From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights, kids who are dressed in costumes and ring doorbells set off alarms and summon the police; but, on this night kids who dress in costumes and ring doorbells expect nothing but candy. Halloween is a strange holiday. It has nothing to do with Judaism. Absolutely nothing. Even so, American Jewish kids grow up anticipating Halloween like it’s their birthright.
By definition, Halloween is a contraction of "All Hallows' Evening” or All Hallows' Eve. It occurs on the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows' Day. It initiates the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. The traditional focus of All Hallows' Eve revolves around the theme of using "humor and ridicule to confront the power of death" (Wikipedia).
By contrast, Judaism doesn’t confront the power of death. Judaism avoids the power of death. Every superstition our ancestors brought with them to America from the old-country was an antidote against death. A bible placed under the mattress warded off evil and contributed to good health. A red string tied onto a baby’s crib warded off evil again and kept the baby safe from harm. A “poo-poo-poo” and a “kayn ahora” were words of reproof against the evil eye. Knocking on wood to protect from evil is a non-Jewish practice, even though many Jews do it. Many connect this action to Christian beliefs that relate wood to slivers of the cross, which were believed to bring good luck. However, this practice has a more universal, pantheistic origin. Long before the time of Jesus, some cultures regarded trees as gods; believers were convinced that touching (or knocking on) wood could produce magical results (MyJewishLearning.com).
Speaking of idolatrous acts, this week’s Torah portion (Lech-Lecha, Genesis 12) is all about rejecting pagan worship and destroying idols of worship. In a Midrash, the rabbis explain that Abraham thought his father Terach’s idols absurd and incapable of being the creator of anything. Only the One God could be the creator of human beings and everything that lived upon the earth. Abraham smashed his father’s idols and placed the large stick he used to smash them in the hands of the biggest idol, accusing it of destroying the others. Terach accused his son, but Abraham blamed the idol holding the stick. Then even Terach was unable to believe that an idol made of clay could have destroyed the others, let alone be an object of worship. God said to Abraham, “Go forth from your father’s house…”
Ever since, Judaism has boldly rejected idols of any sort and considered them contrary to Judaism as a whole. Both the Ten Commandments and the Noahide Laws include prohibitions against idolatry. In some Jewish neighborhoods, participating in any non-Jewish holiday or observance is prohibited. A holiday like Halloween violates so many Jewish tenets. But, in America, there is virtually nothing left of Halloween’s original meaning. Most of us grew up running from door to door (not dor l’dor) looking for candy on Halloween. I don’t know any kid, today, who doesn’t look forward to Halloween night as if it were the greatest thing since, well, last Halloween.
So, don’t let me dampen your October holiday spirit. When the doorbell rings on Halloween, fill the kids’ bags with candy and wish them a Happy Halloween. And, when your kids come home with bags full of treats, sort them out and insist on taking your cut. I usually go for the Kit-Kat bars.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Ebola. It’s enough to make you go screaming from the room. But, when you’re done screaming and running, it’s really about all you need to do about it. The facts speak for themselves; though it’s a mysterious and deadly disease, it will kill far fewer people than will the flu this year. The numbers and the reactions are disproportionate. Have you gone for your flu vaccine yet?
To me, the essence of our fear isn’t merely the disease; it’s the unpreparedness of the authorities we entrust with matters of public health. The lack of protocols and supplies at hospitals leaves us wondering about the organizations whose primary job is public health and safety. The CDC responded but failed to provide the public the level of confidence it felt was necessary under the threat of Ebola. They can do better.
This isn’t the first time we’ve faced an emerging disease in a first-world nation and believed we were all doomed. There have been influenzas, polio, and HIV-AIDS, to name a few. When I was an elementary student, Reyes Syndrome killed one of my sixth-grade classmates. Everyone was on alert until a reasonable explanation was found.
We fear the things we don’t understand. This year, Ebola tops the list. So far, the good news is that is that we’ve been spared the televangelists screeching about Ebola being God’s wrath upon the heathens. Unless I’ve been watching the wrong television stations, I haven’t heard it quite the way we did when HIV first emerged on the scene. Then you would have thought that Satan, himself, had visited the victims of HIV and there would be no saving their souls.
