04/26/2018 05:00 PM Posted by:
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

April 27, 2019


Today, we hear a lot about power: military power, corporate power, and political power. We don’t hear as much about personal power. But, in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot/K’doshim, a double portion, we learn about the potential for personal power. It follows Acharei Mot ("After the Death” of Aaron’s sons) and instructions about purity. In Acharei Mot, we follow the unfortunate outcome of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who brought an alien fire into the Tent of Meeting, which was an affront to God and Moses. Personal power isn’t a sin, but the misapplication of it can lead to horrific outcomes. In K’doshim, we open with the Holiness Code and within it a credible means to personal power that also reflects God’s holiness. 

In Leviticus 19:2, we read, "You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” God’s holiness is enduring and everlasting, and God’s holiness is the source of our holiness. The proof text is found in II Chronicles 13:5, "Surely you know that the Lord, the God of Israel, gave the kingdom of Israel to David, forever…” Now, our verse, "You shall be holy,” can be read, "You shall always be holy, for I the Lord your God am always holy.”

From this we might conclude that personal power is equated with God’s power; but, it isn’t that simple. In Leviticus 19:2, the Hebrew verb tih’yu, "you shall be,” is written in the imperfect form (not simply the future tense) of the verb "to be.” It means that being holy is not instantaneous even though holiness is present. Likewise, salvation, which is a Jewish goal, is not instantaneous either. Through performance of mitzvot, salvation might be achieved over a lifetime. Milton Steinberg explains:

"Other men (sic) may help him. They may give him courage, guidance, instruction; they may blaze trails and set examples. But, in the end, sight is not sight if it is vicarious. Companionship, whether with God or anyone else, must be immediate or it is not companionship. In sum, there is and can be no vicarious salvation. Each man must redeem his own soul.” (Milton Steinberg, Basic Judaism [NY: Harvest, 1947], p.58)

For us, such salvation or human holiness is a work-in-progress that we achieve over time when we do mitzvot, "ethical and ritual commandments.”

In Vayikra Rabbah (24.4), a commentary on Leviticus, the Rabbis use the word perush to explain how we can gain salvation or human holiness. Perush means separate. If we substitute "separate” for "holy” in K’doshim, the verse takes on fresh meaning: "You shall be separate for I am separate.” To "be separate” is the key to being humanly holy. I read it this way: the key to being humanly holy is living above the fray.

The entire Holiness Code separates human behaviors from the fray by lifting us up to new standards of behavior. Constantly aspiring to do sacred mitzvot gives purpose to our work and our relationships. For example, Leviticus 19:9 describes a human ethic that separates us from our baser instincts by aiming our efforts towards a higher good:

"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest … you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”

Most of us understand the meaning of this ethical teaching, but its implication can escape us. As urbanites, many of us don’t know much about farming, but we do know much about reaping benefits and harvesting returns. Shouldn’t we also know something about leaving a portion of our earnings for the poor and the stranger?  

Likewise, food is a necessity of life. When we live above the fray we see it as nutritious fuel and not as a triumph. "All you need,” rather than "all you can eat,” is a better way to approach the restaurant buffet. Sex is also a God-given urge. Living above the fray can mean a loving relationship with expectations for satisfying that urge in mutually respectful ways. The Talmud is rife with examples about how to satisfy both hungers with holiness in mind.

Alan Morinis, author of Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar and leader of today’s Mussar movement, relates the following:

When asked how he had had such an impact as a great sage and leader in the 20th-century Jewish world, the Chafetz Chaim answered, "I set out to try to change the world, but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”

That brings us to Leviticus 19:18, which commands us to "Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Eternal.” This is the high point along the way. Here we have aimed high enough so that our human holiness is reflected in what we’ve made of ourselves and then extended to others. Mutual love and respect is the apex of holiness.  

Our covenant with God is predicated on our participation in a set of rules that elevates us beyond even our own expectations. Our covenant demands that we become more with Torah, rather than less without it. Now, let’s pause to reflect, to give thanks, and to look for ways to aim high. You, too, are commanded to be holy, humanly holy.   

Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on "iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on

This post originally appeared on  



You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

04/19/2018 05:00 PM Posted by:
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

April 20, 2018


In the double portion, Tazria/M’tzora, we have the responsibility, even if it isn’t our pleasure, to investigate texts on birth and its aftermath, bodily afflictions and emissions, skin ailments, and leprosy. They were once taboos that raised fears in the community and turned priests of their day into guardians of purity.

