From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Tazria-Metzora is one of the least favorite portions in the whole Torah, because it’s about bodily emissions, leprosy, and other taboo subjects. But, it’s a bum rap. If we read it as the rabbis did and we should, the portion urges us to find the sacred and Godly in what is admittedly unfamiliar and unseemly. In this portion in Leviticus, scaly skin afflictions, bodily emissions, and "tzara’at”, commonly translated to mean leprosy, were examined by the priest. His observations rendered a person clean or unclean. If he or she was unclean, then the person would call out, "Unclean, unclean!” and be exempt from the community for a prescribed amount of time. Only until the priest found that the person was clean could re-entry be allowed and with proper gifts and offerings. The goal wasn’t condemnation or exile; the goal was maintenance of a sacred community that aimed for God’s blessing through ritual and ethical deeds.
Today, it goes without saying that we understand vastly more about such ancient taboos. But, can it also be said that we’ve done as much as our ancient ancestors not to condemn or exile those who, temporarily or permanently, cannot meet the highest standards of human participation physically, emotionally, or mentally? In Texas, we rank 49 out of 50 states in support for severely mentally retarded children and adults who are living in State Supported Living Centers (SSLC’s). Some children who are otherwise born in love and blessing, nevertheless, fail to thrive as their parents hoped they would, and can’t live at home because their parents don’t possess skills and resources to provide 24/7 care. Their children will never live independently of the SSLC where they currently reside. But, funding in Texas is threatened; SSLC’s are being reduced in number. Residents will be forced to move to other locations sometimes farther from parents and relatives who visit regularly. In other cases, there is no family to visit: their parents are unable or unwilling to visit, or they’re deceased. Reducing care means reducing compassion for children and adults who need it most.
If birth is a blessing from God, then we are in no position to judge which births are greater blessings than others. As moral advocates, we must urge our representatives in Austin to act in two significant ways: oppose Senate Bill 602; and, support Senate Bill 547.
We oppose SB602, because:
We support SB 547 (companion HB3409) because:
In Leviticus, the Israelite community didn’t continue its wilderness journey until every member of the community was able to re-enter. Imagine that the highest and holiest deed was to enable a person to mend and be repaired so that the community could remain intact in God’s presence. We’re aware that not every citizen can perform their duties as we do; but, every citizen is a human being whose life depends on us. God’s blessing wasn’t meant for the most fit, alone; it was also meant for the most fit to extend it to those who knew they could count on us to do the right thing with it.
Call or write your representatives in Austin, today. Tell them that you advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves. Our community can’t move on until everyone is accounted for, and everyone has a fighting chance to know what it means to live in a State that says it values every life.
ASK YOUR SENATOR TO VOTE NO on SB 602 and YES on SB547
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From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
We’re marching in the streets. We’re protesting on national issues. We’re making an impact. But, are we ignoring ominous winds blowing from the Sea of Japan? What’s the point of all our protesting if two leaders of nations are facing off in a no-win display of might over right and without regard for millions of lives at risk?
The current White House has caused the left and right to advocate for and invest in their respective causes with extraordinary passion. In the last 100 days, many wins and losses have been recorded depending on which side you support; but, with our heads down and focused only on national issues we’ve become dangerously distracted from the international havoc that’s brewing across the oceans.
Everybody knows that North Korea is a dangerous nation. Like Texas fire ants, it’s a horrific nest of trouble if it’s disrupted or provoked. Left alone, it’s avoided at all costs even while less disruptive attempts are made to dislodge it from its place. Kim Jong-Un is the quintessential queen of the fire ant nest that is North Korea. The analogy is apt, but it trivializes the real human costs that are at stake in what could be a nuclear war across Asia. With a trigger in the hand of Kim Jong-Un and another trigger in the hand of Donald Trump, there are few options for the rest of us who see this "fire ant hill” as something we are increasingly unable to avoid stepping in.
Though we might feel safe because we’re oceans away, it’s a false sense of security. War between North Korea and the U.S. will devastate surrounding nations, and those that aren’t completely disabled will be vulnerable to looters of the war’s aftermath. No one wants Kim Jong-Un to last another day, but it’s the plunders of war that other nations and their leaders seek: land, boundaries, ports, energy, etc. Is it worth 100,000 soldiers’ lives? Is it worth 1,000,000 civilian lives?
