Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Erev Rosh Hashanah
Rabbi David A. Lyon
September 20, 2017/5778
Congregation Beth Israel, Houston
“Crossing Over to a New Year of Healing and Renewal”
Nearly every day, I drive the same route from my home to Beth Israel. But, for weeks now, in order to avoid service vehicles, piles of debris and long lines of traffic, I’ve snaked my way down local streets to get here. Every new path has made me aware of just how much the scenery has changed. Down some streets, debris piles look like homes turned inside-out; their guts spread out across the curb. Down other streets, new houses replace small cottage-style homes that outlived their place. Though I’m prone to routine and prefer it, I’ve learned that these wandering routes still get me to where I’m going.
It’s not the first time that you and I have felt like wandering Jews. In Jewish history, we were called Ivrim or Hebrews. The word, Hebrews, literally means those who cross over. For centuries, we were Hebrews, the ones who crossed over lands and boundaries as we were driven from place to place by war, persecution, and fate. The name accompanied us even to America. Here, Isaac Mayer Wise, the organizing founder of Reform Judaism in America, named his new institution the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Today, we call ourselves the Union for Reform Judaism.
Forever Hebrews, about 2 million Jews crossed over the Atlantic Ocean for America, between 1880 and 1912. When Jews came to America, many came with few possessions and little money. German Jews came with what they could carry or were permitted to bring, which was far less than they had in Germany; and, for sure, Eastern European Jews brought very few material goods and very little money. Like generations before them that were driven from their homes, they all brought with them faith and traditions; wisdom and Torah knowledge didn’t require a suitcase.
Since then, our Jewish relatives spent decades getting comfortable in America. As a child, I remember hearing the accented English of my relatives, some of whom were from Poland, others from Eastern Europe, and friends of the family from Germany. Today, accents are much more difficult to detect. We’re more settled and acculturated; we’re at home. We’re the next in line of very few Jewish generations that ever felt so secure. We’ve planted roots in Houston, with good jobs, a beloved synagogue, a neighborhood, and friends. There’s no menace at our door to persecute and drive us out. Our goal remains never to be driven from our homes, again. And, yet, we can’t shake off the feeling that we’re being persecuted by storms and floods that keep driving us out, not just once, but as many as three times.
What’s next for us? It’s not a divine question. We aren’t ancient Hebrews. It’s a human question, and the answer begins in the international community dedicated to the welfare of humanity. In 2001, they created a call to action called the “responsibility to protect” or R2P. Adopted by the U.N. in 2005, the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, outlines specific goals for peoples who are driven out of their homes. By definition, R2P is meant “to demonstrate deep vulnerability that grips people who are deprived of their homes and communities and means of livelihood, because they’re unable to resort to traditional coping [mechanisms].” Nobody in Houston was driven from their homes by war or persecution, but the vulnerability felt by some of you who were ferried to safety by boat, lifted from rooftops by helicopter, or rushed to shelters by the National Guard, left you unable to resort to traditional coping mechanisms. It was terrifying and disorienting.
Those who were able resorted to familiar coping mechanisms, as soon as possible. Social media proved to be a life-saving tool that connected first-responders to people in danger. Eventually, familiar institutions began to function even under hard conditions. The ERJCC, Houston Jewish Federation, and Congregation Beth Israel, though flooded, all played vital and critical roles as coping mechanisms. Together, we found you and connected you to what you needed, including family, food, shelter, doctors, documents, and hope, itself. The responsibility to protect, R2P, surged to the forefront as our highest priority. We couldn’t have done it without this Jewish community and those around the country and the world. They responded with generous gift cards and cash to distribute to displaced members of the community, and physical boots on the ground to save lives. These are all essential coping mechanisms that enable us to fulfill our responsibility to protect.
After we clean the house and paint new walls; after we reset the furniture and affix the mezuzah, we still have one more task in front of us. We can’t possibly be truly at home until we take responsibility to protect ourselves. Call it “R2P-Myself.” Feeling safe is a basic human need. Once we’ve set the house alarm at night, it’s time to find spiritual well-being — the kind of well-being that comes to us when we lay our head on the pillow at night and feel real Shalom, real peace. An anonymous writer explained, “Religion is for those who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for those who have been there.” The difference is clear to me: religion for some is like a suit of armor. It defends them from harm. But, we know that that’s a false premise. Good people, religious people, suffer, too. However, spirituality allows us to be fully human — vulnerable and hopeful — while God, rather than being a divine King, is an unconditionally loving parent. This way, God isn’t in the hurricane; God isn’t the force that threatens us; rather, God is an unconditionally loving parent; a source of hope when life hurts, and a source of gratitude when we experience wholeness, again.
The best part of spiritual well-being is that we might discover how much we have left to give to others. By looking outside ourselves, we can find extraordinary people there. If you look around you right now, you might be looking at one of the people who sent a donation or gift card to assist you; or the person who answered the phone when you called Temple or the JCC. You might even be looking at the person whom you helped and know by name but not by his or her face. Our sense of well-being grows when we find a community of people around us who understands and cares about us, too.
In a visit to a congregant in her home, I said that I wish I could fix all your problems beginning with the floors and walls; but, I don’t know how to use most tools, safely. So, I asked, “How can I help you?” She told me; and I replied, “I can do that.” Putting her in touch with Temple personnel, connecting her with people I trust, and letting her know that I understand, was the beginning of healing and hoping that the community she puts her faith into will respond. And, we did.