Twenty-five years ago, Beth Israel hosted an AIDS Care Team. We proudly created a care network that visited and comforted patients living with HIV-AIDS. These patients were often abandoned by family and friends because they were gay, and then isolated because they had HIV-AIDS. While we attended funerals for many of the patients we cared for, it was only after months of reminding them that they were human beings who lived and would later die with dignity.
More than Ebola, which I don’t fear, is my concern about parents who don’t immunize their children. To me, this is the greatest health risk we face as a nation and ultimately as a world. From what data do parents draw to conclude that the risk they believe they’re preventing in their own children should be the same risk they foist upon other children whose parents do wish to immunize them? Following decades of childhood disease and death due to air-borne illnesses, mumps, smallpox, influenza, and polio, and extraordinary discoveries that led to their near eradication, what public outcry is there about avoiding preventable diseases? Are you a parent of an elementary student where unvaccinated children are allowed to attend the same school, and are you sure? Such private interest cannot come before the public’s health.
In the right places, fear serves a great purpose. Either fear saves lives because we destroy life-threatening sources or we run from them. But, misplaced fear destroys the public good and offends life-affirming choices. Ebola destroys life, but it’s preventable and treatable. Enough medicine can be produced to prevent and treat it effectively. On the contrary, unimmunized children, for which there are vaccines, threaten their own lives and the lives of others they come into contact with, often unknowingly. Which is a greater threat? The answer seems clear to me.
Fear is personal. Be afraid of anything you wish, but a psychologist once observed that we aren’t running because we’re afraid; rather, we’re afraid because we’re running. If that’s the case, let’s assume greater responsibility for our reactions to events by learning the facts and realities. Then we might walk in the direction of greater understanding and empathy. It’s exactly what we did twenty years ago with HIV-AIDS; we can do the same, today.
You may contact Rabbi David A. Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
This Shabbat, we begin the cycle of Torah reading with the first words of Genesis 1:1. They are among the most familiar words of Torah. You remember them, “In the beginning God created,” and in Hebrew, “Bereisheet bara Elohim.” To rabbinic commentators, every word of Torah held meaning for them. They were so focused on extracting everything they could from these sacred words that they refined their search, in some cases, to single letters. For example, the first letter of the whole Torah is the Hebrew “bet”. Why?
In the past, I have taught you the Midrash about “bet” which also serves as the first letter of the word “baruch” blessed. The connection makes “bet” a perfect letter to begin the whole Torah. But, my favorite Midrash about “bet” is the one that explains how its written form contributes meaning to its place at the beginning of Torah. You see, the Hebrew letter “bet” is written nearly like a four-sided box, except that three sides are closed and one side is opened. The opened side of the letter is opened towards the interior of Torah. Imagine if you were looking for your way out of a dark place. An opened door that led towards a lighted room would be a welcome discovery. So it is with Torah.
The three closed sides are darkened pathways that lead to nowhere. It’s just as the Rabbis explained. In their effort to find meaning in a vast universe filled with contradictions and complexities, they advised not to speculate on what was beyond the heavens. Remember they lived in days long before space exploration and air travel; and even presuming their familiarity with telescopes and astrology they were focused only on what they could know, namely, what was written in Torah.
They also advised not to speculate on what was in the past. Judaism was supposed to learn from the past, but live in the present where mitzvot (commandments) could make a real difference. What was in the past remained there; it was done. But, today was upon them, so again they turned to what was written in Torah.
Finally, they advised not to look beneath the earth. It was a path to the netherworld, or sheol, which was a place without Torah, and therefore without life. Once more, they turned their attention to what was written in Torah. Thus, the “bet” provided a means to remain turned towards the interior of Torah, without any chance of speculating on what was above, behind, or under them.
Since then, we have learned a lot about what is above us in the universe, what happened in the past billions of years ago, and also what lies beneath us in the earth. We depend on science in space, history of the past, and archeology in the earth. But, when we need wisdom and insights, truth and ethics for our life and times, to whom do we turn for help? To our Rabbis. And, to what do they turn for lessons for living? To Torah. There is no other body of teachings that has so inspired and led a people like the Torah has led and sustained the Jewish people and other peoples in their faiths. In effect, Torah is beyond the heavens, always in the present, and focused on life on earth.
