Friday, September 25, 2015

An invitation to encounter one another - from ON HEAVEN ON EARTH - September 25, 2015

Earlier this year, I began reading ON HEAVEN AND EARTH, a book about Catholic-Jewish Dialogue written by Pope Francis (while he was still in Argentina) and Rabbi Abraham Skorka.  This piece (see below) by Pope Francis began his introduction to the book.  It made me think about some of the times when clergy and people of different faiths in my community have been able to come together this year.  It also made me think about times when unity, which I thought was solid, turned to conflict, which will hopefully find some resolution in the future.   This is one of the most amazing statements I have ever seen about dialogue, and I offer it as a reminder of how we can come together while remaining who we are, believing what we believe, but finding a way to be community partners.    I am gratified to see how some of the gatherings during Pope Francis' current visit in the United States have included many meaningful moments of interreligious encounter.   May we commit ourselves to doing just this in the months to come, on our own, with each other. 

"Rabbi Abraham Skorka, in one of his earlier writings, made reference to the facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral that depicts the encounter between Joseph and his brothers. Decades of misunderstandings converge in that embrace.  There is weeping among them and also an endearing questions: Is my father still alive? During the times of national organization, this was the image they proposed, and not without reason.  It represented the longing for a reuniting of Angentinians.  This scene aims to work to establish a "culture of encounter;" instead it seems that we are seduced into dispersion and the abysses that history has created.  At times, we are better able to identify ourselves as builders of walls than as builders of bridges.  We lack the embrace, the weeping and the question about the father, for our patrimony, for the roots of our Fatherland.  There is an absence of dialogue. 
  Is it true that we Argentinians do not want dialogue?  I would not say it that way.  Rather, I think that we succumb to attitudes that do not permit us to dialogue: domination, not knowing how to listen, annoyance in our speech, preconceived judgments and so many others.  
   Dialogue is born from a respectful attitude toward the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say.  It supposes that we can make room in our heart for their point of view, their opinion and their proposals.  Dialogue entails a warm reception and not a preemptive condemnation.  To dialogue, one must know how to lower defenses, to open the doors of one's home and offer warmth.   
  There are many barriers in everyday life that impede dialogue: misinformation, gossip, prejudices, defamation and slander.  All of these realities make up a certain cultural sensationalism that drowns out any possibility of openness to others.  Thus, dialogue and encounter falter.  
  But the facade of the Cathedral (with its depiction of the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers) is still there, like an invitation."

Sent from my iPad

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

"Looking Justice in the Eyes (and Loving God) - Yom Kippur Morning Sermon - September 23, 2015

