Friday, June 26, 2015

A House of Prayer, A Land, A Community and a Song...for Everyone - D'var Torah - Parashat (Portion) Chukat - June 26, 2015

Brothers.  Sisters.  Neighbors.
In this week’s Torah reading in Numbers Chapter 20 (see below), the Israelites asked their distant relatives, the Edomites, for safe passage through their territory.  Beginning with the phrase, “Thus says your brother, Israel,” they assured the people of Edom that they would offer compensation for any resources they might use if needed.  They pledged to remain on the main road so as not to disturb community life.  The Edomites said no, necessitating for the children of Israel a much longer journey to the land of Canaan. 
    The Torah teaches us to be welcoming.   Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, insists that congregations greet and treat visitors and members with audacious hospitality.   Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, agrees with that approach, having created a “Big Tent Judaism” coalition as a way of reminding us that we are part of one community that needs to find reasons to allow people into our circle rather than keeping them out.  
   This week, the United States Supreme Court rendered decisions that rejected the Edomite approach of inhospitality and accepted perspectives that will open the circles of our society.  
   They decided that someone might discriminate against a potential buyer for a house even if that wasn’t their intention.  Sometimes, attitudes are so ingrained that people act or speak without thinking, realizing only later that what they did or said caused hurt and closed a circle that could have been kept open.  
The Supreme Court’s majority affirmed today that Americans who have been trying for so long to win the right to get married and have their marriages recognized by the government are doing so out of love and out of respect for marriage.   The Central Conference of America Rabbis declared today, “As Jews, we believe we are all formed in God’s image. This compels us to extend and recognize the same rights to everyone in our community, including individuals who identify as straight, gay, lesbian, or transgender. For many years, Reform rabbis have called for equal rights for all members of our communities, and we see today’s Supreme Court decision on marriage equality as a huge moral victory for the United States.”
Even more important, the majority opinion of the Supreme Court, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, ended with this poignant declaration: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family.  In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were.  As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.  It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage.  Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.  Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, exclude from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.  The Constitution grants them that right.”
     When the Westboro Baptist Church began regular picketing of local houses of worship and businesses in my former community in Kansas, it was clear that they were equal opportunity haters.  They embodied in many ways the perspective of the Edomites, not by blocking anyone’s passage, but by making sure that people who walked by them saw their disgusting signs and heard their vile song parodies that portrayed everyone but themselves as evil.   In considering my response to them back then, I knew that they used specific Biblical passages, interpreted through their own particular lens, to support their position.  I believe that the Tanakh mostly reflects an openness that strongly reaffirms the notion that all people are created in the divine image.   Isaiah Chapter 56 (see below) has given us the memorable statement, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  It reaches that point in the passage by declaring that what is important is what we do.  If we follow God’s teachings, keep the Sabbath, do what is right, and act with justice, God’s love will encompass us, no matter what.   Isaiah 56 specifically referred to foreigners and eunuchs, who might easily have been left out of the circle of societal acceptance.   20 years ago, I realized the importance of that passage for the struggle for marriage equality and for the fight to end discrimination against anyone in housing, employment, or in their very existence and presence in a community. 

    The murders at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, arson attacks on churches in Charlotte, North Carolina and Tabgha, Israel, and the attacks today by the Islamic State, make it all the more crucial to revisit Isaiah’s words.  We will do it musically tonight, but they are also there for you to read and consider.   We will do right and act with justice when we bring everyone into our circle and teach them what it means to truly be brothers, sisters and neighbors.   May we show hospitality, acceptance and love to all who come our way.  

House of Prayer (L. Karol - June 24, 2015)
Based on Isaiah 56:1,5, 7, Psalm 24:3, Psalm 15:2
"House of Prayer" on You Tube
When we do what’s right, when we act with justice 
When we pray for peace, Your deliverance will come 
In our hearts and our hands is the power of salvation
When we raise up one another to a higher place, to a higher place

 Va-haveeo-teem el har kodsheeוַֽהֲבִֽיאוֹתִ֞ים אֶל־הַ֣ר קָדְשִׁ֗י
 V’seemach-teem b’vayt t’feelatee וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים֙ בְּבֵ֣ית תְּפִלָּתִ֔י
 Ki vaytee Bayt t’feelah yikah-ray כִּ֣י בֵיתִ֔י בֵּית־תְּפִלָּ֥ה יִקָּרֵ֖א
 L’chol Ha-amim לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים:
[I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer
For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples]

Bring your joy, bring your hopes
Share your stories and your worries
You will find comfort when you enter this house of prayer
It doesn’t matter who you are or if you feel forsaken
You will be welcome in this house for everyone, for everyone 

Who will climb this mountain? Who will stand in this holy space?
Walk with courage, speak the truth!
We will remember you, we will remember you!

