Saturday, January 30, 2016

"Ten" - Reflections on ASERET HADIBROT (The Ten Words/Commandments)-January 30, 2016

Relationship is not about "what have you done for me lately" but about "what can we continue to do for each other when we really need support and even rescue?" 

Don't let what is tangible and fleeting lure you away from what is intangible, meaningful, and timeless. 

Don't assume that "God is on my side" or that "with God on my side, I am more powerful than anyone else."  If you are on God's side, you won't use your belief for power, but only for love. 

To be like God means to create, but only creating, and doing nothing else, may be an obstacle to continued inspiration.  Stop and rest so that your creations will bring your creative spirit to the world. 

Create examples by which the next generation can learn and live.  If you treat people of all ages - inside and outside your family - with respect and honor, they will act with respect and honor, and indefinitely continue the chain of being exemplars of those values and more. 

Each person and the totality of his or her character is like a world within a world.   Do not deliberately take that world away through murder or assassination of character, because if you do, you will harm or destroy your own world in the process. 

Consider the commitments within all relationships in your life to be as immutable as the interrelationships in creation and in the universe.   We count on them as surely as the sun rises and sets every day.  

What is yours is yours.  What is mine can be yours if I am ready and willing to share.  Do not even think to yourself, "what is yours is mine," for those thoughts will take on a life of their own and rob your life and others of mutual trust and respect.  

Living in a community brings with it pressures to take sides and to be called upon to be loyal and subvert the truth even when we know that we will be at our most godly and good only if we are faithful to the truth.  Don't let anyone convince you that their purposes are more important than the truth.  

I see what you have, and as much as I may want it, I will be at my best when I focus on the joys of what I have rather than on the desires I may harbor towards what may never be mine. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

To live - D'var Torah - Parashat Beshalach/Shabbat Shirah/Sabbath of Song - January 22, 2016

I didn’t believe it. 
Here we are, standing at the far shore of the sea.
How did we get here? 
I am still not sure.
It was amazing and unbelievable.
But I am standing here, far away from the land where I toiled for so many years, far from the home of a slave.
We heard stories – of our ancestors from a place called Canaan, of a great ruler who came from them, named Joseph. 
But we didn’t believe those stories, because how could one of us be a ruler and then have all of his descendants be slaves?
But we were. 
And then HE came. 
Well, I didn’t know who HE was at first, but I realized that I did know his brother Aaron, and his sister Miriam, and their parents, Amram and Yocheved.  We lived not too far apart and often shared our pain and misery and, somehow, our hope.
When HE came – yes, MOSES, son of Amram and Yocheved – he had his brother Aaron assist him. They approached Pharaoh and demanded that he free us to worship our God in the wilderness.
Most of us didn’t know this God.  My family was among the few that still bore a memory of that faith, although we did not know what to call God.   We believed that there had to be some divine force more powerful than the gods of Egypt.  For what God or gods would want to see people die from their hard work as slaves?
The plagues came….Pharaoh finally relented, and we set out from Egypt filled with real hope and determination, not a vain sense that, one day, we would eventually escape the cruelty of our taskmasters.  
Then the rumors began to fly – Pharaoh’s heart was hard once again, and his soldiers were pursuing us.   We didn’t know what to do. We had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and nowhere to find safety. 
And then, Moses raised his staff.  The wind began to blow.  The waters before us that had been calm began to move. 
My good friend Nachshon was brave enough to walk into the waters, believing that there was something unique about the power that came from this God that we could not see.
And the waters….parted.  There was mostly dry land in front of us with water on each side.  There was a little mud, but after generations of slavery, this mud was the pathway to our freedom.   We could hear Pharaoh’s army approaching in the distance.  But we walked. And walked.   And we made it to the other side.
Then we turned around.
Pharaoh’s army was not far behind.
But the mud was a problem for them, for they were not walking like we did.  As they got stuck, something happened.
The waters moved…again – and returned to where they had been.
It was a tragedy for Egypt as their soldiers, who could not move, were overcome by the returning waves.
But we were safe.   We were together.   Miriam and the other women began to create a melody for these welcome words:  
What do we do now with our freedom?   We hope that Moses and Aaron will tell us, and guide us, because there are people among us who have little faith, even after this great miracle.  They see only possible challenges and predicaments.  Some even say that we should go back to Egypt, that the past was better.
Not I.  Never.  My eyes are glued to the horizon, to the desert and stark mountains ahead of us, to the promise of a land in which we will live in freedom.
That is enough for me to continue to put one foot in front of the other.  To walk.  To rejoice. To sing.  To live.  To be one of many people who will find a way to be partners with each other…and with God.

