12/29/2010 11:36 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
December 31, 2010


                The end of 2010 is here. Amen. Notwithstanding weddings, baby namings, b’nai mitzvah, and other happy occasions, we can agree that this has been one of the more challenging years financially. If you have been personally spared economic angst, you’re surely aware that most of the nation, if not the world, is struggling. Columnists and editorialists share their perspectives. Some are liberal and others conservative in their views. I have no choice but to be Jewish in mine.

                What does a year of economic angst mean for us? I often return to a Yiddish proverb that teaches us, “You can’t put thank you in your pocket.” Your pocket is your “pushke,” your personal holdings. Working for gratitude might come at a time in your life when volunteering is a priority. Working for “bubkes” might be necessary to make ends meet. But, everybody should strive to work for a decent living that provides the family what they want and need. In the old country before our ancestors came to America, a Talmud scholar was a top job. In America, top jobs went to doctors, lawyers and accountants. Why? It represented the pinnacle of professional success and that’s what Jewish parents wanted their children to have – the best. What became of Talmud scholars? Let’s move on.

                Economic aspirations included a can-do spirit that motivated our ancestors to work hard and to sacrifice selflessly. There were years that were better than others, but they rarely lost sight of their goals. They were consistently frugal, cautious, and wary. Some still struggled, but many succeeded and left large inheritances and legacies for their descendants. But, let’s not miss the point of their success. They didn’t replace hard work with wealth, and they didn’t serve themselves at the expense of the community. Indeed, their Jewish values about wealth and achievement drove them to live mindfully. As a result, they joined with others and built the Jewish institutions we depend on, today. They were capitalists, but they were also quasi-socialists in their efforts to bring everyone up to a place where human dignity was served with “menschlekheit.”

                Some of us who grew up in America, inculcated with messages of Horatio Alger stories and visions of corporate ladders, are currently disappointed that it isn’t working. So we’re disoriented. We don’t know how to navigate the current economic environment. Young adults are becoming billionaires before they earn their first corner office; and, a day at the office and time at the water cooler has become 24 hours on the internet and catching up on Facebook. What happened? It’s a new age and it’s just coming into focus. We’re living in transitional times no different than our ancestors did when they traded candles for electric bulbs, horses for automobiles, and trains for airplanes. They didn’t look back and neither can we. But, is there anything we can salvage from the past?

                Like our ancestors, we can bring with us tried and true values that can bring us success and contentment on our terms. Judaism implores us to choose life in the face of adversity. It urges us to ask for help from the very institutions that were founded for our community: the synagogue, Jewish Family Service, Seven Acres, Jewish Community Center, and Houston Jewish Federation. In difficult times they’re here for us, and in good times, we’re their benefactors. The cycle continues. We are never alone and never without opportunities. Perseverance, resourcefulness, and vision are as much a part of Jewish values as tzedakah, mitzvah and shalom. Today is only one day. Tomorrow is part of a long future, God willing, that begins with the first day of 2011, and unfolds into whatever we want to make of it. That’s still part of the American dream. That’s still part of the Jewish dream.

                As the ball drops on New Year’s Eve and we welcome 2011, let’s not only pray for economic security, let’s do something about it. Reach out. Help yourself and others. Give generously. Be grateful.

                From my family to yours, happy 2011, and Shabbat Shalom.

12/22/2010 10:28 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
December 24, 2010


                From peace to calamity. That’s the transition we read about when we close Genesis and begin Exodus, this Shabbat. Genesis ends on these words, “Joseph died at the age of 110; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt” (Genesis 50:26). Exodus begins with the names of the sons of Israel (Jacob) who “came to Egypt with Jacob” (Exodus 1:1). They were prosperous there. Torah teaches, “But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). Then we read the verse that changes everything, “A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). Thus, begins the span of Israelite slavery that would last for 430 years.

                There is nothing bright about the Israelite’s experience in slavery. We recall its gruesome and evil history when we read this portion of Torah, and in spring when we tell the Passover story. However, the remarkable epoch story also includes the role of Moses, God’s presence, and God’s covenant with the Israelites. We learn that Moses, though “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex.4:10), is a man of justice and compassion. It’s a perfect combination that enables him to fight for justice and to lead the people to freedom. God appears for the first time to Moses in a bush. Midrash explains that God appears to Moses in a lowly thorn bush to teach us that “if God can appear there, then God can appear anywhere” (Exodus Rabbah 2:5). It’s a perfect lesson for a time when God is needed in Egypt and in the wilderness. God also recalls the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and, God promises to go with Moses and lead the Israelites to freedom.

                Though the turning point in the story takes a terrible detour under a ruthless Pharaoh, it provides great lessons, too. In short, our story of tragedy in Egypt, also led us to victory in a story about faith. “Crushed by cruel bondage” (Ex. 6:9), the Israelites, nonetheless, responded to Moses’ message of hope and leadership founded on God’s promise to redeem them from slavery. They followed Moses. It wasn’t a perfect journey. There was doubt and rebellion. But, there was also victory after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and arrived at Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. The Biblical epoch is not stripped of grief and despair in order to spare us anxiety and disbelief. Rather, Torah records it all. It is a gripping story of human creation, redemption and revelation. It combines every human emotion and nuance to teach us about life as it is and also as it can be.

