Friday, December 30, 2016

The Power of Language to divide...and to unite - article in The Jewish Voice, newspaper of the Jewish Federation of Greater EL Paso, for January 2017

“I am Joseph!  Is my father still alive?” 

With that declaration, from the standpoint of Joseph’s brothers, a stranger became family.  

   We know the story:  a colored coat, dreams of seeming grandeur, a concerned father, jealous brothers, the dreamer sold into slavery, the slave framed and sent to prison, the dreamer/slave/prisoner becoming an accomplished interpreter of dreams, and that special talent taking the young man before Pharaoh for a crucial dreamer interpretation session, the dreamer/slaver/prisoner/interpreter being made Pharaoh’s “second-in-command” to manage the storage in preparation for the famine, and the newly-appointed Egyptian official seeing his brothers come into his presence.   Once he saw his brothers fight for the freedom of his full brother Benjamin, Joseph was unable to control himself.”  That was when he revealed who he was, telling his brothers that God had sent him to Egypt to save their lives. 

  In that case, the Torah told how one simple sentence made a world of difference for Jacob’s family   Words compassionately spoken in the context of a personal encounter reunited Jacob’s sons and led to the future that had been laid out for their people.  

  I was intrigued by the importance of language in two recent movies. In the film “Arrival,” actress Amy Adams portrayed linguistics professor Louise Banks, who led a team of investigators trying to determine why 12 gigantic spaceships had touched down in random locations around the world. “The language you speak determines the way you think,” said Professor Banks, as she tried to devise a way to communicate with the extraterrestrials to determine if their intentions were peaceful.  Learning the language of the visitors is crucial to the outcome of the film.  Misunderstanding was a constant possibility which had to be overcome to bring the situation to resolution.  That would only happen if both sides learned and fathomed the meaning and intentions of the thoughts being expressed.   That is difficult even when we speak the same language. Professor Banks’ hope was that their conversation would, ultimately, turn these strangers into friends. 

   The film “Denial” portrayed Professor Deborah Lipstadt’s success in contesting the libel charge brought against her by Holocaust denier David Irving. In her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and MemoryLipstadt called Irving a “liar” and “falsifier of history.” She accused him of “taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions.”  Language was key in the case and how words can express the truth or be twisted to create disinformation.  Professor Lipstadt and her legal representatives proved that Irving intentionally falsified documents and that much of his material, referenced in footnotes in his books, came from other deniers.   In one scene, a poem Irving had written for his daughter that had definite racist overtones (which I will not share here) was read into the court proceedings.   Irving himself was unable to see anything wrong with his negative and insulting references to people of other backgrounds. “Denial” reminds us that words can be deftly used to divide people in ways that can be harmful to all of humanity.   

   The reconciliation “scene” in the story of Joseph is still one of my favorite tales in the Tanakh.   Perhaps we all know stories about people, who have been at odds for a long while, who have found a way to get back together and have continued  into the future with a renewed sense of commitment and purpose. 

   To do so requires faith, hope, and a commitment to focus on what unites us as human beings.    

    Judaism teaches that the entire human family shares a common ancestry.  Is that enough to enable us to see one another as brothers and sisters?   

     The answer to that question is in our hands and our hearts.  







Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Remarks at Chanukah Candlelighting at San Jacinto Plaza in El Paso, Texas on December 28, 2016

Chanukah Candlelighting
San Jacinto Plaza
El Paso, TX – December 28, 2016
We come tonight
To bring light to the darkness
As we have for centuries
During our celebration of Chanukah.
We have gathered in homes from generation to generation
making sure, in places
where we enjoyed freedom,
that the 9 branched Menorah
the Chanukiah
Could be seen by passers-by
Enough to raise a question in their minds
Why are they lighting these lights?
We are lighting these lights
Because of a fight for freedom
By people who had been given a choice to change their customs, their beliefs, their faith, OR
To die in a world that denied them their right to worship One God.
These people knew there was yet another choice – take to the hills, fight back, keep in mind the vision of the Temple in Jerusalem that was transformed into a space where no Jew could pray again
Unless the fight was successful.
The first phase of a long war
Brought the Jewish fighters,
Known as the Maccabees,
Back to Jerusalem where they did win.
They rededicated the Temple to the One God and to the practices that it had housed from generation to generation.
The celebration lasted 8 days.
But why?
Various reasons were given in the retelling of the story that focused on the Jews of Judea and their desire to rejoice.
Several hundred years later, the rabbis added their take on the miracle of the Jewish fighters: that when they entered the Temple, they wanted to light the Menorah in the holy precincts, but could only find enough oil to light it for one day….But it lasted for eight
And they rejoiced. 
The rabbis saw it as a miracle made by God
For a people who sought to follow God and their faith for many centuries into the future.
And here we are – far from that place, that spot whose Jewish associations may be questioned by some
But not by we who light this Chanukiah. 
Though we may be physically far from that place, our hearts are not far from that place at all
Or from that ancient time when the first shouts of joy emerged from the Temple at a victory for the freedom
To believe what we want to believe
To be who we are
And to teach all of this to new generations of Maccabees.
May the lights we light tonight in this public place inspire us and our neighbors to preserve freedom, understanding, and respect for the many beliefs and customs around us and among us.  
May these lights, which we call holy, lead us to infuse holiness into all that we say and do.  Amen. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Dedication of New Front Doors at Temple Beth-El Las Cruces - December 23, 2016

