Archive | January, 2014

Our Judaism helps make the everyday better

24 Jan

We bring our families to Shalom Park and CJP knowing that Judaism is much more than going to synagogue once a week.

Each and every day we can opt to improve everything around us.

What are our first thoughts in the morning? Joy or exhaustion? Contentment or complaint?

Take a moment to offer a thought and a word of gratitude first thing in the morning, whenever we have given up on hitting the snooze button. See what it does to change the morning. It may take a few tries. Look at our loved ones and think, “I am grateful for my family”, and let those loved ones know that we are thankful for them.

We can transform our days that easily.

Things that we care about, like health and fitness, are things that Judaism cares about too. Our teachers were not only scholars with their heads in their books. We come from people who explored all dimensions of living better – rituals and learning are only parts of Judaism. Mental and physical health, daily practices that improve things in small increments – learned Jews have explored these ideas for centuries.

Take a small step of gratitude, make a better moment every morning.

Hearing Voices – MLK 2014

20 Jan

by Rabbi Judy Schindler 

At Temple Beth El, Martin Luther King is one of our favorite weekends of the year.  We cherish our exchanges and this year is no exception. CN Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church is a remarkable place with a remarkable leader.  Your Pastor, Dr. Jerry Cannon is dynamic, wise, passionate, creative, and dedicated beyond measure not only to you but to the broader community.

Dr. Cannon spoke to us on Friday about the Freedom Summer in 1964 when Civil Rights leaders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner were working together in Mississippi on a “Freedom Summer” Campaign to register voters.  On Memorial Day in 1964, Schwerner and Chaney spoke to the congregation at Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi; their speech was about setting up a Freedom School. Schwerner implored them to register to vote, saying, “You have been slaves too long, we can help you help yourselves” A month later, all three were murdered. Goodman and Shwerner, who were Jewish, were shot. James Chaney, who was Black, was chain whipped and brutally beaten before being shot.

50 years ago Blacks and Jews marched together. 50 years ago Blacks and Jews risked their lives and died working together in to register voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was meant to right those wrongs has recently been changed making that right of voting in this State harder to attain. This March, 50 years later, in memory of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, Dr. Cannon and I envision CN Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church and Temple Beth El working together to register people to vote.   We hope teams will set out to malls, to uptown, to the Charlotte transit center, and to university campuses to make sure all are registered.  With last years’ Supreme Court changes to the law and North Carolina’s legislative race to limit the voting rights in our State, we have a lot of work to do to make sure our freedom to vote is protected and embraced.

Our Torah says, “V’ahavtah l’reacha kamocha – love your neighbor as yourself.” You may not know this but we are neighbors.  Our Jewish Community Cemetery, our Hebrew Cemetery, is next door.  I pass by here regularly and far too often.  The awesome marble ark that housed our Torahs and that stood proudly in our Beth El sanctuary for nearly two decades is now in our new cemetery building just a short walking distance down the road. From this point forward, when I drive by and when I offer prayers for wholeness and peace in our sacred house next door, you will be a part of my prayers.

Dr. Cannon tells me that you have had many funerals this week. I am so sorry for all your losses. At funerals I sometimes read a poem called “Remember Me” that opens in the following way:

To the living – I am gone. To the angry – I was cheated. But to the happy – I am at peace. And to the faithful – I have never left. I cannot speak – but I can listen. I cannot be seen – but I can be heard.

When we lose loved ones, we can continue to hear their voices speaking to us, even after they are gone. Now I am not talking about hearing literal voices. I was a clinical psychology major.  I know that if you tell people you hear voices speaking to you, schizophrenia could be a diagnosis that enters your medical file. 

My father died 13 years ago. When I am lost, I close my eyes and try to hear his voice guiding me. My dad was not only my father he was my rabbi — my teacher. He listened to my sermons and would say, “Judy, that sermon is good.” Or “Judy that sermon needs work.” Then he’d guide met to make it great. He wasn’t alive when I took on the leadership of a large congregation. I can’t tell you how many times I long to hear his voice of wisdom. I need him when I feel lost.

As a country we often get lost. On this weekend celebrating great Dr. King, who was stolen from this world at far too young age of 39, we long to hear his voice guiding us.

What would Dr. King say?  What would he say about our third African American Mayor Patrick Cannon who just replaced our second African American Mayor Anthony Foxx who left his post to go serve in our United States President’s Cabinet? What would he say about our African American President? What would he say if he could see our MLK Sermon Exchange with a rabbi preaching here and Dr. Cannon preaching at our Temple?

