Sunday, February 22, 2015

What Weddings Teach Us about Community - February 24, 2015

Mishpachah - Family
Kedushah - Holiness.
Ahavah - Love. 
    They comprise the essence of every life event, both joyous celebrations and times of sorrow and remembrance. 
They are the ingredients of our most treasured relationships. 
They lie at the foundation of any community. 
    I could have shared these reflections at any of the milestones that have already happened in my own life or within our family.   I didn't.   Family, holiness and love were present in large measure in our son Adam's birth ceremony, Consecration, Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation, and even in elementary school, middle school, high school and college graduations.   
   As Adam married Juli Schnur on February 21, I realized that all of those elements were part of our celebration, but it was different. 
   It was deeper. 
   It was unique. 
   All of those other life events are siginificant landmarks along the path of life.  They brought both sides of a family together.   
   A wedding is a moment of creation.  It takes two families and makes them, at least to some extent, one, through the union of the couple that was, in this case, standing under a chuppah.  
   It has the potential of adding to a parent's life yet another person who will call him or her "Dad" or "Mom."   
    It defines, in the broadest way, which friends who are outside the family have become family-by-choice, not just through their presence on the guest list, but through the connection they feel to the couple and through events in the future by which a shared history will unfold.   MISHPACHAH is a tree of generations, a web of connections, and a story of how all of those bonds came to be and will continue to grow. 
   All religious and secular life events include specific rituals which set them apart from other moments, giving those times a dimension of KEDUSHAH, holiness.   A Jewish wedding includes the chuppah, the canopy that represents the couple's first home; rings that illustrate their union as they form a circle of two; wine as a symbol of joy; and the breaking of a glass that has many explanations, but its place at the end of a wedding ceremony, with the shout of "MAZAL TOV" offers a culmination of a holy celebration which is often called KIDDUSHIN (taken from the root for holiness).  
    In Adam's and Juli's celebration, sacred ceremony was linked with weekly sacred Jewish time.  We welcomed Shabbat with selected prayers before the rehearsal dinner, participating with Juli's parents, Steve and Nancie.  We recited Havdalah before the signing of the Ketubah and the wedding itself (at which Rabbis Rick Jacobs and Ken Kanter officiated).   We had marked the beginning and end of Shabbat, so that we entered the holy space and moment of KIDDUSHIN having marked the very observance of which it has been said, "More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people."    As with Rhonda and me,  Shabbat will be a time which will define a regular part of life for Adam and Juli, not only in time, but in its underlying values of creation and working for freedom and liberation for all people.  Those principles reflect a KEDUSHAH all their own. 
    AHAVAH, love, is central to what Rabbi Akiba called the "fundamental principle of the Torah" - "Love your neighbor as yourself."   It is, of course, all important in a marriage, in all family relationships and friendships, and in the interconnections of community which we have the opportunity to create together.   
    As I looked around at those assembled for Adam's and Juli's wedding, I could see the love in their eyes for the couple.  I could hear the depth of the bonds between each of the rabbis and the bride and groom.   I could sense the spirit that flowed between the parents standing on either side of the chuppah and the two people who were about to merge their life stories into one.   Throughout the weekend, as I looked around at those present whom I already knew, I thought about how they were a part of my own story and Rhonda's and my shared journey.   Yes, there was MISHPACHAH - family.  Yes, there was KEDUSHAH, holiness, because of the uniqueness of the tales we have spun through shared experiences.   And there was love, not only among family, but with friends as well.   Picking up Adam's high school friends at the train station reminded me of the love of friendship that exists between them all and is a joy to behold, connections in which I have, in some way, always been a participant, not just a bystander.  AHAVAH, between family and friends, whether they are present in body or spirit, can be a powerful source of joy, inspiration and hope.  
     So Rhonda and I have returned home.   There is a young woman who now calls us Mom and Dad.   Adam will do the same with her parents.   MISHPAHCHAH, KEDUSHAH and AHAVAH will guide us in strengthening newly formed ties that we will always cherish. 
     And we know that this can happen in any type of community, if we see each other as part of the same family, if we are willing to recognize that what brings us together is unique and special, and if we allow the love of our neighbor and the love of God to embrace and engulf our souls.  Then we will know what it truly means to be one.   