On January 26 of this year, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, HBO screened a new film directed by Andre Singer, “Night Will Fall.”  My initial response to the film came out something like this: “Watching the HBO Documentary "Night Will Fall" on the making of the film first directed by Alfred Hitchcock about the liberation of Concentration Camps - very chilling....very sad.....and giving me a sense of determination to keep the Judaism in which I believe alive through thought, study, song and action.”
    Every year, in our Torah readings, in our study and on Pesach, we retell the story of confronting an oppressor to bring about “liberty and justice for all.”
 Around that time in January when "Night Will Fall" was shown on television, we had just read Exodus Chapter 12 as our weekly Torah reading. That passage described the first celebration of Passover and detailed the rituals that would enable the Israelites to escape the consequences of the last plague, the death of the first-born male children. It noted that God would not send the “Destroyer” to take the lives of the Israelite first- born because of their faith in God. The rabbis explained that the word “Destroyer” referred either to an “Angel of Death” or to the tenth plague itself. Either way, the Israelites were only able to escape slavery and oppression through a show of divine power against the supposed might of Pharaoh and not only because the cause of freedom was ethical, moral, right and just.  
    I am left wondering why it is that, sometimes, only a show of force or outrage can end oppression and bring justice. We know this from more recent examples in human history. The Civil War ended slavery at the cost of many lives. The film “Selma” chronicled how demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists, as well as behind-the-scenes and, later, open support from government officials, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The march portrayed in the movie brought together many people from that locale and from throughout the country to fight for rights and justice via peaceful means.  What they were attempting to do was to destroy hatred, establish a standard of fairness and heal a society. That work still continues today, as the NAACP recently organized a march from Selma to Washington, D.C. to heighten awareness on exactly the same issue.  In that effort, many of my rabbinic colleagues took part, carrying a Torah scroll along every step of that journey.
     In the aftermath of World War II, there were many reasons to shed light on how injustice and persecution through social isolation and restrictive laws led to the mass murder of so many people simply because of who they were rather than what they had done.  “Night Will Fall” told the “backstory” about why it took so long for footage shot during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, as well as Dachau and Auschwitz, in 1945 to see the light of day. Sidney Bernstein of the British government’s Ministry of Information and his team, including supervising director Alfred Hitchcock, drew on all of that footage to create a harrowing film entitled “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.” Sadly, that film was never seen to its full completion due to the politics of the time.  The United States and Great Britain, especially, decided that the film might alienate the German people at a time when the Allies were counting on Post World War II Germany to be a positive partner in reshaping Europe. That politically expedient approach, in the view of many people, did a disservice to the victims of the Shoah who could not raise their voices in protest. 
   Still, some film excerpts were used to strengthen the case against Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials.  Some of the footage had been included in a 1980s film, “Memory of the Camps,” narrated by Trevor Howard.   It wasn’t until 2010 that staff at the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London revisited in earnest the shelved reels of film. Last year, the Museum released the finished product of the “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” as it had been intended to be seen.  The HBO movie “Night Will Fall” traced how the “Factual Survey” was finally brought together.  It included interviews with survivors, soldiers, and members of the camera crews who captured images that, they believed, would be beyond dispute in the future.
   This film showed how it took the combined forces of the Allies to end the oppression and murder of the Shoah and to create a record of the horrors from which future generations could, hopefully, learn important lessons. The images are disturbingly graphic, but I believe it is worth seeing every frame of that documentary. Perhaps the end of oppression and hatred will come about through cooperation and healing, rather than by force, at some point in the human history that lies before us. We can only hope for that possibility.  
     This day of Yom Kippur is about a particular type of power and force that is not based in violence or physical might.   There is power in forgiveness and in attempting to improve ourselves through admitting what we have done wrong and then dedicating our lives to self-improvement.   Faith in our own potential to reconcile with each other is a force to be reckoned with in a world that seems to thrive on division rather than on unity.  Realizing that we can work together to give all people an opportunity to thrive in this world is a first step to making justice and peace a reality for all humankind.  
    Judaism has much to teach us along that path towards justice and peace.   The Torah reading for this morning envisioned all of the Israelites standing together to hear Moses’ message about their need for solidarity as they were about to enter the land of Canaan.   Moses reminded the people that God’s teachings were not too hard for them, nor were they far off in heaven or across the sea.  The knowledge of “the right thing to do” was in each person’s mouth and heart.  Every individual had it within his or her power to make a difference in the world.   The command UVACHARTA V’CHAYIM, choose life and good, keeps Judaism vital from one generation to the next.  In a nearby section in the Torah, Moses told the people that, once all of their brothers and sisters had made their way back to their land, "the Eternal your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live.”     It is loving God with the depth of our being that can lead us to live and to thrive.  
    In his book, UPON THESE THREE THINGS: JEWISH PERPSECTIVES ON LOVING GOD,”  Dr. Jeff Levin of the Baylor School of Medicine, brought together a veritable catalog of Jewish teachings to show how our love of God and our reverence for life itself can enrich us and the human family.   He began with the familiar words of Rabbi Shimon the Righteous from the Sayings of the rabbis, Pirkei Avot: AL SH’LOSHAH D’VARIM HAOLAM OMEID: AL HATORAH, V’AL HA-A-VODAH, V’AL G’MILUT CHASADIM – upon three things the world stands: on learning, on worship and on deeds of lovingkindness.    We sing these words almost every time we take the Torah from the ark.   They offer both guidance and a warning:   guidance to engage in Jewish practices that will enable us to make the world a much better place; and a warning that, if we don't do them, the world will not stand.  Why are learning, worship and loving deeds so important that the world's very existence rests upon them?   Study of the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish texts involves cognition, engaging our minds and souls in expanding our knowledge and wisdom.   AVODAH is serving and worshipping God, whether by our ourselves or with a community.   AVODAH involves the act of feeling, using our hearts and our spirits to connect with the Oneness that encompasses the universe.  Worship also engages us with one another and with the human family.  G'MULIT CHASADIM, doing acts of lovingkindness puts our bodies to work to be God's hands in order to express what is in our hearts, our minds and our souls.  Within Judaism,    study and prayer are supposed to lead to action.  TORAH and AVODAH are intended to lead to G'MILUT CHASHADIM.   