Exodus 25:31-33
You shall make a lampstand of pure gold: the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes, and petals shall be of one piece.  
Six branches shall issue from its sides: three branches from one side of the lampstand and three branches from the other side of the lampstand.  On each branch there shall be...cups shaped like almond-blossoms.

I, the Eternal, in My grace, have summoned you.
And I have grasped you by the hand. 
I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations.
Opening eyes deprived of light.
Rescuing prisoners from confinement, 
From the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
I am the Eternal One, that is My name. [Isaiah 42:6-7]
 The Eternal One is my light and my help; 
whom should I fear? [Psalm 27:1]
The human spirit is the lamp of the Eternal One. [Proverbs 20:27]
The commandment is a lamp, the Teaching is a light. [Proverbs 6:23]
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path.  [Psalm 119:105]

   The rabbis believed that the menorah from the Temple was so sacred that no effort should be made to reproduce it.  Depictions of the menorah over the centuries sometimes had five branches, six branches, or eight branches, but artistic representations still often bore the seven branches.  
   These doors bear a stylized Menorah.  Some see a seven-branched Menorah in the wood, if you allow your eyes to see six branches floating on a sea of glass.   Some see a Chanukiah, both in the wood and in the glass, where the space between the two doors holds the place of the middle branch.  The menorah represents the oldest continuous Jewish symbol, our bearer of light from ancient times.  The Chanukiah brings light to a dark time of the year.  It reminds us of a crucial fight for freedom and how rekindling the light in the ancient Temple illustrates for us how we can rekindle our faith today, at any time, when we allow our heritage to inspire us.
During the day, these doors allow light to come in and to sense when someone has a desire to enter our space to join us.  At night, we can see the light from within shine forth into the night.
As these doors allow light in, may we be open to the lights of learning, freedom, friendship, love, hope and God’s presence so that they can suffuse our spirits.  As these doors reveal the light within to the darkness of the outside world, may we share our lights with our community, the lights of wisdom, wonder, creativity, commitment, kindness, and peace.
May we enrich ourselves every time we walk through this entryway, and may our personal and communal growth offer new and unique gifts to the world.  
We recite this verse from the book of Psalms to consecrate these doors and all that they represent:
בִּנְדָבָ֥ה אֶזְבְּחָה־לָּ֑ךְ א֤֘וֹדֶה שִּׁמְךָ֖ יְהֹוָ֣ה כִּי־טֽוֹב
Bi-n’davah ez’b’chah lach - Odeh shimcha Adonai ki tov. 
With a generous gift, I make an offering to You, O God; I give thanks to Your name, for it is good. 
(Psalm 54:8) 

Friday, December 16, 2016

We are not alone - An Original Midrash on Jacob's daybreak encounter - Parashat Vayishlach - December 16, 2016

