From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
If it hasn’t happened already, then soon your sons and daughters will be returning home from college for the December holiday. It’s a time that might be filled with two parts joy and one part dread. For the last few months, the household has assumed a new rhythm; it’s been quieter and less busy, so their return will renew some familiar routines. Then again, the last few months involved less time at the grocery store, less laundry on the floor, and fewer appointments to keep, so their return will occupy more of your time again. In order to know more joy than stress, I have some suggestions. They come mostly from experience but also from basic principles for a Shalom Bayit, a peaceful home.
Finally, science has taught us that the young adult brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 25 or 26. Don’t tell them that, but consider that as smart as they’ve become with book knowledge and worldly experiences, they aren’t developmentally ready to reason, adjust, or associate with you exactly as you hoped they would. Home should be a safe place for them to demonstrate all that they’ve become, even though they’ll also regress when you least expect it and become the child you thought was never coming back. So, hold them close, but not too tightly; offer some advice, but be ready to be rebuffed; and, let them go their own way, but be ready to welcome them home again for a little while longer. These simple guidelines could mean the difference between a reunion and a rebellion this December. Good luck!
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of
Rabbi David Lyon
On Friday, December 2nd, my Shabbat message in the sanctuary was titled, "Humanity Begins at Home.” It bears reprinting here, not because I have nothing else to say this week, but because it speaks to us in our time and place. For us and our children, our regard for truth and peace, and our hope in enduring Jewish values, I urge you to read it this week.
I was once invited to speak to a particular civic group some years ago. After my presentation to the group, which was mostly non-Jewish by far, there was time for questions and answers. The first question came from a woman who asked me if I believed whether or not the Ten Commandments should be displayed on public grounds and in public school classrooms. As a "Jewish person,” she asked, how do I feel about it?
I took a breath and began to answer her. As a rabbi who honors the separation of church and state, I told her that I believed that the Ten Commandments should not be displayed on public grounds or in public school classrooms. That was the short answer. I continued. I added that the Bill of Rights provide the freedom of and freedom from religion. No one who enters a public space should be coerced or subjected to the suggestion or force of a religious position. I wasn’t winning points with her. I cleared my throat and continued. I said that I honor what the Ten Commandments represent for people of faith; but, the Ten Commandments are numbered differently for Catholics, Protestants and Jews. There are still only ten, but if one is Jewish, then the first commandment is, "I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt.” If one is Catholic, the first commandment begins with "I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt,” and includes, "You shall have no other gods besides Me.” If one is Protestant, the first commandment is, "You shall have no other gods but me.” So the debate isn’t only about whether or not the Commandments should be displayed; it’s also about which version of Commandments should be displayed. Should it be the original from Torah at Sinai, or the ones canonized in the 4th century, or hundreds of years later during the reformation? I didn’t leave room for rebuttal. I continued.
I inferred from her preference for the Ten Commandments to be displayed on public grounds to be akin to displaying a talisman against evil thoughts and deeds in front of the courthouse in the classroom. From her perspective, wayward adults walking to the court house might be moved to adhere more closely to society’s norms; and, disobedient children might be inspired by the looming tablets affixed over their heads in their classrooms.
On this point, I disagreed. But, I had a solution. Finally, I said: Let’s honor both church and state. Let’s maintain a prominent place for the Ten Commandments, and let’s preserve the rights of all citizens to observe religion without hinting at a state sanctioned religion in public. The questioner looked interested. To accomplish both goals, I said, let’s begin with the premise that "Humanity begins at home.” And, if respect for humanity begins with core values found in the Ten Commandments, then they should be displayed in the home. I recommended that they be displayed over the door on the way out of the house. This way, adults and children would see the commandments; they would be motivated to live by them when they entered public space; and, they would carry them in their hearts and minds wherever they went.
