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06/27/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
June 28, 2013


The last day in June holds particular interest for me. You see, it’s the beginning of my vacation and I look forward to it for many reasons. Here are my top 3 reasons:

1.     My family needs my full attention: Lisa and my children, though mostly grown up (23, 21, 20 & 15), have learned over many years about my meetings, hospital visits, funerals and weddings. But, they’ve also learned that they can reach me immediately by phone or text, as long as I’m not at the graveside or under the chuppah. Even if I have to call them back, they know that they won’t get my voicemail. While on vacation, they have my full attention without having to wait in any line of any kind. I like it, too.

2.     I need a change of scenery. The drive from Bellaire to North Braeswood means I’m never stuck in traffic on the way to and from Temple, so I’m not complaining. But, summer time also means choosing mountains over flat terrain and cool, thin air over humidity. In higher elevations, we hike, fish, eat and commune. It’s a respite that I’m eager to enjoy with Lisa and dear friends very soon.

3.     I welcome time to read and write. My favorite pastime is reading a good book in a comfortable chair with a cup of strong black coffee within reach. With a pencil in one hand, and despite past librarians’ warnings not to write in books, I put checkmarks and make reference notes about ideas I want to remember in the books I own. I like to open my laptop, too, and write notes for sermons, articles, and chapters I’m preparing. Without deadlines or obligations, reading and writing for pleasure are inexpensive ways to get away.

As a rabbi, I also look forward to Shabbat while on vacation. Away from the bimah, Shabbat still happens wherever we go. Candles, wine and bread travel easily. With Lisa and friends, we can welcome Shabbat before dinner and I can stay for the whole evening. But, this year, we can also attend services with you by Live-Streaming at

                One of the activities that I’ll continue to enjoy is sharing my weekly blog with you. In past years, I’ve blogged about my fishing adventures – whitefish on the Elk River – and some of my hiking excursions – 11,500 feet up Aspen Mountain. You might be asking yourself, “I didn’t know David fished and hiked!?” Don’t get carried away. I can throw a fair line into the water and I can carry a back-pack full of water and trail mix on my back, but I’m best at smiling for the camera. Look carefully; they’re all “before” photos. The “after” photos following a half-day of fishing on the river, or 4 hours of hiking up the mountain are stored in a vault deep in the hills of Tennessee.

                Back in a comfortable chair, I find my real peace. Vacations are many things to many people, and when I’m away I like to try new things to stimulate my senses and to show that I’m really a good sport. But, vacations are also time to do the things that I don’t have enough time to do the rest of the year. So, forgive me if it sounds like a dull afternoon with a book and a cup of coffee; but, some days it’s like heaven to me.

                I’ll see you on Shabbat this week and then I’m off. Rabbi Adrienne Scott and Rabbi Mark Miller will be on the bimah and on-call. Have a restful summer. Thank you for the time away. I look forward to seeing you in August, refreshed and armed with stories from the wilderness (or something like that).

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

06/20/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
June 21, 2013


The Torah portion this week has a great cast of characters including God, Balak, king of Moab, and Balaam, the diviner of blessings and curses, and an enlightened ass. The Israelites appear but they have no speaking part in this portion. God represents them. Now, whereas the Torah portion leaves the Israelites out of the events taking place between God, Balak, Balaam, and a talking ass, the Haftarah (the Prophetic reading for this Shabbat),  makes the Israelites not only aware of God, it also makes them immediately grateful for God’s role in their journey.

                The Prophet Micah (8th c BCE) said to the Israelites, “Remember what Balak, king of Moab, plotted against You, and how Balaam responded to him, and you will recognize the gracious acts of the Lord.” Seeing that their safe journey in the past and now in Judah could be due to God’s handiwork, Micah addresses the Israelite’s response with increasingly powerful rhetorical questions, “With what shall I approach the Lord: Do homage to God on high?” “Shall I approach him with burnt offerings? Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriads of streams of oil? Should I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for my own sin?”

                Micah builds this literary tension and then delivers the punch, “It has been told you, O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you – only this: to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

                The brilliance of Micah’s contribution to Israelite life and Judaism’s future is an unprecedented departure from personal and physical sacrifices to God. Now the unblemished deed is as important as the unblemished sacrifice. After the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians, the southern kingdom of Judah was now threatened. Micah believed that if Judah’s leaders didn’t mind God, they would be destroyed. Their salvation wouldn’t be found in sacrifices, but in deeds, and not magnanimous deeds, but in deeds of social justice.

                Justice. Mercy. Humility. These three values would be enough to assuage God’s wrath and earn God’s love. These three values are timeless and timely. They are the way forward for us, too. In our complex world of insurgencies and war, we cannot expect to rid the world of them with mere acts of human kindness. But, I would contend that we can extinguish disharmony in families and communities where there isn’t bloodshed and war with nothing more than justice, mercy and humility. The issues that tear apart our own city, including homelessness and hunger, are served by leaders who face issues like these squarely and then serve them honestly and fairly. They don’t seek God’s input or wait for God’s call; rather, they consider the human capacity for goodness and then, even under duress of political and economic circumstances, make decisions that serve most of the people most of the time.

                Judaism’s contribution to civilization is profound. The Hebrew prophet, Micah, is one of the simplest to comprehend. He speaks for God and demonstrates that serving God requires not much more than striving to reach our highest human potential through deeds. It’s just as we learn in Pirkei Avot (Saying of the Fathers), “If one’s wisdom exceeds one’s deeds; one’s wisdom will not endure. If one’s deeds exceed one’s wisdom; one’s wisdom will endure.” It’s all about deeds. What example will you set this week? How will you show your gratitude for the blessings in your life? When will you do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God?

