09/24/2010 09:55 AM Posted by: Rabbi Lyon

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
September 24, 2010

            Torah records what the Israelites did when they trekked through the wilderness. They lived in Sukkot, in temporary booths. Part of our observance of Sukkot, is what Torah tells us to do, “You shall live in booth seven days.” But, the Book of Leviticus wasn't written along the way as the Israelites made their trek. According to modern scholars, it was inscribed later, about the 5th century BCE, from a place where Jews settled into permanent homes. Why, then, does Torah record not just the story of the past, but also the obligation to relive it? Torah offers only this:

“In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”

            The Book of Leviticus is a priestly book. It is no wonder that the purpose of living in a booth is directly connected to serving God. But, centuries later such priestly associations were not enough to substantiate the building of a Sukkah, let alone living in one. In the 12th century, a Torah commentator by the name of Rashbam, and the grandson of the famous Biblical commentator, Rashi, expanded Torah teaching. Though far from a modern scholar, he also went beyond priestly functions and appealed to issues of moral living. He cited Deuteronomy (8:17), “Do not say in your heart, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Then Rashbam comments:
            You should remember the Lord your God, as it is God who gives you strength to make progress. Therefore, the people leave their houses, which are full of everything good at the harvest season, and dwell in booths, as a reminder of those who had no possessions in the wilderness and no houses in which to live. It is for this reason, that God established the Festival of Sukkot, that the people should not be proud of their well-furnished houses.
            Rashbam built his lesson on this text from Deuteronomy, because it repeats and reports the lessons the Israelites will need after they have left the wilderness and entered the Promised Land. Presumably, it would be a time for settlement and not for wandering. Therefore, Deuteronomy also anticipated that once the Israelites were settled, they would begin to acquire wealth and creature comforts. They would have a home to return to each night, and safety behind permanent walls and doors. Jews in their new homes would be like kings in their castles who believed they were the source of their own success.
            Reflecting on his life and that of his fellow Jews in 12th century France, Rashbam conceded that a permanent home with a roof overhead and a bolt on the door was safer than a booth with an open roof and no door at all. Therefore, shaking our complacency and not just our lulav, by moving out of our safe houses and into the fragile booth would create instant recognition of our dependence on God.
            Rashbam's lesson is important to us, but it might not be enough to persuade us out of our comfortable homes to live in a booth in September, in Houston. Nevertheless, we can still learn from Rashbam. When life is hard even after we have settled down, the relative comfort we come to know there can numb us against our faith in God's overarching presence in our life. Some have said, “Life is good. Who needs God?” Others have said (and Deuteronomy anticipated), “Look what I have built with my own hands and power?” History has demonstrated that such numb faith can lead to disastrous failings due to arrogance and pride.
             Today, the Sukkah stands outside as a reminder of our ancestors' precarious journey. Surely, it wasn't the fragile Sukkah that sustained the Israelites in the wilderness. It was God's presence that accompanied them and helped them believe that their temporary booth would support them over many miles and many years. How much has really changed? Can we really accomplish our own journey by merely locking the door at night and rebuilding the roof after each hurricane season? Faith in God's presence can still support us. If it were only about locking the door and setting the alarm, we wouldn't also recite at night the Shema, or find comfort in the words, “Adonai li, v'lo eera,” God is with me; I will not be afraid. The Sukkah serves us as a reminder of the real Source of our relative wealth. Stepping out of our houses and lives of comfort into the Sukkah awakens us to God's presence.
            This week, let's shake our lulav and spend time in the Sukkah. Let's eat a meal there and welcome friends as we have been taught to do. And, later, when we return to our homes on clean streets and wide avenues, let's give thanks for all that we have done with all that God has given us.

From my family to yours, Chag Sameach (Happy Sukkot) and Shabbat Shalom).

09/03/2010 10:53 AM Posted by: Rabbi Lyon
Rabbi Lyon's Blog this week reminds us that the Jewish New Year, 5771, is approaching.

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

September 3, 2010



                This is the season when we wish each other a Happy New Year, as the Jewish New Year 5771 begins. It’s also the time we add our hope that we should all be inscribed in the Book of Life. For ages, we’ve spoken of this Book of Life, and fervently prayed that we would be written in it for a good year.

                In this week’s Torah portion, a double portion called Netzavim-Vayelech, from Deuteronomy 30:15, we read, “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity…” And then we read (30:19), “Choose life, if you and your offspring would live by loving God.” What is the life we’re choosing? The Hebrew tells us so much more than the English. In Hebrew, life is plural (chayyim). It’s as if to say, “Choose lives”; not plural lives but a multi-faceted life. When we are commanded to choose “chayyim” we are accepting everything that life inevitably is. As we read in the Torah verses, life is prosperity but it’s also death and adversity. We cannot choose life in its singular form. That is, when we choose life we cannot be so particular as to choose or expect that life will only be what we desire. Life is never simply peace and tranquility without also struggle and angst. Therefore, the Hebrew “chayyim” tells the truth about life when we choose it.