                The heritage of interpretation found in Midrash, empowers us to study and to seek lessons for living. That is the Jewish way. Even today, in the midst of crisis or trouble, in addition to praying that everything will be okay, we still need to know the truth and the bottom line. We want to be part of the solution that comes through real work and effort. Belief is part of the process when it gives us confidence that our work and effort are not for naught. Our rabbis taught us, “Pray as if everything depends on heaven; do as if everything depends on you.” Indeed, it’s a covenant between God and us.

                As Shabbat begins and we enter this day of rest and joy, please remember that Beth Israel holds worship services every Erev Shabbat at 6:30pm, including December 24th and 31st. Shabbat morning Torah study, too, will take place at 9:45am, on December 25th and January 1st.

                From my family to yours, happy holidays and Shabbat Shalom.

12/16/2010 02:04 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
December 17, 2010


                School is almost out for everyone. You can tell by the traffic around the school zones. One of my college-age sons wrote me (texted) that he finished all his finals. This was on Tuesday. He was relieved. I congratulated him. Then I urged him to spend his downtime before he begins his four-week college vacation to look on the internet for a summer job. The delay between my text and his reply told me everything I needed to know. I assumed he was looking up the word “audacity”; then he replied that he had other college-like activities to do instead.

                We have four children: two in college, one who is graduating high school this month and one who is preparing for her bat mitzvah. Whether you have two, four or ten children, you quickly discover that though they share certain qualities there are truly no two alike. You begin to wonder how they were born of the same parents. As much as we know about genetics and DNA, we still scratch our heads when they come and go from the room like a review from a casting call.

                In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob, on his deathbed, summoned his sons together. All 12 came close to hear their father’s words. The 12 sons (the 12 tribes) received separate blessings based on their separate experiences, strength and expectations for them in the future. Jacob, the father who once singled out Joseph for special treatment, now reviews his sons for their individual merits and demerits (Genesis 49:3-27).

                Reuben: first-born who once exceeded in honor will excel no longer;

                Simeon and Levi: cursed be their anger they will be scattered in Israel;

                Judah: your brothers will praise and his people will pay homage;

                Zebulun: will dwell by the seashore;

                Isaachar: is a strong-boned ass (his Hebrew name means “without honor”);

                Dan: will govern his people;

                Gad: will be raided by raider but he will raid at their heels;

                Asher: his bread will be rich (his Hebrew name means “rich”);

                Naphtali: is a hind let loose, which yields lovely fawns;

                Joseph: his arms were made firm by the hands of God;

                Benjamin: is a ravenous wolf.

                We love all our children. As they grow we also discern what might become of them. We pray they will learn, get married, prosper and move out of the house. We hope they will always know blessings. At best they might be like Joseph, whose arms were made firm by God, even though others assailed him. For all his arrogance, Joseph redeemed himself at the end of his service in Egypt. He showed deference to his family and saved them from famine. Or, they might be like Asher, whose table will always be full. Or, they might even be like Dan, who will lead our people. We observe different strengths in our children. They have unique inclinations and passions. The best we can do is to provide them opportunities to engage their interests and test their mettle.

                At worst, they might be like Isaachar, a strong-boned ass. If you have teenagers, it’s possible that you’ve witnessed the legacy of this ancient ancestor peeking through. Thankfully, they outgrow these tendencies and emerge like our most cherished ancestors and reflect their parents’ finest traits. Have you ever known a Jewish child who isn’t gifted? In Jewish circles a “genius” is defined as an average child with Jewish grandparents!

                Winter vacation is beginning as children of all ages leave their classrooms behind for r&r with their families. For some it’s only two weeks and for others a blessed month. Enjoy your blessings found in your children and grandchildren. They are, after all, our treasures and we wouldn’t trade them for anything.

                From my family to yours, happy vacation and Shabbat Shalom.

12/10/2010 10:15 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
December 10, 2010


                Someone once asked me if there was such a thing as a good Jew or a bad Jew? He was trying to find a comparison between what is commonly called a good Catholic or a lapsed Catholic. There is no easy comparison. The easiest answer to his question is to say no, there is no such thing as a good Jew or a bad Jew, or even a lapsed Jew. A better answer comes from an understanding of why the question is being asked in the first place.

                Sometimes we like to know where we stand in relationship to our faith and especially to God. In Catholicism, it’s relatively easy to know when you’re good with God, because the catechism will instruct you whether or not you’re missing the mark. In Judaism, it’s relatively complex and whether or not you’re good with God isn’t even our first test. There is no catechism, creed or dogma. The closest we come to a creed is to proclaim that God is one. In addition, Torah is sacred. We strive to repair the world. We’re commanded to love our neighbor. We learn that what is hateful to you do not do others. We have principles, commandments and Golden Rules. We are a religion of action with a lot to do and then to believe.

