From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
There is an infinite energy in the world that you and I have the privilege to be conscious of for just a short while. No matter if one’s lifespan is short or long, it is barely a scratch in time compared to the eons that have passed and have yet to pass. Psalm 90 acknowledges, “A thousand years in God’s sight are but as yesterday when it is past…” Judaism teaches us not to avoid history or to live only for the hereafter; rather, Judaism teaches us to live in the “here and now”. It means that we should see the blessing of our life as part of a continuum in time; not to diminish our role or to feel insignificant, but to place into perspective what it is our purpose to do and be while we are here.
Judaism provides ample room to achieve all that we can in our lifetime. Success and riches are not sins; not when they reflect a pathway to success filled with ethics and mitzvot, and not when they are used to build a strong community. Torah makes it patently clear that the bounty of the earth is for us to enjoy “without stint” (Deut. 8:9). Like our ancestors, we can enjoy “a good land, a land with streams and springs, and fountains issuing from plain and hill, and land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, and a land of olive trees and honey…where you will lack nothing” (Deut. 8:9).
It sounds positive and guilt-less. Does it also sound too good to be true? In this case, it isn’t too good to be true. But, it does come with two responsibilities. First, we have a responsibility to obey the ethical obligations owed to the source of these resources and to use them wisely. However you imagine their source – God, natural law, energy force – our orientation towards them will determine what we make of them and of our selves. If we have high regard for their place in nature as something from which we benefit but didn’t create, then we are likely to use them and replenish them.
Second, with gratitude for all that we have been given, we must also give thanks for what we have taken. In Torah we learn, “When you have eaten and satisfied your appetite, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you” (Deut. 8:10). Torah makes it clear that we can satisfy our appetites, even to the point of feeling full from a good meal. But, when the meal is completed, a word of thanks is welcome. In Judaism, our custom is to thank the Source of the foods we purchased and prepared for our benefit. Birkat Hamazon, or the blessing after the meal, acknowledges God, as the Source of all that we enjoy. For those who struggle with prayer or faith in God, participation in a blessing can bring you closer to the relationship that is critical to one of humanity’s highest ethical duties, namely, to enjoy the benefits of the earth without stint, to replenish them for the future, and to do so with gratitude for goodness in nature that began with something larger and more infinite than each of us.
When Torah teaches about the “good land” it imagines the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan. Today, the “good land” is the Land of Israel, but it’s also the whole earth. It’s what one generation called the “big blue marble” and this generation calls the “flat earth”. We have only one. Wherever we are Jewish, wherever we make our homes, let’s enjoy the bounty of these places that nourish us and provide for our families, and when we have taken from what we’ve been given, let us also give thanks. Baruch Atah Adonai, ha-zahn et ha-kol, thank you God for providing us with sustenance.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Reactions to the Martin-Zimmerman case have run the gamut between satisfaction and outrage. I’ve heard reactions from colleagues, neighbors, and friends. I’ve listened to news pundits and read the papers. Of one thing I’m sure: analysis and opinion will keep many people employed asking and answering questions created by this case. Of many things I’m not sure. For one, in a short blog, I can’t add much to the conversation; but, I can offer Jewish insights for you to consider when discussing the case with others.
First, in Torah, Genesis 11, we read about the people who settled in Shinar and built a tower to the sky. Brick and mortar rose from the ground as the people, speaking one language, organized a building project aimed at making a name for themselves. Torah teaches, “God came down to look” (Gen. 11:5). In their commentary, the rabbis asked, “If God is all-knowing, why did God have to come down to see what the people were doing?” They answered, “God didn’t pass judgment on the people until God saw first-hand.” God taught a human lesson that we can’t pass judgment until we look (know) for ourselves. Underlying this ancient text is an insight into modern law. The facts as they were presented in the Martin-Zimmerman case were meant to persuade the jury that the evidence was or was not an eye-witness account of the events that occurred between Martin and Zimmerman. Whatever the jury’s conclusion, we were not personally there; not on the scene of the crime and not in the courtroom. What we think we know must be carefully scrutinized before we pass judgment on the facts in the case or on the verdict, itself.