                In all its complexities, the Torah outlines for us what “chayyim” also provides us. We don’t go it alone. Rather, our life is lived in God’s presence in a binding relationship we call a covenant. Frankly, I would not be satisfied in my life without God’s presence bound up into a mutual covenant. God is my surety in a relationship that Torah teaches me includes God’s eternal presence in a sacred covenant. How do I know? At the beginning of the portion (Deut. 29:9), we read, “You stand this day, all of you… I make this covenant with those who are standing here with us this day before God and with those who are not with us here this day.” I wasn’t standing at Sinai, but my place in the covenant, like yours, was anticipated.

                As the New Year comes, life for us has been anything but singular. In all its “plurals”, life has been a series of paired qualities: sickness and health, joy and sorrow, tranquility and unease, life and death. And, in all these moments, God’s presence has been available to us to provide us what we needed. Different for each of us, nevertheless, God’s presence provided healing medicine in sickness, relief and gratitude in renewed health, praise in joy and comfort in sorrow, peace in tranquility and security in unease, and blessing in life and consolation in death. Chayyim is plural and so are God’s attributes which provide meaning in all the times of our lives.

                Rosh Hashanah is not a guarantee that life will be only sweet. It is a hope that at its best life will be sweet and prosperous. As long as God’s covenant prevails with us then we will also prevail. Now, “U’vacharta b’chayyim” let us choose life in all its array for a New Year filled with God’s presence and our greatest hopes.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

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08/27/2010 09:04 AM Posted by: Rabbi Lyon
A Letter from Rabbi Lyon to Congregation Beth Israel

From the Desk of Rabbi LyonThis past June, Rabbi Larry “Jake” Jackofsky was diagnosed with a very rare brain disease. It is called KJD, for short, and it’s devastating. Sadly, he died this week and the funeral was held on Thursday, at Temple Emanu-El, in Dallas. Hundreds of people filled the sanctuary where men and women, young and old, gathered to remember their rabbi whose life of service in the southwest was unique.

Jake, as he was fondly called, served our Union for Reform Judaism’s southwest region for 30 years. He was every small town’s rabbi, every congregation-without-a-rabbi’s rabbi, and he was every rabbi’s rabbi. He was also the founding director of Greene Family Camp. He had a sense of humor, an intellectual curiosity, and a Jewish soul. His thick white hair became a trademark as did his constant references to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Personally, I’ve known Jake for 20 years. He was a friend, a mentor, and one who came to be with me when I was installed as rabbi in Dallas and Houston.

My words here are not meant to be a eulogy. Rabbi David Stern and Rabbi Richard Address delivered magnificent and heartfelt tributes to our colleague and their friend. Instead, my words are meant to share some perspective with you about a man whose rabbinate touched many Jewish families in the southwest and many rabbis, as well. I attended the funeral on Thursday. Sitting around me were dozens of rabbis from the region who put down their preparations for the high holydays and many other duties to drive or fly to Dallas, and remember “one of our own” and one of the truly good ones. As the eulogies were given, we shook our heads, laughed out loud, and wiped our eyes. We remembered the times he listened, counseled, led, taught, challenged, and inspired us.

I know that each of you, in your respective fields, have grown very fond of colleagues with whom you’ve worked. Over years, it becomes more than time spent. It becomes a cherished partner with whom you solve problems, discover solutions, and challenge one another to be at your best. Their death is like losing a member of the family. When “one of your own” and “one of the good ones” departs this life, we can feel like we’re all alone without our helpmate at work. To persevere, we all have to learn the lesson we rabbis are more accustomed to teaching. We have to honor our colleagues’ memories by striving to be “one of the good ones,” too.

At the end of the funeral, when we stood to recite Kaddish, I could feel the strength of my colleagues taking up the slack his absence leaves behind. In Judaism, choosing life for ourselves is our only triumph over death.

With his loving wife, Ellen, and wonderful son, Daniel, Jake’s memory was remembered by hundreds of people who were present for the funeral and countless more who were touched by his life. The rabbinate is richer for his gifts, and the future of Reform Judaism is made stronger by the examples he set for us to follow. May the memory of all our beloveds be for a blessing now and always.

Shabbat Shalom.

08/13/2010 02:57 PM Posted by: Rabbi Lyon

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

We live in a green age. Everybody’s doing it. Recycling. Reusing. Replenishing. It’s been a long time in coming. Growing up in the 70s, I remember it seemed like a fad to focus on the earth, ecology and things green. But, being green began long before the 70s, and still long before agrarian movements took root (no pun intended). This week, in Shofetim (Deuteronomy 20:19), we read about the origin of our unique Jewish focus on ecology. We learn:

“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed…” (Deut. 20:19-20)

The underlined words above, “you must not destroy,” are at the heart of an important Jewish value. It’s called “bal tashchit” and it teaches us that we are prohibited from wasting or destroying precious resources. In ancient times, it was common for a warring band to utterly destroy a land by despoiling it of trees and vegetation. But, Torah limited the extent to which armies could conquer and destroy. As Torah explains, only trees that do not yield food may be destroyed, and even those should be used to fortify a besieged city.

