07/30/2015 12:00 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
August 1, 2015


There are few tasks that create as much anxiety as written tests. Some of us haven’t taken written tests in a long time, but nobody forgets the way they made them feel. Butterflies in the stomach. Sweaty palms. Dry mouth. After we completed school and degrees, written tests seemed like nothing compared to daily tests in our respective fields of work. Doctors’ counsels are critical tests of their ability to diagnose and heal. Architects’ calculations are measures of every building’s structural strength and integrity. Perfection is impossible 100% of the time, so an old adage reminds us, “Doctors bury their mistakes and architects plant ivy.”

                There are competency tests for almost everything, but not for matters that are closest to the heart. Personal prayer is not tested. It requires no certification. Nevertheless, it still requires sufficient preparation. There’s evidence for it in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, from Deuteronomy.

                It begins, “Va’etchanan el Adonai” I pleaded with the Lord. Moses pleaded with God. The Hebrew word, Va’etchanan, written in a reflexive grammatical form means that Moses’ pleading began on the inside. Moses prepared himself. Rabbi of Tsans used to teach, “Before I begin to pray, I pray that I may be able to pray.” To him, the efficacy of his prayer was at stake. If we understand the Hebrew word Va’etchanan correctly, the stumbling block to prayer isn’t the prayer, itself; more often it’s us. The liturgy has structure that enables us to succeed in our prayers. When we participate, even slowly at the start, we can begin to feel its purpose emerge. Understanding comes through doing; and, the rabbis and cantor lead the way every week.

                When we arrive in the chapel or sanctuary, I welcome you. I often begin by acknowledging our joys and challenges this past week. I suggest that the words we recite and the songs we sing can help us find what we need to express gratitude for our joys and know consolation in our sufferings. Alternatively, I invite you to set aside your challenges for an hour of peace and reflection as we share our prayers, together. Then we sing.

                Cantor Mutlu’s choices unite us as a worshiping congregation. A “niggun”, a song without words invites us to let go. We hum and engage. Next, a song for Shabbat turns ordinary time into sacred time. Candle lighting follows to usher in the Sabbath for us visually and spiritually. Our collective deep breath precedes Barechu, our call to worship. It says, “God, we’re ready to pray.” The prayer service unfolds as we’re guided through a retelling of our people’s relationship with God via the themes of creation, redemption, and revelation.

                Though we have been educated otherwise, the Shema is not the peak moment of the worship service. Reform Judaism elevated the importance of Shema by calling it the “Watchword of our Faith” and inviting the congregation to rise while reciting it. The real peak of the worship service is the Amidah, also known as HaTefilah, or “the prayer.” Amida means standing. At this high moment of the service we stand. In a traditional setting, the Amidah is done twice, silently and aloud. The Reform goal and accommodation was to eliminate repetition, but to make room for silent personal prayer. Thus, after the Amidah, we’re seated and invited to pray silently. The conclusion of the service includes the Aleinu and Kaddish. And, naturally, a closing song allows us to be a congregation one more time before we become many individuals again.

                Effective worship can meet many personal spiritual needs. Hundreds of people who attend or livestream with us agree that their weekly rhythm is enriched by communal prayers we sing and read. When we feel successful in our prayers it affects everything else about us. It can help us find courage when we feel defeated; know hope when we feel despair; feel humility when we are arrogant; and, grant us peace when we feel unsettled. We wish the feelings would linger for a while. They do. But, better they should come and go, so we can search for them again every day and every Shabbat. Let’s begin. May we pray that we are able to pray.

You may reach Rabbi David Lyon here.

07/23/2015 11:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
July 24, 2015


My email inbox is stuffed with articles, posts, and opinions about the P5+1 deal with Iran. It was difficult to sort them out until I devised a system to organize them. I put them into two files on my laptop. I labeled File #1, “Thoroughly Against the Deal”, and I labeled File #2, “Completely Hate the Deal”. See how easy it is when you have a system? It might appear that there’s no difference between the piles, but there really is.

                File #1 is filled with articles, posts and opinions from those who are thoroughly against the deal. That is, there is nothing about the negotiated deal that meets any of the criteria preferred by pro-Israel groups, including AIPAC. For their efforts, AIPAC outlined a 5-point plan they used to inform its supporters and to lobby on Capitol Hill. Briefly, the 5-point plan demanded: 1) Inspections & verification: Inspectors must be permitted unimpeded access to suspect sites; 2) Possible military dimension: Iran must fully explain its prior weaponization efforts; 3) Sanctions: Sanctions relief must commence only after Iran complies with its commitments; 4) Duration: Iran’s nuclear weapons quest must be blocked for decades; and, 5) Dismantlement: Iran must dismantle its nuclear infrastructure so it has no path to a nuclear weapon.

