Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Annual Message delivered at Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Annual Meeting - May 16, 2017

    On Thursday, May 4, I decided to do something in the community that I had never done before anywhere where I have served.   It was time to witness, with my own eyes and ears, local National Day of Prayer observances.  These events were sponsored by Dona Ana County and by the City of Las Cruces.   In both cases, the endorsers from the county and city had declared that the gatherings were open to members of all faiths.  So, I went, wearing my sunglasses,  my Indiana Jones hat and my usual Friday night attire, standing on the perimeter of each event.  There were proclamations about church and God, prayers for various aspects of society and for public officials, and a call for all citizens to direct people in our area to witness to God’s glory.   The scriptural readings, songs, and meditations were all from one faith tradition. It was as if I had gone to visit a local evangelical church on a Sunday morning to learn about their worship.    And learn, I did, for sure.
      The people gathered exhibited a deep sense of belief, and fervor, and a feeling of God’s immediate presence all around.  
      Missing, though, were people outside the realm of that religious cohort. There were no representatives from a wider range of Christian denominations or from other religions.
         I believe that Las Cruces and Dona Ana County are much more than the expressions of faith that I saw on May 4. And as for us, here at Temple Beth-El, we are here, too, and we have been here for a long time.  
         Our beliefs and our teachings call on us to sense God’s glory or presence among us. Our expressions of our tradition are just as sincere, heartfelt and powerful as what I saw by the County Building and City Hall.   
          In preparation for the Jewish Food and Folk Festival, I helped Rhonda put up decorative “Shaloms” in Hebrew and English, Israeli flags, and posters that would inform our guests about Jewish holidays and symbols.  This year, I added something special.   As an extension of the PJ Library program which provides Jewish books for young children, the Grinspoon Foundation prepared, over the last 2 years, a series of posters entitled “Voices and Visions.”  The posters feature quotes that reflect essential tenets of our heritage, with accompanying artistic interpretations to illustrate the quotes.   I decided to post my favorite statements from this series up on the wall for the JFFF, and I left them up for tonight.  For the next few moments,  I want to lead you on a tour through these quotes to see how they can guide us as we sustain our sacred partnerships with each other.
   “Serving others is one of the pillars on which Judaism rests.”   Lynne Schusterman, a well-known philanthropist, is credited with this thought.   We serve each other when we put at the center of our Jewish observance TORAH, learning, AVODAH, worship and holy work, and G’MILUT CHASADIM, performing acts of love and kindness.  Each of those three “things” upon which the world stands directs us to be a part of a community, where no one is more important or less important than anyone else.   Service means taking on positions of authority which carry with them responsibilities, specific duties to fulfill in the best way we are able and with all of our talents, skills and abilities applied to the tasks before us.  It means lifting each other up and not letting anyone down, including ourselves, and asking for help when we need it.   Service means being selfless about what we do and regarding what and how we give.   Our service and our giving should not be about any one person.  They should enable us to produce the “we” that grows out of our joining together as a congregation.   
    “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Albert Einstein said this one.  Are you surprised?  It is likely that an Albert Einstein with no imagination could not have come up with the Theory of Relativity.  Einstein’s work has served as a foundation for further refinements of the way scientists currently think about the Universe.  One of the best examples of imagination for Temple Beth-El continues to be the Jewish Food and Folk Festival.   The collective knowledge gained from past TBE fundraisers came to be applied to the genesis of this community event alongside new ideas and fresh approaches.   The JFFF is fast becoming a “hit” for Las Cruces and Dona Ana County.  It is also significant for us, as 90 congregants and community members worked in year #4 as cashiers, servers, performers, and volunteers in other tasks.   Each year, there is a little more imagination that adds something new to this amazing event of culture and hospitality.   The JFFF can serve as a model for the many programs which we create for ourselves and for sharing with our neighbors.   
     The next three quotes go together, at least in my opinion.   Natan Sharansky, head of Israel’s Jewish Agency and former Soviet Prisoner of Zion, said, “We must believe not only that all people are created equal but also that all peoples are created equal.”   Emma Lazarus, famous for the “New Colussus” poem on the Statue of Liberty, once said, “Until we are all free, none of us are free.”  Finally, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg taught, “Judaism is founded on human faith and divine promise that the world can be perfected.”   These statements ask us to look at who we are in relation to Jews around the world and to all of humanity.   They remind us that the Jewish people has something important to teach everyone about loving our neighbors as ourselves, about caring for the most vulnerable in society, about “lifting up the fallen and freeing the captive,” and about seeking liberty for all people. We know, from our life experiences, that working for equality and freedom, and helping people in need, requires action.   At Temple Beth-El, we serve breakfast at Camp Hope on December 25.  Members serve at the El Caldito Soup Kitchen every Monday.  We have hosted discussions for the community on poverty, gratitude, humility, and other topics.  We have held candidate forum programs so that people can exercise their right to vote being fully informed about the candidates running for office.   There is always more to be done, but anything we do derives from the teachings of our tradition.  When Micah declared that we should do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God, he wasn’t only talking about love in relation to mercy.  He meant that we should love performing acts of kindness and mercy, leading a society to a greater level of equality and freedom for all citizens.  We will continue to explore what that ancient call demands of us in the coming months.
   “It’s when the winds blow hardest that you need the deepest roots.”   This is a quote from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.  Those roots of which he spoke relate to our heritage, that can continue to give us confidence and fortitude in the face of never-dying anti-Semitism, ignorance and hatred.  Our roots can direct us individually and collectively to extend a helping hand to each other when we need support as we face life’s challenges.  Finally, that statement reminds us not to be stormwinds for each other.   That means that our relationships must be grounded in respect, cooperation, active listening, sharing of stories and hopes and dreams, and making our needs known so that we can offer our assistance when the tempests of life visit us all too unexpectedly.   Judaism’s central teachings point the way to forming bonds of community that will keep us strong and hold us together.
    “I am blessed to be a voyager on an ancient pathway.” This is a gem of wisdom from Rabbi Rachel Cowan. A number of us engaged in conversations from December through March on the book WISE AGING, written by Rabbi Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal. Those of us who participated in those sessions had a chance to reflect on the meaning of the many and varied aspects of our lives as we move along the life-cycle. I believe that we, during our discussions, discovered ways in which we are voyagers along the same path, trying to determine how to live each day in the best way possible, and how to fashion a lasting legacy that will offer blessing to our family members, friends and community. 
    We at Temple Beth-El are all blessed to be fellow voyagers on an ancient pathway.   As I reviewed the photographs from Temple events over the past year, one aspect of those photos is clear: there is no one who is alone, or, at least, there shouldn’t be.   There are faces that, whether smiling or serious, reflect the significance of what we do and what we create alongside each other at Temple Beth-El.   I feel privileged to be a fellow voyager with the Board of Trustees, led so well this year by Temple President Ellen Torres.  I am enriched by my work with committee chairs and committee members; volunteers;  Mensch Club and Sisterhood leaders and members; BETY BEMY members; Religious School faculty, aides and students; and congregants and community members with whom I meet and study and from whom I learn so much.  
    I am, as always, blessed to be a fellow voyager with Rhonda, as our path here in Las Cruces continues to move forward as we work with you to sustain Jewish life here in tried and true ways and with new creative touches. And to Adam and Juli in New York, I extend a special gratitude for their valuable counsel and reassurance.
      We fellow voyagers on an ancient pathway are blessed to be together, nurturing the divine spark inside of us, with all of us under God’s protection.  We read in Psalm 61:    Hear my cry, O Eternal one…from the end of the earth, I call to You: You lead me to a rock that is high above me…O that I might dwell in Your tent forever, take refuge under Your protecting wings.”   May we be God’s wings for each other, as we support one another in times of trial and triumph, and in moments of sorrow and joy.  

