01/27/2011 02:43 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 28, 2011


                This past week, I attended our regional Reform rabbis’ conference. You might wonder what rabbis do at a conference. Do they have fun or is it a lot of rabbinic stuff? The answer is, yes. We do have fun and we do a lot of rabbinic stuff. We socialize and reminisce. We also study. During our days together, Jonathan Cohen, PhD, from HUC-JIR (Reform seminary in Cincinnati), was our scholar. He was outstanding.

                Part of our lessons on heroes in biblical and rabbinic literature included important observations about Jewish thought. For example, we are surrounded by Christian ideas of religion as soon as we leave the house in the morning, or connect to a variety of media. Religion, we quickly observe, is about faith and belief. Sometimes it even demands perfect faith. But, Judaism is different. I’ve explained before that in Judaism we don’t have to come to faith, first. It’s just as likely that we come to deeds, first, and through doing, we come later to understanding and believing.

                In fact, the fullest volumes of Jewish literature related to Jewish law are about ethics and good behavior. They are not about ritual. They are not about worship, holidays and life-cycles. God loves our prayers and offerings of the heart; but, even more, God loves our deeds (mitzvot) that link us to each other as Jews in community. This is what we learned in example after example about heroes in rabbinic literature.

                In a Hallmark card, you might learn that heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. But, beginning in biblical literature, following centuries of oral stories, heroes are simply extraordinary. They demonstrate how to make decisions that are both ethical and selfless. Inherent in their stories are the ethics we need to build cohesive Jewish communities that are bound in covenant with God. Read the story of Samson and Delilah, or the story of King Saul. You’ll discover their issues, tragedies, insights and sacrifices. You’ll also discover why they are biblical heroes. Their duty to the Israelite people came at great cost, but their lessons endure as their legacy for us. Our deeds often emulate theirs when we act selflessly for the sake of our own community. This doesn’t begin with rituals and holidays. Only later do rituals and holidays give expression to the ethical underpinnings of our community’s religious values. Purim, for example, is a celebration that followed the unfolding of remarkable selfless deeds for the sake of the survival of the Jewish community.

                Ethics and rituals are not only part of biblical hero stories. On a personal note, my book God of Me: Imagining God throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights Publishing) arrived at my house this week. After months of work to compile biblical and rabbinic lessons in a book for adults seeking to reconstruct a personal God image, it was the first time I saw the finished product. Writing is not a mitzvah, but teaching is, and that’s what this is book is meant to do for you. So, standing with my daughter, Abby, who was home when the books arrived, we held it in our hands and flipped through the pages. Then, we said “shehecheyanu,” a blessing to give thanks to God who sustained us and brought us to that moment. A labor of love and a mitzvah are rooted in the Jewish ethic to teach. An expression of that ethic is the blessing we felt moved to recite for the privilege to do so.

                Perhaps this week, you’ll do a deed, a mitzvah, that binds you to the ethics of the Jewish community and be moved to recite a blessing, too. Don’t be hero unless you have to be; be a mensch, a decent human being.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

01/20/2011 09:24 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 21, 2011


                This past week, I joined six other faith leaders in Houston, on a panel to address our opposition to the death penalty, in general, and specifically in Texas. The program was held at Hobby Center, in Zilkha Hall, to a full house. Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, moderated the program. Perhaps you read an account of the event in the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday morning. They listed the participants, including me, whom they called the “senior pastor of Congregation Beth Israel.” My Methodist pastor friend explained to me as we laughed together, “It’s a southern town, after all.” The Chronicle is forgiven.

                In addition to the Catholic and Protestant messages against the death penalty, which were stirring and passionate, it was vital that a Jewish message was included. The lack of understanding about the issue among Christians and Jews is nearly the same. Even before the program began, a minister asked me if I was prepared to address the texts in the “Old Testament” on crime and punishment. I assured him that I was.

                The context of my message was the covenant God sealed with the Israelites in the past and which remains as vital, today. To define it, I cited Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz, a Reform Jewish theologian of our time. He wrote:

“When we seek God as partner in every significant act, we invest our doing and deciding with direction, hope, [and] worth; and, where we fail we have the possibility for repair.”

                Inherent in our covenant is God’s unconditional love and hope for God’s creations. Living in covenant we thrive; when we fail, the same covenant provides a path to healing and wholeness.

                In Torah, the litany of offenses for which a person may be put to death includes murder, idolatry, blasphemy, adultery, violating the Sabbath, sorcery and even rebelling against one’s parents. But, to read only Torah and not the formidable laws in Talmud and other volumes of Jewish law, gives a terribly false impression of the actual incidence of capital punishment in ancient Israel. Talmud is perfectly clear on the meaning of the Torah texts. Scholars agree that it is highly doubtful that the rabbis ever imposed the death penalty. As for the rebellious son, Talmud states, “It never happened and it never will” (Sanhedrin 71a).

                In Judaism, today, across the movements and in the State of Israel since 1954, with one exception (one found guilty of genocide or treason during war time), the moral standards of our time and place demand nothing less than the abolishment of the death penalty. From the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (July 28, 2008):

While Biblical law mandates the death penalty for 36 offenses, we follow rabbinic interpretations that effectively abolished the death penalty centuries ago. [Talmud] stresses the importance of presenting completely accurate testimony in capital cases, for any mistakes or falsehoods could result in the shedding of innocent blood; prevailing Jewish thought in every movement (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Recontructionist) has followed previous opinions, which either oppose the death penalty outright, or allow for it only in the most extreme…circumstances. The major Jewish movements in the United States all have specific policy supporting either abolition of the death penalty or a moratorium on its use.”

                The covenant saves us from personal, spiritual and moral destruction. In turn, through study of Torah and its teachings, further interpreted in Talmud, and performing deeds which reach the level of a “mitzvah” a commandment by God, we save the covenant from destruction.

                There is nothing more painful than the death of innocent victims of senseless crime. Most recently, none of us has been untouched by the aftermath of the horror in Tucson. Is the answer to take another life? Will it restore justice, restore life, or honor God’s covenant? Our moral obligation is not to murder again. Our moral obligation is to be mindful stewards of God’s covenant. Therefore, to recall Rabbi Borowitz’s words, let us resolve to seek God as “partner in every significant act, to invest our doing and deciding with direction, hope, [and] worth; and, where we fail, [always] to seek [for ourselves and others] the possibility for repair.”

                To hear the full text of my presentation, I will deliver it again on my radio program, Sunday, January 23, 2011, 6:45am, on KODA 99.1; and, for more information on opposing the death penalty in Texas, go to

                From my desk to yours, Shabbat Shalom.



01/13/2011 08:14 AM Posted by:

                In 1975, I was a camper at the regional Reform Jewish summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, called Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute Camp (OSRUI). I loved summer camp. It was about Jewish time in real time. I remember the fun and the sports; I remember the friends, many of whom I still know today. But, I also remember and was moved by the worship. It wasn’t only the trees and the wooden benches, or the carved wooden Ark that made worship meaningful. It was the music. Not just any music, but a new brand that was written and sung and taught by a remarkable young woman named Debbie Friedman.             

               Debbie’s “Sing unto God” and “Shema” followed by “And Thou Shall Teach” spoke to me as a young person and stayed with me for years and years. From her days in Chicago and regional summer camp, came concerts, tapes, cds, and inspired followers who also picked up the guitar and began singing. Debbie Friedman awakened generations and thousands of people to the power of singable and accessible Jewish music for communal worship and personal prayer.             

               In the mid-1970’s, Debbie moved from Chicago to Houston, at Rabbi Karff’s invitation to join him in his new congregation, our beloved Beth Israel. Here, Debbie’s presence inspired many young people in children’s choirs and special performances. Beth Israel commissioned Debbie to write “And the Youth Shall See Visions” for our Confirmation classes. Ever since, Confirmation services have begun with the singing of this remarkable piece of music and lyrics.               

