From the Desk of Rabbi
This is the year. 2016 is going to be the year when we resolve to do what we’ve resolved to do every year in the past and never did. Right!? Perhaps this year might be different if we begin in a new way. Taking our cue from this week’s Torah portion at the beginning of Exodus, the Israelite’s trek begins with Moses’ first sighting of God’s presence. And, so begins his awareness of a new way.
In Exodus 3:1-6, we read, “Now Moses, tending the flock…came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush.” Then Moses turned aside “to look at this marvelous sight.” God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” A new way for Moses began when he turned to see what was in front of him from a new perspective. Had Moses not turned he would have failed to see what he saw.
Physiologically, what Moses did made much sense. Our eyes are composed of rods and cones (not Cohens). In the dark, if we looked straight ahead it would be difficult to see what’s in front of us. That’s because we’re using the rods. But, if we turned aside and used the cones, which are to the left and right of each eye, we would let in more light and be able to see better in the dark. Try it when you’re walking in the house and the lights are mostly off; turn your head to the side and use the cones rather than the rods. You’ll be able to see better in the dark and find your way more easily.
Now, Moses wasn’t standing in the dark when he beheld the burning bush, but metaphorically speaking, he was. When he turned aside he was able to see what he couldn’t see when he looked straight ahead. So, we learn from Moses’ example that we need to change our angle of vision and alter our perspective in order to see what’s present before us, too. What difference will it possibly make?
In a Midrash, Rabbi Joshua ben Korchah taught, “Why did God choose a thorn bush from which to speak to Moses?” He replied, “To teach you that no place is devoid of God’s presence, not even a thorn bush.” That is, had God appeared in a beautiful tree or lofty mountain, we might have asked the same question, but if God could appear in a lowly thing, then God could appear anywhere. Indeed, to see God in a high place would have fit our expectations, because we’ve been reared on the belief that God is present on blessed occasions. So, to see God in lowly places, times of personal challenge, individual weakness or situational depression, we, like Moses, need to turn aside and view God’s presence in our life differently. More than a presence at a wedding or other happy event, God is also source of courage, strength, and hope. We just didn’t “see” the possibility until now.
Like Moses, we’ll approach God’s presence cautiously even if it’s just because we aren’t sure. But, like Moses, we’ll come to stand in awe of it because God’s presence burns unconsumed in our life, too. However, let’s not forget that God, manifested in that burning bush, also beheld a marvelous sight. God saw Moses and called out to him, “Moses! Moses!” and Moses replied, “Here I am!” It was a spectacular beginning to an enduring relationship. As it was for Moses, finding God in all the times of our life also depends on our ability to hear the still small voice within us and the wisdom to reply, “Here I am.” (Lyon, Rabbi David. “God is Everywhere.” God of Me: Imagining God throughout Your Lifetime. Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishers, 2011. pages 7-20.)
January 1, 2016, is just another day if it doesn’t include the possibility of a new beginning. In some regards, the way forward is inevitable and there’s nothing we can do about it; but, I believe that there is much we can do about the way forward. It begins as it always has with a new angle and fresh perspective.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
The last night of Hanukkah is my favorite night because the Menorah is full of light. In a darkened room the lights glow in ways that we don’t often appreciate anymore. Today, we take light for granted. In Houston, the fourth largest city in America, the lights will always be on.
It’s a sign of the times, but it’s not the only sign. For decades in Houston, it’s been the trend for new homes and buildings to replace old ones barely 30-50 years-old. It’s part of the culture of the west to be on the cutting-edge and in synch with the pioneer spirit. Houston epitomizes it, but if we embrace only our pioneer spirit, we might fail to appreciate our heritage bound up in the enduring elements of bricks and mortar.
As Jews, we’ve always preserved the past so that we might learn from it. Those lessons never foretold the future; rather they prepared us for it. Respect for the past and lessons for the future permit us access to our heritage and our modernity. For us, past and future are not too difficult to find. Today, we have only to travel to Israel. In 14 hours, we can be in one place that is past, present and future.
In Israel, we see remnants of ancient towns and the roots of Biblical events. We visit the tunnels along the Western Wall that take us back to the time of Hillel. We see the remains of the wars of independence and struggle. We see the centers of industry that make Israel a critical leader in technology in the world, today. We see holy religious sites of other world religions. We see that Israel is a vibrant place where Jewish life is truly thriving, and we see the work that still needs to be done.
On May 29-June 7, 2016, my wife, Lisa, and I will lead our next Congregation Beth Israel trip to Israel. It’s not too late to set your calendar and join many others who have already signed up. We generally are a group of less than 50. Registration and an itinerary can be found at www.beth-israel.org. It will be a full experience from north to south, and east to west. It will be political, religious, social, technological, and cultural. Our goals are many, but primarily it is to inspire you as we explore where we are and who we are in this modern, ancient, western, Middle Eastern, democratic, Jewish, and culturally diverse land. This is not a vacation like you’ve spent anywhere else. This is a trip of a lifetime.
The lights that burn in Israel’s city centers have been burning for thousands of years. They tell stories that are part of our heritage and they light the way for stories yet untold. Between the lights there is still darkness unlike any other anywhere else. It’s a darkness that awaits light and seeks illumination. It’s a light that’s kindled with each new insight we gain from inspired learning and shared experiences in the Land of Israel. It’s a light that’s waiting for us to reveal it. When we return from Israel, we’ll become ambassadors who shed new light on ideas and hopes for Israel and the Jewish people. Next Year in Jerusalem.
