From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
After a woman was credited with calling in the tip that led to the arrest of Dylann Roof, the alleged shooter in Charleston, she humbly gave God the credit. She told the reporter, “God was the hero!” But, I think she made faith sound too simple. If faith was at work, then God would have intervened before Dylann Roof walked into the church, studied the Bible for an hour with parishioners, and then pulled a gun and murdered nine of them. Pulling up to Roof in traffic and identifying him after his picture had been plastered all over the news and social media didn’t qualify God as a hero. It seems to me that the woman, though humble, was the real hero. So, where was God?
In a world of so much hurt and hate, it isn’t just that faith fails. Faith has led to many wonderful achievements; but, left in the wrong hands, faith fails unquestionably. In the Abrahamic traditions, the One God is a universal “father” in Whose acts of creation we are all the progeny of one first man and bound by ethics that are not relative nor trivial. Our pathways to the One God are particular but they are not exclusive. Our pathways are as diverse as the people who are on them.
In the wrong hands, we err when we use the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible and the Koran as eternal law codes. At best, they are human words inspired by faith that guide us to their highest ideals for love between humankind and love between us and God. We ascribe to these words a sacred quality due to their remarkable journey from ancient times down to our own. Having succeeded in reaching us, the obligation of the faithful is to discern from their ancient and translated syntax and context the greatest lessons for our times. Today, we have more understanding about the natural world than any generation before us. We have defined universal boundaries for crimes against humanity, and we know that 2000 year-old prohibitions against some sins bear little if any resemblance to the environment in which we think we find them, today. The evolution of human thought that came from individual and social aspirations for knowledge and understanding was supposed to help us conclude that perspectives on human equality, racial, sexual, religious, etc., evolved, too. It isn’t enough to thump our Bibles to point at our claim on divine understanding and ultimate authority.
Faith in the right hands was never supposed to provide only the right answers. Faith in the right hands was always supposed to provide the right questions. Our sacred books filled with ancient words in translation take us on a journey of history, sociology, religious thought, economics, sexuality, and other subjects that should pique our curiosity constantly. From the right questions usually come the best answers for a time and place. The sacred quality of our Bibles is in their enduring ability to raise timeless questions for every generation so that they can find answers that enable them to maintain not an ancient standard of times gone-by, but benchmarks that reveal the greatest human freedom and potential ever known to humankind. Racial, religious and sexual discrimination was wrong long ago; but, in our time it should already be anachronistic.
Where was God? It’s the wrong question. The right question is where was humankind? Where are the people who wield the power to make a difference in gun violence prevention and mental health care in our country? Where are the parents, teachers and preachers who are asking the wrong questions and who must learn to find better answers about diversity, racial differences, and sexual orientation? The world isn’t growing less complex. Let’s stop building walls around us to protect the present against the future. For the first time in history, our children are growing up in a world that we’re learning about from them through technology. But, the best lessons about how to address the world’s complexities, technologies, and stubborn prejudices are still found in books of faith bequeathed to us from ancient peoples who also struggled with matters of the human experience. If I could ask them a question, I might ask, “Is this what you expected us to do with your books of faith?” Then again, I don’t like to ask questions when I already know the answer. A better question might be, “What can sacred texts teach us about our duty to each other in a world of unprecedented technology, growing violence and unyielding discrimination?” I believe that a good answer isn’t without faith, and that the best answer will also require moral courage and political will. God is waiting for us to intervene. Who’s ready to begin?
[Published in Wednesday June 24, 2015 edition of Houston Chronicle Outlook page.]
You may reach Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi
I was out of town for a meeting of rabbis this past week, but it didn’t keep me from checking on the progress of Tropical Storm Bill. My colleagues who joined me at the meeting were concerned for the community and me. It’s in their nature to care. I was concerned for my family and the neighborhood, too. The Memorial Day floods, whether our homes were affected or not, but especially if we were displaced from home or business, created a new level of anxiety in us that wasn’t there just a few weeks ago. Let’s call it PTSD, because even the sound of rain or the threat of a storm can trigger responses in us now. We scurry to secure doors and raise the furniture, and to check the news reports and hope against hope that it passes. Though the forecast is for a mild hurricane season, the initial damage has been done and the impact lingers.
Some people cope. They forge ahead with a can-do spirit. They see the progress that comes with each passing day and the expectation that a few weeks or months will restore most of what was lost.
Some people despair. It’s just painful to see one’s life’s work and personal investments drown in high water. It seems unfair. It seems unholy. It’s not about pity; it’s about what seems like the senseless loss of so much good that was built into the places we called home and neighborhood. It wasn’t supposed to happen.
Some people can’t go back. They mourn more than others. For reasons of time, finances or age, the idea of rebuilding just isn’t in the cards for them. The floods accelerated their decision to downsize or move to a hi-rise. There was no time to remember it all. There was no chance to box up precious mementos before the movers came, and there was no opportunity to share a toast or ritual as the house was closed up for the last time. The waters washed away much more than things; the floods washed away time.
For those who are moving out of the neighborhood, never to return to the house and the home that was theirs for many years, I want to share with you a poignant message from Billy Crystal. In his book “700 Sundays” he wrote about his childhood home that belonged to another family now, and which he could never walk into again or experience the same way. Driving past it one day, he paused in front of the house and thought to himself, “It doesn’t [really] belong to new owners. I can close my eyes and go there anytime.” Isn’t that wonderful? The house will always be his because only he can see inside its living past. It’s like a game he plays with death and wins triumphantly. The old house might be occupied by new homeowners or it might be replaced by a large home set up high above impending floods, but for those who are moving on, there will always be something only they can see there, and it will always belong to them. They can go there any time.
