Thursday, August 24, 2017

Thoughts on the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument...again

News was received today about the recommendations of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke about the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monument, with the likelihood of impending downsizing.    So here is a written version of the message I tried to convey today at a press conference in Mesilla. 

In the lead-up to the solar eclipse of Monday that would be total in many places, rabbis were discussing which blessing to say over this celestial event. 
Some said that we should recite, "Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Ruler of the Universe, whose power and might fill the world/universe."   This is a blessing for fleeting and sudden events like thunder and lightning. 
Others said we should say this more general blessing, "Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes the works of creation."    Note that this blessing is in present tense, not past.   Creation is happening every day.   And in each case, we human beings are in a humble position when set next to the wonders of creation and our past. 
Sometimes human beings believe they have to power to dictate the state of the created world around us.   Even though the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument encompasses places to enjoy and to visit because of their historical or natural significance, there is an attempt by some leaders to appropriate those sites for other purposes that have nothing to do with their meaning and beauty.  
That exercise of human power may last for a moment, like the eclipse, but it may not persist in the long-term.  
The power of the world around us to inspire us and to remind us of our fleeting days on earth that we must use wisely is endless. 
May the Creator and Sustainer of us all guide us to continue to give voice to nature and to those who came before us,  so that we will have the strength to preserve this vision of a monument to the past, present and future.   

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Invocation - Board Meeting - Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, NM - August 17, 2017

Invocation - Board Meeting - August 17, 2017

Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, New Mexico

We pray, Eternal One,

That a day will come

When hatred will give way to understanding 

Even though we see signs and symbols of bigotry and intolerance 

right before our eyes. 

We pray, God of our Strength,

That a day will come

When violence and war will end

Even though mistrust and fear are still spread by those who try to gain power and influence through fomenting conflict and through the taking of innocent lives.  

We pray, Gracious One,

That a day will come 

When our mercy towards our fellow human beings 

Will overcome a human desire for strict justice 

that creates standards no one could meet.  

We pray, Creator and Sustainer of us all, that a day will come 

When we will be able to see all people as being created in Your image

Sacred, unique and cherished

And that You will grant us the ability 

to convince those who dehumanize others 

and seek to end the lives of people they despise

That all they are doing is destroying the precious divine spark that resides in them. 

We still pray, Holy One of being and blessings,

that Your spirit will guide us 

so that our words and actions 

Will bring us together in unity

Rather than drive us apart into irreparable division.   

Help us listen to You, and to our stories

Because the telling of our tales to one another always holds the possibility

Of weaving for us all a timeless tapestry of love, peace and hope.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Remarks at Las Cruces vigil for Charlottesville and against white supremacy - August 13, 2017

While I was rabbi in Topeka, Kansas

I saw the KKK demonstrate and  I saw Neo Nazis demonstrate

Both at the state Capitol

With the Westboro Baptist Church always picketing nearby

Spouting their hatred as well.

I heard those groups spew forth their bigotry and intolerance - 

Seeking to acquire ultimate power which they believed had been taken away from them 

while accusing others of being guilty of abominations and evil. 

In their misplaced passion for intolerance, they forgot about one ancient list 

of human behaviors that we are called upon to hate - from which we should stay far far way.  

Those behaviors were: 

Excessive pride

A lying tongue

Hands that shed innocent blood

A mind that hatches evil plots

Feet quick to run to evil 

A false witness testifying lies

And one who incites conflict between people. 

When it comes to responding to actions like those, hatred is totally appropriate and required

If we are to be human beings willing to stand side by side with each other in companionship and cooperation. 

When it comes to seeing a group dehumanize others in word and deed

As happened in Charlottesville, resulting not only in insult but in injury and loss of life, 

We must respond with words of condemnation.  Sometimes, THERE IS ONLY ONE SIDE. 

That is something that our current administration did not remember yesterday as it tried to walk a tightrope so as not to lose the support of those white supremacist demonstrators who descended on Charlottesville.

But we would cry out that the support of such people is not something to seek in the first place

Or to welcome or to maintain. 

We know that silently assenting to the rhetoric of such haters 

And focusing, instead, on keeping “law and order” undermines any call for unity. 

I for one would not step into to such a circle 

That does not roundly condemn the hatred and intolerance that targets many, including me, 

for virtual Expulsion from the human race.  

