05/25/2011 03:56 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 27, 2011


“Bemidbar”, in the wilderness, is the name of this week’s Torah portion, and the Hebrew name of the Book of Numbers. The book begins with a census to account for members of the Israelite tribes. The rest of the book recounts the journey of the Israelites as they make their way to the Promised Land. The “wilderness” holds unique meaning when it connotes wandering in an unfamiliar place. Yet, it is precisely in this unfamiliar place where they are more open to signs, hints, and hopes.

                Recall your favorite fairy tale. Deep in the woods, lost without parents, children wander helplessly. They’re hungry for any source of help. That’s just when the stranger lurking behind the gnarled tree comes into view. She offers them a way to safety and they follow her. Only later do they learn what we long suspected, that she is nothing but a witch aiming to do them harm. Repeated versions of helpless struggles finally get resolved in acts of redemption in the hands of the children’s savior, maybe a prince.

                Our Biblical book is not a fairy tale, but its epic sequences surely provided roots for subsequent stories of the lost and the found. In our story of the wilderness, the Israelites’ savior was God, ably served by Moses. The Israelites questioned obvious signs of God’s presence. Aaron and Miriam questioned their brother’s authority and were stricken. Moses appealed to God, and healed them. Foreign rulers tried to curse the Israelites, but they were defeated by God’s plan for the Israelites. Eventually, the Israelites found their way when they learned how to act like prophets, when they heard reports about the Land and grew hopeful about their destiny, and when they made provisions to complete their journey upon entering the Land God promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

                Our personal wilderness experiences are not fairy tales, but they have uncharted paths and unsavory villains, too. Pathways that we’ve never known because we haven’t dealt with sudden loss or tragedy in the family, pitch us into a thick and dark wilderness. We find villains there that appear in the form of anxiety, sleeplessness and depression. Like a fairy tale or biblical story, there are redemptive moments, too. We find them in saviors along the way. They are competent doctors, caring social workers, kind clergy, loving family and dear friends – all gifts from God. They truly save us from our trials and show us the way. The challenge is that the safe place we knew before we entered the wilderness is not necessarily the place to which we return when the story ends. The house might be the same but the life we live there is different now. Only fairy tales end with “happily ever after”. Biblical stories end with hope founded on faith that what follows has meaning, too. Except for moral lessons in fairy tales, we would do best to take our cue from biblical endings. The Israelites persevered, and though they didn’t know permanent peace, they were never without hope.

                Normal people don’t like to be lost in the wilderness, but none of us can escape it forever. When we are in the thick of it, our goal is to save ourselves from it. We open ourselves to signs and help. Most of us have learned that we cannot always go back to where we used to be, but, thankfully, there are people whose caring and comforting presence is the light that shines in the darkness to reveal our way home, again.

                May you and your loved ones find the light to illuminate the path you seek back to life, good health, and peace. From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

05/19/2011 01:59 PM Posted by:

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 20, 2011


                This Shabbat, we come to the last chapters of Leviticus. In Bekhukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34) we read a straight-forward rule, “If you follow my laws and faithfully observe my commandments,” then God will cause you to prosper and be blessed. Surely, Torah isn’t referring only to wise and able people who follow all God’s laws! You and I know that it must mean more, so what are we left to understand?

                Our Rabbis respond to our concern with a reference from the Book of Job. There we learn, “[Job’s] days are determined; You know the number of his months; You have set him limits that he cannot pass.” Like Job, we have many human skills and abilities, and we are also limited. But, that doesn’t mean we don’t have what it takes to meet God’s commands. Our Rabbis didn’t mean to disillusion us; rather, they meant to develop our appreciation for what we have and what we can do with what we’ve been given.

                Remember the young man who asked, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” He was told, “Practice, practice, practice.” There are young people whose raw talent can get them to Carnegie Hall, but there are also those whose countless hours of practice will never get them out of the last chair in the band. When we accept our assets and our liabilities, together, we can be more realistic about what we can do, and the ways we can open ourselves up to God’s blessings.