Our protests on U.S. streets are having an impact. We’ll never forego our duty to demonstrate our Constitutional right to protest. But, our Constitution has at its source an obligation for all humanity to know the liberties that took root in early and fertile American soil. Wars were fought to achieve it and maintain it. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and memorialized over it. But, what we should have learned from those wars is that while there will likely always be despots who threaten us, some can be contained and limited in their power. It’s time to turn some of our well-meaning energy we’ve used to demonstrate on the streets in America, to the menacing threat that is looming across the world in the Sea of Japan. We can’t reach Kim Jong-Un, but we can reach Donald Trump. Let’s protest against the unnecessary option of war and potentially nuclear armaments to remove a despot, an acknowledged annoyance and blight on the world, but whose presence is really nothing more than that until he’s provoked.
On the Jewish calendar, we recently observed Passover. Moving from Egypt to the Promised Land, the hope of every subsequent generation has been to depart its own bondage for hope it finds in a Promised Land of liberty, freedom and peace. God delivered the Israelites. Though the burdens of the North Koreans must be great, their redemption shouldn’t come at the hands of a madman with his finger on the trigger of humanity’s most destructive weapons against humanity. Kim Jung-Un and Donald Trump are not gods who can redeem. They are human beings who must temper their passions for the sake of millions of God’s creations.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
Passover: Lingering in the Present”
A story is told about a Jewish art lover who brought home a large canvas in an ornate frame. Showing it to his wife with great pride, he said:
"Look at this beautiful Passover painting I bought!”
The wife stared in amazement at the canvas. It was completely blank.
"I don’t see anything on this canvas. "What is it supposed to be?”
The husband said, "This is a painting of the Jews crossing the Red Sea,”
"But where are the Jews?”
"The Jews already passed through the Sea; they’re on the shore.”
"And where are the Egyptians?”
"The Egyptians are still pursuing the children of Israel; they haven’t yet reached the sea.”
"And where is the sea, itself?”
"The waters of the sea are divided and have receded to the shores so that the Jews should be able to cross.”
Art is in the eye of the beholder, but, this case, the husband was actually on to something important. So, let’s ask a better question: why is this painting different from all other paintings of the Exodus?
All other paintings of the Exodus depict Moses on the edge of the waters, his arm stretched high; or, the Egyptians drowning in the sea; or, the Israelites celebrating their liberation from bondage. Of all the places described by storytellers and moviemakers about the Israelites’ experience, nobody depicted the stillness of the dry riverbed through the eyes and experience of even one Israelite, who, for just a moment, was unencumbered by the past or the future. This one Israelite doesn’t see the Egyptians who are still in hot pursuit. He doesn’t see freedom still ahead of him. In just that moment, he was alive only in the present. To be truly present, there is no past or future. It’s quiet. It’s still.
Stories of Jewish life are usually told about Jews who have one metaphorical foot in the past and one in the future, standing between times. When we were driven from our homes, we needed to know where our pursuers were so we looked back. As we made our way forward, we had to know where we were going so we looked ahead. Rarely, have we had the luxury of time to linger. But, this painting, oddly noting the context of the quick departure from Egypt, highlighted a moment that lingered in the present.
The source of the story is the "Passover Anthology”1 which was edited in the mid-20th century. It shouldn’t surprise you. It was a time of unprecedented Jewish growth and emerging stability in the Jewish community set against fears of rampant assimilation with its own inherent threats. That’s why the wife in the story also asks her husband, "Did you buy the painting at the Gallery of Modern Art?” In the mid-20th century, still hurting from the Holocaust, it was premature, if not presumptuous, to think that the Jewish people were now a modern people and no longer an ancient one always emerging from bondage and exile. In effect, the wife asked her husband, "Who do you think you are, a modern Jew with no pain or suffering in his past? Suddenly you’re a person who has time to linger in the present without concern for the place he’s still trying to reach? We’re Jewish!”
Obviously, the husband saw what his wife and Jews like her failed to see. In that modern and present moment, the blank canvas revealed, even if it were just for an extended moment in which he lingered alone, that the past was far behind and the future could wait. In that moment, he found calm. There was stillness. This was what a free modern man, who also leaned at his Passover table, longed to know.
Two weeks ago, when Deborah Lipstadt was our Scholar-in-Residence, she said many times that, while we should always be cognizant of our history, we shouldn’t live as if our only purpose was to defend it and who we are. Rather, she urged us to promote and cherish all the positive qualities about Judaism, and its unique worldview. She highlighted the remarkable contributions that Jews have made to our civilization, our way of life, and, out of Israel, in just 70 years, an unparalleled investment in technology, medical innovation, and, by necessity, military systems and weaponry.
To a young person who asked how to defend herself against anti-Semitism, Lipstadt said that she should be proud of being Jewish. By extension, she said to arm herself with Jewish knowledge, facts, understanding, and experiences. Then when someone challenges your Jewish identity, Lipstadt said to her, you can draw on ready-facts and personal evidence that make you stronger, even when you have to stand alone. Lipstadt, who defended herself against a Holocaust denier and certified liar, and won, would have seen in that blank canvas what the mid-century modern American Jew saw, too. She would have acknowledged the past and been quite certain about the future; but, she would have paused long enough to see how far we’ve come without fear that we lingered there. A knowledgeable and participating Jew, Lipstadt said that the hope in the future has always been on our side. She said in Hebrew, "Af al pi sheyit’mamei’ah, im kol zeh ani ma’amin,” Though the Messiah may tarry, despite all this, I still believe.
The court in the U.K. found for Deborah Lipstadt and laid to rest any chance that her courtroom opponent could accuse her again, or deny that the truth about the Holocaust is the truth. Perhaps that’s the gift of modern Jewish life for us. Though we feel more threatened today than we have in recent years, we can believe that our own nation’s institutions, our Jewish agencies, and our neighbors will support us just as we support them, too. The truth has a place where it’s valued and celebrated. In our post-modern age, it finally speaks for the martyrs of our people, too.
I’d like to believe that the end of the story in the Passover Anthology, the man sat down at his Seder table, read from the Haggadah, broke the middle matzah, and ate the bitter herbs. But, I’d also like to believe that he glimpsed at the blank canvas that hung on the wall. Though he saw himself as modern, and uniquely able to see in a blank canvas the stillness of the dry riverbed into which the Israelites fled, the Haggadah, no doubt stained with wine and discolored by charoset, drew him back to his roots when Jews were driven but also hoped. So, when he glimpsed at the painting and then at those who sat around the table, he cherished the present moment in which he found himself.
I’ve seen blank white canvases in modern art museums. None of them was called, "Leaving Egypt” or "Lingering in the Reed Sea”. Some of us will never be convinced that a blank canvas should belong in an art gallery. It’s not because we’re not art connoisseurs, or that we lack creative insight; it’s because we’re Jewish and it’s in our DNA to look behind us and ahead of us, constantly. But, next time I see such a canvas, I will linger there.
On Passover, we remember that our people was once enslaved in Egypt, and then God heard our cries and redeemed us from there. We also look ahead to the dream that continues to be Israel, where more than 6 million Jews are at home. Today, our obligations as Jews, no matter where we live or from where we came, is to tell the old Passover story as well as the eternal hope of our people in our land. Standing between them, we cherish the freedom that affords us the moments to be still and calm in the present. To see the blank canvas isn’t to be blind to all that surrounds us; it’s to be present where we are.
So, what would you pay for a blank canvas? Of course, the man’s wife must have thought anything more than the price of the frame was too much. But, I think the price is the one we already paid with the history of our people. Therefore, it’s too expensive for anyone to own this painting, except in a story like this. It’s 2017, but there are too many people who are still in bondage, unable to reach safety in a land of freedom. They should be able to rely on us, because we "know the heart of the stranger, for we were once slaves in Egypt.” "Let all who are hungry come and eat” isn’t just figurative. On Monday night, we welcomed newcomers to our table, and Second night, at Beth Israel, we welcomed 330 people into Wolff-Toomim Hall. It isn’t just cliché to say, "Next Year in Jerusalem.” It’s a call for peace in all places. It’s a hope that one day more people will know that their bondage is far behind them, and that they, too, may linger in the present, because hope is always connected to the future.
1(ed. Philip Goodman. JPS, 1973. p.386)
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