Friday, July 22, 2016

Curses Foiled...Blessings Bestowed - D'var Torah - Parashat Balak - July 22, 2016

How do we create and sustain a positive image about our own character and personality?   We are often able to maintain high self-esteem based on our own confidence in who we are and what we do.   What also can be helpful is encouragement and affirmation from other people. There are, however, times when feedback might make it harder to hold onto a positive view of ourselves.  One education workshop I attended many years ago cast this issue in terms of “the dipper in the bucket.” The “bucket” is one’s self-esteem and the dipper is a comment or action coming from someone else.  When someone puts water in the bucket, it can raise a person's self-image.  When another person takes water from the bucket,  it could decreases the positive feelings that a person has about himself or herself.  We likely have friends, co-workers, colleagues or family members who are able to suggest how we can grow and improve our own character in a way that is constructive and helpful. Those comments can reveal to us whether or not how we think of ourselves matches how others see us.  Many of us also have experienced negative feedback that may have nothing to do with us.  It may say more about the person making a comment, especially if it is not presented to us in the context of a supportive and cooperative relationship .     
   The Bible offers many examples of presenting constructive feedback, sometimes directed to human beings, and sometimes meant for God.  Often, comments are made about an entire people, such as divine and prophetic evaluations of whole nations, including the Israelites themselves.   Some of the pronouncements in the Bible predicted destruction and defeat when trust for God was all but gone and idolatry was widespread.   Other declarations expressed hope and compassion, especially for people who were humble enough to trust in God. 
    As the Israelites passed through the land of Moabites, Balak, the Moabite king, was afraid that this people recently freed from Egypt would overrun his country and displace its inhabitants.  Rather than turning to negotiation for peace, or to war,  Balak chose to employ a different approach.  He called on the foreign prophet Balaam to utter curses against the Israelites that would lead to their demise.  In the ancient world, curses went well beyond the most negative effects of the "dipper in the bucket."  A curse uttered properly was thought to have great power.   The prophet Balaam tried to refuse this request, but, eventually, he agreed to go.  God came to him in a vision and told Balaam that he could say only what God would permit him to say.   Once Balaam reached Balak and his entourage, he set up seven altars in an attempt to set the proper context to curse the people of Israel.  However, as much as he tried, Balaam couldn’t offer one negative proclamation about this large multitude of believers in One God. Every time he tried to  curse them, he spoke words of blessing instead.  
    One of Balaam's declarations is MAH TOVU – How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel,” a phrase from this foreign prophet which begins our morning worship. In this biblical passage,  condemnation, almost automatically, turned to admiration as Balaam gazed down from the heights upon the Israelites as they journeyed along their road to freedom.
    Somtimes, we need Balaams around us, at least Balaam as he acted in this passage: an external “seer” who, through it all, can admit, even against his or her will, that we have every reason to preserve our positive self-image because our “tents” and “dwellings” – that is, the general effect of our character and our actions – bring something desirable and productive to our own lives and to our community. In moments when we need that extra voice on our side but no one is there to provide it, we can think of Balaam and remember the many people who have seen the significant impact we have on the world around us.  We can recall people in our lives who have offered us, without solicitation, the blessing of their support at moments when it really mattered to us.  People who express baseless negative comments towards others may find that their statements have the most damaging effect on them rather than on the intended  recipient.  When we express affirmation towards others,  our words have the potential to engender a sense of blessing and well-being both for us and the individuals with whom we shared our comments.  As opposed to destructive declarations and curses,  such positive expressions have great power to  strengthen the ties that ultimately bind us together as members of the human family.   May words such as these frequently come from our mouths as they well up from the deepest places in our hearts. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

An unsolicited party convention invocation (if I were asked) - For the Temple Beth-El Board meeting on July 21, 2016

Eternal God of us all, 
Bless this gathering that brings together 
People from different generations, varying backgrounds,
And many walks of life
As we seek to chart a course for our great nation
For the immediate future. 
Remind us of the commitment of the founders of our country
So that their dedication to the cause of forming a new national community
Will inspire us to continue to work for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 
Open our ears to listen to the stories of our citizens
Open our eyes to see which challenges require us 
To develop new solutions
Strengthen our hands and our resolve to preserve
Safety in our neighborhoods and cities
To provide opportunities for learning and growth
To sustain the possibility of satisfaction when we are at work
And when we take time out from our responsibilities to renew our spirits. 
Open our hearts and minds to an understanding that will lead us
To forge unity among everyone 
So that disagreement will not drive us apart.  
Help us to sense that our greatness will be 
In the values we espouse
In the hopes we express 
In the justice we seek
In the cooperation we engender
In the dreams we enable all Americans to realize in some measure. 
God, protect all who serve our country in its defense 
And guide us to work, whenever and wherever we can, 
towards peace and well-being that will spread the world over. 
May we recognize Your spark in every human being
And may we emulate your creative power
To move towards new horizons of progress, achievement
And goodness that will benefit us as individuals, as a nation, and that will send blessing out to the entire world.  