                It’s like our Rabbis also taught, “And I grant you also what you didn’t ask for, both riches and glory all your life.” There is the possibility that the young person who will never make it to Carnegie Hall, will nonetheless find blessing in the pleasure of his God-given musical talent. Not everyone can be Itzhak Perlman. It is human nature to be limited. It is also human nature to want more and even to demand it. How do we reconcile our thirst for more than we have with what we have been granted?

                Too often, you and I don’t fully cultivate what is already true about us. We fail to live up to our best in areas where we have had some success. For example, have you ever wondered what you would do if you weren’t working in the job you have, today? What if you had the liberty to do what you love to do, and maybe even get paid for it? Would you do what you’re doing now, or some of it, or something completely different? I’m assuming that fishing and golf would still be your recreation and not your profession. If you asked me, I’d teach. Years ago, when I served a smaller congregation I taught Jewish enrichment courses at a small liberal arts college. Teaching college students and professors who also attended was one of the most exhilarating parts of my week.

                Each of us has a God-given talent. Each of us has a way of fulfilling God’s commandments. No one said it was always going to be easy, but making an effort is a mitzvah, too. This week, take a moment to think about what you love to do most or what you’re really good at doing. Maybe you don’t earn a living from it, but what if the reward is that you really enjoy it? Is it cooking, reading, teaching, planning, fixing, constructing, or listening? Consider the Source from which it comes, thank God for it, and honor your gift through the ways you choose to use it. Then, as Torah teaches, you will surely prosper and be blessed.

                From my desk to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

05/13/2011 08:30 AM Posted by:

From the Desk
May 13, 2011

                In Leviticus 25, we find one of the most famous verses in the Hebrew Bible. Strangely, we don't know it from the Bible as much as we do from American history. Our founding fathers identified Leviticus 25:10, as the emblematic phrase of the future of America, and inscribed it on the Liberty Bell. You know it, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

                To students of American history, the bell was rung to mark the reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776. For new Americans, the Biblical verse was more than a memorable passage. The fathers were learned men and knowledgeable of their Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments, as they would have called them. Their translation used the word “liberty” and it meant freedom from the tyranny of England, or any king or despot, forever. Their freedom began with the Bible's promise of liberty fulfilled in a new land, a Promised Land.

                To students of Jewish history, the Biblical phrase chosen for the Liberty Bell is important for two reasons. First, there is a certain satisfaction to be had for the choice of a Torah verse on such an iconic American fixture. Second, any student of Biblical Hebrew will tell you that the translation of the text does not give us “liberty” but rather “release”. In the JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation, the verse is rendered, “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” The significance of this translation is found in the latter part of Lev. 25:10, where we read, “It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.” It was a period of release when all slaves were set free, and all debts forgiven. The chapter ends, “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants; they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.”

                The Liberty Bell sits in Philadelphia. Its purpose still resonates with us as Jews and as Americans. Every effort to defeat terrorism and every trial in the name of freedom and democracy is a small echo of the bell's symbolism. Our commitment to be servants to no one but God, is satisfied for many people, but not for most people for whom there is no echo of any liberty bell. This week, at the Holocaust Museum Houston's gala fundraiser, which raised $1.1 million, Mia Farrow, actress and human rights activist, spoke movingly and genuinely about her role in Darfur. She emphasized that the rampant destruction of life there compelled her to try in whatever way she could to call attention to the genocide of a people. She is making a difference. Her lesson for us is an extension of what Holocaust Museum Houston tries to teach everybody about tolerance and humanity following the atrocities of the Shoah. I listened attentively to her words, and understood why she was chosen to receive the Moral Courage Award from the Museum.

                  For us, Jews and Americans, we have been reared on freedom and liberty. We have learned in the best schools and been taught how to be great Americans. We wave our flags, we pay our taxes, and we thank God we live in the greatest country that ever was in all of history. But, being an American is not simply a reward for being fortunate enough to have been born here or to have arrived here. It is a privilege to protect and defend so that others who strive to be free may also find their way here and build our nation with us, hand in hand. As we read Torah on the Liberty Bell, let's also read the words of Emma Lazarus, a Jewish woman, whose poem is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

                   From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

05/06/2011 08:09 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 6, 2011


This week, Osama bin Laden, the master terrorist, was killed by U.S. forces. The reaction has been varied and in most cases predictable.

                Naturally, we would expect that some would react with great pleasure in knowing that the murderer was finally located and killed. Instantaneous demonstrations took place outside the White House and in New York City. Celebrations made it clear that overcoming evil was something to sing about. Don’t be surprised by it. In the U.S., where good versus evil has been national theme since the days of the Cold War, this age of terrorism only intensified it. The street celebrations and the gleeful Facebook postings, while uncomfortable on one level, perfectly reflected what Americans have been raised to understand about evil and what to do about it when it’s defeated. Whether it’s a wall that divided Berlin, or the death of bin Laden, evil is evil and when it’s destroyed there is a reason to rejoice.

                However, there are also reasons that others believe our joy should be strongly mitigated by the repercussions of the terrorist’s death. Bin Laden was not a wall; he was a figurehead to thousands of terrorist followers. Whether or not he still held power among all the ranks of the Taliban, is not the only issue. What likely ranks higher in the minds of the Taliban, is the audacity of America to take out its legendary leader. Surely, the Taliban doesn’t need to see us rejoicing to know that we are ecstatic with the success of the U.S. forces! Will the world witness terrorist acts in reaction to bin Laden’s death? How could the answer be an unequivocal “no”? Even a “maybe” is enough reason to temper our displays of joy.

                President Obama, who skillfully addressed the situation and approved of the operation, understands the position we must take in the U.S. as a world power and leader of nations. Rejoicing at the White House fence should come when the age of terrorism comes to a conclusion, much like the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the end of a communist Europe. Until such time, the death of bin Laden is merely a piece in a very large puzzle to take down the organizations of terrorism. The hard part is that we have been waiting so long to find some justice. So, some will dance in the streets, others will sit pensively, and our President must show measured restraint when we succeed, because tomorrow is another day in the same war against terror.

                My suggestions are founded on Jewish wisdom. First, we don’t “turn the other cheek” as matter of scriptural dogma; we seek justice in order to compensate those who are wronged in order to restore them to wholeness, to the extent that we can. Pursuing bin Laden and capturing him, dead or alive, met the litmus test for justice. Second, we have learned that evil is not an external temptation we must avoid; rather, it is an internal quality that we must prevent from masking the good that we are born to pursue. When evil overcomes us and we sin against God’s creative acts, we destroy life in our path. Individuals are held responsible and called to account. There is no sadness that bin Laden is no longer among us; but, there is considerable and gross disappointment and horror that a man with such charisma could have organized a nation of terrorists, but not a nation of mindful, learned, industrious and contributing Muslims.

                Finally, I would urge you not to be surprised by the dark humor surrounding the events of this recent week. Remember that during the darkest days of the Holocaust, Jews were prolific in their humor against the horrendous situation they faced. Books on Jewish humor include chapters on Holocaust humor. It cut the pain; it gave the Jews power over their oppressors; and, it served as a legacy of their will to live even if they didn’t survive. A classic bit of humor suggested that Hitler would die on a Jewish holiday. Asked which Jewish holiday, the answer was predictably, any day Hitler dies will be a Jewish holiday.

                There’s much to think about this week. Let’s begin by welcoming Shabbat, a day of rest and thanksgiving. Let it be a time when you set aside your challenges and anxieties for time to replenish your personal resources. And, let it also be a time to thank God for our nation, its leaders, and the resolve to pursue justice and civility in a world that is sorely lacking both.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

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