From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
We hear a lot about power these days: military power; corporate power; political power. We don’t hear much about personal power. But, in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, we learn about the potential for personal power. In Leviticus 19, we read, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” It might seem that “to be holy like God” might require awesome power, but it doesn’t. Our rabbis taught that the goal is to be humanly holy. I think they tried to say that we didn’t have to possess Godly power to be holy; rather, we need only to live above the fray. And, by living above it, they meant the brand of humanity described in Torah.
Our covenant with God is predicated on our participation in a set of rules that elevates us beyond even our own expectations. That’s why Leviticus 19 begins, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord, your God am holy” instead of, “You shall not be holy, for only I, the Lord your God, am holy.” The covenant demands that we become more with Torah, rather than less without it.
For example, Leviticus 19:9 describes a human ethic that separates us from our baser instincts by aiming our efforts towards a higher good. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest…you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” Most of us understand the meaning of this ethical teaching, but its meaning escapes even the brightest and most powerful among us. As urbanites in 2012, we don’t know much about farming, but we do know about reaping benefits and harvesting returns. Shouldn’t we also know something about leaving a portion of our earnings for the poor and the stranger? To do less than what we’ve learned to be right and good is to demean the image in which we are all created.
To live above the fray can be spiritually enriching. It can lift us out of helplessness and set us on a path of hopefulness. Aiming for higher human expectations can give purpose to our work and our relationships. Responding to our base instincts feeds only our basic human wants and needs. But, consider what those base instincts are and what they can mean when we rise above the fray. Food is a necessity of life. When we live above the fray we see it as nutritious fuel and not as a triumph. “All you can eat” is a perfect example of feeding our baser instincts. Perhaps “All you need” is a better way of approaching the buffet. Sex is also a God-given urge. Exploiting it or corrupting it is part of the oldest profession on earth. Living above the fray can mean a loving relationship with expectations for satisfying that urge in mutually respectful ways.
Obviously, living above the fray isn’t new to us. But, being holy is. It just sounds so foreign. Don’t let it be. God is holy. We get that. But, Torah teaches us, “Be holy, too.” Aim high. In Leviticus 19:18, we read, “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord, your God.” This appears to be the high point along the way. Here we have aimed high enough that our human holiness is reflected in what we’ve made of ourselves and extended to others. Mutual respect and love is an apex of holiness.
As Shabbat begins, pause to reflect, to give thanks, and to look for ways to aim high. You, too, are commanded to be holy, humanly holy.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
A wise observer of life remarked, “Between periods of digging in the dark, we must endeavor always to transform our tears into knowledge.” On Sunday, April 22nd, at at 3:00pm, at Congregation Brith Shalom, Houston’s Jewish community will gather to observe Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. We are between periods of darkness so we use this time wisely to transform our tears into knowledge. Every day we persist in our mutual efforts to overturn ignorance and bigotry, to plant seeds of awareness and tolerance.
Recently, in a middle-school classroom in Houston, a young Jewish girl came home and told her parents about her teacher’s social studies lesson. In the lesson, the teacher taught about countries that harbor child slaves and commit cruel acts against them. On the list of guilty countries was Israel. The young Jewish girl was upset and confused. Her parents grew concerned and incensed. The family talked together and reviewed the materials sent home by the teacher. Unable to resolve the problem alone, the parents called the local office of ADL. Jodi Bernstein ably and quickly responded. Not surprisingly, the Internet revealed unscrupulous websites with bogus information and outrageous allegations. It wasn’t Israel that used children as human shields and it wasn’t Israel that held children against their will. Her office quickly assessed the material and then intervened to provide correct and age-appropriate material to the teacher. The teacher responded with gratitude for the new lessons and the updated information. He re-taught the lessons, informed his department, and aimed to undo any misunderstandings among his students. It was a success for ADL and the community.
Our history is replete with myriad examples of those who re-learned, but too many more who failed to learn. So, Yom HaShoah is critical to us, more than any other day of Jewish remembrance. It is, for us, a day to attempt to reconcile how, in the middle of the 20th century, a time of industry and budding modernity, such inhumanity against humankind could take place. But, more so, it’s our time to remember those who perished in the atrocities of the Holocaust. They cannot be forgotten or else the experience and its lessons will be for naught. That can’t happen.
Anti-Semitism rises and falls but it will not be extinguished entirely in our lifetime. The goal is to use this time “between periods of digging in the dark” to do absolutely everything we can to overturn inhumanity to humankind wherever we find it. Obviously, we have to take care of the Jewish people and its future, but the knowledge we’ve gained from the tears we have shed have taught us that we can’t only remember in our homes and synagogues. The WORLD has to know! The Jewish people have cried tears of bondage and suffering; they have been marked for genocide and left in heaps of ashes. There isn’t a nation or a people on earth that hasn’t suffered on its way to becoming great or in its effort to maintain that greatness. The tears that give way to knowledge become the foundation on which the future is built. Then, any future period of darkness can be postponed, ideally, forever, to save the Jewish people and all people.
Yom HaShoah calls us together to preserve our relationship to the past and awaken our hope for the future. Only in fellowship with our community can we accept nothing less than the mutual promise that knowledge and understanding will bring us closer to peace between peoples.
This Shabbat, we pray, “O God, we have struggled long enough. We know that too many tears have been shed in the world; and too many voices have been silenced that once shouted for freedom. We have learned, “Your teachings are a veritable tree of life for those who hold fast to them; they show us ways of pleasantness; and guide us along paths of peace.” May the lessons we have taken to heart mark a new beginning where joy fills the hearts of all Your children; and, love binds us in a world of nations dedicated to real peace. May this Shabbat and Yom HaShoah be dedicated to Your presence in our life, and the covenant that sustains us.”