In ancient times, body afflictions and emissions were terrifying. Physical ailments that appeared unclean rendered people unsuitable and excluded. In Leviticus 12 and 13, we learn that "when a woman at childbirth bears a male [child], she shall be impure seven days” (Leviticus 12:2). The fear and taboo of childbirth had the effect of isolating the woman so that no one would have to see her or tolerate her condition. Similarly, we read that when "the priest sees it [the scaly affection] he shall pronounce the person impure” (Leviticus 13:3). In each case, the members of the community who were physically different and potentially infectious were excluded and isolated.

Though it seems that we abandoned such fears and taboos long ago, and created inclusive houses of worship and study, our morning worship still opens with thanks to God for making our bodies with wisdom, and for "combining veins, arteries, and vital organs into a finely balanced network.”1 Consider that in Gates of Prayer, published in 1975 and replaced only a few years ago, a prayer asks, "Can we imagine a world without color … a world without sound…”?2 The prayer didn’t recognize anyone who does live in a world without color or sound, every day. Yet, a passage from Talmud teaches us to regard all God’s acts of creations:

"One who sees a lame person, or one without hands or legs, or a blind person, or one who has boils, or one who is pocked with small pockmarks; if this has been their condition from birth we recite the blessing, 'Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, Ruler of the universe, Who creates a variety of creations.'” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 58b)

This blessing, psalms of comfort, and new prayers in our more recent sidur, Mishkan T’filah, help us acknowledge and welcome all (everybody) openly into the center of the Jewish community. Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation,3 an advocate for Jewish inclusion, made an impression on me when he said, "When we lose the child, we lose the family.” Biblical taboos persisted for far too long. Though we are the inheritors of Torah, we are not the keepers of teachings that violate our obligation to examine the world of science for discoveries in medical healing. Nor should we abrogate our duty to open our hearts and welcome those who do live and learn differently than we do.

In Torah, the role of the priest was to maintain the community. He sent out those who caused fear of an epidemic; but, he was duty-bound to welcome them back. When the beloved prophetess, Miriam, was stricken with snow-white scales and expelled from the camp for days, the camp didn’t move on until she rejoined them (Numbers 12:10-16). The future of Judaism needs everyone in the community to come along. Every child who is included means an entire family will accompany him or her. This is the better way.

Threats still persist. In the second portion this week, Torah defines the m’tzora, but the Rabbis explain the real threat and the potential cure. In Vayikra Rabbah, they ask, What is the law of the m’tzora? Without knowing what the scaly affection was except by its Hebrew name, m’tzora, they examined its consequences to the person affected, also called a m’tzora, and concluded that the person was a leper; that is, one who is considered unclean and must be removed from the community. Further they asked, Who is the m’tzora (leper) among us? That is, who among us should be banished from the community for the sake of the health and well-being of the rest of us? 

The Rabbis parsed the word m’tzora into three essential words: motzi, Shem, ra. Motzi means "one who brings forth;” Shem is God’s name; and ra means evil. Now the m’tzora is the one who brings forth evil; or, it can be understood to mean the one who gives currency (value) to an evil report. The m’tzora, the "leper,” among us is none other than a tale-bearer, a gossiper, a rumor-monger. Jewish folk stories are replete with lessons about the evil effects of one who begins and those who persist in spreading rumors, and whose efforts to retract their words fail every time.

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: Five times is the word "law” used with reference to leprosy (Leviticus 13:59, 14:2, 14:32, 14:54, 14:57). "It is to teach you that if one indulges in calumny, it is as if he transgresses the Five Books of the Torah” (Vayikra Rabbah 16.6).

To prevent any harm that might come from participating in the effects of gossip and becoming a "leper” who’s sent outside the safety of the community’s boundaries, we only have to learn what Rabbi Jannai (Vayikra Rabbah 16.2) taught, namely, that the Psalmist asked, "Who is the one who desires life?” and answered in what follows immediately, "Keep your tongue from evil, depart from evil and do good” (Psalm 34:13-15).

We are all unique. You and I, and those who are touched by our life, are all part of God’s variety of creations. When we identify in ourselves what the unique gift is or permit others to help us learn what is unique about us, then we can be the blessing we were created to be and enable others to be a blessing, too. May our gratitude to God for all creations lead us to honor God through the ways we honor and serve each other.

  1. Chaim Stern, ed., Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook (NY: CCAR, 1975), p. 51
  2. Ibid., p. 51
  3. Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities worldwide and educating Israeli leaders on the American Jewish community. 

Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on "iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on

This post originally appeared on


You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

04/12/2018 05:00 PM Posted by:
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

April 13, 2018


The dietary laws presented in the Book of Leviticus are intended to draw us closer to God. But even I, as a rabbi, sometimes have difficulty understanding how the Torah intends for this to happen.

The second part of Sh’mini (Leviticus 10:12-11:47) takes up the subject of food. Everything from taboos to general permissions are commanded forming the foundation of later, Talmudic, legal interpretations on what is kosher (fit for consumption) and what is t’reif (unfit). Reform Judaism has gone around the block on the subject of kashrut. Notwithstanding biblical and Talmudic rules, and laws about what is "fit” for personal consumption, Reform Judaism has sought an authentic response to expectations for kashrut that would meet individual and contemporary norms.

The earliest Reform response was inscribed in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, the first declaration of Reform Jewish principals. First, the Platform placed Mosaic legislation (Biblical Law) into a new context for contemporary life. Not devoid of significance, but surely far from contemporary life, only those laws that elevated life in modernity would hold sway over the Reform Jewish experience: 

"We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” (CCAR 1885 Pittsburgh Platform)1

Second, regarding kashrut laws, the 1885 Platform was unequivocal about its opinion:

"We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”2

In the next iteration of Reform Jewish principals, the 1937 Columbus Platform, there was less emphasis on obstruction of spiritual elevation and more regard for adaptation of spiritual ideals in each generation. 

"Being products of historical processes, certain of its laws have lost their binding force with the passing of the conditions that called them forth. But as a depository of permanent spiritual ideals, the Torah remains the dynamic source of the life of Israel. Each age has the obligation to adapt the teachings of the Torah to its basic needs in consonance with the genius of Judaism.”3

Since then, Reform Jews in synagogues, organizations, and at home, have taken responsibility to define for themselves what the standards for kashrut would be. In the last twenty years, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) applied a standard for its affiliates and, in particular, its summer camps, to avoid pork and shellfish, and to separate milk and meat. Likewise, many Reform synagogues adopted this as a standard baseline, though some would choose to do more or less. The latest significant publication on the matter is the book The Sacred Table, 4 which collected opinion pieces from rabbinic and other Jewish authorities for discerning progressive Jews (non-Orthodox) who seek to transform the mundane task of eating into a sacred duty, a mitzvah.

As an expression of social justice that flowed from one’s personal or communal social conscience, The Sacred Table illuminates ways to meet one’s Jewish obligation by not rejecting laws of kashrut wholesale, but by identifying ways to be true to Jewish and modern realities about food. The Religious Action Center (RAC), an arm of the URJ, assembled a discussion guide and action items to lead Reform Jews in their quest for meaningful responses to contemporary food choices. Chief among the questions are these:

  1. To what extent is dietary practice a useful measure of religious observance and of ethnic identity?
  2. What aspects of eating connect us to God or make us more aware of the world around us?
  3. What Jewish values would be important for you to include in the creation of a food ethic?
  4. How do you think Reform synagogues should respond to the challenge of ethical eating?  

Judaism is a religion of action; therefore, it’s imperative that actions follow ideas on principles that shape our lives. The RAC suggests that we might do the following:

  1. Shop local! Find a farmer’s market in your neighborhood. Talk to your local supermarket managers about the food they stock.
  2. Make new conscious eating choices, such as moderation over excess, and more sustainable and eco-conscious
  3. Choose foods and quantities that reflect your concern for the environment, justice, health, and so on.
  4. Revisit your synagogue food policy.  

Reform Judaism makes no fewer demands on its adherents than other Jewish movements do on theirs. Ours is not to reject, but to educate ourselves and to choose. The 14th-century rabbi and commentator, Bachya ben Asher, wrote about the benefits that accrue to those who, by means of intelligence, overcome competing interests in the world that -- unfortunately-- are in great supply. His wisdom is timeless. He taught:

"Sanctify yourself through the practice of the commandments and thus you will become holy. Such observance will help you to gain self-control so that your intelligence can govern your appetites. For our intelligence is doubly handicapped in this struggle: We have the appetites from birth, while intelligence develops slowly; and, our environment encourages us to yield to urges, whereas intelligence is a lonely stranger in the world.”5

  1. CCAR 1885 Pittsburgh Platform: The full text can be found at
  2. Ibid.
  3. CCAR 1937 Columbus Platform: The full text can be found at
  4. Mary Zamore, ed., The Sacred Table (NY: CCAR Press, 2011)
  5. W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (NY: URJ Press, 2005), p.727

Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on "iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on

This post originally appeared on


You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.


