02/26/2015 10:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
February 27, 2015


A ring of Muslims standing around the exterior of a synagogue, anywhere, is usually a reason to sound the alarm. In Oslo, last week, a ring of Muslims stood around the city’s synagogue in a show of support for the Jewish community. Many comments have been written about it, including some exaggerated claims. There were not, in fact, over 1000 Muslims standing around the building, and physical obstacles prevented them from forming a complete circle. However, there were enough Muslim men and women to make their point.

                When I looked at the picture on the Internet, I noticed something I simply haven’t seen in a long time on the news, the Internet, or anywhere else I’ve observed Jews and Muslims in one place. In Oslo, in front of the synagogue, the Muslim demonstrators weren’t facing the synagogue to pursue it; they were standing with their backs to it in order to defend it.

                In Jewish law, a pursuer is a “rodef”. We first learn about the rodef in Torah, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow.” Talmud explains (San. 72a), “...If it is as clear to you as the sun that [the rodef’s] intentions toward you are not peaceful, then you may kill him, but if not, you may not kill him...”  Rashi (11th c) teaches, “[Even] if someone intends to kill you, kill him first.” Maimonides (12th c) adds, “All Israel is commanded to save a person being pursued for his life, even if it means killing the pursuer.” The point isn’t to misuse the definition; rather, it’s to empower individuals whose lives are threatened. There is no martyrdom that we seek as Jews, and there is no life hereafter we prefer to life here and now; therefore, Torah and its teachings command Jews to save life by defending it.

                Rockets bursting from Gaza towards Israel with the intention to destroy lives, indiscriminately, demand a swift and effective defense. The Iron Dome is Israel’s agent on the battlefield where human hands can’t reach into the sky or over land to stop the rodef. Even minor acts of terrorism, such as stabbing Jews in the streets of Jerusalem, prompt swift action to stop the “rodef” in his tracks.

                In so many instances, images of Jews and Muslims show them pursing one another in desperate attempts to gain the upper hand and higher ground. But, in Oslo, last week, someone had the temerity, the chutzpah, to do the opposite. Rather than pursue Jews in their synagogue, they “did a 180”, as we say, and defended them. It didn’t go unnoticed by the world. The scene was unique as it was welcome. It provided news media new headlines and pundits new fodder for their talk shows.

                More important, however, than the moment forever captured on the Internet, is the fact that for the first time since recent incidents of terrorism perpetrated by radicalized Muslims against an unprepared Europe and horrified Jewish victims, Jews and Muslims were facing the same direction. Now, I want to know, what will they pursue, together? If their intention is not to raise their hands against each other, then let them raise their hands together with Christians and fellow pursuers of peace to fight against radicalized terrorists who have confounded and misplaced our plans for peace in this blood-stained century.

                A pursuer of peace, a Rodef Shalom, for which there are synagogues named, endears himself or herself to peoples of all faiths and to God, in whose image all of us, modern, civilized, men and women of various races, cultures, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, were created to repair a broken world and bequeath to our children the responsibility to refine it further in their day in peace.

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

02/19/2015 11:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
February 20, 2015


“Western Freedom with without Jews and Judaism:

Getting Lessons from the Past Right this Time”


A young man once told me that he and his friends ran drugs and committed petty crimes. Many of his friends were in jail and some were dead. He told me that he was fearful it would happen to another friend or to himself. He asked me what I thought about his future. I’m not a prophet, I told him; but, anyone can see that if the same pattern continues, another one of your friends is going to jail or will die. It could even happen to you. Then I asked him what he thought about his future. He acknowledged that if he didn’t want to go to jail or die, then he had to make tough choices. He had to find new friends and a new way forward.

                In recent weeks, the western world faced the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo. Then it happened in Copenhagen. As the clocks are reset, they’ll begin to wind down again to the next tragedy. We don’t know where or when, but we know that it’s going to happen again. In the name of Islam, radical Muslims attack those who offend Muhammad. Their intended victims of the most recent attacks weren’t initially Jews. As of late, they’ve been non-Jewish Frenchmen and Danes, but to radical Muslims, the unintended but necessary victims must always include Jews.