               Debbie’s career flourished long after she left Houston, in 1984. We have continued singing with her especially on Shabbat, when we include “Mi Shebeirach” a prayer for health and healing which she wrote. One of her students remarked, “Debbie’s Mi Shebeirach has become our national anthem.” Indeed, it speaks to all of us every Shabbat; we count on it and we always will. Last week, we sang Mi Shebeirach as we always do, but this time we added Debbie, herself, to our list. She was in critical condition in the hospital. Despite the hopes and prayers of countless fans and friends around the world, Debbie died this week. The funeral was on Tuesday, in California, where her mother and sister lived.             

               Perhaps not coincidentally, Debbie died just as synagogues all over the world will open the Torah this week and read from the portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17ff), which includes “The Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15). She wrote music to inspire us to sing “Mi Chamocha” (Ex. 15:11) and to dance with our timbrels to “Miriam’s Song”. This is her Torah portion and this is her legacy: to walk through life carrying with us the struggles that are part of man and woman, to be redeemed with God’s help to be free and develop our God-given talents, and to share in the revelation of Torah through study and teaching; and, by virtue of Debbie’s life, to sing not only familiar words but also to “sing unto God a new song.”             

               This Friday evening at 6:30pm, in the sanctuary, we will remember Debbie Friedman as we memorialize her name. In coming weeks, we’ll honor her legacy by remembering her music. Let’s also learn, “A jewel that is lost, remains a jewel forever.” What can begin on a warm day in prayer at summer camp or among children in the choir continues can inspire us for a lifetime. Zichrona livracha, may her memory be for a blessing now and always.             

               From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom. 

01/06/2011 08:57 AM Posted by:

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

January 7, 2011


            A great football coach once taught his team that it wasn’t enough to aim for getting to the Super Bowl; the team had to aim for winning the Super Bowl. I use a football analogy because it relates to our Torah portion this week called Bo. Torah often references football whenever the text reports, “And then it came to pass…”

Back to Torah. In Bo, we read about the Israelites who are just about to cross the Red Sea ( Sea of Reeds). It’s here when we come to believe that the Israelites have finally found freedom from Egyptian slavery. Moses said to the people, “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt…how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand” (Exodus 13:3). The anticipated event was at hand, but real freedom was not. Their mission was not yet accomplished. The real journey to freedom had just begun. After he released them to go out of Egypt, Pharaoh rose up and pursued the Israelites. From this we learn that Pharaoh only released them from his authority. Real freedom would come from God when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, and Pharaoh and his men went down into the waters “like a stone.”

Like the Super Bowl, freedom for the Israelites was not achieved until they reached the end zone, the other side of the Red Sea. Until then, it was a great story filled with great expectations. Only after the sea covered Pharaoh and his men did the Israelites break into song. It wasn’t a sideline pep band filled with trumpets, but it could have been. Instead, they sang the magnificent and familiar Song of the Sea (Shira HaYam), found in Exodus 15. The victory song is so special to that time and event that the Song of the Sea is given a special trope or melody for the occasion. In another week on Shabbat, we’ll chant the special melody and recall the celebration that came with God’s promise to bring the Israelites to freedom.

            For the Israelites, God’s reassuring presence was evident when they crossed the Red Sea and came up on dry land. That’s when they cried out, “Who is like You, O God?!” For us, God’s reassuring presence can be evident to us. We can sing victory songs, too. Every Shabbat, we sing Mi Chamocha, “Who is like You, O God?” taking the words from Exodus 15, to recall what God did for our ancestors. We sing other songs, too, that our ancestors never knew or could have known. Thankfully, we still find meaning in God’s presence in our own times and places. Next week, when we sing the Song of the Sea, we might include these words, “Who else but You, God, could have freed me, helped me, comforted me, and strengthened me?”

            As Shabbat begins and we recall the long way of our ancestors, let’s remember their victory in God’s presence. Then let’s sing songs to celebrate God’s presence in our life and in all times.

            From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


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