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Every Friday night, we sing a prayer for healing. It’s called “mi shebeirach” because it’s the first two words of the traditional prayer. These words mean, “The One who blessed” as in, “May the One who blessed our ancestors…” The hope is for “refu-ah shlei-mah” a complete healing (refuah means healing; shleimah means complete). The inclusion of a prayer for health on Friday night is a Reform innovation. Shabbat liturgy is filled with thanks and praise to God on this day of rest; it’s not intended to be a day for personal petitions. The innovation took root when Friday night services, the predominant Reform worship time, accommodated this prayer at the request of congregants. It didn’t begin at Beth Israel, but like many good innovations it spread and caught on here, too.
In the past, rabbis debated the wisdom of including a prayer for health on Friday night. First, it was a petitionary prayer that belonged in the weekday liturgy when all petitionary prayers were recited. But, like other Reform innovations, moving it to Friday night was the easier problem to overcome. Second, and more controversial, was the expectation that congregants were placing on this prayer for health. Asked one rabbi, “What would happen if our congregants believed that the healing prayer actually healed their loved ones?” The cause and effect, he feared, would defy the enlightened and rational outlook which was the hallmark of Reform Judaism. He warned that our sanctuaries would become standing room only for worshipers seeking a quick and complete healing.
The rabbi who raised his warning was heard but ignored. Eventually, the healing prayer did become a sacred part of Reform worship on Friday night; and, his fears were never borne out. The accommodation didn’t raise the expectation that prayers for health would replace medical science; rather, it made room for prayer in the healing therapy which we expressed when we petitioned for a “refuah shleimah” a complete healing. Medical science can mend the body, but, we need prayer found in spirituality to heal the spirit. Rabbi Karff has taught, “Everyone is spiritual. One’s own religion is the deepest expression of that spirituality.” As Jews, we find meaning in offering a “mi shebeirach” for the health and well-being of those who are infirm. It has become such a source of comfort to us on Friday night that it has become, much like Klepper/Freelander’s Shalom Rav, a de facto tradition.
The role of spirituality in health has even been the subject of academic studies, and a leading figure in the field is Dr. Ken Pargament of Bowling Green University and the Institute for Spirituality and Health at the Texas Medical Center. Dr. Pargament will be the Schachtel Lecturer on Wednesday, April 18th, 7:00pm at Congregation Beth Israel. Dr. Pargament will speak on sanctification (perceiving life through the lens of the sacred) as an element central to spirituality and world faiths, Judaism in particular. Drawing on clinical experience and research studies, Dr. Pargament will address how the healing process can be enhanced by teaching people to attend to sacred matters.
A reminder: According to Torah, Passover is observed for seven days; therefore, Passover ends on Friday evening, April 13th. On Friday morning, Yizkor services will be held at 10:30am, and on Friday evening, regular Shabbat services will be held at 6:30pm.
May this Shabbat be a day of rest; may it renew us in body, mind and spirit. From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Passover is here. We call it a holiday but it’s filled with many responsibilities. The most obvious responsibility is cleansing the house of “chametz”, all the food items prohibited during Passover. Another responsibility includes telling the story of Passover when we sit around the tables for our Seder with family and friends. But, this year, I’d like you to include another responsibility. I invite you not only to tell the story, but also to hear the story, personally. In the hearing, there is so much for us to learn and know.
For example, the plagues that we recite are familiar to us. There are locusts, boils and darkness, but they aren’t the only ones that should concern us. Modern plagues such as homelessness, hunger, ignorance, and racism are part of our world we can’t escape. There is no redemption from these plagues unless we do something about them. God redeemed us from Egypt, but it couldn’t have happened without the human will to follow Moses who had faith in God’s plan for the Israelites. Likewise, freedom from modern plagues isn’t impossible, but it also depends on the human will to follow leaders who have faith that we can aspire to God’s plan for all people to be free.
At our Seder tables, we’ll remove a drop of wine from our cups as we recite each plague. It’s meant to reduce our joy, of which wine is a symbol, to acknowledge the suffering of the Egyptians, also God’s people, so that the Israelites might go free. Shouldn’t we take out more drops of wine from our cups of joy for the plagues still suffered by God’s people, today? Ask guests at your Seder to name a plague that causes God’s people to suffer, today. I hope there’s some wine to enjoy after everyone has a chance to name a modern plague. Nevertheless, there is enough human will to make a world of difference.
Another opportunity we have to hear comes when we sing the familiar song, Dayenu. It means, “It would have been enough” if God had only given us Torah, but God did more than that. Likewise, there are many heroes and unsung heroes today who recognize the human spirit within them to lead the way and make a difference. Who are they? Oprah? Bono? Bill Gates? Fame only gives them access to resources, but maybe a parent, a community leader, or even a child has made such a difference that we could say of them, “It would have been enough” had they only given money to help, but they also built a school, provided an education, addressed world disease, or raised awareness.
Passover is our spring holiday that speaks of freedom and renewal. It sings of faith and hope. All around us are signs of the human will to lead the way with God’s help for all the things we know are possible. At your tables this week, tell the story, sing the songs, and eat the foods; but, don’t conclude until you identify the challenges, recognize the possibilities, and pledge to lead the way, too. Otherwise, the Seder is just another ritual that is linked to the past instead of the future. Judaism gains sustenance from the past but it lives for the future. Be part of the future in Judaism that is modern, relevant, and joyful for all.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover.
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