01/28/2016 05:33 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 29, 2016


In Torah this week we read the Ten Commandments. The Tablets of the Law were given in the wilderness of Sinai. It was a wide open public space. The Law was given in public where everyone was welcomed to receive it. Why? The Rabbis teach, “In order that the [other] nations of the world should not have an excuse and say, ‘Because it was given in Israel’s land; therefore we did not accept it.’” In a public place there was no exclusive title to God’s Law and no excuse not to embrace its sacred value.

                Another explanation teaches, “To avoid causing disagreements among the tribes.” Otherwise, one might have said, “In my territory the Torah was given.” Can you imagine the sense of entitlement that would have been assumed by the tribe in whose land the Law was given? There would have been no peace between them. Instead, each of the twelve tribes was given particular roles and responsibilities in the community.

                From tribal heads to water drawer, God sealed the covenant with all of them. There they said in one voice, “Na’aseh v’nishmah” we will faithfully obey all that God commanded. A closer look at their commitment reveals that first they said “Na’aseh” which means “we will do”. Then they said “nishmah” we will hear (understand/obey). There’s nothing else in the world we’re permitted to do before we understand it; not medicine, law, teaching, psychiatry, architecture, etc. Only at Sinai do we learn that we can participate in God’s Law without first having to understand all that it means. Therefore, the rabbis concluded, “The understanding comes through the doing.”

                When a young bride asked what she was supposed to feel when she kindled the Sabbath lights on Friday night, her rabbi taught, “The understanding comes through the doing.” Week after week, she understood more about how to increase holiness in her life when she participated in the commandment “to kindle the lights of Shabbat.” As she lit the candles, drew her hands to her eyes, made a personal prayer for her family, and recited the blessing, she felt the presence of her mother and her grandmother and those who came before them. She was more than one person who kindled lights on Shabbat. She was every woman who ever kept the tradition to sanctify the Sabbath day.

                After the death of his wife, a husband asked what difference do the rites of the burial service and shiva make? The rabbis explained, “The understanding comes through the doing.” At the graveside, he lifted the heavy shovel in his hand and placed some dirt into the grave. When shiva ended he recalled the moment at the graveside when he placed dirt in the grave. He learned that it was the greatest mitzvah because his wife couldn’t do the same for him nor could she thank him. Since that day he never had any regrets about how he loved her in life, how he accompanied her to her final resting place, and how he participated in closing the grave. Now his only task was to honor her life with his own.

                Judaism is the pursuit of meaning. But, we arrive at any meaning in life through participation in life. If we studied everything we needed to know before we lived it, Judaism would wither. We are commanded to choose life and then to seek meaning in every encounter. Dr. Eugene Borowitz, world renowned Reform Jewish theologian, died this past week. In his book “Renewing the Covenant” he taught, “When we seek God as partner in every significant act we invest our doing and deciding with direction, hope, [and] worth, and where we fail, we have the possibility for repair.” Dr. Borowitz’s brilliance is found in his clarity. “Doing and deciding” come first. “Direction, hope and worth” follow as natural and obvious contributions of our obligation to a covenant we make with an unconditionally loving God. We know that God loves unconditionally because “where we fail” we have the “possibility for repair.”

                To be Jewish means that we come “pre-certified” to perform mitzvot, deeds of loving-kindness. Torah tells us that the mitzvot are “not so far that you have to send someone…to get them and bring them back and impart them to you. They are [already] in your mouth, in your heart, and in your hands [to do them].”

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

01/22/2016 10:02 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 22, 2016


There are few things that we insist our children and teens attend beyond their favorite movies, sports, and malls. That’s a shame because there are experiences they should have that can spark their inner souls and spirits. I have something you should insist on bringing your children and teens to and it requires nothing but a promise of dinner to follow.

                On Friday evening, 6:30pm in the sanctuary at Congregation Beth Israel, a must-see, must-hear event is taking place. A musical Shabbat dedicated to the music of Debbie Friedman. She was the leading innovator of contemporary Jewish liturgical and pop music who also modeled Jewish music for generations. Jewish musicians even your kids can name wouldn’t be where they are doing what they’re doing were it not for the groundbreaking soulful contributions of music and lyrics that Debbie created. A gifted, dynamic, soul searching, and spirit lifting individual, Debbie’s music inspired your rabbis and cantor, too.

                To complement the music, Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD, former President of HUC-JIR, our Reform seminary and currently its Chancellor, will speak on “Miriam, Debbie Friedman and the Voices of Women in Prayer”. Cantor Dan Mutlu will put a unique spotlight on Debbie’s music and lift our souls and our spirits as we “Sing Unto God” a new song.

                This is it! Bring your children, your teens, and your friends. I’m not encouraging you because I’m concerned about attendance. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about attendance at our synagogue services. I urge you to come because this one’s important and your children shouldn’t miss it. Neither should you. See you there and come expecting the unexpected with joy on Shabbat at Congregation Beth Israel.

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

01/15/2016 09:26 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 15, 2016


“While we’re living there’s always hope” (Talmud). To you, it might seem obvious that life equals hope, but such wisdom is found in Talmud and affirms our Jewish outlook. We learn that life, itself, is a blessing. There is no original sin in Judaism from which we have to be cleansed. We were not conceived in sin, nor were we created with sin. In Judaism, life begins as a blessing. Our only obligation is to thrive in this world to make a positive difference while we’re here.