You will be welcome in this house for everyone, for everyone

Numbers Chapter 20
[14] From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: "Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us; [15] that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors. [16] We cried to the Eternal One, who heard our plea and sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt. Now we are in Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory. [17] Allow us, then, to cross your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king's highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left until we have crossed your territory." [18] But Edom answered him, "You shall not pass through us, else we will go out against you with the sword." [19] "We will keep to the beaten track," the Israelites said to them, "and if we or our cattle drink your water, we will pay for it. We ask only for passage on foot-it is but a small matter." [20] But they replied, "You shall not pass through!" And Edom went out against them in heavy force, strongly armed. [21] So Edom would not let Israel cross their territory, and Israel turned away from them.  

Isaiah Chapter 56
[1] Thus said the Eternal One: Observe what is right and do what is just; for soon My salvation shall come, and My deliverance be revealed. [2] Happy is the one who does this; the one who holds fast to it: who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it and stays his/her hand from doing any evil. [3] Let not the foreigner say, who has attached himself/herself to the Eternal One, “The Eternal will keep me apart from God’s people; and let not the eunuch say, “I am a withered tree.”  [4] For thus said the Eternal One: “As for the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast to My covenant--[5] I will give them, in My House, and within My walls, a monument and a name (YAD VASHEM), better than sons or daughters.  I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish. [6] As for the foreigners who attach themselves to the Eternal One, to minister to God, and to love the name of the Eternal, to be God’s servants--all who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, and who hold fast to My covenant-- [7] I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Friday, June 19, 2015

Close enough to holy - D'var Torah - Parashat Korach - June 19, 2015 - Reflections on Mother Emanuel and other places of and paths to holiness

[A note....this was a difficult piece to write, to know just what to say especially in the wake of the tragedy in Charleston, but also to discuss, almost in the same breath, an act of arson that also reflected hatred, along with pronouncements of major Israeli government officials that denigrated the attempts of good people to practice their Judaism.   My heart goes out to Mother Emanuel Church, and to others who have be victimized by violence and prejudice in today's world.] 