The questioner was mollified. But, I struck a real chord in many others who agreed that the home must be the central place in which religion, values, and other personal beliefs should be taught, examined and observed. Inspired by the energy in the room, I went on. I explained that Jewish families affix a mezuzah on the doorpost of their homes. It doesn’t contain the Ten Commandments; rather it contains the verses from Deuteronomy 6:4ff, which begin with the words, "Shema Yisraeil, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” The following verses are what we commonly call "V’ahavta,” and they articulate the commandment to love God with all our hearts, our souls and our might. The commandment to affix the mezuzah follows, "you shall inscribe them (these teachings) on the doorpost of your house.”
The mezuzah reminds us of God’s presence. It’s not a talisman; it follows from Proverbs, "If God doesn’t build the house, its builders toil in vain.” Proverbs makes the point perfectly. Being mindful of God’s presence at home invests our time there with mitzvot; a full awareness of Judaism’s expectations of us. Time of joy and sorrow are, therefore, guided by Judaism’s outlook. In joy, we give thanks and express gratitude. "Shehecheyanu” is a blessing that praises God for that which we could not do alone. So we say, thank you God for giving us life, sustaining us and enabling us to be in this time. In sorrow, Judaism guides us to be honest about death. We use words like "death” and "dying” to acknowledge that we should confront death without mythology, but with compassion and hope. In challenging moments between parents and children, Judaism is replete with guiding words. They flow, not from psychological insights, but from core human needs that often require sensitive guidance. With mitzvot as a guide, even emerging adolescent passions can be channeled into productive and honorable deeds.
So, the talk at the civic luncheon ended civilly. If I were asked the same question, today, I wouldn’t change my answer. Even in the age of the Internet, the importance of the home as the central place from which lessons for life and the world are taught has actually grown and deepened.
You may recall a young man at Rutgers University who took his own life. He was observed through a hidden camera having relations with another male student. The eavesdroppers uploaded the video to the Internet, and in one keystroke sent it for the entire world to see. In the past, keyholes and transom windows served similar low-tech purposes; and they were all terrible crimes against another’s privacy. But, now, at the hands of thoughtless co-eds, an Internet connection makes what was once seen only through the keyhole or over the transom, something for the entire world to see. The humiliation felt by the victim became an event he believed could only be overcome by removing himself from the world.
And, in recent days, another young person was bullied to the point where she believed that only way to end it was to end her own life. This isn’t bullying like we might have experienced on the playground; we overcame that kind of bullying by going home. Today, bullying follows young people everywhere they go and to places they haven’t even been. The Internet brings the weight of a prurient voyeuristic world to bear on a young person’s shoulders. It can be insufferable.
In the aftermath, we raise questions about the perpetrators’ scruples and core values. But, one question must be: what lessons should the perpetrators have learned at home long before they left for school that day? I’d like to offer two possible answers:
First, just as the home remains a critical incubator for our children’s development, so does the role of their parents. Parents don’t give their children the keys to the car before they have a license, they don’t permit them to go anywhere in the world without supervision, and they don’t let them stay up until all hours of the night. But, nearly every young person has a cell phone and many of them are much younger than 13 years-old. With that cell phone they can talk, text, send and receive pictures, and surf the web without boundaries any time of the day. In effect, they are everywhere you told them not to be, at hours you told them not to go. Technology has extended the boundaries of the home, which are a parent’s duty to protect. How many parents check their children’s cell phone text conversations or even their Facebook walls? It’s not an invasion of our children’s privacy. We check their bedrooms; now we have to check all the places they live including the Internet.
Second, preachers in the pulpit are supposed to teach that God created us all in God’s image. When some preachers preach that people who don’t live a life faithful to the Gospel are condemned to hell (because they’re gay, lesbian, black or Jewish), they fan the flames of xenophobia and knowingly or not put lives in jeopardy. It’s not because their souls are condemned. It’s because their well-being is threatened by those who are taught to believe that the "other” is not valued in this life.
The Rutgers students who were charged for their despicable act ruined many lives. But, their single act of poor judgment was really the fruit of many poor decisions that took root long before they arrived at Rutgers. Along the way, did their parents ever condemn bigotry, religious intolerance, and homophobia; did their religious leaders, if they had one, ever preach that there is value in every life created by God? The same can be asked of parents whose children leave for school and corner a fragile child on the playground.
Fanatics exist on both sides of religious ideas. There are those who are secular and blame religious teachings for fomenting these incidents; and there are those on the far right who teach only a narrow view of God’s love. In the middle are those who struggle mindfully every day to identify religious ideas that speak to our time and place and which validate norms and principles for the sake of humanity. A home that lacks values founded on principles of dignity, civility and liberty, condemns its inhabitants to lives of bigotry, intolerance and servitude. The result is rarely positive and the victims are always part of a tragic ending to what was supposed to be a marvelous life story.
Parents, rabbis, ministers and neighbors share a profound responsibility to teach, inspire, guide and protect impressionable young people. We owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves. In a world that we did not create, we should treasure the power we’ve been given to inspire hope to build a better world.
As you make your way home, enter the house for the first time again, acknowledge the mezuzah on the doorpost of your house, if you have one, and let God’s presence build the home you wish to know for yourself, your family, and everybody who will ever be touched by your words and your deeds. Remember, "Humanity begins at home.”
Rabbi David Lyon | email@example.com | Congregation Beth Israel, Houston, Texas
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
"Va-yeet-rohtz-etzu”. Easy for you to say. It’s alliterative. It’s the Hebrew word in this week’s Torah portion that describes how the twins, Jacob and Esau, spent their time in utero. Translations tell us they "struggled with each other” or "they pushed against one another”. While struggling or pushing against one another, their mother Rebekah asked, "Why do I exist?” (Genesis 26:22). God said to her:
Esau emerged first. He was hairy and ruddy (thus Eisav). Torah describes him as "ish sadeh”; he grew up to be a man of the field who preferred the hunt. Jacob emerged second, smooth-skinned and barely holding onto the heel of his brother (thus Ya’akov). Torah describes him as "ish tam, yosheiv o-halim”; he grew up to be a mild man who preferred to stay at home. The brothers were of the same womb yet their destinies could not have been more different.
From the time they were womb-mates, Esau favored physical power and used it, while Jacob preferred the spirit (Torah) and cherished it. Though Torah hadn’t been given yet, the rabbis reasoned that if Jacob were home then he was surely studying Torah (the rabbis didn’t read Torah chronologically). Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup. He valued the soup and his physical needs greater than he did the birthright. Jacob, though younger, was destined to be the leader of his people who made an eternal covenant with God. Esau’s destiny was in another direction; he amassed his own fortune and made his own way. Jacob was uniquely qualified to possess the birthright and lead his people, our people, to their destiny, too.
Birthrights are an ancient determinant of one’s future. Today, we create our own destiny by the choices we make freely about what we study, where we live, and how we make a living. Or do we? Sometimes, it seems that it’s still destiny that strongly compels us to study certain subjects, to live where we do, and to make a living in our chosen professions and roles. For some, the "still, small voice” within us hasn’t really faded since Biblical times. It can be a powerful motivator that isn’t silenced until we respond to it. And, when we do, we discover where we need to be and what we need to be doing. Being in the right place at the right time can provide shalom: peace, wholeness and completeness.
I’m grateful that Torah highlights the dilemma between Jacob and Esau. It untangles the expectation that though the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, it might not be the best way or the only way to get from point A to point B. Jacob’s compelling need to acquire what he needed to get where he was going is our inheritance, too. Were it any other way, we would open the Holy Ark and find there a bowl of lentil soup. Grateful for the hand that guides us and for the urgency of time that compels us to seize opportunities, we would be wise to choose our way when our "head and heart agree.” Then wisdom and passion combine to serve and satisfy our deepest needs and greatest hopes for our future.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
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