                Nothing in the negotiated deal leaves the U.S., Israel, or the Middle East region more secure. Iran celebrated the deal as if nothing changed, and that’s precisely the concern held by those who are adamantly against the agreement. Iran’s hegemony in the region will embolden it in its support of terrorist groups, which threaten Israel and its timid allies including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Iran’s nuclear goals will likely raise the stakes for another cold war between nations that hold keys to nuclear weapons. Today, the difference is that the enemies are not behind “iron curtains”; they’re everywhere technology lets them in and where loose negotiations permit escalations of imminent threats. They might ask File #2, “How can the U.S. stumble into a deal with Iran, which has a proven track record of terrorism and threats against America, and which leaves Israel, America’s greatest ally in the Middle East, at risk?”

                File #2 is filled with articles, posts and opinions from those who completely hate the deal. That is, they accept the deal as it is and have no illusion that it won’t ultimately be confirmed, but they still hate it. They see it only as an achievement that brings Iran to the table. Once there, no matter how they celebrate before the news cameras, they’re now signed partners in an agreement with the P5+1 nations and will be held accountable. Netanyahu said that “a bad deal is worse than no deal.” File #2 disagrees. The late Yitzchak Rabin said, “You make peace with your enemies, not with your friends.” This is closer to the understanding of File #2, because they know that while peace isn’t in the near future, they also believe that an agreement with one’s enemies, even if they hate the deal, creates a position from which all signed parties can begin to commit. F.W. de Klerk said that you can only negotiate with reasonable people. There’s nothing reasonable about Iran, but that’s not the supposition of File #2. They reached a reasonable agreement, and to their mind, a bad deal is better than no deal. They might ask File #1, “Did you really think that the U.S. would walk away with nothing to hold over Iran?”   

                David Ben Gurion wisely said, “Everyone is an expert on the past; but no one is an expert on the future.” That’s what makes File #1 and File #2 so difficult to separate. Many of us don’t know whether to be against the deal or hate the deal, or both. Both groups will lobby during the next 60 days before the U.S. Congress votes on the deal. My advice to you is to listen, learn, repeat. In the meantime, let’s not forget File #3, the one filled with our prayers that the next generation might inherit from us a world where the difference between the first two files is irrelevant.

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

07/17/2015 12:00 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
July 17, 2015

As the week comes to a close, the reaction to the U.S.-Iran deal is opening a wave of opinions. The reactions are anticipated and in some places predictable. They also raise many questions but not as many answers. To begin, let me use my space this week to direct you to reactions that come from reputable and reliable sources, and from columnists who are widely read for their insights into such world affairs.

1)     Read the op-ed from Aaron David Miller who is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and most recently the author of "The End of Greatness: Why American Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.' He has written very timely, "Five Things to watch for in the Wake of Iran Nuclear Deal." You can read his post by clicking on this link

2)     Read the op-ed by David Horovitz who is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He has written "16 reasons nuke deal is an Iranian victory and a Western Catastrophe" which can be found by clicking here.

3)     Read the Reform Jewish Movement’s statement on the nuclear agreement with Iran by clicking Read the full statement here.

4)     Read the statements from the American Jewish Committee by visiting their website at .

Finally, my colleague and friend, Rabbi Barry Block, of Temple B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, wrote about the matter in his weekly blog. I’m pleased to cite part of his comments here as a way to measure our responses even as we digest the reality and reactions to the U.S.-Iran deal. Rabbi Block writes, “A more sober analysis, provided by Ambassador Dennis Ross yesterday for the Washington Post, and by [a] recent Temple guest JJ Goldberg for the Forward, is: 1) The nuclear weapons deal is the best for which we would have hoped, was improved by Prime Minister Netanyahu's lobbying, and can be expected to delay Iran's path to nuclear weapons, with a strong if imperfect inspections regime. 2) At least some of billions released to Iran are likely to flow to Iran's terrorist clients, threatening Israel and the Middle East. 3) Opponents of the agreement don't have and aren't offering a viable alternative. If our Congress prohibits American compliance with the agreement, our European allies, along with China and Russia, are almost certain to go forward with it anyway. A sanctions regime and assets freeze by the United States alone is not effective, as we saw before President Obama was able to persuade Germany, France, Russia, and China to join it. In other words, the agreement will almost certainly go forward, and much of the aforementioned billions will likely flow to Iran, even without U.S. participation. 4) The real question, while neither option is good, is whether preventing Iran's possessing nuclear weapons is more or less dangerous than Iran's having the means to support its terrorist allies robustly.”

