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05/30/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 31, 2013


                At one time or another, all of us have said, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Did you know that it comes from as least 442 BCE, when it was first expressed by Sophocles? It was also part of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” (1598). It could have also come from Torah, in the Book of Numbers. In this week’s portion, messengers were challenged to scout out the Promised Land and report back to the Israelites what they found there. All but two of the scouts came back and said, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:32ff).

                These messengers brought back a report that condemned the whole search process and doomed the people’s faith that God would deliver them to the Promised Land. In case you didn’t know, the ten men who failed in their duty to convey their faith in God, were killed by plague. I’m sorry to disappoint you. However, Joshua and Caleb stood out among the men who returned. They reported an encouraging outlook that upheld God’s sanctity and the people’s ambition to enter the Promised Land. Caleb said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). Furthermore, Joshua and Caleb said to the people, “The land is exceedingly good; [it is] a land that flows with milk and honey…” (Numbers 14:7-8).

                 Many commentaries have been written to explore whether the messengers were accurate but irresponsible, or if Joshua and Caleb were committing an early version of “bait and switch.” Do you think Joshua and Caleb were overstating their observations only to encourage the people forward? Do you think the other messengers were condemned too quickly for their accurate report? The fairest and most appropriate answer is often found somewhere in the middle. In this case, we also have to consider one more possibility: God’s presence was at work in the Biblical account. Human fear and anxiety were real, but so was God’s promise to the people. With their faith in God, Joshua and Caleb represented their claims truthfully. There was no stopping the people from entering and possessing the Land as long as God went with them, and God did.

                Such faith still inspires people. How many “Promised Lands” have you thought about entering in your lifetime? How many forks in the road have you encountered? You didn’t move forward because you thought you were doomed. You moved forward because you believed that the next step was going to be better than your alternatives. Perhaps you found your way because you believed that God would be with you there. Perhaps you found your way because you simply believed that you made a tough but good decision. Either way, somewhere down deep you hoped. You hoped and even prayed a little that you made the right choice. Both are connected to the faith you place in the “still small voice” within you.

                Yogi Berra would say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And Torah teaches us that when you and I come to a fork in the road, we don’t have to condemn the circumstances. Instead, listen closely for the “still small voice,” which is the hope that resides within all of us. Then, with faith, choose wisely and say, as did Joshua and Caleb, “Let us by all means go up!”

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

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05/23/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 24, 2013


                Open up your TaNaCh, your Hebrew Bible, to Numbers 12. It’s one of my favorite portions, because it begins with the familial conflict between Moses, Miriam and Aaron, and ends with the prayer that Moses offers on his sister’s behalf. To me, the prayer that Moses offers is one of the most beautiful in Torah. The conflict begins when Miriam and Aaron speak against their brother, Moses, “because of the Cushite woman he had married.” God punishes Miriam and Aaron. Miriam is “stricken with snow-white scales!” At first, Aaron pleads on her behalf to Moses:


“O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as a one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.” (Numbers 12:11-12)


Then, in the simplest of words, Moses turns to God and prays for his sister, “O God, pray heal her!” (Numbers 12:13). In Hebrew, the prayer is beautiful and alliterative, “El nah, r’fah nah lah!” The Hebrew is also poetic and simple. It makes its point. The English, while terse, also teaches us that prayer is not always about poetry. Sometimes, it’s about our gut reaction and direst needs. “Please God, heal her,” is the shortest and most demanding prayer in Torah. It’s remarkable in its brevity and its efficacy. Though Miriam is shut out of the camp for seven days to heal from her infirmity, the camp does not move on until Miriam returns to it safely and cleansed.

                The ease with which we can come to prayer is a stunning invitation that comes to us in adulthood. Far from the pews where we recited prayers by rote for our teachers when we were young, prayer is available to us in the pew, at home, in the hospital, and along the way. If we choose to use them, written prayers and services provide structure and focus that can be familiar and helpful. They are welcome because we recall them from memory and understand their purpose. But they are not and cannot be our sole source of prayers. Prayers of the heart or “Tefilat HaLev” are the prayers that grow out of our personal needs and our relationship with God. Sometimes, without knowing where else to turn, we utter what is in our hearts and souls. This is when, as it was for Moses, poetry isn’t required, only sincerity is needed.

