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08/30/2012 09:27 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
August 31, 2012


The High Holydays will be here in two weeks. It’s enough to make your rabbis nervous. But, it’s also enough to excite us all about the meaningful times we will share. To get us ready for the profound meaning of the holidays there is an evening called Selichot (Prayers of forgiveness) that serves as a gateway to the days preceding the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashanah.

                On Saturday, September 8th, at 8:30pm, in the Gordon Chapel, come hear Elie Wiesel who is one of our exclusive “92nd Street Y” presentations. Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, author, Nobel Laureate and master teacher will speak on "Return to Akedah" (The Binding of Isaac story), followed by discussion led by Rabbi Mark Miller. For those who choose, a late night Selichot worship service will be joined by Cantor Daniel Mutlu.

                Our next 92Y presentation will be on Thursday, September 13, 6:30pm, in Wolff-Toomim Hall. The program will be “Relevant Octogenarians” with Mayor Ed Koch, George McGovern, Paul Volcker and George Mitchell. It is another meaningful way to prepare for a season of thoughtful introspection.

                I also invite you to prepare with personal time in the Wolff-Toomim Family Meditation Garden. The doors to this exquisite garden are open every day during Temple office hours, before Shabbat services and on weekends during school. It is a remarkably quiet and somewhat cooler place to sit on a comfortable bench between shapely trees and fine sculptures. A deep breath and a calm setting might be the tranquil beginning you’re seeking before the New Year begins.

                Since last year at this season, we’ve listened to thoughtful comments and ideas about how to improve your worship experience. Please take a note of just a few of the ways the Worship Committee, Rabbis and Cantor have responded.


1)       New Musical Notes. Cantor Mutlu skillfully and artfully chose some new musical settings for familiar Holyday prayers and songs. Without losing the passion of the holiday compositions, Cantor’s choices will resonate with us at this season.

2)       Live-Streaming High Holyday services. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur all our services will be live-streamed for viewing on the Internet. Homebound members or those far from home can tune in to worship, sing, listen and observe the holidays from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. The link will be provided in upcoming Enews. If it goes well and we have your encouragement we can continue to live-stream throughout the year.

3)       Rabbis’ Sermons. On the Holydays, the Rabbis’ sermons will be delivered before the concluding prayers, Aleinu and Kaddish. This is consistent with Shabbat services during the year.


                Beth Israel is getting ready. The building is beautiful, the chairs are being arranged, and the prayerbooks are being set out. The rabbis, cantor, staff and administrative teams are hard at work to provide you with the holiday experience to fill your needs. Come with your family. Invite your friends. This is a time of year to feel welcome. At Beth Israel you’re always welcome.

                Now, as Shabbat begins, let’s all look forward to a more restful day. In the sanctuary this Shabbat, come enjoy magnificent music, familiar prayers, and a thoughtful message. From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

08/23/2012 09:39 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
August 24, 2012


Jazz Shabbat. It sounds odd compared to our usual expectations for Shabbat worship. But, it doesn’t sound odd if you know Cantor Daniel Mutlu. Cantor Dan, as we’ve come to know him, is more than a voice. Cantor’s voice is a gift we anticipate each time we’re together. An opening song, Barechu and Shema, V’shameru, and Shalom Rav, are a few of the pieces and prayers that come alive with his deft handling of each note and melody.

                Cantor Dan is also a remarkable musician. His handling of guitar, piano and harmonica demonstrates his versatility and understanding of how instruments can enrich worship. With seemingly little effort, his guitar lifts the prayers to new heights where they belong. Together, we wrap our prayers in song and perform a mitzvah called “hiddur mitzvah”, we add beauty to our prayers. They are our offerings to God, so we make them the most beautiful gifts. In the last year, worshipers have been singing more. And, even when they aren’t, I can see in their eyes how deeply they appreciate the prayers set to beautiful music.

                Jazz Shabbat is another trope by which we feel the rhythm of Jewish life. After all, modern American Jewish life isn’t only a classical, traditional, or Ashkenazic experience. We are fully acculturated if not assimilated Jews. We are moved by the classics, oldies, rock ‘n’ roll, R & B, rap and more. Inspirational and moving Shabbat worship can speak to us through all these tropes, although I wouldn’t expect “Rap Shabbat” to be on our playlist any time soon.

                For Jazz Shabbat, Cantor Dan has hand-selected instruments and musicians who have mastered the sounds and rhythms that complement his vision for Jazz and Shabbat worship. His personal arrangements of some familiar melodies are fused with Jazz. Our ears will recognize them but our toes will be tapping to something new. Cantor Dan will add a d’var Torah, a Shabbat message, on the meaning of the Jazz genre, and finish with a tribute to George Gershwin.

