From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Two weeks ago, I began with the words “Horrific tragedy” in reference to the murder of Israelis who boarded a bus at a Bulgarian airport. Sadly, this week the “horrific tragedy” was closer to home in Aurora, Colorado. Regular movie-goers who anticipated nothing more than a thrilling movie got more than they expected when a deranged student from a local university brought arms into the theater with the aim to kill.
Local, national and international responses were immediate. Local Denver clergy, President Obama and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke up to address the tragedy that unfolded in Aurora, a typical Denver suburb. Local clergy, including Rabbi Joe Black of Temple Emanu-El, Denver, spoke sensitively and wisely. He explained that the lessons would be found not only in what happened but in how we choose to respond. Likewise, President Obama explained that we must diminish the name of the perpetrator in order to deprive him of the glory he sought for himself. Instead, said the President, we must speak of those who lost their lives, of the survivors, and the heroes who risked the lives to save others. Prime Minister Netanyahu commented as leader of a nation of people who have experienced the tragedy of terror and knows the pain that it inflicts on a nation and its families.
These leaders and many others helped heal the communities in which they live and the people they lead across the world. But, nothing erases the most personal and obvious questions that we ask ourselves. Are we safe to go anywhere? Has the world gone mad? Where is God in all this? There are many more questions that have been and will be raised. In times of crisis, I become pragmatic and rational. It’s the only defense that I have in the midst of horror and irrationality. I look for facts and understanding. I push aside hearsay and hyperbole. Do I feel safe to go anywhere? I’ll be honest with you; I do feel safe but not without taking personal responsibility to look around and take notice of my surroundings. It’s what we’ve been taught to do since 9/11, and it’s what Israeli citizens grow up doing. I don’t blame the movie-goers; but, there is a lesson in the experience.
Has the world gone mad? In some places it has. But, on the whole, the world hasn’t gone mad. There will always be fanatics. No program or preparation will enable us to identify all of them before they act out. We have personal and communal responsibilities to safeguard ourselves and others. Statistics will still bear out that most deadly accidents happen at home or within a small radius from home. It’s simply where we spend the majority of our time.
Where is God in all this? I’d like to tell you that I know for sure, but I can only tell you that I firmly believe that God didn’t make it happen. God in Judaism is not a puppet-master pulling the strings of good and evil doers. A rabbi taught in a Mishnah, “All is foreseen, but freewill is given.” When his student approached him and asked, “Do you believe that?” the rabbi replied, “Do I have a choice?” The riddle is embedded in this Mishnah. I believe that we do have freewill, but only God knows which choice we will make. Good and evil are found within all of us. What we choose to do with it remains in our hands.
Beyond the tragedy in Bulgaria and Colorado, we must continue to ask how we will learn from these tragedies and what will we do about them. I wholeheartedly agree with the need to diminish the “glory” that perpetrators assume they will gain from these horrific acts. Blot out the names of all of them like we have been taught to do since ancient times; and, resurrect the names of the victims, remember the names of the survivors, and pay tribute to the heroes who acted selflessly. And, I agree with our rabbinic tradition that urges us not to lose faith in God in times of horror, but rather to seek God as a source of healing and comfort. Many lessons can be learned from those who have been through horror in the past. Israelis and Jews are not the only ones who have suffered, but we have a lot of experience, past and present.
Our task is to choose life and to maintain faith not only in God, but also confidence in our fellow human-beings. Focus less on the perpetrator and more on the valiant souls who reached out to help, to save and to heal. As Shabbat begins, take a breath, ease into the day, and give thanks for life, for those who save life, and for those who are dear to you. May this week know real Shalom, wholeness and peace.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Horrific tragedy. This week, a bus, full of Israeli nationals vacationing in Bulgaria, was detonated by a homicide bomber. At least six were killed and dozens more were injured. Children, men and women were victims of this cowardly and devastating attack. Many details are still being sought, but there is no question that it was a terrorist attack on Israel and its citizens.