For Adam and Juli - Messages to the almost Newlyweds on February 20-21, 2015

KABBALAT SHABBAT - February 20, 2015
Adam and Juli,
      A little while ago, I was writing my message to you in the hotel business center.  When I stopped for  a moment to say hello to one of the guests for the weekend, the computer logged me out and, well, there went my text.  That was likely God's way of telling me to speak to you from the heart.
    The Torah reading for this Shabbat, TERUMAH, speaks about the Israelites bringing gifts for the building of the Tabernacle, "as their hearts so moved them" (Exodus 25:2).   This wording could be used to describe how the two of you have  come together.  There were many reasons that you grew close, but I believe that it was your hearts that moved you to be together, so that you could share your gifts with one another.  
    And what were those gifts?   For the Israelites, those gifts were yarns of different colors, gold and silver, wood, stones for setting, and oil for lighting.  We all have experienced the gifts that you share with each other because you have shared many of them with us: wisdom, humor, a desire to serve others, enthusiasm, creativity, and a developing coordinated sense of adventure. 
   And where do those gifts lead you?  We read in Exodus, Chapter 25, verse 8, "Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them."   I can still remember my home rabbi, William Silverman, speaking about this passage and saying, "It doesn't say 'that I may dwell IN IT,' but, instead, its says 'among them.'"   Adam and Juli, the two of you have already begun to create your small sanctuary, a MIKDASH M'AT through mutual respect, partnership and love.  Those characteristics of your relastionship demonstrate that God is with the two of you together.  And all of us who are here - family members and friends - offer you further support as a foundation for your MIKDASH.   Our prayer for you is that the MIKDASH that you continue to create will be strong for many years to come.    

HAVDALAH - February 21, 2015

Adam, on the day you were born, Mom and I were leaving the house to go to the hospital.  We stopped, looked around, and Mom said, "It's never going to be the same here again."   And it wasn't - and we are glad it wasn't because we had you in our lives.  
I was leaving our hotel room this afternoon to come over to this venue, and I said to myself something very similar, "When I come back to this room tonight, I will have a married son and I will be father-in-law, and, likely, have one more person calling me 'Dad.'"   
   Each of those realizations were about making a separation between one phase of life and another.  And here we are, preparing to bid farewell to this Shabbat  and welcome a new week. What I normally say about Shabbat in relation to my work in the community these days is that Shabbat is a time to reflect on how to make the world a better place in the coming week and to begin to plan what I can do to realize that goal.   
    This Havdalah is special, though, because we have here a special circle of friends and family who will sign the Ketubah and marriage license and offer prayers for you before we go out to the actual wedding ceremony.   While we will always be here for you, we know that you will be the ones who will imagine, together, how to share your special talents and gits with each other and with the world.  This moment - and every Shabbat - will offer you space to dream of how you can make a difference.  As we go out to the ceremony, and as you face the world together afterwards as husband and wife, we know that you will continue to discover new ways to bring your spirit to everyone around you.  
    In this new week, and in your married life, we wish for you every possible opportunity to touch the lives of others as you build your home with light, joy and love.  


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Seeking Justice and Fairness - D'var Torah on Exodus Chapter 23, Verses 1-9 (Mishpatim) - February 13, 2015