But still, we are all citizens together. 

We appreciate national leaders across the ideological spectrum who condemned the hatred and loss of life in no uncertain terms. 

And look around tonight - see who is here. 

What is important is that we are here now. 

We are sincere and passionate, ready to commit ourselves to hope, to understanding

To the acknowledgment of the pain we may experience

Whatever the source, whatever the cause

To work together, once and for all, leaving hatreds behind

And managing disagreements in a spirit of respect.  

In the words of my friend, liturgist and poet Alden Solovy,  

“We are American, born to a legacy of truth and justice, born to a legacy of freedom and equality”

And I would add that we Americans should always be ready to enlarge that circle

Of truth, justice, freedom and equality

To all who are ready to stand by each other with a sense of deep concern.

And love for who we are and who we can be.   

May these ancient words guide us now and always: 

How good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity


Friday, August 11, 2017

Your Old Shall Dream Dreams, Your Youth Shall See Visions - Making Mensches for the present and future (with reflections on NewCAJE8) - D'var Torah for Ekev - August 11, 2017

        In case you haven’t heard, “America’s Eclipse” is coming on August 21, when the sun will be totally or partially obscured by the moon for a short time all across our country.   We will see an eclipse percentage here in Las Cruces somewhere in the mid-to-upper 60s.  It will be enough to note an eerie difference, and sufficient to see with even a crude pinhole - projection device that anyone could make at home.   This astronomical phenomenon is a wonder because it is different from the ways in which we are used to seeing the sun and moon, and, for those in the area of totality, it is a rare opportunity to see the Sun’s corona because of the natural movement of three celestial bodies.  

       Of course, some spiritual leaders are seeing this event from a lens that would go back some time, like over two millennia, when there was a different understanding of a departure from the natural order of things.   It is true that some Talmudic texts saw eclipses as bad omens, with a lunar eclipse being particularly foreboding for the Jewish people because our calendar is primarily based on the moon.    Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, recently wrote a blog post that asserted that this particular eclipse could be a sign of God’s judgment on America.  She quoted a verse from the book of Joel: “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood…before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (3:4). She then offered this caveat,  “Please be assured that balancing God’s warning is His plea for us to return to Him and rend our hearts in sincere, heartfelt repentance.  I can almost hear the tears in Joel’s voice as he pleads for us to repent and return to God, because, as Joel said, ‘Who knows? He may return and have pity and leave behind a blessing.’ (Joel 2:13-14)

    An earlier part of that passage in Joel looks upon that special day as a time when “your old shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions” and that “everyone who invokes the name of the Eternal” would be a surviving remnant.  

      As for me, I believe that eclipses are amazing.  They may actually give people in one locale or around the world a chance to feel that we are actually on the same planet, that we have to live together, and that dwelling on this earth provides us with some incredible moments when we just have to look to the skies. 

     Still, sometimes, we don’t get along.  Look at the current war of words between North Korea and the United States.  Hopefully, it is just a new version of the old cold war.  An Associated Press report today noted that even with the statements going back and forth, there is a back-channel between our two countries, an attempt to preserve at least a desire to discuss development of ongoing talks.   As we know from the Middle East, back-channels are essential to the preservation of order and to the prevention of real war.   Hopefully, such contacts will keep any movement towards hostilities at bay. 

     While I was at the NewCAJE convention for Jewish educators near Oakland this week, we did read about everything that was going on in the world on our smartphones.   We also heard from a speaker who encouraged us to use our smartphones wisely, to take a break from them every so often, and to use our access to technology to become better people.    Filmmaker Tiffany Schlain addressed the conference this past Tuesday night to talk about her personal efforts to create worldwide movements towards improving who we are as individuals and as a global community.   Schlain was the founder of the Webby Awards, which are presented to the best websites every year.   She developed a day in her family to go without technology based on Shabbat - actually, coinciding with Shabbat, and she shared her idea for more people to do this all over the world. She believes we are in a world of interdependence, and that fact calls on us to be more considerate of each other, more hopeful and thankful, more creative and loving, and more respectful and responsible.   Schlain created Global Character Day, which has been marked by programs worldwide over the last several years.  Some Jewish leaders pointed out to her that her “periodic table of character strengths,” developed to help people get to know themselves and find ways to grow, bore striking similarities to the Mussar movement in Jewish tradition.  Mussar was brought to light in modern times by Rabbi Israel Salanter in Lithuania in the 1800s.  It was based on earlier texts that sought to create a moral foundation for walking in God’s ways through exploring and practicing middot, specific traits we can develop within ourselves as part of a community.   So Tiffany Schlain realized that her Jewish background directed her to create a specifically Jewish version of Global Character day, with its own “Periodic Table of being a mensch” which you can see on your handout.   

