Awaken My Soul/We Shall Overcome

•September 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The musical piece that followed my Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon is below.

Cantor Mark Saltzman and Jeremy Gimbel  with Alec Milstein on Bass

Awaken My Soul: A sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

•September 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Shana Tovah

Wow! Wasn’t this something.  Thank you Cantor and Jeremy and the Kol Ami New Year’s Band for such an uplifting beginning to our Rosh Hashanah 5775!


We all need awakening for the New Year.   Tonight we can say goodbye to the tzoris of last year.  For the last few months I just wanted to pull the covers over my head and keep sleeping.  I wanted to pretend that the turmoil of the world was not my concern. So many tragic happenings: War on Israel and the Gazan people who are hostages to Hamas, Ferguson, Mo and the turmoil there; drought, Children fleeing as refugees from violence to America only to be treated horribly warehoused and becoming a political football; ISIS and beheadings, Anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world, the Ebola virus growing in Africa. It is enough to crawl away and not deal with it.

But this time of year-calls us, calls each of us to wake up and anticipate the possibility that with the New Year blossoming before us tonight, together Jews around the world might coach out our eternal prayer of hope for us and for the world.

We are a people who have been schooled in tragedies throughout our history. And yet, we the bearers of Jewish history, custom, tradition and values, time and again, believe that the world can be better. We cannot and must not give up the hope that through our prayer and our actions we can affect positive change.  This New Year’s arrival calls us to implement change within ourselves and in the world around us. The sounding of the shofar is vehicle for teshuvah, repentance. Its sound—the sound of a child sobbing in search of the parent he has abandoned—wakens our hearts to return to God and restore and intensify the relationship we have damaged with our transgressions.

I have taught you time and again that Teshuva, means not only repentance but also turning around.  This holy day period- this Asseret Yamei Teshuvah, These Ten Sacred Days of Turning-means that we turn ourselves around, we repent of those words and deeds that harm ourselves and our families, our world, and we turn it over to create a new life for ourselves and our world.  Think of this as a holy dance to the sacred music of the Shofar. This is the hope of our people.  We believe humanity can be better. We believe the world can be better. We believe that we can strive to walk in the ways of goodness, righteousness, and compassion. We believe that we can triumph over evil.

These are our values and the Shofar is our clarion call.

A story:

A professor walked around a room while teaching stress management to her students.

As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the “half empty or half full?” question.

Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: “How heavy is this glass of water?”

Answers called out ranged from 8 oz., 12 oz to 20 oz.

She replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it.

  • If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem.
  • If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm.
  • If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed.

In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

She continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water; think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt.  And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.”

So too with our sins and transgression and the problems of the world in the world. The longer we hold on to them the more incapable we become of doing anything about them.

This is what we hear in the blasts of the Shofar—tekiah, teruah, shvarim, tekiah—wake up you and you and you, wake up world, awaken your soul, and turn around. Get rid of those things that are chipping away at your soul. The sounds of the shofar are calling us to focus on hope and the New Year rather than our worries.  It’s calling us to get rid of the errors, the lies we tell ourselves and others. It is telling us through each note:  Hate evil and love what is good, as our Prophets Amos and Micah taught.

The holy days are here to shake up your soul to engage in Teshuvah and to help restore hope in yourself, the Jewish people and the world!

The Baal Shem Tov, the great founder of Chasidic Judaism, taught that just as one can grasp a physical thing by holding on to it, so can one grasp the soul by calling its name. For this reason, a sleeping person wakes up when his name is called,  (Toledoth Yaakov Yosef, Shemoth (42d)  Sefer Baal Shem Tov  Bereshit 121 Keter Shem Tov 104).

Tonight and tomorrow, the Shofar is asking you to awaken-it is calling your name out loud… Jew.  Tekiah, Jew wake up. Teruah-it’s time to turn and change, Shvarim, it’s urgent now. Tekiah—don’t go back to letting your soul sleep- awaken your soul, its time to overcome- and restore faith and hope in yourself, God, the Jewish people and in the world!

