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03/31/2011 09:28 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
April 2, 2011


                [Reprinted by request] Not too long ago, Lisa and I saw the movie, “Date Night” starring Tina Fey and Steve Carrell. This isn’t a movie review but it’s a lot better than commenting on this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, which is about skin infections and bodily emissions. The movie is about a modest couple, both employed, two kids, babysitter, requisite dog and suburban home. Their marriage is in a rut after nearly 20 years. They barely have energy after work, they talk themselves into staying home on the weekend, and sex is about as interesting as dry toast.

                Finally, they decided to throw caution to the wind and embark on a big-city dinner. The alternative was to go down the path of their friends’ whose marriage was failing. Upon arriving at a chic restaurant they learned that they would have to wait interminably for a table. When the hostess called a name and no one responded, they took a risk and pretended to be the people who didn’t show up for dinner. The rest of the movie is the result of their decision to have a little fun, to take a risk, and to shake things up a bit. You’re safe now to see the movie, because I won’t give away any more of it.

                The madcap plot was everything they didn’t want to happen and everything they needed to happen. They discovered that their lifestyle suited them better than they knew. Being someone else or trading their problems for others’ was no way to solve the problems they thought they couldn’t overcome on their own. A modest suburban home with all their possessions and demands sounded like a perfect life for two people who just needed to save a little more time for themselves on a regular basis.

                Date Night sounds a lot like what many of us need. Lisa and I have always reserved my day off for dinner out, alone. No kids, no friends. Just the two of us. We turn our cellphones off, find a quiet place for dinner, and talk. If the conversation falls silent for too long, we’ve learned how to ask each other, “Whatchya thinkin’?” It works every time. We talk about the kids, work, pressures, and pleasures. We usually conclude that the evening was just what we needed. When our kids were very young we’d come around the block on our way home, and before we entered the house we made sure they were in bed. Now, of course, we go to bed before they do, but our date night still means the same.

                Come to think of it, date night has a lot to do with Tazria. It’s a portion that defines boundaries of holiness. In ancient times, skin infections and bodily emissions were taboo, because they were strange and infectious. Torah describes how they were contained for the welfare of the community. After many years, marriage can produce its own taboos: topics of conversation to avoid, sexual issues that can’t be addressed, and the inevitable rut that is something no one wants to touch. When they are left unattended the home, the marriage and the kids become infected with apathy and everything falls apart.

                The goal is to address the issues that are most difficult to address. In ancient times they had methods and formulas for dealing with taboo subjects and issues. Their goal was not to let things fester; but, rather to deal with them directly and turn what was once taboo into something sacred, again. We can do it, too. Date night is just a beginning for any couple that needs to address taboo topics in their marriage or relationship. Rather than let years of partnership be dissolved, Torah urges us to take on the topics directly and turn dry toast into French toast smothered with butter, syrup and powdered sugar.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

03/24/2011 11:04 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
March 25, 2011


                The Book of Leviticus and the portion, Shemini, pose intriguing challenges. An underlying purpose in the Book of Leviticus is to promote ritual holiness in order to gain God’s blessing. Everything points to the efforts of the priests and the people to maintain a high level of order and cleanliness. Their reward is God’s blessing. It sounds like a fairly simple equation for righteous living, but it is more complicated than it appears.

                It’s in this portion that we read about Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Sons of the high priest, one could assume that the boys knew their way around holy matters. But, Nadab and Abihu brought an “eish zarah,” an alien fire as an offering to God, and “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1ff). In at least two responses to this event, rabbis have upheld the record that the boys were drunk when they entered the Tent of Meeting with their offerings; therefore, their punishment fit the crime. They’ve also suggested that they brought an offering that was not commanded. Their offering was the result of their personal interpretation of God’s commands, which was an affront to Moses.

                After the boys were consumed by fire, Moses says to Aaron, “This is what was meant when God said, ‘Through those near to Me, I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people. Then Aaron, their father, said, and Torah records, “Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3). Aaron’s silence has astonished readers ever since. Perhaps it’s the finality of God’s decree. Perhaps it’s the utter silence of Aaron whose grief is not recorded in Torah. Perhaps it’s the finality we’ve all felt at times in our life when “we didn’t see it coming” or “we should have known better.”

                The clearest lesson is found in what God said about the matter, namely, “Through those near to Me.” It reveals that Aaron and his sons were called to serve God, and their position came with inextricable rules about comportment, leadership and holiness. The higher the office, the higher duty; or we might say, the higher you climb, the farther you fall. That is not to say that jobs with less responsibilities are more forgiving, but it is consistent with our expectations that a person who leads from on high also demonstrates exceptional moral and ethical judgment.