    The reason that I mention this effort at character-building is only partially because I was at NewCAJE this week.   In the Torah reading for this Shabbat is the second paragraph of the Shema in a traditional prayer book, which is also on every mezuzah parchment along with the Shema and V’ahavta.   This is a classic statement in the Torah about how walking with God can give us rain, and how being lured away by other gods of our own creation can cause the heavens to refrain from giving their blessing.    Most of us don’t believe this literally anymore, and don’t think for a minute that this applies to the rainfall in Las Cruces which comes only when it’s good and ready.    The Torah presented this view of reward and punishment as a first understanding of a human dilemma.  It was overshadowed in later books by other perspectives, especially by the book of Job, where one righteous man had everything taken away from him as a test to see if he would lose faith.  He didn’t, but people around him still tried to claim that he must have deserved whatever had happened to him because of secret moral violations, even though that was totally untrue. 

     I have always been a believer in character education. Values transcend many of the ideologies that divide us, enabling us to see that we may have much in common with people who don’t agree with us otherwise.   Tiffany Schlain’s periodic table may be nothing new, but we need just this type of roadmap for rank-and-file citizens as well as for leaders.  If people directing national policy and those using their energies to serve and strengthen communities were to apply these middot, these values to their lives, and to learn how to do so along with their neighbors, there would be rain.  The rain that would result would not come down from the sky, but would appear in the form of blessings of cooperation and harmony that might pleasantly surprise us.   We human beings still have it in us to be people of good character.   It is a project on which we should embark in concert with one another every single day. 

      As I sat with fellow Jewish teachers of all ages this week, I thought about the verse from the book of Joel, “Your old shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions.”   While I may have been in the older cohort of participants over the last few days, like everyone there, I was seeking fresh ideas, personal renewal, and an enhanced network of resources and colleagues.   Our presence there united us in song, in study, and in hope that our efforts would bear fruit in the coming months, and that challenging moments that might darken our spirits would give way to a shining sun of learning and love.  In our congregation and in many others, we will continue on a common journey as partners in growing our character and our wisdom.   May we do so, always, together.   

See more about Tiffany Schlain at

Photos from the closing ceremony for NewCAJE 8 at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA

Thursday, August 10, 2017

For Everyone - L'chulam - a song for our soul(s) - August 10, 2017

I realize that participants at conventions which I attend are getting used to seeing me as the "Jamming Rhythm guitarist (Rabbi)." I accept that graciously because "jamming" expresses an important value for me: community, and a camaraderie and partnership among musicians, singers, and listeners. It is always a great joy. 
Still, I am a singer/songwriter whose main "venue" is right here on Facebook, or on my YouTube channel, outside of my congregation in Las Cruces, Temple Beth-El, where a few of my original songs/melodies have become part of worship. 
Songwriting doesn't come easily to me, but it comes, and it is a meaningful mode of personal expression that is akin to the sermons and articles I write. However, a song offers a way to present thoughts, views, opinions, and perspectives with a special feeling added through chords and melody.  
I sang this song late at night at #NewCAJE8, and I have shared it via a multi-track recording. I just think this one is important, because it affirms the place that each of us has in the world. It grew out of the months leading up to the birth of grandson Joshua Moise Karol. A quote by Martin Buber about each of us filling our own particularity in the world is in the new rabbi's manual birth ceremony (and was part of my rabbinic ordination service). The Sayings of the Rabbis/Pirkei Avot quote about each of us having "our hour" has always been a favorite. So here is "L'chulam/For Everyone." Always remember that everyone in your life - peers, colleagues, friends, family, students teachers - has a role in who you are and who you will become. 
L’chulam - For Everyone (Larry Karol - Copyright 2017)
Based on Pirkei Avot 4:3 and a quote by Martin Buber
With your hands, you could touch the sky
As you grow, feel the years rush by
With your strength, you’ll go far one day
With your lips, wise words to say
You are here to be all you can be
Lift up your eyes to see all you can see
לְכָל דָבָר יֵשׁ מָקוֹם לְכוּלָם יֵשׁ שָׁעָה,  
L'chol Davar yaysh makom - L'chulam yaysh shaah
[Everything has a place, all people have their time]
There's not a soul in time or space
Who will ever take your place
Take your hopes and give them wings
Lead your mind to learn everything you can
Take your heart and teach it love
Set your sights on the shining stars above
You are here to be all you can be
Lift up your eyes to see all you can see
לְכָל דָבָר יֵשׁ מָקוֹם לְכוּלָם יֵשׁ שָׁעָה,
L'chol Davar yaysh makom - L'chulam yaysh shaah
There's not a soul in time or space who will ever take your place
אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר
Al t’hi vaz l’chol adam v’al t’hi maflig l’chol davar
[Do not despise anyone or call anything useless]
There are treasures to be found wherever you are
לְכָל דָבָר יֵשׁ מָקוֹם לְכוּלָם יֵשׁ שָׁעָה,
L'chol Davar yaysh makom - L'chulam yaysh shaah
There's not a soul in time or space who will ever take your place
There's not a soul in time or space who will ever take your place

