that will enrich this community through the work that I do in local organizations.   I would think that, if we want to bring people here from other parts of the nation and the world and have them stay, we shouldn't be accusing them of bringing "outside influences" to our city.   That is hardly hospitable. 
    I am neither an economist nor the son of an economist.  I am, however, informed well enough to know that a proposal to raise the minimum wage to the same level as is being proposed nationally doesn't mean that the number is not applicable locally.    Some citizens have pointed to a minimum wage in other New Mexico cities being only slightly higher and, therefore, the nationally proposed number is "too high" for us.   According to those "outside influences" of biblical teachings, proposals on raising the minimum wage that fall short of raising a worker out of poverty are not high enough.          
      We, as the Las Cruces community, are who we are because of everyone who lives here at any given time.   The Great Conversation series held at the City Council Chambers revealed a wide range of feelings on this issue.   Those of us sitting in the circle were there because we care about Las Cruces' citizens and the well-being of our city.    The prophet Jeremiah declared in Jeremiah 29:7,  "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you...and pray...on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."   Praying for the welfare of any community means considering the status of everyone who lives there, showing concern, empathy and offering support.   "Outside influences" are irrelevant.  What matters most is that we do all we can to include all of our neighbors inside our circle of community.   

Friday, April 11, 2014

Confirming our Redemption - Pre-Passover thoughts - April 11, 2014

    Recently, I went into a local store where it is possible to accumulate “rewards” over time that can result in a discount at the cash register.   As I was making my purchase, the woman behind the counter said, “You can use your rewards today to have $5 taken off your total! Would you like to do that?”  I said yes, and on the screen of the credit card scanner, this message came up for me to press (or not): “Confirm redemption!”  
    There I was, standing at this counter a few days before the beginning of Passover, which retells the story of the Israelites being redeemed from slavery.   I was being asked to “confirm my redemption!”   I would guess that this message would resonate with Christians at this time of year as well, whether the word is “redemption” or “salvation.” 
    So I thought about how I can really confirm my redemption.  What it is that will redeem my work, my life, my community and the world?  
     I believe that we can confirm our redemption if we consider the values that lie at the foundation of what we do.
     I recently participated in a series of discussions about raising the city minimum wage at Las Cruces City Hall. These talks were facilitated by the local Great Conversation organization.   Concerned citizens, organizers, business owners, minimum wage workers and a faith leader (yours truly) engaged in three 90-minute sessions to consider issues from a wide variety of perspectives on the need for and effects of an increase in the minimum wage. 
    In the second of three sessions, I presented this list of values for the workplace that apply to both employers and employees:  dignity, respect, responsibility, learning new skills and abilities, commitment, dedication, showing hospitality and congeniality, caring between employer/employee as people, recognizing each person’s individuality, approachability,  ability to take guidance and constructive criticism, patience, fairness, support, affirmation and appreciation.  
    I was surprised that some members of the group saw this list as a form of judgment against their approach to their business.   My sole intention was to create a lens through which we could talk about how wage and values come together.  It may be that practicing this entire list of values would create such a sense of well-being and camaraderie in a workplace that wage would be but one aspect of the feeling of community generated within the work environment.
    Due to fear of the negative effects of proposals on the table for increasing the minimum wage,  this values list became secondary, if not totally submerged, within the “legislative” discussion of the details of one proposal or another.
   Confirming our redemption will not come only through legislation.  50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.    We know that it made a major difference throughout our country.  We also know how easy it is, unfortunately, for individual communities and states to undo such pioneering policies.  That is happening right before our eyes.   For some Americans, changing the law did not change their perspectives at all.  Prejudice, arrogance and bigotry still loom too large in our nation.
     That does not mean, however, that we should give up on stating and restating values.   The Bible states the basic golden rule, “love your neighbor as yourself” and adds “love the stranger – someone who is not exactly like you – as yourself” as well.   Scripture declares many moral standards that apply to all people, including many statements about taking care of workers and the poor, the fatherless, and the widow.  The Rev. Jim Wallis, in his book On God’s Side, reminded us that we enhance the greater good when we show concern with the “least of these,” the people who may never share in even momentary economic improvements, much less growing prosperity.
     In Jewish terms, “confirming our redemption” means repairing the world (Tikun Olam) and doing righteousness/justice, tzedakah, for our fellow human beings.  
    That is one of the great lessons of Passover.  Do we want to be like Pharaoh, hanging his head on one side of the sea, realizing that hardening his heart against the humanity of the Israelites working for him led him on a path of self-destruction?
    Or do we want to be like the Israelites who were rejoicing on the opposite shore, having overcome their fear to cross the sea that would only part when they, themselves, took the first steps?  
     We have the power to confirm our own redemption through how we view and treat each other.   We are all created in the divine image.  Every one of us is here to be loved, appreciated and valued.   Recognizing everyone’s dignity and showing respecting will bring those gifts of consideration back to us.
     The Haggadah, the prayerbook of the Passover meal, calls Matzah, the unleavened bread that serves as a focus of the meal, the “bread of affliction.”  a bread that did not rise as the Israelites hastily escaped slavery in Egypt.  This special prayer continues, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.  Let all who are in want share the hope of Passover….now we are still in bonds.  Next year may all be free.” 
    Even a lowly bread that did not rise, a bread with little taste, a “bread of affliction,” is the centerpiece of telling a story of how a people left slavery and confirmed their redemption and freedom.
     Even a small change of heart can enable us, now, to confirm our redemption together as we realize the joy that can come from eating at the same table and truly being one community.   
    May we strive for such unity and understanding within our community and our world every day!