05/25/2018 08:30 AM Posted by:
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

May 25, 2018


On Israel’s 70th anniversary, the U.S. Embassy in Israel was officially dedicated in its new location in Jerusalem. It actually occupies a building that has long been the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. The dedication ceremony was magnificent. and the plaque that identifies the occasion identifies the extraordinary relationship between the U.S. and Israel.


In 90 minutes on television and over the Internet, Jews of the world were spell-bound not by news of anti-Semitic assaults or crushing blows of terrorism, but by the fulfillment of prayers, the sacrifice of fallen soldiers, and the leadership of two nations inextricably bound to each other. The mood of the speeches and promises was uplifting and inspiring. The tears that audience members and viewers surely shared were "tears of fruit” that witnessed the unveiling of Israel’s coming-of-age.


I watched the livestream. I was moved by the event. I was inspired by its promise. Other nations are moving their embassies to Jerusalem. Some nations are acknowledging the truth on the ground. All of us are hopeful that this truth might lead to something greater than we’ve just witnessed, because a political site in Jerusalem isn’t enough. Words are not enough.


We want more! We want peace! We need peace!


However, every speech ignored the other truth, which was that, beyond the tent where diplomats assembled to celebrate their achievement, IDF soldiers were holding back Hamas-led "protestors” bent on breaching the border and massacring Israelis. Subsequent news reports acknowledge that most of those killed on the border were Hamas terrorists, and that it was not a protest at all, but a full-on attempt to invade. But, that’s only a temporary exoneration of prior claims that will plague Israel’s future. It’s still just one more story among many that does nothing to improve Israel’s or the Palestinian’s current and intractable circumstances.  


Today, Israel has lined up its best defense and political partners. Israel deserves to and must defend its borders, its people, and its future. Meanwhile, world Jewry grows increasingly polarized about the next steps. The resounding and unmistakable message is that peace must follow strength. If peace doesn’t follow strength, then either peace is ultimately elusive, or strength has been the real prize, after all, or both.


On February 26, 1986, in his address to the nation on national security, President Ronald Reagan said, "Strength is the most persuasive argument we have to convince our adversaries to negotiate seriously and to cease bullying other nations.” It seems that Israel has learned from Reagan’s playbook a refrain that’s worth repeating. History certainly records victories among those who had the stronger army. But, the goal in the Middle East isn’t to vanquish our enemy. Israel’s remarkable regional strength works to defend its sovereignty and security; but, will it "convince our adversaries to negotiate seriously and to cease bullying” Israel? Not yet.  


In Reagan’s era, it was good versus evil, where evil was the Soviet Union. Today, good and evil have become relative terms; it depends on who you ask and which side you defend. It makes the outcome murkier. That might be the result we have to accept, but it would be a terrible fate for Israelis and Palestinians. Increasing Israeli strength will hold back its enemies but at a great price. Their record on human rights and their credibility as peace makers will continue to suffer.


Though our current president was bold in his decision to move the Embassy to Jerusalem, we haven’t seen any more pages in his playbook. What’s next for the region? Whose move is it in this precarious game of good versus evil? World Jewry has an opportunity to turn the page in a playbook of its own creation, but only if world Jewry can come closer together. Let’s not do what Abba Eban observed about the PLO, when he said, "[They] never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Let’s seize the opportunity to turn the page in a playbook of our own creation and begin to move beyond strength, alone. Let’s seize this opportunity to enter peace talks that make the Embassy in Jerusalem worth the gala event we celebrated.     

You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

05/10/2018 05:00 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 11, 2018


Freedom is an ideal for humanity that we constantly strive to reach. In 1986, Elie Wiesel (z”l), on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, said:

"As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”1  

To be truly free is to possess the human power to choose to live by the rules that bind us. To be free of any rules is to be lawless; therefore, the rules that bind us should, at best, hold us fast to principles and ethics that lead us to our greatest human potential. For Jews, the rules that bind us are Torah. Milton Steinberg, writing for the Traditionalist and Modernist, as he categorized them (us), explained:

"Torah becomes everything which has its roots in the Torah-Book, which is consistent with its outlook, which draws forth its implications, and which realizes it potentialities. Torah, in sum, is all the vastness and variety of the Jewish tradition.”2

In Torah this week we read B’har/B’chukotai, a double portion that brings us to the end of Leviticus. In B’har, we find the famous verse, "You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10). Inscribed on the Liberty Bell with the word "freedom” instead of "release,” it, nevertheless, connotes the expectation that humanity thrives in places where freedom from hunger, redemption from bondage of any form, and release from tribulations unleash our greatest human potential. Freedom from toil reflected in the weekly Sabbath and cyclical Jubilee year, were chief among the commandments that the Israelites would observe in order to know God’s greatest blessings.

