Friday, August 26, 2016

On our doorposts, our gates and our hearts - Leadership and Respect in a Sacred Community - D'var Torah - Parashat Ekev - August 26, 2016

     I - and probably many of you - have been thinking about what it means to be a leader, especially a good one.  It's hard not to do that during the year of a presidential campaign. 
    I have also been thinking about the value of respect, and how it plays out in our community and society.        
     On August 23, a group of community leaders of which I have been a part held its first public program.   The Interfaith Coalition for Compassion and Peace Village of Las Cruces co-sponsored a discussion entitled, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T - Find out what it means to...US!"   The 40 Participants present split into small groups to discuss questions such as "What are behaviors that you respect?  What are attitudes that you respect?  How do you show respect?  How does respect break down?   I can share the list of response if you are interested, but there was one particular response that came to mind when I looked at a well-known passage in this week's Torah reading.  We asked those present how we show respect in our immediate community (like a workplace, school or congregation). Two responses noted that we need to be aware of our "communal footprint" and to consider the implications of our actions.   That means that, in whatever we do in communal life, we need to be aware of how our words and our deeds impact other people so that we can assure that our influence is positive or, at least, constructive.  
     Deuteronomy Chapter 11 verses 13-21, from this week's Torah reading, is known as the "second paragraph of the Shema," coming after the V'ahavta paragraph, in a traditional prayer book.  Even more, it is the second paragraph on a mezuzah parchment.  The significance of the mezuzah is that it is supposed to mark the home on the outside as a place where dedication to a specific heritage is happening inside the home.  It is also a reminder, as we leave our homes, to take the best lessons we learn at home out into the world, so that our communal footprint leaves the world a little better on any given day because of our deeds and our presence. 
    What the section in Deuteronomy Chapter 11 actually says is that we should follow God's commandments.  If we do, God will grant us the blessing of rain in its season.  If we do not walk in the path in which God has directed us, there will be no rain.  The passage then offers familiar reminders:  bind them as a sign upon your hand, let them be a symbol between your eyes, and write them on the entrance to your home and on your city gate.   Biblical scholars still debate whether these commands are literal or symbolic.  In other words, it could mean the teachings of the Torah and our tradition should shape our vision, the way in which we look at the world with our eyes, and our actions, especially when our hands reach out to others in godly ways.  The mezuzah itself means that there is something unique about our homes and this place, our spiritual and communal home.  
   So how do we practice these principles of our faith as we exercise leadership in this home of ours, Temple Beth-El?   In our Tanakh study group this week, we read in chapter 11 of the book of Isaiah about that prophet's vision of an ideal ruler:  
"The spirit of the Eternal One shall alight upon him:
A spirit of wisdom and insight,
A spirit of counsel and valor,
A spirit of devotion and reverence for the Eternal. He shall sense the truth by his reverence for the Eternal One:  He shall not judge by what his eyes behold,
Nor decide by what his ears perceive.  Thus he shall judge the poor with equity and decide with justice for the lowly of the land."
Wisdom, insight, counsel, fortitude, devotion or knowledge, and reverence for God and for all of life:  these are central Jewish values.   The passage then notes that these qualities enable a person to understand overarching truths, which heighten one's sense of fairness and justice.   In such a context, all members of a community feel valued and included, and have their own chance to fully participate with leaders and peers alike. 
    In a commentary created this week for the Union for Reform Judaism, Lisa Lieberman Barzilai wrote about how congregational leadership requires sacred partnerships.  What does that last phrase mean?  She explained:  "Being in sacred partnership means that we acknowledge our differences, just like the leaders of past generations did. At the same time, it means that we focus on our pledge and responsibility to the shared goals and common good of our congregation....Respect, trust, honesty, communication, transparency, confidentiality, and reflection are the tools we use to build and nurture sacred partnerships.  Without these essential and interconnected components, fissures are likely to develop in the relationship....It's imperative that leaders be able to hear what others say, work to find common ground based on shared goals, and act to bring about an organization's shared vision."  
     So we do need to lead and act in such a way that what we do for and with one another will rain down blessing upon us as a community.   We can develop a common vision and shared goals that will enable us to see one another in the most positive light, and to recognize opportunities for service to which we can apply Jewish values that can enhance our communal footprint individually and as a congregation.   If we keep in mind these teachings of our heritage in our service to Temple and the greater community, we will write the best of our faith upon our doorposts, upon our gates, and upon our hearts.  So may we do - and let us say Amen. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

One People, One Path, One God: An ancient (and modern) tale about a boy and a leader - Parashat Vaet'chanan - August 19, 2016