We all long to hear Dr. King’s voice. Would he stand in awe and proudly say, “Look how far we have come?” Or would he be bent over in agony observing the painful inequalities that remain?  Would he see beyond the beautiful color photos capturing our Queen City to witness the black and white harshness of the tensions that exist: overwhelming poverty, educational inequities, harsh accusations and vitriolic arguments over the Affordable Care Act, and North Carolina’s limiting of employment benefits, Medicaid benefits, and Voting Rights.

It was several weeks ago in the middle of the night when my home was quiet that I heard Martin Luther King’s voice. It came not from my mind, but from my computer as I listened to a 1967 sermon called “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.”

We each long to live a complete life – even if years are shortened we pray that they will be full. In King’s eyes, the first dimension of a complete life is the length of life and is reached by loving ourselves.

We can hear the voice of Leviticus calling to us “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” We cannot love others unless we first love ourselves.  We love ourselves by being our best.

We all get lost in life. Many of us get lost on Charlotte city streets.  At that moment, we need not the voice of God but the voice of a GPS guiding us. The most confusing intersection in Charlotte has the greatest lesson to teach on the length of life. It is the place where Queens meets Queens and Providence meets Providence and the roads continue on in different directions. What I love about this juncture is not the roads changing names. Nor is it the two established Charlotte churches sitting on one lot that confuse any visitor.  

What I love most about this corner is the statue that stands out front. It is a bronze figure of a gentleman whose name was Hugh. Each and every day, Hugh directed traffic sending people in the right direction. There was a stoplight then as there is today; but once the light would change, Hugh would wave on traffic, say hello and brighten everybody’s day.

This man, who had a simple mind and lived with his mom throughout his life, found his passion doing what he did best. That made him worthy of the most frequently viewed memorial in town. Like Hugh, to live a complete life, we must be our best selves. 

 A great Chasidic leader, Zusya, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face pale with fear. “Zusya, what’s the matter? You look frightened!” They asked.

He explained, “The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

His students were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. What question about your life could be so terrifying?”

 Zusya responded, “I have learned that the angels will not ask me ‘Why were you not a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ The angels will not ask me ‘Why were you not a Joshua, leading your people into the Promised Land?’ They will say to me, ‘Zusya, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They will say, ‘Zusya, why were you not Zusya?’”

Like Hugh for whom the sculpture on Queens and Providence stands, to live a complete life, to embrace the length of life, we must be our best selves.

Dr. King put it this way: “What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well… Be the best of whatever you are.  And when you do this, you’ve mastered the length of life.”

To master the length of life is to fulfill your God given capability. Whether you are a rabbi or a pastor, a homemaker or a housecleaner, a nurse or a bus driver do what you do as best as you can do it. For others to honor the spark of God in us and for us to honor the spark of God in others, we must first honor the spark of God in ourselves.

The length of life and loving ourselves — that is the first measure of a complete life. The breadth of life and loving others — that is the second measure of a complete life.

When God created the first human being, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a help mate for him.” Human beings need one another. We need one another to heal. We need one another to build – families, congregations, community, a better world and future. We need one another to create a just society – to remove the pollution of racial oppression and the dams of discrimination so that the prophet Amos’ “justice can roll on like a river and righteousness like a mighty stream.” We need one another to create the path to freedom for all – to break legal barriers ensuring that laws are just and to shatter emotional barriers. Thus faith rather than fear and love rather hate can guide our relationships with those who represent “the other” in our community. We need one another to live.

On this measure Dr. King said, “Don’t forget in doing something for others that you have what you have because of others. Don’t forget that. We are tied together in life and in the world. And you may think you got all you got by yourself.  But you know, before you got out here to church this morning, you were dependent on more than half of the world.  You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, and you reach over for a bar of soap, and that’s handed to you by a Frenchman. You reach over for a sponge, and that’s given to you by a Turk. You reach over for a towel, and that comes to your hand from the hands of a Pacific Islander. And then you go on to the kitchen to get your breakfast. You reach on over to get a little coffee, and that’s poured in your cup by a South American.  Or maybe you decide that you want a little tea this morning, only to discover that that’s poured in your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you want a little cocoa, that’s poured in your cup by a West African. Then you want a little bread and you reach over to get it, and that’s given to you by the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker.  Before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you’re dependent on more than half the world. That’s the way God structured it; that’s the way God structured this world. So let us be concerned about others because we are dependent on others.”

We need others not only to get through breakfast and through our days we need others to part the waters of injustice. My father was born in Munich, Germany.  He experienced early childhood in Nazi Germany and thankfully escaped at the age of 12. My dad lost his home. He lost his childhood. He lost a large portion of his family.