Maimonides the greatest of our Jewish philosophers and legal interpreters wrote in the opening to the Laws of the Shofar in the Mishneh Torah,  “It is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to hear the blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, as it is stated: “It shall be a day of blowing the horn to you. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shofar, 1:1)

The mitzvah, your responsibility is hearing the notes of the Shofar. Maimonides continues “Although the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Torah decree, there is an allusion in it as well. It says: “Be roused, sleepers, from your sleep, and slumberers, wake from your slumber; search your deeds and return in teshuvah…” remember your Creator and return to God in repentance. Do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows and waste their years seeking vanity. Look well to your souls and consider your deeds; turn away from your wrong ways and improper thoughts.” (Mishneh Torah 3:4)

Maimonides understood exactly what I am saying tonight to each of you. Wake up people.  Wake up Jews.  Wake up world.  We cannot sit idly by without hope for if we do we will succumb to the evil and the horror that is present.  It will incapacitate us. In fact the Hebrew root of the word Shofar, L’hishtafer means to make better, to improve…. The Shofar is calling us to make ourselves and improve the world!

And there is evil in the world right now.  We see it every day in the headlines.  Judaism has struggled for a long time with the notions of good and evil.  But evil doesn’t exist as a separate entity challenging God.  It’s not like “the Devil made me do it!”  The Jewish truth is that human beings have the capacity to do evil. We have the moral responsibility to make a choice. And our Torah is very clear—Choose life over death. Choose goodness over unkindness; our system of Torah, our mitzvoth, our values try to elevate the human soul, shape the human soul so that we aspire to being honorable and righteous rather than to evil.  This New Year being together, hearing the shofar is a hedge against those evils.

The problem of evil also played an important role in the Jewish philosophy of Martin Buber. For Buber the source of evil was the failure to enter into relationship with others and God, and conversely evil can be redeemed by the reestablishment of relations. (Hu)Man(ity) is not evil by nature, but the misuse of (human) nature generates evil. (Some) can carry evil so far as to give it a kind of independent quality. However, evil is never an independent entity but such (people) crystallize it into a perverse resistance to the individual’s self-fulfillment in relation.

The late great poet and author Maya Angelou reflected on evil

We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily — as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings,” she says. “ I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.”

Both Maya Angelou and Professor Buber understood that the courage to confront evil and immorality that lurks in human beings has the power to elevate us. On this Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the Shofar urges you to detach your soul from those actions that literally pull you into the chaos of our times.  Hear the call of the shofar pulling you back toward balance.  Hear the call of the shofar urging you to improve. Hear the sound of the Shofar calling for your essential beauty.  Hear the sounds of the shofar awakening you to do teshuvah. And that teshuvah is turning inward so we can turn outward. Teshuvah will allow us to redefine ourselves. We are no longer the person of the past: the person of weakness; the person who couldn’t control herself; the one who harmed others with words or actions. The process of teshuvah urged on by the sound of the Shofar will call us toward repentance of our sins and will help us restore our connection to ourselves, to God and our place in the world.  True repentance returns us to spiritual balance.

It was a snowy night and Robert was recalling the time two springs ago when he was determined to paint the family room. Up early, he was out the door, to the hardware store gathering the gallons of red, the wooden mixing sticks, the drop cloths, and the one-time brushes that always harden, no matter what you soak them in.

He mixed the paint outside and waddled to the door with a gallon in each hand, the drop cloth under his arm, and a wide brush in his mouth. He began to chuckle in telling what happened, “I teetered there for minutes, trying to open the door, not wanting to put anything down. I was so stubborn. I had the door almost open when I lost my grip, stumbled backwards, and wound up on the ground, red gallons all over me. I lost my balance carrying too much”

At this point, he laughed at himself, as he has done many times. Amazingly, we all do this, whether with groceries or paint or with the stories we feel determined to share. We do this with our love, with our sense of truth, even with our pain. It’s such a simple thing, but in a moment of ego we refuse to put down what we carry in order to open the door. Time and time again, we are offered the chance to truly learn this: we cannot hold on to things and enter. We must put down what we carry, open the door, and then take up only what we need to bring inside.