Invocation - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Annual Meeting - May 16, 2017

Eternal God,
Be with us on this night as we gather as one community
Seeking holiness, forging understanding,
Engendering shared vision,
Maintaining ancient values which you inspire us to make new every day.
Bless us all:
Leaders and members,
Teachers and students,
Grandparents and parents and children,
Volunteers, partners, and friends.
Help us find guidance from our tradition:
In the imagination and trailblazing of Abraham and Sarah;
In the vision of Jacob who became Israel;
In the insight of Joseph;
In the humility of Moses;
In the spirit and song of Miriam;
In the judgment and leadership of Deborah;
In the courage of David;
In the wisdom of Solomon;
In the compassion of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and our prophets;
In the collegiality of the rabbis as we study with and learn from one another;
In the commitment of Ruth to a people she made her own.
Remind us of the opportunities we have to celebrate
Our accomplishments,
Our ingenuity,
Our determination,
Our creativity,
Our openness,
Our diversity,
Our hard-won commonality,
Our enduring hope,
Our success,
And our triumphs after overcoming conflict or challenge. 
May all we have done this year lead us to
Greater vision,
Deepened insight,
Personal and communal growth,
And a recognition of the holiness that is all around us and inside of us
As You, Eternal One, walk with us along the way. 
May the steps we take bring us blessing and peace now and in the years to come.   