Friday, July 15, 2016

Speak Softly and Leave the Stick Behind - D'var Torah for Parashat Chukat - July 15, 2016

So, the Israelites were complaining -AGAIN!  They cried out to Moses, "Why have you brought the Eternal's congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die here?  Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!" So Moses and Aaron sought God's guidance.  
   God told Moses:  “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts." 
  God instructed Moses to order the rock to produce water, with no specifics on how to do so. From God’s perspective, and based on God’s response to Moses afterwards, it seems that all Moses was required to do was to order the rock in a soft voice so that it would provide water.  Yet, the people's complaints grew increasingly louder, and Moses’ frustration got the better of him. Instead of speaking softly, he took the road he was told to bring before the people and struck the rock. Water did come out, quenching the thirst of the people, but God told Moses and Aaron that they would not lead the Israelites into the promised land. 
    For some reason, in reflecting on this Torah reading this year, I thought about Theodore Roosevelt's citation of the proverb, "Speak softly and carry a big stick.”   Rough Rider Teddy's first use of that adage was in a letter to a friend in 1900.  The more popular instance when he quoted that proverb was in a speech he delivered at the Minnesota State Fair on September 2, 1901, four days before the assassination of President William McKinley.  Roosevelt was sworn in as President of the United States 12 days after he gave that famous speech.   
    So just what did Vice President Roosevelt say about voice and stick 115 years ago?   Here is an excerpt from his remarks that day: 
   "A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick – you will go far.’ If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power. In private life there are few beings more obnoxious than the man who is always loudly boasting, and if the boaster is not prepared to back up his words, his position becomes absolutely contemptible. So it is with the nation. It is both foolish and undignified to indulge in undue self-glorification, and, above all, in loose-tongued denunciation of other peoples. Whenever on any point we come in contact with a foreign power, I hope that we shall always strive to speak courteously and respectfully of that foreign power.  Let us make it evident that we intend to do justice. Then let us make it equally evident that we will not tolerate injustice being done us in return. Let us further make it evident that we use no words which we are not prepared to back up with deeds, and that while our speech is always moderate, we are ready and willing to make it good. Such an attitude will be the surest possible guarantee of that self-respecting peace, the attainment of which is and must ever be the prime aim of a self-governing people."
No boasting, no bluster, no arrogance, no loose-tongued denunciation.  Speak courteously and respectfully, but be prepared to back up your words with action.   Only this will guarantee a self-respecting peace. 
   Each of you can apply this passage from Roosevelt's speech to current events in whatever way you choose.    
    As for me, I see a connection between this proverb and the episode in question in the Torah reading.  
    The people knew that Moses and Aaron had God's power behind them, as well as the track record that had kept them alive and provided for their needs up to that point.  And yet, their response was not "Thank you for what you have done all along this journey!" But, instead, "What have you done for me lately?"   A rampant amnesia gripped the people as they trekked across the desert towards their destination.  
   In fact, Moses was carrying a big stick - not the staff in his hand, but the power of God and, even more important, the courage, confidence and fortitude grounded, in his own faith, that God's support was enough for him and for the people.   Moses probably assumed that, when God told him to take his rod and order to rock to yield water, that he needed to use that trusty staff in accomplishing this little miracle. From God’s response, Moses may have known, also, that he could spontaneously create a spring of water from the terrain in front of him simply by speaking to the rock.  The rod would have been a symbol of his power and leadership, and using his words would have been enough for the wondrous deed he was about to perform.  A softly spoken command would have de-escalated the situation from frenzy to calm, from near chaos to order and eventual contentment.   
However, a leader who is subjected to complaint after complaint after complaint sometimes will just lose it.  Patience, the measured response, the quiet voice all disappear.   That was where Moses was.  He had unmatched power behind him, but he forgot that his power - his BIG STICK - was his humility and his steadfast leadership that didn't need to give in to voices of strife and accusation.  So he grabbed the staff and struck the rock, likely with a visibly violent ZETZ.   And for that, he had a lesson to learn about his own patience which he needed to teach to the next leader of the people as well as to the members of the new generation to come.   
   So we can remember, too, in our work with others, and in our leadership, that our power lies in our abilities, our knowledge, and our commitment to see a task to its fulfillment and conclusion.   It is not with a loud proclamation that we will finish our work.  It is in quiet action and the demonstration that the completion of our mission will have a positive effect on our community. 
    So let us consider, now and always, to which voices we will incline our ears, and to which actions we will direct our eyes.   May we speak softly and recognize the power and fortitude that we have that can lead us to our own destination.  So may we do - and let us say amen. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Peace Is - from Las Cruces Peace Camp 2016 - Messages from theCampers' "Hands" and Hearts - June 27, 2016

From Las Cruces Peace Camp 2016
Peace is....
Messages from the "hands" and hearts of the campers 