  •     Last week, the Torah presented what many see at its centerpiece: The Ten Divine Utterances – ASARAH HAD’VARIM – better known as the Ten commandments.
  •       The first 4 of those commandments set standards for our obligations to God; the fifth commandment declares what we owe our parents, who, as God’s earthly creative partners, made us; and the last 5 commandments established parameters for how we should act towards one another.
  •       The sections that follow, often known as the “Book of the Covenant,” do more of the same, covering rituals, and interpersonal issues related to how we humans have the potential to help and harm one another.  And when we cause harm, we are liable for what we have done.
  •       But chapter 23 of Exodus begins with something different. 
  •       I could call it the Torah’s “moral calculus for equal treatment, truth and acceptance” – perhaps, because it uses the root TZEDEK, righteousness, at least twice, this section offers us a “compass of righteousness.”
  •        Richard Elliott Friedman’s Commentary on the Torah offers a no-nonsense translation of this 9-verse section that I will read from the Torah tonight – so I will use his rendering of this passage as my starting point.  
  •       Verse 1:  YOU SHALL NOT BRING UP A FALSE REPORT.  DO NOT JOIN HANDS WITH THE WICKED TO BE A MALEVOLENT WITNESS.  This seems so simple and clear, but it’s not, by any means, always  understood or followed.  False reports are widespread when so many people believe that they possess the “real” story about an issue.  We might say that, when it comes to the news on television, balance comes from watching several networks rather than just one.  In our communities, the truth depends on the person who is telling it.  We may not know that something we are passing along is true or false, and if we don’t know, we shouldn’t pass it along.   The second half of the verse is about court proceedings and about the court of public opinion.  It says that we shouldn’t go along with someone whom we know has evil intentions and who will require us to engage in publicly declaring what we know to be false, technically leading us to commit libel or slander.  That includes accepting a statement as true without digging deeper to see that alleged connections that were made were totally false.  That happens too often. We have to be careful, and, especially, as listeners, we have to be discerning about what we hear, committing ourselves to seek our own verification so as not to become malevolent witnesses ourselves.
  •       VERSE TWO: YOU SHALL NOT BE FOLLOWING MANY TO DO BAD. AND YOU SHALL NOT TESTIFY ABOUT A DISPUTE TO BEND FOLLOWING MANY, TO BEND IT.   Here I feel that Richard Elliot Friedman’s own words say it best: “Do not follow a group, a crowd, a majority if what they are doing is wrong.  Do not do it for acceptance, for the secure feeling of being in a group, or for the sadistic pleasure of being able to exclude someone. It is easy to be hurtful in a group.   And it is easy to keep silent when one’s group does harm – or when its leaders do harm from their position, which  derives its power from the group. All of this is forbidden.  It is utterly inconsistent with the Torah’s conception of what a human should be and how one should behave towards other human beings. This comment should be unnecessary.”  In addition to that observation, Friedman noted the use of the word “bend.”  To “bend following many” means that justice is being bent out of shape if you follow the majority just because they are the majority.  The use of the word “bend” two times reminds us how serious it can be to bend a dispute away from a just and fair decision and conclusion.
  •       VERSE 3: AND YOU SHALL NOT FAVOR A WEAK PERSON IN HIS DISPUTE.  We shouldn’t bend the law because of bad motives or good motives – where, in this verse, the good motive is to help a person who has little power in society.  Everyone needs to be seen as equal under the law.
  •       VERSES 4 AND 5: IF YOU WILL HAPPEN UPON YOUR ENEMY’S OX OR DONKEY STRAYING, YOU SHALL BRING IT BACK TO HIM. IF  YOU WILL SEE THE DONKEY OF SOMEONE WHO HATES YOU LYING UNDER ITS BURDEN, AND  YOU WOULD HOLD BACK FROM HELPING HIM, YOU SHALL HELP WITH HIM.   Most translations say that the “him” should be translated “it” and means the ox or donkey.  Friedman believes that “him” means your enemy – the one who hates you.  By assisting the animal, you are helping your enemy.  This is the closest the Torah comes to telling us to love our enemies.  But it doesn’t tell us to go quite that far.  This text realizes that we may not be able to love our enemies….so it suggests that we show them consideration and respect.   If we can do that, we would, according to the Torah – and God – be doing quite well.   Friedman puts it this way: “the main point is that one must be of help, even to someone who bears ill will- perhaps ESPECIALLY to someone who bears ill will.”  
  •       VERSE 6: YOU SHALL NOT BEND THE JUDGMENT OF YOUR POOR IN HIS DISPUTE.   The Hebrew really does say YOUR poor – the poor among Israel are the responsibility of all Israelites.  It is everyone’s duty to be sure that the poor get a fair hearing, which may not happen because of who they are.  As was said before, justice should not be bent towards them just because they are poor.  But this verses very clearly states that no one should bend judgment against them. 
  • ·      VERSE 7: YOU SHALL KEEP FAR FROM A WORD OF LIE, AND DO NOT KILL AN INNOCENT OR VIRTUOUS PERSON, BECAUSE I SHALL NOT VINDICATE A WICKED PERSON.   What if someone said over and over that a person of impeccable integrity was a liar or was unethical just because of a mutual disagreement on a particular political or moral issue, and not because of any real action that violated a rule?   It happens all the time, and due to the way in which information gets shared these days, it is hard to overcome a false accusation.  It takes on a life of its own.   When someone loses his or her life or reputation because of trumped-up charges or twisted truths, the perpetrators will be responsbible for an act for which “I am sorry” or a mere correction in a publication will not suffice.
  •       VERSE 8: AND  YOU SHALL NOT TAKE A BRIBE, BECAUSE BRIBERY WILL BLIND THOSE WHO CAN SEE AND WILL UNDERMINE WORDS OF THE VIRTUOUS.  In more than one passage, the Torah notes what bribery can do to our vision. We no longer form our views based on what we really see, because we can’t see at all.  We only see what the person who bribed us wants us to see.  And we won’t be able to hear either, because the words to which we will listen are no longer based on open and actual truth.
  •       VERSE 9: AND YOU SHALL NOT OPPRESS AN ALIEN – THAT IS, A STRANGER – FOR YOU KNOW THE ALIEN’S SOUL, BECAUSE YOU WERE ALIENS IN THE LAND OF EGYPT.    As members of a Jewish community, we came to be here through many paths.  Some of us are here because of the immigration of generations before us and birth into a Jewish identity or choosing a Jewish identity later in life.    It doesn’t really matter how we came to be here.  We know what it means to come from somewhere else, to be a bit different, and it can give us a special insight into the feelings of those who are newcomers or who are cast aside for one reason or another.  It is our responsibility not to add to any type of oppression, but to help to create an understanding of the stranger who might hope to become a community partner and a citizen.  Based on all of the verses that preceded this one, we are called upon to act based on principles of justice and fairness, without malice, with consideration for everyone, and without an intention to undermine any person.    May this be at the foundation of all that we do within our community and our world.