This is our mission every day, of which we are reminded when we recite the words, "You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might." All three of those commands connect with the soul of study, the heart of prayer, and the might that enables us to perform an act of kindness.  The opposite of taking the opportunity for learning, worship and doing a kind act is presented in the Talmud in this statement: "Rabbi Judah said, 'Three things shorten a person's days and years:  To be given a scroll of the Torah to read from and to refuse; to be given a cup of benediction to say a blessing over and refuse, and to assume airs of authority."  Rabbi Judah lamented what is lost when someone rejects the prospect of learning from the wisdom of our tradition, when anyone steps aside from a moment of reciting a blessing that could make that instant positive and memorable, and when a person believes that maintaining fame, fortune and position overrides any command to help people or a community in need.  Another "three things statement" of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel echoes the original that we know so well.  This Rabbi Shimon said that the world stands on justice/din, truth/emet, and peace/shalom.   Dr. Jeff Levin explained that the second set of three described a world in which the first set of three are fulfilled.   Where there is Torah and learning, there is truth.  Where there are worship and service to God, to godliness, and to a holy community, there is peace.  Where acts of lovingkindness prevail in the affairs of human beings, there is justice.   I recently saw one anonymous statement that expresses how such justice and kindness can come to be in a diverse world.  It declared: "We don't have to agree on anything to be kind to one another."  
    On these high holy days, the Un'taneh tokef prayer also identifies three things that can change our lives and divert far away from us the worst outcome that could emerge from what we have done wrong.   We recite in that poignant reading: "U'T'SHUVAH U'T'FILAH U-TZ'DAKAH MA-AVIRIN ET ROA HAG'ZEIRAH - Repentance or return, prayer and righteous acts can avert judgment’s harsh decree and enable us to stand as individuals so that we can support the ethical character of our community. 
     Dr. Levin understands all of these teachings together as aspects of the Jewish approach to loving God.   If God loved us and gave us the Torah, then we are studying the wisdom of our tradition because of love, and love should envelope us as we learn new insights from our heritage.   If we are taught to love God with all our heart, soul and might, then our words of prayer are declarations of affection and commitment back to God - and, by extension, to each other - as partners in creating a beloved community.   Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber expressed this very point well when he said, "To love God, truly, one must first love people.  And if anyone tells you that he loves God and does not love his fellow humans, you will know that he is lying."  
   And finally, the command to perform G'MILUT CHASADIM, acts of lovingkindness, demands that we seek justice in the world based upon a sense of love.  In the words of Rabbi Leo Jung, "One will never know God through either more intellectual endeavor, or through more emotional identification with God's spirit.    It is only by passionate love of and work for the widow and the orphan, the stranger and everyone else who is underprivileged that one's knowledge of God may reach the human peak."    
      Some of those very notions about what God wants us to do, and how we can fulfill the essential teachings of our tradition, are central to the Haftarah reading for this morning in Isaiah Chapter 58.   These words continue to reverberate down the centuries as we consider how to apply them to our world:  "The people say, 'When we fast, why do You, God, pay no heed? Why, when we afflict ourselves, do You, Eternal One, refuse to take notice?'   The prophet responded: 'Because on your fast day, you think only of your business, and oppress all your workers!  Because your fasting leads only to strife and discord, and hitting out with a cruel fist.  Such a way of fasting will not be heard on high....Is not this the fast I look for:  to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain?   Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house?   When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin.  Then your light shall blaze forth like the dawn, and your wounds shall quickly heal; your Righteous One will walk before you, and the Presence of the Eternal One will be your rear guard.'"
   It is this passage, and many, many others like it in the Torah and Prophets, that present to us a path for loving God  which will be based upon fairness, compassion, liberty and justice for all.    It is such passages as those of the rabbis and the prophet Isaiah that led Dr. Jeff Levin to conclude: "To love God means to be precisely the person that God would have us be, acting on our highest, God-given instincts for the benefit of all our fellow beings....I would assert that being generous and just and kind and loving and philanthropic and charitable and responsive to the needs of others is the truest way for a Jew to express love for God. This path defines the uniqueness and genius of Jewish spirituality.  Following it devotedly is our surest way to bring tikkun, repair, in its fullest sense, both to the world and to ourselves." 
     These teachings come from our heritage, not from ideological columnists, not from political pundits, not from any particular cable news channel.   Much of the material presented in the context of news commentary has its place, in that realm, in the political discourse that belongs outside this building.  IN THIS PLACE, we are about TORAH, AVODAH and G'MILUT CHASADIM.   We are here to find ways to love God and to love and be kind to each other even when we disagree.   We are here to learn how to cross our philosophical divides and join together to fulfill the commandments in this afternoon's Torah reading: love your neighbor as yourself and love the stranger as yourself as well.  Do not oppress the stranger, including those who make seek refuge with you, because you were a stranger in Egypt.   We are here to find ways to help people in need because our tradition demands that we do just that, through tzedakah or  g'milut chasadim in partnership with the greater community.  Giving to the High Holy Day food drive, to our ongoing recipients for our donations, brings us closer to that goal.   Studying what Jewish texts say about social justice and aging, as we will do this year, and exploring the wisdom of Judaism on a variety of topics, can bring us to new and shared understandings.  Sitting together in worship can lead us to justice and to love.   And we may not realize it, but these words of prayer and my words that I offer to you and to myself are there for a reason.  A recently-shared quote from renowned philosopher Soren Kirkegaard caught my eye.   It says: "People have the idea that the preacher is an actor on a stage and they are the critics, blaming or praising him.  What they don't know is that they are the actors on the stage: the preacher is merely the prompter standing in the wings, reminding the people in front of him of their lost lines."  
   These lines are in our mouths and in our hearts and we can do them.     We can choose life and good.  We can practice learning, worship, and deeds of kindness that can make our world more just and loving.      We can each find our own ways to practice our heritage, and practice it we must.   This is our mission that emanates from our hearts, our souls, and our minds.  Dr. Jeff Levin concluded in his book that if we don't bring the best of Jewish thought, feeling and action into the world, the world will not stand as it should.
     We know that there are times in the past that the force of our teachings and the power of our action could not withstand the greater forces around us.  Nevertheless, we are still here to remind the world how passionate and misguided hatred can lead to unthinkable violence and genocide and how righteousness can still survive that dark night.        