                The schedule for music Shabbat services is set for the year and I want you to take note that every 4th Friday of the month will be dedicated to a musical experience. Some months will be a vibrant musical service with a band, but other months will be dedicated to a genre that punctuates the fusion of Jewish and ethnic music. This year, we’ll welcome Sephardic Shabbat, Shabbat Chazzanut, Shabbat Chanukah, our new favorite, Beatles Shabbat, and a special but not yet announced musical Shabbat in May.

                Cantor Dan and I share a vision for music at Beth Israel. It is presented on the bemah, but it takes shape among the talented musicians Cantor assembles from among Houston’s best, our own Temple members who are adept musicians and singers, and our children who are beginning to lend their time to Shirim Team, our children’s choir.

                Friday night, August 24th, Jazz Shabbat begins in the sanctuary at 6:30 p.m. All are welcome. Bring your friends and neighbors. For those who have Yahrtzeit or are reciting Kaddish following a recent death of a loved one, there will be a brief service at 5:30 p.m. in the Gordon Chapel, for those who prefer a quieter setting, led by Rabbi Adrienne Scott.

                Jazz up your Friday evening with Jazz Shabbat this week. From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

08/16/2012 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
August 17, 2012


In Torah this week, Re’eh (see) is the first word of the portion. “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse…” Our Sages teach that the word is written here in the singular form. In subsequent uses, the word is written in the plural form. The reason is that while the “commandments are set before the whole people (plural form), each individual must ‘see’ (singular form) and decide whether to obey or disobey.”

                Long before Reform Judaism was organized, our Sages recognized a reform idea. We are commanded as a people and inheritors of the same Torah. But, we also respond to God and God’s teachings as individuals. Reform Judaism is predicated on educated choices. Nowhere does Reform Judaism liberate Jews from Jewish obligations. On the contrary, Reform Jews are duty-bound to make Jewish choices every day. What kinds of choices do Reform Jews make every day?

                Jewish questions should never lead to an answer as simple as “yes” or “no”. For example, “Do you observe Shabbat?” “Do you keep kosher?” “Do you give tzedakah?” Even if the answer is yes, it demands some qualification. If the answer is no, it requires more attention. Jewish questions should lead to full answers, and a Reform Jewish answer should include a reason thoughtfully formed. For example, “How do you observe Shabbat?” “How do you keep kosher?” “How do you give tzedakah?” These are questions that we are all obligated to answer, collectively and/or individually.

                For Reform Jews, Shabbat is an essential part of our week. Rest from work and anxieties can refresh the heart and mind. Working on Saturday might be necessary to support the household and generations of Jews have done so, but not without also setting aside time for family. Keeping kosher was rejected by early reformers in order not to set themselves apart from full participation in society. Today, many Reform Jews keep kosher by making ethical food choices. Many choose not to eat veal or prefer free-range chickens. Obesity is at crisis levels in America. A Reform Jewish food ethic includes eating to live, not living to eat. Tzedakah is always a personal choice and it’s part of every person’s obligation to participate in repairing the world (Tikkun Olam).

                Seeing God’s blessings is something we are all obligated to do. Some do it more easily than others. But, all of us are uniquely created to contribute to the world of God’s blessings. Personally, I have never been a total conformer or a total individualist. I have never been comfortable on either extreme. Rather, I cherish my individuality and the privilege to choose how I will participate in the world around me.

                How will you observe Shabbat this week? How will you make an ethical food choice? And, how will you build a better world? Here’s a suggestion: at your Shabbat dinner table this week, talk about how you might answer these and other questions individually and as a family. Where is there room for individuality and where is it important to conform? You’re more than welcome to reply to me and share the outcomes of your discussions. It’s my job to ask! It’s all of our jobs to answer.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

08/08/2012 08:28 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
August 10, 2012


Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) is the name of this week’s Torah portion and it includes more of the final speeches by Moses to the Israelite people. In 8:7-10, we learn what the Land will provide the Israelites when they enter it and if they observe God’s commandments.

                “For the Eternal your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper.”

                We read in this list the resources to sustain the people. There is water enough for the people and to irrigate the fields. The soil is rich in nutrients to grow and harvest wheat and barley. In addition, there are grapes, figs, fruits, olive trees and honey, all products for ordinary and sacred uses. Wine from the fruit of the vine for sanctification, olive oil to light the sacred lamps, and even honey that will later be associated with the sweetness of the New Year. Overall, the expectations are high for the people. There will be plenty of food and they will lack nothing, not even clothes and general provisions. Furthermore, the land and hills will provide metals and minerals to shape tools for use in the fields, and iron, used to make instruments of war for defense.

