From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
This week’s Torah portion is called B’shalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), and it contains the Song of the Sea. It’s the victory song sung by the Israelites after they emerged from slavery in Egypt, on their way to freedom and revelation. The famous Biblical scenes are probably more familiar to us from Hollywood movies than they are from Torah text; but, I’m not disappointed that the epoch event was captured on film and in pictures. It was a story meant to be told in ways that stimulated all the senses.
In Torah, we learn that "600,000 men on foot, aside from dependents” and "a mixed multitude went up with them,” (Exodus 12:37-38) to depart from Egypt. In Torah, numbers are not always clear, but the vast numbers of groups of men who departed accounted for a great loss of Pharaoh’s workforce. The "mixed multitudes” were likely low-level Egyptian workers who sought freedom from their conditions, too.
To this day, we are obligated to say at Passover, "My father was a fugitive Aramean,” thereby linking our fate with theirs. Memory and not historical data are our obligation to remember and retell. Memory isn’t supposed to dictate to us what the Israelite slaves felt as they clamored for freedom; rather, memory is supposed to evoke in us the feelings of one who, though beaten and down-trodden, emerged from it with faith enough to traverse the long and circuitous path to freedom and revelation. That’s why we’re not taught to examine Moses’ feelings or Miriam’s; we’re taught to see ourselves in their places and be inspired by their deeds.
Bondage is easy to know. Ask anyone who has lived long enough. They will tell you their story of personal bondage, be it physical, emotional, economic, or something more personal than that, and how they overcame it. It’s only a story if they overcame it or tried to overcome it. The outcome isn’t always fancy or sacred; but, it’s always better than where they were. That’s the point.
Many Jewish families already have deep roots in America, but it wasn’t so long ago that many Jewish families left Europe for America on an epoch journey, too. From riches to rags, many of them lost everything before making their way to these shores. They changed their names, prepared documents, and took huge risks to arrive in a strange land filled with more promise and hope than the land they left. Now on this end of the journey and generations hence, it’s easy for us to recall the history of their journey. It’s recorded in databanks and Ellis Island websites. But, that’s all history. If all we did was tell the facts about their ships and their manifests we would miss out on the best part of what they experienced. That’s why Congregation Beth Israel’s MBJLC creates an experiential program for young children to go through the "Sea of Reeds,” and older children to enter America via Ellis Island to begin a new life in a land of freedom. They need to feel it in their souls, too.
Before the week passes, remember the bondage, feel the redemptive moment, and know freedom’s liberating promise for yourself. It’s your story, too. What bondage are you experiencing? What redemptive moment are you seeking? What does freedom’s liberating promise look like to you if you imagined it? There’s no sin in fantasizing; there’s only sin in fantasizing if fantasizing is all you do. And, if you’ve already passed through the dry riverbed and emerged in a better place, tell your story to your children and grandchildren, and those who need to know it. I wouldn’t recommend that you embellish your story, but don’t leave out the parts that evoke emotion, that build suspense, and deliver a pleasant outcome.
The goal isn’t to go from rags to riches; the goal is to go where your soul is awakened to all that God created it to be in you.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David
The Torah portion called Bo, described the last plagues that God visited upon Egypt before Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go. The narrative was spell-binding and momentous. It highlighted the glory of God and diminished the arrogance of Pharaoh who thought he was a god. From the beginning when Moses and Aron’s declared before Pharaoh, "Let My people go!” to the bitter end, Pharaoh displayed an unwavering commitment to his self-serving cause.
At the beginning, God sent plagues and Pharaoh hardened his heart against them. As the plagues continued, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It progressed as Pharaoh’s stubbornness intensified and his heart became like stone --- lacking wisdom, believing only himself, and suffering from pride. Not even the death of the first-born of Egypt, including his own son, made a difference to him. He thought that all was his until even he was destroyed.
Four-hundred and thirty years of bondage crushed the Israelites’ spirit. They barely knew God, and initially failed to respond to Moses. Though they did depart Egypt and cross the Reed Sea, it would be years before they and the next generation would shake off the misery of slavery and reclaim their faith in God. The tragedy of slavery’s deep and ugly wounds is often seen in the drawn faces and physical scars of broken bodies. But, the deepest wounds of all can be emotional and spiritual; they steal a person’s hope in one’s self and in humanity. Later generations that are born without scars will have to learn about their ancestors’ travails; otherwise, the reasons for their ancestors’ desperate and hope-filled redemption will be forever lost, and the lessons for living that those trials revealed in humanity’s hope for freedom will be forgotten.
