04/30/2015 08:00 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 1, 2015


This past week, PBS ran a program to remember the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam. With specific focus on the role that Dick Cavett’s talk show played during the course of the war, Cavett, himself, reflected on the variety of guests he interviewed. From Henry Kissinger and Edmund Muskie to Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda, it was an eclectic array of figures and their respective viewpoints. In addition, Wesley Clark, retired General, added contemporary perspective to the war that was just beginning to be analyzed when Cavett originally interviewed guests on his show.

Amidst the mire of conflict and opinion, the PBS program editors skillfully included interviews from Cavett’s show that gave a shortened but balanced view of the times. Though spoken 40-plus years ago, each interview would foreshadow the effects of the war and the era they would usher in for us as a nation. Warren Beatty, young and fresh from Hollywood, chose his words carefully. Unlike the scripts he was accustomed to reciting, he drew his words from a personal analysis of the war. He said, and I paraphrase, that we should be wary of the “mythology of expertise.” He explained it to mean that those who hold military and political offices, elected or appointed, are assumed to have the expertise to navigate the war to its rightful conclusion, namely victory, and further to assume that their expertise precludes the necessity for insights from other intelligent and expert sources. Beatty’s comments would foreshadow a new generation that spoke truth to power and protested the Washington machine. Nixon’s resignation, though not a direct result of the war, nevertheless gave some proof to a generation that had grown impatient with unchecked power and government.

A younger Henry Kissinger, then Nixon’s National Security Advisor, spoke cautiously to Cavett about the larger vision that he and Nixon contemplated for America and the world. He explained the administration’s role as uniquely aware of the larger implications of the war and, therefore, its importance. Always the diplomat, he acknowledged the challenges of the war, but never relinquished his position on the war effort.

President Johnson was presented as the personification of the wearing effect of the war and its seeming road to nowhere. His decision not to run or accept the nomination of the Democratic Party for a second term as president stood in sharp contrast to the nation’s own ambivalence about the war. Wesley Clark, retired General, spoke from a contemporary perspective and outlined the context in which the Vietnam war began, the circumstances that mired it in conflict, and how the U.S. has and has not learned from its lessons.

The Vietnam War was the first war that Americans watched on TV in their living rooms. My school teachers drove VW Bugs, wore mod colors, mini-skirts, and spoke ideally about peace. They were my generation’s mentors. In many ways, we lived with the hope they shared with us in their lessons and their attitudes. However, time faded the brilliance of their best lessons and most important attitudes. On our TVs, tablets and smartphones, today, we see it all; the ravages of war and conflict around the globe still burn.

I am loathe to quip that the more things change, the more they stay the same, because I want to believe that my teachers were right and that their passions were noble. But, it seems that one remnant of the Vietnam War that lingers painfully in our present is the unfortunate conclusion that some wars, despite their high and calculated costs, still seem worth the price to those who lead them. When the PBS program ended, I asked myself, “What do we really want to teach the next generation?” and “Who among them will accept our invitation to lead the way to a finer world?” As they say on television: to be continued…

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

04/23/2015 06:00 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
April 24, 2015


In the play "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time", the main character, a 15 year-old autistic child observes that the lights of the city of London, where he lives, obscure the stars in the sky. In the country, he says, you can see the stars. He explains that a star's light takes 100 million years to reach us. It also means that by the time its light reaches us, the star has already died. He observes for himself that seeing stars makes him feel small but not negligible. He also observes that city lights obscure the stars and also any chance for self perspective.

In Torah this week we read in Leviticus 19, "You shall be holy for the Lord your God is holy." It's a large mitzvah filled with great expectations. To be holy as God is holy is unreachable even if it's a commandment. The rabbis knew it. They didn't presume to be holy as God is holy, though they did teach that it's appropriate to aspire to be humanly holy. What does it mean to be humanly holy.