      We are grateful for people like the Imperial War Museum staff that heroically restored film footage which, they believed, the world must see in order to prevent such human evil from happening again.   We have it within our power to find partners along an arduous but necessary journey towards justice and hope throughout the world.  To reach that goal, we need to be here for each other, always finding the good in one another, committing ourselves to work with our fellow human beings to assure that night will not fall again, but that, in the words of Isaiah, "our light will shine in the darkness, and our night will become bright as noon, and the Eternal will guide us always."  May we draw close in love and light to the Eternal Spirit of the Universe and to each other in the days and years to come.  

"Do We Need Enemies" - Yom Kippur Evening Sermon - September 22, 2015

Do we need enemies?
    My direct answer to that question is NO – N-O in capital letters.
    Need is probably not the right word.  We don’t need enemies, but we do have enemies.  They enter our lives sometimes in a predictable way and, at other times, without warning.   Our Israelite ancestors knew that well. 
      It so happens that one of the more frequent words in the Bible is "enemy" - expressed with the word OYAYV, which means "to be hostile to someone else":  TZOREIR, to be an adversary, foe or opponent; and SONEI, meaning someone who harbors hatred.  In the Bible, an enemy may have been a citizen of another nation at war with Israel or Judah.   Or, an enemy could be someone who rejected belief in God or despised believers in God.   
    One of the most famous chapters in the book of Psalms prominently proposes that God can be a shield for us against our "enemies."      Just a few verses after that well known phrase, "The Eternal One is my shepherd, I shall not want - comes this declaration, as  translated by Martin Samuel Cohen:  "Even though I must sometimes pass through dark valleys, I fear no harm, for You, God, are with me; indeed Your crook and Your walking stick are sources of constant comfort for me. You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with so much fine oil that I feel like an overflowing cup.   Nothing but goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life; indeed, I feel certain that I shall dwell in the House of the Eternal One for days without end."  We will read this Psalm, Psalm 23, in the Yizkor/memorial service tomorrow afternoon.  What does this Psalm mean when it says,  "You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies"?     The previous verse declared with certainty:  "LO IRA RA KI ATAH IMADI -  I will fear no harm or evil for You are with me."   Put the two verses together, and the message is clear - with God, I won't be afraid, not even if my enemies were sitting right in front of me.  They might seek to bully me or destroy me, but with God's protection -NOTHING can happen to me. I am totally safe and secure. 
    Psalm 23 begins with the words, MIZMOR L'DAVID, a song of David.    You don't have to know your Bible in great detail to recall that David had many enemies, one of them being his royal predecessor, Saul.  There are a number of Psalms attributed to David that seem to describe his complex web of relationships.   Psalm 59, which is called a "golden song of David," was identified as a song written when Saul sought to kill David.  The first verse of Psalm 59 voices this plea: "Save me from my enemies, O my God; exalt me over those who rise up against me." 
       So it seems that the Hebrew Bible assumed that having enemies is just a part of life.  Even with that unavoidable reality, the Torah emphatically teaches us to show respect to our enemies and to those who despise us in any way.   We read every year in Exodus Chapter 23 this directive on dealing with those who don't like us:  "When you encounter your enemy's ox or beast of burden wandering, you must take it back to your enemy.  When you see the beast of your enemy - that is, someone who hates you -  collapsing under its burden and you would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help your enemy raise the animal up."   This passage instructs us to show consideration to others without thinking about whether they like us or not.  This is one of the Torah's greatest teachings about bridge building with fellow community members.  We are commanded to extend a helping hand even when we know that the person on the receiving end may never have even one iota of an inclination to reach back and do the same for us.
      That section of the book of Exodus suggests that even after we have done something positive for a person, he or she may still remain our enemy.  That reality leads me to ask, again and again, "Wouldn't it be better not to have enemies in the first place?   How does hatred and prejudice of any type lead to a person becoming our enemy who refuses to treat us with dignity and respect?  Or do people believe that they must staunchly oppose those who don't share their ideologies in order to bring their own positions into clearer focus so they can hold on to those views for dear life?"  
    I believe that most of us try to get along with other people, to find common ground, to work as equal partners.  When we disagree, most of us aim to keep our conversations respectful without accusation or demonization. 
   Sadly, that type of approach fails more often than it should.  And people become estranged, to the point where "being cordial" is no longer effective.  Hatred develops and can intensify over many years.      
     Sometimes it can also burst forth in an instant and turn a trusted colleague or friend into a foe to be feared.
     Such a break in relationship may happen because of unmet expectations that were shared but not openly and honestly monitored over time.  Or it may occur because of expectations that were not shared at all, where unspoken assumptions or attitudes led to disaster. 
    It may be because of an unaccepted even if heartfelt apology. Hatred may remain due to a sense that a particular issue can yield only two possible positions, what we might call "my view and the wrong view."   There is no recognition of a middle position, and compromise is viewed as a show of weakness rather than as a solution that could be a win for everyone.
    And there are times when one person's desire for power and greater recognition can cause hurt and leave friendships in ruins, where the one climbing for the top doesn't care if he or she has left behind or emotionally injured people who had offered him or her help, support and even love.
    People may become and remain enemies because no one was willing to engage in THE conversation that could resolve even a serious misunderstanding.  But if hatred has found a home, that discussion would never happen.
    So we try to move forward in our lives, hoping that God will be with us, setting a table before us in the presence of both our friends and our enemies, enabling us to try to be decent and menschlikh to everyone, even when our attempts at positive interactions are rejected and rebuffed.
       It seems that the impulse for hatred that leads people to have enemies is deeply imbedded in who we are as human beings.  Journalist and science writer Rush Dozier, Jr.  explained the nature of hatred in his book, “Why We Hate: Understanding, Curbing and Eliminating Hate in Ourselves and the World.”   Dozier noted that hatred is our most intense emotion. Besides hate groups, hate speech and terrorism, incidents of shootings and violence at schools and in public places and cases of domestic violence reveal how hatred can poison our behavior and our lives. Dozier noted that scientists have discovered, over the last 20 years, the reasons why hate just doesnt go away. Hate emerges from a primitive response to perceived threats to our survival. The parts of the brain that control this more primal instinct tend to make us generalize and stereotype. At that point, our minds would be closed. A dangerous combination of prejudice and anger could embed hatred in our minds and our hearts. That response could lead to verbal assaults if not violent attacks. It explains why people sometimes dehumanize, discredit and denigrate whomever they consider as the opposition or the enemy. As we know, people can learn from others how to hate with a passion. A process of training in hatred has directly caused major terrorist attacks like 9/11, the destruction of ancient ruins and violent treatment of non-Muslims by the Islamic state, the kidnapping of female students by Boko Haram, the Boston Marathon bombings, and shootings such as the ones by right wing extremist Frazier Glenn Cross at the Jewish Community Campus in Overland Park, Kansas, in April of 2014.   Cross, in his recent trial, said that he had to try to kill Jews, who, in his belief, are out to destroy the white race.
        Dozier said that there may be a remedy to the these horrifying actions and the attitudes which lie at their root.  Scientists have developed a strategy to stimulate the parts of the brain that can take in new information and override our more primal tendencies, including hatred. In this approach, tolerance must be taught by example. We must replace an us-against-them orientation with an us-us perspective. We must try to focus on the commonality of our humanity with all people.  We can try to empathize with our fellow human beings and understand their behaviors and actions. Communicating the reasons for our anger or fear in a particular situation can move us beyond negative feelings. Education about diverse groups and cultures in society can prevent stereotyping and the harboring of prejudice. Cooperation with all types of people can replace feelings of mistrust.
      Scientists might remind us that we are all human beings and that many traits are inborn in ways we don't realize. Ethicists might teach us to treat each other as we want to be treated. Religious believers might say that we are all created in One image – BTZELEM ELOHIM - and that we should love our neighbors as ourselves – VAHAVTA LRAY-A-CHA KAMOCHA. On the other hand, adherents to a particular faith might claim that there are divisions among humanity….that there are those who do not deserve respect, because long-standing teachings say so.
      One example of such strongly held principles standing in the way of cooperation took place just after 9/11.    Dr. David Benke, president of the Atlantic district of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, offered a brief meditation in the interfaith “Prayer for America” gathering at Yankee Stadium on September 23, 2001 that paid tribute to the victims, survivors and heroes of 9/11 and began the long process of grieving and healing.   Dr. Benke and other officials of his denomination were convinced that the Missouri Synods rules allowed him to participate as long as event organizers didnt restrict the language of his prayer.  In his prayer, Benke addressed God as a Tower of Strength who could grant us shelter and peace and help people unite across all boundaries in acts of grace and truth. The universal aspects of his words deeply resonated with many people, including me,  at that challenging time.
