Wrestling with AIDS

Parshat Vayishlach/World AIDS DAY

Genesis 32:3-36:43

This week on Shabbat we will observe World AIDS Day.  We recall so many of our friends and lovers who have succumbed to the complications of HIV/AIDS.  Those very difficult early years when the gay men’s community was decimated have given way to longer lives, better prevention and drugs that help keep opportunistic infections at bay.  Thank goodness for the research! But we are still far away from the cure. Many had hoped by this time that a vaccine would have been perfected.  But researchers are closer than ever.  The NIH has several multi-million dollar grants that have been given out to make this a reality.


And yet many in our midst still suffer.  HIV/AIDS is still in our community and in our congregation. Even as the face of AIDS in America and around the world has changed, we can’t forget that AIDS remains a part of our Kol Ami family.  Even though more and more impoverished people, people of color, and women are increasingly those contracting the HIV virus, AIDS is not gone in the gay men’s community. It still requires hyper-vigilance while dating and hooking up.


And it still requires testing.


Don’t be one who sticks his head in the sand.  If you have multiple partners for sex then get tested and get treatment early if you need to.  We have many resources in our midst. Don’t let it be a shanda.  Don’t let it be an embarrassment and a point of shame.


Shame always leads us down a path of destruction and fear.


In our Torah portion Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with an angel of God the night before he must face his brother Esau.  So many years ago Jacob tricked their father for the blessing and his brother for the birthright.  Jacob had to flee the wrath of his brother and now soon the will reunite.  That evening, Jacob tosses and turns in anticipation.  He remembers how he deceived his brother.  And perhaps now is ashamed of all he did.  In the struggle with the Angel Peniel, Jacob is trying to work through his fear and his shame.

In the end Jacob prevails but will always carry the reminder of that wound that was caused.  He will forever walk differently because of it.  So too if we carry our shame and don’t deal with it will cause us to walk differently, with our heads bowed low rather than the dignity each human being deserves as a made in the image of God!


So let us hold our heads high. No shame in HIV.  But let us as a community care for each other and hold each other as we remember and support one another on this Shabbat of World AIDS Day.


How do we feel God’s Presence?

Parshat Vayetze

Genesis 28:10–32:3

Jacob is on the run.  He is on the run from his brother Esau who is upset with him because he “stole” their father’s blessing.  At their mother’s urging, Jacob is to go to Haran to her brother’s home.  Jacob begins his journey with a dream.  The dream he has is as vivid as life itself.  He dreams of a ladder that connects heaven and earth and he encounters God!  Upon his awakening he knows he has had more than a dream –he has had a prophetic vision.  It changes him.  The feelings linger with him.  And he marks the very spot with a monument of stones calling the place Beth-El.  This spot does become important in subsequent generations as a holy place of connection between God and the Israelites. It becomes a worship site much later in Jewish history.  So Jacob is clearly seeing the future of this holy place in his dreams.

Although he began his trip in fear of his brother, his fear is transformed into awe before God.  Ironically, the Hebrew word for fear and awe are the same, trh.  Jacob says, “God was in the place and I did not know it!”  He is changed by his dreams and although he continues on his journey toward his family he believes God’s presence is with him.

And indeed, Jacob receives all kinds of protection on his sojourn in Haran. Not every moment is easy. He tries to marry his cousin Rachel and is deceived by his uncle Laban.  He marries both Leah and Rachel, sisters but has to work more than 14 years for his uncle!

But Jacob’s blessings continue through the birth of children and acquire additional wives and wealth.

“God was in this place but I knew it not!” exclaimed Jacob.  It is a moment of gratitude that continues throughout his sojourn and his return to Canaan.

As we Americans sit down to our Thanksgiving tables, united with family again as Jacob was in this week’s Torah portion, our challenge is to recognize and give thanks for the many ways God’s presence blesses our lives.  The Thanksgiving holiday asks us to reflect on and share aloud the gratitude we have for family, friends, work and life itself.  These are blessings the Jews gives thanks for each and every day.

So as you sit down together, be reminded of Jacob’s dream and his willingness to acknowledge God’s blessing and presence in his life.  And do the same.

Here is a prayer you might share:

As Jacob felt your Presence, O Holy Blessed One, help us around this Thanksgiving table to feel Your nearness.  Bless this home and all who gather at this table. Let us share in the abundance we know flows from You.  Grant us health and wellbeing and peace of mind and world.  O Holy Blessed One let us acknowledge Your Presence in our lives.  Help us make Your Presence manifest in the world by the actions we taken to perfect your creation.  Let us be able to say, “God was in this place and we knew it not.”     Amen.

ppy Thanksgiving

Dreams do Come True

Parshat Vayeshev

Genesis 37:1 – 44:17

Did you ever have a dream that later came true?

