From the Desk of Rabbi
It didn’t begin with Robin Williams and it won’t end with him, either; but, Williams’ suicide highlighted the pain and suffering that always follows the survivors. In Jewish history, suicide was considered an affront to God-given life. Suicides were buried on the perimeter of the cemetery and no eulogy was offered. Today, suicide is understood as a crisis that is physically, emotionally and psychologically complex. Suicides are treated as people who suffered unexplainably. Suicides are buried respectfully within the cemetery and eulogies are given.
Songs and poets have described suicidal feelings as “living on the outside while dying on the inside.” To some extent, it explains why it’s impossible to know until after the fact that our loved ones were in so much pain. It also helps explain why despite all outward appearances their condition was much worse than it seemed.
Though suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, the problem persists in the crushing pain and confusion that survivors are left to bear. Such pain is undeserved and unnecessary. Solace is difficult to offer relatives and friends whose souls are tortured. At such times all that we say to one other can hardly offer us the comfort that would help us understand what happened. In Judaism, we accept that tragedy is sometimes part of life. So we don’t ask “why,” because we can’t necessarily know. Rather, Judaism teaches us to ask “how?” How can we learn from the life our loved one lived? How can we help each other retrieve from death that which will never die? How can we assure each other that in the midst of our own pain we will choose life?
We begin by acknowledging that, without knowing the real depth of their pain, there was little more we could have done for our loved ones. Did we care enough? Did we listen and love enough? Of course we did. Part of the sadness and pain is in knowing how willing we would have been to do anything more for them. In the course of our own life when pain and loss visit us, let’s remember that none of us will be truly alone; not when we have family, friends and a caring synagogue community. We can care more deeply for others, reach out more quickly than we have done before, and we can remember that God’s love extends to us when we are up and when we are down, and especially when we are down.
In a Danish proverb we learn, “Even a small star shines in the darkness.” All of us are small stars shining in a vast background. Victims of suicide are small stars that glow for a while and then shutter. In the midst of the darkness in which they believed they lived, we can call to heart and mind memories of their better days, the times when their lights did shine on us and on the deeds they performed for others. Then we might find that the painful incident of their respective deaths will be mitigated by the comforting memory of their days in life.
Spare others the pain of suicidal thoughts and the aftermath of its consequences by taking this message to heart and sharing it with family and friends. Nothing is that bad, and no one is that alone. If you or someone you know might be living on the outside and dying on the inside, guide them to a rabbi, a priest or minister. Beyond therapy and prescriptions, spiritual validation of one’s suffering and hopefulness can provide a bridge from deep despair to abiding hope. Hope is connected to the future.
May days of darkness be illuminated by hope that memories of loved ones now gone will brighten our way.
Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Back to School. Students of all ages are heading back to school very soon. Whether they’re returning to familiar schools or new ones, all of them usually feel some anxiety until new routines take hold. So do their parents. However, this year they’re all returning to school or college campuses following a war in Israel and rising anti-Semitism across Europe and in America. The media war heightened everyone’s awareness of the world’s complexities and revealed its latent anti-Semites. In protests across the world, including Houston, passionate pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel rallies shook Jewish communities out of their complacencies. On a positive note, Beth Israel hosted one of Houston’s most successful pro-Israel events where 2200 attendees stood with Israel, without incident. Even so, our children are not necessarily prepared to return to school and confront anti-Semitic and anti-Israel provocations. To assist in our children’s safe return to school, I’d like to offer a few points you can use to prepare them and yourself for a good start to the new year. Be prepared to say:
If children experience any threats, they should go immediately to an authority figure. If children hear or encounter any use of words like “Hitler”, “Concentration Camps” or other hate-filled language, or see swastikas on school property, they should go immediately to an authority figure. By no means should they instigate or enflame a situation. Many schools have no-tolerance policies for fighting, which can lead to suspensions, alternative schools, or other disciplinary actions. On college campuses, organized protests are likely being planned by both sides. Jewish students would do well to approach campus Hillel or ADL in their communities to learn the facts, how to respond, and what to say and do.
In this time and place, we don’t have the luxury of hiding ourselves from current events. In Deuteronomy (22:3) we are taught, “You shall not remain indifferent” also translated “You shall not hide yourself.” Students must be informed at an age-appropriate level, be given reasons to feel secure, and be supported by parents, rabbis and congregations and Jewish community agencies. To assist you further, I’m including two links to ADL resources. Please read them, print them, and talk about them with your children. If you need assistance, David Scott, Director of Lifelong Learning at Beth Israel, is addressing high school students this weekend, and our Rabbis and Cantor are prepared to answer your calls or emails.
We are not Israeli, but we are all Jewish. The Talmud teaches, “Every Jew is responsible for one another.” We are not just a faith, we are a people; “Am Echad” one people striving to Choose Life. May the New Year that begins with opening day of school bring with it the fulfillment of our hope for greater peace.
Click the links below, or copy and paste them into your browser:
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
As our city is diverse, so was the crowd of 2200 people who came to stand with Israel. Sunday, August 3, 2014. Liberals, conservatives, republicans, democrats, reform, conservative and orthodox Jews, and Christians, filled the synagogue. Out of such diversity came profound unity. “Houston stands with Israel” became the mantra for the event.
Among the speakers were Congressional leaders Sheila Jackson Lee, Ted Poe, Al Greene, and John Culberson, each of whom enthralled the crowd. Their fidelity to freedom and democracy, and their witness to American values found in Israel were all reasons they were there. They acknowledged Palestinian casualties and deaths as products of an unfortunate war with Hamas, a recognized barbaric terrorist organization. We stood with our congressional leaders, democrats and republicans, because they represented American values everywhere they are found.
Positive results from the event have been reported across the Houston community. But, our politicians are paying an inevitable price from some of their constituents for their participation in our solidarity event for Israel. I encourage you to call their offices to register your support for their leadership and courage to represent American values for us all. No one, including congressional leaders, called for the destruction of any people; but, we did call for the end of barbaric terrorist organizations including Hamas, ISIS (ISIL), and Islamic Jihadists.
There are more facts than fictions to argue the reasons Israel has a specific purpose in eliminating terrorist organizations; they happen to be the same reasons America has fought prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hunted down and killed terrorists wherever they were found. But, Israel is judged by a double-standard. From my observation, it appears that Israel has matured since it withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Long before, Israel acknowledged that conflicts and war would be inevitable parts of life in the Middle East. But, since 2005, despite the ethics of war, which every IDF soldier adheres to, efforts to reach peace with its enemies, though an admitted failure, and allies that send messages of support, but fail to deliver, Israel has finally said “Enough!” Israel is not the bastard child of WWII; it is a sovereign political nation and the Jewish homeland. Israel is not waiting for the world to approve its next steps or to condone its right to survive.
America and Israel have more in common than does America with the U.K., France or Germany. We are both nations of immigrants who escaped tyranny in order to arrive in what early American settlers called the Promised Land, and what Jews have always known as the land promised to their biblical ancestors. It’s not an exaggeration to say that America needs Israel, too. That’s why congressional leaders, Jews and Christians, stood with Israel last Sunday at Congregation Beth Israel. Israel is a nation born with destiny in its sites and worthy to stand among all the freedom-loving nations of the world. That’s why Houston stands with Israel.
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