Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Some years ago, a Temple friend gave me a copy of the book, "Simple Words: Thinking about What Really Matters in Life” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, an internationally known scholar of Talmud. In his book, Steinsaltz focuses on the inherent meaning of a list of simple words. In the first chapter, he writes about "Words”.
Steinsaltz begins with a reference to Genesis Rabbah, a commentary on Genesis from the fourth century. In it, the rabbis describe how God consulted with the angels about the creation of man, and the angels didn’t like the idea at all. They rejected the idea of connecting a Divine soul with an earthly body, and concluded that it was bound to fail. After the world and man were created, God again asked the angels to look at what God had done and to give names to all of God’s creations. Again, the angels said that they could not. Then God showed off Man, and asked Adam to name all the creations that passed before him. Adam gave names to all the creatures, to himself, his wife, and to God (Genesis 2:19, 2:23). Steinsaltz teaches that the marvel of Adam, who stood over animals and even angels, wasn’t just that he could talk, but that he created words, simply. Steinsaltz’s point is that Adam didn’t begin with a lexicon of vocabulary and phrases. He chose his words simply and used his words mindfully.
This week’s Torah portion is called Devarim. It means "words” but it also means "things.” It’s a perfect opening for the responsibility we have to choose our words simply and to use our words mindfully, too. When we choose our words well, then our words have the potential to deliver messages that build and connect. With simple words, relationships can begin and grow to convey values we share with family and friends, but also with new acquaintances. When we don’t choose our words well, then they’re just things; they become utilitarian choices that enable us to accomplish a transaction with others, but without regards for anything more than that.
Used mindfully, words convey mutual respect even when they convey difficult messages. That's why we make a fuss about politically correct or "PC” words. It has nothing to do with sanitizing our language as if one's mother was washing out her child's mouth with soap. It has nothing to do with avoiding the truth, as if anyone isn't completely aware of the meaning of a carefully crafted message. Rather, words that once suited us in the past conveyed messages and made inferences about people and issues that we've long ago learned more about and grew to respect. Today, those words are nothing but things. So-called "PC" words match our contemporary sensibilities about race, sexuality, equality, and much more. It's in the power of these words that we express our willingness to grow our vocabulary and discover the power to be more fully human; that is, above the creatures Adam named and even the angels.
Steinsaltz closes his chapter on words by reflecting on Adam and Eve’s speaking relationship. He cites the Midrash, which explains that Man and Woman were first created as one body; later God cut that being in half, thereby making a separate Man and a separate Woman (Steinsaltz, p. 25). It marked the first time they could hold a conversation between them. Steinsaltz writes, "When I speak with another being who is similar to me, yet different, I begin not only to understand the other, but also to understand what I myself am speaking about” (Steinsaltz, p. 25). The rabbi admits that he doesn’t know what language Adam spoke with Eve, with the animals or the angels; but, he concludes, "I am sure it was simple words.”
Steinsaltz helps us know that so much can be revealed about us in simple words. How will you choose your "devarim” as you speak to those whom you know and others who are new to you? And what will your words help you learn about yourself as others learn about you, too? God’s trust in humankind began with words, simply chosen, that reveal all that we can be, together.
You may reach Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David
We’re eager to fulfill the mitzvah to visit the sick, in Hebrew, bikkur cholim. Why? On a basic human level it just feels like the right thing to do. But, it’s not enough to do it simply because it seems like the right thing to do. On a deeper level we have to find the reason why visiting the sick is important and why it might really make a difference. After all, it’s the antibiotics, surgeries and therapies that do the healing. At least that’s what we know now. Long ago, when no such therapies were known, healing happened to people who believed that they were part of a system of religion that provided restored health to the sick.
In Judaism, we have a prayer that links us to God’s role in healing. We say, "Praised are You, Eternal One, Healer of the sick (rofeh ha-cholim).” Even today, we can infer that modern drugs and means of healing originate in nature and its sources. We give credit to science for their discovery and then credit to religion for their meaning. In science, we observe rational processes that deliver therapies for healing; and in Judaism, we give value to those processes that facilitate life-saving outcomes, which provide us hope for healing and gratitude when it comes.
