From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
This is the season when we wish each other a Happy New Year, as the Jewish New Year 5774 begins. It’s also the time we add our hope that we should all be inscribed in the Book of Life. For ages, we’ve spoken of this Book of Life, and fervently prayed that we would be written in it for a good year.
In this week’s Torah portion, Netzavim, from Deuteronomy 30:15, we read, “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity…” And then we read (30:19), “Choose life, if you and your offspring would live by loving God.” What is the life we’re choosing? The Hebrew tells us so much more than the English. In Hebrew, life is plural (chayyim). It’s as if to say, “Choose lives”; not plural lives but a multi-faceted life. When we are commanded to choose “chayyim” we are accepting everything that life inevitably is. It’s just as Torah tells us, life is prosperity but it’s also death and adversity. We cannot choose life in its singular form. That is, when we choose life we cannot be so particular as to choose or expect that life will only be what we desire. Life is never simply peace and tranquility without also struggle and angst. Therefore, the Hebrew “chayyim” tells the truth about life when we choose it.
In all its complexities, the Torah outlines for us what “chayyim” also provides us. We don’t go it alone. Rather, our life is lived in God’s presence in a binding relationship we call a covenant. Frankly, I would not be satisfied in my life without God’s presence bound up into a mutual covenant. God is my surety in a relationship that Torah teaches me includes God’s eternal presence in a sacred covenant. How do I know? At the beginning of the portion (Deut. 29:9), we read, “You stand this day, all of you…I make this covenant with those who are standing here with us this day before God and with those who are not with us here this day.” I wasn’t standing at Sinai, but my place in the covenant, like yours, was anticipated.
As the New Year comes, life for us has been anything but singular. In all its “plurals”, life has been a series of paired qualities: sickness and health, joy and sorrow, tranquility and unease, life and death. And, in all these moments, God’s presence has been available to us to provide us what we needed. Different for each of us, nonetheless, God’s presence provided healing medicine in sickness, relief and gratitude in renewed health, praise in joy, comfort in sorrow, peace in tranquility, security in unease, blessing in life and consolation in death. Chayyim is plural and so are God’s attributes which provide meaning in all the times of our lives.
Rosh Hashanah is not a guarantee that life will be only sweet. It is a hope that at its best life will be sweet and prosperous. Now, let us choose life in all its array for a New Year filled with God’s presence and our greatest hopes. I look forward to being with you at Rosh Hashanah services Wednesday evening, September 4th, and Thursday, September 5th; and, Yom Kippur services Friday evening, September 13th, and Saturday, September 14th. Until then, Shabbat Shalom, L’Shanah Tovah.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
With a car packed with family and luggage, you arrived at your vacation destination and probably shouted, “We made it!” Imagine then how the Israelites reacted when they reached the Promised Land after a long journey on foot. Now, they’re about to enter the Land. What will they say? This week in Torah, we read Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26) when the Israelites receive instructions about the day they’ll enter the Promised Land.
Here’s the Torah’s first instruction, “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage…you shall take some of the very first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land…put it in a basket…and go to the priest in charge and say to him, ‘I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to assign us.” Oddly enough, Torah doesn’t record the Israelites’ shouts for joy; not even an end-zone shuffle on the other side of the Jordan. Rather, Torah records that their first instruction was to give thanks to God, with offerings of their first fruits. Their second instruction was to recall the heritage of their ancestor, a fugitive Aramean, who went down to Egypt, and who, as a populous nation, was redeemed by God “by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power.” And, only then were they instructed to celebrate, “You shall enjoy all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household” (Deut. 26:11).
The order of events is meaningful to us. The idea is that we reach literal or figurative destinations by virtue of strengths within and beyond us. To reach a physical destination should prompt us to give thanks, and if not God, then at least to the pilot, the driver or the captain. Giving thanks to God is appropriate, too; for, by virtue of the laws of physics that keep the plane aloft, and the good fortune that allowed us to arrive safely, in the absence of anything personal we contributed to the journey, some thanks are due. Only then should the joy of arriving be celebrated. It recalls pictures of immigrants to Israel bending low to the ground and kissing the earth. Without words, they expressed their gratitude to be in the Holy Land before they took another step into it.
Other places we arrive at deserve our gratitude, too. A new insight, a new love, renewed healing or courage are all reasons to feel grateful for the process that delivered us to these new destinations in our life. Torah urges us to see them as gifts for which we should give thanks before we enjoy them. One way to give thanks is to share these blessings with others who are still seeking theirs. A donation in honor or memory of another person to a worthwhile organization, for example, has been a longstanding Jewish custom. It serves to extend blessings to others. I know that it’s much easier and perhaps more satisfying to enjoy the destination by yourself and those closest to you. But, Torah lets us know that we have more to do with what we’ve achieved. It is never time to celebrate until thanks are given and efforts to share joys are made.