Credible news sources point to Iran as the instigator. Over the last few months, Iran has attempted similar attacks in Thailand, India, Georgia, Kenya, Cyprus and other nations. Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu stated firmly, “This is a global Iranian terror onslaught and Israel will react firmly to it.” With similar conviction, President Obama stated, “I strongly condemn today’s barbaric terrorist attack on Israelis in Bulgaria…The United States will stand with our allies, and provide whatever assistance is necessary to identify and bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack. As Israel has tragically once more been a target of terrorism, the United States reaffirms our unshakeable commitment to Israel's security, and our deep friendship and solidarity with the Israeli people."
Every peace-oriented individual aches with pain over this tragic event. Having returned from Israel in recent weeks, I heard first-hand from Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis about the issues that plague the region’s quest for peace. But, there was no difference of opinion about where the danger truly lies. It is not just about Gaza or the West Bank. Israel understands what is at stake there. Israel also understands the wave of regime change that has swept through the Arab countries that surround her. Israel has a keen eye and ear on what is happening in Syria. But, the greatest and gravest danger for Israel is Iran. The events of the Arab Spring have created much change in the region but it has also created a screen behind which Iran has built its strength and influence. This week’s tragedy is a devastating example of what they can and intend to do.
As London prepares to host the summer Olympics and as Israelis and westerners travel the world during summer vacations, the question that must be answered is who will take the leadership of our fragile world? Will it be Iranian madmen who aim to hold the Middle East, if not the world, itself, hostage? Or will it be, as it should be, the United States and its allies? Leadership is required in this fragile and precarious region. The U.S. and Israel, together with its allies, are the only reliable leaders who can wrest fear and murder out of Iran’s murderous hands. For months we have listened to the news about what the U.S. and Israel will do about Iran, together or separately. The pressure mounted until it seemed that cooler heads would prevail. But, the killing in Bulgaria has changed everything and the pressure is higher than ever.
Outwardly I ache for Israel’s security and inwardly I pray for peace in Israel and the world. But, the signs are obvious to me: there will be no path to peace without engaging the enemies of peace. Israel has always defended itself and retaliated against those who have harmed her and its people. We should expect nothing less after this week’s bloody attack. Leaders in Israel must decide how far they will go with their allies or on their own to dismantle the menacing Iranian threat.
Summer vacations serve a purpose by distracting us from our daily concerns. But, none of us is entitled to be distracted permanently. Shabbat is now upon us. Pause. Take a moment with your family and friends. Pray for peace and pray for Israel. If you’re in town, come to Sabbath services to lend your physical and spiritual support to the community. This is not a week to be at home. This is a time to gather with fellow supporters of Israel, democracy, and peace.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
My annual summer vacation usually includes some time in the mountains. This year, Lisa and I traveled with Emma to Colorado to share time with dear friends. It’s the only time of the year when we really step away from everything that is part of our usual routine. That’s what makes it a real vacation for us. What did we do?
I played golf. Don’t get too excited. But the golf lessons on the driving range were the best I’ve had and I’ve had many. Mike was very patient with me. Quiet the lower body; move the hips forward with the downward swing; close the face of the club head; and stand a little taller. Now swing naturally! You’ve never seen anything so unnatural. The following day he played with us on the course. We played a “scramble” which is another way of saying we chased after his well-hit ball. He encouraged me but I know that I have a long way to go. But, I’m encouraged enough to pick up my clubs again before next summer.
I hiked. Love to hike. With a “camelback” on my back, my Teva hiking shoes, dri-fit shirt and shorts, I was ready to take on Masada again. Hunter’s Creek Trail and Maroon Bells to Crater Lake more than sufficed. The sights and smells of the open mountain air are intoxicating. No bears. Some bugs. Lots of beauty. With our friends in front of and behind us we talked and caught up as we hoofed it up and down the mountain. At 11,000 feet, skipping stones in the mountain lake was a one-of-a-kind experience.
I fished. We fly-fished on the Roaring Forks River for half the day. On boats, we cast our lines into the clear mountain river to catch and release some incredible fish and just a few rocks. The first fish I caught (and released) was an 18-inch Mountain White Fish. I thought the guide was kidding me. The rabbi caught white fish? I looked around for the priest and the minister and the punch line. What I really wanted to catch was the Mountain White Fish Platter. It comes with a bagel and coleslaw. I wasn’t disappointed. Emma and I shared a boat and we each caught brown trout and rainbow trout. Big ones and small ones. It was a great thrill and I look forward to fishing again, perhaps before next summer.
