Friday, October 13, 2017

Fill the earth and Tame it - Creation and Leadership- D'var Torah - Pasrashat B'raysheet - October 13, 2017 (Installation Shabbat)

 The story of the creation of the world in the first chapter of the book of Genesis includes what might very well be the first job description. 
       Since, however, it’s not for a job, but a life’s mission, it probably isn’t a job description at all.    
       And if it’s not a description of tasks for a position of employment, we could call the first man and the first woman the first ever volunteers.    
       There seems to have been little arm twisting in the first chapter of Genesis.  The chapter describes the newly-created man, not yet named Adam, and the woman, not yet named Eve, receiving a charge from God.   
         Their life’s volunteer mission began with God’s blessing, as God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and tame it; hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, and over every animal that creeps on the earth.”
        In this translation, fortunately, the Hebrew word “V’CHIVSHUHA” is translated as “tame.”   Many Bibles say “subdue.”  Literally, the word could mean “conquer.”      For at least 2500 years, this word has been in this text, and it’s a strong one.   
        Does the Hebrew word mean to overcome by force?  Or does it mean to bring something under control?   One English definition of “subdue” explains that it can mean to cultivate. It can also mean to “tone down.”    One Webster definition of “tame” is “to reduce from a state of native wildness especially so as to be tractable and useful to humans.”  
      It is what comes after the Hebrew word in question that may help us define the what that word really means here.   God was setting up these new human beings and their descendants to be responsible for the earth, the entire earth.   It was an overwhelming task.    And it was God doing the asking.   How could they say no? 
      But what did God’s charge really mean?      There are some who say that this passage gives us members of the human race license to do whatever we want to do with the world.   But Judaism says, “not so fast!”   Modern commentator Richard Elliot Friedman explains that just because the Bible says that human beings should subdue and rule the earth doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be GOOD rulers!   Bible scholar Aviva Gottleib Zornberg interpreted this verse to mean that we should serve “as the earth’s custodians, by changing, controlling and improving the environment.”  
    That goes along with the rabbinic midrash that describes God taking Adam around the Garden of Eden to orient him to the natural realm.  God told him, “See how beautiful all my creations are. Everything has been created for your sake.  Think about this, and take care not to destroy my world.  For if you do, there will be none to repair it after you.”  
        This passage notes that, on day six, God saw what had been created as not just “good” as it had said before on the previous days of creation.   At this point, after the first appearance of humanity, the world was, in God’s eyes, “very good.” 
       That definition of the status of creation set a standard for the task awaiting the human family.   If God gave us a world that is “very good,” we need to teach future leaders and global citizens how to preserve the world as a “very good place.”   
        That goes for leadership on a smaller scale as well.   In organizations like religious congregations and their affiliate groups, there are generations of leadership.  There are some leaders who are new, and there are some who have led in the past and come back again to take on a new position of enhancing and enlivening the holy community to which they belong.   The challenge of taking any position of leadership is knowing what is expected of you, when you are charged to preserve and maintain, and when you are asked to create something new that will have the possibility of gaining a life of its own that new leaders will sustain in the years to come.   
        I believe it’s important for Temple leaders to be installed when they begin their service in their new position and then to take part in this ceremony as long as they continue to serve.   With each passing year, we gain experience and wisdom and perhaps even increased energy and enthusiasm for our tasks.   With each new year, the world may look a little different than before because we have grown, and it is through those new eyes that we view fresh possibilities that lie before us.  
     Sometimes we, as leaders or volunteers, may think that we need to do everything at once.  All right, so God seems to have done everything at once, but, even for God, the world was not created in a day.   Sometimes, if we accomplish only one part of a larger task, we are making progress. 
    One of my favorite stories about how even the small things we do matter is about a man who was walking along a beach covered with starfish that had been left high and dry by the receding tide.   He saw a girl on the beach, picking up starfish one by one and throwing them back into the ocean.   “What do you think you are doing?” the man asked the girl.  She said, “I am saving the starfish!”   The man replied, “On this beach alone there must be tens of thousands of starfish, not to mention the tens of thousands of miles of beaches around the world with just as many starfish.  How can you possibly make a difference?”  The girl picked up another starfish, looked the man straight in the eye, and hurled it far out into the sea.  Looking back at the man, she said, “Made a difference to that one, didn’t it?” 

       Every single act that makes a difference can improve our community and make an impact on the entire world.    One of my favorite coffee mugs at home says as much:   “To the world, you may be one person.  But to one person, you may be the world.”    May the new worlds we fashion with our spirit and creativity bring goodness and blessing to us all, here within these walls, and always extending out to the world around us.  

Friday, October 6, 2017

Open Confession is Good for the Soul - Column for the Las Cruces Bulletin on October 6, 2017

 At this writing, I am about to lead my congregation in the observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This day of fasting and introspection includes congregational prayers of confession that have a long history in Jewish worship.

   The most important application of these prayers to daily life is their guidance in how we present our apologies when we have erred in our words and actions.

   In my own exploration about apologies, I learned that some people believe that they are more powerful when they refrain from saying they are sorry. Psalm 32 counters that notion, indicating that a person who did not confess his or her sins would be overcome with anguish as if he or she was in the midst of a “summer drought.”  The famous Scottish proverb about confession with which many of us are familiar actually says this:  “OPEN confession is good for the soul.”  