The rabbis-of-old could not have known what we would know in our lifetime. We can’t know what our great-grandchildren will know in theirs. We probably agree that we would not want to live in a world cut off from science and discovery; but, I hope we also agree that we would not want to live in a world without Torah. Its timeless and timely wisdom turns us inward towards truth and ethics for all the ages.
From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Torah records what the Israelites did when they trekked through the wilderness. They lived in Sukkot, in temporary booths. Part of our observance of Sukkot is what Torah tells us to do, “You shall live in booth seven days.” But, the Book of Leviticus wasn’t written along the way as the Israelites made their trek. According to modern scholars, it was inscribed later, about the 5th century BCE, from a place where Jews settled into permanent homes. Why, then, does Torah record not just the story of the past, but also the obligation to relive it? Torah offers only this:
“In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”
The Book of Leviticus is a priestly book. It is no wonder that the purpose of living in a booth is directly connected to serving God. But, centuries later such priestly associations were not enough to substantiate the building of a Sukkah, let alone living in one. In the 12th century, a Torah commentator by the name of Rashbam, and the grandson of the famous Biblical commentator, Rashi, expanded Torah teaching. Though far from a modern scholar, he also went beyond priestly functions and appealed to issues of moral living. He cited Deuteronomy (8:17), “Do not say in your heart, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Then Rashbam comments:
You should remember the Lord your God, as it is God who gives you strength to make progress. Therefore, the people leave their houses, which are full of everything good at the harvest season, and dwell in booths, as a reminder of those who had no possessions in the wilderness and no houses in which to live. It is for this reason, that God established the Festival of Sukkot, that the people should not be proud of their well-furnished houses.
Rashbam built his lesson on this text from Deuteronomy, because it repeats and reports the lessons the Israelites will need after they have left the wilderness and entered the Promised Land. Presumably, it would be a time for settlement and not for wandering. Therefore, Deuteronomy also anticipated that once the Israelites were settled, they would begin to acquire wealth and creature comforts. They would have a home to return to each night, and safety behind permanent walls and doors. Jews in their new homes would be like kings in their castles who believed they were the source of their own success.
Reflecting on his life and that of his fellow Jews in 12th century France, Rashbam conceded that a permanent home with a roof overhead and a bolt on the door was safer than a booth with an open roof and no door at all. Therefore, shaking our complacency and not just our lulav, by moving out of our safe houses and into the fragile booth would create instant recognition of our dependence on God.
Rashbam’s lesson is important to us, but it might not be enough to persuade us out of our comfortable homes to live in a booth in October, in Houston. Nevertheless, we can still learn from Rashbam. When life is hard even after we have settled down, the relative comfort we come to know there can numb us against our faith in God’s overarching presence in our life. Some have said, “Life is good. Who needs God?” Others have said (and Deuteronomy anticipated), “Look what I have built with my own hands and power?” History has demonstrated that such numb faith can lead to disastrous failings due to arrogance and pride.
Today, the Sukkah stands outside as a reminder of our ancestors’ precarious journey. Surely, it wasn’t the fragile Sukkah that sustained the Israelites in the wilderness. It was God’s presence that accompanied them and helped them believe that their temporary booth would support them over many miles and many years. How much has really changed? Can we really accomplish our own journey by merely locking the door at night and rebuilding the roof after each hurricane season? Faith in God’s presence can still support us. If it were only about locking the door and setting the alarm, we wouldn’t also recite at night the Shema, or find comfort in the words, “Adonai li, v’lo eera,” God is with me; I will not be afraid. The Sukkah serves us as a reminder of the real Source of our relative wealth. Stepping out of our houses and lives of comfort into the Sukkah awakens us to God’s presence.
This week, let’s shake our lulav and spend time in the Sukkah. Let’s eat a meal there and welcome friends as we have been taught to do. And, later, when we return to our homes on clean streets and wide avenues, let’s give thanks for all that we have done with all that God has given us. Chag Sameach (Happy Sukkot) and Shabbat Shalom
Erev Simchat Torah, Wednesday October 15th, 6:30pm, Gordon Chapel
Atzeret-Simchat Torah & Yizkor, Thursday, October 16th, 10:30am, Gordon Chapel
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