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From the Rabbi

From the Rabbi - November 2009 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

On November 2, 1898, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, had arranged to meet Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who was touring Palestine.  Their meeting took place at a kibbutz called Mikveh Israel, “The Hope of Israel,” and it was there that Herzl hoped that the Kaiser would endorse Zionist plans to create a Jewish national homeland in the area.

In fact, the meeting went smoothly, and Herzl left with the strong impression that Germany would throw its considerable influence behind the plans.  Imagine his surprise when, only a week later, the Kaiser turned lukewarm and then moderately negative to the Zionist idea.  What had happened to change his mind?

No, it was not anti-Semites in Germany, although there were certainly enough of them.  It was liberal Jewish professors and journalists and merchants who were afraid that, if they supported Zionism too strongly, a charge of dual-loyalty would be levied against the Jewish community of Germany.  Germans, they thought, would come to question their loyalty to the Fatherland and challenge their acceptance into German society.  They, it turned out, were the primary element that swayed the Kaiser away from supporting Herzl’s plans.

Fast forward now, exactly nineteen years.  WWI had been underway for three years, and there seemed to be no end in sight.  For the British, the key to their survival and ultimate victory was their navy; it would protect their access to the Suez Canal and guard communication within their world-wide colonial empire.  But how to guarantee that the British navy would continue to rule the waves?

A Jewish chemist named Chaim Weizmann offered the Admiralty a new kind of naval gunpowder, a propellant charge that could throw the projectiles of their battleships’ guns farther than their enemies’.  It would be to the great advantage of the British if they could shoot at the Germans, but, simultaneously, be out of range of the German guns.

Weizmann gave his invention to the Admiralty without consideration of personal recompense.  But he asked something for his people.  On November 2, 1917, His Majesty’s Government issued a statement declaring that they were in favor of the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine.  This was the famous Balfour Declaration, named for the Colonial Secretary who first spoke it, Lord Arthur James Balfour.

But a week later, in an amazing parallel to the Kaiser’s earlier actions, the British government first began to waffle and then quietly dismissed their own intent.  Obviously, the goodwill of the Arab populations in Jordan, Palestine and Egypt was far more important to them than that of the Jews, and the assurance of a steady flow of oil for the boilers of their ships was more vital than faithfulness to their declaration.

The French have a saying:  “le plus ca change, le plus c’est la meme chose.” the more things change, the more it’s the same thing.  In fact, things have changed.  We are no longer worried about a charge of dual-loyalty.  We know we can be patriotic Americans, but simultaneously enthusiastic Zionists.  Our identity is no longer fragile or conflicted.  But, at the same time, we know that there are forces in the Arab region that would try to persuade the powers of the world that a Jewish state called Israel is a travesty and unacceptable.

It is incumbent upon us, then, to act as proud American Jews and equally proud supporters of the State of Israel.  We may not agree with everything Israel does – that’s our prerogative – but it is our fundamental task to ensure that the Jewish national homeland continues and that we move as deliberately as possible to a state of peace and security in that troubled region of the world.

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - October 2009 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends,
On the Shabbat that straddles October 16 and 17, we shall again begin the reading of the Torah.  I suppose that there is no other book that has had more influence on the history of the world than this one, and, when we start the annual cycle of reading, I find myself captivated by a number of majestic thoughts.  Let me share a few of them with you.

The practice of public reading of Torah is at least 2500 years old.  In the eighth chapter of the biblical book of Nehemiah, he who was the governor appointed by the Persians to oversee the restoration of Judean sovereignty over the land of Canaan in about 538 BCE, we discover how the reading was then performed.  I hope you’ll look up the details, but, take my word for it, in all major respects what we do in our sanctuary (and what is done in every synagogue around the globe) is virtually identical with what Nehemiah’s contemporaries did.  Whenever I read from the Torah, I have a powerful, almost mystical sense of participating in an unbroken historical tradition.  I am doing what Jews have done in every place and time where they have lived since the days of Nehemiah.  That’s a remarkable chain of tradition to which we link ourselves.

Nehemiah and his priest, Ezra, did something more than read the Torah.  They arranged to translate it; the Bible says they read it so everyone could understand.  They had to translate it because the Torah is written in Hebrew, while the common language of the people at that time was Aramaic.  I try to translate the text into English for the same reason.  They – and we – understand that these words are not simply words, but the key to our entire identity.  They contain important values and ideas and practices.  We structure our lives, consciously or otherwise, by what the Torah teaches, so it is important to us not only that we read the words, but that we understand the mandates that are contained in them.