Two churches. 
An open synagogue. 
These sites are sacred places filled with people seeking holiness.  
In the Torah reading for this Shabbat,  Korach, a Levite, approached Moses
along with Reubenites Dathan, Abiram and On.
The member of a priestly family and descendants of the first born son of Jacob
challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, each for their own reasons.
The text we have before us has Korach and his loosely-connected accomplices speaking first: "You have gone too far!  For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal One is inside them and in their midst.  Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the Eternal?"
    Yes, the Israelites were called a holy people - by God, not by themselves.  Scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz pointed out the flaw in Korach's declaration.   In the same chapter where we hear the words "Love your neighbor as yourself," the beginning verses declared, "You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal God, am holy."   Leibowitz explained that if the people already saw themselves as holy, they were already like God and  nothing more needed to be asked of them.   "You shall be holy" means that we are always in a state of "becoming holy."  We are continuously striving for holiness in what we do.   A place can be holy.  A moment can be holy.  We are, if we choose to be, traveling along the road to holiness, trying to make our lives, in the words of Alvin Fine, "a sacred pilgrimage."
     There were two holy places--two churches--attacked this week.  One is closer to us geographically.  Maybe you have friends in Charleston, South Carolina.  Maybe you have visited Beth Elohim, the Reform congregation with a classic building dedicated in 1840 that is just several blocks away from Mother Emanuel.  Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston has a long history directly related to the struggle of slaves to become free.  This worshipping community organized early in the 1800s, building on the current site in 1872 after years of gathering in secret due to laws prohibiting free religious assembly for the church's members.   It was noted today by the president of HUC-JIR, Aaron Panken, that Reform Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Beth Elohim in Charleston had engaged in pulpit exchanges and coordinated community efforts with State Senator and Mother Emanuel ChurchPastor Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims of the shooting.  Pinckney and other church members had gathered for study on Wednesday evening.  Dylann Roof had joined them without sharing the purpose of his presence. Roof later told police that his violent act, which was designed to start a race war, almost didn't happen because everyone in the church was so nice to him.  We join Mother Emanuel church in mourning the nine victims of this unprovoked attack on a quiet evening in an AME house of worship.   Felecia Sanders, the mother of one of the victims, Tywanza Sanders, made this statement today while addressing Roof along with relatives of other victims: “We welcomed you in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know.” 
    The second church was half a world away.  At the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha in the Galilee – on the site where Christians believe Jesus performed a miracle by feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish – a room was gutted by a fire set early Thursday morning.  The police believe it was a case of arson due to the Hebrew graffiti scrawled on the wall outside of the church:  V'HAELILIM KAROT YIKARAYTOON - Idolaters will be eliminated."    In response to this incident, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin reiterated the freedom of religion and protection of holy sites that are fundamental to life in the State of Israel.  Both leaders did what they could to reassure Christian clergy and leaders in Israel that they would continue efforts to end this wave of attacks on sacred places that deserve to be preserved and respected by all Israelis. 
     Women of the Wall held its Rosh Chodesh service in the Women's section of the Kotel yesterday morning.  They prayed with a small Torah scroll, but their attempts at equal opportunities for all to worship at the Kotel have again been characterized in a negative light.  
 This week, Minister of Religious Affairs David Azulai called any women praying with a Torah and a tallit a "provocation."  He added that all Reform Jews are a "disaster to the Jewish nation."   Member of Knesset Yisrael Eichler called Women of the Wall perpetrators of hate crimes.  Speaking about the vandalism at the church in Tabgha and the Women of the Wall service this week, Eichler declared in a letter to the Prime Minister, “Vandals in both places are to be condemned since they can bring hate crimes in Israel and the entire world. Whoever condemns, and justifiably so, hate crimes against Christians and understands it can bring bloodshed, must condemn the hate crimes against ultra-Orthodox Jews, for the holiness of the Torah scrolls in the Western Wall”.  What was the hate crime?  Simply, it was, in his view, the Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh service.
     In the Torah reading for this week, Moses heard the accusations from Korach and his protest partners.  The Torah said that Moses "fell on his face," demonstrating his characteristic humility.   I believe that Moses was trying to teach that a leader isn't someone who believes he or she is always "right" or holy.  A leader is someone who takes on the difficult mantle of responsibility to guide a group of his or her peers into the future.     The result of the eventual judgment from God in this parashah was that Moses and Aaron were vindicated, but not because of an attitude of superiority.  They would have described themselves as "becoming holy,” attempting to attain a goal they might never reach, but one that they did, nevertheless, keep in their sights.
    This week, we saw a young man with a plan to murder people with skin color different from his own carry out his act because he believed only his views were right.  All of a sudden, vandals saw an ancient church as idolatrous, believing that they could make that judgment for everyone.   A minister in the Israeli government saw fit to term, in one fell swoop, Jews like us sitting in this sanctuary as a disaster.   A member of the Knesset made himself a victim, not of violence, but of a group of women peacefully lifting their voices and hearts in prayer.
    Meanwhile, a humble bible study group met at an historic church for discussion, guidance and support, not yet feeling holy but moving on that path.
    An ancient community seeks still to preserve the memory of a story contained in their scripture, hoping to inspire people to believe that they can make miracles of their own.
    Women join together monthly at another revered historic site to express the love of God and of Judaism in their souls, attempting to gain even a brief glimpse of the holiness life can offer.
     And we gather here, in this sanctuary, named for a place where Jacob realized God had been present, to do what we can to create sacred moments. 
     May we be humble like Moses and Aaron, and like all people who seek holiness, knowing that all we can do is come close.  In this case, close is enough.   We don’t need to be among those who are so certain that their position is the only right perspective that they would condemn others to relentless, judgmental criticism and rejection or sentence others to death by their own hand. 
   We can make a different choice: to strive to be holy.    Let us move towards that holiness together through remembrance, compassion, understanding and hope.  


Saturday, June 13, 2015

One Tallit - and the Power of Spiritual Practice and Prayer - a tale of two 1999 conventions (CCAR and Hava Nashira)

[June 13, 2015 - As I was going through my past sermons on this past week's Torah reading, Sh'lach L'cha, I found this chronicle of my attendance at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Pittsburgh in May 1999, followed the next week by my participation at the Hava Nashira Songleaders' workshop for the first time at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.  This piece includes one of the classic moments at Hava Nashira of the power returning at camp as we prayed to God as the creator of light.  I thought now was as good a time as any to share this D'var Torah and to post it for the first time on this blog.] 