Not unlike our Israelite ancestors, we are also bound to the covenant of teachings and laws within which we seek God’s favor and blessings over the course of our own lifetime. In B’chukotai (Leviticus 26:3ff) we read, "If you follow my laws and faithfully observe my commandments...” then God will cause you to prosper and be blessed.

Our Sages responded. They knew well that prosperity and blessings flowed from God, but they also observed suffering despite faithfulness to God’s covenant. They cited Job, who suffered blamelessly. We find, "His days are determined; You know the number of his months; You have set him limits that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5). (Midrash Tanchuma, B’chukotai 1).3 In citing Job, they raised the question: what, if anything, would forestall the end of our days if all was, indeed, foreseen, and if our days were limited even when we did God’s commandments?

Our Sages affirmed their faith that all life is a gift from God. They embraced what was revealed to them by God, and what they could do with what was revealed to them. Rather than be disillusioned about what remained concealed from them, they grasped for opportunities to do mitzvot, to respond to God’s command, and to know that, even when judgment came instead of mercy, it was God’s will, too. They cited God’s goodness to King Solomon, even above that which God gave to his father, David, "And I grant you also what you didn’t ask for, both riches and glory all your life … and I will further grant you long life, if you will walk in My ways and observe My laws and commandments…” (I Kings 3:13).4

Leviticus ends with a list of curses. "But if you don’t obey me…” (Leviticus 26:14), begins the list of ways that God will spurn the Israelites if they fail to keep faith. Today, biblical injunctions and admonishments have lost their sway over us, whether we’re Traditionalist or Modernists. Instead, we’ve learned from rabbis like Harold Kushner, who taught us in his ubiquitous book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” that instead of expecting from God what we thought we deserved, God also grants what we didn’t know was available in addition. Life is hard, and when (not why) it hurts, we can seek and find compassion, unconditional love, and lessons for living. They are God’s "riches and glory,” too.

In "Gates of Prayer” we read, "Just because we are human, we are prisoners of the years. Yet that very prison is the room of discipline in which we, driven by the urgency of time, create.”5 Freedom from that prison doesn’t come from seeking immortality; rather, freedom continues to be the privilege to choose the rules that will bind us. As Jews, we still choose to bind ourselves to the b’rit, the "covenant” that God made with our ancestors and with us for "our life and the length of our days” (Deuteronomy 30:20).

Now, at the end of the Book of Leviticus, we say, chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik, "be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other.” As one book closes and another book opens, our studies of the Bible continue. We have been taught to learn so that we may teach. Let us be teachers of our sacred texts that the world may hear our words, benefit from our deeds, and be inspired by our hopes.

Thank you for joining me in the Book of Leviticus. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik!

1 Elie Wiesel, acceptance speech, Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, December 10, 1986
2 Milton Steinberg, "Basic Judaism” (NY: Harvest, 1947], p. 22)
3 Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat B’chukotai 1
4 Ibid.
5 Gates of Prayer (New York: CCAR Press), p. 625

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.

05/03/2018 05:00 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

May 4, 2018


Leviticus, a priestly book, has as its primary focus an emphasis on the cleanliness of the community and its adherence to ritual matters for the sake of God’s blessings. Rituals performed perfectly availed the community of God’s gifts; whereas, rituals performed perfunctorily or haphazardly earned them God’s wrath, or at least the absence of blessings. Reading the Torah for proper understanding was at the heart of the matter, which ultimately landed upon the Rabbis to do. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Roman legions, understanding how the priestly cult was conducted would enable the cult to resume when a third Temple might be erected. Notwithstanding their own hope for a return to the sacrificial cult, the intricacies of the Rabbis’ interpretations still bear on us as we hope that clean living might also avail us of God’s blessings in our days.

To the Rabbis, Torah was given by God on Sinai to Moses, letter by letter, word by word, including the white spaces. Torah, presumed to be free from error, nevertheless contained words and phrases that seemed, to the untrained eye, to be redundant or even superfluous. To the Rabbis, these textual conundrums fueled their ambition to explain, resolve, and teach Torah’s hidden lessons.