It is a basic human sequence: gather, prepare, put down, and enter. But failing as we do, we always have that second chance: to learn how to fall, get up, and laugh. (

This is the time of year for Jews. This is the time to put down the past and enter the New Year, pull away from temptations, have the courage to face the inner self ushered and strengthened by the sounds of the shofar.  The shofar is calling us to awaken.


The challenge this New Year’s Eve-is the same for each of us.  Through Torah, prayer, reflection, and meditation; by rebuilding our relationships to one another, to the Jewish people and to God we can restore balance to the world. We can as Professor Buber teaches us overcome the evils that human beings create by committing to live a different kind of life.  By setting down the past, and walking through the opening of a new day and a New Year; through this holy day season and for the next Ten days try to restore our spiritual balance. Through making teshuvah and the call of the Shofar we can awaken to a new day and yes, a new world.  By recommitting to our covenant, our Jewish responsibilities we too will have a stake in restoring balance to the world and ourselves.  At this New Year we must awaken ourselves, our souls to the cause of justice, and hope. Of combating the evil we create. We can heal the world if we begin to heal ourselves through teshuva.

May this be our prayer.

So said the Holy Blessed One to Israel.

“My beloved children. I lack nothing that I should ask of you.  So what do I ask of you? Just that you love one another and respect one another and be awed by one another. (Tanna de be Eliyahu 2b).

This indeed is our task-so let the shofar awaken our souls to love one another.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775

Universal and Particular

•September 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The Universal and Particular

Next week we will be observing Rosh Hashanah. I look forward to greeting each of you at our magnificent High Holy Day services at the Artani Theatre at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC )in Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles.  Our New Year’s observances are different than many other cultures. Most are big celebration with fireworks, parties of wild abandon and some even parades.  Our New Year begins with introspection and culminates at Yom Kippur, our day of atonement.  Our ancestors recognized that if we are going to really start afresh in a New Year that we cannot bring the hurts, grudges, resentments, sins, and impurities with us into a new calendar.

These two holy days  of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur work hand in hand.  They rely on one another. Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of creation has with it an emphasis on universalism.  Its themes are a celebration of human dignity for all people.  Yom Kippur, ten days later focuses on the individual, on the particular.  It is a time of rebirth for the individual person who at the close of the gates of Heaven at Neilah, can now enter the New Year as a new you!   You can’t have one without the other because then you get a skewed view of this Season.  Rosh Hashanah and its themes and prayers and reflections move us from the universal to the particular and by end of Yom Kippur we move from the particular back to the Universal.  You can see this pattern in the Torah and Haftarah portions for the High Holy Days.

On Rosh Hashanah we will read from Gensis 21 and 22.  The first is the story of Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac and Abraham.  We will learn about difficult family dynamics which is universal. We will learn about the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that he will father many nations since Ishmael becomes the link to the Arab nations and Isaac to the Jewish people.  And in Genesis 22, read together with Genesis 21 we learn about the value of children in our lives and what we must do to protect them.  These are universal themes: Parents who must protect their children, many nations tracing their ancestry to Abraham.  On Rosh Hashanah God answers the prayers of Hagar, Sarah, and in our Haftarah, Channa.  God is not the exclusive God of just men or just Jews.  But God hears the prayers of all people and all nations.  Our Haftarah on the second day reminds us however in a particularistic way that God does love the Jewish people too.