Rabbi Block concludes, “I would suggest that harsh rhetoric and partisan polemic are harmful to Israel, to the United States, and to the cause of peace. I fear that our American Jewish community is poised to tear itself apart as the agreement is subjected to congressional consideration, hurling epithets at one another across a partisan divide. The demonization of one party as supposedly anti-Israel and another as reputedly war-mongering will serve short-term partisan interests but won't be good for Israel or for America. We must all do our best, with civility, to support the course that we believe will best serve the cause of peace, the well being of our nation, and the security of the State of Israel.”

The last words are far from having been written or spoken about the nuclear agreement. Let’s heed the words of those who help us find the wisest path to peace, and let us do it by respecting the words of those with whom we disagree. This is a fragile time that depends on us to seek unity among the lovers of Jews and Judaism in America and Israel.

You may reach Rabbi David Lyon here.

07/09/2015 10:06 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
July 10, 2015


Phineas or Pinchas is the name of this week’s Torah portion. You might recognize it as the Hebrew name of your father, grandfather or great-grandfather. I recall long ago men who went by the name, Pinky. I used to think that Pinky was an unusual name until I became familiar with his namesake in Torah.

                Pinchas is a Biblical personality who was known for his remarkable passion to serve God. In Numbers 25, we learn how Pinchas drove a spear through the bellies of an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who violated God’s covenant. For his zealotry, Pinchas was granted God’s “pact of friendship” or “Brit Shalom”. In addition, Pinchas and his descendants enjoyed a pact of priesthood for all time.

                In general, zealotry in Judaism is not prized. As biblical events often do, this one inspires us to value Pinchas’ role in securing the faithfulness of the Israelite people against false gods and idol worship. But, zealotry is reserved for biblical stories and extraordinary circumstances. How do we know? The word that describes Pinchas’ passion here is the same word used to describe God’s passion in Exodus 20. In the Ten Commandments, God is called “an impassioned God (a jealous God)”, “El kanah”. Here Pinchas “took impassioned action for God”, “Kinei l’Eilohav”. K-N-H is the Hebrew root that means impassioned. Pinchas acted on a level we can only find in the Bible. Furthermore, it is passion that should only be found in the Bible.

                Unfortunately, we observe zealotry in the world in the hands of modern fanatics often acting in Biblical or medieval ways. For example, IS or ISIS is passionate and frightfully dangerous. It preserves one small brand of Islam and aims to annihilate all the rest. Every religion has had fanatics including Christian crusaders of the past. But, Judaism has them, too. Orthodoxy in Israel preserves their passionate view of Jews and Judaism by delegitimizing non-orthodox Jews, with a particular focus on destroying Reform Judaism. This past week, Orthodox minister of religious services, David Azoulay of the Shas party in Israel, said that he did not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish. Prime Minister Netanyahu objected to Azoulay’s remarks but didn’t go far enough and remove him from his national position. Notwithstanding the hope for world peace, we would do well to begin with hope for peace between Jews, by acting as one Jewish people even when we interpret God and Torah, differently.

                These are not biblical times, yet Pinchas is still relevant. He still teaches us a lesson about our passion to preserve the Jewish people. Look around. In every community, by an extraordinary majority, only Jews support Jews. I am not discounting the role of CUFI, for those who know what it is, but by and large, the Jewish future still depends on Jewish passion. We, alone, maintain our Jewish institutions and way of life. Who else but Jewish families support Seven Acres Home for the Jewish Aged? Who else but Jewish families make annual pledges to Houston Jewish Federation to sustain the well-being of Judaism here, nationally and overseas? Who else but Jewish families maintain our magnificent synagogues and preserve the legacy of a congregation like Beth Israel, organized in 1854? Who else but Jewish parents and those who are raising Jewish children insist on a quality Jewish education through real study and participation? Tell me that all of this doesn’t take passion. It absolutely takes passion. We should all be moved by our duty to serve the Jewish community, here and in Israel.

                Pinchas was biblically passionate. How else was he going to make a point in Torah? You and I can be passionate, too. It would do us well. Consider the role that you can play and the contributions you can make. Let’s be sure that in our world of many peoples and ideas, there will always be a place for Jews and Judaism, and a “Brit Shalom”, a pact of friendship, for all time.


                Congregation Beth Israel’s Trip to Israel will take place May 29-June 7, 2016. Go to, to sign up now!

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

07/02/2015 02:05 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
July 3, 2015


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.

            On the 4th of July, we celebrate our nation’s freedoms and our keen ability to come together especially in changing times by holding fast to enduring values spoken by a prophet like Micah. Justice for all, mercy/compassion for our fellow human beings, and, humility to be ever mindful that only God is God, allows us to be wonderfully, wholly human and nothing more.

            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 do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God?

You may reach Rabbi David Lyon here.

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