I look at this scroll and think of the many times in our history that we carried it away from places of hatred and oppression, preserving for ourselves a higher set of ideals and principles.  The Torah that is in the display case on the east side of our Sanctuary– a survivor of the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia – symbolizes to me the remarkable endurance of this scroll and of what
Jews in less-favorable times than ours did to assure that Torah persisted.  This history calls out to us with a
demand: live up to the dedication they showed to Torah by making Torah a significant part of your own life.

The Torah is a holy document, and so, too, are people holy.  When I ask God’s blessing on someone in the presence of the Torah – you may have noticed – it is my custom to place one hand on the person and one on the Torah.  I know I am not the source of the blessing.  I am but a conduit between a holy book and a holy person, praying that this holy quality flows from one hand to the other, from a scroll to a soul and that the person who receives this infusion of holiness may be changed and elevated from that point on.

There is so much more to write and to say about being in proximity to the Torah.  Enough for now.  Suffice it to say, I hope some of the feelings that I have haltingly tried to convey can imbue you with the mystical urge of Torah that I have the privilege of experiencing every week.

        Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi
From the Rabbi - September 2009 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

Phyllis and I extend our very warmest and best wishes to you for a healthy and happy new year of 5770. We hope that this will be a year of joy and happiness for you and those you care about, and a year in which our troubled world comes many steps closer to peace.

As I plan for the coming High Holydays, it has never been more apparent to me how much thought and effort we need to expend to make sure that all components of our congregation feel included in our services and other activities. Let me give you only a few examples.

Last year, the traditional service for the evening of Rosh HaShanah ended considerably earlier than the liberal service. Because of this mismatch, people who attended one service were unable to wish their friends and family from the other service Shanah Tovah. We convened a meeting of the Ritual Committee and concluded that a little give-and-take on the part of everyone might alleviate this situation. This year, both services will begin at 7:15 PM, fifteen minutes earlier for the liberal group and fifteen minutes later for the traditionalists. It is our hope that this adjustment will make it possible for all of us to congregate in the Grossman Auditorium at approximately the same time and have an all-congregation oneg Shabbat.

Many of you have read that our Ritual Committee and I spent a good deal of time reviewing applications and then interviewing some candidates for the leadership of the traditional services. As we reported to you earlier this summer, we engaged Yonina Creditor, a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, to undertake this responsibility. With the tireless and dedicated help of Gary Blum, we planned our services. But Yonina is the waterfront director at the Ramah Camp in Ojai CA and cannot come to Corpus Christi before mid- September. So, on August 3-5, I made a visit to southern California and spent one entire day with her, working on details and developing a relationship. It was a long trip for eight or nine hours of conversation, but well-worth the effort. It takes just such an involvement to make sure that every detail of our combined congregation’s services goes smoothly.

One of the issues we have not yet been able to overcome is the Break-the-Fast. Our wonderful Sisterhood provides a light buffet in the hallway of the building after concluding services. All of us appreciate their thoughtful planning and execution, but there just doesn’t seem to be any way to get liberal congregants and traditional congregants to break the Yom Kippur fast together. Our services end at different times, far enough apart that a small adjustment of time won’t solve the problem. What to do? We have a devotedcrew in the kitchen who will swoop down upon the tables when the liberal congregants are leaving and make sure that the trays are replenished and the crumbs are swept up so that those who come a little later will have an identical, dignified and festive way to end their fast.

There is a word that describes what we are trying to accomplish: “inclusiveness.” What this means is simply that we want every member of CBI to feel that she or he is welcome, taken seriously and offered a menu of religious, educational and social activities that are directed to the concerns and priorities that our members express.

So, as you gather to welcome a new Jewish year, reflect for a moment that the leadership of this congregation spends a lot of time designing a program that can include you. We hope you will take advantage of that program during the coming year and that you will tell us if some of the things in which you are interested are not evident enough. We look forward to seeing a lot of you during the coming year.

Shanah Tovah.

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - July/August 2009 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

I saw a hummingbird. He is light green with a red patch under his chin. He flits from bush to bush outside my office, plunging his long beak into the red flowers that have recently appeared at the end of every branch. He’s in constant motion, a second here, a second there, seemingly everywhere at once, gone and then back again. I wonder if hummingbirds ever land and sit still. What do they do at night? Is there a hummingbird spa where they go to rejuvenate their tired wings?

