Friday, April 21, 2017

Remembrance, Resistance and Resolve - Remarks for the Temple Beth-ElShabbat Service for Holocaust Remembrance on April 21, 2017

     Of all years, this year is an important time to offer a special commemoration of the Holocaust.   Eyewitnesses are few and far between now.  Jewish communities that gather for Yom Hazikaron Lashoah V’laG’vurah,  A Day of Remembrance for the Holocaust and Heroism, keep memories alive of  Jews and members of other groups murdered by the Nazis.   However, more and more, stories of heroism are being highlighted as examples of what the human spirit is capable of accomplishing, even against insurmountable odds.
    PBS presented such a tale in its program on Wednesday night on NOVA – Holocaust Escape Tunnel.    The portrayal of vibrant Jewish life in the town of Vilnius, or Vilna, with its 76,000 Jews, could have concluded with the death of most of those Jews in actions by the SS in Ponar Forest outside Vilnius.  The program, however, focused, first, on the search for remnants of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, which stood for just over 300 years until its destruction by the Nazis.  The discovery of the mikveh, the ritual bath, that was in the basement of the synagogue was heartwarming as a reflection of the commitment to Judaism that pervaded that community.     
        And then, the program’s focus shifted to the stories told by survivors of a purported escape from Ponar Forest after working against their will for the Nazis.  They were forced by the Nazis to dig up the bodies of Jews and other community members who had been murdered and buried in large pits outside Vilna.  And then, they were ordered to burn the bodies.   The Ponar workers, 86 of them, attended to their horrendous task, but eventually engaged in another project in secret.  Using only spoons, they spent 76 days digging a tunnel that began at the center of their work to a spot 100 feet away inside the forest that might offer these men a chance to escape.     
     On April 15, 1944, the last night of Passover, the workers determined that they needed to make their move.  They know that, after completing their forced labor, they would be the last victims of the Nazis in Ponar Forest.  Of the 86 who made their way through the escape tunnel, 11 survived. 
    Using modern technology, a group of experts were able to conduct surveys that looked into the ground and identified the continuing existence of the escape tunnel, still remaining after all these years.  The program on PBS concluded with interviews with family members of the survivors, who were shocked and gratified that the story they had heard for so long had been corroborated by science.    While the episode ended sadly for some, there was a sense of triumph for those who escaped through the tunnel and survived the war and made sure to tell their incredible story.   
    Last month, during the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Atlanta, Holocaust scholar and author Deborah Lipstadt spoke to us.  She has gained a great deal of attention because of the excellent film “Denial,” which recounted her victory in the libel case brought against her by Holocaust denier David Irving. 
      She spoke to us about the persistence of anti-Semitism both on the left and the right, and the extreme overuse of analogies to the Holocaust that all too frequently use terms like “Nazi” and “he/she is just like Hitler.”   She asserted that those comparisons take away from what the Holocaust was: the systematic extermination of Jews, primarly, along with the murder of other people as well.    Dr. Lipstadt declared that something can be terrible, such as the tragedies happening in our world today, without being a Holocaust.   Her words of caution were well-spoken.  
    However, she also said that Jews should not be Jewish only because of anti-Semitism.   “Don’t turn Jews into an object,” she explained. “Make Jews the subject – talk about what Jews do, not what others do to Jews.”  
     Around the world, communities will be commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day,  Yom Hashoah,, which begins at sundown this Sunday night, April 23, and concludes on Monday evening.  Some will be holding commemorations on Sunday afternoon to facilitate better participation.
      As we host the Jewish Food and Folk Festival in the hours before Yom Hashoah begins, may it be our signal to the community and to our immediate world that we are a subject, not an object; that we are a community that sustains what it means to continue to live Jewish values, that we will practice teachings that direct us to decry stereotyping, prejudice and hatred, to show warmth and heartfelt hospitality to those who come into our presence, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. 
 Beyond music, dance, pastrami sandwiches, knishes, bobka and rugelach, we have so much to offer to each other, to our community and to the world.   And in sustaining not only our culture but the principles of Judaism as well, we will, with our small but mighty numbers, remind the world of the significance of remembrance, resistance and resolve.  And to everyone in and around Las Cruces, I would say: may we always join together to live out our best values and noblest aspirations in a context of understanding and peace.

