Thursday, March 11, 2010

Building a Foundation of Holiness

Introductory note: You will see that when you read through this sermon that I thought long and hard about NOT posting it here or anywhere. In the end, I was convinced that, even despite the ridiculously small showing of this group (3 adults and a child at Bowie HS, who, thanks to the efforts of the police and the school administration were virtually a non-issue, and, thankfully, no appearance at the funeral), I DO need to make people aware that such bigotry and hatred in the name of God is all too real in our country today.

Building a Strong Foundation of Holiness –
Sermon for Parshat T’tzaveh – Friday, February 26, 2010

In this week’s Torah portion, the blueprints for the Miqdash – God’s sacred address in the midst of the Children of Israel – continue to be given by God to Moses. As our Bat Mitzvah pointed out last Shabbat, the level and depth of detail is truly remarkable – as befits both a holy place, and God’s physical abode. And, as she also pointed out, for such a project, when the time comes to turn the blueprints into an actual building, the workers will need to take equally great care in following the instructions to a “T.”

It isn’t only THE sanctuary which can become a holy place – as Rabbi Joe Black pointed out in one of his powerful songs of preparation for the High Holy Days a number of years ago, when he answered the question “Where is God?” with the response “Whenever we let God in.” Indeed, after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the Rabbis sought to have each of us turn our kitchen table, and by extension, our home, into a miqdash m’at – a small altar designed figuratively to take the place of the now destroyed large central one!

I was reminded of this twice in the past 10 days, when first a family in our community suffered a fire in their residence, and then another member family suffered a break-in. The sense of upheaval, the sense of violation, even when the reality that thankfully no one was injured in either case, and that ONLY things were lost, is no less deeply felt, no less powerful. I think we all DO take for granted the structures in which we live – unless or until something forces us not to – whether fire, or burglary, or damage that needs repair.

But I have also been reminded of another truth that I have been learning constantly over the last 20 years and more. We serve our fellow congregants, our fellow community members every day, just as we take for granted the structures in which we live on a daily basis. But that service is most keenly sensed – both by recipient and donor – when it comes at a time of heightened awareness and need. Whether it is the ability to celebrate a joyous simchah with family, neighbors and friends; or to welcome a stranger from far away stranded by weather in our area, and make him feel at home; or the ability to reach out in a time of loss and need such as these two families are feeling now -- THESE are the moments by which our congregation, as a q‘hillah q’doshah -- not a sacred place, but a holy community -- is measured and judged.

I am thankful, and I know the two families who have been impacted are also thankful, for the response and concern and support shown by individuals who are part of our community. Whatever our strengths and weaknesses as a congregation – and we are merely a group of human beings, after all! – on the whole, we GET this concept of supporting each other in good times and bad.

It is EXACTLY for this reason that 5 years ago, I was honored to be involved in the first Bowie Cares benefit concert, that raised some $8,000 to help the victims of the tsunami. It is EXACTLY for this reason that we put that group back together a few short weeks ago, to plan for this Sunday’s Bowie Cares: heart 2 heart 4 Haiti benefit concert, and have labored to create an event which strives for q’dushah not only by allowing us to help those in such dire need in Haiti, but by bringing our own larger Bowie community together in holiness. I hope to see as many of you there at the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts this Sunday at 3 PM for a great afternoon of musical entertainment, and a chance to make Bowie a sacred place – at least for a day!

So imagine the pain any of us would feel, upon hearing the news of the death of a 16 year old football player, while he was working out lightly at the high school gym after school last Thursday, doing informal conditioning for the football season this fall. No history of medical issues, no hint of drug or alcohol use, no foul play. A seemingly physically healthy 16 year old athlete just keeled over and died. A tragedy to his family and friends – an emotional time for all those in the high school, whether they knew him or not, because teenagers are immortal in their own minds – nothing can happen to them. Sure, they here about stories like this in the news all too often – but that is someplace else, and so it doesn’t count; it isn’t real. But, when it happens in MY gym, I have to confront reality, every bit as much as if it is my house, or that of someone I know, that is damaged by fire or burglarized. In a small way – ALL of us feel violated, ALL of us are forced to face our own mortality. Whatever sense of qodesh – of transcendence in our lives – is temporarily lost, and needs to be recovered.

That reality is bad enough. But now, try to imagine the unthinkable – that there could be a group of people in this country or anywhere, who make a habit of targeting high profile funerals, especially those with military connections, AT RANDOM, and adding to the grief of the mourners by staging VERY visible demonstrations to get out their homophobic, misogynistic, hate-filled, extremist views – and claim to be acting in the name of and for the glory of their God!

It sounds so ludicrous as to be laughable, so obviously the exact OPPOSITE of true q’dushah, except for the fact that it is true. It is a small “church,” based in Kansas, whose mouthpiece and “minister” has personally paid for half the group to attend law school, and become experts in First Amendment issues. To date, they have been exclusively non-violent, seeking to provoke responses with their hate-filled words and obscene placards that will allow them to file lawsuits claiming that THEIR First Amendment rights have been violated. In the process, since they usually target local and state governments, who would rather pay a settlement than be dragged through the mud in court, they raise funds to self-perpetuate, and gain even more media coverage for their obscenities.

