Friday, June 27, 2014

Speaking for God among us – Parashat Chukat – D’var Torah – June 27, 2014

         The Torah reading for this Shabbat includes a section that is pivotal for the story of the Israelites in the wilderness.  It gives us yet another reason why Moses and Aaron would not lead the Israelites into the land of Canaan.
    Most people would look at this passage and think that the result was not fair.    Earlier, in the book of Exodus, God asked Moses to strike a rock so that water would flow out of it and quench the thirst of the Israelites. 
Perhaps Moses thought that was the usual “instant spring of water” procedure – hit a divinely designated rock!
    In this case, in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 20, the people were once again complaining about their thirst, their weariness and their freedom.  And this was not the generation of those who left Egypt.  It was their children – they learned well from their parents how to be expert complainers. 
    So, in the fortieth year of their wanderings, we can imagine Moses and Aaron being weary themselves – and angry.   Yes, they still had to behave like leaders.  But they had likely reached their wit’s end.
   God told them to bring the community together and to take Aaron’s rod that had recently sprouted almond blossoms after the Korach rebellion, giving it very special quality.
    Then Moses heard God give this command: “Order the rock to yield its water.”   One may wonder why they had to bring the rod if the spoken word would be the agent to bring forth a spring.   Perhaps it was a test.
    Moses said to the people as he stood by Aaron: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”  Moses, known for his humility more than his patience, was not showing much patience at this particular moment.  At that instant, Moses, in his momentary zeal, raised his hand and struck the rock twice.  Water came out even though he didn’t offer the required verbal command.
    The next verse communicated a harsh sentence from God: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm my sanctity before the Israelites, you shall not lead this congregation into the land.”  As in Exodus 17, this site was called Meribah, meaning “a place of contention.” 
    So what did Moses and Aaron do wrong?  One possibility is that there is something not mentioned here that was a very grave sin.   Some scholars have suggested that, but that would leave us with nothing to talk about. 
    Some say that it was because Moses struck the rock and didn’t order it with words to create a spring of water.  However, the water still came out, so that may not be the reason.
   Some say that it was because Moses was angry.  The rabbis said in the Talmud, “When a prophet gets angry, he or she loses the gift of prophecy.”  Other commentators were so exasperated themselves with the Israelites complaining that they forgave Moses’  frustration in this case.   So that may not be the reason.
    Many suggest that they key to the answer is in one word:  “we.”   “Shall WE get water for you out of this rock?”  was what Moses said.   Moses and Aaron, in their frustration, could be seen as inadvertently claiming that it was their human power that was providing the water, not God’s.   
    The Exodus was about having faith and trust in each other and in God.   If God created the world, God was the source of any water that might be available.   The Oxford Jewish Study Bible quotes a 14th Century BCE Egyptian inscription in a small temple in the Sinai by the side of a road, dedicated to the Pharaoh Seti: “God has made water come forth for me from the mountain.”  Giving God credit for even one small part of creation goes back a long, long way.   
   There is a lesson here for us today about the higher purposes of our lives.   The rabbis used to say, when it came to a variety of opinions coexisting, “EILU V’EILU DIVREI ELOHIM CHAYIM” – This view and that view are the words of the living God.   In other words, God encompasses all ideologies and all reality. 
   That statement suggests that all of us possess a part of the truth, but that we can only get the whole picture when we listen to each other, when we work together, when we bring our views into focus for each other and understand that there is something that is “right” about many perspectives.  
    That is one of the aspects of the Presbyterian Church USA vote last week that may have been missing for some of the commissioners in attendance.  There has been a wide variety of reactions to the vote to divest from three companies that have manufactured equipment that the Presbyterians allege is being used by Israel for security purposes in Judea and Samaria. 
It is important to consider what the real issues might be.       
      There was one of association, because the Presbyterian choice of Jewish Voice for Peace as a sole Jewish partner did not represent the greater scope of views in the Jewish community.  The Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement saw the 310-303 vote in favor of divestment as a win, even though other elements in the resolution spoke positively about Israel’s right to exist and about working with various partners for peace.  That association with BDS was a problem for many.  
     The ZIONISM UNSETTLED study guide that was developed by the Presbyterian Israel Palestine Mission Network and released a few months ago may soon be coming off the PC USA website as a document available for sale.  Some supporters of the vote last week were guided by this text.  Katherine Henderson, President of the Auburn Theological Seminary, stated with great concern that this publication is “a polemic that reduces the complex and multiple narratives of Israelis and Palestinians through a single lens: the problem of Zionism. The premise of the document appears to be that Zionism is the cause of the entire conflict in the Middle East and the root of all its problems. For its authors, Zionism functions as the original sin, from which flows all the suffering of the Palestinian people.”    That is not exactly what the rabbis had in mind about different opinions.
     In the last 50 years, many Christian denominations have followed the lead of the Catholic Church and declared that Judaism is an equal religious partner in bringing goodness and justice into the world.  Christianity has not replaced Judaism, according to these proclamations welcomed by the Jewish community.   The Presbyterian Church USA never did reach a point of affirming a similar declaration after creating a study document on the issue 30 years ago.   Now would be a good time for Presbyterians to join other Christian groups in establishing  a true partnership with Jews worldwide.
     From the experience of watching the proceedings last week, and working with and knowing members of the Presbyterian Church, what is most important is remembering that there is a higher dimension to our relationships.  There are higher truths.  There is One Creator of whom each of us is a reflection. When we deny that common link that brings us together, we tend build barriers rather than bridges.
    So in our dealings with each other, may we find ways of speaking without frustration and anger, ready to at least try to stand at the center to hear the voices expressing different words and perspectives.   May we give thanks to God who has given us great powers to gain understanding, to think deeply, to step into someone else’s shoes and views, and to remember that the spark of God in all of us can bring us together.   

