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The Beauty of Creation

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Summer can be a time to open our eyes to the beauty of God’s creation, and in so doing renew our personal faith and sense of covenant with God.  A weekend drive down the road to our own scenic and largely undiscovered Dauphin Island can be a metaphor for our spiritual lives:  from the rusted hulks of man’s industrial works turned to naught, to the graceful egrets and ever changing sand landscape of the island showing what nature has wrought.  In that both short and in the last few miles extremely scenic drive, we can experience the comparison between man’s short lived creations, and God’s eternal works.  How rare it is for us to open our eyes to God’s ceaseless handiwork.

How seldom we wake up like Jacob and say, “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16)  But that is precisely the point – even Jacob at first did not realize God was with him.  Not only did he not realize God was with him, he went so far as to make a deal with God.  God will be his God, if God does what He promises.

Clearly that was not a very high form of religiosity.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be feeling religious all the time, if we did not need some special event or revelatory experience to open our eyes up to God?

Sometimes from adversity comes a spiritual awakening.  All too often, I have visited, counseled, and prayed with the sick in our community as they search for physical healing in their lives.    The bad news of a doctor’s report can cause us to think, not only in terms of fear and apprehension, but also in terms of spirituality.  How miraculous it is for our bodies to function normally most of the time!  Our bodies themselves are extraordinary in the way they heal.  Pondering the complexity of just one small aspect of our bodies, even the growth of one single hair upon our head, can lead to a spiritual stirring.

Wake up to the beauty of God’s creation!  God is with us, if we only open our eyes to the obvious, which remains hidden for so many.

Rabbi Hillel On Facebook

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            Facebook, Instagram and the like, can be narcissism at its finest.  I am as guilty as the rest of them.  I must admit, I have posted family pictures of happy occasions and I do enjoy seeing friends’ special occasions in pictures. 

            But consider a typical newsfeed:  An especially delicious breakfast in pics.  A comment on how I spent a boring afternoon or my dog pictures.  Sure we all love dogs, but how many dog pictures do you have to post?

            It made me consider if social media was around 2100 years ago, what would the great Rabbi Hillel put on his wall?  Surely, he would be short and to the point, but he probably wouldn’t be showing pictures of the hummus he ate at lunch.

            Come to think of it, he would probably have hundreds and hundreds of posts with useful information for life.  If he had to only post three of his posts, here is what they would be:

            1.  “If I am not for myself, who is for me?  And, if I am for myself alone, what am I?  And, if not now, then when?”

            2.  “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.  That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn it.”

            3.  “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.  And whosoever saves that life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

            We will probably never know where Hillel got his favorite falafel sandwich, but what we do know about him, is a little more important than a snapshot of him and his pet cat.

Fixing Alabama

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             Recently, in the Mobile Press Register, there was a rather troubling article about economic measurements for the State of Alabama.  Among the most shocking statistics was the total U.S. job growth in 2013 was three times faster in the rest of the country, than for the State of Alabama.  Alabama ranked 49th in job growth in 2013.  Other measurements such as construction and household income were also very poor. 

            One of the most enigmatic teachings in the Hebrew bible is found in the book of Exodus, Chapter 34, where it tells of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and on the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.”  The same teaching is contradicted three other times in the Hebrew bible, where it says, as in Deuteronomy 24:16, “Fathers shall not be put to death for children, neither shall children be put to death for fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.”  Clearly, it is only fair for criminals to be punished for their own personal crimes.  The child or grandchild of a murderer should not be punished for his or her father’s crime.  But the sad truth is that the wrong actions of one generation can take many generations to be corrected.

            Why is Alabama lagging in so many crucial statistics compared to the rest of the country?  Why are we so often thankful for Mississippi for keeping us from being 50th in negative state listings?  Though there are many answers to this extremely complicated question, there is one most important solution to what ails the State of Alabama: improving education and the literacy of our workforce.

            There is a sad lesson I remember well that I learned from my father.  It summed up the centrality of education in Judaism.  These are the words of a refugee from Hitler’s Europe.  He said, “Do everything you can to get the best education, because it is one thing that can never be taken away from you.”  These are words from a man, who at the age of 16, was forced to leave his family and all he knew, to go by himself to Palestine, the only place in the world that would accept him as a refugee.

            The horror of the Holocaust aside, there is a fascinating lesson in that thought.  It is, I believe, because of the historic love of learning and knowledge that Jews are disproportionately represented in many occupations and professions in a far greater percentage than the Jewish population statistics.  It is the key to the Jewish people’s success even while facing anti-Semitism for hundreds of years.

            Even in the time of the Talmud, codified 1,500 years ago, there were detailed laws in how to best develop an educational system.  There were rules for class size: “if there are more than 25 children in class for elementary education, an assistant must be appointed.”  There were rules for teacher competence: “A teacher who teaches less than his fellow instructors should be dismissed.  The other teachers will become diligent both out of fear of dismissal and out of gratitude.”  There are rules for hiring teachers: “When appointing a teacher preference should be given to him who teaches thoroughly, not to one who teaches superficially.”

            Though the solutions are far from simple to what ails the State of Alabama, excellent public education is central, plain and simple for improving our future.  Only with an educated workforce can we bring top-notch jobs and improve the quality of life for the residents of this beautiful area.  Everyone need not attend a university, but everyone should be trained for the computerized workforce of our time

            Judaism teaches study is equated with the highest of values, because study can lead to the fulfillment of all other values.  Can we move beyond the errors of our fathers and our grandfathers and grandmothers to improve education in Alabama and to move our state to where it rightfully should be in the rankings among these great United States of America?  

Science and Religion

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I just read with quiet surprise of the death of Ian Barbour at the age of 90. Headlines proclaimed, “he was a man who found a balance between faith and science.” He once said, “If we take the Bible seriously but not literally, we can accept the central biblical message without accepting the prescientific cosmology in which it was expressed, such as the three layer universe with heaven above and hell below, or the seven days of the creation story.” In reading all about this theologian and scientist I couldn’t help but think to myself what was his big revelation? This is what Reform Judaism has been teaching since the early 1800s. Aren’t most people aware of how important it is to combine religion and science?

Apparently not. He was eulogized as a man with a unique idea that science and religion should be viewed as being engaged in a constructive dialogue with each other. This is certainly an excellent idea, but hardly an original one.

What I can say about Mr. Barbour, is to give him accolades for his scholarship in receiving advanced degrees in both theology and physics, and later becoming a professor of both topics. Certainly that type of scholarship takes a great deal of commitment.

I lament however the fact that so many in the world are ignorant or should I say simply unknowledgeable of how important it is to take science and religion to heart in all we teach. I cannot imagine following a religious tradition that would in some way denigrate science, and scientific exploration. Many do especially in our region of the world.

So this is what I ask from you: spread the word about our tradition of combining science and religion. We’ve been doing it for 200 years. It is the foundation of our theology, but somehow it seems like a lots of people are unaware of what we stand for. No religious movement seems more poised to address the religious questions of our modern age than Reform Judaism. A great idea, if kept secret from the world, accomplishes little. Maybe what the Union for Reform Judaism should be working on is making our great idea one not kept in the closet.

Chanukah, Solstice, and Universality

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I have to admit I am glad Thanksgivukkah is over, as I’m simply tired of reading about it and I don’t like the name much either.  The good news is we will never have to worry again about it in our lifetimes!  There is an important message however from the ancient Festival of Chanukah, or I should say at least two important messages worth remembering as so many Americans prepare now for Christmas.  The themes can be summarized by these two: traditional Judaism focuses upon this being the story of Judaism’s fight for survival against Hellenizing forces.  They see in the victory of the Maccabees the recurring story of a fight against those who preached assimilation, and the lessening of the practice of Jewish law.  The fight, which was a very real battle against those who profaned the Temple, became almost mythic in representing a struggle against not only assimilation, but also those who in a tangible way would destroy Judaism. 