                In words we are given in our prayerbooks and in words of our own hearts, God responds in kind to what we can offer. Life is ultimately what we make of it. As Shabbat nears and we wrestle with stubborn challenges that are unresolved, consider your own need to plead, to shout, and to pray to the One who hears prayer. Immediacy and honesty, without poetry, can reveal the struggle and helplessness. Pray for God’s presence to nurture and sustain, and to guide the hands of those who help in physical, emotional and spiritual healing. Pray for understanding and relief; and pray for peace.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


Excerpted from “God of Me: Imagining God throughout Your Lifetime” Rabbi David Lyon (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011).

05/16/2013 09:55 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 17, 2013


The HPD arrested the perpetrator who threatened Beth Israel two weeks ago. A 32 year-old African American, who claimed that blacks are the true Jewish people and threatened the safety of our congregational community, was arrested and his bond was set at $115,000. His phoned-in threat on May 1st, which was made public in the recent news report of his arrest, was sinister and terroristic. Today, the whole Houston community is safer with him off the street. The HPD is to be commended for their role. Upon hearing the news of an arrest, the ADL made the following statement:

“From the moment the bomb threats were reported to the Houston Police Department and the FBI, it was clear they took the threats very seriously,” said ADL Southwest Regional Director Martin B. Cominsky. “They immediately worked to ensure the safety of the institutions and people involved, and apparently moved quickly to identify and arrest a suspect. We understand the hard work of the Houston Police Department’s Hate Crimes Division was instrumental in solving this case, and we’d like to thank them and others involved. Law enforcement has sent a clear message that these types of threats will be thoroughly investigated and won’t be tolerated.”


                There is no “us” and “them” in Houston. As long as I’ve served in Houston, there has never failed to be an interfaith network of clergy and religious institutions. Together, we’ve demonstrated that those who can accommodate a universal ethic by reaching beyond particular religious teachings will be the beneficiaries of all this city has to offer. In this environment, all who bear witness to their faiths through worship and deeds will find fertile ground for spiritual growth and well-being. There is no need to conquer each other and there is no place for hate among us.

                If you are new to interfaith possibilities, I urge you to do some internet reading. Here are three websites that I recommend to you and organizations you should consider joining.


       (Southwest Anti-Defamation League)

       (American Jewish Committee Houston)

       (Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston)


                Congregation Beth Israel stands with all faith traditions and their respective houses of worship to combat hate and to build understanding. Let us bring honor to God, not by loving God and hating our neighbors; but by loving God by loving our neighbors.

                As Shabbat comes into our hearts and our homes, let us rest easier knowing that justice prevails in Houston, our city and our home. Baruch Atah Adonai, thank You, God, for the men and women who work on our behalf to restore justice and safety. Baruch Atah Adonai, thank You, God, for the blessing of peace.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

05/09/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 10, 2013


It wasn’t too long ago that we sat at our Seder tables to tell the story of slavery and the Exodus. When the Seder was over we began to count the days leading up to Shavuot. We count 50 days from Passover to Shavuot, from redemption to revelation. Shavuot (or Feast of Weeks), is also known as “Zeman Matan Torateinu” or the season of the giving of Torah. The evening before Shavuot, Erev Shavuot, is reserved for study in preparation for the Festival holiday. Erev Shavuot prepares the body and mind to receive Torah.

                Previously, in Exodus, we read about the momentous occasion when the Ten Commandments were revealed on Sinai. In Midrash, we learn about the preparations for that day and the manner in which Torah was given. Principally, Torah was given openly to all who stood there that day and those who did not stand there that day. God made the covenant with all those who embraced the covenant then and now. Torah was offered to other peoples of the earth, but only the Israelites made a solemn commitment and said in one voice, “Na’aseh v’nishma” we will faithfully do all that is commanded. They said “Na’aseh” we will do first; and, then they said, “nishma” we will learn and understand it. So faithful were they that they accepted God’s words before they ever understood them. Having come so far, after 430 years of bondage in Egypt, by God’s outstretched arm and by signs and portents, they were more than eager to accept the covenant and its promise for life and peace.

                The tradition of preparing for the day of giving and receiving Torah continues. It is known by a special name, “Tikkun Leil Shavuot”. It involves the custom of spending the night of Shavuot studying our tradition beginning with Torah. This custom began in the 16th century by Kabbalists (mystics) in Safed. The actual Tikkun originally consisted of a set order of text study, including selections from the Bible and from rabbinic and mystical literature. Kabbalists believed that the giving of the Ten Commandments symbolized the marriage between God and Israel and that by studying the evening before Shavuot (the time of the giving of the Torah), they were symbolically preparing Israel to enter into a sacred relationship with God.