Dreams are an important part of our psychological make-up.  In our sleeping hours we are working through, often mysteriously, issues in our lives.  There are lots about dreams we don’t understand though. Much dream work is about the physiological changes in the brain and in eye movement during dream stages. But there is little psychological work done about dreams.  In an article in Psychology Today Gayle Green, Ph. D. wrote in February, 2010:

“I’ve been attending annual meetings of the Associated Professional Sleep Society (APSS) since 2002. These are conferences where sleep scientists, physicians, psychotherapists, and pharmaceutical researchers gather to share the latest in research and treatments. In the years I’ve been attending, I’ve heard breakthrough discoveries about sleep and the brain that have brought researchers closer to understanding disorders such as narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, even insomnia. But I’ve heard few presentations about dreams. “

Of course Sigmund Freud wrote in his famous book The Interpretation of Dreams, that dreams are “…disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes.”


In the Torah and the Bible, dreams play an important role in the development of our heroes and heroines.  In this week’s portion Vayeshev, we begin the cycle of stories about Joseph.  Joseph is the ultimate dreamer and becomes an interpreter of his own dreams and the dreams of others.

We meet him this week as the favored son of the grieving Jacob.  Joseph is young man who dreams of sheaves and a singular sheaf, his sheaf, that rises above the bundled sheaves of his brothers. Then he dreams that the Sun and the moon and eleven stars bow down to him.

As he related these dreams to his 11 brothers and his father, Jacob, their anger and annoyance and (as the Torah says) hatred of him grew.  Joseph’s dreams may indeed come true but their content says the younger will rule over the elders.

This is hard for the brothers to hear from a favored young teenager.

Joseph would pay a steep price for his dreams and interpretation. The brother’s throw him into a pit and then sell him off as a slave.

But as we will see over the next few weeks of Torah readings, Joseph’s dreams will play an important role in his rise as architect of Egypt’s famine relief.

Sometimes our dreams do come true. They came true for Joseph despite his brother’s objections.

Clearly there is something greater happening in these dreams.  And perhaps, just perhaps in our own dreams as well.

Reunion time

Parshat Vayishlach

Genesis 32:4–36:43

The “Holiday” Season is upon us.  There are lots of gatherings of co-workers, friends and families. Some of these gatherings will be reunions of sorts.  The people you see only once a year at a cocktail party at a friend’s home. There are the family members who gather for latkes and fly in to visit with one another at Chanukah but may only connect through Facebook and phones during the year.  Some of these gathering are wonderful opportunities to make new memories and relive old family tales.  But sometimes these gatherings are filled with anxieties of how the family system will work based upon old wounds, hurts and ways of communicating.


In this week’s Torah portion Vayishlach our patriarch Jacob and his brother Esau face such a reunion.


After 20 years in Haran Jacob heads home toward the land of Canaan.  He had fled so long ago to his mother’s family.  He had deceived his father, Isaac for the family blessing and had gotten his brother Esau to give up his birthright for a simply bowl of lentil stew.  When Esau realized not only what he had done to himself but that the self-inflicted wound was compounded by the loss of the blessing he directed his rage at his twin, Jacob and Jacob fled. On the way he encountered God through a dream and began a process of his own spiritual maturation.

In this week’s reading  Jacob is renamed.  This week he becomes Yisrael-or Israel.  It is truly a culmination of his journey towards God. But to make the covenant truly his own, to journey and be in union with the Holy One’s ways he must confront and reconcile a primary relationship in his life He is headed toward reuniting with his twin-Esau.  He is returning now, to the Holy Lamd married with children and wealth after fleeing as a young single man with nothing but dreams.


And once again he dreams even as he prepares his family to reunite with the brother he wronged so many years ago. He worries about revenge and built up feeling of ill will through the years.   As a result Jacob sends his family to safety and separates them into two camps so that if his brother seeks revenge (and Jacob was warned that Esau was amassing his troops of over 400 men) on Jacob and his family, some would survive.


He sends messengers ahead to meet with his brother, he sends gifts and tries to smooth the waters.

But it isn’t until he wrestles with an angel of God the night before the meeting that Jacob can arise ready for the encounter.  One hopes before a meeting to be renewed and refreshed and spiritually strong and ready and centered for such a reunion.  But Jacob fought and defeated an angel of God.  Jacob demands a blessing even as he is wounded in the encounter.  Yet he does rise up stronger with a new name-Yisrael. The Torah tells us his name means, “I have fought with God and prevailed.”