Joining friends from Houston and Beth Israel was a real joy for us. Being together when we’re not in suits and ties, when we’re not held to schedules, and when business of any sort isn’t on any agenda makes being a rabbi and a friend more equal. I never stop being a rabbi because it really is part of who I am; but, it doesn’t prevent me from connecting with all the people we meet on the sidewalk in town, or over dinner, to hike, to fish, to golf, and mostly to tell stories and laugh. Lisa and I enjoyed it so much this week and took enough photos to help us remember when we return home.
Vacation doesn’t have to begin away from home, but it does require stepping away from certain parts of ordinary routines. For me, the diversion reorients me. I can see my priorities for the year clearer. I can be more creative. I can address my own family’s needs more eagerly and I can deepen relationships with friends. When I can set aside the busy-ness of my usual routine, I can see what is essential to me; and, by extension and without presumption, what is essential to you. It must be good health, a cheerful outlook, renewed energy, and an overall sense of Shalom, peace and completeness, that centers me. It doesn’t have to happen in Colorado every summer, but it has become the place where I like to try.
As Shabbat begins, please accept my best wishes for a day that should feel like vacation for you even if it isn’t far from home. Frankly, there’s no better place to be. From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
It’s been many weeks since we returned from Israel with 35 travelers. While reflecting on this trip I remembered my first experience in Israel as a student in 1985. During that year of study for the rabbinate, it was very common to have conversations with Israelis about Jews in America. Their common refrain was “If you’re Jewish, why aren’t you living here?” To them it was illogical bordering on anti-Israel to remain in America. It was an uncomfortable confrontation but I didn’t miss the meaning of the message, “Israel needs you.”
Even in 1985, I believed my home was in America and that I could be mindful of Israel from a distance. On subsequent trips to Israel, their refrain of long ago has changed. No longer do I hear from anyone that American Jews must come to Israel permanently. It’s not that it isn’t encouraged and it’s not like there aren’t many programs to facilitate the moves, but the Israelis I encounter understand for now that the relationship between American and Israeli Jews is critical to Israel’s sustainability and future. In short, Israel needs American Jews for many reasons.
One reason has come to light in recent weeks. After decades of efforts to be recognized in Israel, the Reform and Conservative movements, commonly known as non-orthodox in Israel, are beginning to be recognized by the government. For years, HUC, the Reform seminary, has been training Israelis to be Reform rabbis in Israel. And, for years many American-trained Reform rabbis have served in Israel. But, only since June 2012, have any of them been recognized as the spiritual leaders of their communities. The deal struck by the government isn’t perfect: the rabbis in the outlying areas will be paid by the Ministry of Culture and Sport rather than the Ministry of Religious Affairs. But, as I’ve written here before, it’s a beginning that took many years to reach.
Without the strength of the liberal branches of Judaism, Israel risks the dislocation from any semblance of religious life in Israel the 90% of Israelis who identify themselves as non-orthodox. Reform in particular has played a significant role in providing a modern and authentic way to be Jewish in Israel without adhering to the “Charedim” the ultra-orthodox who today rule and govern all religious matters in the State. The Charedim’s reactions have been cited in Israeli newspapers. They call reform and conservative rabbis “clowns” and “Christian priests”. Obviously, it’s offensive but it also provides more than a clue about the debate and struggle that is coming.
There’s always something more important in Israel to debate. The borders and the struggles across them continue and will likely take everyone’s minds off the less lethal issue of “Who is a rabbi?” But, Israel is a stiff-necked people; if there isn’t something to wrestle with then we aren’t becoming more of what we are intended to be. I’m not worried that Israel can’t accommodate this debate, too; in fact, I think it has no choice. Reform Judaism is a vital and viable choice for all Jews. Like our ancestors before us, we have to embrace a living Judaism that helps us choose how to live in our time and place. This isn’t the middle ages, and the Israelis and Jews I know, whether in Israel in 1985 or today, have no interest in going backwards in time. The technology, free spirit, standard of living, and hope we see in Israel today speak volumes about the future of Judaism in the 21st century. Reform Judaism is part of the 21st century we can build together.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
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