A Prayer for Purpose and Caring - Invocation - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Board Meeting - April 20, 2017

Eternal God,
You challenge us to remember why we are here.
We do have our own plans, views, desires, hopes, and commitments.
Some of them are a function of the life we have chosen.
Others may, in some way, touch upon what we are called to do by our ancient heritage.
It is our duty to find quiet moments on our own and to join a community in prayer to gain an appreciation for the world, to remember our loved ones who have died, and to rededicate ourselves to the values of learning, freedom, rest, kindness and peace.
It is our responsibility to reach out to people in need in a way that transcends boundaries and differences.    Do not oppress the strangers among you, You have said, and treat them as if they were citizens. Extend your hand to the poor among you, You have said. 
If we accept these teachings that have been handed down to us, then our association with each other in this place could lead to reaching for some of those goals and fulfilling your teachings about how we can act in a world that needs our help. 
Empower us to give hope to one another, to stop hatred and bullying in its tracks, and to seek ways to join with others in the community to accomplish these important tasks.
And when we have guests coming into our midst, remind us how we felt when we were strangers and newcomers, so that we will treat recent arrivals with a sense of embrace that will exude care and warmth.

Always be with us as we put one foot in front of the other in our journey towards a future that we can, together, fill with goodness and promise. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Being Free, Staying Free, and the role of restraint - D'var Torah - Shabbat During Pesach - April 14, 2017

There have been some unnerving comments around the country this week.  We have all, I am sure, heard about the comparison of Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler for which the administration official in question who made the comment profusely apologized.
     The other time that the Nazi leader was named was in a comment by a North Carolina State representative on his campaign Facebook page.  During a discussion about national law superseding state law, this state legislator wrote, “And if Hitler had won, should the world just get over it?  Lincoln was the same sort of tyrant, and personally responsible for the deaths of over 800,000 Americans in a war that was unnecessary and unconstitutional.”
   I will leave further discussion about the specifics of those charges to historical experts inside and outside this space. 
     We know that there were economic aspects to the Civil War, and issues of federal power over the states.  There were, however, central values in the war very much related to freedom.   Was there freedom to enslave a human being and call him or her “property?”   Was there a reason to engage in a war against those states with the goal that slaves would ultimately be considered “free” themselves?  
       The freedom to wield power over another human being is a basic question for most any arena of life.  Many of us realize that it is best to see “power” in terms of “authority” and “responsibility.”  
      Being a leader sometimes includes the ability to change rules and make judgments, at times on a personal whim, in a way that greatly affects the freedom of those who live by those rules.   
     Or…a leader can choose to consult with trusted advisors and with people being served to discover what policies to continue and where change might be wise and welcome.
      In the story of the Exodus, the Egyptian Pharaoh saw himself as unfettered in his decision-making role.  He was Pharaoh. He could do anything.  And when it came to the Israelite people, so he did, because he could.  
   And the people, whose ancestor Joseph had sustained Egypt in a famine, didn’t matter to anyone anymore, least of all, to a new Pharaoh.   
    Pharaoh used his nearly limitless power to enslave the Israelites and to break their spirit so that they would not seek to rise up against him in order to gain their own freedom.
    But the freedom to do anything has its consequences.   In this case, Pharaoh came upon a force he didn’t consider - the power of a God he did not know who had a persistent spokesman in Moses.
     I imagine that some people might say that it wasn’t a “fair fight.” When it comes to liberating a people from oppression, though, we tend to see “fair” in a different light.  
    So God’s limitless power defeated Pharaoh’s boundless tyranny.   God was free to do what God wanted to bring the Israelites to freedom, but it only happened with Pharoah’s eventual capitulation.   
     And then, after they arrived at Mount Sinai, while waiting for Moses to return to them,  the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf.  
     At that moment, God had a different idea about using divine power.   
       In a section prior to the Torah reading for tonight is this passage in Exodus Chapter 32:  The Eternal further said to Moses, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” But Moses implored the Eternal God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Eternal, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that God delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people. Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how You swore to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.” And the Eternal One renounced the punishment intended for the people.”
     And so we come to the Torah reading for the Shabbat during Pesach, which follows Moses up the mountain, once again, to receive a second set of the tablets of the 10 commandments. 
      I have always wondered why this portion is read on the Shabbat during Pesach, other than its brief mention of the ancient observance of Passover. 
     I finally think I understand the reason.  
     I believe it’s about restraint.   
    We might think that the most important thing Moses did was to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.   I would suggest that his confrontation with God to step back from divine anger was just as important. 
    Without Moses’ pleading, there would have been no Israelite people, at least according to the Torah. 
    Whether we accept this passage as literally true or not, there is an important lesson to learn about holding back even when we have great power in a position we may hold. 
     Moses was reminding God that even God can’t do everything God wants to do, and that it’s important to take time to think and ponder and consider before taking serious action.   
    His approach to God yielded the section that I will read from the Torah tonight, which recounts God’s divine attributes which are all about limits and restraint.         
    Listen to the text: “The Eternal! the Eternal! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, only to the third and fourth generations.”
    Every one of those qualities is about showing abundant love and kindness when they are warranted and deserved.  AND…this passage teaches us how to enable the traits of compassion, grace, calm, commitment, and forgiveness to overcome any desire to unleash power to destroy and deconstruct, casting darkness where there once was light. 
    I believe that most people have learned that being free and staying free is about restraint.   Maybe we can’t do all we want to do, or have all we want to have, because there are factors that limit us at any given moment.   
     Showing restraint can empower us to broaden our own freedom through cultivating relationships that will raise our spirits, sustain our hope, and strengthen our personal integrity related to how we make decisions that affect us and other people.  
    A sense of freedom can emerge from limits that are intended to acknowledge everyone’s humanity and an encouragement for us to be productive partners in the communities we form.  
    God, as the Oneness that unites us all, reminds us every moment that we should use our freedom in a way that will infuse kindness, forgiveness and faithfulness into our world.