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Moments, Offerings and a Song - D'var Torah for Parashat Emor - May 12, 2017

        During this time between Passover and Shavuot, we are engaged in counting the days between the holidays, based on the ritual described in the Torah reading for this week.  The Israelites were commanded to bring a sheaf of grain every day from the second day of Passover to the 50th day, which is Shavuot, the feast of weeks,  marking the barley harvest in ancient Israel.   In Jewish practice today, this time period symbolically represents the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to their first destination, Mount Sinai. 
     The passage in the Torah I will read in Leviticus Chapter 23 first speaks of the “fixed times” of God, the days on which there would be something asked of the people in terms of a ritual to perform and an offering to give.   
   In our lives, we have many fixed times.  We have fixed times when we have to be “on.” We may be engaged in work, volunteer service, making presentations, keeping commitments with friends or family or community members or attending set appointments. 
     We also have time “off” for leisure, entertainment, reading, listening, learning and for using our talents and abilities to create something new or pursue a personal hobby or interest.  We often have the opportunity to make those moments of personal time worthwhile and enduring, and perhaps, to do the same with the times that others set for us.   
      After the initial statement in Leviticus Chapter 23 comes a description of Shabbat, the human day of rest because God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. Shabbat is also a day, according to the Ten Commandments in the book of Deuteronomy, when we remember the Israelites moving from slavery to freedom, a reminder that no one could again force them to do labor against their will.
     Still, today, Shabbat is intended to teach us about “time out,” taking ourselves out of our routines to make one day a week special. 
      Every year, the Jewish organization “Reboot” sponsors a “National Day of Unplugging.”   Listen to the “National Day of Unplugging” official rationale, which sounds like a new version of the Torah’s declarations about Shabbat:
“Do you have multiple cell phones? Take your iPad to the beach on vacation? Ever find it hard to get through a conversation without posting an update to Facebook? Is your computer always on? We increasingly miss out on the important moments of our lives as we pass the hours with our noses buried in our phones, chronicling our every move through social media and shielding ourselves from the outside world with the bubble of “silence” that our earphones create. If you recognize that in yourself – or your friends, families or colleagues— join us for the National Day of Unplugging, start living a different life: connect with the people in your street, neighborhood and city, have an uninterrupted meal or read a book to your child. The National Day of Unplugging is a 24-hour period – running from sundown to sundown – and starts on the first Friday in March. The project is an outgrowth of the Sabbath Manifesto, an adaptation of our ancestors' ritual, [giving us the chance today to] carve out one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and connect with loved ones.”
    We can be grateful to the “Reboot” organization to remind us of what Shabbat can mean – it is certainly about giving up, but it is also about receiving a special gift in return – time for ourselves and our loved ones – a gift that comes from God, the Torah and our tradition.
     The Leviticus 23 passage then moves to the first holiday in the spring: Passover, which we just observed several weeks ago.        These verses clarify the extent of the time for celebrating Passover and note certain observances of the festival. What the text doesn’t do is tell us how important Passover would become throughout the centuries.  Eventually, Jews developed the Passover Seder ritual for the home, which takes participants through the Exodus experience.   It is reported that the Passover Seder is observed every year by 60-70% of Jews in the United States and 93% of Jews living in Israel. The reason for widespread observance is that Passover can be done in the home if we choose.  It is ours.  And it is significant because of the enduring memories of the people with whom we have celebrated in the past,  specific recipes for Passover food, melodies that we sing every year, and the new rituals and customs we create to make the holiday new.   Shabbat and Passover both provide us with a guide to making a wide range of life experiences memorable, because we know that it is the sensory input and, especially, the feelings of moments we want to remember, that will remain with us. . 
      Making a moment memorable may require that we offer something material, or  an intangible aspect of our personality and character.   
     For our ancestors, the special offerings of grain which they took to the local center for worship at this time of year were a gift to the priests and to God. They made these gifts in the presence of a community.  After they returned home, they could tell stories about their journey to the ancient Temple, tales about people they met along with way, and impressions about what it felt like to humbly present their offerings.  
     This week, I was challenged to think about the concept of giving personally and within a community as I read the liturgical poem by Alden Solovy entitled “Offerings.”  I was very taken by the reading because it focuses on what life presents to us and how we respond.  This piece provides food for thought and discussion because it suggests that everything that life presents to us comes from God, whether positive or what we might see as negative.   We could view God’s offerings, as portrayed in this poem, as similar to the direction a parent gives a child when he or she faces trials or triumphs, joy or sorrow. Even when we encounter a difficult situation, we have the opportunity to recognize God’s presence that can help us through that challenging time. Sometimes, God’s presence may come to us in the  assistance and strength that we receive from friends, family members and even people in the community we barely know.
     For that reason, as I adapted this reading into a song, I added verses from Psalm 27 that ask for God to be merciful and present when we call for support.  The Psalmist imagined the sense of relief and hope we would feel when we receive God’s favor and blessing, with the face of the divine shining down upon us.  Perhaps it also recognized that we could see the spark of God in the faces of those people who stand by our side, to hold us up every day.     
    It is in those moments when we respond to what is offered to us by life and God that we may discover the best part of ourselves and the best of one another.  And so, may we count and recall those moments of revelation, realization and renewal all the days of our lives for good and for blessing.   

