From the desk of
March 1, 2013
There are some remarkably sweet moments in Torah, between God and Moses. Over time, Moses develops an intimate friendship with God that inspires him. In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, Moses implores God to reveal God’s “face” to him. But, even after all the promises God made to Moses, including leading them forward from Sinai, God could not reveal God’s “face” to Moses. Instead, God said to him, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But, you cannot see My ‘face’, for man may not see Me and live.”
This was a gracious gesture towards Moses. In effect, God said to Moses, you can have everything I have to offer, but not that which would be at the expense of your own life. Instead, God told Moses to stand on a rock, and “as My Presence (k’vodee: my glory) passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by.” Moses would have the privilege of seeing God’s back as God passed by.
While the Israelites waited, God and Moses shared a private moment. God provided Moses with everything he could bear, nothing more and nothing less. And, Moses gave God his undying commitment and faithfulness to take the people forward. It was a unique pact that, unlike any god-man relationship ever known, did not trespass the boundary between them. God remained unique in God’s power and presence. Moses remained a human being who was singled out by God to serve Him. The Israelites’ journey continued. The Tabernacle, nearly completed, would go with them and God’s presence would guide them.
It’s been a terribly long time since God’s presence was found in a cloud or portable Ark. But, while the Hebrew prophets had to relinquish the presence of God who dwelt in a central place, they embraced their faith in God’s omnipresence (everywhere). The word of God was alive and well as long as faithful stewards of God’s teachings maintained them. Now, long past the age of Hebrew prophets and Sages, each of us can still enjoy our own personal relationship with God. I don’t mean to say that we will have a front row view of God passing by like Moses enjoyed; nor, do I mean that we will hear God’s word as the Prophets did, but I do mean that the privilege to choose how to live in covenant with God, remains a personal choice. Ultimately, our choice is joined by other like-minded Jewish men and women. Then we form congregations together to sustain us and our families. That’s what happened in 1854, when Beth Israel was organized.
Your choice and my choice are linked in how we observe, celebrate and participate together in Jewish life at Beth Israel. But, the real center of Jewish life is the Jewish home. In Hebrew, it’s called a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary. I like to say that if Judaism isn’t happening at home, then it isn’t happening. The synagogue is a resource and communal gathering place, but it cannot substitute for nor replace your Jewish home. Make Judaism happen in your house and let’s share our Jewish joy when we come together at Beth Israel.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
A Purim dream: 14 Adar II 5773, Purim Day. I opened the newspaper and read all the headlines and the stories that followed them.
The Israelis and Palestinians acknowledge the wisdom of a two-state solution and lay down their differences and their guns. Muslims are respected for their moderate and contemporary outlook. Jews are praised for their extraordinary contributions to world events and culture. Without bias or prejudice, representatives of the three Abrahamic religions sit down together and talk about common problems and world peace. At home fourteen thousand citizens in the city of Houston find permanent homes, and for the first time in years they don’t sleep at night on the streets. Education in America is preparing children to compete in the world in science and mathematics. Poverty is addressed by government, corporations, and the nation’s wealthiest members. Crime is down. Our nation’s citizens are meaningfully employed and save for their future. Government officials live up to their responsibilities. Democrats and Republicans unite in the interest of our nation’s future. Senior citizens anticipate quality of life as they age. Our nation’s infrastructure is repaired and replaced to make bridges, roads, and levees safe, once and for all. Hate crimes are down. Drug use is reduced. Abortion is a woman’s choice. The death penalty is abolished. Prison recidivism is at its lowest point in years. The President of the United States enjoys highest poll ratings ever. He hears the people; applies experience and wisdom; builds consensus among the parties and the nations. Immigration to America welcomes “your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
A Purim dream. It comes every year at this season. It turns the world upside-down. The powerful become weak, and the weak become powerful. Mordechai and Esther triumph and Haman swings from the gallows. For just one day, everything seems right. More than Shabbat, which is filled with hopes of a Messianic age, and more than the High Holydays, which introduce us to new responsibilities, Purim invites us into a world where everything looks upside-down, but everything feels right-side up.
This Purim, come and join us for some topsy-turvy fun.
Saturday, February 23rd, 6:30-8:00pm, in Margolis Gallery for Adult Purim: Vodka Tasting, Latke-Hamentaschen Debate, Megillah Reading and Purim Songs
Sunday, February 24th, 10:00, Sanctuary for Purim Megillah Reading, Songs, and Willy-Wonka Chocolate Purim Spiel followed by Purim Carnival in Wolff-Toomim Hall
Purim isn’t just a silly holiday. It makes the impossible seem possible; and it turns the unreal into reality, even if it’s only for a day.
Happy Purim and Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Terumah is the name of this week’s Torah portion. In it we read a familiar passage, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among [or within] them.” As the rabbis would do they parsed the verse for meaning. They asked, “What is meant by ‘them’?” The Malbim, a 19th century Biblical commentator, explained, “In them, the people, not in it, the sanctuary. We are each to build a Tabernacle in our own heart for God to dwell in.”