    On this Pesach, and at all times, so may we do.  

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Spring is a time to reflect on humility, humanity, the Earth - Las Cruces Bulletin column for April 7, 2017

     Spring is here!  Seeing some of the cacti in our yard come alive with beautiful blossoms brings a feeling of uplift, hope, and even momentary joy.
     Judaism and Christianity mark this time of nature’s reawakening with observances that relate to rebirth and freedom. Jews observe the holiday of Passover, which commemorates the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom. According to local clergy colleagues, Christians, when observing Easter, see the passage from slavery to liberation "in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the transition from sin and death to life abundant (now and eternally)."
       In Judaism, a 2000 year-old statement from the rabbis characterizes the essence of Passover: “In every generation, we should look upon ourselves as if WE went free from Egypt.”   Passover challenges each person to personally respond to the plight of anyone who faces oppression, persecution, and a lack of support from the greater community.   In the story of Passover, the Israelites decried the arrogance of the Pharaoh, who viewed himself as a divine figure.  Given his actions, it was apparent that the Pharaoh had relinquished any sense of human consideration, decency and empathy.
    The importance of these values was emphasized in one of the American Values/Religious Voices letters last month.  On March 6, Amir Hussain, Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, shared three religious texts that call on people to demonstrate a true concern for their fellow human beings.   He cited the passage from the book of Exodus (Chapter 23) which declared, “You shall not oppress a stranger. You know the feelings of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
     Professor Hussain explained that a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 25) further strengthened that message: “…For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
      In addition, Professor Hussain shared a teaching from the Qur’an which expressed similar principles:  “Serve God and do not associate anything with God, and be good your parents, the near of kin, the orphans, the needy, the neighbor who is near and the neighbor who is farther away, the companion by your side, and the traveler….Surely God does not love the one who is proud, boastful” (Qur’an 4:36).”
    Several discussion groups that studied this letter were puzzled by the statement, “Serve God and do not associate anything with God.”    My initial interpretation was that, if we think of ourselves as serving God, we should not see ourselves as holier or better than anyone else.  I took this passage to members of the local Muslim community for further discussion.  One said that it means that we should be sure that our good deeds are performed for their own sake, and not for an anticipated reward of praise from others, position or pride.   Another community member commented that the final part of the Qur’an verse reminds people not to be overtly proud or boastful just because they are doing what they consider to be God’s work. We should perform acts of goodness for their own sake and for the benefit of others.
      As nature engages in its annual rebirth, may our own souls be reborn into an approach of personal humility, an appreciation of humanity and the earth itself, and a sense of how serving our community can bring hope and healing to the world.