04/05/2018 05:00 PM Posted by:
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

April 6, 2018


In the first half of Parashat Sh’mini (Leviticus 9:1-10:11), we read about the awful fate of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. As sons of the High Priest, we would assume that the boys would know their way around holy matters. But, Nadab and Abihu brought an eish zarah, an "alien fire” as an offering to God, and "fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2). The juxtaposition of their heinous act with what follows in Leviticus 10:8-9, "And the Eternal One spoke to Aaron, saying: Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die,” leads us to the conclusion that the boys were drunk when they entered the Tent of Meeting. It was an obvious offense, but it wasn’t the only one.

Rashi, citing Rabbi Eliezer (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 63a), teaches us that Nadab and Abihu died "only because they gave decisions on religious matters in the presence of their teacher, Moses.” The Gemara (Talmud) asks:

Is the disciple not liable to receive the death penalty if he issues his ruling not in the teacher’s presence?

This is the defining issue, whether or not the sons erred in their judgment because they were — or were not — in the presence of their teacher, Moses. Rabbi Eliezer presents the issue for us:

The sons of Aaron died only because they issued a halachic ruling before Moses, their teacher? What did they expound in support of their conclusion that they must bring fire inside as opposed to waiting for fire to come down from the heavens? It is (already) stated in the Torah: ‘And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and lay the wood in order on the fire’ (Leviticus 1:7), which led [the sons] to say: Although fire descends from Heaven, it is nonetheless a mitzvah to bring ordinary fire.

Rabbi Eliezer concludes that although the sons derived their judgment from what they were commanded to do, "put fire on the altar and lay the wood in order on the fire,” they were punished for deriving a ruling in the presence of Moses, their teacher. And, what if one rules not in the presence of one’s teacher? Rava taught:

When he is not in the presence of his teacher, the student is prohibited to issue a ruling, but he is not liable to receive the death penalty [from Heaven] (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 63a).

After the boys were consumed by fire, Moses says to Aaron, "This is what was meant by saying, ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’ ” Then Torah records, "Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3). Aaron’s stunning silence has astonished readers ever since. Perhaps it’s the finality of God’s decree. Perhaps Aaron’s grief over his sons is not recorded. Perhaps it’s the finality we’ve all felt at times in our life when "we didn’t see it coming” or "we should have known better.”

Today, the "fear of heaven” doesn’t prevent us from deciding how we will choose to observe mitzvot for ourselves. Even so, there is an underlying principle found in our parashah that still guides us to choose wisely and unambiguously. In Leviticus 10:9-11, we learn, "This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure; and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Eternal has imparted to them through Moses.” 

Forever choosing between the "sacred and the profane,” and the "impure and the pure,” distinguishes us from those who would choose it all. The separation we make by choosing wisely places us on a straight path in concert with God’s covenant. It isn’t a formula for safety or prevention from tragedy; but, it does contribute to our mindfulness about our sacred obligations to our covenant with God.

In Torah, we’re called an am kadosh, a "holy people,” and an am s’gulah, a "treasured people” (see Leviticus 19:2, Exodus 19:5). These honors are not claims made lightly; they’re based on obligations that place us in a trusted relationship with God. Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz (z”l) taught that our covenant with God can orient us toward deciding and choosing well. The benefit is right and good living. Even if we fail, an integral part of our covenant, today, is the permission to repair our way and try again. Borowitz taught:

When we seek God as a partner in every significant act we invest our deciding and doing with direction, hope, worth, and, in failure, the possibility of repair.1

Though the parashah sees Aaron and his sons as holding high positions with commensurate standards for sacred living, we are, thankfully, not a kingdom of priests. We are also not an Israelite camp set apart by divisions that are holier than others. We are a Reform Jewish community that invests in the well-being and inclusion of all people. Those who bind their fate to ours by studying Torah, worshiping Adonai, and supporting the people Israel, have an equal responsibility to observe ritual and perform ethical mitzvot.

This portion of Parashat Sh’mini highlights the standards by which we may choose to live our lives and the consequences of those choices. Blessings find us when we avail ourselves of good choices; but, tragedy falls even on the unaware and innocent among us. Rather than condemn the biblical story for its severity, we would do better to accept the fact that our choices always have consequences and — to the extent that we can — to choose well.

 1. Eugene B. Borowitz, Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew (New York: JPS, 1991), p.169

Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on "iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on

This post originally appeared on


You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

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