Take a moment and ask yourself, How will you give thanks to God? What are the first fruits of your success that you might offer? What part of your past or heritage provided you your good fortune? And, finally, how have you celebrated? May Shabbat also bring new reasons to give thanks for a day of rest and peace.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
When I was a child I used to say, “Finders keepers, losers weepers.” You probably did, too. It was a juvenile phrase. We said it when we found another child’s ball or a few coins and claimed them as our own. Kids still say it, but now they find lost iPods and iPhones. They recite the old adage like it’s a moral password that allows them to snatch up lost items and keep them forever. It’s a terrible saying and it’s contrary to Jewish ethics about lost property.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, we read the first rule about lost property in Deuteronomy 22:1-3, “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow…You shall do the same with his garment, and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find.” Just because the verse doesn’t mention iPhones doesn’t mean you can keep them.
The verse is clear that when we find something that doesn’t belong to us we must return it to its owner. Furthermore, if we can’t find its rightful owner then we must keep the lost item until the owner turns up. And, if he doesn’t turn up, we still have an obligation to store it and save it until he does, whenever that might be.
Finally, at the end of verse 3, we learn, “You must not remain indifferent.” In Hebrew we read “Lo tuchal l’hit’aleim”. Given that Hebrew roots often share related meanings, the verse has also come to be translated as “You must not hide yourself.” When we hide ourselves from the truth, we become indifferent. It begins with small items. A small ball or some coins, for example; when we stuff them into our pockets we begin to believe that we change the truth about the matter. The child says, “I didn’t see any ball. I don’t know anything about coins.” A good parent or authority figure sets the child straight with a lesson about moral behavior. Eventually, the child learns that the old adage about “finders-keepers” is a bad rule. No matter our lies or deceptions, we can try to hide ourselves; but, the truth always exists no matter our efforts to hide it.
This verse should be of great interest to us at this time of year. Just before the High Holidays, we begin to take an accounting of our personal journeys. We all feel lost sometimes. We all wander and wonder. Reality hurts and it’s not always easy to face it and what it requires of us. But, it isn’t just reality we’re hiding from; it’s also our sense that there is a larger purpose to our journey and it too often eludes us. If we knew where we were going and we didn’t feel lost most of the time, we would do exactly what we knew was necessary to reach the milestones along the way. But, it isn’t that easy and our future isn’t revealed to us. Nevertheless, Judaism’s faith that we have a larger purpose urges us to recognize that while reality is tough, it can also be joyful. It isn’t going to be permanently happy; but, it can be permanently meaningful. That might not be enough for everyone. Some people need constant happiness and joy. I love happiness and joy, but if I can’t maintain it, I’m honestly very content with meaning in joy and sorrow.
Meaning allows me to face reality without hiding from it or taking away someone else’s to make mine better. I accept my blessings but also my lumps. I’m not perfect. I don’t have a perfect life. But, the meaning I seek and always seem to find is mine every time. It’s not yours or others’; it’s always mine. And, as long as I accept it as my own, then I don’t have to hide myself, and I don’t have to worry about feeling indifferent. The truth is that as long as I accept my reality, I will always feel something. I hope it’s mostly joy, but when it isn’t, I hope the meaning of those moments will not hide themselves from me – or from you.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
“Justice, justice shall you pursue!” (Deuteronomy 17:20). These are the words that open our weekly Torah portion, and which speak volumes about our Jewish outlook. We value the law. It’s true that there are many Jewish lawyers, and it’s not an accident. It’s true because it’s a profession that requires an excellent mind. And it’s true, because as often as Jews had to move from place to place in a hurry, they inevitably brought with them few possessions but many important lessons. It’s also true because Jews were never taught, “Turn the other cheek.” We always pursued justice.
Justice comes from the great Hebrew words “tzedek” and “tzedakah.” They are commonly translated as charity or righteousness. But, if you’ve studied with me before then you know that charity is not our word. Charity comes from Latin, which means to give out of love. We can’t wait to love before we give; so we give because “tzedakah” (an act of righteousness) is bound up in acts of justice. Giving aid restores justice where it’s lacking. Feeding the hungry restores justice; housing the homeless restores justice; making peace where there’s strife restores justice; and none of it can wait until we love others.
