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81
01/26/2012 10:39 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 27, 2012

 

In the course of my personal study, I discovered a Midrash, a rabbinic interpretation, of a familiar verse that opened my eyes to a new insight. It was “awesome” as our teenagers might say; it was an “aha” moment as we’ve sometimes described it. The burning bush has often captivated my attention; not for its pyrotechnic qualities, but for its unassuming platform for God’s presence. There, of all places, God, who is on high, eternal, and without measure, appeared to Moses in a thorn bush. But, why?

                A familiar Midrash I like to teach and which I included in my book (God of Me, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011), explains that if God could appear there, in a lowly place, then God could appear anywhere (Exodus Rabbah 11:5). It was the rabbis’ use of Midrash that explained why God would choose such a lowly thing from which to appear to Moses. After all, God, being God, could have appeared in more beautiful things like a sycamore tree, as they explained. The question that remained unanswered for me, until I learned about it recently, was, “Why a bush at all?” Aren’t there other humble things from which God could have appeared, like trees and simple places?

                The Midrash that caught my attention explained it as follows: God appeared in the bush, because it was pure (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai I:III). A thorn bush was pure? Indeed. The bush was the only place in nature where pagan gods were not assumed to appear. In the ancient world, gods were said to have appeared in trees and they were worshiped. They were “ashterot”, idols and talisman. The lowly bush was not worshiped. It was pure (tahor). God could appear there and God did.

                The Midrash, unfamiliar to me until recently, awakened me to the idea that God appeared to Moses in a remarkable place not only because it proved God’s omnipresence, but also because it set God apart. And, now, I understand that God appeared in this place because it was unused by other gods in other faiths and untouched by references to other deities. The Midrash satisfied the rabbinic standard that sought purity in life and which upholds God’s sanctity. The rabbis sought purity and sanctity for themselves, too; they assumed that their own purity devolved from God’s. While a bush seems an unlikely place for God to appear, it had to be suitable or God wouldn’t have appeared there. What was remarkably suitable about it? Purity.

                I still derive understanding from the Midrash that God’s appearance there in a lowly bush proves God’s presence everywhere. But, I value this lesson that helps me understand that God’s appearance at the beginning of our people’s redemption from slavery began in a sacred place. We have been taught, “All beginnings are hard”, but they can also be sacred starting points where fresh ideas and clear intentions help us enjoy a sacred journey. Our Israelite ancestors were freed from slavery and found their way to a better place and a life of Torah. When we are unencumbered by doubt or self-defeating tendencies, we can nurture fresh ideas and pure intentions, too. Our sacred beginnings start with faith in ourselves and God’s presence as a source of all that we need to persevere. Moses wasn’t entirely confident at the start, but he didn’t fail in his purpose. Our lives begin with blessing, not sin. What we make of our days can be blessings, too.

                As Shabbat begins, consider: Sacred beginnings can lead to sacred journeys.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


80
01/19/2012 09:38 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 20, 2012

Last Sunday, after religious school teaching and life-cycle events, I returned home to do one of my favorite Sunday afternoon activities. Lisa and I sit quietly in the family room. She watches football on TV, and I read my New York Times. She was cheering for the Texans and commenting on the game, while I was reading quietly and commenting on the articles.

                One article in particular caught my attention. Matt Gross, writing on his recent trip to Israel, reflected on his trip, “I will go pretty much anywhere, anytime.” But, he admitted, “of the world’s roughly 200 nations, there was only one --- besides Afghanistan and Iraq (which my wife has deemed too dangerous) --- that I had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting: Israel.” Through the entire article I waited to read about one redeeming moment when he was awed by history, religious diversity, or modernity in an ancient land, but it never came. It struck me as utterly offensive and stunning. I wasn’t the only one. David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) read it and reacted to it in his blog. You have to read his blog, because it’s the only way to begin to fathom Matt Gross’ remarkably unaffected presence in the Holy Land.

Click this link

                Naturally, I’m curious to know your reaction. I’m also adamant about our own roles as travelers to Israel. I claim that we go not because we aim to move there, though some do. We go not because we are duty-bound, though a so-called pilgrimage to the Holy Land can fulfill life dreams. We go not because we long for a return to the Land, though walking in our ancestors’ footsteps awakens us intellectually and spiritually. The most reluctant travelers to Israel come away moved by the experience. They are awakened by the religious devotion of some and the modern Israeli lifestyle of many more. They are taken aback by the richness of the history and the archaeology that illuminates Biblical stories and events of the past. They are inspired by the tenacity of the western, democratic, modern, state of Israel, which, despite the conflict surrounding her, thrives and prospers. And, they are dedicated to returning home to report the facts and to dispel the myths.

                I have lived and traveled in Israel. Matt Gross didn’t see Israel. He didn’t have to find God on his journey, but had he been more introspective and less narcissistic he would have possibly discovered something larger than himself, his friends and his schwarma (beef/lamb meat found in corner markets and served in pita --- delicious but not necessarily a spiritual experience). Matt owes himself another trip to see Israel again for the first time. Perhaps Matt would like to join us on our trip!?

                But, first, you’re invited to join me, my wife, Lisa, Rabbi Scott, Cantor Mutlu, and Mike and Marcia Nichols, when we travel to Israel, June 10-19, 2012. It will surely be an experience of a lifetime. This year in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and sights north, south, east and west, will inspire you to write your own article about Israel. Go to www.beth-israel.org, and click on the link for Israel. Register today and join us. You will be INSPIRED!