The Tallit and a Tale of Two Conventions-Parashat Sh'lach-L'cha-Numbers 15:37-41 
Rabbi Lawrence P. Karol-Temple Beth Sholom-Topeka, Kansas

At about 4:30 a.m. on May 24, I was doing my final packing for my trip to Pittsburgh for the Central Conference of American Rabbis Convention. I took out my tallit, one that I bought in Jerusalem 22 years ago.  When I arrived in Pittsburgh, I searched frantically for my tallit.  When I spoke to Rhonda that evening, my suspicions were confirmed – the tallit was still on the bed at home.  For the services I attended, my brother Steve graciously loaned me a kippah.  Appropriately, it was the kippah from Adam’s Bar Mitzvah.  
The Eternal One said to Moses as follows:  Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. 
The fact that I felt incomplete without my tallit illustrated one aspect of the Principles of Reform Judaism that the CCAR ratified on May 26.  In the section on Torah, it declares: “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.  Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.” My sense that I can also pray without a tallit signifies the diversity that exists in our congregation and others, as people choose the mitzvot and practices that are most meaningful to them.
That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal One and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in and give in to urge and temptation. 
I began to wear a tallit during my college years, when I was a participant in a Saturday morning egalitarian minyan at Hillel at University of Illinois. The Orthodox service was in the chapel upstairs.  About twenty of us gathered in a setting in which men and women shared equally in the the roles and responsibilities of leading the service.  At my rabbis’ convention, and at Hava Nashira, the songleading workshop I  attended last week, it was not unusual to see men and women wearing a kippah, a tallit, and, at weekday services, the traditional tefillin for the arm and head. 
Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. 
The Hava Nashira gathering demonstrated the broad range of music that is used within the Reform movement.   This time, I remembered to take my tallit, and I used it every morning.  Worship was a highlight of our several days together as we joined our voices in unison singing and multiple-part harmony.  We learned several new melodies for Lecha Dodi that we sang as a medley at our service last Friday night.  Two cantors on the faculty led some prayers in the traditional chanting modes for weekday morning and evening and for Shabbat.  Some of the tunes we sang I have introduced here, while others are melodies that we sing on a regular basis.  Music sessions after meals also gave us a chance to show our collective spirit and spirituality.  Whenever we sang together, we felt were reaching for a special sense of holiness.
I, Eternal One, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.
There is one story from Hava Nashira that must be told.  When I woke up last Saturday morning, I found out that we had no power.   In addition, water came out of the shower in a very slow trickle, because electrically-powered pumps provide the camp with adequate water pressure.  I was able to get ready despite that problem, and went to breakfast.  Some of us agreed that the power outage was intended to make us observe Shabbat in a more traditional way.  As we began our Shabbat service at 10:00 a.m.,  I told the people next to me, “The power is probably going to come on again as we are saying some crucial passage in the service.”  A few minutes later, after we said the Barechu, Debbie Friedman was teaching us a tune for the next prayer, “Yotzeir Or,” which praises God as the creator of light. As we sang those words, all of a sudden, the lights came back on.  We broke into laughter and as we felt relief and amazement.  As composer Craig Taubman rose to lead us in a slow and meditative rendition of his song, “Master of All Things,” we shared a renewed sense of the sanctity of our time together.  It may not have been our prayers that brought the power back at that moment, but we knew that the power of our prayer reflected God’s presence with us on that Shabbat morning.  Any community has that potential to create a sense of unity and of warmth, as if we are always wrapped, together, underneath the same tallit.   
The Eternal One is our God.
Jamming at Hava Nashira 2002 on Shabbat Afternoon
(sorry, no 1999 photos!) 