When the rabbis looked at the sky at night, they saw primarily the same array of stars we see. They saw God's handiwork. Their evening prayers praised God for bringing on the evening. They were in awe. They were not made to feel small, rather they found meaning in being related to the vast array of stars. God created it all. Yet human beings, unlike stars, were uniquely commanded to aspire to being greater each day. The rabbis assumed that being human, though related to the vastness of God's creations, held greater sway than the lights of the night's sky for the very reason that we were sealed in a covenant with God, which we were conscience of and ready to respond to by means of mitzvot.

Today, we know what a star is. We know what its light is, how long it takes to reach us, and how to quantify its place in the vast array of the universe. We are awed by all these human discoveries of space. It can humble us in the same way the rabbis were humbled by the distant lights they observed in the night's sky every night. More than particles in space given definitions and explanations by astrophysicists and astronomers, they are part of a remarkable universe that still remains mostly undefined and certainly mostly unreachable. How can one not feel small before it? How can one not feel challenged to explore it and wonder what's there and what it means? It's a matter of science, for sure, but what it means to us is about faith, which calls on us, no differently than the rabbis of old, to stand in awe of it all.

A major impediment are the city lights that obscure our view of the stars. My complaint isn't about city lights. My concern is about our inability to look up and see something larger than ourselves. It gets in the way of appreciating that though we really are small and insignificant in time and space, we are not without meaning. Is it any wonder that Torah commanded us to be holy like God is holy. The Torah says reach! Reach for the stars in science and discover the wonders of the vastness of the universe. And reach for the stars as human beings commanded to find meaning in what we discover. Those of us who live in the city and have few opportunities to get to the country to see the lights are more prone to fail to see what is real. The stars really are far away in space and time. Our life, compared to the time it's taken to see the stars' light is truly short, but not without significance. We can stand in awe of the vastness of the universe around us, and find value in the time we have while we're here to make a positive difference.

We are not the stars of the world but we can reach for them. We are not the only wonder of the world but we are the only creation commanded to seize our sacred duty and participate in its glory.

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

04/16/2015 12:00 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
April 17, 2015


On Sunday, April 19th, at 3:00 p.m., Congregation Emanu El will host this year’s community-wide observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The juxtaposition of Holocaust Remembrance day, officially observed on Wednesday, April 15th, and this week’s Torah portion is meaningful.

                Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12-14) deals with unseemly and unsightly physical conditions that render people unclean. When they’re labeled a Metzora they must dwell outside the community. Though the word is odd, the results are akin to lepers. They were isolated from the community until they were clean. Then they made expiation for whatever transgression infected them in the first place. In the past, the rabbis wondered what was this Tzara’at that caused infected people to be isolated from others? When they examined the word “Metzora” they saw something unique.

                In the word metzora, they saw “motzi” (m^tz), which means “to bring forth”. They also saw “ra”, which means “evil”. And, they included “Shem”, which refers to God’s name, i.e. motzi (shem) ra. That is, the real metzora is the “one who gives currency (value) to an evil report.” What is this evil that offends God and destroys communities? They taught that the evil tongue (Lashon Hara), which is gossip, hearsay, and rumors is the worst offense. The evil tongue, they taught, destroys the entire Torah. In a Jewish folk story, it was compared to someone who tore apart a feather pillow and then tried to collect the feathers that were carried off by the wind. As we know, it’s impossible to put back what has been torn asunder.

                The Holocaust was rooted in tzara’at and the evil acts of the metzora. Every metzora, from Hitler to every complicit man and woman, violated the covenant that God made with human beings; not just with Jews, but with all sons and daughters of Noah. The propaganda campaign created by Hitler and Goebbels, his public relations head, planted the seeds of hate and enmity against the Jews. With vile lies and evil words, they turned once dignified German Jews into the likes of vermin to be rooted out and destroyed. Their full wrath fell upon the Jews and other outcasts, but Truth was ultimately revealed at the end of the war. Though too late in our opinion, the covenant of humanity withstood the onslaught of Hitler’s regime. The covenant of humanity, which we defend and on which we rely, rose up against Hitler’s machine and dealt it a final blow. At the cost of 6 million Jewish lives we remember each year, we now know that the threat of propaganda that can tear apart a people, a continent, and a generation. It’s a force that must be contained.