In the portion called, Emor, a significant redundancy occurs in the Hebrew text. We read that God said to Moses: Emor el hakohanim b’nei Aharon, ve-amarta aleihem… "Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them…” (Leviticus 21:1). An examination of this verse reveals a double use of the word, "say,” from the Hebrew root amar. The first occurrence is in the imperative form, Emor! said with force. The second is in the imperfect form (familiarly, the future tense), ve-amarta, "and you shall say to them.” Of all the places where the Hebrew root (amar) is found in Torah, it is repeated only in our verse. Given its unique occurrence here, it demands an explanation.

Rashi (11th century) taught, "The repetition of the verb is intended to admonish the adults about their children; that they should teach their children to avoid uncleanliness” (Rashi on Leviticus 21:1). To illustrate his point, Rashi points us to the Ten Commandments. There we find in the commandment regarding the Sabbath, "You shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter…” (Exodus 20:8). The reason for this reference and not others is that it shares the relationship between parent and child, and the conveyance of sacred practices that lead to cleanliness and God’s blessings. Furthermore, the penalty for desecrating the Sabbath was death, so the reference reflects the extraordinary importance of the priests’ work and their sons’ work on behalf of the community.

In the commandment about the Sabbath, we read, "You shall not do any work.” This part of the verse commands parents regarding their observance of the Sabbath. Then we read, "you, your son or daughter…” (Exodus 20:10). This part of the verse commands parents about their children’s observance of the Sabbath, and, indeed, all the commandments.

Just as the priests in the Temple were obligated to uphold high standards of purity and piety for the sake of the community, parents were seen as bearers of this obligation for the sake of their children. Priests and parents alike were held to higher standards of behavior and ethics. They were role models and exemplars to those who depended on them for access to God’s greatest blessings.

The parallel between priests and parents is apt. For Rashi in the 11th century, and for us in ours, laying the ol mitzvah, the "yoke of the commandments” on the shoulders of Jewish parents and then on their children was consistent with the promise made at Sinai between God and the Israelites, and already a proven measure of Judaism’s promised future. But a yoke of commandments can feel like a meaningless, inexplicable burden when adults don’t make the effort to convey the teachings in a way that can be understood — and even cherished — by the next generation. What’s more, if a Third Temple were ever to be built, which was not outside the scope of prayers of 11th century and medieval rabbis, future generations would be its builders.

I remember a young man whose parents didn’t perform their Jewish obligations well. When the young man came to see me about his bar mitzvah speech, he buried his hands in his pockets and his face turned toward the ground. When he used one hand to toss me his speech he said, "My mother wrote it. She made me write those things.” I read it. Our discussion led to his admitting that he didn’t know why he was becoming a bar mitzvah. After all, he said, we don’t do anything Jewish at home. His parents thought he was being uncooperative. I thought he was right-on. Before we wrapped up, I assured him that his bar mitzvah speech was his and for him to write. If he had truly done all the work and assumed all the responsibilities of his bar mitzvah then he, alone, was the best one to express an understanding of his Judaism and bar mitzvah. Then he put his hands behind his head and leaned back, comfortably. He came through on his bar mitzvah day with a speech worthy of his age and understanding. His parents were visibly moved by his sincerity and intentionality.

At best, b’nai mitzvah boys and girls benefit from their parents’ role-modeling by choosing to replicate the religious, ethical, and ritual duties they observe and learn from them. When teenagers accept the ol mitzvot, the "yoke of the commandments” with a sense of understanding or connection, they walk like oxen that respond to their master’s commands down a path that needs sowing and cultivating. B’nai mitzvah boys and girls are not beasts of burden, but they bear similar duties. With the proper guidance, the path they walk can be a straight one, setting seeds that later become plants to be harvested to nourish a people. But, if the path isn’t straight and seeds are set where they shouldn’t be sown, the seeds will be trampled; they won’t yield what the people need to survive.

The opening words of our parashah, therefore, are critical to everything that follows. Emor, "say” to yourself (parents, grandparents, adults) what is expected of you because you are Jewish; Ve-amarta, and say it for your children to hear, for they will learn from your example. So it is that our tradition endures from one generation to the next; from hands of experience to hands of youth, our Judaism is able to thrive.

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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