From the Desk of Rabbi
On Wednesday, March 25, 2015, and twenty-five years after ordination from HUC-JIR, my classmates and I gathered on the Cincinnati campus on Founders' Day. Traditionally a day to honor the founders of HUC, it also provided the time and place to recognize the contributions of our ordination class. As each of us was called to the bimah by Rabbi Aaron Panken, PhD, President of the College-Institute, and a brief outline of our accomplishments in the rabbinate was read aloud, a faculty sponsor presented a Doctor of Divinity hood.
Since the founding of HUC by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise in 1875, the mission of the College has remained principally the same, to train and prepare able rabbis (today, cantors, educators, non-profit professionals) to disseminate Judaism through worship, study and community in all the places where they serve. The charge to each ordination class also remains basically the same. As it was in 1875, so it was in 1990, my classmates and I were dispatched to all ends of the earth to teach with equal amounts of Torah, Talmud, passion and urgency. We were told that the future of the Jewish people and the Reform movement rested in our hands.
In 25 years, I've had many long days, but never a day of regret. The role of rabbi has suited me well and passion and urgency, though tempered by experience and perspective, remain my highest priorities. Judaism is precious. Left alone, it withers. Embraced, studied and implemented, it provides a framework within which the world we wish to build can be more than just imagined. The land of Israel is the obvious example. Though its regular and specific challenges also define it, the land of Israel could not exist were it not for the zeal of Torah that sustains it as a land and us as a people.
The D.D. acknowledges twenty-five years of dedication to Torah for our sake as wisdom-seeking Jewish adults and children. Had there been no D.D. at the end of 25 years, I wouldn't have ceased my work. Yet, the recognition accomplishes something important: 1) It acknowledges that 25 years of dedication to any task, but especially a sacred task, is noteworthy; 2) We, who dedicate ourselves to this primary task of teacher of Judaism, make an impression on those who follow us. Our tireless Jewish work inspires others in theirs; and, 3) Though we do the work for the sake of the mitzvah and not the reward, to be recognized is nice, too.
When I approached the bimah in the Scheuer Chapel at HUC, I thought of my father, of blessed memory, who would have been crying tears of joy in the back of the room. I thought of my mother in Chicago, who kvells more than she should; and, I thought of my wife, Lisa, without whom I couldn't have accomplished what I have done. She has not only encouraged me, she also allowed me the freedom to pursue my passion and urgency as a rabbi. The blessings of these past 25 years have been abundant, but they do come at a cost. My wife and children have had less of me because of my dedication to my role. They haven't suffered; their own accomplishments, thus far, make me very proud of the paths they've chosen for themselves. But, there's no doubt that my weekends are full and my vacations aren't without concerns for synagogue families. I've had occasion to apologize but also to explain that such duties fit into the fabric of my life; they don't distract me from it. Thankfully, my wife and I have deepened our friendship, and my children and I share extraordinary bonds that are difficult to describe in words.
The honorary degree is different from an academic degree, but, religiously and spiritually, it is, I believe, after all these years, a doctor of divinity degree that has brought honor to me, as much as my classmates and I have brought honor to the degree and to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
May the privilege to be a rabbi continue to be my joy and the well-spring of vibrant Jewish living we share, together, for many more years to come. Blessed are You, God, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this time. Amen.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
This week, we begin the book of Leviticus. It’s not a favorite book among Biblical readers. If it’s any indication, Hollywood hasn’t recreated any of its scenes quite like it has from Genesis and Exodus. But, Leviticus, for all its talk about sacrifices and bodily effects, has a lot left to tell us. We can still find remnants that remain timeless and timely for us.
For example, animal sacrifices were a large issue for ancient Israelites. Their personal goal was to bring the best of their flock or herd for offerings to God. Every offering, specifically prescribed, communicated messages between the people and God. There were offerings of thanksgiving, forgiveness, and atonement from sin, to name just a few. All this concern for animal sacrifice ended completely when the Temple in Jerusalem was finally destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE. Then prayer replaced sacrifice and the rabbinical age took hold. What the Bible couldn’t tell us about sacrifices is expounded on in Talmud and other texts. Generally, we agree that prayer and not sacrifices was good for the future of Judaism, and surely for the future of flocks and herds.
But, I’m afraid there is something that remains lost forever. In each person’s choice of animals for sacrifice was an intimate concern borne by the individual to bring something pleasing, even savory, to God. The physicality of it made it real without room for imagination. Today, each person chooses prayer for offering. At best, a worshiper offers a prayer with a similar intimate concern to bring something pleasing to God. The difference is that today’s prayer offerings lack physicality. We’ve traded the burden of our hands that held the animal, for the duty of the heart that conveys prayer “up” and outward. Supposedly, we’re more advanced; therefore, we’re supposed to be able to make our experience before God more intellectual, emotional and spiritual.