                Today, “Tikkun Leil Shavuot” helps intensify and personalize the experience of revelation for contemporary Jews. By studying Torah, as well as Talmudic, mystical, and modern texts, including consideration of our own interpretations, we learn that revelation continues throughout Jewish history down to this very day.

                At Congregation Beth Israel, Rabbi Miller and Rabbi Judith Abrams will lead a “Tikkun Leil Shavuot” program on Tuesday evening, May 14th, beginning at 7:00pm. A brief worship service, Talmud study with Rabbi Abrams, a dessert reception, and engaging discussion will set the tone and prepare us for the Festival holiday. On Wednesday, May 15th, at 10:30am in the Gordon Chapel, we will observe Shavuot and Yikzor. Cantor Mutlu will highlight the service with special music for Hallel, the praises we sing on Festival holidays.

                Shabbat is near. May this week be filled with greater peace for you and your family. May you find peace in Torah teachings and the privilege to embrace the covenant personally through acts of lovingkindness.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

05/02/2013 05:19 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 3, 2013


When a bomb threat reaches one’s front door as it did this past week at Congregation Beth Israel, I grow more deeply concerned about what I’m observing in our nation. The pace at which threats and acts of terror have been unleashed is quickening. Bigger, “badder” and bloodier seems to be the moniker of these brazen criminals. Their schemes are less predictable and their effects are more destructive. Thankfully, nothing happened at Beth Israel or anywhere on our campus.

                In every age, there have been zealots for causes. The prototypical zealot was the biblical Phineas (Pinchas), who slayed Zimri, the prince of Israel, and the Moabite woman with whom Zimri had relations in the presence of all the people (Numbers 25:1-15). On this verse, Talmud teaches, “Zealots slay one who has relations with a (foreign) woman, [but this is] a law that must not be taught.” Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs further taught that “If a man has to ask whether his fanaticism is lawful; if, that is, he has to weigh up his actions beforehand and is sufficiently calm to do this; then…he is to be blamed for his fanaticism.” He concludes, “The idea appears to be that fanaticism, especially when it flies in the teeth of Jewish values, is to be rejected.”

                Memory is short. Just one-hundred years ago, self-proclaimed anarchists, including Emma Goldman, aimed their sights and bombs on New York, Chicago, and cities in-between. In the 1960’s, fanatics used bombs to prevent integration in the south. At the same time, it was debated whether or not fanatics were at the root of protests against the war in Vietnam. Ultimately, some peace prevailed. For some 30 years, until Oklahoma City and then 9/11, America was a nation at peace within its own borders. Now, a new age of fanaticism has returned.

                In particular, religious fanaticism has reigned. In the wrong hands, the Bible has been used by perpetrators to feel power when they felt weak, and to feel relevant when they felt insignificant. Relatively normal people become tyrants who rail against their perception of what is wrong with their world; not the world, in general, but their world which they can’t master. Their fears are not always misplaced, but their resolutions are.

                If religious fanatics would read more of their Bible and not just the Five Books of Moses or the Gospels in the Christian Bible, they would come to Ecclesiastes, who, himself, raised the quintessential complaint, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity! What value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun?” (Ecc. 1:1), and later surmised, “And, so I loathed life. For I was distressed by all that goes on under the sun, because everything is futile and pursuit of wind” (Ecc. 2:17). He hated life and proposed to destroy it. Yet against such fanatics and haters of life, Ecclesiastes also urged, “Be not righteous overmuch” (Ecc. 7:16). In other translations it is rendered, “So don’t overdo goodness and don’t act the wise man to excess, or you may be dumbfounded.”

                A 20th century old-fashioned industrialist once said to me, “Desperate people are dangerous; so, give them something.” Beyond Bibles, our nation’s leaders need to address a lack of safety nets to rescue desperate individuals long before they become threats to others and themselves. Desperate individuals need constructive means to be helped and heard, limited access to deadly devices and materials, and real personal power, not just hope, to build a viable economic future.

                Our best efforts built on what we know is right and good can turn irrational fears into reasonable challenges to be resolved through constructive solutions. The unintentional byproduct might also reclaim the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, as a timeless source of wisdom, not vanity.

                May this Shabbat and the week to come be filled with greater peace. Shabbat Shalom.

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