Jacob was always dreaming. 
No, not THAT Jacob. 
You see, Jacob was 11, going on 12 – some said he was going on 30, or even 120, like the leader of his people, Moses.
As his people, the Israelites, were encamped on the threshold of the land of Canaan, Jacob was impatient.  He said to his parents, Benjamin and Rachel, “Mom, Dad, I have to talk to Moses!” 
They did their best to calm him down, “Jacob, stop! We are just another family among the masses of our people.  Moses barely knows who we are.   Why do you want to talk to him?”
Jacob insisted, “I want to help him, but even more, I want to know what’s going to happen to us on the other side of the Jordan!”
Rachel did her best to offer parental wisdom, “Jacob, Moses isn’t going with us, remember?  He doesn’t know what’s going to happen.   But I hear he is going to be speaking to us soon – like a farewell speech.  Maybe you can ask him what he is going to say.” 
Jacob’s father Benjamin had an idea.  “Jacob, we don’t know Moses too well, but we do know Joshua, who will be our leader once we cross the river.   Let me see what I can do!”
   Once he heard about Jacob’s inquisitiveness and concern, Joshua was impressed.  He arranged the meeting without without hesitation.  
   Benjamin, Rachel and Jacob made their way through to the very front of the Israelite encampment.  They found Moses sitting in his tent, still wearing the veil over his face that was the result of close encounters with God. 
    Moses extended his hand to Jacob, and asked him to sit on the floor of the tent.   He looked at Benjamin and Rachel and said, “Thank you for bringing your son to me.  You must be very proud.  Please let me meet with him alone.  You can wait outside the tent. I believe Joshua wanted to speak with you.”
    The two of them sat alone – a 120-year-old leader, and an 11-year-old boy with bright eyes and an insightful mind.
     “Moses, I hear you are going to speak to us soon.  What are you going to say?” 
     Moses was intrigued, “Well, you certainly know more than most children your age.  What do you think I should say?”  
     Jacob was surprised by the question.  “I really don’t know.   All I know about us as a people and you as a leader is what my mom and dad have told me.”  
     “So what have they told you?”  Moses asked.  
    Jacob thought a moment, and spoke to his leader honestly.  “They told me that we were slaves in Egypt, and it took us a long time to get here.  They said that you tried hard to lead us and keep us together.  You were patient.  You were fair. You were humble.  Sometimes you just about lost your patience because the people complained so much.  But my parents said that we are here, thanks to you.”
     Moses said, “Thank you, Jacob, but it wasn’t just because of me.   What have your parents told you about God?” 
    Jacob became animated in his reply: “They taught me that while there were all sorts of gods that were worshipped by the people around us, our ancestor Abraham realized that there was only one God.   They told me that his family, including my namesake, Abraham’s grandson, all depended on God for inspiration and protection. They said that after Joseph became a great leader in Egypt, all the people ended up there. Our lives were good, but then we became slaves.    My parents said that they heard that God appeared to you after in a bush that looked like it was on fire but it didn’t burn up at all.    They told me what their parents told them, about how amazing you were when you led us out of Egypt after all of those incredible things that happened that made Pharaoh decide finally let us go, including the parting of the water while the Egyptian soldiers were chasing us.  We walked across on dry ground, but the water came back on the Egyptians soldiers.  We were free.  They said that you kept telling them to trust in God all along this journey.”
   “What else did they tell you?”  Moses asked.
 “They said that a few Israelites kept saying that their lives in Egypt as slaves were better than in the desert as free people.  My grandparents and my parents never understood that.   Neither do I.  Why couldn’t the people accept being free?”  
   Moses explained, “Jacob, change is hard for some people.   Even slaves who are being oppressed get used to how they are treated and accept it as their reality.   Maybe they weren’t ready for freedom, but I kept telling them that they were better off being free in the wilderness, on their own, being fed with the gift of manna, than they were doing hard work for people who cared nothing about them as human beings.  I knew, though, deep down, that most of the people, and even the ones who complained, didn’t really want to go back to Egypt.  They were tired, frustrated.   I did the best I could to be patient.   But I also reminded them that now we set our own rules.  We have our own teachings and values to live by.  God made sure of that at Mt. Sinai, giving us a good start in building a community of faith and hope.”    
     Jacob asked, “So what do you think I should teach my children, when I have them, God-willing?”  
     Moses thought a moment and replied, “Jacob, I have been wondering what I should tell the people when I speak in a few hours.  And you just made me realize something I do need to say.   But to you, now, I would say that you should teach your children that that the one God is always with us as a source of strength, wisdom, spirit, and optimism.   You should remind them of the rules that govern what we do, the most important of which may be those Ten declarations which God made at Mount Sinai about keeping Shabbat, about not committing murder or theft, and about acting honestly in our relationships.  It is about loving each other as we love ourselves.  You need to teach your children about that every day, at all times of day.    Teach them to look at the world through God’s eyes, recognizing a spark of God in every person.   Teach them to be God’s hands, doing God’s work to be kind to each other, as well as to the stranger, the orphan, the widow and the poorest people who live among us.   Make sure that those teachings permeate your home, so that that your children will practice all these rules naturally, and teach them to their children as well.”  
Jacob took it all in.   He asked Moses one last question, “Moses, will you tell the people exactly what you just told me?  I think they need to hear it.  It will remind them that they are not powerless…that there is something they can do every day to keep us going as a people.”  
    Moses was impressed, “Jacob, you are right.  I will tell the Israelites some of what I told you, and a lot more.  Thank you, Jacob – you have made a 120-year-old man understand that this people, our people, has a future.”
   Moses asked for Jacob’s parents, and told them, “Benjamin, Rachel – Jacob is a student who had two wonderful teachers.  And those teachers made him into a teacher as well.  Thank you.” 

