01/30/2014 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 31, 2014


                In Exodus 25, we begin the weekly Torah portion, Terumah. This is the portion that describes the building project for God’s wilderness Tabernacle. God tells Moses to say to the Israelites, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him” (Exodus 25:2). The Hebrew words “asher yidvenu libo” explain the voluntary spirit. Yidvenu means that the quantity of the gift, and whether or not a gift was given at all, was voluntary. Therefore, everybody who donated was called a Nadiv, a noble contributor. Next the people were directed to take all the voluntary contributions and make a Tabernacle, a dwelling place for God. God said, “Make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).

                The voluntary contributions made everyone a stakeholder in the wilderness sanctuary. And every noble contributor was regarded as a member of the covenant. Furthermore, the building project created a wilderness Tabernacle that made it possible for God to move with the people wherever they went. God didn’t remain on Mount Sinai; rather, the covenant bound God and the Israelites to go together.

                Traditionally, the words from Exodus 25:8, have been inscribed on the walls of synagogues. They are a reference to the Torah verse and the meaning of establishing a Tabernacle wherever Jews settled. It’s part of our on-going expectation that God surely did not remain on Mount Sinai. Indeed, the citation from Exodus 25:8, affirmed the hope that wherever the Jewish people lived, there would be a Tabernacle, a sanctuary wherein the Jewish community would find God’s presence. So, the Torah portion and the familiar verse represent not only the past when God dwelt in the wilderness Tabernacle, but also the present when our generation brings God along wherever we go.

                Now, it becomes clear why the Jewish home is also called a “Mikdash Me’at” a small sanctuary. It’s a sacred place where God’s presence can be found with us and our family. Oftentimes, the synagogue is regarded as the most important institution in Jewish life, but it isn’t. The Jewish home is the most vital part of the Jewish community. I’ve often said, ‘If Judaism isn’t happening at home; it isn’t happening.” We can’t lay the responsibility for Jewish living solely on the synagogue. It’s a resource of everything we need, but not the bearer of our personal Jewish responsibilities.

                Judaism is unique in its emphasis on God’s approachability. There is no intermediary in Judaism. God isn’t only in the synagogue, or as some children grow up to believe, in the Holy Ark. God is everywhere and immediate. God is in the synagogue, in the home, and especially in the heart. We build a beautiful and sacred synagogue. We put a mezuzah on our home, and we value our body as a vessel that houses the soul; therefore, it shouldn’t be a mystery why we should keep our body healthy, we shouldn’t pierce our body beyond repair, and we shouldn’t tattoo it as if it were a coloring book.

                God is with us everywhere we go. Our contributions to synagogue, home and body, tell much about our “noble” character. Everybody who brings contributions to support Jewish life, whether a little or a lot, is a noble contributor. That’s the beauty of mitzvah; it’s not for the sake of the reward, but for the sake of the mitzvah. This week, bring God with you wherever you go. Make room for God in the synagogue, at home with you, and in your heart along the way.


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01/24/2014 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 24, 2014


This past week I was in Memphis, Tennessee. It was our annual regional conference for Reform rabbis of the southwest region known as SWARR (Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis). Memphis proved to be a poignant place to meet. We gathered just a day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Though we missed the speeches and major gatherings, we didn’t miss the distinction that Memphis has as a place in which civil rights were challenged and defined.

            My colleague, Rabbi Micah Greenstein, was our local host though we stayed and held most of our meetings at The Peabody Hotel. The historic hotel proved to be a magnificent location and a perfect center from which to enjoy Memphis at its best. The March of the Ducks was especially entertaining between study sessions. Imagine the march of reform rabbis to the lobby to watch the historic march of the ducks. With much fanfare the Duck Master explained the history and described what we would see. In red coat and staff in hand, he walked the red carpet to the elevators to retrieve the ducks. We watched as the elevator numbers went up and then down. As the doors opened in the lobby, the ducks marched out onto the red carpet and waddled their way straight to the fountain. They were at home in the fountain water much more than they were on the red carpet. We applauded and enjoyed being part of a small moment in Memphis history.