Pastor Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi theologian who was deported to Dachau during the Holocaust wrote the following: “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, confront us. We are stronger when we fight these forms of hatred together. We are stronger when we hear each other’s voices. We are stronger when we listen to each other’s plight. We are stronger when speak out and hold hands walking forward together to create a society that embraces each other’s differences.

The length of life and loving ourselves — that is the first measure of a complete life. The breadth of life and loving others — that is the second measure of a complete life. And finally, the last dimension of a complete life is the height of life – of striving to hear not only our own voice or the voice of our fellow human beings, but we must always endeavor to hear the voice of God.

On the height of life King writes, “You may not be able to define God in philosophical terms. Men through the ages have tried to talk about him. Plato said that he was the Architectonic Good. Aristotle called him the Unmoved Mover. Hegel called him the Absolute Whole. Then there was a man named Paul Tillich who called him Being-Itself. We don’t need to know all of these high-sounding terms.  Maybe we have to know him and discover him another way. One day you ought to rise up and say, “I know him because he’s a lily of the valley. He’s a bright and morning star. He’s a rose of Sharon…” And then somewhere you ought to just reach out and say, “He’s my everything. He’s my mother and my father. He’s my sister and my brother. He’s a friend to the friendless.” This is the God of the universe. And if you believe in God and worship God, something will happen in your life. You will smile when others around you are crying. This is the power of God.”

We need to seek God. We need to find God.  We need to hear God. The watchword of the Jewish faith is the Shema – calling us to “hear God.” But oh how quickly we close our ears and our eyes.  Oh how quickly we get lost – not only on Charlotte roads, but in life.

I close with one of my favorite stories. There were two boys who often got into trouble.   The mother brought the younger boy to the church near their home to see if the priest could talk some sense into her son.

“Where is God?” The Priest began.  The little boy was silent.  

Again the Priest asked, “Son, where is God?”  The boy looked down giving an unknowing look.

And when the Priest asked a third time, “Son, where is God?” The boy jumped out of his seat, ran home and up the stairs to his brother’s room. He slammed the door and shouted in fear, “We are in big trouble now. God is missing and they think we had something to do with it.”

The core of our problems today is that we are lost because God is missing and we have everything to do with it. When we are lost, we need to hear the voice inside ourselves. When we are lost, we need to hear the voice of others. When we are lost, we need to hear God’s voice.

As Elijah learned in First Kings, God may not be in the wind, or the earthquake or the fire, but God will be that “still, small voice” that calls to us from our conscience, from our souls, and from the souls of our neighbors across the globe.  May we stop and listen and together may we find our way.

 This is the weekend celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and legacy.   While he was taken from us at the young age of 39, he practiced what he preached (and oh how he preached). Dr. King lived the dimensions of complete life — with length of life as he was the best preacher there could be; with the breadth of life as he lived and died for others; and with height of life. He was a modern day prophet who spoke truth to power, who disturbed the comfortable, comforted the disturbed, and who passionately preached God’s word.

Jewish tradition teaches, “Every scholar who is quoted in this world, his lips whisper from the grave.” As we celebrate this weekend in his name, may we hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s voice and may we live a complete life.  In his honor may we hear our own voice and be our best. May we hear the voice of others and do all we can to love and support them. And may we hear the voice of God so that our souls and all souls can soar. May we embrace the length of life, the breadth of life and the height of life and thereby live a complete life. Amen.

A Touch of Torah – B’Shalach

6 Jan

This week’s Torah is called B’shalach, and this title word itself raises questions. Here is the translation of the opening phrase, from Exodus 13:17 –

Now it was, when Pharaoh had sent the people free…

We, and our historical commentators on the Torah collectively, say: “Huh? Didn’t God bring us out of Egypt?” How is it that when our ancestors began their time on the way to revelation we say that Pharaoh “sent” us free? After all the story seemed to emphasize God’s hand in everything, even the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

Perhaps we learn instead that in the wake of all of the plagues and miracles that Pharaoh finally did change his mind despite his hard heart. Moses and God had to convince Pharaoh about God’s power, in the same way that they had to convince the Israelites to follow Moses into freedom.

Even through all of the divinely wrought special effects of the Exodus, people still make a difference. Pharaoh made a significant decision, and the Israelites did too. This continues into the rest of this week’s reading, as the Israelites complained the entire way. We were skeptical of God’s might and capacity to bring us through the desert.

As a stiff-necked and cautious people, we often are wary of something that might be too good to be true. Let us aim to hold onto that keen eye without losing hope that we can make things better.


Image source: