From the Desk of Rabbi David
Passover is over. The story has been told, the rituals have been observed, and the hope for redemption has been renewed. Despite our rituals and observances, the world still looks the same, sadly. But, so did the world look to the Israelites soon after they left Egypt and entered the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Redemption alone doesn’t reveal the world we wish to see. It only summons us to enter a new place where we can make a difference.
Throughout history, our people has experienced more than one redemption from bondage. Relative to Jewish history, it wasn’t too long ago that many of our ancestors made their journey to America. In fact, millions made their way here in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Many more made it throughout the 20th century. For them, America was the Promised Land.
Our Yiddishe relatives called America, the Goldene Medina, or the Golden Land. They believed the streets were paved with gold. In a way they were paved with gold; not literally, but they led many of our families to wealth beyond their wildest dreams in work and professions never permitted them anywhere else. The unfolding of the American dream meshed well with Jewish dreams, because our ambitions to achieve excellence as human beings devoted to timeless Torah values knew few boundaries here. Though earlier generations faced discrimination and restrictive quotas, most of us would grow up with very few encounters with anti-Semitism. We imagined ourselves to be like any other Americans whose dreams were limited only by our own ambitions. Redeemed, we fashioned a new world in partnership with other “huddled masses” that came to these shores to build a great nation.
Another important redemption came after WWII and the liberation of the concentration camps. Now the Promised Land wasn’t due west; it was in the Middle East. The land that would be Israel summoned its people from Nazi Europe, but also from an exile that began nearly 2000 years ago. From the time of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70CE, Jews have longed and prayed for a return to the Land and the city of Jerusalem. The timing was inspired, and Zionism found its purpose in the rebuilding of the Land socially, culturally, religiously and politically. Since 1948, the Land has been replanted, repopulated and reimagined to meet the needs of many peoples. Redeemed, Israel remains a place of hope that reflects the meaning of Passover more than once each year; it testifies to the power of redemption every day.
Though our Passover tables tell only one story, the Seder doesn’t end without our commitment to the Jewish future where redemption from oppression and bondage must be experienced constantly. But, not only for us; our redemption would be incomplete if it didn’t include the needs of every human being who longs to be free, really free. If you didn’t address these matters this year, don’t return to the Seder table now; but make a promise that the Seder experience wasn’t lost on you. Fill the future with redemptive moments made possible by decisions and actions fueled by Jewish values to leave your corner of the world in better shape than you found it.
Next Passover, tell the familiar story but begin where you left off this year. It should be a place with less oppression and discrimination. It should be a place filled with greater meaning because you acted in faith that Passover isn’t only about the past; it’s mostly and always has been about the future that begins with today.
You may reach Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
As we prepare to sit down at our Seder tables, it’s likely that we’re spending it at the home of a family member or friend whose floor is dry and whose table isn’t sitting up on blocks. This past week’s flood has set us all on edge. No one escaped entirely, but some suffered more than others. Sadly, many who just returned after months of flood recovery watched as waters rose and invaded their homes again. It’s been a nightmare to relive it and revisit emotions that still remain very raw.
Congregation Beth Israel is ready to assist, though we have our own nightmare to address. The main sanctuary has suffered significant water damage again. Despite repairs and preventative measures, water came in from one of the stained glass windows, and up from below to fill tunnels beneath the floor. The robing room, choir room, stairwells, and back bathroom have all sustained flooding, along with the area beneath the bimah, which is nearly filled with water. The Sanctuary will need to undergo major repairs. Ingenuity and expertise will be necessary. If you want to assist immediately either the congregation or families who have been affected, or both, we are accepting cash donations and gift cards that we will distribute to families in need.
Since 1968, when Beth Israel’s new building was first dedicated, we have never seen so much water damage over the course of one year’s time. The same must be true for your own homes and places of business, too. What could be the source of such misery? I believe there are two sources but only one we can address together.
First, there is the natural flow of the seasons and the rains. Houston does everything in a big way and our rains and humidity have earned us a reputation. But, the rains will come and the humidity, too, and there’s nothing we can do about either one. Except that the invention of air-conditioning resolved the problem of humidity so that our city grew and its residents lived more happily and productively.
Therein lies the second source of our trouble. When the rains come and the waters rise and floods devastate us, we pitch in and dry out and rebuild. But, the waters never rose the way they did this past year and they shouldn’t rise like this ever again. Whether it’s the bayou, the system of dams, or water retention projects that engineers mastered, it all boils down to man-made projects that account for recent shifts in rising waters where they never rose in the past. No one is asking for total culpability, but all of us should be demanding a permanent resolution to this crisis. We’re not living directly on the coast and we’re not building homes and businesses in flood plains. We’ve lived here for decades and established whole communities. It shouldn’t be satisfactory to Houston leaders and city planners for whole swaths of the city to be inundated every time it rains heavily. It’s not a matter of a 100 or 500-year flood event; it matters that it happens even once. When it happens twice in less than 12 months, plans should already be underway to make deep investments in the well-being of our residents in every part of the city. Air-conditioning healed our humidity woes; real water control solutions can heal our flooding nightmares.
I’m calling on our Mayor and city leaders, Houston’s clergy and community organizers, and citizens and business leaders across the flooded region to accept nothing less than a comprehensive plan to resolve the insecurity we suffer against rising flood waters. The project feels as big as Texas, but the lack of a comprehensive plan threatens everything we’ve come to know and what we count on in the future. This is an economic, demographic and human tragedy that must be addressed immediately.
Passover symbolizes deeper issues of human suffering well beyond matters of flooding (it didn’t even rank as a plague), but it also speaks of freedom from bondage. If emotional and physical insecurity strikes when it rains, which is a simple and natural occurrence, then it’s a form of bondage from which we must seek relief. Direct your funds to rebuild and remake lives and property that are damaged. Then direct your words and actions to demand that real solutions are found to restore these flooded plains into the Bayou City we love and remember.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Leprosy is a subject no one likes to discuss. Today, it’s called Hansen’s disease, but it’s still leprosy. In Torah, it’s the stuff of a few chapters in Leviticus where the focus is on the High Priest. His role is to identify the affliction in the body of an infected person. If the affliction is of a nature that requires healing, then the High Priest orders the person to leave the community. After some days, the High Priest examines the afflicted person. If the affliction is healed, then the person reenters the community after a proper offering is made.
What is the offering? Torah teaches (Leviticus 14:4), “The priest shall order two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for the one to be purified.” Midrash asks and answers, “Why are lepers to be purified through the tallest of trees and the lowliest of plants? They were stricken because they exalted themselves like the cedar; but when they abase themselves like the hyssop, they will be healed.” According to Midrash, the disease is hubris; gross arrogance often reflected in abuse of power, ill-spoken words, and misplaced assumptions that lead to the downfall of a community. The cedar represents self-exaltation that flies in the face of the High Priests who serve God and thus the welfare of the community-at-large. The hyssop is the counter-balance; it neutralizes the effects of personal arrogance. Together, cedar and hyssop represent a middle-ground where the individual is not too great but not too small, either.
Today, Hansen’s disease is thankfully not a threat to any modern community; but, just as the rabbis defined it in Midrash, the threat of hubris as gross arrogance reflected in abuse of power, ill-spoken words, and misplaced assumptions still runs rampant. If leaders speak from up on their high-horses, small-minded people get on their soap-boxes, and petty interests overtake larger concerns for personal gain, then individuals, organizations or whole communities can be threatened. It’s not enough to look for it only in others as the High Priest used to do. It’s potentially in all of us. Today, we must examine ourselves closely, lest it overtake us, too.