Friday, June 20, 2014

Keep our views...holy and high - Thoughts and a prayer on Parashat (Portion) Korach - June 20, 2014

This week’s Torah portion of Korach begins with selfishness
And ends with selflessness.
It starts with community members who sought for themselves what they thought was the ultimate power over their people without mentioning the responsibilities that come with a position of leadership.
The parashah ends with the command to the Levites to tithe, to give a tenth of all they had received from the people, back to God.   Those serving the people were reminded that they were ultimately like everyone else, even while performing special duties of worship and leadership.
That lesson was one of humility, but it was also intended to elevate their souls in order to gain a divine perspective of respect and care for all of the people.
In light of this message, I offer this prayer: 
Eternal God,
Keep our views, our perspectives, and
our intentions, holy and high.  Raise us up above pettiness and human conflict so that your teachings will serve as a beacon for us, to guide us in how we can best serve our community.
Enable us to help and to hear those in need, so that they will be able to live with hope and security.
 Direct us to help and hear one another, so that we will achieve an understanding that will result in our willing and natural cooperation. 
Give us confidence to overcome our fears when the prospect of change or the threat of discrimination or prejudice prevent us from taking bold steps forward that could enrich our knowledge, our relationships and our lives.
Bless us with Your nearness, Your mercy and Your love.

And let us say Amen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Remarks at NM CAFe Last Chance rally for Raise the minimum wage Ballot initiative signature campaign - June 17, 2014

Through the great work of so many volunteers,
5,026 signatures have been gathered in 20 days
a number that is still growing. 
This has been accomplished
with the support and hard work of
members of 8 congregations
and faith communities
throughout Las Cruces,
who collected over 2,000 signatures
from their places of worship.
This campaign has been about faith
because the traditions many of us represent
have specific views about values in the workplace:
of employers and employees
bound together in mutual respect,
where full time employment will enable people to live and thrive while caring themselves or their families. 

We keep hearing from some leaders and citizens  that  dignity comes from within. 
Yes, it does,but only up to a point.
Too many times in human history,
people have been called upon
to sustain their own dignity inside
while facing abuse, prejudice, and discrimination
from the outside – from other people and from their society.
That was the experience of my ancestors for many generations. 

What is dignity?
Dignity is a gift that people can give to each other if they only try.
What we are doing here, with so many people participating,
is developing a vision of a Las Cruces in which
we give one another dignity not only with a higher wage
But in how we approach each other with open minds, open hands and open hearts.  
Let us keep working towards that vision – this is the Las Cruces that we want for each other, for our children and for the future!  

Prayers at Dedication of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument - May 23, 2014 - Rabbi Larry Karol and Father Vince Petersen

May 23, 2014

Closing remarks/prayer
led by Rabbi Larry Karol, Temple Beth-El of Las Cruces, NM
and Father Vince Petersen, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, Tortugas, NM

Rabbi Larry Karol:
Based on Psalm 121
I lift my eyes to the mountains,
what is the source of my help?
My help comes from the Eternal Creator
of Heaven and Earth
the Fashioner of the lands
in this new National Monument
with its vistas that inspire within us hope and awe
With its spaces where we can seek
secrets and solitude.
With its places to enjoy, preserve and explore.
( Singing the beginning of Psalm 121 - Melody by Shlomo Carlebach)
Esa Einai el he-harim mei-a-yin yavo ezri (2)
Ez-ri mei-im adonai osei shama-yim va-a-retz (2)

 led by Rabbi Karol and Father Petersen
(From Earth Prayers, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amadon)
Blessing of galaxies, blessing of stars -
Great stars, small stars, red stars, blue ones.
Blessing of nebula, blessing of supernova
planets, satellites, asteroids, comets.
Blessing of our sun and moon, blessing of our earth
Oceans, rivers, continents, mountain ranges.
Blessing of wind and cloud, blessing of rain.
Fog bank, snow drift, lighting and thunder.
Bless the wisdom of the Holy One above us.
Bless the truth of the Holy One beneath us.
Bless the love of the Holy One within us.