To reconcile with his brother, his twin, Jacob/Israel must encounter and conquer his own inner demons and doubts.  He can only spiritually be whole when he recognizes his own weakness.  It is ironic that one who must journey on foot is wounded in the thigh, making the journey more difficult.  But perhaps in the ins and outs of family we all do that to ourselves.


The challenge of this season of reunions is not to shoot ourselves in the foot, to wrestle with our selves and the past so that we can re-embrace our families and they us.  Just as Jacob and Esau kiss and reunite this week.  They may eventually go their separate ways but they are spiritually stronger in having made the journey toward each other. And Jacob/Yisrael is stronger in having made the journey towards God.

Working for something-Vayetze

Parshat Vayetze

Genesis 28:10-32:3

In this week’s Torah portion our Patriarch Jacob learns the lesson of hard work. He learns the lesson of what it means to earn your keep; to sacrifice for something you want. As the Parasha opens Jacob is fleeing from his brother Esau. Esau, his twin, has threatened to kill him because Jacob manipulated the blessing from their father Isaac by deceiving him and negotiated with his brother for the birthright. Esau the elder by a few moments had sold his number one son position to his younger brother for a bowl of lentil stew! Esau satisfied his immediate needs by sacrificing his long term security. Jacob didn’t work hard to earn either the inheritance or his father’s blessing. Instead he played upon his brother’s weaknesses and his father’s weakness to take advantage of others. But this mode of operation doesn’t do much for family harmony. It tore the twin brothers apart from each other. It created tensions in Isaac’s family pitting Rebekkah against her husband Isaac. Jacob learns the hard way that if you really want something you must be willing to sacrifice and work hard for it. Not merely manipulate others. Jacob’s journey away from his family actually reunites him with another part of his family: his uncle, Laban. Jacob falls in love with the younger daughter Rachel. But the deal he strikes is that he must work seven years to marry her. But on his wedding night his uncle now deceives the deceiver! Laban switches brides and Jacob wakes up the morning after married to Leah, Rachel’s older sister. Did Jacob not see? Was he blind? (This echoes a theme earlier in the story when Isaac gives the blessing to Jacob- the text says his eyes were dim and he could not see) Did J not know on their wedding night that he was with Leah? Or like his brother Esau did he choose his immediate needs rather than think about what he was working toward? The Torah tells us that Jacob passionately loved Rachel and wanted to marry her so much that he agreed to work an additional seven years for his uncle. So now Jacob is in the position of really having to work hard for his future. He couldn’t just manipulate the situation. He had to follow through on his commitments. This lesson is important because it also is a lesson for Jacob’s relationship to God. Early in this week’s portion as Jacob begins his journey he has an experience of God and makes a pact with God. The commitments that he is learning to make by working 14 years for his uncle are part of the lesson of the nature of fulfilling his commitments to God. None of these are easy lessons. Not for Jacob and not for us. But we can gain some insight into the path of holiness through Jacob’s story this week. Work hard. Don’t cheat others. Live up to your commitments. Don’t take advantage of other’s weaknesses. These basic rules for living in society are the teachings we take from this week’s portion. Jacob failed in many ways this week. But he also learns valuable lessons from his failures and the way he is tested. Let us use these lessons in our own life.

Toledot and Thanksgiving


Parshat Toledot

Genesis 25:19-28:9

This week’s Torah portion is Toledot.  Toledot means generations.  It focuses on the life of Isaac and on the birth of his twin sons Esau and Jacob.  Interesting the Torah portion actually revolves around food! Perhaps that is one of the ironies this week as we celebrate our Thanksgiving feasts.

As the Parasha opens Isaac and Rebekkah like Abraham and Sarah a generation before face a lack of food and must go down to Egypt to survive. And then later in the Parsha, Isaac’s son Jacob cooks a pot of red lentil stew and his hungry hunting brother, Esau trades his inheritance to satiate his immediate hunger.  Esau doesn’t think through the consequences of his ravenous and gluttonous behavior.

There is family strife between the brothers and Jacob deceives his father by masquerading as his brother and receives the blessing and Esau’s plea “Have you no blessing for me father?”  This week’s portion tells of parental favoritism and jealousy and rage between brothers.

The themes of the portion couldn’t be more apropos for the Thanksgiving festivities. For many in our country they have no food to eat. Famine is there every day experience.  We gather to try to feed the hungry but the overwhelming poverty that our nation faces makes this a daunting task.

We feast on food during Thanksgiving and act out our family dramas around our holiday tables.  Families reunite and yet often there is an undercurrent of past hurts and past errors that were never confronted.  Family tensions are brought to the forefront during the holiday season even as people schlep across the miles to reunite!