                While there are no longer high priests in Jewish life, nor a priestly caste in modern Judaism, the covenant we enjoy in Judaism still holds us to a high standard for moral and ethical living. After all, a mitzvah is a commandment, and this presumes there is a commander. In a covenant such as ours, the commander is God. The ethical and moral teachings found in Torah, which we believe are inspired by God and written by man, are our best representation of covenantal law and duty. If, however, your vision of the commander is not God, but rather the duties of the heart that compel you, personally, it’s not impossible to conclude that your principal teachings don’t also come from the same source in Torah. Thus, Torah is our unifying text. We share the same duty to perform deeds that correspond to expectations that devolve upon us from our heritage of Torah ethics.

                Whether or not we perform our duties well or often is a matter of personal conviction. Yet, I have observed time and again that events in our life, whether they are joyful or sorrowful, deeply move us emotionally and spiritually. In recent weeks, I have officiated at four weddings, three funerals, and a baby naming. Imagine the avalanche of emotions among everyone involved. Like Aaron, members of the families who tried to find words to reflect on their joy or their sorrow could not. They stumbled or they were silent. At best, they composed their words on paper to be sure they were prepared. To me their effort reflected the stunning reality and finality of the transitions we face as life unfolds. The small child who enters the chuppah is all grown up; the beloved who is accompanied to his/her final resting place on earth is physically no more; and the baby just entering the world is a miracle to his/her parents and grandparents. At these times, who isn’t rendered silent; who isn’t in awe? They are part of the rhythm of life we cannot control. Indeed, there is a commander who animates the Divine in each of us.

                As Shabbat comes, reflect on the moments in your life when you were at a loss for words. Maybe they were holy moments and times of sacred transitions.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

03/17/2011 11:57 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
March 18, 2011


Shabbat Shalom. It used to be easier to say. Nothing was looming around us except normal life events. Sure, there are challenges, crisis, even death that turns Shabbat into a salve to relieve our stress and sadness. There are also joys, achievements and births to remind us on Shabbat how grateful we can be. But, at this particular time, world events leave us nervous about what human beings are going to do about the disaster in Japan, and the unrest in the Middle East.

                Living in Houston, we are relatively spared from world events except for the concern we share for parts of the world where family and friends still live. We live in a node between the waves that upset others to the east and west of us. The Rodeo goes on and spring break continues. It gives us a sense of relief, but it should also give us a sense of duty. Unburdened by the crisis on the ground, we have the unique ability and freedom to respond in many ways.

                To the west of us, in Japan, people have been displaced without resources. Though Japan is not Haiti, people are people, and their sense of security has been shattered, too. Families are separated from each other; they are anxious as they pick up pieces of their lives that might never be made whole again. The URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) in conjunction with other Jewish relief organizations is collecting funds, all of which go to support the people of Japan. Go to, and contribute. It really does make a difference.

                To the east of us, in the Middle East, the fires still burn in countries seeking freedom, and the hate between enemies still rages. The recent murder of an Israeli family living in a settlement is the latest horror story that reveals the depth of the nightmare. A recent political pundit suggested that the root of it is “decades of Israeli occupation.” I couldn’t disagree more. His political framework is faulty. Occupation is an excuse. Hamas and Hezbollah want the west bank and Gaza; they also want the destruction of all of Israel. The larger tragedy of the murder on the west bank was the lack of outrage by the rest of the world. When is a murderer not a murderer? Apparently, it depends on who you ask.

                Beth Israel’s work on behalf of Israel continues. Please mark your calendar for a gathering of the Israel Advocacy Committee (all are welcome) on March 24th, 7:30pm, at the synagogue. In addition, we are already a group of ten who are going to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington D.C., May 22-24, 2011. For information, go to, or contact Rob Shoss or Stanley Horn, chairs of our Israel Committee.

                Our relative quiet in Houston, affords us the privilege and responsibility to use our time to make a difference. Though we cannot accomplish all the work that is needed to be done, we are, as our tradition teaches us, “not free to desist from trying.”

                As Shabbat comes, find the words that express your gratitude for the life you have. The calm and rest that Shabbat provides us also prepares us to take up the work that awaits us. So, as we tune into the news don’t despair; rather, be inspired to contribute your part to the work we all share. Give. Help. Make a difference.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

03/10/2011 02:11 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
March 11, 2011


                This week, we begin the book of Leviticus. It’s not a favorite book among Biblical readers. If it’s any indication, Hollywood hasn’t recreated any of its scenes quite like it has from Genesis and Exodus. Who can forget Charlton Heston as Moses? But, Leviticus, for all its talk about sacrifices and bodily effects, has a lot to tell us about what is and isn’t sacred. Granted, the biblical text focuses on ancient rituals, but if we lift them out of their ancient contexts and dust them off for relevant lessons, it’s possible that we can find remnants that remain timeless and timely for us.

                For example, animal sacrifices were a large issue for ancient Israelites. Their aim was to bring the best of their flock or herd as an offering to God. Each offering, specifically prescribed, communicated a message between God and an individual. There were offerings of thanks, forgiveness, atonement to cleanse one from sin, to name just a few. What the bible doesn’t tell us about them is expounded on in Talmud and subsequent texts. All this concern for animal sacrifice ended completely when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed for good by the Romans in 70 CE. Then prayer replaced sacrifice and the rabbinical age took hold. We would generally agree that the change was good for the future of Judaism, and surely for the future of flocks and herds.