Malbim didn’t ignore or replace the obligation to build a sanctuary for the community to worship, study and gather in. Rather, Malbim added to it by addressing the outer limit of the verse’s meaning. His goal was to expand the ways we have to fulfill the mitzvah. How did he build his case? Malbim was a commentator and a Hebrew grammarian. He recognized that “among them” is written “B-tocham” where the prefix “b-” can mean in, among or with. It creates the possibility that the text is telling us that the sanctuary we build will welcome God to dwell in, among or with us. Malbim saw a textual opening. The sometimes magnificent synagogues we build surely fulfill the meaning of the mitzvah. We gather in the synagogue’s sanctuary to encounter God through prayer and ritual. Here, God dwells “b-” with us.
Let’s read it differently now. God also dwells “b-” in us. Malbim teaches that we are each to build a Tabernacle in our own heart for God to dwell in. Obviously, this is the greater task that depends on us alone. Building the synagogue required an entire community. In Torah, Moses commands all the people “whose hearts are so moved” to volunteer their skills and gifts to create the sanctuary. But, making a place in our hearts is an individual effort. It’s presumably more difficult, but if we succeed it might also be more special.
How we imagine God is up to us. The closest Judaism comes to a creed is the Shema, and the closest it comes to dogma is God’s unity, as in God is One. Beyond that we have the privilege to imagine God in ways that might be unique to us. As children, maybe we imagined God as being up in the sky, sitting on the throne, old and gray, passing judgment on God’s creations. As adults, maybe we still imagine God this way having had no reason or means to grow our image into something more useful and meaningful to us. A crystallized vision of God is useless if, when we need to address God, we can only access the God of our childhood. We have to break down childhood images of God and rebuild them in order to reclaim God and Judaism in adulthood.
God who lives with us, teaches us, honors us and comforts us is One we can take into our hearts. Why? Because there is always room in our hearts for spirituality expressed through our search for wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. And, this is Judaism; not dogma or creed, but a search for meaning that is not complete without addressing the inheritance of Torah, inspired by our ancestors’ own encounters with God and written down for our own consumption and growth as human beings.
Malbim might not have expressed it as I have done here; but, he knew that when the Kotzker Rebbe was asked, “Where is God?” he answered, “Wherever you let God in.” The sanctuary and the heart are two places where we build a dwelling place for God among and in us.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
At last week’s Torah study (every Saturday, 9:45-10:45am in the Board Room), we read in Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18), about Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who instructed Moses how to organize his time and services. At first, Moses addressed every major and every minor concern that his community brought to him. Community members waited in line to reach the proverbial “customer service counter”. No one was satisfied, not even Moses. Finally, Jethro taught Moses to appoint leaders from among the community to handle the issues that Moses did not need to address. The result was that everybody, including Moses, was able to return to their respective homes in peace, having had their issues resolved.
It’s easy to say that the Jewish community has been operating this way since the days of Moses. And, it works. The committee structure observed in synagogues and every major organization must have leaders of every sort with various levels of authority and responsibility. If it’s working as it should be, healthy politics and good models of organizational behavior facilitate the organization’s mission. The measure of an organization’s success is found in what Moses enjoyed, too. In Exodus 18:23, we learn, “If you do this (everything Jethro instructed Moses) --- and God so commands you --- you will be able to bear up (lit. stand up); and all these people, too, will go home unwearied.” Let’s examine what it means “to go home unwearied”.
First, if Moses trusts God’s command and follows Jethro’s instruction, he will be able to stand up; that is, conclude his work each day, get up, and go home. The people who came to stand before him will, likewise, be able to go home. An important ethical point is that Moses should not be seated while others stand around him without being served. It’s unseemly to place himself (and his disorderliness) above others’ needs. The health and welfare of the community depends on a system that facilitates resolutions and creates satisfied and happy citizens.
Second, “will go home unwearied” is written in Hebrew, “al m’komo yavo b’shalom” everyone will return to his place in peace. The English sounds more poetic, but the word “shalom” which appears in Torah, is important. Shalom means peace, but it also means completeness. The goal is to go home unwearied from standing in line (imagine the DMV), but it’s also to feel satisfied and complete. If our organizations are operating well and our community is serving its citizens, then all should have a good night’s rest as they put their head on the pillow, unconcerned.
Ultimate peace is gained at the end of one’s days. Death is the end of life, but, at best, it’s also the complete resolution of our days’ issues, concerns and liabilities. No life is perfect and no life is without opportunities to fulfill its purpose to the extent that one can; but, upon death no more can be done and so we agree that that life is complete and at peace. That is why this part of the Torah lesson about the community returning home in peace is lifted from here and used at a funeral service. As the body is lowered into the ground we recite the Hebrew words, “Al m’komo yavo b’shalom”, May our beloved come to his/her [final resting] place in peace.
It’s also the reason why we sign letters with a wish for peace, “L’Shalom” for the sake of or towards peace, and not “B’Shalom” which we know now is a reference to ultimate peace found in death. As Shabbat begins, measure your own organization at work and at home. Are you able to resolve issues in a manner that permits your customers, clients, personnel and family to return to their homes and put their heads on their pillows with closure and peace? Or, is there more to do to accommodate them and you?
From my family to yours, on this Shabbat, L’Shalom.
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