Ironically, the role of visiting the sick, then and now, remains virtually the same. In the past, the rabbis also wondered, "What difference can it really make if all healing is the will of God?” They explained that "One person’s visit removes 1/60th of the sick person’s illness” (Bava Metziah 30b). Did they conclude, therefore, that if 60 persons visited the infirm, that the illness would be removed? The only answer was to say, "Halavai,” it should only be so.
All the more so, in our day, when science and medicine heal us, what difference does our visiting the sick make if all healing is in the realm of science? Yet, the rabbis’ explanation remains a vital reason why we visit the sick. As in the past, we don’t expect that if 60 persons visited the sick that the illness would be removed; but, we still favor the odds that in addition to science and medicine, a visit to the sick provides hope that faith in God’s presence, as a source of all that contributes to well-being including science and medicine, is expressed in the presence of a friend or loved one and in the context of a shared religious faith.
At the end of June, just as summer plans were about to unfold, my youngest daughter grew ill. She was hospitalized for three weeks with atypical pneumonia, weakness and pain. The skill of doctors, three antibiotics, and therapies to restore her strength and endurance earned our enormous gratitude for the return of our daughter’s happiness and well-being. But, the glue, so to speak, that surrounded her and us was the faith we found in personal visits and phone calls from family, friends and rabbis, and the focus on healing we felt when we shared a prayer, together. All of it mattered. The role of science was obvious. The role of visits and prayer served to encourage our daughter to believe that she wasn’t alone and that healing will come. Today, she’s rebuilding her strength and preparing for the beginning of her first semester in college.
Though it could have gone from bad to worse, we were fortunate and she recovered. Others in the children’s wing and PICU didn’t fare as well. Where science failed, the role of the chaplain or minister came to the family’s side. As they made their way, I remember what a friend and retired physician helped me understand about the difference between being healed and being cured. None of us will exit this world cured of the illness that takes us; but, some of us will exit this world healed, anyway. He explained that a cure depends on science that removes illness. Healing, however, can come to a person’s heart and soul even when there’s no cure. Patients with a terminal illness can seek perspective, express gratitude, and know peace before life ends. They will never be cured, but they might be able to say that before death came, they felt healed from life’s pains and ambiguities. Conversations with loved ones, time to forgive and be forgiven, and expressions of gratitude for the life that was granted can lead to healing of one’s mind and spirit.
I’ll always struggle with the suffering and death of children; but, I’ll always believe that Judaism, which values life above all, will foster the ways and means to find cures where they can be found and healing wherever it is needed. When healing does come, as it did for my daughter, we are taught to say, "Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, Melekh haOlam, sheh-gemalani kol tov” Blessed are You, Eternal One, who bestows goodness upon me.”
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Pinchas is a Biblical personality who was known for his remarkable passion to serve God. In Numbers 25, we learn how Pinchas drove a spear through the bellies of an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who violated God’s covenant. For his zealotry, Pinchas was granted God’s "pact of friendship” or "Brit Shalom” and Pinchas, and his descendants, enjoyed a pact of priesthood for all time.
As biblical events often do, this one inspires us to value Pinchas’ role in securing the faithfulness of the Israelite people against false gods and idol worship. But, in general, zealotry isn’t prized in Judaism. Zealotry is reserved for biblical stories and the most extraordinary circumstances. How do we know? The word that describes Pinchas’ passion here is the same word used to describe God’s passion in Exodus 20. In the Ten Commandments, God is called "an impassioned God (a jealous God),” "El kanah.” Here Pinchas "took impassioned action for God,” "Kinei l’Eilohav.” K-N-H is the Hebrew root that means impassioned or jealous. Pinchas acted on a level we can only find in the Bible. Frankly, it’s a passion that should only be found in the Bible.
Every religion has had its zealots including Jewish militants and Christian crusaders of the past. Their stories are infamous for their blood and glory, which is exactly how ancient battles and hard-won fights are told and remembered. Unfortunately, ambitious stories of blood and glory aren’t only a function of the past. Contemporary zealots we call fanatics profess allegiance to their own view of the Bible and sacred teachings that offend and destroy conventional custom and modern life. Today’s most obvious zealots are members of ISIS. Their passion, in the name of strict adherence to the Koran and Sharia Law, is frightfully dangerous and destructive. It preserves one small sect of Islam and aims to annihilate all the rest. Today, they stand out as the single-greatest threat to Western civilization.
