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02/23/2012 08:51 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
February 24, 2012


                “Let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” These are the words we find inscribed on many synagogue buildings. They come from Terumah, this week’s Torah portion in Exodus. The building project recorded in Torah was unique. First of all, it was the first known building project of its kind; second, there was no mortgage, but not because there were no banks. There was no mortgage because they had more resources than they needed. Moses was told by God to say to the Israelites, “Stop bringing. They have brought more than is needed for the building of the sanctuary.” That’s what makes it Biblical and one of my favorite miracle stories.

                Giving has never again happened like that, except for one time. In my lifetime, it had to have been during the Six-Day War. Given what quickly became the extraordinary and grave consequences of that war, Jews world-wide gave quickly and generously. The donations from America were staggering. Perhaps the giving was of Biblical proportions, but it was without question of such magnitude that it surely saved the real and spiritual future of our people in Israel.

                Giving doesn’t usually happen as quickly or as generously. But, it continues to be prompted by stressful events. World issues and social crises prompt giving. Real needs for children and struggling men and women prompt donations for their sake. Sometimes, large sums are given for reasons that reflect gratitude for the past and expectations for the future, such as endowments and gifts to universities and hospitals. In every case, the gift comes from a personal place in one’s heart and mind that expresses hope in some future event. Every Israelite couldn’t be part of the actual construction project but they could all give something to it. Likewise, every Jew couldn’t fight in the war for Israel’s survival, but their contributions made it possible. And, donations in the community for many purposes make it possible for us to enjoy the quality of our city every day.

                The giving person is recognized for his or her generosity. Nevertheless, let’s consider that every gift, however it may be given, is prompted by a human trait we cannot escape. Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav teaches that the measure of one’s giving does not come from innate goodness, but from one’s ability first to overcome stinginess (cruelty) and then to reach out for compassion and mercy. Rabbi Nahman claims that we, human beings, are unique because we don’t act only by nature; but, rather from understanding, too. We are higher than animals that behave only by nature. We have to do better. We have to see that generosity of the heart must grow out of our ability to see the difference between what is and what can be, and to make it happen. Rabbi Nahman reminds us, “All beginnings are hard.” It’s true about many things; it’s especially true about our ability to give.

                “Give until it hurts,” is a slogan. “Giving hurts,” is true. If we accept Rabbi Nahman’s claim that real giving (tzedakah) must come from a changed heart and outlook, then we can also see that giving helps us grow as human beings. Growing hurts. Ask any teenager. But, it doesn’t end when physical growth stops. It necessarily continues as we grow as human beings, as Jews, who know that repairing the walls, the synagogues, the schools and the institutions of Jewish life, let alone the world, require more from us all the time. Giving and growing are one and the same.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

02/16/2012 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
February 17, 2012


This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim. One of the most familiar verses is the mitzvah, “You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

                Being strangers in Egypt is remote from our contemporary circumstances. Our rabbis of old were likewise challenged. They lived in the diaspora. It was not Egypt, but it was not the Holy Land, either. They lived in times and places where Jews were tolerated. They were permitted certain freedoms, but they never felt at home. As tolerated Jews, their past imposed upon them an indelible alien status.

                The rabbis took a biblical teaching and turned it into a contemporary lesson for all time. How did they do it? They used to teach the following, “Do not scold your neighbor with a fault which is also your own.” Here, fault doesn’t mean blame; it means weakness or tragic flaw. To find the tragic flaw, we have to look deeply within ourselves to tap into our historical memory as Jews.

                First, historically, we are bound to our ancestors’ struggle in Egypt. If there were ever a tragic flaw from which our people needed to be redeemed it was 430 years of slavery in Egypt. Torah tells us their hearts were “crushed by cruel bondage.” They were redeemed from there by God and they arrived at Sinai to receive Torah. The remedy for Egyptian slavery was Torah, itself. Torah isn’t an elixir that heals because we hold it; Torah is a means to freedom and peace because we live by it.

                Second, the rabbi’s lesson is personal and timeless. The lesson, “Do not scold your neighbor with a fault which is also your own” speaks to us every day. Whatever proverbial Egypt we struggle in, today, doesn’t have to be permanent. Torah is our means to freedom and peace, too. Torah is our salvation.