Friday, June 12, 2015

"Success around the corner?" - D'var Torah - Parashat Sh'lach L'cha - June 12, 2015

“Youve failed many times, although you may not remember. You fell down the first time you tried to walk. You almost drowned the first time you tried to swim, didnyou?  Did you hit the ball the first time you swung a bat? Heavy hitters, the ones who hit the most home runs, also strike out a lot.   R.H. Macy failed 7 times before his store in New York caught on.  English novelist John Creasey got 753 rejection slips before he published 564 books. Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times, but he also hit 714 home runs. Dont worry about failure. Worry about the chances you miss when you dont even try.
     Some of you may know this quote from the internet or, perhaps, from your Rabbis office wall.    Its been a standard feature of any office I have occupied.  It serves as a reminder to experiment, to think out of the box from time to time, to try just about anything, and to see the glass as partially full even if others might believe it's mostly empty.                   
     That quote also encourages us to view an impending and imposing challenge from the perspective of what might make it doable rather than identifying the obstacles in the way as reasons not to try. 
       A decade ago, Freakonomics, a book by authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, quickly became a bestseller  due to its unusual take on how to solve a wide range of societal problems around the world.   Their newest book, Think Like a Freak, attempts to teach the reader about their thought process through examples of how ordinary people were successful by looking at a problem or situation from a new angle.  One of the best stories in the book is about eating.   In this case, it was about a Japanese college student who needed to make more money to pay the rent and other expenses.  Kobi, the champion-to-be, was signed up for an eating competition by his girlfriend Kumi.   He is 58’’ and has a slight build, but had always cleaned his plate and sometimes his sistersplates at home when he was growing up.  To prepare for the contest, Kobi began to study how people won these gastronomic competitions.  He explored how they consumed what was in front of them in such a large quantity and so quickly. He won his first competition by eating just enough to move from the first round to the next.  That way, he had enough energy and stomach capacity for the final round to win.  After his first triumph, Kobi set his sights on a well-known international event: Nathans Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every year at Coney Island.   The rules:  eat as many hot dogs and hot dog buns as you can in 12 minutes.  There were no restrictions on how to accomplish the feat in order to win.   The record had been 25 ½ hot dogs and buns until Kobi entered the contest in 2001. As a first timer at the competition, he won by eating not 26, not 30, not 40, but 50 hot dogs and buns.  This intrigued author Steven Levitt.  He interviewed Kobi to ask how he had eaten so much in so little time.  Normally, a contestant would try to eat the hot dog in the bun whole.  Kobi asked himself a number of questions to arrive at his strategy in terms of eating more in the alloted time. He wondered:  What would happen if he broke the hot dog and bun in half before eating?  What would happen if he ate the bun separately from the hot dog?   And, knowing that he would be given a cup of water, could he use the cup of water to moisten the bun to make it easier to consume?   Asking these questions was the key to his success.  And even more than that, he wasnt thinking about how many hot dogs he had eaten while he was taking part in the contest. He also found that if he did a little dance or shake while eating, he was able to eat more hot dogs.   Kobi won by breaking down the task at hand into all of its possible components and asking probing questions.   He let go of all of the preconceived notions about such a contest and created a new paradigm that is now emulated by current participants in the contest.
    We likely think of the Jewish heritage as a source of ingenuity, creativity, and an ability to adapt when survival requires it.   That is how we moved from a religion centered on animal sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem to a community that gathers at synagogues in prayer.   Long before that change 1900 years ago, the Israelites were forming their community in the wilderness of Sinai.    In the Torah reading for this week, the Israelites were treated to a report from the 12 scouts who went into the land of Canaan to see what it was like.  Moses had asked the scouts to answer these questions: “Are the people who dwell in the land strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?  Are the towns open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor?  Is it wooded or not?”  And Moses asked for a sample of the fruit of the land.   The scouts did bring back a large cluster of grapes on a carrying frame carried by two members of their reconnaissance team.  10 of them said that they found the land to be a good land, with rich soil and woods, but they were afraid of the people and the fortified cities that they saw there. In verse 32 of Chapter 13 of the book of Numbers, they told the people that the land “devours anyone who lives there.”  In verse 33, this majority report noted that the people were not only tall, they were giants.  They concluded, “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”   They spread their discouraging words throughout the people. Two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, believed in their peoples ability to overcome any challenge before them, including this one, and succeed, with the help of God and their own faith.
    The majority of the scouts failed to do what Kobi did – to take a step back and consider the situation from more than one viewpoint.   Seeing themselves as "grasshoppers" revealed internal fear and distress which they were unable to relinquish.  They communicated that image of feeling small to everyone around them, infecting the entire people with pessimism.   That defeatist approach was a result of their own preconceived notions about their power that came from their life as powerless slaves in Egypt.  It was as if they had forgotten that they had witnessed God's miraculous help and assistance in Egypt that enabled them to be freed from slavery, to escape the approaching Egyptian army at the Sea of Reeds, and to sustain themselves with manna that was provided along their journey.      These experiences should have bolstered their spirits enough for them to be encouraging and hopeful.  Unfortunately, the Israelites still needed guarantees to overcome their sense of being small and powerless, as if that looming pillar of cloud and fire accompanying them wasn’t enough.   Rather than seeing success around the corner, they could only imagine failure. The Torah noted that this generation was not allowed to enter the land, other than the minority report scouts, Joshua and Caleb, who emerged with their faith and optimism intact.  They alone demonstrated their potential to step forward into the unknown with confidence and determination.    
     In this tale, the reference to the scouts’ sense that they seemed like grasshoppers overshadowed the hopefulness represented by the cluster of grapes.   It is almost ironic that the scene of two scouts carrying the cluster of grapes is the logo for the Israeli ministry of tourism.   If viewed through the lens of the majority of the scouts, the grapes presented a symbol of a land that was beyond the reach of a downtrodden people that had just been redeemed.  It signified an instance of failure without even trying.   But two of the scouts saw the grapes for what they were and could be - a result of someone planting a seed based in optimism.   Caleb and Joshua realized that their people could be the ones to plant seeds that would grow clusters of grapes if they could only view themselves as human beings with a potential for power and creativity, rather than believing that they were only grasshoppers with no future.  That is why some of the people asked to go back to Egypt, even though it was a place where they only knew cruelty and suffering.   They had been rendered afraid to try. 
      Today, we have the opportunity to try and fail, and eventually succeed, and to do so with the bright-eyed enthusiasm of Caleb and Joshua.   They recognized that it was crucial for them to share their positive perspective so that it would plant a seed of optimism that would blossom in the next generation.   So let us apply our spirit and our hope to the possibilities of strengthening our own congregation through dialogue, fellowship and true companionship;  of building a community that is based on people focusing on their common interests rather than obsessing on the divisions that keep them far apart; and of creating a nation and a world that will move people to act with honesty, with consideration, and with a willingness to try to combat inequality and hatred, knowing that our failures will eventually lead us to the promised land of significant achievement.   May we always welcome new perspectives and unusual angles that will build upon past failures and frustrations and lead us to future satisfaction and success.  