Yes it sounds like this week’s Torah Portion.

So as you gather around your Thanksgiving table.  Here are some special prayers and readings that you might share together. Place this day in its proper context.  Ratchet down the drama and approach one another with gentleness.  Forgive past hurts and try to forge a foundation of hope and caring together.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Legend of the Five Kernels…
The first winter the Pilgrims spent in their new home was very cold.
Food was in short supply. Some days they had only enough food
for each new person to have five kernels of corn for the day.
Finally spring came. They planted food and it grew. All the Pilgrims did not die.
From then on, when a time of Thanksgiving came around,
the Pilgrims put five kernels of corn on each plate
to remind themselves of their blessings. Let us also remember:

The first kernel reminds us of the autumn beauty around us.
The second kernel reminds us of our love for each other.
The third kernel reminds us of God’s love and care for us.
The fourth kernel reminds us of our friends-especially our Native American
The fifth kernel reminds us that we are a free people.


“Our Creator shall continue to dwell above the sky, and that is where
those on earth will end their thanksgiving.”


thank you God for most this amazing day;
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky;
and for everything which is infinite which is yet.

ee  Cummings


“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”



Thanksgiving Day…. is the one day that is purely American.”

  O’Henry 1862-1910

“I do not think of all the misery, but of the glory that remains. Go outside into the fields, nature and the sun, go out and seek happiness in yourself and in God. Think of the beauty that again and again discharges itself within and without you and be happy.”


The blessing of hope

Parshat Vayehi

Genesis  47:28-50:26

We come to the end of the book of Genesis this week.  These final chapters are also the final chapters in the lives of Jacob and Joseph.  Our patriarch Jacob on his death bed gives a blessing to his sons and to his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe.  His blessing to his grandsons is in the form adoption as he is sorting through the inheritance he will leave his family.  It is the material wealth he has managed to make and acquire throughout his lifetime.  But Jacob also has spiritual wealth to bequeath his family.

For the covenant he has with God will now be transferred to his children.  And through his sons and Eprhaim and Menashe, his grandsons, eachwill become the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel. They will form the basis of the people of Israel that will stand at Sinai to receive the revelation of Torah. They will receive the covenantal promise of hope. This is an enormous legacy.  Jacob who became Yisrael at the river Jabbok on his deathbed transfers the blessings to the sons recognizing their strengths and sometimes their weaknesses.  But offering the hope of God placed in them!

Jacob says, “Come together that I may tell you what will befall you in the days to come” (Gen 49:1). Jacob’s blessing to his children and grandchildren is more like a prophecy.  Jacob has always been a dreamer and visionary. This was inherited by his beloved son Joseph.  Jacob dreamed of the ladder reaching to the heavens at Beth-El. He dreamed and wrestled with an angel of God on the night before he met up with his brother Esau.  God spoke to him in through his dreams revealing the covenantal promise of protection there.
And Joseph his son dreamed great visions of his future.  He learned to interpret those dreams and those of the Pharaoh. And it was this talent and skill that set him as a lord over Pharaoh’s house.
And now in Jacob’s deathbed blessing, his own revelation reveals a different kind of promise to his children based upon knowledge of who they are and who they have been and who he believes they will be.

The blessings we bestow upon our children as parents and grandparents come from our observations.  We can hope. We can dream.  But we do a disservice to our children and grandchildren if we pretend.  Our blessings must be based in reality with all the limitations of our humanity and indeed their limitations.

And yet each Friday night at the dinner table we offer the age old hope of Jacob.  “May you grow to be like Ephraim and Menashe.”  “May you be like Sarah, Rebekkah, Rachel and Leah.”  We pray our children and grandchildren grow into leadership roles as patriarchs and matriarchs themselves!

This is the aspiration that we have.  Not every person is capable. And not every child will grow to be a leader.  But the revelation of the parent or grandparent to every child should be one even while seeing clearly their strengths and weaknesses as Jacob did, still we should offer a blessing of hopefulness.  Hopefulness that we can overcome the weakness and build upon our strengths; just as Jacob’s beloved son Joseph did; father to Menashe and Ephraim!
Joseph overcame his tattle tale, bratty self, to great humility even as he wielded power.  He grew into his faithfulness as a Hebrew even as he lived and became an Egyptian ruler.

And Jacob’s prophetic revelation to Joseph reminded him that he would return to his people in his death just like his own father Jacob. This was a hope. This is the blessing and promise of covenant: to be part of God’s people and inherit the legacy of hope and blessing.  This is what Jacob imparted.  This is what we still impart.

May you have a week of blessing and hope and bring that blessing to others.