Nonetheless, what remains in the neighborhood are all the qualities that grew up in it: the neighborly relationships that bind one household to another, the location of nearby Jewish institutions and synagogues, and the familiar stores and storeowners. The quality of the area has not diminished and for those who find their next home in the neighborhood, built new and raised higher, will find for themselves what was discovered many years ago. Futures can be built here and families can grow here. Thankfully, Tropical Storm Bill didn’t make an impression. As the hurricane season gets underway, let’s keep our wits about us and know that most material things can be replaced, and memories endure as long as we remember.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
At one time or another, all of us have said, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Did you know that it comes from as least 442 BCE, when it was first expressed by Sophocles? It was also part of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” (1598). It could have also come from Torah, in the Book of Numbers. In this week’s portion, messengers were challenged to scout out the Promised Land and report back to the Israelites what they found there. All but two of the scouts came back and said, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:32ff).
These messengers brought back a report that condemned the whole search process and doomed the people’s faith that God would deliver them to the Promised Land. In case you didn’t know, the ten men who failed in their duty to convey their faith in God were killed by plague. However, Joshua and Caleb stood out among the men who returned. They reported an encouraging outlook that upheld God’s sanctity and the people’s ambition to enter the Promised Land. Caleb said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). Furthermore, Joshua and Caleb said to the people, “The land is exceedingly good; [it is] a land that flows with milk and honey…” (Numbers 14:7-8).
Many commentaries have been written to explore whether the messengers were accurate but irresponsible, or if Joshua and Caleb were committing an early version of “bait and switch.” Do you think Joshua and Caleb were overstating their observations only to encourage the people forward? Do you think the other messengers were condemned too quickly for their accurate report? The fairest and most appropriate answer is often found somewhere in the middle. In this case, we also have to consider one more possibility: God’s presence was at work in the Biblical account. Human fear and anxiety were real, but so was God’s promise to the people. With their faith in God, Joshua and Caleb represented their claims truthfully. There was no stopping the people from entering and possessing the Land as long as God went with them, and God did.
Such faith still inspires people. How many “Promised Lands” have you thought about entering in your lifetime? How many forks in the road have you encountered? You didn’t move forward because you thought you were doomed. You moved forward because you believed that the next step was going to be better than your alternatives. Perhaps you found your way because you believed that God would be with you there. Perhaps you found your way because you simply believed that you made a tough but good decision. Either way, somewhere down deep you hoped. You hoped and even prayed a little that you made the right choice. Both are connected to the faith you place in the “still small voice” within you.
Yogi Berra would say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And Torah teaches us that when you and I come to a fork in the road, we don’t have to succumb to the circumstances. Instead, listen closely to the “still small voice,” which is the hope that resides within all of us. Then with faith choose wisely and say, as did Joshua and Caleb, “Let us by all means go up!”
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
When two-hundred people arrive for dinner you better have enough food, place-settings, tables and chairs to accommodate them. That’s why Congregation Beth Israel was ready with everything, especially many volunteer hands and warm hearts. On Wednesday evening, June 3, 2015, a team of Beth Israel volunteers and staff welcomed flood-tired homeowners and apartment dwellers from across the neighborhood to come in for a terrific spaghetti dinner, tossed salad, Crave cupcakes, and sno-cones, plus take-home packages for tomorrow’s dinner, mosquito repellant, and extra cupcakes.
With big hugs and smiles, we welcomed people we knew and also new friends into Wolff-Toomim Hall. As I welcomed families and individuals, young and old, I asked them how they were getting along. Their stories were told in inches; how high the water rose and how far they had to cut the drywall. No one was spared the frustration that came after the waters receded. Some people were living upstairs in their homes and others were in apartments or relatives’ homes. For all of them, it would be some time before they would come home to the familiar routine they once knew before the rains fell and the flood waters rose. Remarkably, all of them also said they found a silver lining: the waters could have risen higher, others had it worse than me, and “this too shall pass”, which was worn by many who slipped on the now familiar orange bracelet, a gift from us to them.
As I approached a few tables, it was obvious that the diners were tired, really worn out. We talked a bit. When I saw that their cups were low on drink, I offered to fill them. They didn’t refuse my offer. It was such a pleasure to walk across the room to fill up their cups with lemonade and iced-tea. They came to sit and eat dinner in a caring community, and sometimes care comes in the form of small gestures. I don’t know how to fix a wall or tear out carpeting, though I could learn if I had to. But, I know a lot about reading people’s needs and aiming to fill them, even when it’s just a cup of lemonade.
Near the end of the evening, I said to one of my colleagues that it was a real mitzvah to open our doors to the neighborhood. Almost all the food was gone with just enough to have lunch tomorrow for the staff who helped us serve. No reward was sought and no reward would have been welcomed. That’s a real mitzvah, when we do for others with no request for anything in return. We’d do it again if we had to, but I hope and pray that Houston will be spared this hurricane season. In the event that storms come again, please prepare your homes, listen to warning alerts, and don’t take chances.
I’m very grateful to the team of volunteers and Temple staff who arrived in droves to help and serve. There’s nothing we can’t do, together. While our own spiritual home is still in need of repair in the sanctuary, there’s nothing wrong with our spiritual hearts and souls. Judaism is about much more than prayer; it’s about deeds. God revels in deeds we do for each other; and, though floods are a curse to us, they are overcome when we reach deeply within us to find that the blessing of the human spirit burns brightly and cannot be extinguished, even by rising waters. Evidence of it was seen tonight at Beth Israel, and more can be found at ERJCC, Houston Jewish Federation and Jewish Family Service.
Let’s press on and encourage each other to do what we must. A Yiddish proverb teaches, “If you can’t go over the obstacle, then go around.” You understand. The obstacle remains but how we address it can change. Let’s join hands and strengthen each other to overcome what we can and go around all the rest.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
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