ISIS’s streak has left space on the "zealous-spectrum” for others to be zealous without appearing to be maniacal or dangerous. Populist movements that have gained footholds in nations across the globe have escaped comparisons to sects or fanatics who want to change the world order. They’re not decapitating their opponents, but they have resurrected or promoted vicious demonstrations of xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, to name just a few. They’ve bled into areas where large swaths of working-class and middle-class Americans, for example, are feeling starved for access to healthcare, education, and fair-minded entitlement programs, not to mention regulations that have preserve clean air, water, and natural resources for all of us.
Frighteningly, leaders of nations haven’t effectively modeled or addressed the symptoms of fanaticism and zealotry. Demonstrations in the streets outside the meeting of the G-20, protests against the KKK who are marching in the streets again, and rallies for causes across America, where they didn’t used to appear nearly as often, are more than signs of discontent. They’re loud and real signs of fear. The gains and footholds that modern Western nations claimed in areas of social justice (healthcare, women’s rights, gay rights, climate change, poverty, etc.) are at risk. They aren’t reflections of liberal zealotry from the other side; they’re the achievements of reasonable and, at best, bipartisan efforts to accomplish what we need to survive in a world of limited natural resources, in a time of globalization, and in a fragile moment where the future rests in some of the world’s most unreliable leaders’ hands.
Pinchas was biblically passionate; he defended the sanctity of God’s name. It’s done. You and I can be passionate, too, but there’s no cause today for which we have to kill, defame, or alienate others. Now is our time to honor God’s name with deeds that bring honor to all God’s creative works.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David
Long ago in the hot climate of Middle Eastern summers, our rabbis-of-old persisted in their Jewish studies, but they took up lighter matters such as Pirkei Avot, Chapters of the Fathers, a tractate of Mishnah, known for its folk wisdom. There we learn about Rabbi Hillel, among others, who taught us many familiar lessons about Jewish ethical behavior and good manners.
As summer heat and humidity take hold in Houston, I’m thinking about Rabbi Hillel, who taught, "If am a not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” This summer, it relates to Congregation Beth Israel’s new beginning as we welcome Cantor Star Trompeter and Rabbi Chase Foster, who are joining our clergy team with Rabbi Adrienne Scott, Rabbi Joshua Herman, and me. Cantor Trompeter and Rabbi Foster will take their places on the bimah on Friday, July 7, 2017, for the first time, marking their "soft-opening” with us.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
Congregation Beth Israel relies on dedicated and inspired clergy to address and respond to our needs in a vibrant synagogue setting that stresses excellence in worship, education and community. A Cantor who inspires us with music and song opens us up to the potential we find in prayer and worship. A Rabbi who translates Torah’s meaning for us in our time and place connects us to timeless and timely wisdom and understanding. Taken together, our souls are nourished and we thrive in the company of our beloved congregational family.
If I am only for myself, what am I?
Congregation Beth Israel’s commitment to worship, education, and community develops the whole-person so that we can give more to others who are touched by our life. The covenant (pact) we enjoy with God is reflected in the pacts we have with other people. Rabbi and Cantor engage us in worship that fills us with gratitude for what we have even when we feel empty. Then we’re better able to give to others who struggle more than we do. Likewise, in education we learn how the Hebrew prophets emphasized social justice over ritual for the sake of truly fulfilling God’s hope for us. It all leads to a better and stronger community in which sacred duty to mitzvot (commandments) enables us all to grow and thrive.
If not now, when?
The urgency of time compels us to fill each day with purpose. Congregation Beth Israel wastes no time in welcoming you to meet and greet our new Cantor and Rabbi, who join us in our congregational mission to make a positive difference where we live and work, to overcome injustice where we encounter it, and to strive for peace at home and in the community.
Our rabbis-of-old also taught that "All beginnings are hard.” It’s true, but at Congregation Beth Israel, our new clergy are discovering the joy of their new congregation among new friends who are eager to make them feel at home. It’s my hope that you’ll welcome them home, too, and let them into your life with shared interests in our mission as a congregation and as a people.
Shabbat Summer Services Friday evening 6:30 p.m., Gordon Chapel
Shabbat Morning Minyan, 8:30 a.m., Gordon Chapel
Shabbat Morning Torah Study, 9:45 a.m. to 10:45 a.m., Finger Board Room
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
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