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Thinking about songwriting -June 10, 2015

Three albums and one songbook released....34 years as a rabbi, with 16 of those as a Jewish songwriter.  Why have I chosen to express my values and beliefs through music?  Or...has the music chosen me?  I don't have an answer to that question, but here is what I think I think I know. 
1) I have always found personal expression through prose or poetry to be meaningful and cathartic.  There is head and heart in articles, sermons, letters-to-the-editor, and op-ed columns.   There is head and heart in songs as well, with several added features: the melody, the chords, and the way in which words are put together to fit the melody add a rhythm and an emotional dimension to what I hope to convey.  The song offers an opportunity for greater sharing of what feel and believe.  
2) In a song that lasts three of four minutes, I feel that I can communicate a message with a depth that I may not be able to reach in the same amount of time only with words.  
3)  The multiple modes of creativity involved in songwriting offer moments of challenge that lead to a feeling of having grown from the experience, once the song is complete.  In other words, with each new song, I have a sense that I have added a new dimension to my identity and personality. 
4) Every song is like a world unto itself, capturing a moment of my life. Sometimes I will tell people where I was when I first had the idea for a song, but what is more important is trying to define the inspiration and the reason that song came into being.  I can remember what events may have led to the attempt to put certain ideas or emotions into words with an accompanying melody.   When the melody doesn't come, it's still possible to create a piece of prose or poetry that can stand on its own.  When it does, the completion of the song becomes a mission, an "itch that needs to be scratched"!   Finishing a song over the course of minutes, hours or days gives me a sense of accomplishment that I was able to shape the words in such a way that they fit into the structure of the me
lody, so that I could share with others my message of the moment. 
5)  Music can freeze time and, also, span time.  The song which begins my second album, "Let Me Sing My Way Into Your Night," seemed complete when I wrote it in October of 1977.   It was the song I used to end a long hiatus from songwriting in 1999.  By adding a verse, and, several years later, a line from the book of Psalms,  my 49 year-old self took the musical statement of my 23 year-old self and gave it new life.   
6) Musical compositions of any type are memorable to a willing, interested and devoted listener.  A tune with its accompanying lyrics might "stay" with someone else who has heard it and enjoyed it, but it can also become "their song" in addition to it being the song of the songwriter.   The potential for sharing and remembering is enhanced by a melody that makes the one listening feel, in some way, he or she is "at home" with both words and music.  If something in the tune or lyrics resonates in a unique way with the songwriter and listener, the song becomes can take on a long life of its own. 
7)  Anything we say or write and share with other people becomes our legacy.  A song shared through a home recording, a studio recording (which takes the music to a different level) or a live performance allows the songwriter/performer to offer his or her gift to the world in a lasting way.   

Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Mission of a Lifetime - a personal statement on the rabbinate - posted on June 6, 2015

[This was the statement that has accompanied my resume' for some time - the 34th anniversary of my ordination seems like a good time to share it.]

 In my rabbinate, I have served a large congregation in a metropolitan area, small congregations in two small cities (one of them a state capital), and a small congregation in an area with many different towns and communities.   While there were some differences in the scope my responsibilities in these positions, there is continuity between them regarding what I consider enjoyable and significant about who I am and what I do as a rabbi. 

      Relationships with members of all ages are central to my rabbinate.   I try to treat everyone, from small children to veteran congregants, as individuals with whom I can establish a one-on-one connection.  Through conversation, music, celebration, and offering support and encouragement at times of challenge, I hope to build ties that will last not only for a few moments, but for many years. 
      I seek to understand the customs and traditions that shaped the lives of Temple members.   In most Reform congregations, there are families that include members who were born Jewish and as well as an adult who is not yet Jewish.   Everyone who joins a Jewish congregation, whether as an individual or part of a family, makes a strong statement about being part of a kahal kadosh, a holy community.   By respecting and exploring from whence members have come, I feel that they will be better able to join together on a path of discovery of new knowledge and a deeper sense of God’s presence.
      Congregants who serve as Temple leaders, who participate in study groups and social justice efforts, who join in worship, and who take part in ongoing weekday programming, are my partners in Jewish life.  They are my students, my teachers, my sounding boards, and my colleagues in improving and repairing our world along with people of all backgrounds and faiths, and my inspiration.   A Temple community creates a context in which members can learn how to express Jewish values in all aspects of their lives.  I am available to serve congregants as a guide and a companion in helping them find meanings in Judaism that resonate in their character and their soul.
      Throughout the years of my rabbinate, I have found this statement from the Sayings of the Rabbis, Pirkei Avot, to be significant in all that I do: “ASEI L’CHA RAV – Find yourself a teacher – U-K’NEI L’CHA CHAVEIR – and get yourself a friend.”  This quote primarily applied to a study setting.  It does, however, direct all professional staff members and congregants to treat one another as friends, partners, and as keepers of a sacred heritage that can enrich our work and our leisure, our solitude and our time with family and community.   By maintaining bonds of chavurah, fellowship, in congregational life, we enable one another to grow in faith and in spirit at times of sorrow and challenge and at moments of joy and accomplishment.   This is my goal as a leader and member of any congregation.


Friday, June 5, 2015

Following Signposts Ahead - The Cloud, The Fire and Change - D'var Torah - Parashat B'ha-alot'cha - June 5, 2015