  • Peace is calmness to be able to figure things out.
  • Peace comes in forgiveness.
  • Peace is freedom and laughter and a voice that spreads
  • Peace is allowing nature to be at its best.
  • Peace is love.
  • Peace is happiness.
  • Peace is treating others fairly
  • Peace is love and friendship. 
  • Peace is quiet and kindness.
  • Peace is friends.
  • Peace is quiet and not chaotic.
  • Peace is important to make the world a better place. It helps stop chaos.
  • Peace is being together.
  • Peace is people finding a way to get along.
  • Peace is no war. 
  • Peace is living in harmony.
  • Peace is music. 
  • Peace is quiet and friendship.
  • Peace is fun. 
  • I want peace for my family and for the world.
  • Peace is the absence of conflict.
  • Peace is joy. 
  • Peace is family. 
  • Peace is art. 
  • Peace is a right for all – everywhere – to live a life free of conflict…or, at least, the opportunity to have their side heard.
  • Peace is in equality.
  • Peace is in the lack of fear.
  • Peace is awesome.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Revolution and Responsibility - On Parashat Korach, Elie Wiesel, and Facing the Violence of the Week - July 8, 2016 - Based on quotes from Elie Wiesel z"l

I have not lost faith in God.  I have moments of anger and protest.  Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason. 
When we look back on this week, what will we remember?   Will it be the death of Elie Wiesel?  Will it be a tweet that amplified a right wing meme with a star that was not a sheriff’s star, but an obvious Star of David?  Will it be announcements and congressional hearings focusing on the use by one American leader of an e-mail service while she held an office that required privacy and secrecy?  Will it be the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile?   Will it be the deaths of Dallas police officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens and Michael Smith?   Will it be the fact that Dallas police were positively monitoring a rally organized on behalf of community members decrying the killings of Sterling and Castile when a lone gunman took it upon himself to sow chaos upon the protesters and police?  This week, there is anger,  There is protest. There is fear. If anger, protest and fear are to bring us closer to God, we cannot allow those feelings to lead us towards hatred that could result in violence.   

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.  We must always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.  Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.
There is suffering and humiliation all around us.  We may have trouble, at times, identifying the oppressor or the victim or, in this case, the “good guy” and the “bad guy.”  Or, there may be no good guy, and no bad guy, just two people in an encounter which could be cooperative or confrontational. Each citizen, each law enforcement officer, makes that choice.   In the Torah reading for this week, Korach rebelled against Moses and Aaron, challenging the elevation of Aaron and his sons to priestly status while Korach, also a Levite and a relative of Aaron, was not satisfied with the holy and important tasks he was charged to fulfill in the worship space.  Dathan and Abiram also rebelled by  challenging Moses’ right to be a leader at all, seeing that the ultimate goal of entry into the promised land had not yet been reached.  These protests reflected arrogance in an attempt to to assert rights rather than to assume a partnership in bearing responsibility. All the Israelites should have been on the same side.  And so should we - all of us.  There are social boundaries in the United States that may seem like national borders at times.  Protection and safety should be a shared enterprise between law enforcement officers and citizens, where we mutually assure security and set aside suspicion because of race, or religion, or political views, or appearance, or supposed social status.   And we can only become partners if we talk to each other, get to know each other, and see how our interdependence could enhance the common good. 

No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior.  All collective judgments are wrong.  Only racists make them.
This is one of Elie Wiesel’s most controversial statements, but it resonates this week.  No collective judgment of any group, any people, will help ease tensions in the current situation.  And, WE should make no collective judgment in the first place, because we know how it feels to be on the receiving end of such an attitude, where prejudice or misunderstanding can lead to hatred, violence and even death.   One element of this week’s tragedies is that certain individuals took it upon themselves to act out of fear, or a need for power or control, or accumulated anger. The humanity of their victims didn’t seem to matter. Losing that human element is a recipe for disaster and tragedy.   We, as Americans, as human beings, are better than that, but we can only be better than that if we recognize the divine spark in each person.

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.  The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.  The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.  And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. 
The Torah tells us not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.  That can mean anyone, and not just in our neighborhood, or our city, but in our country, or anywhere in the world.   If there are ways to teach people how better to approach each other in difficult situations, where life and death could hang in the balance, let that training happen with a sense of commitment to an improvement in our community.  And if there are bridges to be built and programs to be created even through the efforts of regular people, let them take shape if it will mean deescalation of conflict and a retreat from the precipice of chaos. 

There are victories of the soul and spirit. Sometimes, even if you lose, you win.  
We may feel like we have lost in the wake of tragedies that resulted from unfortunate choices of individuals who were driven by feelings that could not acknowledge the humanity of another person even if just for a moment.  What would winning look like? That triumph of the spirit is what Elie Wiesel attempted to accomplish throughout his life.  We win when we learn from the past, when we don’t repeat atrocities on a small or large scale, and when we look into the eyes of another person and see a life that deserves a chance to live and thrive.   And our work in the world must make living and thriving possible.  And if it doesn’t, it is time to speak up. 

Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God.  It is a gift only we can give one another.

Perhaps the centrality of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, coupled with prayers and teachings that direct us to work for peace, are, for us, a revolution of responsibility, with hope as its foundation.   If we didn’t have hope, why would we work for peace or equality?  Why would we combat anti-Semitism and all types of hatred that lead to violent acts?  So may we allow the hope inside of us to overcome fear, anger and despair so that our communities will find new ways to create cooperation, shared security and peace.  May this be our task, our revolution, and our path along which we will walk with God.