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04/25/2014 11:35 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
April 25, 2014


“There but for the grace of God, go I.” Dating to the 16th century, it’s a phrase that suits all of us when we seek a way to explain the near-miss, the sudden turn, or the lucky break that spares our very life. In other words, “It could’ve been me, but it wasn’t.” Not this time.

                Over the last few weeks, we’ve all watched the news about flight MH370, and in recent days, the tragic capsizing of the ferry boat in South Korea. The horror is unimaginable. Personally, I can’t quantify the wholesale loss of a plane filled with over 250 people, and the destruction of young lives at the hands of an irresponsible captain and unqualified shipmate. Pastorally, I know that it’s a time for which there are no words; only a secure embrace to remind grievous mourners that the same world that shifted against them still supports them. Personally, I know that none of the people whose lives were lost did anything out of the ordinary before they faced their ill-fated circumstances. A plane flight is still the safest form of transportation in the world. A ferry boat is a vessel that even the most un-seaworthy among us wouldn’t hesitate to board. The victims did nothing that any of us wouldn’t have done, too. “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

                In a global world connected on-line, we are privy to the entire world at its best and its worst 24-hours a day. The cascading amount of information is overwhelming. When we watch hours of streaming video about world disasters, we tend to exaggerate the probability of these events ever occurring even by human error. Thousands more die every day in automobile accidents, and for some reason we don’t flinch at the scene; rather we slow down to get a better look. The difference is the enormity of the tragedies we witnessed when the plane went missing (rarest of all events) and the ferry capsized. When we subtract exaggerated probabilities, we can begin to examine the tragedy, itself, and the sheer loss of life.

                The disappearance of flight MH370, with absolutely no explanation, is beyond comprehension. It took four years for authorities to find the Air France flight that went down into the Atlantic Ocean. I hope that MH370 will be found before too long and with it some consolation. The hundreds of young people who drowned in the capsized ferry at the hands of negligent seamen was an avoidable catastrophe. The pain that parents and families feel for their loved ones whom they carefully boarded onto the vessel is almost without consolation.

                What, then, is the source of our help? Psalm 121 says, “[Our] help comes from Adonai, Maker of heaven and earth.” In the midst of great loss, we look for a source of unshakable and unquenchable strength. “God will not let your foot give way; your Protector will not slumber…God will guard you from all harm, God will guard your soul, your going and coming, now and forever.” The Psalm heals us by assuring us that despite sorrow, loss of innocence, and dismay in a world that sometimes terrifies us, the future will not always be dark and void of light and compassion.

                Let’s pray for those who suffer the loss of loved ones on MH370 and the ferry. And, when we are caused to say, “There but for the grace of God, go I”, let us remember that though the world is filled with pain, it is also filled with compassion.

04/17/2014 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
April 18, 2014


Overland Park, Kansas, couldn’t be a more unlikely target of anti-Semitic violence, but it became the center of our attention this past week. Just as Passover was beginning, a white supremacist and career anti-Semite took aim at a prominent Jewish target at the local JCC and Shalom Village assisted living and retirement home.

                Many commentators wrote that it was “ironic” that the shooter killed only non-Jews, but the irony is lost on me. I’m not obtuse, but I am unwilling to accept that there was anything ironic about the Jewish lives that were spared and the non-Jewish lives that were lost. Instead, I prefer to recognize something that a white supremacist and career anti-Semite could never see. Over all the years that have unfolded for Jews and Christians in this country where dialogue, relation-building, understanding and tolerance have transformed us as a community of religious faiths, the JCC in Overland Park, Kansas, became a center for all people. The day of the deadly shooting, young people and their parents were gathering for programs that were not specifically Jewish. The JCC, like a YMCA, became an integral part of that community. It was not just a place to which Jews went to find other Jews; it was a community center that was host to a variety of programs for all people.

                The accused gunman was mistaken when he identified the JCC as some sort of Jew-store where he could find his targets, starting in the parking lot. Horribly misguided by his hatred for Jews, he thought that a place labeled “Jewish” would be a place where he would find only Jews. As the world around him changed and faith traditions built bridges of understanding, his small world of hate and intolerance grew smaller and more concentrated. Ultimately, his criminal record hardened his heart and he fulfilled what he believed to be his duty to destroy his enemy. Of course, he failed. JCC’s and Jewish homes for the aged are places that welcome Jews, but they also welcome people of all faiths who value the programs and services of these institutions. The tragedy, therefore, is shared by all of us. Irony is not an excuse to refrain from mourning the murder of a dear grandfather and his grandson at the JCC in Overland Park, Kansas, or a woman at Shalom Village.

                To an anti-Semite, Passover is just another holiday to provoke or injure the Jewish community. An anti-Semite reeks of ignorance when, by contrast, the very holiday of Passover highlights the Exodus from bondage to freedom, and from ignorance to knowing. Now that’s irony; the very holiday on which we aim to overcome the obstacles to freedom and peace would become the time an anti-Semite would foul the air with ancient plagues of hatred and indifference.

                As a Jewish community, we must embrace the families who lost loved ones last week in Overland Park, Kansas, and assure them that their deaths were not in vain. They believed like we did that our community centers are not shooting ranges for madmen to find their intended victims. Let’s assure them and us that our community centers are modern testaments to our ability to overcome barriers of faith, gender, race and ethnicity; where we can combine our best efforts in theater, sports, and recreation to build enduring relationships founded on faith in each other.

                During this week of sacred occasions, let me wish my Jewish friends and synagogue members a Happy Passover, and my Christian friends a Happy Easter.