                 Love and hate begin in words we have the responsibility to choose to speak. Once they leave our lips, they are carried away by the wind no less than feathers from a pillow. Words fly away, become twisted, discolored, and misshapen by the ears that hear them. If our words begin with love, at worst they might become simple affections. But, if our words begin with hate, they might end up as indifference, which is worst of all. Elie Weisel wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” Love and hate are human emotions. We can work with love and transform hate. But, indifference is anathema to being human. The privilege of being a human being includes the ethical responsibility to honor the act of creation that gives us life.

                On Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, let’s admire the gift of our lives, and the responsibility we bear to speak words of dignity and respect, honor and hope.

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

04/09/2015 12:00 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
April 10, 2015


In this week’s Torah reading (Shemini), we learn about Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. As sons of the high priest, we assume that the boys would know their way around holy matters. But, Nadab and Abihu bring an “eish zarah,” an alien fire, as an offering to God. Next, a “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.” Does the punishment fit the crime?

                Moses says to Aaron, “This is what was meant when God said, ‘Through those near to Me, I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’” Then Torah records, “Aaron was silent.” Aaron’s silence has astonished readers ever since. Perhaps it’s the finality of God’s decree. Perhaps it’s the finality we’ve all felt at times in our life when “we didn’t see it coming” or “we should have known better.”

                Tragedy strikes every day even when we don’t hear about it. It’s called “tragedy,” because it’s an unexplainable event that changes the course of one’s life. Who can fathom a child who is run over by a driver backing out of the driveway; a traveler who boards a plane with a depressed pilot on a suicide mission; or, school children who are caught in the crossfire of a mentally ill classmate? We can’t fathom any of it. Like all tragedies, they result from the price we pay for innocently entering public spaces. To do anything less, however, would be to imprison ourselves at home for fear of ever taking a risk even to cross the street.

                The tragedy we read about in the Torah portion raises the bar, because the task is holy work. Aaron’s sons, though drunk and out of order, were wiped out and Aaron stood silent. It’s as unfathomable to us as it must have been to Aaron. His brother, Moses, not only reports the news but offers a rationale, “Through those near to [God], I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” In Aaron’s silence there is acquiescence. The high place that Aaron and his sons hold with God before the people comes with an equally high set of standards. Drunkenness is only one reason for God’s wrath. The rabbis add that the sons assumed Moses’ authority when they interpreted God’s command for themselves. It was an affront to Moses before the people.

                Real tragedy falls on the unaware and innocent. No child should die at the hands of an errant driver or a mentally ill gunman, but tragedy also falls on us when we mess up, seemingly irrevocably. Our system of civil justice provides means to restore our standing in the community, but it can’t restore or repair completely the judgment that falls on us by other systems of justice, including religious ones. We are commanded to forgive and forget; but, the emotional burden borne by us takes more time than a single act of contrition or moment of confession. Tragedy breaks down relationships that depend on trust and faith.

                Jewish sources outline in great detail how to seek forgiveness and how to pursue justice. Christian sources outline how to forgive and turn the other cheek. So great are the vicissitudes of our life, which by definition we can’t control, that religion warns us against transgression and provides means to overcome it. The goal is to stand in good stead with God and our neighbors.

                Biblical stories set standards that are often out of reach, but they serve as lessons to live by high ethical and moral standards. Decisions we make every day, let alone when we’re drunk or arrogant, can have unintended consequences. Tragedy is always potentially present. We would do well not to condemn the Biblical story for its severity, but rather to learn that our choices always have consequences, and to the extent that we can, we should make the best choices that we can.

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

04/03/2015 12:00 AM Posted by:

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