 Underlying the prohibition isn’t just simply an ancient affection for fruit trees. Rather, it was for both practical and religious reasons. Practically, trees provided wood and resources for settlers. They were permitted to chop down and use the wood from trees that didn’t provide fruit; but fruit bearing trees were sources of food that provided nourishment for people and animals. Religiously, the earth and all that it sustained was created by God; therefore, it belonged to God. Human beings, though they were granted dominion over the animals and trees of the earth, were, nonetheless, held to an ethical standard. Human beings were granted what they needed, but the earth and all its goodness was God’s.

In light of today’s focus on the environment, bal tashchit becomes more relevant than ever before. More than the 60’s and 70’s that raised awareness of all things natural, it was the Torah, itself, that maintained a critical connection between God and human beings which regulated our behavior towards God’s creations. In history, there were generations that did less than their part to honor God’s creations. The industrial age, alone, did much to undo and spoil rivers, streams, air and human health. But, enlightened minds and morally inclined deeds lived up to values rooted in Judaism. Now, not just on earth day, but every day we honor God by respecting the earth and everything it sustains, including ourselves.

Another product of the 70’s, Kermit the frog sang “It isn’t easy being green.” Kermit’s sentiments were much less than a psalmist’s lament about the environment, but it points to the challenge we have to embrace our practical and religious obligations to reduce wastefulness. If we regard it as a mitzvah, we will surely preserve the earth, and also preserve our covenant with God.

From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.


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06/25/2010 02:57 PM Posted by: Rabbi Lyon

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

This week, far from Jerusalem, I’m preparing for Shabbat in Bruceville, Texas. You read correctly. About midway between Dallas and Austin, off I-35, sits Greene Family Camp, Texas- Oklahoma region’s Reform Jewish summer camp. For the last 35 years, GFC, as it’s known to its fans, is the coolest (awesome) Jewish summer spot in the state. This summer, nearly 900 campers will fill the bunks in two sessions that run from early June through early August.

Every year, I come to GFC to serve as a faculty member along with many of my colleagues around the region. We have fun teaching, leading and singing with the campers and their counselors. In “Shiurim” or lessons, we integrate Jewish life with secular life and demonstrate how we bring our Judaism with us everywhere we go. At GFC, a mitzvah (good deed) is experienced everywhere everyday, even on the tennis courts, the gymnastics equipment, in the game room around the pool tables, ping-pong tables, and pinball machines, in the big new workout room and indoor basketball courts, around the gazebo, on the high and low ropes courses, down the zip line, at the camp zoo, at the archery range, on the soccer and baseball fields, in the art room, during photography activities, theater arts, at the huge pool, on the mountain bike trails, around the campfire, during bunk activities, in the lake and on the new lake play equipment, in the dining hall, during song session, and on Shabbat, when after all this and much more, we finally rest as a camp community.                

When I arrived at camp this past week, there were new and beautiful improvements all around camp. To begin with, the new sports complex is magnificent. A huge building filled with every imaginable sports activity awaits hundreds of eager campers. They run, jump, bounce, lift weights, and play games. Just outside the sports complex is a new gazebo surrounded by walkways that form a huge Jewish star (Magen David). The American and Israeli flags stand proudly at one end. Around the gazebo, you can imagine the whole community coming together for concerts, programs and special events. The outdoor chapel (beit knessest) has been renovated with new benches for everyone to be seated as services begin. In the evening, when the sun sets behind the hills, it’s a picture perfect place for prayers to find their deepest meaning.                

You might be wondering why I’m so excited about Greene Family Camp. Well, I’m not just a salesman; I’m also a user and donor. GFC has been a summer home-away-from-home and a veritable Israel for hundreds of Jewish kids from every synagogue in the region. Where else but Israel, can Jewish kids live on Jewish time everyday and spend informal time with their rabbis and Jewish counselors, morning, noon and night? That’s why I come here and spend time with our Temple kids and my own. It’s not Jerusalem, but you’d have to go a long way to find anything that compares to Israel. And, we do, in Bruceville, Texas. I give to GFC every year to be sure that in my own small way the camp has what it needs to provide our Jewish kids and future Jewish fathers and mothers everything they need to understand that it’s fun to do a mitzvah, to keep Shabbat, and to feel the power of being part of a Jewish community.                

On top of all that, it’s actually cooler in Bruceville than it is in Houston. So, as the song says, “Bring your Lexus to Bruceville, Texas; follow me to GFC!” See for yourself at  

From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

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