In Exodus 32, the incident of the Golden Calf proved that for some the yoke of slavery and the requirements of faith were overwhelming. They failed to throw off the yoke and to embrace the requirements of faith; but, those who were able and chose to follow God and Moses, made a contribution to us by not failing to tell their story. It enabled them to move closer to higher ideals and greater religious hopes; it prevented them from falling back to a time and place when men believed they were gods and the downtrodden and sycophants fell under their spell. But, memory is short among those who don’t participate in retelling the story of the Exodus, or who never claimed it as their own. And, no amount of history can make an impression on the human soul like the act of memory retold annually around a Seder table to children who are taught to see themselves as if they had marched through the Reed Sea at the hand of Moses and the word of God.
In Judaism, memory is a rich value. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who wrote about memory and history in his book, "Zakhor” (1996), explains that Jews didn’t excel at history, at recording dates, times and details. They excelled at memory, preserving the meaning of what happened in their past. The "monument” to the Israelites’ redemption from Egypt isn’t found in a statue along the Reed Sea, even if it could have been well-preserved; it’s always been in the Haggadah, the story of our people’s trials and tribulations. Though it’s a difficult story, it’s from such beginnings that we emerged ready for the possibility of something much greater, more enduring, and more sacred.
No Jew, whether he was an ancient king, a governor, a congressmen, or prime minister, has ever claimed to be more than a man. Arrogance can stifle wisdom and egotism can diminish insight of any man, but a Jew who was redeemed from Egypt and experienced revelation at Sinai, will never go back to Egypt nor let anyone else know that place and time ever again. The historicity of the Exodus will be studied and researched for years to come; but, the memory of the Exodus will be told from generation to generation for all those who must remember it, too.
Pharaoh, his son, his family and his courtiers perished in the Sea. At Passover, we reduce the wine in our cups to diminish the joy of our freedom, which came at their expense. But, God’s plan for peace-loving and God-revering people will always leave room on dry land for us to walk safely to a place that is "flowing with milk and honey,” and the hopes born of free men, women and children.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Last Saturday evening, Malcolm Mazow was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah at the age of 83. The Mishnah teaches that a full life is 70 years; therefore, the age for a second bar mitzvah comes 13 years later. In his personal speech to us, he told us that he was the last bar mitzvah boy to be blessed by Rabbi Henry Barnston, one of only three senior rabbis who served Congregation Beth Israel between 1900 and 1999. But, his second bar mitzvah would be different.
Two years ago, Malcolm made a personal decision to become a bar mitzvah, again. His journey commenced with renewed dedication to Torah study, Hebrew reading practice, and prayer study. Every week he met with his tutor, and every day at home he studied like a bar mitzvah boy, only this time his parents weren’t nudging him to practice. At Temple, he sat with his tutor in the conference room that shares a wall with my study. Very often, I was able to hear the beautiful sounds of chanting prayers, Torah blessings, and the Torah portion. I also heard the heart-warming sounds of laughter. He was making steady progress towards his goals.
On Saturday evening, Malcolm took his place on the bimah, proudly wearing his tallis, which his granddaughter wore at her recent bat mitzvah. He began by chanting Ashrei, a praise to God. The congregation responded eagerly to support their friend. When we approached the Holy Ark, I took a large Torah and passed it from me to Rabbi Adrienne Scott, to Jackie, his wife, and then to Malcolm. I remarked that Torah transmission, from Sinai to Beth Israel, depends on the ways we make it our very own throughout our life. As Malcolm held onto the Torah, he faced the congregation and recited the Shema, an affirmation of his faith and ours in One God. After Malcolm carried the Torah around the congregation, he took his place before the scroll to read from the weekly portion.