                The last two terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo and a café in Copenhagen were followed up by quick and direct assaults on Jewish targets, a kosher market and a synagogue. Always connecting the two, Muslim terrorists have a formula: 1) take out any threat to Islam, especially those that offend their faith and their prophet, in the media; and, 2) always scapegoat the Jews in order to link the world’s disorders with Jews and Judaism. It’s a horrific formula that leaves in its wake desperate attempts by Western nations to champion the cause of freedom, and the unquenchable effort to reverse the persistent trend in rising anti-Semitism. Thus far, European attacks have been connected to the Jewish community. But, the end-game for Muslim terrorists is to destroy all their religious enemies: Christians, opposing Muslims, and Jews. Unchecked, there isn’t anyone who can safely say that they’re not a target of their wrath.

                Renowned Holocaust scholar, Deborah Lipstadt, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece (Aug 20, 2014), that even though European countries condemn anti-Semitism, today, and Jews are resolute when they say “Never Again!” protests and violence against Jews are mounting. “It is not just disgruntled Muslim youth who perpetrate these actions; they are Muslims born in Europe, and many of those who weren’t, are the parents of a new generation of Europeans. And, unlike Muslim instigators, cultural, religious and academic leaders in all the countries where [anti-Semitic protests] have occurred should be shaken to the core, not just about the safety of their Jewish neighbors, but about the future of the seemingly liberal, enlightened societies they belong to.” Lipstadt pins her fear on telltale evidence. She explains that “when a Hamas spokesman recently stood by his statement that Jews used the blood of non-Jewish children for their matzos – one of the oldest anti-Semitic [lies] – European elites were largely silent.” She ended, “It is time for those who value a free, democratic, open, multicultural and enlightened society to [worry], too. This is not another Holocaust, but it’s bad enough.”

                It’s bad for the Jews. It’s bad for non-Jews, too. This time, Europeans can’t hide behind their Jewish friends. Europeans, especially anti-Semitic ones, would do better to make friends with their Jewish neighbors and stand together on a new path where they and we can defend the future of humanity against radicalized Muslims.

                The young man who was afraid about his future taught us something valuable. He made new friends and, today, he’s enjoying a smarter future. Now western allies need to decide whether they cherish freedom and democracy enough to set aside their anti-Semitic past and join forces to ensure a smarter future for the world. The clock is ticking.

                (For daily reports on important Middle East matters, I recommend

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

02/13/2015 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
February 13, 2015


Valentine’s Day, or what I like to call “Valenstein’s” Day has drawn a lot of attention to itself via Hallmark and other commercial venues. Few things are sacred anymore. That is, few things are set apart for the reasons they were initially intended. The blurred lines between the sacred and the profane challenge us to identify what is holy to you and what is holy to me.

                As we prepare to eat our chocolates and express our love, I’d like to offer a suggestion about friendship that is true no matter what. Talmud teaches that we have three friends on whose company we rely.

                The first friend is wealth. Talmud explains that wealth has its obvious limits. Most notably, wealth is a friend only as long as our good fortune might last. Years ago, a young man told me that he was at his peak. He was flying on private jets and the market was outstanding. Humbly, I reminded him that it’s not just a law of physics that what goes up must come down. He was not convinced; at least not until 2009, when the economy entered a great recession. Wealth has its purpose, including providing personal comfort, but it shouldn’t stand in the way of generosity and friendship found in more permanent sources.

                The second friend is relatives. Relatives are our flesh and blood, but Talmud points out that relatives go only as far as the grave and leave us there. As friendly as relatives can be, it’s a relationship that has its boundaries. Death is a boundary that can’t be extended beyond our shared lifetime.

                The third friend is good deeds. Talmud teaches that they are the finest friend, because they go beyond the grave. For many reasons, good deeds can be our friends. We often say that a good name endures beyond the grave. If good deeds can go beyond the grave, then they have an eternal quality about them. In the hereafter, they accompany us and, as the rabbis used to teach, the rewards we didn’t enjoy in this world are gifts we will enjoy in the world-to-come. Furthermore, good deeds remain as blessed memories to those who remember us on earth. This isn’t the first place that Talmud emphasizes the value of good deeds. More than wisdom, itself, deeds are the measure of who we are and how we will be remembered. Like a dear friend, good deeds go before us, stand for us, and remain long after we are gone.