I’m not suggesting that carrying an animal to the High Priest for sacrifice was more meaningful than bringing one’s prayer directly to God. I wouldn’t have it any other way and neither would you. But, it concerns me that the duty to pray is not felt as heavily in our hearts and souls as it once did in our hands. I’d like to suggest that we invite Leviticus to speak to us anew from its ancient origins. There can be heaviness in our hearts and souls, too. What if it’s frustration to find meaning in prayer? We can take a cue from our ancient ancestors. They didn’t wait to bring an offering until they felt ready. They brought their offering according to God’s mitzvot, namely, festival holidays and other sacred occasions. Meaning was deepened through participation with others. They moved in common rhythm with the community and we can, too.
It requires a different kind of effort to pray mindfully. For those who do so regularly, they would probably admit that prayer might look easy, but it’s not without soulful intent which requires all their heart and soul and might. Prayers of thanksgiving, like prayers for prosperity and peace, are meaningful not simply because we think they might work like some magical formula, but because they move us with hopefulness towards these objectives.
Shabbat is our regular time for worship, though daily prayer is also customary. We do it with offerings of prayer in our house of worship. We do it through Sabbath rituals at home. Light candles, sip the wine, and eat the challah. Express gratitude to your family for the blessings they are to you. Whatever you bring and wherever you bring it, make it your best offering. Make it a reflection of the duty of your heart. In English or Hebrew, through song, poetry or prose, there is nothing better than what you’re feeling in your heart and wish to share with God, alone. I join you in that effort. I pray, personally, too. I also enjoy our weekly Sabbath services where song, poetry, prose and community make Friday night and Saturday morning more than days of the week; they are our appointed times to bring our best offering to God.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi
Have you heard the joke about three Jews and four opinions? Well, this week I sat among 16,000 delegates to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. There were too many opinions to count among Jewish and Christian adults, college students, and teenagers, including 30 delegates from our congregation. There was no consensus except for our commitment to the mission of AIPAC, which is “to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of Israel and the United States.”
The big news was Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech. Before his speech to Congress, he first spoke on Monday morning to a packed crowd at AIPAC. His remarks laid the groundwork and rationale for his arrival in Washington. He made the point that as Prime Minister he had no choice but to speak about the existential threat to Israel from Iran manifested in its nuclear capabilities, while America, Israel’s greatest partner in the Middle East, embarked on dangerous negotiations with Iran about its nuclear future.
Netanyahu was also clear about his relationship to American leaders, specifically President Obama. Netanyahu said, “We’re mishpacha!” We’re family. Families have disputes but they get over them to accomplish important goals. That’s political talk for what you and I know is a tense relationship. Be that as it may, Netanyahu and others who followed him urged us to set aside the tension inherent in their relationship and focus on the real issues before us, namely, Iran and radical Islam. On this we can agree, and I urge you, as well, to refrain from maligning either one of these leaders, and spend your energy on the issues. When both these men leave office, the issue of a nuclear Iran and Islamic terrorism will still be there.
On Tuesday morning, Netanyahu took his place before Congress, America and the entire world. Whether or not you agree with his decision to accept the Republican invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress, Netanyahu knew exactly why he came here. For a brief moment, he figuratively stepped on Congress’s throat (and the President’s) long enough to hold their attention and make them listen. They were spellbound and moved. Applause greeted his expressions of statesmanship that framed Islamic terrorism squarely, and championed shared goals to prevent Iran from threatening the region with real weapons of mass destruction. The President, who said he didn’t hear the speech, later remarked that Netanyahu didn’t say anything new. Perhaps it’s true, but that’s also a reason Netanyahu came to Congress. He needed to be heard not from afar where battles against Islamic terrorism happen every day, but in the halls of American legislative power. Israel’s closest western ally had to hear Israel’s plea to be taken seriously about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. When he finished, Congress seemed to take a collective new breath. Predictably, those who were inclined to his visit and his message deepened their resolve, and those who were opposed deepened theirs. “Ha-mayveen yaveen,” the enlightened will understand.
Channeling images of the Purim story we celebrated this past week, Netanyahu played the role of the hero Mordechai who informed the king about Haman’s evil plan to cast lots (Purim) to choose the day when the Jews would be murdered. Mordechai persuaded the king to destroy the real trouble maker and save the Jews. In the Biblical story, instead of Mordecai hanging from the gallows, as Haman plotted, Haman, himself, was hanged. The king was restored to his post with thanks due Mordechai.
These are not biblical times, but they are biblically familiar. Instead of lots (Purim), Iran sits with its hands on the resources to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons to wipe out the Jewish state and the Jewish people at its discretion. The difference is that while we know the end of the biblical story, we don’t know the end of this generation’s threat to Israel. Netanyahu made a bold move and at great risk to his own political future at home and abroad; but, his aim was to make today’s Haman in Iran visible to today’s kings, presidents and rulers before it’s too late. Netanyahu had no choice. Will America have a choice? Will Western Europe? Will we?
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
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