          The second theme is quite different.  It flies is the face of the many Jewish leaders who say there is no relationship between Chanukah and Christmas.  Students of religious studies know that both these holidays have their origin in solstice celebrations.  The first recorded date for Chanukah just happens to be December 21/22, the winter solstice.  Before there was Judaism and Christianity there were celebrations often done with fires, logically enough upon this darkest time of the year.  They were celebrations that were bringing light to a darkened world.  How much we need that same theme in this troubled world in which we live. 

          This is the time most importantly when all people, regardless of religion, need to consider what is the light we are bringing to the world?  Are we bringing more happiness to those around us: coworkers, friends, family, and spouses?  What are we doing to make things better, more uplifting, easier for all those less fortunate than ourselves, people who we can truly help perhaps if only in a very small but meaningful way?  At this time of the year, as shadows lengthen, days shorten, cold increases, may we work on bringing a little more warmth, joy, and happiness to those around us.  Happy Holidays!

The Powerful and the Arrogant

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We all knew it intuitively, but now we know it through scientific study.  According to a new study by psychologist Daniel Goleman, a growing body of evidence shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little power.  Higher status people according to his studies are more likely to express disregard and pay scant attention to those of lower socioeconomic status.

It reminds me some years back when my wife and I were having dinner in a restaurant and a famous celebrity was seated right nearby.  Against my advice, my wife as we left the restaurant asked for his autograph.  Without even raising his eyes to recognize her presence he abruptly refused the request.  In the same time taken for his refusal he could’ve signed his name, but he wouldn’t even look her in the eye.

Goleman argues that all this has profound implications for societal behavior.  Tuning into the needs and feelings of another person is a prerequisite to empathy, which can lead to compassionate action.  What it all gets down to is the selfishness of so many to only their own particular needs.  Unfortunately it is symbolized in the politics of America today.  Everyone just cares about their own needs and the kingdom that supports them.

 How little we have learned from the teachings of the Hebrew prophets who urged empathetic compassion and action more than 2700 years ago.  The injunction to care, to have empathy, and to act upon that empathy for those in a more difficult situation than ourselves is repeated over and over in the Hebrew Bible: You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.  Exodus 22: 20-21.  Simply put we are commanded to have empathy because it doesn’t come natural for so many people.  Let’s give each other a little respect, even if we are not on their same socioeconomic level, even if we are not going to “get” something out of the relationship.  It is amazing in 2700 years how little we have learned.

“Breaking Bad”: Moral?

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A few years ago my sons told me about a popular program, “Breaking Bad.”  I rented both the first and second years of the shows from the library, and in short order watched all the episodes.  Then I got bored with it – two years was enough.  This last year however I have been watching or recording all the shows, and of course most of the world knows last night was the final episode.

In “Breaking Bad,” besides being a TV show with great actors, we see moral relativism at its peak.  Is Walter White a hero or a villain, or simply a tragic figure forced to do things for his family and their future because of his poor medical insurance?  Some have seen deep symbolism in the show, from the use of colors to the choice of names.

Some have called the show a good example of Satan and the power of evil.  The Jewish message is much simpler.  Everyone is born good, not tainted with original sin.  We all have choices to make, continual choices every day of our lives.  Walter White started to make the wrong choices and in time he grew to enjoy the choices he was making: coveting money, power, the manipulation of people, and even murder.

Besides the excellent acting one of the reasons the show might be so popular is because everyone can make the wrong choices at times, and perhaps viewers see a little of themselves in the wrong choices Walter White made.  It’s not Satan, nor the devil that made Walter White make the wrong choices, but only Walter White.  The fact the show is so very popular might give moralists reason for concern.  Sometimes as Sigmund Freud said however, a cigar is only a cigar.

This much I’m willing to bet however: someday Vince Gilligans will bring Walter White back from the brink. 

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