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


79
01/12/2012 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 13, 2012

 

                From peace to calamity. That’s the transition we read about when we close Genesis and begin Exodus, this Shabbat. Genesis ends on these words, “Joseph died at the age of 110; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt” (Genesis 50:26). Exodus begins with the names of the sons of Israel (Jacob) who “came to Egypt with Jacob” (Exodus 1:1). They were prosperous there. Torah teaches, “But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). Then we read the verse that changes everything, “A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). Thus, begins the span of Israelite slavery that would last for 430 years.

                There is nothing bright about the Israelite’s experience in slavery. We recall its gruesome and evil history when we read this portion of Torah, and in spring when we tell the Passover story. However, the remarkable epoch also includes the roles of Moses, God’s presence, and God’s covenant with the Israelites. We learn that Moses, though “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex.4:10), is a man of justice and compassion. It’s a perfect combination that enables him to fight for justice and to lead the people to freedom. God appears for the first time to Moses in a bush. Midrash explains that God appears to Moses in a lowly thorn bush to teach us that “if God can appear there, then God can appear anywhere” (Exodus Rabbah 2:5). It’s a perfect lesson for a time when God is needed in Egypt and in the wilderness. God also recalls the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and, God promises to go with Moses and lead the Israelites to freedom.

                Though the turning point in the story takes a terrible detour under a ruthless Pharaoh, it provides great lessons, too. In short, our story of tragedy in Egypt, also led us to victory in a story about faith. “Crushed by cruel bondage” (Ex. 6:9), the Israelites, nonetheless, responded to Moses’ message of hope and leadership founded on God’s promise to redeem them from slavery. They followed Moses. It wasn’t a perfect journey. There was doubt and rebellion. But, there was also victory after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. The Biblical epoch is not stripped of grief and despair in order to spare us anxiety and disbelief. Rather, Torah records it all. It is a gripping story of human creation, redemption and revelation. It combines every human emotion and nuance to teach us about life as it is and also as it can be.

                The heritage of interpretation found in Midrash empowers us to study and to seek lessons for living. That is the Jewish way. Even today, in the midst of crisis or trouble, in addition to praying that everything will be okay, we still need to know the truth and the bottom line. We want to be part of the solution that comes through real work and effort. Belief is part of the process when it gives us confidence that our work and effort are not for naught. Our rabbis taught us, “Pray as if everything depends on heaven; do as if everything depends on you.” Indeed, it’s a covenant between God and us.

                As Shabbat begins, count your blessings and value every experience for its meaning in your life.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

 

Make a note: January 20th, 6:30pm in the sanctuary — “Down Home Shabbat” a special musical Shabbat featuring our favorite melodies set against the backdrop of bluegrass and country instruments and harmonies.


78
01/05/2012 09:22 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 6, 2012

                This is a serious year with serious issues. The national election is around the corner. The easy part will be surviving ten more months of campaign ads and election rhetoric. Right now, the difficult part is sifting through the Republican candidates’ messages. They’ve all addressed myriad issues facing our nation and our world. But, their devotion to the Republican Party line makes it difficult to find significant differences between them, especially on subjects like the economy, Washington power, the military, and deficits. Every candidate makes nearly similar claims. That’s not the case with subjects like abortion, immigration and death penalty. These are “third rail” topics --- if they touch them they risk political death at the hands of party loyalists. Only Rick Perry, who is down in the polls has distanced himself from the pack by denying women access to an abortion even in cases of incest and rape. Even staunch conservative Republicans are scratching their heads and asking, “Really?”

                We have the right to choose our favorite candidates based on educated choices about their positions on everything facing our nation, politically, economically and socially. But, as Jewish men and women we also have an obligation to choose a candidate who can summon more than political will to govern; he must also summon the human will to see everybody as persons of value and worth. We are Jews who know the heart of the stranger, who are commanded to pursue justice, and who have been taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” Within these principles are solutions to the ills of our nation facing disproportionately increasing numbers of families and individuals falling closer to the poverty line.

                This past week, I watched the “60 Minutes” interview with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican. He’s a Jewish conservative Republican. On camera, his wife disagreed with his conservative position on gay rights and abortion rights. You didn’t have to be an expert to see that Cantor was bothered by his wife’s admission on national TV. Though she was once a Democrat, she “converted” to be a Republican. Eric Cantor strikes me as an authentic Republican who subscribes to its serious tenets about the economy and taxes, but is he really, privately, a socially conservative Republican who would deny or turn back progress on women’s and gay rights? The menorah on the shelf of their family room in the background where the interview was held hinted that in his Jewish past he had to have learned familiar lessons about extending compassion to the stranger, giving tzedakah to the needy, and Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule on peace-making.

                Sadly and regrettably, Eric Cantor’s agenda has become less about conservative economic and social issues --- we’ve had Republican compromises on these issues in the past --- and more about the destruction (annihilation) of Obama’s presidency. Has it ever been uglier? Regrettably, their plan is failing the country. Gridlock in congress is destroying families and threatening their financial futures. Every day, more households are slipping under the poverty line and losing hope. Should they have to wait for relief until November 2012? In Judaism, suffering and poverty are not virtues. We can learn from difficult experiences, but they aren’t our goals.

                I honestly don’t know how I’ll vote yet, but my Jewish identity will surely inform the choice I will make. I do know that we cannot afford leaders who are trapped by ideology and then succumb to it. We deserve statesmen who understand their party’s principles as a subset of a larger national outlook that views prosperity, justice, liberty, and peace as inherent virtues available to every human soul.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


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