     How do we know when to move forward in our lives and when to stop?  What are the signs we look for to tell us when to make a change?
    I recently saw an ad on line for a Father’s Day special on the DVD of the movie, “Field of Dreams.”  That was one film that featured its own mysterious signs in the form of riddles that character Ray Kinsella recognized and followed, not necessarily knowing where they would lead.  
     Ray’s directions came from a disembodied but persistent voice that only he could hear. “If you build it, he will come” brought Shoeless Joe Jackson’s ghost once Ray leveled part of his crops to build a baseball field, and other classic baseball stars who had died long ago followed.        
    “Ease his pain” took Ray to a writer in Boston who had a special affinity for Baseball and its place in American culture. 
    “Go the distance” led Ray and his new companion to a small town in Minnesota, where a momentary trip back in time allowed them to pick up a young baseball player who was hitchhiking and looking for his one chance to join real major leaguers on the field. 
  This journey led Ray across the country, from Iowa to Massachusetts, then to Minnesota, and back home. 
    Why did Ray even listen to this voice?  What was it inside of him that led him to heed the directions he was hearing?  He probably didn’t really know the answer to that question until he saw that one of the ghostly players on the field was his own father at a stage in his life when he was still young and hopeful.   Ray’s connection with his father had been strained by conflict and bitterness. The point of this entire tale was the healing of a broken relationship.   That encounter and a short game of catch as the movie ended enabled Ray to let go of feelings of guilt and move forward with satisfaction and even joy.  
     Ray had that voice that made him take the risks to do unimaginable things once he saw that each step he took led to miraculous results.  
     The Torah reading for this Shabbat from Numbers Chapter 9 describes the Pillar of Cloud and fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness.   When the Cloud would lift, it was a sign for the people to set out on their journey.  When it would come back to rest, the people would set up camp.  It is likely that not even Moses knew when the cloud would lift or settle.  He was like everyone else in that respect.  
    What it is interesting about the Israelite response to the pillar of cloud and fire is that it is the only thing against which they didn’t rebel or complain along their journey.
    In this Torah portion, they complained about eating only manna and no meat, so God gave them so much meat in the form of quail that they would no longer want it.
    In the next two Torah portions, the people would rebel against Moses’ leadership and demonstrate pessimism when scouts returned from the land of Canaan.  
    There was, however, never a complaint against the pillar of cloud and fire.  The people followed it faithfully, no matter what.  Why did the people follow that divinely sent guide? 
    The answer would be that, deep down, even though they had grown accustomed to living as slaves in Egypt, they really didn’t want to go back there even when they said they did.
   They were afraid of change, but on this trek through the wilderness, change was a way of life.  And they had already been freed from Egypt and escaped the approaching Egyptian army because of miracles performed for them which they had witnessed.    So even though they complained, many of them still believed that they would live free in their promised land.  That is why, even with all their kvetching, they kept moving forward. 
    In an online article entitled, “What motivates people to change?” Dr. Arlene Harder suggested three possibilities for why we choose to leave our status quo behind. 
    One reason that we change is that we are being pulled by the cycle of our lives and our biological make-up to grow.  We crawl, walk and then run.  We form relationships, develop close friendships and perhaps choose a life partner and maybe have children.   And through all of those changes, we gain a new vision of who we can be and do what we can to reach that new goal.  
    Sometimes we are pushed to change, to modify our behavior for some reason.   Harder explained: “If our job depends on changing some habit or characteristic of our personality, the odds that we’ll modify our behavior are fairly good, provided we’re not asked to make too significant of a shift in how we see ourselves. In some cases, it may be easier to find another job than change long-ingrained patterns of behavior.”  Harder noted that this approach works only up to a point, because people, in her words, “don’t respond well to nagging, pleading, cajoling, or demanding” that they drastically alter who they are.  
   Harder suggested that the third reason for change is pain.   Sometimes we get to a point where we can’t go on living in the same way due to discomfort or challenges that just can’t be overcome unless a change is made.
   Harder’s three reasons for change relate to the Israelites journey through the wilderness.  They were in pain in Egypt and they were ultimately willing to accept the outside and godly help that came their way.   Their complaining could be viewed as the consequences of their growth into a community dedicated to a shared purpose.  As a people, they had to find their equilibrium where they could naturally work together and serve their leaders and each other.   That finally did happen.
    To make any change at all is an important accomplishment.  The saying “courage is the power to let go of the familiar” could describe the times when we have moved forward in our lives, whether because of being pulled by our own restlessness and need to grow, pushed by others to make small adjustments in our personalities, or moved by a feeling of distress or disequilibrium.  
    Sometimes we ignore the restlessness, make all the changes requested even if it means losing who we are, and continue to bear the pain. 
    It is courage that is our pillar of cloud and fire that can take us to our goal of reaching our promised land or creating our own field of dreams where our deepest hopes can be made real.  
   In our Mishkan T’filah prayerbook, on page 119, there is a reading that speaks to our inner motivation and instinct to change, associating it with a higher purpose:
"If people fall, can they not also rise?  
If they break away, can they not return?
The stork in the sky knows when to migrate,
The dove and the swallow know the season of return.
What human instinct knows the time to turn back?
What cue sparks the conscience of the soul?
We pray to sense this day anew, attuned to the call of sacred living."
[By Elyse Frishman, based on Jeremiah 8:4,7]

So let us pray now that we can keep our eyes and hearts open to the signs outside and inside of us that come during both the day and the night that will lead us towards those special places where we will know contentment and fulfillment where we can truly be the people we strive to be.