After he heard that his brother Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men, Jacob had no idea of Esau's intentions, but he knew that there was a strong possibility that his brother had come to seek revenge for Jacob's deception early in their lives. 
So Jacob sent his family across the Jabok River.  Rather than joining them, he stayed behind for a moment to gather his thoughts and his courage. 
Jacob was left alone. 
Or so he thought. 
Out of nowhere, a man appeared.  He lunged toward Jacob, hoping to take him to down to the ground. 
Jacob, not knowing he had such strength, resisted with great success. As they struggled, Jacob struck the man's hip, and, in an instant, his own hip was strained.   
But Jacob was in control. 
"Let me go, for the day is breaking," the man said. 
Jacob said, "I won't let you go, unless you bless me."  
The man asked, "What is your name?"  The answer came, "Jacob." 
But Jacob continued, "Who are you and what are you doing here?  I just sent my family across the river.  I was preoccupied with the impending arrival of my brother.". 
As the man look intently into Jacob's eyes, for some reason, he felt safe enough to add more to his story.   "I have no doubt that he holds a grudge because I convinced him to  negotiate away his birthright and, with my mother's support, I took the blessing of the first born right out from under him.   He received a blessing, too, but not the one he thought he deserved.  I left home, and God has brought me prosperity, but not without some challenges along the way.   All I wanted was to be alone to prepare myself to see Esau.  Why are you here???"
The man said, "Jacob, do you really think YOU could ever be alone?   You are the son of Isaac and Rebekah and the grandson of Abraham and Sarah.  Even I know that your descendants will become a great people!"
Jacob was surprised, "How do YOU know THAT?" 
The man said, "It's not important how I know.  But I know. Wherever you go, Jacob, your past, your deeds, your beliefs follow you.  I know that your mother Rebekah believed you to be the son to follow the ways of God.   I know you had a dream at Beth El and said that, if God brought you back there safely, then you would be close to God always.  I understand what happened with your uncle Laban, and with your wives, and how Laban tried to deceive you.  It's written all over your face and in your heart."
"You can really tell all that just from looking at me?" Asked Jacob.   
The man replied, "Yes, but let's say I have special sources that let me know all that you have experienced.  Even so, Jacob, you are not alone.  Remember those angels going up and down on that ladder?  They were there to protect you.  Now it's my turn." 
Jacob's eyes were wide, "You're an angel?"  
The man clarified, "Well, not exactly.  Let's just say that I am the sum total of your life until now, joining you in this place as you get ready for one more confrontation that might not go well.  I can tell you, though, Jacob, that you are up to it.  You gave me quite a fight.   And you know why?  You are Isaac's son, and for all that he went through, he still had a touch of his father's spirit.  You are Rebekah's son: resourceful, insightful, seeing the big picture, which you could do, if only you would allow yourself to do so.  Any person, even if he or she is alone, is not alone, Jacob. All that you have been until this day will take you into the future and help determine what you will come to be.   But that doesn't mean that there isn't at least one change that will come from our encounter."
Jacob was puzzled, "What do you mean?  I just beat you handily in a wrestling match.  Isn't that enough?"  
The man was quick to answer, "No, probably not.  You did prevail over me, at this moment.   There is one thing we need to do. Your name means 'the one who grabbed onto the heal of his brother,' or maybe 'the one who will supplant his brother.'  Not much of a name, if you ask me.  How about this?  You will be Israel - "the one who struggles with God."  Because that's what you have done all your life.   And, at this moment, you have come into your own.  You are ready to be the man you need to be to see your brother Esau again, and you are the man who will be the progenitor of a great nation that will spread in all directions."  
Jacob thought for a moment, and softly spoke.  "Israel - yes, I can feel how that name is good for me now and for the rest of my life."  He looked up to the sky, "God, thank you for making this moment happen that helped me become who I need to be." Jacob then asked the man his name, and was told not to ask.  The man blessed him there.  
And soon, Jacob, now Israel, crossed the river, rejoined his family, and met his brother Esau, who ran up to him and hugged and kissed him. Israel said to him, "Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God."  
And Israel knew that he would find God in every person he met, if he could only look deep enough. 
And he knew one more thing. 
He would never ever feel alone again.   

Thursday, December 15, 2016

D'var Torah - Board Meeting - Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces - December 15, 2016

Eternal God,
Our Creator, Our Protector, Our Guide
Stand by us in our search for truth
In our commitment to integrity
In our responsibility to hold people to their word
in remaining ethically consistent in our perspectives and our judgment
Of both leaders and peers.
Shelter those escaping war-torn cities
People who face the threat of spontaneous attacks 
Though they be innocent of posing a direct threat to anyone
Raise the spirit of those who are bullied, harassed and criticized
Because of who they are rather than for anything they have done or said. 
Enable us to hear voices different from ours 
In order that, even in the heat of conflict, we can find common ground. 
Keep our words soft, our beliefs strong, our responses to the people around us compassionate and flexible. 
If we lead, remind us of those whom we represent. 
If we follow, remind us of our duty to serve and strengthen our community. 
Be with us as we seek to make a difference in this world, to foster hope here, in the midst of our home, and Your creation. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Finding Meaning (and God) in every place – Parashat Vayaytzay - December 9, 2016