   A facet of confessional prayers in a synagogue on Yom Kippur is that they are recited by the worshippers all together and aloud (mostly) with “we” language that offers direct admission of sins that human beings, as a whole, commit: “We betray…we are cruel…we lie…we disobey…we corrupt…we go astray…we lead others astray.”

   This year, I asked members of my congregation to suggest what makes for a good and sincere apology and what might keep someone from apologizing.

  Their comments were comprehensive and insightful.   They explained that apologies should come from the heart and include specific language, leaving out the words “but” and “if,” which serve to negate the apologizer’s message.  An apology needs to demonstrate that the person has taken responsibility for his or her actions, that he/she understands the hurt caused, that restitution will be made, and that the person will not repeat the words or actions that caused the hurt.

    They surmised that people may refrain from apologizing because of pride, a lack of courage, fear of rejection, anger, stubbornness, arrogance, a lack of self-awareness, and being uncertain of just what to say.  

    The impetus for my focus on apologies this year came from the book Why Won’t You Apologize? by Dr. Harriett Lerner.  Dr. Lerner, who was a congregant of mine when I served in Topeka, Kansas, presented a wide range of situations in her work from which she derived important guidelines for how to say we are sorry and how we can overcome our reluctance to do so. Dr. Lerner gave guidance on how, within our complex relationships, apologies can heal hurts that may have lasted for decades.  

   In an interview about her book, Dr. Lerner explained that being able to apologize is so important for people in all walks of life:   “The level of respect we earn from others, as well as our own level of maturity, rest squarely on our ability to see ourselves objectively, to take a clear-eyed look at the ways that our behavior affects others, and to be fully accountable for our mistakes without blaming others.   The courage to apologize and the wisdom to do it wisely and well is at the heart of friendship, leadership, marriage, parenting and being grounded in maturity, integrity and self-worth.  It’s hard to imagine what’s more important than that.”

  “I’m sorry” is a statement that has the potential to bring people closer together and restore relationships.   These might be the most important and pivotal words we will ever say.

Column for the October 2017 El Paso Jewish Voice - Creation and the Southwest

 When Rhonda and I visited Las Cruces in late March of 2011 (to interview for the position at Temple Beth-El) for the first time, I realized that I hadn’t ever really been anywhere with similar scenery, except, perhaps, Israel.  I told one of my congregants-to-be who had lived in Israel that Las Cruces reminded me of Beersheva.  Never mind that I haven’t been in Beersheva since 1977.  The memory was still there, and something resonated from the appearance of the terrain, especially with desert all around us in this area that we began to explore on that trip.

   I have vague memories of a 1963 trip with my family through New Mexico (Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Carlsbad) that led to a stay in El Paso and walking across to Juarez.  My midwestern “perch” in Kansas City, marked with rolling hills and tree-lined streets, hadn’t included the vistas that we enjoy here in our shared region along the border.

   I look out our window every morning towards the northwest, seeing not the sunrise but the effects of the beginning of a new day on the area around us.   In the evening, if there are clouds in the sky, I am prepared to take at least one sunset photo with the mountains across town dotting the horizon.    

    We are amazed at the brief periodic flourishing of Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens, so they say) and the surprising blossoms that appear on various cacti.  The infrequency of rain in our area makes it seems all the more precious to us when it comes. 

    During our autumn, there are not many trees that lose their leaves, like our experiences with a burgeoning collection of large sycamore leaves in our yard when we lived in Kansas.   There are no changing colors as we witnessed in September/October in New Hampshire. There are, enough leafless trees, though, to remind us that winter, with it own unique character here, will ultimately arrive.

    Every year, a major reminder of the change of seasons for us is the Jewish calendar, and when it comes to nature, Chag HaSukkot connects us, wherever we are, to the cycles happening around us.   If we didn’t notice it before, building the Sukkah and praying and eating and spending time in it, waving the Lulav/Etrog, reciting blessings of the season and beholding our harvest symbol for a week highlights for us that we live in nature’s time and God’s time.  

     Even the celebration of Simchat Torah, which provides with an opportunity to rejoice in the opportunity to hear God’s voice through the the text and to study with each other, touches upon creation.  It ends with the passing of Moses, a treasured teacher and leader who guided the Israelites through many years living in a challenging natural setting while learning to become a community. And then, the Torah begins again with the creation of the world.   After commemorating creation on Rosh Hashanah, the Birthday of the World, we have a second chance to marvel at the process of creation that has resulted in our existence and our presence together in the world.

    So may we praise the Eternal One, Ruler of the Universe, who makes the works of creation and renews them every day.  May that renewal inspire and lead us to grow our own character towards goodness,  godliness and gratitude for the gift of life.  


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Musical Conversations with God - Part One - Psalms in Song

In preparation for my "Harmony in Unison" online presentation on October 23, I have been reviewing my original songs to see which ones would qualify as "conversations with God."   
I don't want to give away my whole setlist for that performances, but here are a few YouTube videos of my songs based on Psalms: 

Here are a few to consider!