      Dr. Benke had no idea that he had jeopardized his career that day.   He reflected on the repercussions of his decision a number of months later, when he was turned into an enemy of his own denomination.  He explained, “The Yankee Stadium event was a pivotal day in my entire life....When I shared the podium with representatives of all the major faiths and prayed, that prayer became the center of a major controversy.  The very next day, I began to get messages filled with hate…from…people….within my tradition….They said, "You were wrong to be there. You never should have gone to Yankee Stadium. You are a heretic. You have dishonored your faith." One man said the genuine terrorism was me. He said, planes crash and people die, nothing big about that. Genuine terrorism was me giving that prayer. I just want to say that I have not gotten over that….I lived through the real terrorists driving the planes into the real buildings….I've talked to people whose loved ones were murdered….For me to be put in that same category is just not tolerable to me….A number of those people, clergy from my denomination, filed charges of heresy against me, saying that…because of what I did on that day, I should not be part of the church, that I should not be allowed to preach, and that I should have my collar removed……Their belief is that a Christian who stands at the same podium with someone of another faith will give everybody the idea that all religions are equal...If religion leads people to make these kinds of accusations at exactly the worst moment in American history, then what's underneath religion? Is religion a desire for such absolute power and security that people cannot see the need to reach out and help? If that's true, then I've got a lot of wrestling to do with my own religion.”   Pastor Benke was suspended by his denomination in 2002, but he was eventually reinstated in 2003.  He saw no reason to apologize for offering the people of the United States support and comfort through his words. 
      We, as members of the Jewish community, know of the hatred that continues to be cast upon us from many directions.  Jews around the world have debated whether or not the Boycott/Divest/Sanctions movement, in its uncompromising efforts to oppose policies of the State of Israel, has exhibited anti-Semitism in its approach to companies, universities and nations around the world.  Recently, BDS activists lobbied a music festival in Spain to ban American Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu from appearing for his scheduled performance. They singled out the singer, demanding that he sign a pledge in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state, a requirement which no other performer at the festival had been asked to fulfill.     Matisyahu replied that he makes no political statements in his performances, so he refused to sign the requested pledge and chose not to appear..    After many protests from around the world, Matisyahu was reinvited by the organizers and did sing at the festival, even as Palestinian flags flew in the audience. For that Jewish performer, there was only music, not hatred, not enemies, and Judaism's universal hope for unity as Matisyahu has expressed in his song, "One Day" (which goes like this):
All my life I've been waiting for, I've been praying for
For the people to say
That we don't wanna fight no more
There will be no more wars and our children will play
One day
  Even with this upbeat message about who we can be as a human family, shared by many faith groups and helping organizations, there is still hatred. Adversaries remain.  Enemies won't go away when so many people fail to consider that common interests like peace and living a life without violence could create unity that could encompass much of the world.
    Some of the remedies to hatred and the persistent presence of enemies in our lives are prescribed in the very words we recite every Yom Kippur.  We ask God for forgiveness for our sins, knowing that, when we are approached to forgive another person, we are called upon to be like God and to offer our mercy and acceptance.   On Yom Kippur, we confess all the wrongs that members of the human family may commit towards one another throughout a year or a lifetime, including hatred without cause, slander, disrespect, judging unfairly, violence, abuse, lying, deceit, and hardening our hearts.   Confession and forgiveness can open our hearts towards one another.  Compassion and empathy can bring us closer together.   We may not totally eliminate the presence of enemies in our lives, but we may have fewer vocal opponents and find ourselves with more people whom we can call "friend."
         Among the groups that try to turn opponents or enemies into partners are those that seek to create attitudes that will yield peace in the Middle East.  New Mexico's own Creativity for Peace trains young Palestinian and Israeli women to come together as leaders by breaking down barriers of anger and prejudice, facilitating friendships, and inspiring action to promote peace.    On October 14, participants in the Creativity for Peace program will be speaking here at Temple.  Seeds of Peace, based in Maine, maintains a similar program and purpose.  Their mission statement, generated by the young people brought together to get to know one another in a new way, declares what we, as human beings, can do if we try:   "Many of us live in places where killing and humiliation, poverty and homeless refugees are commonplace. We are surrounded by an atmosphere of hatred created by unjust realities. Violence does not begin when a gun is pointed or a rock is thrown, but in the hate-filled graffiti and political posters decorating the walls of our cities …Yet at Seeds of Peace, we have experienced real equality, unity, understanding and joy. Having faced this stark contrast, we now refuse to accept what is when we know what we can be if we truly implement these principles in our homes and our hearts. We refuse to be victims. We know it is possible to redirect human passions, even calls for revenge, toward the positive goal of creating peace … There are people who call us traitors because we recognize our enemies as equal human beings—but we are true patriots. Instead of creating dead-end situations for our nations, we are putting an end to an endless cycle of suffering. We are working together for peace, the only way to achieve optimal living conditions for our own countries and people. We were raised in societies which taught us to hate each other. Despite that, we have united here to fight together for a better future for us all, in the name of the dead and the generations to come. In succeeding here, we prove to ourselves and our governments that a solution exists and peace is not impossible."
       Washington Post writer Laura Blumenfeld shared, in many ways, that same approach and spirit when she sought to turn a potential enemy into a friend. In her now classic book, REVENGE: A STORY OF HOPE, she explained how she set out in 1998 to find the man who had shot her father, Rabbi David Blumenfeld. He was standing in an alley of the Old City of Jerusalem on March 7, 1986, when an assailant, who turned out to be a member of a notorious terrorist cell, aimed at Rabbi Blumenfelds head and shot a bullet that, fortunately, only grazed his scalp.   Even though her father didnt die from his wound, Laura was still troubled, even haunted, by this act of one man against a member of her family.   She felt that it was her responsibility to seek out the attacker and confront him.   Blumenfeld began to explore the emotions and actions that are related to the human desire for revenge. She noted that both sides in a conflict often try to claim the role as the pure and solitary victim.   As the ones who have been wronged or shamed, they feel they have the right and privilege of lashing out and evening the score. She traveled to Sicily and Albania, where she learned of the strict parameters and rules that dictate how revenge can be taken.   She spoke to Benjamin Netanyahu about the killing of his brother Yoni when he led Israeli troops in a raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976 to rescue American and Israelis Jews held hostage by a band of hijackers.   She was amazed that neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor his brother Iddo had a desire for revenge in a personal way against the hijackers.   The murder of their brother was national, not personal.
     Blumenfeld realized that, while taking revenge could be an act based on ones group or national identity, reconciliation can happen mainly when people move from the collective – the larger group – down to the personal, one-on-one level.     Once she discovered the identity of her fathers assailant, she began to visit his family in Ramallah, introducing herself only as “Laura” from America. She began a correspondence with the shooter, Omar Khatib. Their letters focused on political ideology and the despair he felt as a Palestinian. Blumenfeld began to share with Khatib details about her father without telling Khatib that she was the daughter of his victim.   What Laura Blumenfeld eventually learned was that the greatest revenge she could have was to change the heart of the perpetrator to make him realize the personal nature of his act.  
    She made Omar Khatib see that he had injured a man who was trying to work for peace.   At the end of the book, Laura appeared in court on Khatibs behalf and revealed to the court and the shooters family that she was the daughter of the man he had attacked.   Rather than being angry, Khatib and all of the members of his family were touched by Lauras humanity. Omar Khatib sent a sincere letter of apology to David Blumenfeld, in which he said that Laura “was the mirror that made me see your face as a human person who deserved to be admired and respected.”  
     It is possible to overcome hatred, xenophobia and the desire for revenge if we can move beyond the past just enough to learn about other people and understand who they are and what they want and need from life. Reconciliation and cooperation can happen when we are prepared to see the humanity in all people, to recognize that they too, want to live their lives in safety and in freedom.
     There is a popular story, attributed to Native American tradition, which is shared often these days as acts of hatred and violence in the United States and around the world have become all too frequent and common.  
      A boy was talking with his grandfather. He asked, “What do you think about the world situation?”
   His grandfather replied, “I feel like two wolves are fighting in my heart. One is full of anger and hatred. The other is full of love, forgiveness and peace.”
   “Which of the wolves will win?” asked the boy. The grandfather replied, “The wolf that will win is the one that I choose to feed.”
     May we - and our enemies - hear these words, and understand that we don't have to remain estranged, mired in conflict forever.  We can, if we sincerely try, in the spirit of forgiveness and change of these High Holy Days, nourish love, forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion in ourselves and in our community so that we can truly be inscribed and sealed in the years to come for unity, goodness, friendship and blessing. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Extraordinary Faith - Sermon - Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776 - September 14, 2015

