Friday, July 25, 2014

Shelter - and one day, Peace as well - D'var Torah - Parashat (Portion) Mas'ei - July 25, 2014

Throughout this week, I have participated in the Las Cruces Peace Camp program.
Yesterday, as I left for another meeting in the early afternoon, after being at camp since the morning,  I told one of the staff - "thank you, I am going back to my civilian rabbi life."
  Of course, what I was doing there was as rabbinic as any other educational work that I do at Temple or in other community organizations.
But something felt different about this week.
As I read my fill this morning of articles about the war in Gaza, I realized that Peace Camp felt to me like a safe bubble or haven where I could gain a respite from the turmoil in the world and talk about peace and building a better world with a feeling of hope.
I was grateful for my daily flight into idealism, which included discussions about constructive conflict resolution and gaining a sense for how to understand how people live in various parts of the world.
It wasn't all idealism, though - anytime that we create community among a group of people, we form a microcosm of real life in which we have to get along.  
   As we know, Israel is one country with an increasingly diverse community politically and culturally that still finds common ground rather easily. 
   I was fascinated by the report of a July 12 demonstration against the war in Gaza by Israelis on the left at Habima Square in Tel Aviv.    Right wing counter demonstrators were right there with them, shouting at them whatever slogans they could muster. 
Then the sirens sounded.
Then they all went to a MIKLAT - a shelter - together. 
Yes, right-wing and left wing Israelis - in a shelter – together, suspended their conflict for a moment as they sought refuge from the common existential threat from Hamas.
    Once the all clear was sounded, they went back up to the square and resumed their positions, shouting at each other in disagreement once again.
For a moment, the shelter - the MIKLAT - was not only a haven and refuge from rockets.  It was also a place where these Israelis automatically, almost unconsciously, set aside their differences.  
   In the Torah reading for this week in Numbers Chapter 35, we read about six ancient cities, each 

called an IR MIKLAT, a city of refuge, in which a priest would reside in order to provide sanctuary for a person who unintentionally killed another.  His - or her - life would automatically be sought after by the victim’s relative, known as the GOEL HADAM - the blood avenger.  In the ancient world, the goal was to keep a balance between the families, and justice could only be set right when someone died on each side - except in this case where there was no hatred and no intention to take a life. The person who had accidentally committed the killing had to stay in that city.  That town was a place of safety, a MIKLAT, a shelter, keeping the hatred of the victim's relative from touching him or her.   The death of the High Priest of the city would provide the restoration of the balance, perhaps because of the communal respect for the priest himself that would supersede any other considerations in the community.   Blood vengeance would fall by the wayside at such a time of city-wide mourning.
    In recent weeks, conflicts in the world have affected not only citizens of countries but also, tragically, people flying above them.   Some cities in Europe that we would think are safe for Jews are havens no more, as demonstrations against Israel's actions target Jews and their synagogues.  A store owner in Belgium put up a sign that said dogs were allowed but not "Zionists."  Due to the actions of ISIS, Christians in Mosul, Iraq are threatened if they don’t convert to Islam.  People have become hostages to their own community members or victims of violence of their fellow citizens who hold extreme ideologies and seek to grab power through punishing innocent bystanders.  

     I suppose that is why I was glad that Peace Camp happened this week. I went back for the closing session this afternoon, singing several songs about peace. For us, in our sanctuary, right here, may we think about all that we have prayed about peace during this Shabbat Service, and may the hope we recite each week come to fruition:  May the one who makes peace in the highest heavens make peace for us, for all Israel, and for all the world, and let us say Amen. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Reaching for a Covenant of Peace - Parashat Pinchas - July 11, 2014

A part of the human brain was hard-wired long ago
to be prepared for an immediate threat to our existence or for impending danger.
Another part of our brain has the ability to take our thinking to a higher level, far above the fear that could cause us to expect doom at every turn,
to compete with others in most situations, or to see life in terms of conquests and defeats rather than as a series of opportunities for thoughtful cooperation, productive partnership and constructive compromise. 
The Torah portion for this week, Pinchas, begins with God offering a covenant of peace and friendship to Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas the priest.
    At the end of the previous Torah reading, Pinchas’ spear had pierced through an Israelite man and a Midianite woman (by his own hand) as they worshiped a foreign god that was not responsible for their liberation from Egypt.
    Some say the covenant was a reward to Pinchas for his act that stilled God’s anger at the people’s backsliding into idolatry.
   Perhaps the covenant was really God’s way of telling him that he could express his zealotry for his faith and his people through a violent act only once.
    It may appear that it wasn’t until the time of the prophets that the Israelites were able to look at a situation with a fresh approach, what we would call “outside the box,” moving beyond narrow ways of thinking about situations and about people.
Enter the daughters of Zelophechad – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah – who came forward in this Torah reading with a radical idea.  
Their father had no sons, and they believed that they deserved to have their father’s inheritance transferred to them.  
Moses took the case to God, who declared that “the plea of the daughters is just.”  
For the Israelites, this decision transcended, if only for a moment, the “us/them” of rights based on gender.  There was only one community, which included both men and woman, who could be seen as equal.  
   That decision reflected creativity and openness.
  It set the stage for Moses’s request that God appoint his successor, a leader over the community who would “go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the community of the Eternal will not be like a sheep that have no shepherd.”
It was the leader’s task to direct the people, to assure that they had food and drink, to guide them in battle, and to continue to teach them about the meaning of freedom.  
    It was Joshua who was chosen to succeed Moses, the man with the name meaning “salvation.” 
    Salvation had a unique significance for the Israelites, and, later, for the Jewish people, as they faced challenges from without and within.
   The notion of “us/them” persisted over the centuries as a world was unable to understand a people that was few in number but mighty in spirit and study, a people that believed that salvation ultimately applied to all humanity.
    And so we come to today – now – this week.
   As rockets fired to perpetuate the “us/them” approach targeted Israeli cities, necessitating a response in self-defense, families mourning their murdered children on both sides extended hearts towards one another.
Even a particularistic sense of peoplehood does not preclude holding onto faith in God as Creator of all humanity, a belief that has led some, in their sadness, to rise above a perspective of “us/them” to see themselves as part of yet another specific community, defined as “we human beings who desire to live in peace so that no one else will need to experience the pain of grieving for a murdered child.”  
    Such a community needs a shepherd – a leader. Psalm 23, which a number of us studied at Temple this week, speaks of a Shepherd, with a capital “S,” who would provide for the people, lead them through green pastures and by still waters, revive their very lives amid their despair, direct them along pathways of justice, and remind them that goodness and kindness are always running after them, pursuing them, as if those two calming qualities of character were calling out to us, “Slow down so that we can catch up with you and be an integral part of your lives.” 

     May that Shepherd in whose house we yearn to dwell forever lift our vision to the heights, so that communities and their leaders can see that the peace that is created in the highest heavens has the potential to bring benefit and serenity to the world below.   May the violence of some give way to the wisdom of others that will make peace a reality that will bring light and hope to the dark corners of the world.  So may it be –and let us say amen.