Rhonda, Adam, and Larry Karol
Confirmation 2002 at Temple Beth Sholom
Topeka, Kansas
What is it that gives life meaning? 
It might be our relationships,
Our hobbies and personal interests,
our past accomplishments,
Or our continuing involvement in the greater community.
We may realize what has meaning to us while we are moving through an experience
Or, only afterwards, when we have a moment of peace.
Sometimes the realization that something significant has happened to us hits us in the silence that follows a moment of joy or satisfaction.
This past weekend, I heard our one of our Youth group members talk about the feeling that participants have once they return home from regional events shared with their peers, including many friends. They call it withdrawal, something that, when I was a youth group member many years ago, would have been referred to as “letdown.”  It is that sense of having been present in moments unlike what we encounter in everyday life that can make a re-entry into our routine harder than we might expect.       
   The special, perhaps, even holy, nature of a particular experience may become clear to us afterwards because it is only when we do come back into our usual activities that we understand the lasting impact of where we were and what we did.
Temple Beth Sholom, Topeka, Kansas - Confirmation Class, 2002
   The description of Jacob’s dream of a ladder to the sky with angels going up and down on it has inspired artists as well as biblical commentators for centuries.
They have, in their own way, attempted to portray the contents of the dream and to communicate what this vision meant to Jacob and what we can learn from it.
The greatest lesson of this passage may not have to do with the identity or purpose of the angels on the ladder. 
   The central message is likely in Jacob’s reaction to it after he awoke.   He declared: “Why, ADONAI is in this place, and I, I did not know it!  How awe-inspiring is this place!  This is none other than a house of God, and that is the gate of heaven!”
   Jacob set up a stone as a remembrance of his dream and named the place, “House of God/Beit El/Beth El.”  That marker demonstrated that Jacob realized that what came to him that night was incredible, inspiring, and even life-changing. 
   Nowadays, we don’t tend to put up stones when something amazing happens to us.  
   We might tell a story of the event, or write about it, or create an artistic piece that might reflect its impact on us. 
   Or, these days, our marker for remembrance might be photographs that we have placed in an album on our coffee table or in a picture frame. 
    That means that the collected photos of weddings, bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, special birthdays, or retirement parties, or other images that we treasure, enable us to relive memories of those events not just as milestones, but as HOLY moments.
 They are holy because we want to remember them, and even if we don’t take the photo album out too often, we still know it’s there. Framed images are all around us as reminders of someone special or an important time.  They are like the pillar Jacob put up at Beth-El.  
    Judaism teaches that God is with us at all times.  It may be that, at or after those special occasions, we feel a touch of the divine in our lives more keenly.  
But the story of Jacob has one more lesson for us about how special any particular experience or place can be. 
Think about the setting in which Jacob found himself.  He was likely concerned about his future after leaving behind an angry brother from whom he stole a birthright and blessing, and a father who was likely aghast at what had occurred.  Jacob was alone, or so he thought.
   He laid down for the night with a plain stone as his head-rest.  
    It was just a non-descript location outdoors along his journey.  
The Torah says VAYIFGA BAMAKOM – he came upon the place.  It was specific, but it was also generic.
It could have been anywhere. 
   But this story tells us that the stone was more than a routine rock, the place was unlike any other, and that what could have been a simple and mundane moment in the life of a patriarch bore pivotal significance in Jacob’s personal tale.    
  This passage uses the Hebrew word MAKOM for place. 
   The Rabbis turned that word into HAMAKOM, a name for God that means the “omnipresent One,” God who is in everyone, and in every seen and unseen location in our world.
   That means that, if we keep our eyes, ears, minds and hearts open, we will be able to see something significant happen at almost any moment, even if the full understanding of its meaning comes only later. 
Or, perhaps, our sense that God is with us wherever we are may lead us to make something special happen.  We, as God’s partners, always have the capacity to infuse sanctity into our little corner of the universe.
Every minute of our lives and every place where we find ourselves carry the secret and the promise of Jacob’s dream: that we are always connected to what is holy in the world and in ourselves. 
 And so, may we frequently seek and find what is meaningful and sacred all around us, and may those discoveries direct us to approach every place and every person in the world with gratitude, wisdom and joy, so that our mutual inspiration will take us to a holy place.      

