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20
10/28/2010 10:44 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
October 29, 2010

 

Upon reflection of this week’s Torah portion, I re-read this message which I wrote to you a year ago. It speaks to me again, because I had visitors in my office recently who spoke lovingly about the place where their beloved mother is buried. It brought them comfort to know that her final resting place on earth would be eternal. So, take to heart what the Torah portion teaches us this week and reflect on the memories of those whom you cherish every day.

This week, we read the portion called “Chayei Sarah”. This means the Life of Sarah, but, in fact, the portion is about the death of Sarah that is remembered and honored by her husband, Abraham. In Genesis 23, Abraham “rose up from upon his dead [wife]” and immediately prepared for her burial. It began with a conversation with the Hittites, the people of the land. Ephron the Hittite spoke up and offered a free burial site to Abraham. But, Abraham refused the offer. He insisted on paying full market price. Abraham prevailed and Ephron sold the site to him for 400 shekels. It was not a clearance price. Trust me when I tell you it was a lot of shekels. For the price, Abraham received “Ephron’s land in Machpelah, looking out on Mamre – the fields, its cave, and all the trees in the field within its boundaries” (Genesis 23:17-18). The purchase was notarized “in the sight of the Hittites and of all the town leaders.”

Commentaries point out that Sarah’s grave is the first permanent, legal presence in the land promised to Abraham and to their descendants (p. 116). The significance has not been lost on those who look for Biblical sources that point to our people’s longstanding connection to the Land. Abraham’s interest in honoring Sarah with a burial place for all time said much about his undying attachment to her. It also reflected Abraham’s faith that our people would endure on the Land. The piece of property he purchased became a sacred burial space. From there our people labored to return and honor not only the Cave of Machpelah, but the full promise that God made to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel and Leah.

To this day, the honor paid Jewish women has reflected the great love Abraham and Sarah shared, and the respect he paid her when she died. Years ago, when I officiated at the funeral of a man’s wife, we stood at the graveside in Beth Israel’s West Dallas Cemetery. He placed a rose on her grave before we left the cemetery. He asked me, “Do you know why I put a rose on her grave, today?” I wanted to know. He said, “Every Friday night in our home, I brought my wife a rose. And, then I recited to her the words of Proverbs 31.” Proverbs 31 is also known as “A Woman of Valor” for the beautiful way (although some call it dated) it refers to the selfless acts of a devoted woman to her home and the community. I was touched and moved by this man’s real acts of love and devotion for his wife. His sadness was palpable. Today, when I return to the cemetery on West Dallas, I see the headstone on his wife’s grave that bears the inscription, “A Woman of Valor”. They are both gone from life now, but memories of them endure.

Perhaps this Shabbat is time to observe yahrtzeit in your family. I urge you to remember your loved ones with recitation of Kaddish in the synagogue (This week is Shabbat Shira. If you prefer to recite Kaddish on a “quieter” evening, please call and we’ll read your loved one’s name next week). At home, open a picture album, review cards and letters, and honor their memory with acts of loving-kindness. If you’re so inclined, you might visit the cemetery. At graveside, you might recite Psalm 23, 121, or 15. Perhaps you might recite Proverbs 31:10, and Kaddish, too. However you choose to remember, consider the example set by Abraham, to honor the life that was lived in a sacred place for all time.

From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


19
10/21/2010 01:20 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
October 22, 2010

 

                On November 4, 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by the hands of a right-wing Israeli radical who was opposed to Rabin’s signing of the Oslo Accords. Now, fifteen years later, we remember Rabin as Time magazine’s Man of the Year, and as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. We also remember him for the steps he took for the sake of peace, a lasting peace.