The URL of their web site cannot be repeated in polite company – and I am deliberately not sharing that name, or the name of the church or the minister. Because, honestly, they are not worth our time and concern, and by going to their website to learn about them, you may be allowing them to place a tracking cookie onto YOUR computer to learn about your movements. I do not want to give them any more publicity than the none that they deserve for their lack of respect for the dead, for the mourning, and for good people of faith everywhere who find their modus operandi morally reprehensible.

The problem is that they have targeted this local young man’s funeral on Monday, and now apparently also have a demonstration planned later in the week in front of the high school. Suddenly, they are no longer somewhere else, someone else’s issue to deal with. Uninvited, they have made themselves OUR issue. Personally, their timing is a further outrage, because I guarantee the downtown paper of record will give THEM waaaay more coverage than they will give our little concert for Haiti – in fact, I suspect the local papers are likely to do so as well.

Like the fire, or the burglary, or the death in our extended family, the threat of their actions violates our q’dushah - our ability to be comfortable in our own place and circumstance. That they claim to act out of their own misdefined sense of holiness is more than ironic – it adds to the pain we may allow ourselves to feel.
Sadly, but hardly surprisingly, their website lists as many Jewish sites for demonstrations around the country as it does secular ones. As of now, that list does NOT include us – and for this, we can be thankful indeed.

However, I, for one, will prepare for the worst, even as I pray and work for the best possible outcome from this unwanted invasion. I have been in contact with the Bowie Police, and have assurances not only that they are aware of what is planned, but that the city’s response does include protection of our property, even though it has not been explicitly targeted at this point.

I have made our congregational president, aware of the situation, and shared with her my plans for this evening’s remarks. She agrees with me that our best response as a congregation is to share this general information with you this evening, and to encourage everyone to go about their normal business this week. The time of their expected visit to Bowie is such that it would not interfere with anything but normal daily business, and that barely, if at all. As such, our staff will be fully briefed on the details, and have a plan in place for that time period, designed to minimize the possibility of making our property an additional sore point in their festering attempt to drag Bowie into the mud with them.

I know that not sharing more information about this group is a two-edged sword, because, sadly, human behavior tends toward rubbernecking. Some of us will, armed with this information, breathe a sigh of relief, as I have, that we here at the Temple would make a terrible target for them. Others will make plans, also rightfully so, to stay clear of the building during that period, just in case, and to give them no audience. But there are some, perhaps even many of us, who would go out of their way just to see what all the fuss is about, and by our actions, inadvertently, give these uninvited “guests” a bigger audience than they deserve. That is what we are trying to avoid. And yes, I am also aware that withholding information will, for some, make it even more desirable to have!

There is a very good chance that I will choose NOT to post this sermon on my blog or online – simply to avoid drawing attention to ourselves, and helping to ensure that we continue to stay off their radar screen. This DESPITE the great strides I have made to make this text almost unsearchable by those who would search for additional targets! I do not make such a decision lightly, as my general response to crud like this that grows under rocks in the dark of ignorance is to expose them to the light of day and thereby kill them off through educating ourselves and the community; to follow the prophetic ideal of speaking truth to power. However, since they have no power over us, save what we give them, I see no reason to speak more than I am to us tonight! Sadly, they ARE a small part of a much larger phenomenon of extremism and divisiveness that threatens the fabric of our entire country if it is not soon brought under control, which both adds to my desire to make as many people aware of them as possible, but also informs my need to respond (or more accurately, not to respond) to them in a proper manner.

Because I DO understand – and agree – that the best response to groups like this is to deprive them of the air that they need to exist and grow. By depriving them of our response, by rendering them a non-story and a non-issue, we can pray that the media will also come to recognize them as the nothing they truly are or should be, and cut off their air supply of free publicity accordingly.

And so, I implore all of you NOT to go looking for them this week. If you happen upon their demonstration by accident, please do all you can to distract any impressionable youngsters in your vehicle from being adversely impacted by their images and words. In ALL cases, do not engage or confront them in any way – this is what they want us to do! They cannot gain victory without our complicity and interaction with them.

Do not turn this into grist for the gossip mill – if you MUST share with friends and neighbors who are not here tonight out of concern for them, please do so calmly and completely, and stress the key words: low-key, non-confrontational.

Do trust me as your Rabbi, and the rest of our leadership and staff, to act appropriately in the best interests of our entire community and our communal home. And, those with students at the high school – know that the school is equally aware of what is coming, and is a part of the communal response as well – so that our children and adults in that facility will be kept, as best as possible, away from the disturbance, making a full day of school completely safe for all.

I fully expect to let local law enforcement and our elected leaders issue our formal reply – long after the irritant has been removed from our midst – that they came here uninvited, they were unwelcome, and they in no way, shape, or form represent anything remotely like what our community truly is.

In an ideal world, Sunday’s concert is the week’s top local headline - their demonstrations would be merely a footnote. Sadly, that ideal Jewish world, the one built on true q’dushah, is too often NOT the one manifested in the photo ops and sound bytes that define our age. This is why we still await the Messianic Age!

In other words, WE need to build upon the q’dushah - the sanctity, the rectitude - that is the primary ingredient of the foundations of our individual lives, as well as of our communal identity – both physically and spiritually – and respond to this provocation with patience, knowledge, and restraint. It is exactly for troubling moments such as these that we built our homes and our lives on this foundation of holiness in the first place. Ken y’hi ratzon - may it be God’s will! Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment