From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
“Bemidbar”, in the wilderness, is the name of this week’s Torah portion, and the Hebrew name of the Book of Numbers. The book begins with a census to count members of the Israelite tribes. The rest of the book recounts the journey Israelites made on their way to the Promised Land. The “wilderness” holds unique meaning when we read it to mean wandering in an unfamiliar place. Yet, it is precisely in this unfamiliar place that the Israelites are more open to signs, hints, and hopes.
Remember the familiar fairy tale about the children who were lost in the wilderness without their parents? Hungry for any source of help, it was just then that the stranger lurking behind the gnarled tree came into view. She offered them a way to safety and they followed her. Only later did they learn what we long suspected, that she was nothing but a witch aiming to do them harm. Repeated versions of helpless struggles finally were resolved in acts of redemption in the hands of the children’s savior.
Our Biblical book is not a fairy tale, but its epic sequences surely provided roots for subsequent stories of the lost and the found. In our story of the wilderness, the Israelites’ savior was God, ably served by Moses. First, the Israelites questioned obvious signs of God’s presence. Aaron and Miriam questioned their brother’s authority and were stricken. Moses appealed to God, and healed them. Foreign rulers tried to curse the Israelites, but they were defeated by God’s plan for the Israelites. Eventually, the Israelites found their way when they learned how to act like prophets, when they heard reports about the Land and grew hopeful about their destiny, and when they made provisions to complete their journey upon entering the Land God promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Our personal wilderness experiences aren’t fairy tales, but they have uncharted paths and unsavory villains, too. Pathways that we’ve never known because we haven’t dealt with sudden loss or tragedy in the family suddenly pitch us into a thick and dark wilderness. We might find villains there that appear in the form of anxiety, sleeplessness and depression. Like a fairy tale or biblical story, there are redemptive moments found in saviors we meet along the way, too. They might be able doctors, caring social workers, kind clergy, loving family and dear friends – all gifts from God. They save us from our trials and show us the way. The challenge is that the safe place we knew before we entered the wilderness is not necessarily the place to which we return when the story ends. The house might be the same but the life we live there is different now. Only fairy tales end with “happily ever after”. Biblical stories end with hope founded on faith that what follows has meaning, too. Except for moral lessons learned in fairy tales, we would do best to take our cue from biblical endings. The Israelites persevered, and though they didn’t know permanent peace, they were never without hope.
No one likes to be lost in the wilderness. When we are in the thick of it, our goal is to save ourselves from it. We can begin by opening ourselves to signs and help. Let us always seek light to illuminate the path we seek back to life, good health, and peace.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
The final chapters of Leviticus are filled with high expectations for holy acts and holy rewards. It also explains the consequences for not meeting these high expectations. Sounds like a grand way to finish the priestly book. That’s the point of the last verse in Leviticus, “These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.” The redactor’s hand is evident in this final verse. The book of Leviticus, filled with the roles of the priests, the functions of the sacrificial offerings, and the boundaries between blessings and curses, can only be regarded as the holiest of writings if it is inextricably bound to revelation on Mount Sinai. It needed a perfect ending and it didn’t disappoint.
If you asked yourself, “But, I thought the whole Torah was given at Sinai?” You wouldn’t be wrong; but, you would be identifying with only one way Jewish scholars have understood the origins and the development of Torah. If you asked yourself, “Is Torah inspired by God and written by man?” you wouldn’t be wrong, either; because, this is the Reform Jewish understanding of a complex text that has been shown over decades of scholarly work to be the achievement of more than one redactor/editor. The closing verse of Leviticus is a perfect example. After the long list of do’s and don’ts, the clean and clear verse pins the commandments to Sinai forever, thus giving it, in perpetuity, extraordinary force over a people who sought God’s blessings.
Whether or not you hold to one theory or the other doesn’t change the way we view the Torah texts as the source of our moral, ethical, and religious life. Our norms, values and duties flow from the inheritance of heritage, culture, language, perspective, outlook, covenant, etc., that is the sum of all Torah, including much later interpretations and commentaries.