 (Here is a link to the song) 

Offerings - Music by Larry Karol
(Liturgical Poem by Alden Solovy - and Psalm 27:7, 8 - added by Larry K.)
When G-d offers love, I offer my heart.
When G-d offers wisdom, I offer my mind.
When G-d offers beauty, I offer my senses.
When G-d offers silence, I offer my patience.

CHORUS:  Sh’ma Adonai Koli Ekra - Choneini Va-aneini
                    Sh’ma Adonai Koli Ekra - Et Panecha Adonai Avakeish
[Hear, O Eternal One, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me, answer me.
O Eternal One, I seek Your face]

When G-d offers challenge, I offer my strength.
When G-d offers trial, I offer my faith.
When G-d offers pain, I offer my dignity.
When G-d offers fear, I offer my courage - CHORUS

When G-d offers grief, I offer my endurance.
When G-d offers shame, I offer my amends.
When G-d offers death, I offer my mourning.
When G-d offers life, I offer my rejoicing.

When G-d offers joy, I offer my thanksgiving.
When G-d offers awe, I offer my wonder.
When G-d offers righteousness, I offer my blessings.
When G-d offers holiness, I offer my praise. CHORUS

When G-d offers love, I offer my heart. 

 Words © 2011 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved.
Used with permission

Leviticus 23:1-16
[1] The Eternal one spoke to Moses, saying: [2] Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Eternal, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.  [3] On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a Sabbath of the Eternal throughout your settlements. [4] These are the set times of the Eternal, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time: [5] In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Eternal, [6] and on the fifteenth day of that month the Eternal's Feast of Unleavened Bread. You shall eat unleavened bread for seven days. [7] On the first day you shall celebrate a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. [8] Seven days you shall make offerings by fire to the Eternal. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. [9] The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: [10] Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. [11] He shall elevate the sheaf before the Eternal for acceptance in your behalf; the priest shall elevate it on the day after the sabbath. [12] On the day that you elevate the sheaf, you shall offer as a burnt offering to the Eternal a lamb of the first year without blemish. [13] The meal offering with it shall be two-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Eternal; and the libation with it shall be of wine, a quarter of a hin. [14]Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears; it is a law for all time throughout the ages in all your settlements.  [15] And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: [16] you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal.         

Thursday, May 4, 2017

We don't need walls for security, fulfillment - May 5, 2017 column for Las Cruces Bulletin