Contrast that with Yom Kippur Torah readings which remind us about our specific covenant with God.  “You stand before Me this day….” This is our particularistic Jewish covenant with God and the way in which we must “stand before the Eternal this day”, one to one, to ask for atonement for our wrongdoings, to renew our covenant and to be reminded in the afternoon how we, the Jewish people must live out our ethical and moral worldview in everyday life.  This is reinforced by the prophet Isaiah in the Haftarah of the morning service reminding us that our covenant with God means nothing if we are so focused on the ritual that we forget how to act in the world caring for the hungry, the naked and the poor.  The afternoon portion teaches us “Be holy for I Adonai your God is holy.” The Jewish way of being in the world is definitely a higher standard.  We are reminded on Yom Kippur of that standard and as we enter the New Year, forgiven, cleansed and spiritual purified we are sent on our way with a reminder of how we should act in the New Year.  But the Haftarah on Yom Kippur returns us to the Universal in contrast with the Haftarah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  The story of Jonah reminds us that repentance, teshuvah is necessary but this is not only a Jewish ideal but God’s compassion extends to all people even the sinful people of Nineveh.  It teaches us that even though Jonah is the chosen prophet of God, God is still responds to all people.

Thus our holy days work together beginning with the Universal on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur we atone in very specific, particularistic ways.  Their message speaks to us of the importance of being a moral and ethical human being in everything we do.  The holy days teach us to rise above our baser instincts and act in the world accordingly.  This is the Jewish task. And this is what we remind ourselves of and pray for during this High Holy Day season.

I look forward to sharing this New Year time with you.  Join us to kick it off with Selichot, this Saturday night, Sept. 20 for a great “Nite at the Improv” as we explore through improvisation, the Biblical stories of the High Holy Days creating our own modern Midrash.  It begins with Havdallah at 7 pm at Kol Ami.

I hope to see you there.

Sex and the Jews

•September 16, 2014 • Leave a Comment

This is an important Review of the New book The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality.  It is edited by Rabbi Dr. Lisa Grushcow of Montreal, Canada. It is published by the CCAR Press .  I have two chapters in this collection one on Taharat HaMishpacha-family purity and another on the history of LGBT inclusion within the Reform Movement.  I hope you enjoy this review and purchase the book.  It is a definitive collection!

Sex and the Jews.

Let the Land enter us!

•September 12, 2014 • Leave a Comment

This week’s Torah portion Ki Tavo gives the Israelites explicit instructions having to do with entering and living in the land of Israel.  There are specific rituals outlined to ensure that this group that has been a nomadic tribe for almost 40 years be tied to the holy land of Eretz Yisrael.  The Israelites are told to honor the land and the produce by setting aside tithes to God and dedicating those at the Tabernacle.  The Israelites must also write out the Torah on large plaster stones, near the river Jordan for all to see. These steles enumerated the laws of the land.  And there is a unique ritual that divides up the 12 Tribes into two groups of six to be stationed one group on Mt. Gezerim and other on Mt. Ebal. An elaborate ritual follows of blessings and curses that will befall the Israelites unless they adhere to the covenant in the land.

While these ancient rituals may not have much practical application today we can learn something important from them in our own day and time.  The values the jump out here and that should speak to us in contemporary times, is our Jewish connection to the sacred land of Israel.  All Jews no matter how observant or not, has a place in Israel.  This is our homeland; our ancient homeland. We are descendants of those very Israelites who came and settled the land per the covenant with our God.  The modern State of Israel is the rebirth of that ancient promise and we have a duty and responsibility that ties us to Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel and its peoples.

The modern State of Israel is a complex place. Our love for Israel should recognize the complexities in contemporary life.  Like America has its issues and problems, so does Israel. But like America, Israel has many successes and things to be proud of, not the least of which is a vibrant and diverse culture and democratic values.

The Torah portion begins Ki Tavo el haaretz, When you come into the land.  Our job as Jews in the 21st century is to enter into a relationship with Israel. By going there regularly. Buying Israeli products and helping to sustain the land and its people.  Subscribe to Israeli papers, read from its great canon of writers and poets, build a connection with the people of Israel. It will lift your Jewishness to a new height.  And as much as we shall enter the land, let the land enter into our hearts and spirits.