Therefore, we learn Torah stories and their rabbinic interpretations called Midrash for many reasons. Historically, we like to know from whence we came. The stories of Abraham, the first Jew, and the story of Moses, for obvious reasons, pin our people’s beginnings to a time, a place, and gives it a reason for being. The people that assembled at Sinai to seal a covenant with God became a nation that promised to give to their children what they claimed for themselves on that day. Our heritage comes down to us from our parents and grandparents, but it began with our ancestors whose story is told in Exodus. Our Hebrew language, too, is a Jewish value not because it’s old, but because it transcends geography and time by linking us to Torah and to all Jews everywhere. Our outlook and world view is inseparable from Torah and its commentaries. What other people has risen and fallen and risen again? What other people has survived thousands of years, and though smaller in numbers in proportion to other peoples, it has thus far not been our Achilles heel, so to speak. We are partners living in covenant with God; we are not waiting for God to work through us. It is a perspective unique to Judaism and appeals to the modern person who feels bound to a covenant filled with an ethical and religious inventory and autonomous to choose how to satisfy the demands of that covenant.
Congregation Beth Israel honors the covenant and all its demands; it also values the individual modern Jew’s need to find his or her place within the covenant God makes uniquely with him or her. We are a learning, worshiping, and communal center where the weight of our ancestors promise is carried by all of us according to our respective strengths and contributions to sustain and build Jewish life, today and tomorrow.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Heritage Shabbat is a special evening to honor the deep heritage of Congregation Beth Israel, organized in 1854, and the oldest synagogue in Texas. We’ll use the Union Prayer Book (UPB) and hear the melodies of an era long before the “traditional” Shalom Rav was composed in the early 1970’s. Heritage Shabbat is also a time to honor those who have been part of Beth Israel’s history. A congregation that has reached its 160th year is blessed with families who can count many generations with us. One Beth Israel family tree even reaches back to Rabbi Emmich, the first rabbi who served the congregation.
On May 9th, 6:30pm in the sanctuary, Heritage Shabbat will honor Karen and Jay Harberg as the Rabbi Samuel E. Karff Leadership Award winners, as well as their extended family when they are all called to the bimah for a special blessing. It is a moment in history not to be missed; it is a moment to savor in all the times that we share. In the rise and fall of our congregation, let alone our people, we must be present to remember and to honor. It is a joyful occasion and all are welcome.
I am also very pleased to tell you that our new Assistant Rabbi Joshua Herman will be visiting us on Friday evening with his fiancée, Aviva. They are visiting this weekend to search for a home; they will move here permanently in June.
In advance, I’m sure you’d like to know that Rabbi Herman was ordained on May 3, 2014, following a stellar rabbinical school career and formative years in preparation for his role as rabbi. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, with a BA in Hebrew and Semitic Studies, Jewish studies and philosophy; he holds a certification from the iCenter for Israel Education with a Master’s Concentration in Israel Education; and upon ordination he also was awarded the Nathan Stern Prize for the student with the highest academic standing. He is bright, personable, humble, and eager. He writes, “Finding meaning in Judaism is not just a process for rabbis, but an ever-evolving challenge for all Jews. I hope to share in this process with others, helping to infuse their lives with a sense of meaning, purpose, and kedushah, holiness.” Rabbi Herman has served student pulpits in Sioux Falls, SD, Norman, OK, Bloomington, IN, and New Iberia, LA. He served on staff for Israel Outdoors, guiding groups and experiences for young people; as a Camp Counselor at Camp Livingston in Ohio, and as a teacher and mentor of youth and adults in many settings.
In his role as Assistant Rabbi, Joshua will enjoy the full breadth of rabbinic duties, but concentrate on the impact he can have uniquely with your youth and young adults. A young adult, himself, he will engage all our youth in local, regional and national URJ Youth Engagement initiatives. He will bring together young adults to share time and events as friends in the congregation. He will be available to our congregation where he is needed and as he grows among us. Congregation Beth Israel has had the blessing of fine clergy who have served over the years. We are proud and excited to welcome Rabbi Joshua (Josh) Herman and his fiancée, Aviva (soon to be married), to Beth Israel and to Houston. Rabbi Herman will begin on July 1, 2014. A service of welcome will be held in the fall.
Our heritage continues to unfold in meaningful ways. Please join us this Shabbat to reflect on our past, to cherish the present, and to glimpse the future. Shabbat Shalom.
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