Thursday, September 21, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5778
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld
Congregation Albert
Albuquerque, New Mexico

While procrastinating writing this sermon, I calculated that over my six year tenure at Congregation Albert I have saved 85,000 emails, deleted 10’s of thousands more and received about 22,000 junk emails for a total close to 150,000 - 200,000 emails or about 25,000 - 35,000 emails a year. That does not count the 10’s of thousands I received and read on my personal email accounts. I am not citing these numbers to whine about how busy I am or brag about how hard I work. I know that the vast majority of those emails are from you and contain the important details of your lives, your families, your hopes, and your dreams. I also know that most of you receive at least that many emails each year and many of you far more.

Before email, none of us received 1/10 of the number of phone calls and letters combined as we do emails today. Email is the greatest time suck ever invented.

Juliet Funt, yes the daughter of Allen Funt of Candid Camera, teaches:
  1. Most of us who are working spend 100% of our time on exertion, i.e. doing and 0% of our time on thoughtfulness.
  2. We are too busy to become un-busy
  3. With ever present screens, TV, computers, phones, pads, game consoles, email, texts, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, WhatsApp, iMessage, and so much more, we have become uncomfortable with The Pause, moments of quiet, moments of reflection.

Ms. Funt reflects that at work we have lost the permission “think the un-thunk thought” and at home,  one day, we will rue the precious moments we miss because we are busy.

She shares a story she heard about a woman who turned down the opportunity to spend the day driving and picnicking with her family. Her spouse and children enjoyed a marvelous day. Two weeks later her spouse died. According to the woman’s daughter, for the rest of her life she repeated: “I didn’t take the ride.” We have all missed at least one drive because we were “too busy”. I am among the worst culprits.

We believe there are forces in this world that compel us to tie ourselves to the ground and not let our spirits and our lives soar. These forces may include our own egos or our image of what makes us important, as well as others. Yes, there are times we need to work, to struggle, to be busy. But, we also need to let go, to pause and allow ourselves the freedom to think, the freedom to grow spiritually.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Larry Malinger, uses this example: “When we start to fly and are struggling against these forces [eg. gravity and inertia], there is a lot of noise. Sometimes, it is an external noise…. Other times it is an internal noise…. It is true, for the first ‘10,ooo feet” it is hard, it is noisy, you cannot use approved electronic devices, your seat belt must remain fastened…. Then the noise slowly fades and you keep climbing. You can now use electronic devices. Having reached cruising altitude, you can get out of your seat and move around. Nonetheless, turbulence, or other complications [occur] and you will need to refasten your seat belts just to stay safe.”

I love this analogy. Even though the noise fades it is not gone. If you let it, the noise fades into your unconscious until “we begin our descent”. The time between reaching 10,000 feet and beginning our descent is a pause. You allow yourself to simply go along for the ride. You let go of control. True, someone is flying the plane, but it is not you. “The descent” itself is a wonderful metaphor. The plane begins its descent back toward earth just as we, at the end of the pause, return to the busyness of life.

This morning we read of Abraham answering God’s call with the word “הינני, I am here, I am ready to take on the task as awesome or as awful as it may be.” Throughout Torah and the entire Hebrew Bible, our ancestors answered the call with “הינני, I am here, I am ready.”

Mostly, “הינני, I am here, I am ready” responds to an external call; whether the voice of God or, more likely, the alert on our phone. Our ancestors understood the importance of responding to that external call. They also understood the need to respond to the internal call with “הינני I am here, I am ready”. Therefore, they gifted us שבת, the Sabbath, a day of pause, a day to put aside the roar of the engine, the alert of our phone, and take control of our time.

Rabbi Maligner writes: “In a world full of distractions, the proper way to translate ‘Hineni’ today is  ‘I am fully present.’ I am fully present in my life.” Ms. Funt reminds us that the moments of creativity and insight occur when we are fully present and able to create WhiteSpace in which to consciously pause.