I invite you to hear the Consul General of Israel at Kol Ami, Thursday night Sept. 18 as we host the launch of the Israel-West Hollywood AIDS Task Force.  6:30-8 pm . The West Hollywood City Council and the Consul General will forge a new bond of cooperation and exchange on issues of AIDS/HIV through this new and important task force.

Let the land enter us!

NFL and Domestic Violence

•September 9, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Domestic Violence is out of the closet.  The graphic video of NFL player Ray Rice slamming a knock-out punch directly to the face of his wife in a casino elevator is causing our country and the world to discuss a terrible and wide-spread problem of Domestic Violence. Most often this violence is men hitting women.  But it can be women hitting men, or even same sex partners.  Domestic Violence often begins as verbal and emotional abuse and can escalate to physical violence which can include hitting, biting, restraining, and torture.  There are many cases that have resulted in murder.

(If you or someone you know is a victim of abuse call the confidential hotline 1-800-799-7233 | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) or visit their website

The way the National Football League has handled this and in particular, the Commissioner Roger Goodell and also the Baltimore Ravens seem more intent on protecting their profits than dealing with a major social issue that has affected many of their players and coaches. It isn’t just Ray Rice, but Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49’s, Greg Hardy of  the Panthers and Quincy Enumwah, practice squad of the Jets.  And that is just this year’s batch!

The fact that the NFL was slow to deal with Ray Rice at first suspending him for only two games but then after the video came to light suspending him indefinitely tells me that Roger Goodell and the good ole’ boys of the NFL wanted to keep this in the closet. If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.  That’s the problem with Domestic Violence.  We don’t often see it happen.  We see evidence of it, broken bones and black eyes–but then it is often “I fell down the stairs”  (when they were really pushed) or “I ran into something” (when it was really a fist that ran into them).

The NFL doesn’t want to deal with lots of issues, concussions, drug use by players, betting, nor domestic violence.  I am not suggesting that the NFL can be a policeman for every player or coach or employee that is part of the NFL but it must do a better job of accountability.

The NFL gets lots of tax breaks both from the federal government and then owners often get tax breaks as they demand that municipalities build new stadiums so they can make more money.  The NFL pays NO federal income tax. That means all the billions it makes is costing you and I lots of money.  And that doesn’t even buy you a ticket to one of the games! The least the NFL can do is be a responsible business and that means zero tolerance for domestic violence and to be transparent in what it does. Especially because we are observing the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, you would think the NFL wouldn’t want to alienate its many women fans.  But I can tell you they have alienated this woman by the way they have acted.  Time to change, Roger that!Ray-Rice_01-300x286Roger-Goodell



The Heat of the Day

•September 7, 2014 • Leave a Comment

In Southern California early September is still hot.  Sizzling hot.  The drought we are experiencing in much of the west gets worse by the hour.  It is a true emergency.  Many people are experiencing sky high water bills because the Water Department has raised rates so much.  It makes oil seem cheap.  Recently I pulled out my thirsty front lawn and put in  drought resistant mulch and plants native to California. This included a drip irrigation watering system that uses only 6 gallons a week which is a flush of an older toilet. Some toilets today are as low as three gallons.

Imagine if everyone replaced their lawns and switched to low flush toilets.  This could make a huge difference in our water usage.  But it won’t solve all of our water problems.  This past year, the State of California and Israel signed an important agreement on Research and Development in four areas–cyber security, energy, storage capabilities and water!  Israel has solved its water crisis by building large desalinization plants that can now handle the growth of Israel’s population. No longer is Israel dependent on the small Jordan River for all of its fresh water needs.

California has miles and miles of coast line.  Perhaps we ought to green light desalinization plants to help us through this drought.  California grows significant amounts of this nation’s fruits and vegetables.  It is not just a California drought, it is a drought for the whole nation if we can’t supply the food needed.

Urge your representatives in the next session of our State Assembly and Senate to deal with our sever water crisis. Let’s boost funding now.  Life depends upon it.


Here is a map of existing and proposed plants.


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