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

06/13/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
June 14, 2013


                “Because I said so!” If we’re parents or persons of authority, then we’ve said it once or twice even though we knew it wasn’t a reasoned response to one’s demands. In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1), or “that portion about the Red Heifer,” we also find a command that isn’t reasoned or rational. Considered one of the most mysterious rulings in Torah, the ritual of the Red Heifer goes like this: Anyone who has been in contact with a dead body is unclean and must be purified. This is done by sprinkling a person with the ashes of an unblemished red heifer. The sprinkling has a purifying effect, but those who handle the ashes are impure until nightfall. So, the ashes purify the unclean, and make impure the clean. If you’re scratching your head now, then you’re exhibiting a traditional response to this portion of Torah.

                The Rabbis scoured the text for a rationale for these rules. Ultimately, they concluded that these rules were instituted to test Israel’s unconditional obedience to God. A Midrash tells it another way. There once was a man who came to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and asked about this ritual of the Red Heifer. The Rabbi gave him a rationale and a reason for the ritual, but later admitted to his students that it was truly a mystery. After all, the dead were not impure and the ashes were not purifying! But the Rabbi said, “This is what God has decreed, and you may not transgress God’s law.” Part of the mystery lies in the contradiction between life and death. We learn, “They are eternally linked and eternally in tension, and whoever touches them touches both purity and impurity at the same time.”

                In some Jewish religious communities mourning rituals remain a matter of great importance. Certain people are allowed to come close to the dead and others are prohibited. Some wash their hands as they leave the cemetery or before they enter a Shiva house (mourner’s home). All are means of minding the “eternal tension” or boundary between life and death. In our Reform Jewish community we are also mindful of that eternal tension when we deal rationally with the subjects of life and death. Before, during and after a funeral, we de-emphasize the mysterious issues of ritual impurity and purity, and focus on providing dignity to the deceased and comfort to the mourners.

                 “Because I said so!” could have been a verse from this Torah portion. With much less authority than God, who commanded Moses and the Israelites, we would do well to resist the temptation to be autocratic without reason. In our moments of commanding we should give reasoned and rational messages. Our goal should be to build consensus where we can, and even where we cannot, we should strive to maintain dignity in our households and our workplaces. Begin with a more thoughtful tone and more respectful words. It’s easier to hear an authoritative voice when it’s quiet, than when it bellows in anger and fury. Now, just in case you were going to open some books to explore more deeply the mystery of the Red Heifer, the Midrash teaches us that Solomon, who was wiser than all others, studied this verse and admitted, “I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me.” Some things simply are the way they are.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

(reprinted by request)

06/06/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
June 7, 2013


                Korach was a rebel. He led a rebellion against God and Moses, and lost. Torah explains that Korach lost because of his lack of faith in God. That’s not to say that perfect faith would have enabled him to win in his battle against God and Moses. There are other leaders in Torah who questioned God’s authority and lived to tell the story. The earth didn’t swallow up Abraham when he argued on behalf of the innocents in Sodom and Gomorrah, and Moses wasn’t consumed by fire when he became incensed with the Israelites’ complaints. What’s the difference between Korach and Abraham and Moses?

                The difference is their faith. Korach had none. He stood outside the boundaries of a community of faith and dared to overthrow its rulers and its mission. The earth that opened to swallow him up was the ultimate demonstration of the line that divided Korach from the people and their God. Abraham stood up against God, too, but not to overthrow God or to lead the people in his own direction. Rather, Abraham defended the few people who remained innocent and deserved to be saved from destruction. And, while Moses was a faithful servant who knew God “face-to-face” he came to God to plead for God’s help, guidance, patience, and finally, God’s mercy. Moses labored to discover truth and wisdom within the framework of a sacred community that was in formation. He didn’t abandon the people; he demanded their submission to God’s will.

                Living within boundaries is more than complying with the norms they represent. It also means applying pressure to those boundaries to clarify truth and wisdom. Abraham did it. Moses did it. Korach did not do it. Do we?

                Let’s consider the sacred boundary of marriage. Within it we live and love, and we’re supposed to keep living and loving for a lifetime. But, if a marriage doesn’t include faith in the boundary of marriage then it will disintegrate when it’s tested. However, if faith in the boundary is present, then it will withstand the pressure of disagreements and challenges we face in life. A silver or golden anniversary is not about celebrating the test of time; it’s more about the resilience of two people in a sacred relationship who keep faith within sacred boundaries.

                Let’s consider Judaism, today. To doubting Jews, young and old, I have often said, “Ask, doubt, and question, but do so within the boundaries of Judaism. Faith in one God, or even the possibility of God (for those who are uncertain), will sustain any pressure you apply to Jewish boundaries. The result: Your Judaism will deepen.” Abraham and Moses are models of faithful challengers. Korach, on the other hand, well, let’s just say he couldn’t “fathom” Judaism.

                The boundaries of Judaism are durable. Push on them with all your heart, and soul, and might, and discover what you can know. This summer, read a Jewish book, attend Shabbat Summer services at 6:30pm, go to Torah study on Shabbat morning at 9:45am, and make Shabbat blessings at home with family and friends. Between Korach’s rebellion and Moses’ faith there is a lot of room for us to find our way. Don’t be like Korach who had no faith; and don’t strive to be like Moses – there was only one. Be the best you, and find meaning in your Judaism, today.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


(This article was repeated by request)

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