                But, I’m afraid there is something that remains lost forever. In each person’s choice of animal for sacrifice was an intimate concern borne by the individual to bring something pleasing, even savory, to God. The physicality of it made it real without any room for imagination. Today, each person chooses prayer for offering, and at best, with a similar and intimate concern borne by him or her to bring something pleasing to God. The difference is that a prayer offering today lacks physicality. We’ve traded the burden of our hands that held the animal, for the duty of the heart that conveys prayer “up” and outward. We’re more advanced; therefore, we’re supposed to be able to make our experience before God more intellectual, emotional and spiritual. I guess so.

                I’m not suggesting that carrying an animal to the High Priest for sacrifice was more meaningful than bringing one’s prayer to God, personally. I wouldn’t have it any other way and neither would you. But, it concerns me that the duty to pray is not felt as heavily in our hearts and souls as it once did in our hands.

                Leviticus isn’t only for ancient times, it is meant for all times. Perhaps there is, indeed, heaviness in our hearts and souls. What if it’s the frustration in would-be worshipers who struggle to find meaning in prayer? Then we can take a cue from our ancient ancestors. They didn’t wait to bring an offering until they felt ready. They brought their offering according to God’s mitzvot, namely, festival holidays and other sacred occasions. Meaning was found through participation with others. They moved in common rhythm with the community. Now, that’s nothing new.

                Shabbat is our day for worship, though daily prayer is also welcome. The duty to thank God for our blessings still devolves upon us. We can do it through offerings of prayer in our house of worship. We can do it through Sabbath rituals at home. Light candles, sip the wine, and eat the challah. Express gratitude to your family for the blessings they are to you. Whatever you bring and wherever you bring it, make it your best offering. Make it a reflection of the duty of your heart.

                In your effort to relate personally to God, I encourage you to find meaning in my book, “God of Me: Imagining God throughout Your Lifetime”. Buy it at Temple,, or at

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

03/03/2011 05:16 PM Posted by:

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
March 4, 2011


We have arrived at the final chapter of the book of Exodus. It’s called Pekudei and it includes final preparations for building the Tabernacle, the mobile sanctuary. The work that it required came from countless able hands and numerous resources. Recall that God singled out Bezalel and Oholiab as general contractor and master craftsman. In addition, all who were inspired to participate came forward to contribute to its construction. In the end, so much had been brought that Moses told the people to stop bringing goods and supplies. Never again in history has the Jewish community been so flush with goods and supplies.

                The sacred task is worth noting, today. Thankfully, we are not a nomadic people anymore. Although the Jewish people have been settled for long periods in other eras, it’s difficult to compare the relative Golden Age of Judaism in America to any other time. We are wise enough not to take it for granted, but the relative ease with which our families have integrated into American life since they arrived speaks volumes of their trek and our subsequent expectations of stability.

                Look around the Jewish community, today. Our families who settled here demonstrated their expectation for longevity when they built synagogues, a JCC, a Jewish home for the aged, and other institutions of Jewish life. Yes, a cemetery came first (Beth Israel’s West Dallas Street cemetery was founded in 1844). But, the cemetery didn’t necessarily reflect longevity; it was a necessity even if the community had to move on. Obviously, it didn’t move on and in 1854, Beth Israel was organized. The contributions to build Beth Israel, Texas’ oldest synagogue, and other Jewish institutions came speedily. The value of these Jewish institutions is seen in the ways they have met and continue to meet our families’ needs. What would we do without our synagogues, our JCC and Seven Acres? There are no places like them for us and our families.

                Over time, Torah doesn’t record the efforts made to maintain the Tabernacle. It didn’t report that it was polished or repaired. No mention is made of a part failure. Nevertheless, the community was organized to protect the Tabernacle and to preserve its sacred place. Just like Moses, Aaron, Bezalel and Oholiab, we had Houston Jewish leaders, benefactors, and contractors. They welcomed everybody’s participation, though I doubt that they had more than they needed. From this we can learn much. We do have reports of efforts to maintain our Houston Jewish institutions. Recorded in the “Centenary” of Beth Israel, minutes of long ago document the constant attention paid to the mending of the fence around the cemetery on West Dallas. Some things never change. We’re still mending and repairing. As in the past, there is the oral record that paints a marvelous picture of Jewish building projects, and there is the written record that documents every generation’s role in preserving and perpetuating Jewish life.

                As the book of Exodus is closed and the book of Leviticus is opened, let’s not fall between the cracks and forget the sacred duty that has come down to us. “Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek,” be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other. These are the words we say as we go from one book to the next; it’s a reminder that between the pages is our duty to pick up where others leave off.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


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