From his breast pocket, Malcolm withdrew his personal Yad, a Torah pointer. With it in his hand, he looked into the Torah and easily found his starting point. Jackie recited the Torah blessing and Malcolm began his Torah reading. He read masterfully as he placed the Yad over each word and pronounced it perfectly. Then Malcolm was called by his Hebrew name to recite the Torah blessing and continue his reading as a bar mitzvah. Though his hand was shaking slightly, he approached each sacred word and read it with confidence and joy. When the final word was read and the blessing recited, the congregation said, "Amen.” Then the sacred power of that moment washed over him and he smiled widely. In Malcolm’s bar mitzvah speech, he expressed his deep gratitude to family, friends, and to God. Finally, we welcomed Malcolm to stand before the Holy Ark, where Rabbi Adrienne Scott and I had the privilege of blessing the bar mitzvah boy as Rabbi Barnston did 70 years ago.
The blessing of life is realized in more than the number of one’s years; they’re measured by one’s deeds. Malcolm has filled his years with extraordinary contributions of self, personally and professionally. His prayers have been generously answered and we are all beneficiaries of them.
In the High Holy Day prayerbook (machzor), we read, "Avinu Malkeinu, enter our names in the Book of Lives Well Lived” (CCAR Press: NY, 2017). At any age, one should be inscribed for a life well lived, and at 83, upon the reading of Torah at a second bar mitzvah, Malcolm is grateful for his life and the ways it has unfolded before him. So are we. On behalf of a grateful congregation, Mazel Tov to Malcolm Mazow and his family on this milestone in your life.
May you find your strength in words of Torah, and always be inscribed in the Book of Lives Well Lived.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of
Rabbi David Lyon
"It is not your obligation to complete all the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2.15-16).
The New Year 2018 has begun. What now? Looking around the nation and the world, it would appear that there is much to do. Notwithstanding our respective political leanings and economic outlooks, as Jewish men and women we have obligations to do, together. From where do our Jewish obligations begin?
We begin in the Book of Numbers (11:26ff) where Moses was warned that two men, Eldad and Medad, "prophesied in the camp” and not in the Tent of Meeting. A youth ran up to Moses and said, "Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” But, Moses said to him, "Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!”
Later, the prophet Amos, though uniquely called by God, was a reluctant prophet as all Hebrew prophets were known to be. It wasn’t his profession nor did he have any training. He acknowledged as much when he replied to Amaziah, the priest of Bethel who aimed to expel Amos, "I am not a prophet and I am not the son of a prophet. I am a cattle breeder and a tender of sycamore figs…but the Lord said to me, ‘Go prophesy to My people Israel’” (Amos 7:10-17).
Eldad and Medad were compelled and inspired. Amos was called and obeyed. The age of prophesy ended with Malachi circa 425 BCE, but we remain duty-bound to the prophetic lessons. They are integral to Reform Judaism and are reflected in our emphasis on social and ethical ideals.
Famously, Amos (okay, Famous Amos) bound the Israelite people to the prophetic call in these words:
"Can two walk together
Though we’re not prophets as Amos was called to be, we are, like Eldad and Medad, descendants of those who are bound by God’s covenant, or who chose to bind themselves to God’s covenant, and accept the obligation to address the world through Jewish social and ethical ideals. This year, you and I have already observed an abundance of reactions and commitments to social and ethical ideals that contrast sharply to political and economic plans for our nation and the world. California is taking huge steps to distance itself from Washington policy; the #metoo movement is gaining momentum to overturn decades-long abuse and harassment against women; and, gay rights are being confirmed in every state. In part, they serve as a counter-balance to current turns to the political right. And, there’s more.
Our Judaism calls on us not to swing far right or far left, but rather to find a position where foundational (not fundamental) Jewish values about health, welfare, women, children, and immigrants, etc., reflect our sacred duties to God’s acts of creation --- not some, but all. This year, I urge you to choose your path to social and ethical justice for all. At Congregation Beth Israel, ABIDE (Advocacy at Beth Israel through Diversity and Education) is working with community organizations to accomplish our largest social and ethical ideals; and, our Social Justice Committee serves immediate needs to resolve hunger for local children, among other projects. In important ways, we are partners with community non-profits to amplify our efforts and make a larger difference.
"A lion has roared, Who can but fear?
Our year has begun. Our work awaits us. Rabbi Tarfon taught, "The day is short and the task is great…the Master of the House (God) is urgent.” He also taught, "It is not your obligation to complete all the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2.15-16).
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
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