            At Temple Israel, Rabbi Greenstein and his lay leadership welcomed us into their beautiful synagogue building, led us in evening worship, and invited us to a delicious dinner. We felt as much at home there as we do in our own synagogues. On our last day, Rabbi Greenstein met us at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, the site where Dr. King was assassinated. Rabbi Greenstein, who has served on their Board for 20 years, introduced the movie “Witness” which we watched in rapt attention. Witnesses to the era and the assassination spoke to us in the movie about those days and what they meant and continue to mean. From there we walked to the museum which is housed in the building from which James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot that would take down the man but not the dream. Finally, we made our way across the street, as if following the trajectory of that shot, to the balcony where Dr. King, himself, stood on that fateful day. We climbed the stairs and looked through the window to view the room where he and his colleagues stayed and talked before they exited the room for the balcony. It was beyond eerie; it was beyond words to describe how it felt to stand there, looking over the balcony just as he did. What could one say? Rabbi Rick Block, President of the CCAR, who joined us for the conference, suggested that we recite Kaddish. Together, Reform rabbis who treasure the legacy of Dr. King and our own colleagues who, in their day, marched with Dr. King and stood for the rights of all men and women, recited Kaddish on the balcony outside Room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel.

            I returned home late Thursday evening. I reflected on the week that passed and the conference I shared with my colleagues. Turning to the Torah this Shabbat, we pick up where we left off in Exodus; such a poignant juxtaposition to the experiences we had in Memphis. The journey from slavery to freedom was captured in King’s final speech called the “Mountain Top Speech”. In it he said, “And, He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”

On that night, King was prophetic; for it wasn’t long after that he was slain. Let us continue to dream and follow the road that Dr. King paved for us to build a nation and a world where all people can be free, free to build a future of peace between people.

01/16/2014 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 17, 2014


Last Sunday, I sat with my family on the bimah in the sanctuary. Sitting beside us was the Sofer, the Hebrew scribe, who guided us to hold onto the quill, recite a Hebrew blessing, and touch the parchment to complete a letter in the new Torah. Alone with the scribe and in a moment he told us was open to God to hear our prayer and personal wishes, we were emotionally and spiritually moved. Tears came to our eyes.

                The letter we completed was the letter “shin”. The Sofer explained to us that this letter is also the letter that comes from the word “Sh’leimut” which means wholeness and completeness. I knew that, but sitting with my family before the Torah, it took on a completely new meaning. Our family, like yours, has had joys and sorrows, but there was no mistaking our sense of wholeness in that moment we sat together.

                Joan Alexander, a dear friend and benefactor of our congregation and community, completed the first letter of the entire Torah. You probably already know that it’s the letter “bet”, the first letter of the Hebrew word “Bereisheet” which means “in the beginning”. It was a perfect letter for Joan who represented her family that day. The letter “bet” is closed on three sides and open only on the side that faces towards the interior of the Torah. To know Joan and her husband, Stanford, is to know that their deeds are always reflective of Torah. In addition, the letter “bet” is the first letter of the Hebrew word “Beracha” which means “blessing”. A perfect fit.

                As other families took their place on the bimah for a private encounter with the Sofer to touch the quill and complete a letter in the Torah, a picture was taken, a few personal words were recorded, and the event became part of each family’s personal Jewish experience. Following each visit with the Sofer, families entered the social hall to experience meaningful and engaging learning opportunities at various tables filled with crafts, lessons, and experiences.

                Hundreds of people were present and I hope that you were among them. If you weren’t there you still have many opportunities to come to the bimah and complete a letter in the Torah. You can’t imagine what it can mean until you participate in the experience for yourself. Please go to and sign up for a date to come with your family to lend a hand and your blessing to the People’s Torah in honor of Beth Israel’s 160th Anniversary. The next date that the Sofer will be here is February 9th, but he will return every month through November 2014, except July and August.

                My sincerest hope is that you will consider participating in writing a letter in the Torah. There is no cost involved. Only if you wish to so, a donation enables you to dedicate a letter, verse, portion or book of Torah in memory of honor of someone dear to you with a gift to Beth Israel in honor of our 160th Anniversary. Think about it. If you’d like help to identify a part of Torah that speaks to you, please call on our rabbis or speak with our Sofer. Consider what you can do to “Be a Blessing” and make 2014 (5744) the year to lend your heart and your hand to the future of Jewish identity and Jewish living.

01/09/2014 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 10, 2014


Hanging in my father’s office was an animated ink-drawing of a person walking down a hill heading into a body of water while holding a sign that read “Forward!” Whenever I visited his office I found the message to be ripe with cynicism and deeply profound. In my father’s office it was a completely appropriate animation. He was a hard worker who labored every day as an architect to bring in business while hopelessly dependent on the cyclical economy and fickle clients. Following the path of the morose sign-bearer made an average day seem alright despite the despairing expectation of arriving at the water’s edge. That was my father, deeply realistic and cautiously optimistic.