                I know that salvation is an unfamiliar word to most Jews, but it shouldn’t be. In the Tefilah, the central prayer that speaks of Abraham and Sarah, etc., it also speaks of God as our Savior and our Help. We are delivered by God through Torah and mitzvot. In Judaism, salvation is personal. We are not overcoming original sin; it doesn’t exist in Judaism. Rather, we are overcoming human imperfections and limitations by “holding fast to Torah” and living by its teachings because “all its paths are peace.”

                The only original fault we live with as Jews is the memory of Egyptian slavery. When we recall it we overcome it by recognizing God as Redeemer and Savior. And, then, rather than “save” others which is not our mission, we can empathize with others who are held back by contemporary forms of bondage and work to win their freedom and peace. Is it hunger or homelessness they have to overcome? Is it spiritual emptiness they need to revisit?

                Our Jewish historical memory and personal experiences are linked. We have the unenviable responsibility to carry the weight of all of it with us, and the remarkable ability to learn from it so that we might live by it. May we never go back to times of bondage in Egypt, or in any other land. May we remember and learn from the fault which is also our own, and let us never visit it upon anyone else. Lech L’shalom, may we and all God’s children enjoy freedom and peace.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

02/09/2012 08:49 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
February 10, 2012

The forces of nature couldn’t have acted as swiftly as social networking media did in the case of Susan B. Komen’s debacle. Apart from the issue itself, the race to the resolution was something few of us have ever witnessed. By the time I turned on the evening news the same day, the matter had been addressed, redressed, and dressed down by anyone with an opinion anywhere in the world. Like a swiftly moving river, the force of it was stellar. The organization faced a preponderance of support in favor of women’s health needs and was prevailed upon to think again about its core mission.

                In record time, social networking has become a democratizing force. Most notably, social networking has collapsed the traditionally hierarchical structure of corporations. It has permitted access to boardrooms where seats at the table used to be for members only. “Managing the message”, once the purview of corporate management, has been co-opted by those upon whom the message is worn. That is to say, the public doesn’t mind being branded by the Nike swoosh on its t-shirts, hats and shoes, or Pink ribbons it wears for the cause of breast cancer, but it’s no longer going to be a silent partner. For years, the public allowed free corporate advertising on their bodies, but today it comes with a price and it’s called social responsibility. In the past, corporate boards didn’t easily hear the public groundswell over child labor conditions in China, bank fees on transactions, or social health policy and the public didn’t care much about by-law changes in corporate binders. But, today, social networking has made the people’s voice loud and clear. One tweet, Facebook post, or YouTube video, and the world suddenly collapses into a small neighborhood where people you never knew are sitting virtually across the table from you.

                 More than ever, the public is feeling more connected to the brands they wear, eat, and promote. When Coca-Cola switched to a new recipe for Coke, the public protested and Coke Classic was born. But, it didn’t happen in less than a week. Today, we “like” our brands on Facebook and we’re invited by corporations to create our own commercials for them. For the larger public, it was inevitable that owning stock in a company would become less important than the “identity stock” the public invested in its favorite brands.

                Beyond the social networking implications, the issue at the core of the Komen matter was social justice and women’s health. This, above all, won a reprieve in the public forum, and the insidious attempt to undo a much needed and valuable program for women’s health was rescued.

                Technology can be ridiculed for its own insidious place in our life, but when it’s fashioned into good works it can also be the salvation of those who would otherwise never be heard. Everyone in this democracy can be heard, and, today, unlike just a short time ago, it can be done with a Tweet, a post or a YouTube. Imagine that. When the prophet Isaiah said, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” he could not have known that the swords would be Smartphones that would cultivate seeds of understanding or that spears would be virtual messages sent wirelessly to their intended targets in the name of justice.

                Seize the power in your hands. Find your voice. Then text it. Be part of the community that stands all over the world for justice, equality and peace.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

02/02/2012 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
February 3, 2012


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 praying among the trees while sitting on 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 continued to flourish 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 year at this time, we sang Mi Shebeirach as we always do, but 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 will be the first yahrtzeit anniversary of Debbie’s death.

                Perhaps not coincidentally, Debbie died during the week of Parashat 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 celebrate the Song of the Sea in a Sermon in Song, with Cantor Mutlu and me. We will honor Tom and Judy Crow for 35 years of devoted service to Beth Israel; and we will remember Debbie Friedman as we memorialize her name and recite Kaddish. Judaism’s strength is found not only in what we plan to do in the future, but also in what we remember about the past. The place where they are mingled is our heritage and our hope.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

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