Finally, it’s time to slow down. We promise to do it all the time. I don’t mean that we should slow down our entrepreneurial tendencies to build a business or grow our future; and, I don’t mean that it’s time to do less. But, a Temple member stopped me in the hallway on the first day of the Miriam Browning Jewish Learning Center, as we both hurried to a joint event between Beth Israel and Beth Yeshurun. He said, “You know, rabbi, my house flooded and I’ve spent hours picking through my papers and belongings. Then I discovered something about myself.” He said, “Small matters always used to upset me, because big matters were always so much more important. But, now, I’m going to slow down; I’m going to take the time that small matters need, too.” He’s right, you know. It’s not for me to tell you which small matters deserve your attention. You already know which ones they are. But, it is for me to say that I’ll join you in devoting more time to small matters. Getting our houses in order is more than arranging the furniture; it’s also about embracing beloved members of our family, living by enduring values, and cherishing what we have and not only mourning what we have lost.
But, I will admit that it isn’t easy to do. A dear member of the congregation, who was frantically searching for and saving pictures of her family from her flooded rooms, said to me through her tears, “I have no history without them.” There is no ready reply to such a soulful ache. “I’m here for you,” is all I could say. It wasn’t time to preach. It was only time to be present for her. As God is like an unconditionally loving parent, I made it as clear as I could that she wasn’t alone in her pain. Though all her pictures won’t be rescued, she found meaning in trying to save them. The act of rescuing made her feel like a mother who saves her children, and like a hero who’s more powerful than any storm.
Now, the future awaits us. The New Year has begun. Will we enter or will we go back? Will we cross over as Hebrew do, or will we relinquish our historical calling? Hope is connected to the future; with faith in our hearts and the future in our sights, we will cross over because we have a new purpose in the New Year.
Our new purpose isn’t always clear, and I suspect that many of you, still shaken by the storm, want to know what it’s supposed to be. Joseph Carter, a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia, explains our new purpose. In his article, published in the New York Times, titled, “The Universe Doesn’t Care about Your ‘Purpose’” he piques our curiosity and doesn’t disappoint. Without irony, Joseph Carter explains that physicists see the universe as filled with entropy — the idea that the world is in a constant state of disorder. It means that without any regard for us, the universe acts according to laws of nature, even in a state of infinite decline.
Our defense against an indifferent universe, Carter explains, is “to carve out our [own] contribution to the world…through culture, religion, acts of goodness, [and] mindfulness that endures from one person to the next, and generation to generation.” Long ago, Ecclesiastes observed, “One generation goes, another comes… [and] wisdom is superior to folly as light is superior to darkness.” From past to present, our essential purpose is to be important to each other. Shared Jewish Biblical narratives, ritual and ethical mitzvot, ideals and values handed down to us are strong tools we can use, together, against an indifferent universe.
These are tools I know how to use, safely. These Jewish tools would never try to justify why some were spared and others were not. Rather, enduring Jewish tools help us see our purpose in how important we are to each other. Our caring congregation cares about its members and members of the larger community. When Jewish day school and preschool students from Beth Yeshurun, a Conservative synagogue, for those who might not know, and ERJCC’s Bertha Alyce School, whose name-sake was related to Irvin Shlenker, for whom our day school was named, called for shelter, the answer from me was an unequivocal “Yes.” Our Jewish children needed to be in a synagogue setting, not a church or a mosque. When Beth Yeshurun Sunday school needed a place on Sunday, the answer was an unequivocal “Yes,” again. We had space for them. Were the tables turned, we certainly would have called on them to do the same. I have asked a lot of our heads of school, our maintenance team, and our staff; they made significant adjustments to accommodate our neighbors. But, I asked no less of myself when I said to my colleagues, Rabbi Rosen and Rabbi Strauss, that they were welcome into our synagogue and school.
Their administration and maintenance teams joined their students here, and for the next few weeks, or as long as it takes for them to restore their own facilities, we will be one big happy Jewish family. I just can’t imagine our Jewish children anywhere else. One day, when we tell the stories about Hurricane Harvey and the floods of 2017, the narrative we tell one generation to the next will include the mitzvah that the great Reform and Conservative synagogues of Houston did what they did because we were important to each other. Shlenker School will thrive. Beth Yeshurun Day School will thrive. So will ERJCC’s Bertha Alyce School.
In the end, I think Joseph Carter sides with faith without cynicism when he concludes that “[our] purpose springs from our longing for permanence in an ever-changing universe. It is [our] reaction to the universe’s indifference to us… Stories pass through generations, often becoming traditions, customs, even laws and institutions that order and give meaning to our lives. They are evidence that this life matters and that we are responsible for it. Love, friendship and forgiveness are for our benefit; oppression, war, and conflict are self-inflicted.”
Though I would have preferred to arrive at Beth Israel tonight on my familiar route, I’ve learned that I can still get here from there even if I have to wander a little longer. You’ve done the same. You and I are Hebrews, after all; and, we will cross over into the New Year, not unscathed, but not unloved, either. Our responsibility to protect is reflected in all the ways we care about each other. May God take notice of our love for each other; and, bless us this year with security and safety, prosperity and peace. Amen.