    As they walked away, Moses began to put the words together.  “You shall love the Eternal One, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might…”

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Next Chapter - Legacies We Make - D'var Torah - Parashat D'varim - August 12, 2016

      At what point in life can we say that we are leaving a legacy to the future?  Some of us in this sanctuary tonight might declare, “Wait – I’m am not there yet!  I’m not finished creating my legacy!”    If you have been watching the Olympics, you know that some athletes are creating their legacy at a very young age, or even adding to the mark they had already left on their particular sport. 
   Aly Raisman, at age 22, achieved a silver medal in the individual all-round women’s gymnastics competition yesterday.  It was a special triumph for her, after she had been denied a medal at the 2012 Olympics even though she was in a virtual tie for the bronze.   Aly’s teammates have been calling her “Grandma” because she is a seasoned veteran and the oldest member of the team.  She is not yet done competing in this year’s Olympics, but her legacy is already well-established, setting an example of dedication and hard work for future Olympic competitors. 
    American swimmer Michael Phelps, at age 31, continues to add to his record medal count.  He has overcome many personal challenges in his life outside the pool to solidify the respect and admiration of all.    In the 2016 Olympics, we are seeing him not only as a fierce competitor, but also as caring husband and father.  
   There are other sports figures completing their careers this year, especially in the world of baseball.  Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz will retire at the end of this season at age 40 after a long and distinguished run.  Mark Teixiera of the New York Yankees is retiring from baseball at age 36 as injuries over the last few years have limited his ability to be an impact player.   Alex Rodriguez, at age 41, is playing his last game for the New York Yankees tonight, ending a 22-year career.   He said earlier this week, “I want to be remembered as someone who tripped and fell a lot, but kept getting up.”  Along with a number of personal issues, his use of performance-enhancing drugs could tarnish the outstanding legacy he had hoped to leave to his sport.
       The Torah reading for this week gives us a glimpse at someone we know well at the end of his career.  On this Shabbat, we begin the book of Deuteronomy, which is presented as the farewell address of Moses to the Israelites.    According to biblical chronology, Moses’ 40-year career as the leader of the Israelites began well after the aforementioned sports figures have or will have retired.   Exodus Chapter 7 noted that Moses was 80 years old when he first went before Pharaoh to demand that the Israelites be freed from slavery. 
   Even in the first 11 verses of this book, we see indications of special aspects of Moses’ character that made him a patient and effective leader.  
     In verse 7, Moses told the people to make their way into the land of Canaan.    He offered that encouragement knowing full well that he would not be continuing with them on their journey. This demonstrates the selflessness and generosity of spirit with which Moses directed the people to the threshold of their destination.  
   Moses reminded the people that the land was sworn to their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Moses knew that the people might forget all that had preceded them unless he offered a reminder of their history that would endure.  We can only imagine how the tales of the patriarchs and matriarchs told to the newest generation of Israelites captured their imagination while giving them a firm foundation for their identity as a people.   And that connection to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah must have been powerful for them, because we know that those names and the stories associated with them still resonate with us.
    In verse 9, Moses said, “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself,” a declaration fleshed out in verses 12 to 17.    This reference to Moses’ sharing of judgment and leadership offered an insight into his humility.  In this brief passage, he recounted how he had learned so well the lesson from his father-in-law Jethro about delegating tasks to others.  He understood he couldn’t do it all, and that, in giving wise and experienced people responsibility, he would solidify the chance that the Israelites would succeed in creating a strong community in the land that had been promised them.    In telling the Israelites that he knew he couldn’t have taken on the mantle of leadership all by himself, he assured the possibility that his people would continue to apply that lesson and approach in the future. 
     Moses proclaimed in verse 11, “May the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, increase your numbers a thousand fold, and bless you as promised.”   This was like the blessing of a father to his children.  That is likely how Moses felt about the people. These were the same Israelites who had tested his patience and taken Moses to his wits end too many times.  They were also the people whom he had defended before God more than once so that they could complete their journey and grow as a community.    Even with that history, Moses offered them a blessing.   It is likely that at least some of the people knew what they had put Moses through.   Because of that, we can see them appreciating Moses even more for his patience and perseverance. 
     There are legacies that we leave throughout our lives when we complete a time of service to a community, to an organization, or in our relationships with friends and family members.   All the work we do, when all is said and done, reflects who we are and how we want to be remembered.   May the impact and the difference we are still making on the world endure in ways we cannot even imagine.