From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
If you look through the daily news, you’ll actually find many examples of good deeds (mitzvot) and acts of lovingkindness (gemilut chasadim). On Christmas day, Congregation Beth Israel participated in a number of mitzvah programs that relieved caregivers and service workers on their holiday.
Early Christmas morning, my family and I joined one group of Beth Israel members assembled at Ronald McDonald House. Together, we brought waffles, eggs, bagels, fruit, turkey bacon, doughnuts, paper goods, and lots of heart and soul. For an hour, we prepped the food, cooked the eggs and bacon, and waited for residents and families to come down the stairs for a Christmas morning breakfast. At 9:30am, parents and children lined up to take a plate and fill it with some great food cooked with lots of loving hands. We eagerly filled their plates with eggs, tortillas, fruit and chocolate-chip waffles. And, all of us wished the hungry families “Merry Christmas!” How often do we get to do that? While they ate and enjoyed a quiet morning, David Weinstein regaled everyone on the piano. He played all the familiar Christmas and holiday songs. Children joined him at the piano with small hands playing the parts he taught them to find with one or two fingers. When the food line was quiet, we walked among the families and greeted them, personally. Some told their stories readily, and others, who didn’t speak much English, smiled kindly.
Standing with Melvyn Wolff, he told me that when he had been at Ronald McDonald House during a regular weekday he observed something special. Next to the communal dining room, there is a large prep kitchen divided into six stations. In each one, families can bring their own food and cook it in their own style. The hope is that families will feel better preparing and eating their own comfort foods. It’s part of Ronald McDonald House’s charm that families should feel at home even when they can’t be. On days when multiple families are cooking at the same time in their own stations, oftentimes diverse recipes are cooked by men and women who speak different languages. A German-speaking family cooking their recipes might be stationed next to a Spanish-speaking family. They have more in common than is easily observed. Even without a common language, they share smiles, interest in each other’s dishes, tastes and good wishes. Health crises spare no one and food brings everyone together.
In short order, our work was done. We boxed and bagged the extras. We wiped the tables and took out the trash. We thanked each other for helping and we made our way home. The rest of the day for us would be nothing compared to the families who still had to contemplate what tomorrow would bring as doctors’ visits and treatments continued. Our prayers go with them for all they need and all their children deserve.
Congregation Beth Israel is a can-do synagogue. Thank you to everyone who made a difference this year on Christmas Day. Every day is Mitzvah Day, but some days make an extra-special difference.
From my family to yours, Happy Holidays and Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Although I’m writing this message a few days before December 21st, I have every confidence that the world will still be here by the time this message arrives to you. What’s more, I am confident that I will be at synagogue on Friday night to lead worship services and deliver my sermon. I am not dismissing the Mayan culture and the belief system to which their people adhered; but, I am deeply skeptical of their projections about the end of days. Thankfully, we live on Jewish standard time, so I’m keeping my commitments on December 22nd, as well.
End-of-world and end-of-days have captured the attention of every generation since we have read of them in the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian. Their apocalyptic scenarios are filled with so much fire and brimstone that they even make thrilling backdrops for Hollywood movies. But, anyone who lays their money down on the date is a fool. Even in recent years, too many self-proclaimed prophets have packed their bags in preparation of the date of doom, only to be sorely embarrassed by their premature calculations. They can reset the date just so many times before “Oops” disqualifies them permanently.
In the short span that is our lifetime, my fear has never been that the world will end in a cataclysmic event. In the story of Noah, Genesis 5, God promises never to destroy the world by water, again. The rainbow is the Biblical sign God set over the earth to reflect God’s “Brit Shalom” or covenant of peace. But, our commentators wisely discerned that while God will not destroy the earth, it doesn’t preclude the possibility that human beings might be up to the task. During the Cold War of the past, the threat of nuclear war was punctuated by the power human beings had either to destroy the world or to save the world. Likewise, today we harness the same power either to despoil or renew the earth’s resources. It isn’t up to God; it’s up to us.
Though I don’t believe the world will end in a horrific fire ball, I do believe that the world I used to know has ended many times. For example, the world of my childhood is gone. Nothing remains of it except the few people who were there and the souvenirs I kept. The world when I was a single man is gone. My wife and four children have made up my world far longer than I have known it without them. And, the world with my father is over, too. Memories of him restore only parts of times and places that can never be fully discovered again. I don’t mourn the past. It was part of who I have become; rather, I live in the world that is here and now.
By acknowledging the world as it was and as it is, also prepares you and me to participate in building a world that ought to be. The future is not in God’s hands to fashion for us; rather, God fashioned us to build the future. The world is our proverbial oyster and we can do with it whatever we wish. It is this power, the power that God entrusts to us, that terrifies me. There isn’t a shred of evidence that God has threatened us or the earth, at least not since Biblical references to the Flood; but, there are innumerable accounts of human efforts to threaten the earth and its inhabitants. So many affronts to humankind all but prove that we are incapable of learning from the past, and that we will live up to familiar expectations to repeat them.
Last week’s tragedy in Connecticut is, unfortunately, not the first or last time our nation will know bloodshed. But, the horror that consumed the lives of innocent children awakened us to the depths of destructive human behavior and to the obligation we have to address it. If it’s guns, then we must agree to better laws. If it’s mental illness, then we must commit to identify, help or secure the most severe individuals. It is our duty to each other and also to God, to establish the world we have long been entrusted to build.
On the tragic morning of December 14th, the earth wasn’t destroyed, but many worlds ended. This week, December 21st raises an ominous sign for some, but only for those who don’t believe in the power that God already created within them. I don’t fear external evil temptations. I only fear that I can’t harness the power within me to foster hope in a world I share the responsibility to build with you. Perhaps if we all work together, we can join hearts and hands to make a difference in our short lifespan for the sake of future generations who will inherit from us a world we will never even know. How should we begin?