A simple test comes from Pirkei Avot, Sayings of the Fathers. In a wise teaching, the rabbis used to say, “In a place where there is no one in charge, strive to be a leader.” But, they also taught, “In a place where there is already a leader, step back and let that person lead.” It’s easier said than done. It’s a test of the human ego. Leading and following are two sides of the same coin. Leaders must learn when to step back to follow their subordinates who are tasked with specific responsibilities. If they can’t step back, then they risk micro-managing or dishonoring others who are charged with tasks to do. Hubris risks everything. Humility, represented by wisdom and maturity (and some would add a good dose of humble pie) goes a long way in achieving mutual goals and best results.
Mussar, Jewish ethics, teaches us to express gratitude. Called “hakarat ha-tov” we are permitted to take appropriate credit for what we do, but urged to recognize the role that others play in our achievements. Mussar always makes room for the role of God, as the ultimate source of our natural urges and inclinations. What we do with our natural urges and inclinations is, therefore, our response to God’s creative acts in us. We are never totally alone nor completely consumed by the other; rather, we are in constant relationship with self, others and God. To work successfully we must find balance, which not surprisingly returns us to the Torah where we first learn that our best “place” is not too high and not too low.
At the end of each week, I personally find that time to recalibrate my sense of emotional and spiritual balance requires intentional reflection. For me, it begins at Shabbat services when we welcome each other and Cantor Daniel Mutlu continues with songs for Shabbat. Perhaps it begins at Shabbat services for you, too. I know that it can. This week, may balance and harmony begin at Beth Israel and follow us home into all the places we go.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
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 brought an “eish zarah,” an alien fire as an offering to God, and “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.” In commentaries, the rabbis explain that the boys were drunk when they entered the Tent of Meeting, and that they brought an offering that was not commanded them. To the rabbis, the punishment fit the crime.
After the boys were consumed by fire, 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 utter silence of Aaron whose grief over his sons is not recorded. 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? It’s part of life’s vicissitudes that catch us off-guard, but these, like all tragedies, come at the reasonable cost we pay for entering public spaces with others. To do otherwise 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 unfathomable to us as it must have been to Aaron. His brother, Moses, not only reports the news but offers a rationale. He says, “Through those near to [God], I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” Then Aaron was silent. In his silence there is acquiescence. The high place that Aaron holds with his sons on behalf of God, before the people, comes with an excruciatingly high set of standards. Drunkenness is only one reason for God’s wrath. Surely it has to be more. In addition to the Torah’s reason, the rabbis added that the sons assumed Moses’ authority when they interpreted God’s command for themselves. It was an affront to Moses before the people.
Biblical accounts arouse us with wonder and amazement. Whether it’s love or rage, they’re usually thrilling. So is this story in Torah. It should arouse our senses to the standards by which we choose to live our lives and the consequences of those choices. Real tragedy falls on the unaware and innocent among us. No child should die at the hands of an errant driver or a mentally ill gunman. But, real tragedy also falls on us and others when we mess up, irrevocably. Our system of civil justice provides many means to restore our standing in the community. But, our civil justice system can’t restore or repair completely the judgment that falls on us by other systems of justice, including religious ones. There are means of forgiveness and atonement; we take them seriously. We are commanded to forgive and forget; but, the emotional burden borne by everyone takes more time than any act of contrition or moment of confession. The tragedy breaks down the bonds of relationships that depend on trust and faith, which flow from religious sources such as Leviticus.
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, religion not only warns us against transgression, it provides us a means to overcome it. The goal is to stand in good stead with God for the sake of God’s gifts on us and our community. It begins with duty to others and to God.
Biblical stories set standards that are often out of reach. But, they serve as lessons to judge our actions by the standards that do exist in reality all around us. And, they serve to demonstrate that life is fragile. Decisions we make when we’re drunk or arrogant, let alone when we step outside the house in the morning, can have unintended consequences. We were taught to look both ways, to sit up straight and to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They were rules for good conduct. They were meant to protect us in world that judged us.
Tragedy is always present. We would do well not to condemn the Biblical story for its severity, but rather to embrace the expectation that our choices always have consequences, and to the extent that we can control them, choose well.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
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