Jewish law places sacred duties on us called “’ol mitzvah” or the yoke of the commandments. Like the yoke on the neck of an ox, the yoke of the commandments rests on our necks, too. It guides us along a straight path like an ox walks the rows of the field. While it can be a heavy burden of responsibility, it also binds us to ethical choices found in God’s covenant with us. We bear witness to God’s covenant when we seek justice through deeds, like feeding the hungry. We also bear witness to God’s covenant when we seek justice in a court of law. In the past, our ancestors sought justice in Jewish courts. Today, we find justice in secular courts. Even so, modern scholars observe insights from Jewish Talmudic precedents in our secular justice system, too.
There may be times when turning the other cheek is the best answer to a challenger; after all, not every difference requires a lawyer or a court of law. But, as a rule, turning the other cheek doesn’t serve the larger good if real injustices are left unresolved. Only legal precedent can sustain a community as it grows and changes over time, and a sacred community depends on its citizens’ regular commitment to ethical deeds. We know the difference ethical deeds can make. Positive change comes from every small act of kindness; and, great change can come from benefactors whose generosity lifts up the whole community. We know the difference that injustice can make, too. Regretfully, Jewish figures who have come unyoked from the “’ol mitzvah” or the burden of mitzvah, and followed a treacherous route have made only front page news. The results make the “burden” of mitzvah seem light by comparison.
You and I bear a great responsibility to choose wisely. Look no further than Torah and its teachings for a guide to excellent standards of human behavior gleaned from years and experience.
Shabbat Shalom to you and your family.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Vacation. It’s over. The days have passed but the feelings remain. Lisa and I enjoyed a beautiful two-day drive to Colorado; not the part through Dumas, Texas, but just beyond it as we reached the foothills of the Rockies. Our destination was Aspen, where the combination of air, scenery, food, hiking, fishing and friends reset all the familiar buttons that previously set our days into motion. Getting away to Aspen, however, is not about escaping. We genuinely love seeing friends from Houston we would otherwise fail to see were it not for a special 4th of July party, casual encounters and long talks on the trails, or a summer drink with Aspen summer regulars.
If you asked me what my favorite experience was this summer, I would tell you that it was a tie for first-place. Fly-fishing went very well this summer. We floated down the Elk River in a fishing boat with a guide manning the oars, the flies and the gear. My casting was better, except for one hook in a tree behind me. But, I mended the line and waited patiently for rainbow and brown trout. The conditions were right; the weather was cool and there was nothing but time. I counted and the guide validated ten fish for the rabbi (catch & release). Not too shabby.
Reading and writing were never so rewarding. Every day at 7:00am, I woke up, made a pot of coffee for the household and headed outside with my books and laptop to read and write in the cool weather. With mountain views in front of me, it wasn’t difficult to get into the mood to reflect. I can’t say that I wasn’t interrupted, but birds, chipmunks and early golfers on the 16th hole were very welcome sights. I read for pleasure and wrote notes for pieces that I might use during the year from the pulpit or in a weekly blog. A couple of hours later the whole house stirred awake and we headed out for what would be another memory-building day.
At the end of our stay, we revisited old feelings. Leaving our friends and the mountains behind is never easy. With hugs and promises to visit in Houston, we buckled up and headed home. This year, Lisa and I left town via Independence Pass, a road known for inducing fear in easily unnerved drivers. Lisa took her place in the passenger seat, which meant that she was closest to the edge of the road where there were few guardrails and mostly sheer cliffs to her immediate right. I was in the driver’s seat, cautiously inching our way up the road following the posted speed-limits to a tee, while keeping an eye on Lisa, who was, by this time, breathing into a brown paper bag. When we reached the Continental Divide, we got out to stretch our legs as other tourists were doing. At 12,095 ft. elevation and 50 degrees in mid-July, the landscape seemed alien to us. But, as we walked the short path to the scenic-viewing post, we were overwhelmed by the beauty. Lisa took pictures and spent extra time to soak in the vistas. Back in the warm car, we quickly remembered that “what goes up must come down”. Heading down the steeply pitched road, I held the car steady. Once we were no longer driving at a 45-degree angle to the horizon and with relief in our eyes, we looked at each other and said, “We did it!”
We stopped for the night at the hot springs in Ojo Caliente, New Mexico. They were a perfect way to prepare for the long flat drive east through Amarillo and then southeast towards Houston. Coming home wasn’t disappointing owing to the promises we kept to make our vacation a special time with dear friends and most importantly with each other. Now, I’m ready to return to the pulpit and my duties at Beth Israel. As I do, I want to say thank you to Rabbi Scott and Rabbi Miller for tending to all our congregants’ needs in July, and to Kathy Knott for always being there for those who depend on us every day. Most of all, thank you for letting me tell you my stories, and for the reunions I look forward to sharing with you in coming days.
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