                We learned a lot from Rabin in his lifetime, and his lessons are not lost on us even now. Rabin understood that economic strength was a key to peace. He said, “Practically the only way to dry the swamp of radical Islam is through economic development and an improved standard of living.” It’s like what a leading businessman once told me, “A person who is desperate is dangerous; so give him something.” It can be a man who threatens you on the corner, but it can also be a people threatening you on your borders. Rabin wanted peace and he knew that people felt secure about their future only when they believed that the future they envisioned for themselves was attainable. Without economic opportunity there was no possibility for any vision to take hold. Today, in certain places in the West Bank there is real economic development. The people are more secure and their expectations for the future are consistent with their visions.

                Rabin wasn’t the first or the last one to equate peace with economic development. But, he believed in the importance of the equation because he was willing and able to see things as they were and as they should be. He was prepared to provide the link to get from the past to the future through cooperative and reasonable means. Rabin said, “We must think differently, look at things in a different way. Peace requires a world of new concepts, new definitions.” Indeed, Rabin was willing to do what it took to offer economic, humane, and reasonable means for the sake of peace.

                But, Rabin wasn’t naïve. He also said, “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.” His aim was peace. He knew who sat on the other side of the negotiating table and what they thought of him. That was the least of his concern. He came to make peace, not friends.

                In fifteen years, the world has changed a lot. After September 11, 2001, in the U.S, and the Intifada in the Middle East, the world was aflame in new efforts to identify the enemy, let alone make peace with them. There was angst and bloodshed from one end of the world to the other. We were a world at war whether or not we were willing to admit it. I wish I could say that 15 years has given us perspective, but I can’t. It has provided us hindsight, but it hasn’t illuminated for us any new and insightful answers, and it hasn’t shaped a new generation of statesman and world leaders of note. We are mired in failures to find peace.

                I’m not a pessimist. I exercise what Barbara Ehrenreich (whom I quoted on Rosh Hashanah from her book Bright Sided) calls “defensive pessimism.” It is realism plus pessimism, and she calls it a “prerequisite for survival.” Indeed, our Judaism demands that we see our lives as they are, and to participate in making them into what they should be. We do not have the privilege to wallow in our sorrow or to accept things as they are given to us.

                Armed with a world-view and the privilege of hindsight, it is incumbent upon us to honor the memory of Yitzhak Rabin. He spoke wisely about the world as he found it in his lifetime, and he taught us about his vision for peace and what we can do about it. Just because he is gone does not deprive us of his gifts to us. Judaism teaches, “A jewel that is lost, remains a jewel forever.” In the absence of great statesmen, today, let’s dust off the wisdom of a not so distant past and reflect on the jewel that was Rabin’s life, a man of peace and a statement for all time. Let’s not let the act of extremists in the Middles East, Jew or Arab, deprive us of his vision. Peace is what we want. Peace is what we need.

                As Shabbat enters our homes and our hearts, reflect on the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, a man who knew we could do better and who gave his life to the vision he saw for his enemies and his friends.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


18
10/15/2010 08:12 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
October 15, 2010

 

                We watched the most incredible event on television this week. On live TV, we witnessed 33 miners pulled up from the depths of 2000 feet underground where they stayed waiting for the last 60+ days for their rescuers to save them. How did they endure? How did they keep their wits about them in the depths of the earth? It’s almost beyond comprehension. Had they perished in the earth we would have come to the conclusion that saving them was beyond human ability. We would have called it a dreadful tragedy. That the complete opposite happened without incident makes it a heroic story for all time. Humanity was served in all the ways peoples of various nations provided support and technology to save the miners. When the miners were lifted up, so were the Chilean people. So were we.

                The Chilean news spoke of the men’s faith. Faith is about hope, and hope is connected to the future. Had they given up it would have been only because any hint of the future had been extinguished. To their credit, leaders among them kept the light of the future burning for them. Hope fed their faith that they would not perish there.