     I have been thinking a lot about walls, not just recently, but over many years. 
     Walls can keep people out. 
      Walls can keep people in.  
    Walls can separate between people so that they don’t have to get to know each other, deal with each other, or even look at each other.  
      It is curious that such a description of walls does not have to be about walls made of stone, or wood, or about fences, all of which create physical separations. 
     Unseen walls that reinforce divisions, grounded in disagreements or in cultural or ideological differences, may create a comfortable space for some people, a space where their views are not challenged.  
     Those walls, however, even more than physical ones, can form impenetrable barriers that prevent us from recognizing real aspects of life that we share as members of the human family. 
      We work hard. 
       We want to have a roof over our heads.
      We want to bring home enough money to pay our bills. 
      We want to have a secure future. 
      We want safe communities for ourselves and our children and grandchildren: neighborhoods, villages, towns and cities where we can productively work with our neighbors to make good things happen. 
       We want to see opportunities for people of all ages to learn, to expand their horizons, and to be engaged with other community members in common pursuits and interests.  
        We want health care that will help us stay stable, get better, or give us comfort as challenges to our well-being increase. 
       Some people will want to pass by and through invisible or real boundaries around neighborhoods, states, or countries in order to assist people who need help and support.    
       These "wants" have a way of putting all people in one place, in one category, with no wall to separate them.   
        The only divisions that might persist would be those that we create in our minds and hearts, the ones that are harder to tear down, including the walls that rise all too quickly when we begin to discuss how to address at least some of these wants for as many people as possible. 
       Quotes about walls (yes, I did an aggressive search online) include declarations that walls may be present so that we can demonstrate our strength and will to bring them down.  
       My tradition also teaches that a house of worship must have windows in its walls so that the people worshipping don't forget that there is a connection between the words they pray (about forgiveness, the sanctity of creation, freedom, gratitude, and peace) in that space and their actions in the outside world.  So it is with many other contexts in which we live and work, where we learn values and lessons that we can apply to daily life.  
      Challenging a wall's existence can be the expression of a strong desire to join with others in constructive and cooperative action for the benefit of many people. 
     And so, may we work together to create a world where walls, solid or invisible, need not stand in order for people to feel fulfilled, hopeful and secure.  


Every day....a Prayer - Reflections on May 4, 2017

Juliana Karol receiving her Masters degree (from the Livestream)

     The true highlight of May 4, 2017 for me was watching the afternoon livestream of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion graduation ceremony, which enabled me to witness Rhonda's and my daughter-in-law, Juliana Karol, receive her Master of Arts in Hebrew Literature degree.  We are proud of her reaching this milestone as she completes her fourth year of rabbinic school (with Adam being the supportive and wise spouse all along the way).  
     My day began with the New Mexico State University Interfaith Council meeting with NMSU President Garrey Carruthers and Provost Daniel Howard.  I serve as Past President/Executive Advisor of the group, which brings faith leaders and advisors of student groups together to support students and to develop programming for the university community in the spiritual realm. 
     While the House of Representatives was voting on the ACHA, and just after President Trump signed an executive order seeking to enable religious congregations to engage in partisan political speech, I left that meeting with the intention of doing something I had never done before. 
Dona Ana County National Day of Prayer Observance
    Today was the National Day of Prayer. In 1952, members of the House and Senate introduced a joint resolution for an annual National Day of Prayer, "on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals."  It was signed by then President Harry S. Truman. 
City of Las Cruces National Day of Prayer observance
      Locally, the Dona Ana County Commission and the City of Las Cruces each issued proclamations for the National Day of Prayer.  Ceremonies were held next to the County Building and outside City Hall.   
       So what I have never done before today is attend a National Day of Prayer gathering. 
      What did I see? 
      I was able to see the heartfelt prayer of local citizens.   
That's me in the corner.....
       I heard scripture, readings, and comments that expressed fervent Christian belief in witnessing God's glory.
        I heard prayers on behalf of leaders and various aspects of the community, all expressed in the language of one religion. 
         I chose, in both cases, to stand on the fringes of the event, as I knew that my faith was not truly included.   
       This week, Jews around the world will be reading during Shabbat worship the verses from Leviticus 19 that call on us to "love your neighbor as yourself" and "love the stranger as yourself."   
       I had no role in expressing my faith in a fervent way today, but perhaps I did by my willingness to be present, at least for a time, in each place, even if I felt like I was on the outside looking in. 
      What would I tell my neighbors who gathered in prayer today? 
     I would say that there are many ways to approach God with what Jews call "kavanah" (deep feeling and intention). 
      I would say that even if we can't pray together, we have to find ways of coming together that will allow us to act for the good of the community out of our faith or personal values.  
      I would also say this:  when uttering the words "God's glory," my heritage would look at the expression in Isaiah Chapter 6: "The whole earth is filled with God's glory." 
      That means that no earthly boundaries, no human divisions, and no one religion or theological notion can contain the glory of an Eternal presence, a oneness in the universe that brings us all together. 
     Whether or not such worship events should happen in governmental contexts is definitely up for discussion.
      My view, however, of the circle of humanity includes all of us, together, in an existence that we can make more bearable for one another if we would listen and learn, love and help so that we will know and spread hope and not despair.  
       And, to achieve such a life for this community and the world, I will continue to pray every day.