                We come to Judaism not necessarily through faith, first. More often, we come to Judaism through deeds, first. Belief can come later. It’s like what our Sages taught, “Our understanding comes through our deeds.” There is so much to do and to know. We are a people of the Book (Torah), and we have learned not to amass goods but rather to acquire knowledge. Goods can be stolen. Goods weigh down a people who are always on the move. But, knowledge and wisdom can never be stolen once they are learned, and a people can take them anywhere they might go. So it was with Jews in history even to this day. As long as Jews studied Torah, their faith and their people survived. And, so do we.

                So what is it that makes a Jew recognizable, substantial, and qualified to stand before God? What matters most is what a Jew remembers in his head and in his heart. Simply put there is no such thing as a good Jew or a bad Jew; but, there is such thing as a Jew who remembers and a Jew who forgot. A Jew who remembers is constantly mindful of Torah and mitzvot. He or she makes it a daily duty to perform ethical deeds that serve others who are touched by their lives. Scores of ethical deeds we take for granted, today, originate in Jewish teachings. We should be cognizant of the fact that our good deeds are mitzvot (commandments that we do to maintain our covenant with God). And, a Jew who remembers makes it a daily duty to perform ritual deeds that serve his or her relationship with God. Some weekly observance of Shabbat would go a long way to demonstrating one’s role in the community of Jews.

                A Jew who forgot is one who gave up on his or her ability to relate to Torah. It isn’t Judaism’s or the Jewish community’s fault. It takes effort to enter Judaism. In truth, there are very few barriers to participation; usually the single largest barrier is a personal one.

                As your rabbi, it isn’t up to me to tell you that you’re doing too much or too little. It’s my job to guide you to fulfill your duty to your Jewish soul, your Jewish family and your Jewish community. There are ethical and ritual deeds to do. There are reasons why we do them. Through the doing comes the understanding. And, if it happens for you then deeper faith follows suit. It isn’t a formula, but to me, there’s isn’t a more authentic way for one to come to faith than that.

                So, are you a Jew who remembers or a Jew who forgot? If you don’t know the answer, it’s probably time to get started again. Here’s a freebie: Talmud teaches, “Go and learn.” The doors are open to you. The welcome couldn’t be warmer. Let’s do and understand, together.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

12/03/2010 11:31 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
December 3, 2010


                Just before Halloween this year, retail stores began to focus on winter holiday gift giving. Halloween was like the starting gun that began the race to December 25th. Thanksgiving was only a turn in the race. Barely noticed, we stuffed ourselves with turkey and headed to the shopping malls. Hundreds lined up outside store doors to be the first to buy the latest gizmo. And, now that Chanukah is here the only thing left to do is to brace ourselves for the last few hours before Christmas.

                Each of these holidays has become a milestone along the way for retailers to raise or lower their window banners. Sale! Lower Prices! Another Sale! Retailers aren’t to blame. They have to seize on seasonal opportunities. I get it. But, the reasons for the season shouldn’t only be wrapped in boxes marked down for clearance.

                At our dinner table last week, my daughter looked at me with a concerned expression on her face. I knew she wanted me to take her seriously. She looked up at me and said, “Dad, this year I’d like to celebrate a traditional Chanukah, with a present on each night.” I almost fell out of my chair. “Really,” I said, “I’d be happy to give you a traditional Chanukah. But, a traditional Chanukah means you would get only gelt (a few coins) on the first night.” Surprised and disappointed, she said, “Let’s celebrate a less traditional Chanukah.” I thought so. She’s young but she’s already a retailer’s prodigy.

                Indeed, Chanukah is a minor holiday. When the Maccabees prevailed over the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE, they found a small cruse of oil enough to light the Temple lights for only one day. As the miracle story is told the oil lasted for eight. The holiday is obviously post-biblical; and, some details about how to observe it are recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (6th c CE) in Tractate Shabbat 21a. Gift giving was not one of the details. It came about as children were rewarded with a few coins in honor of the holiday, and when they played the dreidel game and won some prizes. Its proximity to Christmas and its own tradition of giving and receiving gifts transformed Chanukah into a holiday about lights and presents.

                Christians and Jews, alike, lament the loss of their respective holiday traditions. How many Christians can explain why the tree is an evergreen or the lights are predominantly red? How many Jews can explain why we increase the lights of the menorah from one to eight, rather than decrease them from eight to one? While you’re looking up the answers, I imagine that it would be easier to explain how to get to Best Buy during rush hour and by multiple routes; or how to attach the big red bow to the top of the new car without giving away the surprise.

                I miss the days when the December Dilemma was about how Jews and Christians could share the season respectfully and especially within interfaith families. And, I miss the days when Thanksgiving came before Christmas on TV. This year, I’m going to light the menorah with bigger candles and I’m going to cook up latkes that would make a cardiologist shiver. It’s a race to the finish line. Let’s see who rings up a better season. Will it be families who celebrate their holidays with meaning and care, or black Friday and internet Monday? I’m putting my money into a few thoughtful gifts and on the hope found in the lights we kindle in gratitude to God for the victories of old.

                Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom from my family to yours.

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