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Community Should Help People without judgment - Las Cruces Bulletin column for August 4, 2017

          A long time ago (1978-1981), I served as a student rabbi at Temple B’nai Moshe in LaSalle/Peru, Illinois.  Students from my rabbinic school in Cincinnati would travel every two weeks, from September to June, to our assigned congregation to lead worship, engage in study, teach children, and make pastoral visits to congregants facing illness or other challenges. 

      One of my members at Temple B’nai Moshe was a man named Irving Bell who lived in Ottawa, Illinois.   Mr. Bell, who founded Bell’s Clothing in 1922, was born in 1899 in Lithuania. He came to the United States in 1913 (at age 14) from Germany at the insistence of his parents, Moses and Dora Kubelsky.  He joined his uncle Meyer and cousin Benny in Waukegan, Illinois.  While going to school there, Irving worked at his uncle’s store.  Meyer Kubelsky liked what he saw in his nephew as a salesman. That was not so with Meyer’s son, Benny.    

     Irving’s daughter, Marcia, related a story that, one day, Meyer said to his son, “'Why can't you learn to sell like Irving instead of playing your stupid violin?”  The way Irving told me the story was that his uncle said to his cousin, “You’ll never amount to anything.”  

     While Irving shortened his last name to Bell, his cousin Benny dropped his last name during his career, and added a first name: Jack.   Irving’s cousin was well-known entertainer Jack Benny.    

      Most every time I saw Irving at Temple, he would say to me, “I remember the beginning of the Haftarah (a section from the biblical prophetic books) from my Bar Mitzvah like it was yesterday.”  He would then recite in Hebrew, ChazonYeshayahu ven Amotz asher chazah al-Yehudah.  It was the first verse of the book of Isaiah, “The vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz, that he beheld concerning Judah.”   Then Irving would add, “but if you asked me what I had for breakfast, I couldn’t tell you.”  

     This past Sabbath was the week when Jews around the world recited chapter one of book of IsaiahSo I thought about Irving and his frequent sharing of a distant memory.    

    In the section from the book of Isaiah from Irving’s Bar Mitzvah, the prophet railed against the people of Judah for not understanding the need to sincerely follow their faith.   He claimed that they only went through the motions of their rituals with no intention and no sense that they were supposed to translate belief into action.  

   So Isaiah declared to the people that they should “cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, uphold the rights of the orphan, and take up the cause of the widow.”  

     In his book, All Politics is Religious, Rabbi Dennis Ross explained that Isaiah  insisted that community members should meet people in need where they were, as opposed to blaming them for their plight.   Seeking justice was not about imposing punishment. It was about approaching vulnerable members of society with a sense of compassion and fairness.  

     Both Irving Bell and his famous cousin, Jack Benny, amounted to something.   It is likely that their new community in Waukegan assisted them in feeling at home after they first arrived, setting them up with what they needed to be able to, eventually, help themselves.       

     Isaiah’s message can still guide us today.   We can be here for each other, offering help to one another when necessary.    The choice is ours, as the blessingsthat can come from our hands and hearts could be ours as well.