                In Judaism, there is a story of a pit, too. In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers left him for dead in a pit. How do we know that the pit would have meant death for him? The Torah reports, “The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” Here, the Torah appears to be redundant. After all, if the pit was empty, there was obviously no water in it. So, our Sages explained. Water sustains life. We can live without food much longer than we can live without water. Torah sustains life, too. In effect, they explained that the pit was empty; it didn’t have Torah in it. You’re going to say that the Torah hadn’t even been given yet (it wasn’t given until the Israelites reached Sinai), but our Sages granted themselves the privilege of reading Torah without chronological restrictions. The point is that the pit in which Joseph found himself would not sustain him. Unless he was saved, he would have perished there. In the end, we know that he was saved and that he sustained not only himself, but also Pharaoh’s household and his own when famine came to the land. The purpose of his survival held meaning.

                In Chile, the miners also found themselves in a pit that would not sustain them for much longer. And, like Joseph who was thrown into the pit by his brothers, the miners were the victims of others in labor and government who allowed terrible working and safety conditions to persist. Ultimately, Joseph was a hero who led the Egyptians through a period of famine and reunited his family according to God’s will. In Chile, the miners have become heroes. At best, they will be in the limelight and use their newfound fame for good. They will change working and safety conditions for all workers, especially miners. Their story will be told for generations to come, and they will symbolize the kind of people we all strive to be. We want to believe that we can overcome the worst of times and appreciate the best of times. For the miners, their worst days have come and gone. They can look forward to the admiration of their countrymen and a world of well-wishers.

                Fame can be a distraction. It was for Joseph, too. He thought quite a lot of himself even before becoming Pharaoh’s chief of staff. For the miners, they will face the unlikely stage of world fame. From the lowest point in the earth to the highest platforms above it, they will forever represent the human will to persevere and to keep faith when all seems lost.

                On this Shabbat, give thanks for miracles that still happen and pray for the complete recovery of the miners. Their ability to cope with the meaning of their survival will be lessons for life that can sustain us all.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


17
10/08/2010 10:53 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

October 8, 2010

 

 

                Did you read USA Today, yesterday? The front page reported on “How America sees God”. It is based on research conducted by Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, sociologists at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, soon to be published in their book, “America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God, and What that Says About Us”. It examines all the way Americans see God and why it matters.

                There isn’t any bad news in their report. They conclude that 9 out of 10 Americans believe in God, and that the way we picture God reveals our attitudes on “economics, justice, social morality, war, natural disasters, science, politics, love and more.” In effect, God is part of our life at home in private and among like-minded people, but God is also with us in the public square. For all the Americans who believe in God, the researchers concluded that we believe in one of four God types.

                The Authoritative God is claimed by 28% of Americans. This is the God who judges us and metes out harsh punishment for sins and transgressions. To them the world is divided into good and evil, and, “they respond to a powerful God guiding our country.”

                The Benevolent God is claimed by 22% of Americans. This is the God who loves us and supports us in our caring for others. To them, God is a force for good, “who cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts and will comfort all.”

                The Critical God is claimed by 21% of Americans. This is the God who “keeps an eye on the world but delivers justice in the next.” The poor, the suffering and the exploited identify with this God. The researchers quote a working-class preacher who told his congregation, “Our cars that are breaking down here will be chariots in heaven. Our empty bank accounts will be storehouses with the Lord.”

                The Distant God is claimed by 24% of Americans. This is the God who “booted up the universe and left humanity alone.” This, they claim, is the “dominant view of Jews and other followers of world religions and philosophies such as Buddhism and Hinduism.”

                Over many years, in a lesson plan for 10th grades about how they perceive God’s role in the world, I discovered that for most Jewish teenagers and emerging young adults, they identified with the Distant God. They valued God’s distant presence, but counted on their own heads and hearts to make a difference in the world on all the subjects identified by the Baylor researchers, including grades, relationships, and happiness. Only on issues they believed to be too far from their present context, like war and peace, did they relinquish some control to God. Over many years, in conversations with adults, I would conclude that Reform Jews generally claim a Distant God, too.