Second, the law in Florida is known as “Stand Your Ground”. Defending yourself against a “pursuer” (in Hebrew, a rodef) has precedent in ancient and modern law. In ancient law, a “rodef”, carefully defined as a pursuer, can be killed to defend one’s own life. But, ancient and modern laws also recognize that some laws are bad laws; that is, laws that don’t work because they don’t serve the purpose they were intended to serve, or they carry unfortunate and unintended consequences. Unintended consequences can’t be ignored when any human life is at stake, even if he/she is a pursuer. We might conclude that the Martin-Zimmerman case is an example of a good law gone bad, and the “Stand Your Ground” law should be repealed and rewritten.
Third, the issue of race relations reared its head before, during and after the trial. It’s been said that we fear the things we don’t understand. Should every African-American mother fear that her son will be followed by Caucasian or non-white peace officers through a neighborhood or a shopping mall? Should we respond only to our fears and ban “hoodies”, or should we improve race relations by spending time coming to know more about each other’s similarities than our differences? We have a long way to go in race relations, but not because we’ve failed. We have made some progress, but we have much farther to go. We might begin by admitting that we haven’t done enough.
Finally, the life of Trayvon Martin is gone. Only memories of him will linger in the history of the law and in his family’s hearts. The life of George Zimmerman is gone, too, or at least the life he once knew. The unintended consequences of “Stand Your Ground” and the results of the case should move all of us to focus on what we can know first-hand, and decide what kind of community we want to share with our neighbors, not just behind gated communities, but in the open where every human life should find purpose.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Don’t tell me everything happens for a reason. Don’t tell me that they’re in a better place. And, don’t tell me that God needed them for a higher purpose. These are some of the comments, sentiments and explanations I heard after the tragic deaths of 19 firemen in Arizona, last week. Known as “Hot Shots”, the double entendre is not lost on us. The name reflects the youthful and courageous spirit of the young men who signed up for a “hot” job to take a “shot” at extreme fires. As the country joined the families of the fallen firefighters in mourning, many questions were raised about how it happened and what the firemen were doing when they were overcome by the conflagration.
Officials will examine the events over many months, but their initial conclusions already reveal that while they were young and trained, the circumstances left them little chance of escape and even less chance of battling the flames that ultimately overcame them. The questions that are more difficult to answer tend to be religious in nature. Why did it happen? What responsibility did the young firefighters have to themselves and their families? Judaism teaches us that the answer to the question “why” isn’t always ours to know. Many answers will remain a mystery buried in the ashes, or aloft in the gusts of winds that have passed, or in the untold efforts of those who perished. However, Judaism gives us another more useful question. The Book of Lamentations, in Hebrew, is known as “Eicha”, which means “How”. This becomes our question: How did it happen? How can we learn from the tragic events? How can families without their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers move on? These questions give power to the powerless and engage them in choosing life again.
While I’m awed by the young men who knowingly risk their lives in forest fires, I have to assume that some of them do so despite their wives’ and young families’ protests and perhaps even against their own better judgment. The awesome power to choose even to be a “Hot Shot” doesn’t preclude their duty to be wise in their choosing. Should a young man, though strong and able, choose a job as a “Hot Shot” knowing that he will always work in high-risk settings that will put his life and his family’s life on the line? It’s a judgment call, but it should be weighed against sacred values that rank human life and safety as our highest priority.
Every day, policemen, firemen, and soldiers, among others, knowingly serve to protect us at their own risk, too. One could argue that there’s no difference, but I think there is. The cities we live in, the buildings we occupy, and the threats we defend against all come with rules, laws and boundaries that give policemen authority on the street, set reasonable limits for firemen battling a blaze, and even define rules of engagement in war aimed to limit human loss and suffering. But, “Hot Shots” battle nature’s wrath. Mother Nature knows no limits; she can be unpredictable and destructive. Tornadoes in Oklahoma, hurricanes in Texas and on the Gulf Coast, and tsunamis in Asia, tell the same story. The difference is that young and able men don’t stand up against them. Experts try to predict them so that we can outrun them. Cities in Oklahoma are rebuilding; New Orleans and Galveston are healing if not healed, and new systems predict tsunamis to save human life.