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Chanukah ends on Sunday evening following the last candle that’s kindled on Saturday night. Then we wait. Christmas is coming. As Jewish families, we don’t avoid Christmas as if it were forbidden to us. Rather, Jewish families in America have long had a role in Christmas. In Joshua Plaut’s recent book A Kosher Christmas he points out the Jews in America have participated in the season in a variety of ways.
Many years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for assimilated Jewish families to have a Christmas tree. Some of you know this and some of you remember it in your homes. It happened because the tree became a cultural symbol. Families who had one demonstrated their affiliation with the community in ways that weren’t religious. But, as Jewish families grew more secure and their children were learning more Hebrew, attending Jewish summer camps, and relating to Israel more meaningfully, the tree became a stumbling block to complete Jewish immersion. Today, some Jewish families still have trees at home for various reasons, but far fewer than in the past.
On Christmas, Jews also go to the movies and eat Chinese food. Some say that Jews and Chinese food have been connected forever, but it’s not true. The Jewish year is 5773 and the Chinese year is 4709. This means that Jews waited 1064 years before they could even begin to imagine enjoying Chinese food. It’s an old joke. But, look around the theater and the restaurant this year. You’ll see friends from synagogues all over the city.
But, the finest way for Jews to participate on Christmas day is to do a mitzvah. When Lisa and I were newlyweds, we used to volunteer at the local hospital to hold babies in the NICU. One year, I was invited to hold a Down Syndrome baby the nurse told us was very fussy. No one and nothing could quiet the baby. Not yet a father myself, I sat in the chair as the nurse put the baby in my arms while she moved the wires and tubes that dangled from the baby’s tiny arms and hands. I sat as quietly as I could. I relaxed my hands, my arms, my body, and my breath. Eventually, the baby relaxed, too. Quiet. She slept. Every beep and bump in the NICU threatened to wake her, but she slept soundly. The nurse returned and was stunned to see the baby finally at rest. When Lisa and I finished our shift, we traded stories about the babies we held and we talked about the family we would have in the future.
Every year, Lisa and I aim to do a mitzvah for caregivers in the city. This year is no exception. Congregation Beth Israel members volunteer all over the city including at hospitals, The Ronald McDonald House, The Beacon, and others. This year, Lisa and I will be at Ronald McDonald House with Laurie and Alan Selzer and friends to cook breakfast and serve families who are in residence there. It will be my pleasure to wish residents a Merry Christmas and fill their plates with a hot breakfast. Let me urge you, before or after the movie and Chinese dinner, and in place of the tree, to do a mitzvah so Christian caregivers, families and friends can be at home or attend church on their holy day.
I’m grateful that we can claim for ourselves what is ours while enabling our neighbors to claim what is theirs. And, this Friday night at 6:30pm, in the sanctuary, we’ll celebrate Chanukah with a fabulous musical service, we’ll light the Maltz Menorah, we’ll welcome and bless Cantor Dan Mutlu and Nina Faia’s new baby daughter, and your whole clergy team will sing and play your favorite Chanukah songs.
From my family to yours, Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
On this date, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The attack came as a profound shock to the American people and led directly to the American entry into World War II in both the Pacific and European theaters. President Roosevelt called it "a date which will live in infamy". Some of us are too young to remember it as it happened; but, none of us is too young to understand its implications. It would be years before the war ended in 1945, and many more years to understand the full effects of the war in Europe. The Holocaust exposed humanity at its worst and the Jews were among its greatest victims. War accounts for most human tragedies, but the Holocaust awakened us to atrocities that defy human limits. “Crimes against humanity” became a new category to define the boundary of human behavior where normal remorse or forgiveness is unavailable. Judaism teaches that the death penalty, though rarely used and often avoided, is, as it was in the case of Eichmann, the only means of redemption for such crimes.
In Judaism, justice is at the core of our human endeavor. In Hebrew, justice and righteousness share the same root (tz^d^k). We aim to restore to wholeness the people who are broken. There is a lack of justice wherever there is hunger, homelessness, loneliness, etc. Therefore, we feed the hungry, house the homeless, and visit the homebound. It’s our obligation as Jews bound by a covenant that makes us partners with God, to perform these acts of justice and righteousness.
Out of the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust, our obligation is also to give life and light to the memories of those whose human endeavors guttered. When we observe Chanukah we retell only one story from ancient times, but there are many stories down to our own day that tell about Jewish perseverance and survival. Chanukah means “dedication” to recall the Maccabees who dedicated the Temple they reclaimed from the Syrian Greeks, and relit the lamps that burned not just for one day, but for eight days. When isn’t it Chanukah? When isn’t it a day dedicated to Jewish perseverance and survival?
To honor the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust and who were martyrs of our people in ages past, our duty is at least two-fold: to light the lights of Chanukah as free people who can display the menorah for all to see it; and, to be the light that reflects on us from the menorah we kindle with family and friends. When we do Judaism we honor those who died just because they were Jews, and we deny their persecutors a posthumous victory.
How can you choose Judaism for yourself and your family? On Saturday night, December 8th, light the first light in the menorah and display it proudly. The blessings can be found in your prayer book and on any website that begins with the word “Chanukah”.
But, most of all, come on Friday night, December 14th, to the sanctuary at 6:30pm to light the Maltz Menorah with our congregational family. There we will stand before the menorah with Jewish leaders. There we will stand up for justice and stand up for the Jewish people. God bless the memory of those who fought for freedom, Jew and gentile, alike, in the wars that saved our nation and the prospect of freedom for all people. “Not by might, not by power, but by God’s spirit, alone.” Am Yisrael Chai, The Jewish People Lives.
From my family to yours, Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom.
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