Father Vince Petersen:
The recognition of these Holy Mountains as a National Monument
is a recognition that all of us - no matter what our faith or cultural traditions - share a common sanctuary where God - the Holy One is revealed. 
This sanctuary is called planet Earth.
We will not save what we do not love.
I want to share with you a song in Spanish that speaks of this love.
The translation goes something like this ...
If you want to see how the beautiful flowers are born
you have to climb the holy mountain.
Si tu quieres saber - como son esas flores
como es el cantar - del ave azul de aquel lugar.
Todo eso hallaras - al escalar esa montana
Donde brota el amor - donde nace la flor - del mas bello color.

Father Petersen and Rabbi Karol:

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Glass Half Full - Open-minded Optimism in the face of Challenge - D'var Torah (Sh'lach L'cha) - June 13, 2014

   “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people we saw in it are of great size…and as we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we must have looked to them.” 
   “The land that we traversed is an exceedingly good land.  If pleased with us, the Eternal will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey….The Eternal is with us. Have no fear of the people there!”
     One land, one scouting trip – two different reports. 
The first, from this week's Torah reading Sh'lach L'cha, is from the majority, ten scouts who returned from their journey seeing no possibility of success.  To assure that their mission would be a total failure, the text says that “they spread calumnies - false accounts - among the people.”   The Hebrew word for calumnies, DIBAH, means “whispering, defamation, or an evil report.”   Whether the majority of the scouts whispered or spread their perspective through the Israelite camp like demagogues, we don’t know.   We know that what they offered was the view of a glass mostly empty, supporting those people who would have preferred slavery back in Egypt to their newly found freedom.
     Then there was Caleb and Joshua.  The second report I recited came from Joshua in Chapter 14. In Chapter 13, Caleb simply said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” Caleb and Joshua amassed the same set of economic and military data as their companions.   However, they saw something more.  The Talmud claimed that Caleb went to visit the Tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron like one of us would visit the graves of our ancestors.   There was a familiar and emotional tie that guided him to view the research results in a different way.  The Etz Hayim commentary explains, “Caleb alone was able to see the Land not only as it was at the moment but as what it had meant and would mean in terms of God’s promise to the patriarchs.  They went up to scout the land – they ascended, not only geographically but to a higher spiritual level.” 
     That higher spiritual level enabled Caleb and his fellow optimist, Joshua, to look at the data with hope and vision, with a sense that would enable the people to enter the land.   The Etz Hayim Commentary noted that “what the scouts reported was factually correct but was not the truth.  Truth is more than a summary of empirical facts.  It must include the response of the soul to those facts, and this is where the majority of the scouts failed in their duty.” 
    Rising to a higher level – going up – means looking at a situation not out of fear but with a lens that allows us to see potential.    Something that is possible has an equal chance of becoming real or remaining merely a dream.   The difference is us – our approach, our faith, our creativity, our energy, and our open-mindedness.    Sticking to the literal empirical data led the Israelites to wander for many more years in the wilderness.   The willingness of Caleb and Joshua to think out of the box and imagine their people meeting the challenges of a difficult land eventually gave them both positions of respect and leadership.   
    So when we as a congregation conceive of an idea for a new program and make it real, we are like Caleb and Joshua.  The Jewish Food and Folk Festival is a prime example of how we at Temple Beth-El can do just that.   
     When a family decides to move to a new home or a new community, there is always risk and uncertainty.  There is also the promise of new opportunities and a refreshed approach to life.   Often, the safe course of action is to stay put.   Reasons for moving may sometimes be economic, but people often move because they are looking for something more or different in their lives that a new setting can provide.  And there is that Jewish saying, “M’SHANEH MAKOM, M’SHANEH MAZAL,” change your place, change your stars,  or your destiny (mazal means planet)… or “luck"....translate it any way you want!  
     And what type of vision do we have for our nation and the world?  A “higher spiritual level,” in Judaism, carries with it bearing responsibility not just for ourselves but for everyone on the planet.  In a well-known Midrash, God told Adam and Eve, “The world is here for you.  BAL TASHCHIT – do not destroy it.”   We attempt to strike a balance between preserving the environment and finding existing and new sources of energy.   We utilize the world’s resources as many people seek ways to assure that they won’t run out.    We see inequality between people who are at various levels of socio-economic status and are reminded by Maimonides that the highest degree of tzedakah is to assure that all people are self-supporting, where, ideally, no one gets left behind.   We see inequality in the ways people treat each other and realize that while dignity comes from within, it also can be a gift from one person to another.   The Torah teaches us to respect our enemies even if we don’t like or love them.  It directs us to love our neighbor and the stranger as ourselves.    Those aspects of the vision embodied in Judaism can take us to a higher level from which we can look at data from any source and realize that facts do not have to tie our hands.   Facts can lead us to truths that we will make real with open hands, open minds, open hearts and with a generosity of spirit. 
     So this Torah reading challenges us to think broadly, to be open to the potential that is in front of our eyes, and to understand that we will reach whatever promised land we seek, even against insurmountable odds, when we turn our fear and despair into faith and hope.  So may we do – and let us say Amen.