   A father and a son are together at home.   The father stands over the son, knowing he must do exactly what he has been told.   The son looks up into his father's eyes.  He seems ready to accept what is about to happen.   Among those looking on, peering from various vantage points at this meeting of parent and child, some are certain they know the father and the son and their fate.   Others are not so sure what to make of the scene before them.   And still others, gazing at this father and son, believe that it is how they will tell the story that will make all the difference in the world.      
     The father at home with his son is the biblical progenitor of a multitude of nations –  Abraham.   The people looking on are Jews, Christians and Muslims, who all agree on the father’s identity.    But who is the son, where is the home, and what is it that the father knew he must do?  That depends upon whom you ask. 
In Judaism, the son was Isaac, whose name, Yitzchak, means “he will laugh.”  The home was not the family tent, where Abraham and Sarah showed their well renowned hospitality to all passing travelers.  Home, in this case, was a spot on a mountain in the heart of Jerusalem – Mount Moriah – upon a rock known as the “even sh’tiyah” – the foundation stone of the world – the spiritual center of Jews throughout the centuries.   That is the place where, according to our tradition and to archaeologists – our ancestors made pilgrimage to worship at their sacred Temple.
       What was it that the father knew he must do?  What was the act that he was commanded to carry out in order to pass a crucial test?   We know this text all too well. It perplexes us year after year both on Rosh Hashanah and when we read it in the weekly portion Vayera about six weeks later.  We call it the AKEDAH, the binding of Isaac, because Abraham bound his son on an altar so that he could offer his son as a sacrifice, the act he believed God asked him to do.   We will read in a few moments that Abraham was ready to slaughter his son, but that an angel stopped him at the last moment and told him that he had successfully proven his faith by following all of the divine directions he had received.   A ram caught in the thicket nearby to sacrifice instead was offered to God as a sign of Abraham’s devotion to his creator.  
   Some Jews in later generations believed that Abraham actually did sacrifice Isaac.  They saw Isaac as an unfortunate victim like so many Jewish men, women and children who lost their lives in brutal attacks on their communities, violence that was rooted in hatred and prejudice.  At those dire times, Jews saw their suffering as a sign of their steadfast faith and of God’s continuing favor.  The challenges and threats to their survival were actually signs that they were blessed.  Jewish commentators added an element of hope to that potentially pessimistic perspective.  They asserted that Isaac was brought to life again by God and that the ram was slaughtered as the angel called out a second time.   Our ancestors had faith that they would eventually find greater acceptance in the world as more and more people learned to truly love their neighbors as themselves. 
       In Christianity, which shares with Judaism this Genesis passage as sacred scripture, the son was Isaac, and “home” – the location -  was Mount Moriyah.  Or was it?  Perhaps not.   For Christians, the story of Abraham and Isaac foreshadowed what became their foundational tale told later by the followers of a particular first century Jew, likely known as Yehoshua bar Yosef.  They declared that, long before there was an Abraham and Isaac, the Ruler of the Universe had ordained that one human figure would meet his demise by human hands for a purpose that God intended for the benefit of all humankind. It was for that reason that early Christians read this story and replaced AKEDAH, “binding” with another word – “sacrifice.”  From the Christian perspective, the fact that Abraham loved God so much and had so much faith in the divine that he would sacrifice his favorite son prefigured the central tale of their scripture: God loved humanity so much that God would sacrifice one particular favorite son.  The wood of the altar at Mount Moriah became the wood of a cross placed at a site called Calvary to crucify the man known as Jesus of Nazereth.  Christians focused upon this story in relation to their observance of Easter, also known as Pascha, the holiest time on their spiritual calendar.  
 It was not until over 600 years into the common era that a new faith joined the two others in commenting on the meeting of that father and son on a mountain.  A new personally-proclaimed prophet named Muhammed asserted that people could best express their faith through total submission to the One God – ‘Allah.  The Arabic word for submission was – and is – Islam.   Many Muslims saw themselves as familial descendants of Abraham through Ishmael, son of Abraham’s maidservant Hagar.  And they, too, told a story of a son nearly being sacrificed by Abraham in their holy book, the Kur’an.   In that passage, Abraham dreamed that he was asked to sacrifice his son, and then, when he awakened, he told his son about this vision.  No name was given for the son bound on the altar in Abraham’s dream.  Some surrounding texts in the Kur’an point to Isaac as the son who was nearly sacrificed.  After several centuries, most Muslim scholars and teachers identified the son as Ishmael and called the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son the DHABIH, from a verb that means “to cut or tear.”   Muslims commemorate the slaughter of a ram in place of the son during their feast of sacrifice, ID AL ADHA, a ritual that concludes the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the HAJ, one of the holiest times of the year in Islam.  Muslim pilgrims gather for this feast in the valley of Mina, just outside of Mecca, to recreate this event which was no longer associated with Mount Moriah.  The Kur’an and Muslim commentators agreed with Jewish and Christian interpreters that the son was eventually a willing participant as God tested Abraham’s faith.  Abraham or Ibrahim gained great merit because he was ready to give himself over to God’s supreme will.    
     What began as one narrative about a father and a son became at least three.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims have either marveled at the common threads of their respective versions of this tale – or, some have accused the other of corrupting the details of the episode and then claimed they and only THEY have the real account, the REST of the story.  
      Author Bruce Feiler traveled extensively in the Middle East to gather information for his best selling book, Walking the Bible.  The tragic events of September 11, 2001 led him to put on hold all other projects and to return to Israel at a time of great tension.  He decided that, in order to understand the religious underpinnings of conflicts emanating from the Middle East, he needed to explore the figure Abraham and what he meant to Jews, Christians and Muslims.   He wrote ABRAHAM: A JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THREE FAITHS to find an Abraham that could bring people together rather than drive them apart.    I was fascinated by Feiler’s interweaving of the wide range of interpretations about Abraham from across the spectrum of faith and time.    The explanations I have shared related to our Torah portion for this morning are all contained in Feiler’s book, which became, for a time, a source for Jewish/Christian/Muslim dialogue groups. There are several lessons that stand out in my mind from reviewing the various perspectives on Abraham and this tale of afather and son.  
       If there is anything we have learned in recent decades, it is that we cannot ignore the role of belief in people’s actions that may lead to destruction or to reconciliation.  The aims of the attackers of 9/11, the actions of the Islamic State fighters, the “Price Tag/Tag M’chir” group in Israel, and what we could call “homicide” bombers for any number of causes could certainly be described as political, but some of their motives emerge from an exclusivist interpretation of particular religious texts. Such narrow approaches dismiss the beliefs of others as inconsequential or incorrect.  This attitude of ”one-upsmanship” or competition, as with the struggle among three faiths to “own the true Abraham,” has no place in a world where each of us must strive to truly find our own faith and spiritual path.   Political leaders and Muslim clerics have issued a constant stream of claims that there was never a Jewish Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, and that Jews have no historical connection to the land of Israel.    They hope this modern-day propaganda that denies the sincerely held beliefs of Jews for generations will enable them to achieve political gains – that is, no Jewish presence in Jerusalem or, perhaps, no Jewish state at all.   There are religious overtones in the calls of some individuals for total control of that land between the Jordan and Mediterranean.  Such claims do nothing to further a deepening of a personal relationship with the Holy One.  
      The story of Abraham and his son at the altar does offer a potential basis for common interpretation among the three religions that hold this story to be sacred. In his book, Bruce Feiler presented a multitude of portrayals of Abraham related to episodes throughout his life as recounted in the Bible and the Kur’an.   This morning’s Torah reading alone tells of a father and son who moved forward together with a sense of trust and unified purpose.   They were both part of a test of the relationship between humanity and the greater truths of life.  Bruce Feiler suggested that Abraham was, in fact, testing God, because he knew that God’s command to sacrifice Isaac contradicted the promise that he would have many descendants through both Isaac and Ishmael.   Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would likely agree that we, like Abraham, are tested constantly in our lives as we make choices that relate to our work, our family ties and friendships, and our place in the community.   There is a sense in all three faiths that Abraham was focused on his mission, but not so intently that he was oblivious to everything around him.  He was aware enough to heed the angelic voice that directed his ultimate action on the mountain.    We can learn from Abraham how such intention is important in everything that we do, but that we must be able to hear other voices that might lead us towards a more positive and productive result.   In his book, THE CHUTZPAH IMPERATIVE, Rabbi Ed Feinstein pointed out how it was Abraham who  provided one of those different voices, but not for himself.  Just a few chapters before this episode in which Abraham was silent, the same patriarch challenged God when he heard of the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.   Abraham’s humble but steadfast protests to God reverberate in our ears when we recall the story:  “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?  Far be it from You, God, to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike!  Far be it from you!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”   God answered, “I will forgive the whole place for the sake of the fifty.”  And Abraham continued, asking if God would spare the cities for 45….40…30…20….and finally, 10 innocent people.   Abraham’s test of God in this case comes down to us to teach us to open our eyes and strive to find good and righteous people in any community and any country, and to recognize the balance they bring to the resulting goodness of the human family.
      Finally, in his exploration of this tale, Bruce Feiler discovered, as have philosophers of past generations, that all three religions see Abraham as taking a giant leap of faith as he journeyed toward Mount Moriah.  In a way, the fact that he did not sacrifice his son was a leap in and of itself, because peoples in the Ancient near east did engage in child sacrifice.   We see Abraham deciding or learning that such a practice was not appropriate in any case, especially in the worship of One God.    The presence of both father and son on the mountain assured that this lesson would be passed down through the generations.  We learn from the story of Abraham and his son on a mountain that life is precious as is the willingness to submit to God – but that taking a life in the name of the divine is not what God desires.    Judaism and Islam share similar statements to the effect that if you destroy one life, it is as if you have destroyed the entire world, but if you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world entire.  The future of the world rests on Jews, Christians and Muslims, as well as people of all religions or spiritual persuations, to walk a path along which they will dedicate themselves to the values of both life and peace. 