04/10/2014 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
April 11, 2014


Passover is here. It’s the Festival holiday that brings families together to retell the story that never grows old. Its themes are consistent with every generation that experiences the shackles of persecution and fails to realize redemption. This year, the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Passover’s themes speak directly to us about the effort we are still making for freedom and equality. Congregation Beth Israel honors these ideals and endeavors to make them a reality.

                Passover’s theme is present in everybody’s life no matter their religious identification. It’s the universal theme that the Israelites experienced in the story of the Exodus. Since then, every people has hoped that they and their descendants would overcome their conditions to reach a time and place that was more hospitable to human development and greater peace. Today, we can’t identify a single nation that doesn’t struggle to overcome its internal and external challenges to their people’s well-being. It’s true in the United States as much as it is in smaller nations. This is a better world than our ancestors knew, but it isn’t the world our ancestors dreamed about for us. We will dream about a better world for our children, too, and to the extent that we are able, we must leave the world better than we found it.

                When you assemble around the Seder table, prepare to engage in timeless Passover themes with discussion about contemporary forms of bondage and ways to increase personal freedom. During the Seder, remember the people who are gone from life and what they did for the sake of freedom in their lifetime. What difference did they make? Are you following their example? Why or why not? Perhaps they were famous people who changed the world, or maybe they were your loved ones who changed yours. Speak of them, use their names, and honor their memories with conversations around your Seder table and in the deeds you commit to do.

                Every generation has the obligation to make a difference and their duty to do so is renewed with the retelling of the Passover story. So, this year, I urge you to resist the temptation to pare down the Passover story to a 30-mintue Seder or a 10-minute marathon. A 30-minute Seder is like reading the Cliff Notes to a great novel; it gets the job done but it leaves out the texture and nuance of a great story from which so much can be learned. Allow for debate and respect others’ opinions even if they disagree with your own. Classic Jewish studies depend on our ability to address both sides of an issue. It will surely take more than 30 minutes to address all the issues in such an important story and then to commit to the conclusions you reach.

                Remember that it doesn’t matter whether or not the waters really split the way it’s reported in Exodus; it matters that something so remarkable happened and that the epic story made indelible impressions on every subsequent generation. After 3500 years, it’s much more than a story; it’s our people’s literature that cannot be properly told in the Cliff Notes version. What part would you possibly ignore? What element of the epic would you skip in order to eat dinner sooner? Hunger is not our crisis, today. Tell the whole story of the Jewish people and you’ll be telling the story of every people who has longed for freedom and equality in a world that can be so much more.

                This Passover, stay long enough to join others in reciting the closing words “Next Year in Jerusalem” and mean what you say. Next Year may all be freer, because of what you learned at the Seder and also promised to do.

From my family to yours, Happy Passover!

04/03/2014 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
April 4, 2014


Leprosy is a subject no one likes to discuss. Today, it’s called Hansen’s disease, but it’s still leprosy. In Torah, it’s the stuff of a few chapters in Leviticus. The focus is on the High Priest who identifies the affliction in the body of a person. If the affliction is of a nature that requires healing, the High Priest orders the person to leave the community. After some days, the High Priest examines the afflicted person. If the affliction is healed, then the person reenters the community after a proper offering is made.

                What is the offering? Torah teaches (Leviticus 14:4), “The priest shall order two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for the one to be purified.” Midrash asks and answers, “Why are lepers to be purified through the tallest of trees and the lowliest of plants? They were stricken because they exalted themselves like the cedar; but when they abase themselves like the hyssop, they will be healed.” According to Midrash, the disease is hubris; gross arrogance often reflected in abuse of power, ill-spoken words, and misplaced assumptions that lead to the downfall of a community. The cedar represents self-exaltation that flies in the face of the High Priests who serve God and thus the welfare of the community-at-large. The hyssop is the counter-balance; it neutralizes the effects of personal arrogance. Together, cedar and hyssop represent a middle-ground where the individual is not too great but not too small, either.

                Today, Hansen’s disease is thankfully not a threat to any modern community; but, just as the rabbis defined it in Midrash, the threat of hubris as gross arrogance reflected in abuse of power, ill-spoken words, and misplaced assumptions, runs rampant. We’ve all experienced it. When leaders speak from up on their high-horses, when small-minded people get on their soap-boxes, and when petty interests overtake larger concerns for personal gain, an organization or a community can be threatened. It’s not enough to look for it only in others as the High Priest used to do. It’s potentially in all of us, so without High Priests, we must examine ourselves closley, lest it overtake us, too.

                A simple test comes from Pirkei Avot, Sayings of the Fathers. In a wise teaching, the rabbis used to say, “In a place where there is no one in charge, strive to be a leader”. But, they also taught, “In a place where there is already a leader, step back and let that person lead.” It’s easier said than done. It’s a test of the human ego, something the High Priest didn’t know anything about, but we do. Leading and following are two sides of the same coin. Leaders must learn when to step back to follow their subordinates who are tasked with specific responsibilities. If they can’t step back, then they risk micro-managing or dishonoring others without whom the totality of the task could not be accomplished. Hubris risks everything. Humility, represented in ancient times by cedar and hyssop, and today by wisdom and maturity (and some would add a good dose of humble pie), goes a long way in achieving mutual goals and best results.

                In all humility, Congregation Beth Israel is a well-run organization that recognizes its leaders and the roles they play, while acknowledging the needs of those whom they serve. It’s this balance of energy and passion that serves the greater good, returns favorable outcomes, and with enormous thanks. It’s the kind of community that should never suffer afflictions; it’s the kind of community where all who enter can feel fortunate and blessed. Now may the blessings we know here, follow us home and into all the places we go.

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