                Torah teaches, “Choose Life!” (Deuteronomy). We were created with extraordinary power to choose. No matter the circumstances placed before us, we hold the power to choose how to address them. Remember the song, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to”? In the midst of joy there are those who refuse to be happy. In the midst of tragedy there are those who feel delight rather than sorrow. We’re not supposed to repress feelings or pervert them into something that they’re not. We’re commanded to feel all of life’s moments and find meaning in them.

                When a young man was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah in his 30’s, it was a moment celebrated by him and his family with his rabbis and cantor. Though some might ask why he did it, it wasn’t a question that required an answer. It was a moment he chose to create long after his 13th birthday passed. For him, he chose life when he recognized the opportunity before him and he mastered it with understanding and joy.

                This past week, I officiated at a funeral. We mourned the death of a beloved personality, but after experiencing grief it will become our obligation to honor his life with our own. There will always be those who fail to truly live after a loved one dies; but, that’s not what we’re commanded to do. The mitzvah to mourn should be followed by the mitzvah to “Choose Life!” again.

                “While we’re living there’s always hope” is especially poignant in the hospital. Too often I’m asked if all is lost or if there’s anything more to do. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t honestly answer questions that require a scientific or therapeutic reply. I’m a rabbi, so I can say that while the patient is alive, there’s always hope. We find hope in the doctor’s insights and dedication; and, we find hope in prayers that God’s presence will guide the hands of those who help in healing.

                On 9/11, stranded workers in the Towers believed they had no choice but to jump from more than 90 floors above the ground. I don’t believe they jumped because they wanted to die. I believe they jumped because it was their only hope. They jumped because it was a choice to live if by some means they might be spared the terrible and ultimate fall. Our profound sorrow is that there was no probable outcome that they would be spared. The height was too great and 9/11 would be remembered for its unfathomable pain and loss. Though their choice was agonizing, the victims of 9/11 demonstrated their will to live and their power to choose.

                Today, one of the greatest tragedies in our country is the rising suicide rate. Among veterans the suicide rate is higher than the general population. Ending one’s life under the impression that no other choice exists is always tragic, but it’s also mostly preventable. From where does such human despair begin that the only choice that remains is to end one’s life and with it the possibility of hope? Does it begin at home where we reward success and punish failure? Does it happen because we’re reared to be rising-stars and made to fear anything less as signs of weakness and disappointment? Does it grow out of a lack of awareness of faith in God? Not perfect faith, but hope that begins in Torah where feeling commanded by a Commander who implants within us reasons to choose life might stem the tide of increasing numbers of people who stand on the brink everyday.

                “While we’re living, there’s always hope.” Make it your mantra this week. Share it with others who might need to be reminded. In joy and sorrow, alike, we can find meaning. From meaning, we can choose wisely. May our days be filled with choices that lead us to greater joy in living a life of peace.

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

01/08/2016 10:05 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 8, 2016


Self-control. We have little problem with control; it’s the “self” that gets in the way. Taking a cue from a page of Talmud, we learn, “The eyes and ears are not always dependent on our will-power; but, our tongue is always dependent on our will” (Y. Kiddushin).

                What we see and hear is generally external to us. We can close our eyes and recall a beautiful moment or recall a song we love to hear, but sights and sounds usually originate from somewhere else. Think about a vacation spot or a favorite song; they’re meaningful to us but we have little to do with them except for our appreciation of them. Likewise, we can be repelled by ugly sights and objectionable words. Even when we can’t avoid them, we might have to address them anyway. If we try, we can beautify something that at first offends our eyes, or improve the sound of something that begins as dissonant to us.

                Different than our eyes or ears, our tongue is “always dependent on our will.” The tongue literally says so much about who we are by the words we speak and how we speak them. Our words aren’t dependent on anything external. Instead, we are completely responsible for our tongues, no matter how we wag them. Judaism considers as sacred the words that convey Torah values. It considers hearsay, rumors and gossip to be the equivalent of desecrating the entire Torah.

                One of the greatest challenges to self-control is a child’s tantrum. A parent’s reaction is supposed to demonstrate a better way for the child. It begins with words carefully chosen and spoken. Loud doesn’t equal authority or power. Calm is a better way to model self-control. A calm parent can show a child how to navigate his or her way to a solution. And, though our tongues convey speech, it isn’t always necessary to speak. Silence can also bring a tantrum to a quick end and guide once misdirected energy towards more productive tasks, even for a toddler.

                Nothing compares to the feelings we have when we’re in the company of those we love in our family and circle of friends. Sometimes we’re struck dumb by the overwhelming emotions we feel in their presence; but other times we seize the moment to share openly how much they mean to us. While such times are dear, they are sometimes juxtaposed by discord and it becomes difficult to hold back.

                Self-control is critical if we want to find pleasure at all times. In times of joy, it’s important to express gratitude. In times of somebody else’s joy, it’s meaningful to tell them that you’re happy for them, too. But, in times of disappointment or even anger, it’s imperative that self-control guides our tongue to find words that help rather than hurt, resolve conflict rather than destroy relationships, and reflect well on Torah’s way for us rather than desecrate its potential for good and holiness.

                Judaism recognizes that which is external to us, such as sights and sounds, and that which is internal to us, such as our words. Judaism doesn’t pretend that sin exists only outside us like some temptation we can’t bear without God’s help; rather Judaism claims for us that we’re capable of doing much good and as much evil. What we choose to do rests in us, in our eyes, our ears and mostly on our tongues. Self-control isn’t just a modern term for personal happiness; it’s a Torah value that supports and sustains us in the world we want to enjoy and with the people we want to love and love us.

                As the week comes to a close and Shabbat begins, it’s a perfect time to draw in a deep breath and exhale with words of gratitude, hope and peace.

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

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