     A father and a son are together at home.   The father stands over the son, knowing that he must do exactly what he has been told.   The son looks up into his father's eyes.  He seems ready to accept what is about to happen.   Among those looking on from the outside, adults and children together, there is a decision to enter the home to speak to the father and son, to tell their stories, to listen to one another with respect, and to commit themselves to a shared leap of faith.  They know that it is how they will tell the story that will make all the difference in the world.  May this journey with a father and son up and down the mountain ever be a journey towards understanding, respect and extraordinary faith that we will share together.

"Finding Ourselves Again" - Sermon - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776 - September 13, 2015

We are here, once again.
We are here to create community in this place. 
Most of us were here last year, and some of us weren't, which means that the WE that is here tonight
is different and new. 
The words we pray are mostly the same as last year, but we may find ourselves understanding them in a new light.
Some of the music may be familiar, but we can listen with fresh ears and sing as if we had discovered a message in the words and melodies that had previously eluded us. 
  Every New Year concludes one chapter of our lives, and signals opportunities and adventures that await us in the next section of our very own SEFER CHAYIM, our BOOK OF LIFE.
   Some Reform congregations are using the new High Holy Prayer book, MISHKAN HANEFESH, for the first time tonight.    While we will first pray from this new MACHZOR on Tuesday morning, I want to share with you a reflection on Rosh Hashanah from this new source of worship and wisdom, an interpretation written by Rabbi Laura Geller:
"Your book of life doesn't begin today, on Rosh Hashanah.  It began when you were born.  Some of the chapters were written by other people:  your parents, siblings, and teachers.  Parts of your book were crafted out of experiences you had because of other people's decisions:  where you lived, what schools you went to, what your homes were like.  But the message of Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, is that everything can be made new again, that much of your book is written every day - by the choices you make.  The book is not written and sealed; you get to edit it, decide what parts you want to emphasize and remember, and maybe even which parts you want to leave behind.  Shanah Tovah means both a good year and good change.  Today you can change the rest of your life.  It is never too late." 
     What makes us change?  Does change mean doing something new or doe it mean changing back to who we truly are?   And in either case, how do we get to where we want to go? 
     There are signposts in this place, some that you can see, and some that are barely visible, that can guide us towards good change and a good year.  
     Every Temple places symbols right before our eyes that have great power and significance.   During the day, walk into this sanctuary while it’s dark, and you will immediately notice the stained-glass windows representing the 12 tribes.  What will draw you in are the piercingly bright eyes of the lion that represents the tribe of Judah.  The name Judah, of course, gave us the word Judaism and Jewish.  When I look at those eyes, I feel like I am being watched!  Some might say those are the eyes of the divine looking down.   I sometimes imagine those eyes signifying the gaze of our ancestors who want us to carry their heritage into the future.
      In the dark sanctuary, the Eternal Light, the Neir tamid, shines brightly.   This Neir tamid depicts the ladder reaching to the sky in Jacob’s dream, on which angels were going up and down.  After that vision, Jacob declared, “ACHEN YEISH ADONAI BAMAKOM HAZEH, VAANOCHI LO YADATI -  God was most definitely in this place, and as for me, I had NO idea!”   Any Neir Tamid signifies faith and God’s enduring presence.  THIS Neir tamid links us to Jacob, at the site of Beth-El.  It reminds us not to simply expect signs of God and godliness to appear out of nowhere.  We have to be open to recognizing moments and experiences that are special, and unique, and holy in our lives, times about which we might say, “God was there” or “God is here.” 
      The Menorah is our link to the worship of our Israelite ancestors in Jerusalem.   Their modes of prayer and the nature of the setting, which included animal sacrifices, offered sensory input that we do not experience at all in a modern synagogue.   We do know that THIS day, what we call ROSH HASHANAH, the beginning of the year, was, for them, YOM T’RUAH, the day of sounding the shofar, which eventually began a period of ten days of repentance that culminated in the day of atonement, Yom Kippur.   The priests, the Levites, the common people, and others who gathered at the ancient Temple saw the menorah as a reminder of the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest.   We are, in that respect, B’YACHAD, together with our ancestors. We are their legacy, continuing what they began so long ago.
     The memorial plaques on the wall, the Tree of Life in the Social Hall, and, now, the Brick walkway outside offer reminders of special moments and special people.   Look at one of the names on the wall and there is an entire story, one BOOK OF LIFE, one SEFER CHAYIM.    Pick a tree of life leaf or a brick outside and your will find a concise recollection of an individual simchah, the celebration of a life milestone.  Or, there may be on the tree of life or the walkway yet another memorial to those who are no longer with us, whom we remember with fondness and reverence.  Simchahs keep us looking forward to the next landmark event at which we can say MAZAL TOV.  Memorial tributes direct us to think about what was lasting in the lives of our family members or friends who have died and how we want to emulate the best that they had to offer.
      We cannot forget about the ark, which houses the Torah scrolls that contain our values, our story, our faith.  I don’t believe, though, that members of every congregation can say that they see a bush that is burning but not consumed every Shabbat and on Jewish holidays!   We know well the story of how God called out to Moses from the bush, giving him his mission to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  The image on these ark doors can inspire us to work for freedom, even without hearing the voice of God, but through perceiving a divine voice speaking directly to us from the teachings of the Torah.   And, according to ancient Jewish commentaries and the movies “The Ten Commandments” and “Prince of Egypt,” the voice that Moses heard was his own.   In other words, the rabbis and those two films were teaching us that God speaks to us in our own voice, in a way that we can each understand, with a familiar sound that will not elicit fear but, hopefully, comfort and confidence.
     And finally, there is the verse from Psalm 100 above the ark – IVDU ET ADONAI B’SIMCHAH – serve the Eternal One – the One who causes everything to come into being – with gladness.   If we so choose, there can be a feeling of joy in every step we take and in all that we do for ourselves, for our families and friends, for our community, and for the human family.
      Remembrance, light, faith, freedom, history, responsibility, celebration, holiness, and wisdom – these values are embedded in the symbols that surround us here.  And there is yet another place to search for these principles of our heritage.    There is something of all of these tenets of Judaism within each of us.  And they are not just “there,” sitting dormant.    We make them come alive in what we do for each other.  We demonstrate them in our work for communal solidarity, social justice, charity, leadership, and even in simply “being here.”   And when asked what is meaningful about being here, we do identify those values and other central aspects of Jewish life.  
   This past May, many of you took the time to respond to my question about what is meaningful about being a member of Temple Beth-El.    Meaning can emerge and become real for us through what we do together, not only as rabbi and congregation, but as congregants working, meeting, volunteering, conversing and studying with each other.   I shared some of your responses in my message at the Temple Annual Meeting in May.   Here, again, are statements about the Jewish meaning that is experienced within these walls:
  • ·      Helping members of all ages find an avenue for Jewish expression and learning,  and practicing Tikun Olam, the repair of the world.
  • ·      Going to services is very important to me as I enjoy the singing and fellowship. Having quiet time to reflect on my week and my life in general is also important, as is praying for the world, my family and my friends. I do believe praying together is powerful.
  • ·      Sharing my Jewish identity through social justice. Being a part of a Jewish community that carries on our traditions of fighting injustices and helping others.
  • ·      A sense of community for us and our children. A place to feel at home. A safe haven where we know others, and where we feel welcome at all times. Somewhere we want to be and feel we belong. We want to volunteer, we want to show up, we want to be counted as part of the whole.
  • ·      Modeling values for the next generations.
  • ·      I am a strongly identified secular Jew who has come to the conclusion that although I personally don't have a strong sense of spirituality, the Jewish community will disappear without the structure and continuity provided by year-round religious observance. Secular/cultural/humanistic Judaism, absent a strong institutional structure, does not appear to be a self-sustaining enterprise. Therefore, I decided that even a Tikkun Olam Jew like myself must support the Temple, so I participate as best I can.  I appreciate that Temple Beth-El has an ongoing commitment to community service.
  • ·      Worship - inspiration - illumination – education
  • ·      The sense of community on Shabbat.
  • ·      The Temple gives me a place where I can be surrounded by the sights and sounds of my Jewish upbringing. It is a place of peace, comfort and acceptance. I know that my Temple is a place where I will have no fear of discrimination. It is a place where I can learn from my Rabbi and other scholars about Torah and Talmud and where my questions will be answered without judgment of my lack of knowledge or understanding. Second, my membership is important as a place where I can become involved and make friends with other Jews. It is a place to celebrate life, the joys and sorrows that touch us all.    Although we may be from other places and may not share the same Jewish education and knowledge of traditions and beliefs, we have much in common with each other which brings us together as family. May Adonai bless our Temple that our Temple be a place of peace, love and warmth to all who enter.