                The Torah doesn’t finish without making clear how to use all that God provides them. In Deuteronomy 8:11, the section concludes, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal your God for the good land given to you.”

                An examination of the Hebrew grammar makes it clear that the people should eat and satisfy themselves. They should nourish their bodies and grow strong on the produce the land provides and the blessings God bestows on them. “V’achalta” means you shall eat. “V’savata” means you shall satisfy yourselves. In layman’s terms that means take a big plate and have seconds. And, then, “u-veirachta” you shall bless the Lord your God. That is, now give thanks.

                Today, though we begin our meals with appropriate blessings and words of thanks for the food we are about to enjoy, most often with HaMotzi for a meal that includes bread, we are also obligated to give thanks after we have eaten in accordance with what we read here. Birkat HaMazon, is the prayer of gratitude that we recite after a meal. You might recall it from your days at Jewish summer camp or because your children come home singing it by rote. It’s customary at camp to conclude every meal this way. Birkat HaMazon (Blessing of Sustenance) includes the words we find in this Torah portion.

                The Torah portion provides a positive outlook on the resources we enjoy from the earth and from all that God gives us. But, after we enjoy them and nourish our bodies with them, we are obligated to give thanks to the One who provides them. To do otherwise leads us to take such resources and luxuries for granted. Whether it’s a full Birkat HaMazon or a brief blessing to give thanks, we should not take for granted that we have what so many others in Houston and around the world struggle to find for themselves every day. Thousands of children go hungry. Their plight should move us to give thanks for what we have and to help them find nourishment, too. There is enough in God’s world for all the children of the earth. One day, every child should have the privilege to give thanks to God.

                On this Shabbat, give thanks for the blessings in your life, for the abundance you have come to know, and for the privilege to help others have reasons to give thanks, too.

From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

08/02/2012 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
August 3, 2012


                The Book of Deuteronomy continues this week with the portion, called Va’etchanan. Pronouncing the name correctly is much less important than understanding essential lessons found within it. Take note that the Ten Commandments are repeated here (Deut. 5:6ff). We would expect them to be repeated in the final speeches Moses makes to the Israelites. Even though 613 commandments can be found in Torah, these Ten represent core lessons first expounded by God to Moses on Sinai. The Shema, the “Watchword of our Faith,” is also found here (Deut. 6:4ff). This core prayer, recited twice each day, emphasizes the duty of the Jewish people to worship one God.

                These two parts of the portion are vital to us, but they cannot remain vital if we don’t also focus on what precedes them. In Deuteronomy 5:3ff, we hear Moses tell the Israelites, “It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today.” God’s covenant is made with the living, not with dead. Moses highlighted how important the people were who stood with him that day. The same is true for us. When we pass Torah and its teachings to the next generation it continues to be a living document entrusted to the present and the future. It enables everybody to say, “This is the covenant God makes with ME!”

                Some time ago, I stood on the bemah with two children who were becoming bar and bat mitzvah. Their bar and bat mitzvah preparation was long and sometimes difficult. But, on the day of their bar and bat mitzvah, they did great. When I spoke to them on the bemah, I encouraged them to see Torah now as their own. “When you walk into the synagogue next time, or into any synagogue,” I said, “I want you to see the Torah and say to yourselves, ‘That belongs to me! That’s my Torah!’” It was a lot for them to comprehend, but even they knew it was true. The power of that day was found in the treasure of Torah that was beyond all the treasures they ever had the luxury of owning. That episode in their life became epochal as it linked them to the heritage of our people.

                For me, the power of that moment illuminated the meaning of passing Torah to our children. It’s easy to pass Torah to children who “get it” and who appreciate what it means to “hold it fast.” It’s a pleasure to give them Torah and to watch them reach new heights in their life because of it. And, while it’s not as easy to bring children to Torah who are less interested, it’s a huge achievement to persist in helping children grow inside and out, as they grasp each Hebrew letter and each new insight in their Torah portions. Sometimes we actually wipe our brow when such days end; but, not because we’re happy they’re over. We wipe our brows because the “work is long, the day is short, and God is waiting.” It’s a mitzvah to learn and to teach Torah. Some children just help us earn our mitzvah through extraordinary effort!

                Torah is meant for the living, and not only for children. Torah is meant for all of at any age. You and I have to embrace our Jewish inheritance, too. Moses said to the Israelites, and by extension, to us, that God’s covenant is fresh and alive as long as it lives with us. So, take a moment to ask yourself, “What have I done about the covenant lately?” I ask myself the same question especially before the New Year. Just like many other parts of our life that we need to keep current, fresh and interesting, we need to keep the covenant fresh, too. How would you answer the question for yourself this week? Would you go about answering it in the New Year?

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

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