I’m fascinated by this little bird because, in so many ways, he’s like many of us. Many people dash from one activity to the next, hardly ever taking time to sit down and rest or think. In the whirlwind of our daily existence, we are all motion, not much quiet or stillness.

In many ways, that’s too bad, because we never get much of a chance to get to know ourselves. When you are constantly racing from one activity to the next, there is little opportunity to have a conversation with your deeper self; you tend to stay on the surface, talking about the weather and sports and all sorts of superficial things and never really taking the time to talk, even with yourself, about what matters most in your life. And even should you begin that important conversation, someone else will often sidle up and, with a well-meaning smile, exclaim: “I don’t mean to interrupt, but….” End of conversation.

Summer is a good time to spend some time with yourself.Many activities slow down or cease altogether. The heat is so oppressive that there is a lot of time to spend indoors in air conditioned comfort or soaking in the pool or lounging on vacation. In summer, you can stop acting like a hummingbird and ask a couple of important questions: What’s really important in my life? Am I getting nearer to that goal? Have I abandoned my dreams, or are they still real…and what am I going to do about them? Have I made the most out of the relationships that are most central to my life?

This is a good time of the year to remember what Rabbi Tarfon said in Mishnah Pirke Avot 2:16: “It is not required of you to finish the task, but you are not free to desist from it.” Summer is a good time to remember this saying and to turn from the hummingbird’s frenetic flight to a peaceful and deeper consideration of important questions.

I wish you luck and joyous discoveries in your inner self.

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - June 2009 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

Many of you know that we have begun a special land development project at CBI. As you walk around the parking lot or inside the curved sign that fronts on our southwest corner, you will notice a number of new plantings. All of these follow a single theme: they are plants that are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

In the front garden, we have already harvested some onions and carrots (We substituted carrots for tares, not being entirely sure what those are or were!), and we are looking forward to a fine crop of various herbs and melons as the summer progresses.

Along the eastern end of the parking lot, you will notice two pomegranate trees. They were planted on Tu Bishevat by the children of the religious school, and they have been thriving and blooming full-force over the Spring. In mid-May, those trees were joined by a fig tree which is now only four or five feet tall, but which will grow to ten or fifteen feet when it is mature. If you take the time to look, you’ll notice that there are already small figs growing on some of the branches. We don’t know what kind of fig trees grew in ancient Israel; Jerusalem is about 4 degrees of latitude farther north than Corpus Christi; our climate is more like that of the Negev! This tree is a special hybrid that was bred to do well in south Texas – so it forms a linkage between our area and the land of the Bible. It will certainly become a living example for our students of what the Bible means when it refers to a fig tree – or any of the other vegetation that we shall plant.

Whenever I think about fig trees, a passage from the prophet Micah always comes to mind:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more.
But every man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. (4:3b, 4)

One of these days, our fig tree will be tall enough that you will be able to bring a folding chair and a bottle of water or soda and a sandwich and sit under it in safety and without fear. As you get relief from the hot sun of south Texas, you’ll perhaps understand in a new and vital way the promise that Micah was making to his contemporaries.

Yes, we want you and your children and grandchildren to have a first-hand appreciation of what biblical vegetation looked like and tasted like, and we very much hope you will come to treasure the symbolic messages that the biblical authors attached to various kinds of plants and trees. But shelter and peace are not the only messages that we ought to receive from our long-ago ancestors. A community of Jews who lolled about in a sedentary, but secure existence was far from what the biblical authors (and especially the prophets) wanted. To them, religion was as much challenge as it was comfort, as much demand and expectation as it was solace and security. Their vision involved a community that actively sought to create a fair and equitable and righteous society on earth. Micah also taught

What is it, O man, that the Lord requires of you: only to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. (6:8b)

And his colleague, Amos, put it this way:
Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. (5:24)

So, when you look at our new fig tree and rejoice in its growth and the savor of its succulent fruit, I hope you will also remember that its message must be paired with the message of Jewish activism and social conscience. Sitting under a fig tree without simultaneously pursuing justice makes a mockery of real biblical Jewish values, of the values that have come down to us over the last three thousand years. Our tree will flourish only if we can accept and pursue both dimensions of the biblical expectation.

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

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