Let’s be honest. We all know what happens when we are not fully present, when we do not pause. We crash; we hit the wall; we burn out - pick your metaphor. We get irritable. The important people in our lives feel ignored. We lash out. We do a lousy job. And of course, we are SO much fun to be around.

Think you are different, that you do not need the pause? Think you are superhuman and able to do it all 24/7/365 (or 6)? Our ancestors knew better even if we do not. From its outset, Torah teaches the importance of the pause. Even God, whom Torah saw as omnipotent, took a break after six days spent creating the world. Continuously in Torah, Tanach and Rabbinic Literature, the importance of Shabbat is reiterated over and over and over and over. The Torah, and later the Rabbis, reiterate the punishment for ignoring Shabbat is the ultimate punishment, death. While Torah sets the sentence to be carried out by stoning, we know dying from exhaustion and stress was, and is, more often the cause of death.

As we wrote you earlier this month:

It does not have to be the Shabbat of your great-grandparents. Be creative and daring. Find a way to make Shabbat meaningful for you. A quiet dinner with family or friends, or going for a hike in this incredible place we are blessed to call home. Call friends and family to reconnect and show your caring. The possibilities are endless. This first time experimenting with Shabbat may not open new doors or create a spiritual high. But, perhaps, with time and repetition you may discover things about yourself that can only come to light in the space that Shabbat can provide...Find or create your own way of observing Shabbat. 

Historically the Jewish community observed Shabbat on Friday night and Saturday. My teacher Rabbi Alvin Reines, since he worked every Friday night and Saturday, observed Shabbat on Thursday night and Friday. I do not suggest you follow Rabbi Reines’ example any more than you follow your grandparents’. Find your own path. Draw from the core of our tradition, understand the purpose of Shabbat and revel in the pause. Use the WhiteSpace of Shabbat to center yourself and re-find your creative, introspective true self. Do not be afraid of the descent back to the busyness of life. Your landing will be much smoother because you took the time to pause.

Making time to pause and understanding our priorities allows for the growth of opportunities. Our own personal WhiteSpace of Shabbat helps us to know who we are, and what we are truly meant to do. We can be blessed with the luxury of identifying the path we need to take in life, realizing what is important to us and most important, who is important to us. When we know that, things fall into place.

Find the strength to pause and may you never have to say: “I didn’t take the ride.”
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld
Congregation Albert
Albuquerque, New Mexico

For the first time in my rabbinate I have received emails, calls and had conversations with people who were not just curious as to what I was going to speak about during these Holy Days but telling me what I should say about each topic and what I should not mention. What positions I should take and which I should avoid.

I have never shied away from speaking my mind from the bimah - from the pulpit. I appreciate when people who agree with me or disagree with me come to me afterward to share their insights. I have colleagues who will not speak about Israel from the bimah for fear of angering people who may disagree. Others who will not speak about morality or our prophetic tradition for the same reason. That has never been my issue. My struggle has been and continues to be presenting my thoughts in a way that leaves open the possibility of dialog.

I was raised by my Rabbi, Philip Horowitz z”l who received a subpoena to testify before Joseph McCarthy’s House un-American Affairs Committee. Appearing before the committee, he refused to testify. Rabbi Horowitz knew the actions and motivations of the committee’s leadership violated both Jewish ethics and our American value of Liberty and Justice for all.

I was raised in the tradition of Rabbi Joachim Prinz z”l who was a leader in the Civil Rights movement. On August 28, 1963, he spoke just before Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream Speech.” That day Rabbi Prinz spoke these words which were taught to me and ingrained into me

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder….

Rabbi Prinz continues:

The time, I believe has come to work together - for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together, to work together…[that] from Maine to California, from North to South, may become, a glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally renewed and united America.

The moral renewal of which Rabbi Prinz spoke was most certainly not the morality of what we do in our bedrooms or the choices we make with regard to our bodies. The moral renewal he yearned for was the coming of fruition of the moral dream of America; Liberty and Justice for all.

For the majority of my life the moral vacuum in our country has been growing. Gone are the days of fighting for liberty for all on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. While fighting in the fields of Europe and the shores of the Pacific, our government led at home. First, creating a military integrated and open to all, then, taking on the monumental task of leading the way on civil rights. Voices of opposition were heard but the inherent truth of Liberty and Justice for all dominated and prevailed. However, since the mid-1970’s the voice of opposition to that great American principle has grown and the moral voices have been cowed into a silence of death. Leadership in government, with too few exceptions, and especially on the national level, continues to devolve into a mentality of “I have to win and you have to lose.” And if you disagree with me you are evil”.

The events and the responses to Charlottesville stand as an example of this growing moral vacuum. Nazi marches in our streets began in the 1930’s. In the post WWII years, none were to be seen until the infamous march in Skokie. A location chosen because of its high concentration of Holocaust survivors.

Call it Nazism or white supremacy, they are two sides of the same coin. The march in Charlottesville shows how complacent we have become. First, the Nazi’s in Charlottesville elevated their heinousness by carrying weapons of war. The slogans shouted were modifications of the hate they have always spouted but, the weaponry brought a new level of seriousness. If you think Charlottesville was an anomaly, think again. 

This past Friday night - yes on erev Shabbat, African-American protesters in St. Louis surrounded by police and facing tear gas and rubber bullets, took refuge through the only open door they could find - the door of Central Reform Congregation. Whether or not the congregation should have opened its doors to them is not the issue. Almost immediately a new hashtag appeared on Twitter “gasthesynagogue.” The tweets came not just from radical right wing groups but from the major supplier of the police departments throughout the country.. If you think the business was just trying to sell more tear gas and did not understand the historical reference to the Shoah - the Holocaust, think again.

Charlottesville marked a nadir in American values; St. Louis a new low. At the same time, though, we began to see the pendulum swing back. It was as if America began to awaken from a nightmare filled sleep. Finally, after Charlottesville, led some of our elected officials, the voice of unequivocal condemnation began to rise.

The first voices to be heard were from the national legislative branch: Republican Senators. Men and women who within hours stood up and said: “Not in our America we strive for!” Then slowly, Democratic voices began to come forth with a similar message. But the voices of those in senior leadership of the national executive and legislative branches were silent or at best equivocating. Meanwhile, loud, peaceful shouts filled the streets of our country calling for an elevation of our system toward the goal of liberty and justice for all. These voices rose like a symphony of shofarot calling our nation to repent our 40 year silence and renew the call for liberty throughout the land.

What about we Jews? The literature of our Jewish heritage is unequivocal. In the Book of Esther, when Esther is hesitant about confronting the King, Mordecai says to her (4:14): “If you keep silent in this moment,… you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows, perhaps you have attained this (royal) position for this exact moment.” - If Esther, in a time when women had no rights could stand and speak before the King - who are we to stay silent?

Tractate Berachot says: “In anger God said to Moses in Deuteronomy 9:10: ‘Leave Me be, that I may destroy them’ Moses said to himself: If God is telling me to let Him be, it must be because this matter is dependent upon me. Immediately Moses stood and was strengthened in prayer, and asked that God have mercy on the nation of Israel and forgive them for their transgression.” If Moses could confront God - Who are we to stay silent?

Leviticus 19:18: “Rebuke your neighbor that you may not share in his/her guilt.” If our ancestors were called to confront evil - Who are we to stay silent?

And of course Pirkei Avot 1:14: “Rabbi Hillel used to say: if I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” - “And if not now, when?” Who are we to stay silent now?

But what is the purpose of ending the silence? In the 6th Century, Avot de Rabbi Natan A, 23, 38a taught: “Who is the most heroic of heroes? One who conquers one’s own inclination to do evil. And some say: one who makes an enemy into a friend.”

The first silence we need to end is the blindness we carry about ourselves. Where do I fall short? To whom do I deny liberty and justice? If your answer is you do not fall short and you do not have your bigotries, then you are blind to yourself and a fool.

The second part of the saying: “makes an enemy into a friend.” cannot be accomplished in silence or with violence. Lowering ourselves to the level of those who try and dehumanize us gives them a victory. Honest, open, peaceful dialog, where all participants listen with open hearts and minds, leads not necessarily to agreement, but to the recognition of a joint commitment to our prime values and ethical standards. Just as we will not be dehumanized, neither shall we sink to that level and dehumanize others. Dehumanization of others builds and reinforces the bigotry and  evil within ourselves.

As my colleague Rabbi Larry Malinger writes: “Many religious traditions promote asceticism, withdrawal from the institutions and activities of the everyday world…. Judaism, however, goes in the opposite direction: our tradition teaches us to embrace argument. Just as God in the story of Creation, creates the world and brings order out of chaos through words, so vibrant human words - debate and discussion - can serve as instruments of creation as well.”

Recently, a number of us refused to be silent. We went to our Senators’ offices to push them to be more vocal and present in their denunciation of hatred and bigotry, to push them to become the leaders standing up for Liberty and Justice for all we need them to be. One of the aides said: “the Senator is concerned about casual racism.” We did not remain silent. The aide heard loud and clear that there is no such thing as “casual racism.” Racism in all its forms demeans both the target of the bigotry and the bigot. Especially in the presence of power we must not remain silent.

We are blessed to live in a city and a state that is better than most. Yet, as we learn over and over, better is not always good. We cannot hide in the shelter of our homes or even this, our Jewish home. It is time to speak.

In 1774, future Revolutionary War soldier and Vermont Congressman, Rev. Nathaniel Niles spoke these words:

If any should say, it is in vain for them as individuals to be vigilant, zealous and firm in pursuing any measures for the security of our rights, unless all would unite: I would reply:

Ages are composed of seconds, the earth of sands, and the sea of drops, too small to be seen by the naked eye. The smallest particles have their influence….each individual has a proportion of influence on some neighbour at least; he, on another, and so on;… We know not what individuals may do. We are not at liberty to lie dormant until we can, at once, influence the whole. We must begin with the weight we have. Should the little springs neglect to flow till a general agreement should take place, the torrent that now bears down all before it, would never be formed. These mighty floods have their rise in single drops from rocks; which, uniting, creep along till they meet with another combination so small that it might be absorbed by the travellers [sic] foot. These unite, proceed, enlarge, till mountains tremble at their sound. Let us receive instruction from the streams,… 

Rabbis Horowitz and Prinz taught me: never be silent. Rev. Niles teaches a word can become a catalyst for change. Torah teaches: only God can create worlds with words. We know our words can change worlds for blessing.

May the words of our mouths blare forth with the power to change ourselves and change the world. כן יהי רצון.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Blessings Or Curses

In this week's Torah portion, Balak, is named for the Moabite King who engaged the Midianite priest Balaam to curse the Israelites. Instead, Balaam at the insistence of God blesses the Israelites.

Too often we expect curses and instead receive blessings. We don’t always recognize these blessings. I suppose it's human nature to focus on the negative. We see this in newscasts, our print media, and especially online. There are also times when we expect blessings and actually receive them.

Last weekend I was expecting both blessings and curses and ended up finding just blessings. I went back to Cleveland for my NFTY regional youth group reunion. A few weeks before, I also received a notice that some of my high school classmates would be gathering for dinner and drinks that Sunday afternoon. To top it all off, on Friday I had lunch with one of the families that helped raise me and they told me about a 90th birthday party for someone from the congregation where I grew up. So, I ended up having three reunions. One for NFTY, one for my high school, and one for my congregation.

I expected blessings at my NFTY reunion and at the birthday party. Those blessings far exceeded my expectations. I was able to both reconnect with close friends and enhance friendships that had previously just been acquaintances. Together we shared old memories and created new ones. We celebrated those with us as well as those who were not. We mourned those who died too young. We laughed about our silly misunderstandings. We understood, through more mature eyes, people we always saw as different.

At my high school get-together, I expected nothing but curses. I left high school 44 years ago with an oath to never return. The few close friends I kept in touch with over the years and I swore we would never attend a class reunion. We saw ourselves as the outsiders. We saw ourselves as those who were ignored by those who were “cool”. As I looked at the list of my classmates who would be at the event, there were names I did not recognize. But there are also names that I did recognize. They were people who never spoke to me when we were in class together or if they did it was a taunt or at best a passing hello.

When I arrived at the event I was met by four of my male classmates who when I introduced myself either didn't remember me or their grunts showed they did. But once I entered the room I was greeted with some enthusiastic hello's and even a hug or two. People who I remember never acknowledging my existence hugged me. Either my memory or theirs was flawed. I walked in expecting the curses my memory held from my high school years, but instead, received the blessing of welcome and warmth. While I cannot make it back for my 45th reunion I am considering trying to make it to the 50th. The blessing of warmth and welcome challenged my painful memories. But even if my memories are accurate and theirs are not, I and/or they have a new perspective on each other and ourselves.

Friendships renewed and expanded, understanding brought by age. What greater blessings could there be? 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

If my father Nathan Rosenfeld z”l, were still alive he would turn 104 today. To say he was an interesting man would be an understatement. He was a liberal with conservative views. He worked hard and made little but he never stopped trying. He fought in the Pacific Theater in WWII and came home with nightmares that never left him. He grew up in a Communist household and when he came home one day and found me listening to Firesign Theater’s All Hail Marx and Lennon, seeing the cover, he yelled at me up one side and down the other about patriotism. He grew up in a Communist home but was sent to and Orthodox Hebrew school to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah service. He was an American through and through but he wanted me to move to Israel and take a Hebrew last name to shed any tie to our European ancestry.

In June, 1967, not quite 6 months after my mother z”l died, the Six Day War broke out and he wanted to hop a plane to Israel to help. I think the only reason he didn’t was because he wouldn’t risk leaving me totally orphaned. He worked with my rabbi, Philip Horowitz z”l to send me to Israel on the Eisendrath International Exchange program (Now the Heller EIE High School in Israel program.) On Yom Kippur 1973, I was a freshman in college and ready to drop out to fly back to Israel to help in the war, he wouldn’t help me financially thus preventing me from going.

He never fulfilled his dream of getting to Israel a dream I have fulfilled on his behalf, and mine, over and over.

In Hebrew, 104 is spelled with the letter ד (dalet) and מ (mem) spelling the word דם (dam) which is the Hebrew word for blood. In the Hebrew Bible blood is portrayed as the container of the essence of life. My father’s life was interesting, complicated, hard, filled with friends, and very full. May we all be so blessed.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Why Come To A Worship Service

Why fixed prayers? To learn what we should value, what we should pray for. To be at one with our people, the household of Israel. To ensure that the ideals painfully learned and purified, and for which many have lived and died, shall not perish from the community and shall have a saving influence upon the individual.
                                                                                                Rabbi Chaim Stern

Periodically I get asked: “Why come to services when I can pray/meditate/think better when I’m alone in nature?” It is a serious question that deserves a serious answer.

As much as Judaism is about ethics, learning, prayer, and God (however you do or do not believe), Judaism is about community. Each week as I look around the chapel or sanctuary, while some are there to find a spiritual, prayerful space, everyone is there to be a part of our Congregation Albert and/or a Jewish community. That sense of being part of a living, growing community is often missing from our lives. We may have 1000 Facebook friends or followers of our Twitter feed, but to be fully human we need to be in the presence of others to truly feel community.

I am an introvert by nature. At an oneg or a party my preference is to be with 1 or 2 people and avoid the crowd. At a service my preference is to sit alone or with Michele to pray. Yet, I still feel that sense of being part of a community that is larger than me and it brings me comfort and strength. As I look around the congregation at each service I see people like me who may only talk to 1 or 2 people or no one.

Then there are the extroverts who revel in being an active part of the community, talking to everyone, needing a sense of closeness to others. Communal prayer and the oneg/Kiddush afterward provides that for them. It grows their spirituality and sense of safety and comfort. As I look around the congregation at each service I see these people too.

How do you meet your need to be a part of a community? Each person at services is fulfilling her/his need to be part of a community in her/his own way. Come join us and see.