Forests can be replenished, homes can be rebuilt and cars can be replaced. A “Hot Shot” is someone’s husband, father, brother, son, or friend. He cannot be replaced. To call them heroes is appropriate and an honor. But, don’t tell me everything happens for a reason. Don’t tell me that they’re in a better place. And, don’t tell me that God needed them for a higher purpose. These are terrible consolations. How can we learn from this terrible tragedy? Begin with Jewish wisdom (Talmud) that teaches: Don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation and then pray for a miracle.
My heart goes out to the families who suffered the death of a loved one. My prayers are filled with hope that they will find meaning in the ways they answer “how” and not “why”. And, I pray that in the future, fires of such magnitude are respected for their ferocity, and that even the youngest and ablest among us will hold human life more sacred than anything else on earth.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
I’m away from home this week, but Lisa and I celebrated July 4th with friends in Colorado. Fireworks were canceled due to dry conditions, but it didn’t dampen the spirits of those who came out for the holiday parade. There is no place on earth like a crowd of Americans dressed in red, white, and blue celebrating America, land of the free and home of the brave. As I looked around the crowd, I also recognized that Americans celebrate many personal “Americas”. Within one nation, no matter our political, religious, or personal affiliations, we celebrate the privilege to choose our own ways forward.
Case in point. This past week, the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the law that President Clinton supported during his administration and years later regretted. While Americans will differ on the wisdom of the Court’s decision, the Robert’s Court reached their decision by addressing the law, not moral preferences or Biblical interpretations. The court didn’t approve of gay marriage, per se; they upheld the Constitution which must meet a standard to serve all Americans without prejudice and to do so within the boundaries of the Fifth Amendment. The specific case, Windsor v United States, recognized the injustice that Windsor suffered when her life-partner died and she received an estate tax bill over $300,000. Had they been married, she wouldn’t have received the tax bill and she would have enjoyed all the rights typically conveyed to a surviving spouse. The court might not agree with same-sex marriage (they didn’t go so far as to make a federal law to enforce gay marriage), but they wouldn’t deny a same-sex couple, who were married in a state where gay marriage is law, the same rights that heterosexual couples enjoy in a marriage contract.
In the past, Jewish law often took umbrage with the law of the land when it conflicted with Jewish legal opinions. It happened more often in foreign lands, but it happens in America, too. Yet, Jews concluded long ago in Talmud, “Dina d’malchuta dina” the law of the land is the law. In the nation in which we live and are grateful to be citizens, the law is according to the secular courts. In America, freedom of religion permits us to conduct our rites and ceremonies without disruption or interference. At your marriage ceremony, the ketubah is for Jewish purposes; but, the marriage license is for the state and it makes me an agent of the state with permission to oversee the marriage ceremony. I’m not holding my breath for Texas to legalize same-sex marriage, but if the day should come, and if it were consistent with CCAR rules for rabbis, then my colleagues and I would have to choose whether or not we would officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies. If we did, the goal would be to honor the blessings God created in them and the hopes that the marriage they seek would place around them a sacred boundary that holds them accountable to each other, “to love, to honor and to cherish.” Just as there are no second-class citizens in the eyes of the law, there are no second-class citizens at Beth Israel. A qualified member of the congregation, like a citizen of America, enjoys all the rights and privileges thereof; without questions or litmus tests.
Freedom is paramount to us as Americans and as Jews. The clarity of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions, though unpleasant to some, should assure us that the law will be extended to all without bias and undue hardship, and that neither Judaism nor any religious majority will ever be the defining issue before the court. On this 4th of July holiday weekend, give thanks for the freedom we enjoy in America, as Jewish men and women who “know the heart of the stranger”, who know a time when we couldn’t choose, and who remember when foreign government’s heavy hand destroyed us. There is no perfect system and there is no way to make everyone happy, but on the 4th of July, as a Jew in America, I feel confident that the law of the land will be there for you and me, for our children and their children. God bless America. From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
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