I hope that many generations will have that opportunity and take advantage of the freedom that was won today. 

Decisions - on the 43rd anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court Decision - delivered at the Las Cruces Coalition for Reproductive Justice event - January 22, 2016

    Some decisions in life are easy.  The decisions I have made today I would characterize as routine or even mundane:  what to wear, which coffee to make along with breakfast, and the order in which I would do the usual tasks to prepare for my Sabbath service tonight at Temple Beth-El.
    Some decisions are difficult and challenging, especially with regards to finances, health, caring for children or other family members, and life.

     The son born to Rhonda and me (Adam) in 1986 is now almost 30 years old.   You who have raised children know about the weight of responsibility that a parent bears not only while a child is in the home, but also when he or she is out in the world. Our son is married to a woman will be ordained as a rabbi in two years.  While that sense of responsibility of which I spoke is now more mutual and shared, Rhonda and I still feel that parental twinge on a regular basis.
   The beginning of that parental twinge came when it was confirmed that Rhonda was pregnant in the summer of 1985.  We were filled with anticipation, hope, joy, and uncertainty.  With health challenges that can possibly arise, we felt that nothing was for certain.   What I discovered as a possible-father-to-be was that pregnancy was a journey.   In our faith tradition, it is the mother’s life AND HEALTH that take precedence throughout a pregnancy.  And for those who observe Judaism in a more traditional way, there is no celebration for a child-to-be-born.  The event known as a “baby-shower” is held in the presence of the newborn child and all those who would come to offer their good wishes.
   But until that time, a woman makes decisions every day with regards to her pregnancy, listening to the advice of her doctor and her or his staff or other health counselors, the concern of family members and friends, and the voice of her conscience.   It is, hopefully, her own faith tradition and sensibilities that guide her, not someone else’s.  
   A woman who makes a decision to have an abortion has felt a weight of responsibility as presented to her by her beliefs and the judgment of health professionals she trusts.   If her faith places her life and health as primary during her pregnancy, then she should have the opportunity to make a decision appropriate for HER, as challenging and complex as it might be.  No one else, not a legislator, not someone who is outside her home, and not someone of another faith, should presume to make that decision for her.   This is the approach that honors her integrity, her dignity, and her personal freedom.   It does not take away from anyone else’s beliefs, ideologies, or opinions.  It is a woman’s decision.  I, as a rabbi, would be available to speak with a woman who came to me about the moral implications of such a decision, and advise her based on the principles of Judaism which I and many other rabbinic authorities espouse.  But in the middle of all the rhetoric and pronouncements we hear on this issue, it really comes down to a woman, her pregnancy, and her own freedom to make a difficult decision.  May we continue to advocate for and work for her freedom. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Prayer at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative March in Las Cruces, NM - January 17, 2016

I was asked to give an impromptu prayer to conclude the local NAACP Martin Luther King, Jr. commemorative march today in downtown Las Cruces. While I can't get this word for word, here is the essence of what I said....
"I was reading this morning about how much Dr. King and his good friend, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, valued and explored prophecy. We may think of prophets as primarily having a vision that let them see the future. The main focus of their vision was on what what happening right around them, during their time. They saw injustice and oppression, saw what needed to be changed, and spoke out about it to the community and leadership. One passage that Dr. King quoted was from Isaiah, Chapter 40: 'Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places will be made a plain.' This was a vision of equality and justice that can guide us.
Eternal God, as we stand here, from our diverse backgrounds, help us to be prophets who see more than just our diversity around us, prophets who notice racism and oppression, who can work to make changes that will create more equality, who will keep our eyes and hearts open, and who will hold onto and openly share a vision of a better community and a better world. May this be a mission to which we can commit together."

Friday, January 8, 2016

"Lives That Matter" - Sermon for Parashat Vaera - Exodus Chapter 6 -January 8, 2016