     It is Jewish tradtion that offers us the framework of a SEFER CHAYIM, a book of life, a lens by which we can take a hard look at our lives, to notice where we have been, to see where we are going, and to identify what is meaningful.  These comments from YOU assert that Jewish life in Las Cruces has the potential to connect us with each other to enagage in learning, to do good works in the community, to communicate our values from one generation to the next, and to create memorable and holy moments.   It is not about generating a feeling of joy and bonds of connection only on the surface.  Judaism demands that we go deeper, that we hear the voice of faith, freedom and hope calling to us from a bush that burns but is not consumed.  
    A statement by Albert Einstein came to my attention a few weeks ago when Lily Labe and her parents, Adam and Robin, suggested that this paragraph be included in Lily’s Bat Mitzvah service.  You might think that the statement was something scientific, like E=MC2.   Not at all!   Here is what one of the greatest scientists in human history had to say about who we really are and how we are truly connected: “Human beings are part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”     It is this type of perspective about life that leads us to create bonds of friendship and family with other human beings, to extend a helping hand to someone in need, and to even begin to seek peace, a difficult challenge in situations and interrelationships characterized only by conflict.  
        And we are in a world rife with dissonance, jockeying for power, hatred, and cruelty.  We see all of that in the emergence of the internationally negotiated deal with Iran on their nuclear weapons program and the many responses to it, in the quandary regarding how to respond to refugee crises around the world, in the still-as-yet unanswered question of how to combat a belligerent and heartless group like the Islamic State that has no regard for either historical landmarks or people different from them, and how to heal the hurt caused by racism and prejudice at home.   We know that we want order, not chaos; peace, not war;  hope, not despair.   The best bumper sticker I saw this year found its way into a song I wrote for Las Cruces Peace Camp: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, there will be peace!”  I didn’t mention love as one of the values intrinsic in Judaism, but we know that love is on the small parchment in a mezuzah, containing two passages from Deuteronomy that direct us to love God and keep God’s commandments, which also means that we need to love each other.
     At the time of the Mother Emanuel murders by Dylan Roof in Charleston, South Carolina, followed by the two small bombs that exploded next to local churches plus one more that was planted, it seemed to me that we had come to a point where nothing, not even the comfortable confines of a religious congregation, was sacred anymore.   My thoughts went straight to chapter 56 of Isaiah, where the prophet left us a message with a universal thrust that reasserts what should be holy in our lives:
“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. 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. As for foreigners and all people 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,   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.”

    No one is alone in living out life.  Each of us has our own SEFER CHAYIM, but we know we are part of a greater whole, as declared by two great Jewish figures, Isaiah and Albert Einstein, and many others along the way.   They have given us their wisdom that can help us lay out a path towards goodness, justice, and hope.   Their insights, and the meanings of our participation in this community and the symbols that surround us can move us forward to make good choices for change, to reach inside of ourselves for the best of the gifts we can give and then to extend our hands to one another and to the world to make our SEFER HAYIM what it should be:   a book that is filled goodness, blessing and peace.   So may it always be, from one year to the next.