                In this short space, I can only take issue with one idea in their report. It is the part that draws conclusions about our Jewish view of God. They report that Americans speak about a “personal God engaged in our lives.” Jews can claim a “personal relationship” with God, but Jews can also claim a “personal covenant” with God. Within that covenantal relationship with God, we can identify with God in multiple ways. At different points in our life, at different ages and under different circumstances, Jews can “live” with God who can be, over time, authoritative, benevolent, critical and/or distant.

A study from Baylor would strive to reach a specific conclusion about how Americans see God, today, as if that view had remained fixed or at least dominant for the majority of our lifetime. In religions with strict dogmas and creeds, variations on beliefs are usually unwelcome; therefore, I’m not surprised that either no category was provided or none emerged for those who have or have had more than one God image. There is no dogma in Judaism, and the closest we come to a creed is found in Deuteronomy 6:4, where we find Shema, the “Watchword of our Faith,” God is One God. We can imagine the One God, without form or gender, in our own separate ways and with whom we live in a lifelong covenant. How have you imagined God? Would you identify with one or more of the study’s categories, or one of your own? Send me your answer. I’ll reply later with some unscientific but interesting conclusions.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


16
10/01/2010 11:50 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

October 1, 2010

 

 

                This Shabbat, we begin the cycle of Torah reading with the first words of Genesis 1:1. They are among the most familiar words of Torah. You remember them, “In the beginning God created,” and in Hebrew, “Bereisheet bara Elohim.” To rabbinic commentators, every word of Torah held meaning for them. They were so focused on extracting everything they could from these sacred words that they refined their search, in some cases, to single letters. For example, the first letter of the whole Torah is the Hebrew “bet”. Why?

 

                In the past, I have taught you the Midrash about “bet” which also serves as the first letter of the word “baruch” blessed. The connection makes “bet” a perfect letter to begin the whole Torah. But, my favorite Midrash about “bet” is the one that explains how its written form contributes meaning to its place at the beginning of Torah. You see, the Hebrew letter “bet” is written nearly like a four-sided box, except that three sides are closed and one side is opened. The opened side of the letter is opened towards the interior of Torah. Imagine if you were looking for your way out of a dark place. An opened door that led towards a lighted room would be a welcome discovery. So it is with Torah.

 

The three closed sides are darkened pathways that lead to nowhere. It’s just as the Rabbis explained. In their effort to find meaning in a vast universe filled with contradictions and complexities, they advised not to speculate on what was beyond the heavens. Remember they lived in days long before space exploration and air travel; and even presuming their familiarity with telescopes and astrology they were focused only on what they could know, namely, what was written in Torah.

 

They also advised not to speculate on what was in the past. Judaism was supposed to learn from the past, but live in the present where mitzvot (commandments) could make a real difference. What was in the past remained there; it was done. But, today was upon them, so again they turned to what was written in Torah.

 

Finally, they advised not to look beneath the earth. It was a path to the netherworld, or sheol, which was a place without Torah, and therefore without life. Once more, they turned their attention to what was written in Torah. Thus, the “bet” provided a means to remain turned towards the interior of Torah, without any chance of speculating on what was above, behind, or under them.

 

Since then, we have learned a lot about what is above us in the universe, what happened in the past billions of years ago, and also what lies beneath us in the earth. We depend on science in space, history of the past, and archeology in the earth. But, when we need wisdom and insights, truth and ethics for our life and times, to whom do we turn for help? To our Rabbis. And, to what do they turn for lessons for living? To Torah. There is no other body of teachings that has so inspired and led a people like the Torah has led and sustained the Jewish people and other peoples in their faiths. In effect, Torah is beyond the heavens, always in the present, and focused on life on earth.

 

The rabbis-of-old could not have known what we would know in our lifetime. We can’t know what our great-grandchildren will know in theirs. We probably agree that we would not want to live in a world cut off from science and discovery; but, I hope we also agree that we would not want to live in a world without Torah. Its timeless and timely wisdom turns us inward towards truth and ethics for all the ages.

 

From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


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