    In "Prince of Egypt," the animated retelling of the story of Moses and the Exodus, Moses, the Egyptian prince, had a disturbing dream after Aaron and Miriam had revealed to him his real identity.   In the dream, everyone appeared as figures in colorful wall paintings on a series of Egyptian buildings.  In his mind's eye, Moses saw Egyptian soldiers soldiers were relentlessly chasing him.  After Moses found a place to hide, he saw the Egyptians rounding up baby boys from the Israelite homes and throwing them into the Nile.  He also witnessed one mother, and her young son and daughter, putting a baby in a basket and placing it into the Nile River.  The dream ended with Moses imagining that he was falling into an abyss as he tried to escape the soldiers pursuing him.  After he woke up, Moses frantically searched nearby for the wall paintings he saw in his dream.  He did find stark and terrifying images of soldiers throwing Israelite infants into the river.   At that moment, Moses' adoptive father, the Pharaoh Seti, discovered Moses looking at the paintings on the wall.  Seti tried to comfort his son, saying, "Sometimes sacrifices need to be made for the greater good.  Oh my son, they were only slaves."  
   Moses looked at Seti's face in horror.  His adoptive father had called Moses’ own people "only slaves."   The next day, as Moses walked among the Israelites at their work, he realized that he would never see them in the same way again.  Now, they were fellow human beings, and even more than that, they were his people.   That was the day, as portrayed in the film, that Moses killed one of the Egyptian taskmasters and then fled to Midian.
   It is cruel, in and of itself, to say that anyone is "only" anything, where "anything" is a status that the speaker considers inferior and views with disdain.
     There are too many contemporary examples, even small ones, of that type of approach of one person to another.  
      Such statements have, unfortunately, come from candidates for the highest office in our country.   One spoke of a senator who had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam and said, "He is a war hero because he was captured.  I don't like people who were captured, okay?"    Another, while speaking at a school in the Midwest, referred to himself in a self-deprecating way about being the most horrible student in his fifth grade class.  Trying to make common cause with students in the audience, he added, "Any fifth graders here? Who's the worst student in your class?"   His question led some of the students to point to one particular classmate, causing a moment of needless embarrassment for that child. 
     To paraphrase..."Only" a prisoner of war - "only" the worst student in class.   "Only" a slave.    We declare in our prayers that God frees the captive.   We pray to God as a gracious giver of knowledge, where dedication to self-improvement can lead any student to a higher level of learning.  We believe in a God who redeems the oppressed because of this very story in the book of Exodus.   We are commanded to love our neighbor and the stranger as ourselves, because everyone's life matters.  
    In the section at the beginning of the portion VAERA that I will read tonight, God made five promises to the Israelites.  Those five commitments constitute the basis for the 4 cups of wine plus the cup for Elijah at a Passover Seder.  God declared: 
"I have heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered my covenant.  Say to the Israelites - I am the Eternal One.  I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians.  I will deliver you from their bondage.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm...I will take you to be My people and I will be your God.  I will bring you to the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."
     That message should have made the Israelites optimistic about their future.   But the Israelites didn't or couldn't hear the message at all.   The next phrase in the passage noted that "when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage."  
     Promises of progress can't take away a sense of being "only," of living a life that doesn't matter, if there is no reason to believe that change is possible.   
     Shoshana Keats Jaskoll, a woman from the Orthodox community in Israel, lamented, in a recent blog post, about the attitudes that make women "only," that treat them as if their lives don't matter.  Orthodox women who try to take leadership positions or to seriously study Jewish sacred texts or to advocate for women's rights in situations related to divorce are criticized by the Orthodox establishment as seeking to destroy the Jewish way of life.  Shoshana Jaskoll's article in Times of Israel online ended with this declaration: 
"The state of Orthodox Judaism is crumbling, and it is because of women — but it is not their ‘foreign desires’, their shunning of tradition, or their unkosher aspirations, rather it is their lack of options, opportunity, and respect for their true needs that is causing the schism. And the louder you [Orthodox rabbis and leaders] shout about how we are shaking the foundations, the deeper you forge the cracks."
      In Israel, the same could be said of progressive rabbis and their congregants, who continue in their struggle to achieve greater recognition.   There are Israeli Jews and Arabs who continue to work in common cause to show that they CAN mutually accept one another and demonstrate that their lives matter in a state and region that sorely needs peace and well-being.   There are voices on both sides that decry violence, whether random attacks aimed at Jews on Israeli streets or firebombings of Arab homes and attacks on members of that community perpetrated by a small number of Israeli Jews who seek to replace the Israeli government with a new Jewish monarchy.    
     Throughout the world, including in our own country, polarization continues, where the adjective "only" has become commonplace across the spectrum of ideology and belief.   It may be easy to say that it is limited to the extremes on the left and right, but everyone in the big middle is now challenged to find a way to create respectful dialogue and constructive discourse on crucial issues of the day.   As much as we might want to say "only" about anyone, it is not in keeping with human decency or with the Jewish tradition.  Everyone has a spark of God in them - even those who hate, even those who fail to think before they act in a way that jeopardizes the lives of others, and even  Pharaoh, who hardened his heart by virtue of having no compassion for anyone but himself.    To remove the perspective of "only" can happen when we work to soften hearts as much as possible for as many people as possible.  That is when we would achieve true freedom and peace.   And that is point of this entire tale - that the lives of supposedly lowly Israelite slaves mattered to God.  And if they mattered to God, then they should matter to earthly rulers and fellow human beings as well. 
      So may we look around in our congregation, in the greater community, in our country, and across lines that might divide us.  May we recognize that we all share the precariousness of being "only" human.  We are not perfect, or not yet perfect, but it is our mission to strive for perfection.  We can work towards the creation of a world in which everyone can have an opportunity to live a life that matters, to be treated with dignity and respect, and to look forward to the future with the hope of passing through life's challenges with the support of helping hands that can continue God's work of bringing deliverance to every corner of the earth. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Sunsets and Snowy Landscapes - The beauty and Inspiration all around us -column for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Newsletter for January 2016

 At this writing, I am watching the December 26 snowfall. I was among the many Las Cruces residents who made a last minute stop at the grocery store before significant ground accumulation began. I have taken several photographs already of the scenes of "real winter" around our home. Normally, the photos I take from our back patio are of the beautiful sunsets to which we get treated on a regular basis. That same vantage point now bears a white covering which is actually just as visually appealing.
     Earlier this month, it was Chanukah that added brightness to our community. On Friday, December 11, our Religious School students and faculty presented these thoughts about light: 
We are a light to others… 

  • when we help someone. 
  • when we are honest and caring. 
  • when we give without being asked. 
  • when we cheer someone up. 
  • when we create community. 
  • when we bring happiness to another otherwise sad person.
  • when we are loving and involved with others. 
  • when we make someone feel welcome. 
  • when we make people feel good about themselves.
  • when we say kind words and make people laugh. 
  • when we give wisdom, a listening ear, joy and hope. 

 Over the last couple of days, I visited a congregant in an assisted living facility. We spoke for a few moments, and then I read the prayer of hope from the end of the service and we sang "Bayom hahu" together. It definitely brought tears to my eyes to see how a worship melody offered such a strong, enduring memory.
    It was an honor to be one of the Temple members who served breakfast at Camp Hope on December 25. It meant rising very early, but it was very worthwhile. We are commanded by our tradition to be eager to perform a mitzvah. I recited the blessing for community service as we began: "Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who made us holy with commandments and commanded us to occupy ourselves with the needs of the greater community." I engaged one man who had come to eat in conversation about scripture and its application to modern events. He and others who came to partake in the meal expressed their thankfulness for the light and kindness we had brought to their day. 
    Then came Shabbat. On what is a major holiday for the general community, we had over 30 people of all ages gathered for worship, including extended family members of some of our congregants who were visiting from out-of-town. There is a point where we reach a critical mass in the way in which our voices come together for reading and singing. We had that on Friday, December 25 (as well as at our Family Shabbat on December 4 and our Shabbat Chanukah service on December 11). Each person who joins in participating in the service adds to our collective sound. There are times when that sound approaches the beauty of Las Cruces sunsets or the peaceful nature of the scene of snow upon our landscape. On Shabbat morning (December 26), a number of guests and a core of regulars brought us well over a minyan. That special sound returned, and the conclusion of our worship gave us a chance to speak at length with our visitors (who will return to Las Cruces soon). We then went outside to see the first snowflakes begin to fall. 
    On December 21, 15 congregants and guests gathered for the first session of our series devoted to Rabbi Dayle Friedman's book, Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older. Each person was asked to tell why he or she was attending that night. Their comments and questions all reflected an ongoing search for meaning in our lives: 

  • How can I remain optimistic and cheerful? 
  • How do I make the future more welcome? 
  • How do I become wise? How do you tell your grandchildren what they need to know? 
  • Learning Jewishly has given me great strength. How can continued learning give me even greater strength? 
  • How do we learn to move on to the next level of life, whatever that might be?
  • How can I continue to be a positive journeyer? 
  • How do I develop more spirituality in a Jewish framework? 
  • Having a purpose is the key to living longer. 
  • How can I continue to sustain and redefine my purpose in life? 

 There is so much for us to learn to deepen our knowledge and continue along a path to fulfilling our own purpose and personal mission. We may accomplish those goals through travel, writing, artistic pursuits, reading, and individual study and prayer. My participation in the national conferences that I choose to attend enables me to keep Temple Beth-El connected with the greater Jewish world and to bring back new ideas about how congregants of all ages can generate a special Jewish spirit in the course of study, worship, celebration, community programs and social gatherings. I am grateful for those opportunities to seek new wisdom that can assist us in fashioning meaningful moments that can leave indelible impressions upon our lives. 
 Sunsets and snow scenes tend to remain with us, as our minds engage in their own type of "photography" to preserve images of beauty. May we do what we can, as partners in Jewish life, to recreate such beauty in our words, in our wisdom, and in the work we do for the betterment of our community.