From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
June 29, 2012
“Because I said so!” If we’re parents or persons of authority, then we’ve said it once or twice even though we knew it wasn’t a reasoned response to one’s demands. In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1), or “that portion about the Red Heifer,” we also find a command that isn’t reasoned or rational. Considered one of the most mysterious rulings in Torah, the ritual of the Red Heifer goes like this: Anyone who has been in contact with a dead body is unclean and must be purified. This is done by sprinkling a person with the ashes of an unblemished red heifer. The sprinkling has a purifying effect, but those who handle the ashes are impure until nightfall. So, the ashes purify the unclean, and make impure the clean. If you’re scratching your head now, then you’re exhibiting a traditional response to this portion of Torah.
The Rabbis scoured the text for a rationale for these rules. Ultimately, they concluded that these rules were instituted to test Israel’s unconditional obedience to God. A Midrash tells it another way. There once was a man who came to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and asked about this ritual of the Red Heifer. The Rabbi gave him a rationale and a reason for the ritual, but later admitted to his students that it was truly a mystery. After all, the dead were not impure and the ashes were not purifying! But the Rabbi said, “This is what God has decreed, and you may not transgress God’s law.” Part of the mystery lies in the contradiction between life and death. We learn, “They are eternally linked and eternally in tension, and whoever touches them touches both purity and impurity at the same time.”
In some Jewish religious communities mourning rituals remain a matter of great importance. Certain people are allowed to come close to the dead and others are prohibited. Some wash their hands as they leave the cemetery or before they enter a Shiva house (mourner’s home). All are means of minding the “eternal tension” or boundary between life and death. In our Reform Jewish community we are also mindful of that eternal tension when we deal rationally with the subjects of life and death. Before, during and after a funeral, we de-emphasize the mysterious issues of ritual impurity and purity, and focus on providing dignity to the deceased and comfort to the mourners.
“Because I said so!” could have been a verse from this Torah portion. With much less authority than God, who commanded Moses and the Israelites, we would do well to resist the temptation to be autocratic without reason. In our moments of commanding we should give reasoned and rational messages. Our goal should be to build consensus where we can, and even where we cannot, we should strive to maintain dignity in our households and our workplaces. Begin with a more thoughtful tone and more respectful words. It’s easier to hear an authoritative voice when it’s quiet, than when it bellows in anger and fury. Now, just in case you were going to open some books to explore more deeply the mystery of the Red Heifer, the Midrash teaches us that Solomon, who was wiser than all others, studied this verse and admitted, “I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me.” Some things simply are the way they are. They require faith. Some things demand interpretation. They require reason and rationality.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Korah was a rebel. He led a rebellion against God and Moses, and lost. Torah explains that Korah lost because of his lack of faith in God. That’s not to say that perfect faith would have enabled him to win in his battle against God and Moses. There are other leaders in Torah who questioned God’s authority and lived to tell the story. The earth didn’t swallow up Abraham when he argued on behalf of the innocents in
The difference is their faith. Korah had none. He stood outside the boundaries of a community of faith and dared to overthrow its rulers and its mission. The earth that opened to swallow him up was the ultimate demonstration of the line that divided Korah from the people and their God. Abraham stood up against God, too, but not to overthrow God or to lead the people in his own direction. Rather, Abraham defended the few people who remained innocent and deserved to be saved from destruction. And, while Moses was a faithful servant who knew God “face-to-face” he came to God to plead for God’s help, guidance, patience, and finally, God’s mercy. Moses labored to discover truth and wisdom within the framework of a sacred community that was in formation. He didn’t abandon the people; he demanded their submission to God’s will.
Living within boundaries is more than complying with the norms they represent. It also means applying pressure to those boundaries to clarify truth and wisdom. Abraham did it. Moses did it. Korah did not do it. Do we?
Let’s consider the sacred boundary of marriage. Within it we live and love, and we’re supposed to keep living and loving for a lifetime. But, if a marriage doesn’t include faith in the boundary of marriage then it will disintegrate when it’s tested. However, if faith in the boundary is present, then it will withstand the pressure of disagreements and challenges we face in life. A silver or golden anniversary is not about celebrating the test of time; it’s more about the resilience of two people in a sacred relationship who keep faith within sacred boundaries.
Let’s consider Judaism, today. To doubting Jews, young and old, I have often said, “Ask, doubt, and question, but do so within the boundaries of Judaism. Faith in one God, or even the possibility of God (for those who are uncertain), will sustain any pressure you apply to Jewish boundaries. The result: Your Judaism will deepen.” Abraham and Moses are models of faithful challengers. Korah, on the other hand, well, let’s just say he couldn’t “fathom” Judaism.
The boundaries of Judaism are durable. Push on them with all your heart, and soul, and might, and discover what you can know. This summer, read a Jewish book, attend Shabbat Summer services in the Gordon Chapel at 6:30pm, go to Torah study on Shabbat morning at 9:45am, and make Shabbat blessings at home with family and friends. Between Korach’s rebellion and Moses’ faith there is a lot of room for us to find our way. Don’t be like Korach who had no faith; and don’t strive to be like Moses --- there was only one. Be YOU and find meaning in your Judaism, today.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
I flew home from Chicago this past weekend. Upon arriving at the gate, we stood in the aisle to await our turns to exit the plane. Passengers began to talk about the weather in Houston. A visitor to our great city asked how far it was from the hotel in the Medical Center to Rice University. Many answers swirled around. He asked if it was too hot to walk there. That’s when I turned around to join the conversation. I said thoughtfully, “Sir, it’s Houston in June. It’s hot!” The bubble over my head said, “Get over it!”
Houston in June means many things. First and foremost, Beth Israel is leading a trip to Israel. We travel from June 10th through June 19th. During our excursion, we will Blog our experiences and post our pictures. You can follow us at http://cbi2012israel.blogspot.com.
Houston in June also means that we held our congregation’s annual meeting. Quoting Rabbi Karff who likes to say, “The only thing worse than a boring annual meeting is an interesting one.” Ours was not boring by any means, but it was interesting for all the right reasons. As Kevin Lewis passed the gavel of leadership to Bobby Lapin, he summarized the place we find ourselves in as a congregation during his two years as president and over the course of this past 12 months. Indeed, we have grown as a congregation in many ways, not the least of which is involvement, attendance, and creativity. Like his predecessors, Kevin rose to meet the challenges of his tenure while he provided leadership and direction for the future. It has been a personal joy to work with Kevin in his role as president, but it was enriched by the fact that we are also friends. The meaning of that friendship is reflected in the mutual respect and admiration that went untarnished despite the hard work we shared. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that our friendship has truly deepened as a result. Thank you, Kevin, for your unwavering devotion to Beth Israel.
Houston in June also means that families are heading north, south, east and west for vacation and rejuvenation. Some children head to camp and some families head to the hills and mountains. For those who stay close to home, let me urge you to find as much rejuvenation at Beth Israel. The Schachtel Library remains open during summer hours. Don’t hesitate to visit and enjoy the largest Jewish library in the southwest. Throughout the summer, Shabbat worship services continue every Friday night at 6:30pm in the Gordon Chapel. Bright and uplifting music, a special D’var Torah, and personal prayers welcome everyone. Out by 7:30pm, Shabbat services make a perfect way to end the week and begin a quiet day of rest.
If you happen to deplane in Houston, welcome visitors to our city with a warm welcome and a promise of high heat and humidity. We’re nothing if not honest, and we have the most air-conditioned city in the world. As the weekend begins, many of us will be on our way to Israel. Look for postings from the Holy Land, and next week’s message on the remarkable events we will be eager to return home and tell you all about.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
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