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"I Am The Earth" - Original Meditation for Las Cruces Vigil for Standing Rock - December 4, 2016

I am the earth.
I have felt you tread upon me.
With whatever eyes I have in nature,
I have seen you struggle, survive, move, tear down, and build up.
I have felt you take from me, and I have sensed ways in which you have given back as well, although sometimes the taking seems more than the giving.
I have rejoiced in your moments of harmony and cooperation.
I have shuddered in times of war and conflict.
I have noted and appreciated peoples who have sought to respect and protect me.
I have felt inside me the passageways created by human tools and human hands to take the gifts of the earth from their original locations to distant places.  
Some of what I know you call resources remain within me in abundant supply.  
Others feel, to me, to be diminished, making me wonder when there will be no more to take.
I do understand your language, and I hear in your voices, as you stand upon me and plan and construct, whether or not a sincere desire to preserve me is there in how you speak, in the tone of your speech and the flow of your words.
My waters in the streams and rivers have told me that they do not feel as pure as they once felt.  
They are afraid that what you have made may not protect them from the disasters that have befallen the salty waters of seas and oceans.  
And that is why people who truly love me might even think of taking a stand for me, and for you as well, because they want to be sure that we will be together for a long, long time.
And so, I say to you, humanity,
Be careful.   Be wise.   Be humble.  
Don’t believe that the structures which you believe will not cause harm now
Will never cause harm. 
And believe in yourselves as partners with me
And with all that we share. 
You are precious humanity, and entrusted to you and all other creatures is the care of….me.

And I….I am…and will always be…the earth. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

"Humility" - Column in the Las Cruces Bulletin on Friday, December 2, 2016

   I have discovered, over my many years as a rabbi, that there is one aspect of our lives that has the potential to bring us together: our values. While there are some tenets that people and different faith groups may interpret differently, there are other principles that lay at the foundation of creating community that may offer a common language. 
    We tested this notion at a program at Temple Beth-El on Sunday, Nov. 20. Entitled"Humble Enough? An Interfaith Conversation," the event featured presentations by speakers from a number of faith traditions (Methodist, United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ, Society of Friends, Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Unitarian Universalist and Jewish). Each speaker offered his or her perspective on humility, sharing teachings from past and present, parables and personal stories. 
    When it was my turn to speak about humility, I focused on specific insights that have emerged from my tradition over the last 3000 years. I noted that Abraham and Moses were both considered humble.
     The prophet Micah’s call for people to "walk humbly/ modestly with God" is more than a religious principle. 
      Author and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has explained that not to walk humbly means to go to the other extreme, arrogance, which might lead a person to think that ONLY his or her views, beliefs and positions must be right and true. The 12th Century Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, taught that, for most character traits, it was best to try to stay in the middle, keeping an even disposition, except when it came to humility. Maimonides insisted that extreme humility was the best approach to lead us to gain self-respect and the respect of others, and to enable us to appreciate the gifts life has given us. 
     Following the statements by the panel members, participants engaged in small-group discussions on several questions presented to them about what it means to be humble. These insightful responses might help us understand what it means to give and to receive in the coming weeks and throughout the year:
 • Be willing to be vulnerable. 
• Recognize that we are interdependent with all that is 
• Listen intently to others. 
• Approach life and the world with a sense of awe and wonder. 
• Accept your limitations and be sensitive to the limitations of others. 
• Choose to learn from adversity and grow from it 
• Look at people as human beings, past differences 
• Each of us is not better or worse than anyone else. 
• Recognize the blessings we all have and, in turn, help bring blessing to others. 
• Say little and do much. 
• Start everything in the name of God. When an opportunity comes your way, say to yourself, "God let me do this." 
• No person should put himself/ herself above anyone else. 
• Find and respect the divine in every person. 
• Don’t presume that we know all there is to know. 
• Open your heart. 
• Serve others. 
• Accept yourself as you are. 
    Many of these statements remind us to "keep ourselves in our place" with a feeling of pride and confidence. There are, however, times when we need "a lift" when we find ourselves in a place of despair. Over 200 years ago, Rabbi Simcha Bunem said, "Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and discouraged, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’" 
If we are able to strike that balance, we may well be able to intently listen to each other, to understand the respective truths by which we live and to realize that our humility has the power to keep us together in ways we cannot yet imagine. May we be open to that possibility.