                On this Friendship Day, value your friends, your spouse or partner. Find in them what you value most. Naturally, it’s more than wealth, which is fleeting; eventually, it’s even more than just being relatives because time together is limited; therefore, it must be good deeds, which we treasure in others and ourselves for their enduring meaning.

                I won’t discourage you from buying chocolates and flowers for the one you love. I won’t urge you to re-write your card to wish your lover “Happy VALENSTEIN’s” Day; but, I won’t stop highlighting what I value most about the people in my family, my circle of friends and the congregation I serve…it’s the good deeds we do for each other without hesitation, and the ones we do without even being asked. On that you and I can always rely. May our days and years together be long and well; and, when they are ended, may they be recalled for the good deeds we did for one another and the strangers among us. Then we may know that we knew the value of a friend, not for a day, but for ever.

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

02/06/2015 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
February 6, 2015


In Torah this week, we read the Ten Commandments as part of the whole story of the giving of the Law to the Israelites. The Tablets of the Law were given in the wilderness of Sinai; not in a private exclusive setting, but in a public place. They weren’t even given in the territory of one particular Tribe of Israel. Had it been given in a private place, perhaps by invitation only, we wouldn’t have been surprised. As sacred as it was, the Law deserved the “red carpet” treatment. But, in fact, the Law was given in public where everyone was welcome to receive it. Why?

                The Rabbis teach, “In order that the [other] nations of the world should not have an excuse and say, ‘Because it was given in Israel’s land; therefore we did not accept it.’” Had it been given in the land of the Israelites, they would have known it wasn’t for them. In a public place, there was no exclusive title to God’s Law and no excuse not to consider its sacred value.

                Another explanation teaches, “To avoid causing disagreements among the tribes.” Otherwise, one might have said, “In my territory the Torah was given.” Can you imagine the sense of entitlement that would have been assumed by the tribe in whose land the Law was given? There would be no peace. Each of the twelve tribes was blessed for its particular gifts and contributions to the community.

                Public space was open to all who gathered to receive Torah. From tribal heads to water drawer, God sealed the covenant with them all. There they said in one voice, “Na’aseh v’nishmah” we will faithfully obey all that God commanded. A closer look at their commitment reveals that first they said “Na’aseh” which means “we will do”. Then they said “nishmah” we will hear (understand/obey). There’s nothing else in the world we’re permitted to do before we understand it; not medicine, law, psychiatry, architecture, etc. Only here do we learn that we can participate in God’s Law without first having to understand all that it means. The rabbis concluded, therefore, “The understanding comes through the doing.”

                The faithful commitment of our ancestors who said “na’aseh v’nishma” literally described what would be the curriculum of Jewish education for generations upon generations of Jewish learners. Do it, we were ordered by our teachers, and you’ll understand it later. It left many generations of Jewish learners baffled by what they were commanded to do by their teachers and parents as they ached for greater understanding. Even down to recent times, the struggle in Jewish religious schools often reflected the slow and often agonizing exercise of doing without understanding. Separating from long-held educational models tied to a covenantal system from Mount Sinai wasn’t easy. It would take the innovations of a late 19th century and early 20th century American secular school model and the insights of leaders in Jewish education like Samson Benderly and Emanuel Gamoran before change would come.

                Samson Benderly was known for his goals to professionalize Jewish educators through formalized training, professional organizations, and increased wages. Only the best were branded as Benderly’s Boys, and only they could assume the role of leading the way in Jewish education in America. Emanuel Gamoran, though not Reform, was hired by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), now known as the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), to invest Reform Jewish education with greater depth and breadth of Jewish learning. Though more than half a century has passed since they first made their contributions to Jewish education, their influence is still felt in what we aim to do, today. Incidentally, Gamoran’s son, Hillel, was my rabbi in the Chicago suburbs.

                At Congregation Beth Israel, no one is denied entry into our school and synagogue for lack of knowledge. One’s willingness to participate, grow and experience Jewish life with us is the only prerequisite. Next is one’s personal commitment to support our shared goal to increase Jewish life in worship, education and community. True to the days when our ancestors stood at Sinai, all are welcome to come and learn; and all are welcome to do all that’s necessary for us to be a sacred community dedicated to our people’s highest values that originate in Torah.

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

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