                In the Book of Exodus this week we read the familiar story about the Israelites who followed Moses to the Red Sea as they escaped Pharaoh’s Egypt and his warriors. Now standing at the water’s edge, they encountered a deep reality that the waters were the only way forward but also their salvation. Torah doesn’t describe mob mentality at the water’s edge. No one was pushing and screaming to jump into the Sea. Rather, Midrash explains that one person stepped in first to show the way for others to do the same. His name was Nachshon (NACH-shown). Though Torah explains that an angel of God and a pillar of cloud stood between the Egyptians and the Israelites, there still had to be one person who took the first step. Nachshon is remembered as the one who demonstrated that the waters, while deep, would be their salvation, and indeed they were.

                On Sunday, January 12th at 10:00am in the sanctuary, we’ll enter the depths of Torah as we scribe the first letters of the first words of Torah, beginning with Bereisheet “In the beginning”. This foray into the People’s Torah project requires a fair amount of realism and optimism, too. Realism, because building Jewish identity and belonging requires personal and courageous steps to attach oneself to something as enduring as Torah in Judaism. Optimism, because the current dearth of good news about Jewish identity and belonging must motivate us to take up the challenge of our day much like our ancestors did in theirs and prepare for tomorrow with faith that Judaism really matters.

                On Sunday, January 12th at 10:00am in the sanctuary, come for a special opening program where you’ll meet Rabbi Salazar, the Sofer (scribe), and observe Joan and Stanford Alexander place their hands on the quill to scribe the very first letter of the Torah. Joan and Stanford are pillars of our community and stewards of Beth Israel by way of their deeds and wisdom. Like Nachshon, they’re showing us the way forward with faith that the ink we dip into to write a Torah for Beth Israel will be our hope and salvation, too. Come be part of this special day, hear from those who remember Dr. Barnston, family members of Rabbi Dr. Schachtel, personal words from Rabbi Sam and Joan Karff, and from me and my wife, Lisa.

                The Torah project in honor of Beth Israel’s 160th Anniversary is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Be there at the beginning. Join us throughout the year. Arrive at the culminating program next December when we celebrate the completion of the People’s Torah and say that you made the journey with us from the water’s edge to the future we’ll build together.


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01/02/2014 12:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

January 3, 2014

I read it in the Houston Chronicle on New Year’s Day that the word “awesome” isn’t awesome any more. I can have the word back. That’s really good news for people like me who depend on that word to describe things that really are awesome. I look forward to using it again if only sparingly. I’ll use it like a choice word to describe only those ideas, images or things that represent our highest standards and most unique experiences. For example, in the wedding service we like to say, “O most awesome, glorious and blessed God, grant your blessings to the bride and groom.” That’s where “awesome” belongs, but for a long time it felt trite. Teenagers had co-opted the word to describe everything from new sneakers to pizza delivery. It rendered the wedding words ridiculous. It didn’t help my image, either. When the rabbi uses the word “awesome” but he’s the only one who knows that it originated in sacred texts and not with teenagers, it’s hard to explain to a congregation or audience that he was just being rabbinic.

Happy to have the word back again, here are a few examples of how the word is used in truly sacred times and occasions. “Awesome” is used in the Amidah (Tefilah), the central prayer in our worship services. The Hebrew word is “Norah” and when it’s translated we read it in context, “We praise you, Adonai our God, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob…great, mighty and awesome God, God supreme.” It fits perfectly here as a rising crescendo of praise to God while standing to recite it.

On the High Holidays we further enhance our praises to God. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, at the Holy Ark, while holding onto the Torah, we add the word “Norah” to our praise and exaltations. Upon removing the Torah from the Holy Ark, we sing Shema followed by “Echad Eloheinu…Kadosh v’Norah Shemo” Our God is One, Adonai is great; holy and awesome is God’s name” Another example On Yom Kippur is found in the concluding service (Gates of Repentance, p. 508). There we sing “El Norah Alilah” God of awesome deeds, grant us pardon as the gates begin to close.

Beyond worship, “awesome” can still be used during times in our life that reflect God’s presence all around us. A baby being born, a couple getting married, a first anniversary, a natural wonder, or another sacred time are all appropriate occasions to exclaim “Awesome!” and really mean it.

I know that teenagers like to speak their own language, but I was disappointed when they borrowed a word that held such promise to identify sacred times when our senses were taken to new heights and we were without any other word to describe the experiences. I can think of many words to describe new sneakers, and for pizza, well, there are too many words to begin to list them. But, when it comes to God’s presence in life’s wonders there are fewer words to choose from, as it should be. In Hebrew “Norah” and in English “Awesome” we highlight God and God’s wonders in the world that are beyond description and which require special words just to begin to speak of them.

As the first week of the secular new year 2014 gets underway, keep looking for extraordinary joy, gratitude, and blessings in your life. Then, and only then, may you use the word “awesome” unsparingly!

Shabbat Shalom.

Click to email Rabbi Lyon


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