Best wishes to you and yours for a prosperous and healthy 2016. May you and I and all who are touched by our lives find blessing in the presence of the Source of blessing.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Hanukkah is behind us but the holiday season is still with us. The lights are up all around town with plenty of blue and white lights, too, to brighten many Houston neighborhoods. Before the holiday season passes us by completely, and before you buy the last gifts for your children or another loved one, I want to recommend two more gifts to add to your list.Cantor Mutlu recorded on CD "A Year of Music at Beth Israel". Much more than a review of synagogue music, it's a reflection of soul-touching musical moments that stir the heart and soul. Naturally, I've had the privilege to hear Daniel's music in the sanctuary and chapel. I've also had the extraordinary pleasure to stand next to him at the Holy Ark when he intoned Avinu Malkeinu. Most recently, I listened to him on CD during a recent trip home from New York City. On your iPhone, in your living room or car, Cantor’s music can open pathways to spiritual moments of your own. His CD is a magnificent gift to yourself or others. And, if you like it as much or more than I did, you come any Shabbat or holiday when Cantor Mutlu is live and personal.
Rabbi Sam Karff's memoir was recently published. "For This You Were Created: Memoir of an American Rabbi" is Rabbi Karff's fourth book and also his most personal. In it he describes more than a chronology of his life; he writes thoughtfully about how his life unfolded in the context of a world which he helped shape around him and for us. Unique in his generation, Sam served in leadership roles in Houston and beyond where Jewish and secular life intersected, requiring a person of his intellect and compassion to identify its meaning. Sam also contributed to the future of medical school education at UT Health by introducing a permanent part of their curriculum that focuses on the doctor's role in spirituality and health. Finally, Sam explained the profound place his wife, Joan, and his family have held in his life and the times they've shared. If ever you've wanted to glean more from the life of deeds unique to Rabbi Karff's years, this is it. Every household should read and share this book.I would be remiss if I didn't mention my own book, "God of Me: Imagining God throughout Your Lifetime". This book is especially for those who a desire a new way to imagine God. It’s accessible and meaningful for teenagers and above to begin the journey again. It’s available on Amazon, at JewishLights.com, and in the Temple Gift Shop.
Cantor's CD and Rabbi Karff’s book are available on Amazon, iTunes, and in the Beth Israel Gift Shop. During the darkest season of the year, we aim to increase light and holiness. Chanukah is dedicated to these themes as is the spirit of every December holiday. Let these gifts be part of your life to warm your heart and touch your soul.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi
It’s difficult to believe. Another mass shooting. More innocent lives shattered. So many words have been written and spoken in the aftermath, and so much blood has been spilled unnecessarily. What more can we do? After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, I wrote an Outlook opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle. I advocated for improvements in mental health assessment and treatment coupled with reasonable gun prevention laws to slow the proliferation of weapons on our nation’s streets. Almost a week after Sandy Hook, NRA Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre explained that the tragedy in Newtown happened because there weren’t enough guns. Unwilling to address the proliferation of weapons as having any role in the event, he called for more and blamed liberal media and video games for the escalation in gun violence. I sat dumbfounded. I was shocked that LaPierre’s response to the death of innocent children in their classrooms was so painfully unfeeling and so stunningly indifferent. For me, it was a turning point for our country. Either the president who faced no election in his future would use the galvanizing power of his office to defend our children or he would stand idly by while blood flowed in the streets of our cities and small towns.
Daily tragedies at home and abroad are now juxtaposed to the December holiday season. On Sunday night, December 6th, Jewish families will gather to light the first candle in the Hanukkah menorah. It’s a light that tells a story of right over might. In ancient times, Judah Maccabee (the hammer) led the small Jewish band of Judean soldiers and defeated the Greco-Syrian soldiers that occupied the Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees cleaned the Temple and prepared to light the menorah with a small cruse of oil enough to light the Temple lamp for just one day; but the oil burned for eight. The prophet Zechariah said, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit” shall we prevail. (Zechariah 4:6). Hope in what the Maccabees could do together enabled them to overcome otherwise insurmountable odds. It’s a spirit that served the Jewish people well in their future. After the founding of Israel in 1948, Israel’s first president, David Ben Gurion, once remarked, “To be a realist, you have to believe in miracles.” It’s an iconic Israeli statement that teaches us that living in a world that’s black and white isn’t sustainable. There has to be room for nuance, for ambiguity. Our strength doesn’t only come from within; it also comes from without. We take into our hands what God has given us and we build with it. We build as Rabbi Hillel taught us to do when we add lights to our menorah from the first day to the eighth. Hillel taught, “Ma’alin bakodesh v’ein moridin” we increase holiness; we don’t decrease it.
As Jews we know that God’s spirit abides among us as a source of strength that lies deep within us. We still use it to overcome insurmountable odds. In the midst of the darkest season of the year, our strength is symbolized by the lights we add to the menorah. We raise the “shamash”, the server candle, to add light to the menorah and stand up against gun violence, terrorism, anti-Semitism, bigotry, xenophobia, human trafficking, suffering of humankind and animals, and indifference to God’s name.
We sing on Hanukkah, “Don’t let the lights go out!” They’re not just candles in the menorah, they are the souls of every human being (Proverbs 20:27 “The light of God is the soul of humankind”) who depend on us to be realists and believers especially in the world’s darkest times and places.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
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