Let the Land enter us!

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!

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

Toledot: Is Isaac a Patriarch for all times?

Parshat Toledot

Genesis 25:19-28:9

This week’s Torah portion Toledot is about Isaac, the second of our Patriarchs.  And yet the Torah portion never really tells us much about it him as it does about the people surrounding him.  We only get glimmers of who Isaac is.   We learn of his marriage to Rebekkah and the subsequent way he intercedes with prayer to God to help her conceive.  But much more time is spent on her worries about her children.  We learn about the twins subsequently born to Isaac and Rebekkah and the way they fight all their lives.  We have several stories about Jacob and Esau and their interactions.

We learn about Isaac and Rebekkah’s sojourn to Egypt to escape a famine only to encounter a similar experience as his father and mother.  They become entangled in a lie to the ruling king about the status of their own marriage.  And yet we don’t really have any reflections by the character of Isaac that he is reliving the same scenario!


Throughout this portion dedicated to the life of Isaac we learn little about Isaac himself.

We learn little about how he feels and little about his thoughts.  Isaac is more a foil for all the people around him.

Perhaps the most difficult moment in this week’s Torah portion is the anguish of Isaac’s son Esau. After his younger brother, Jacob, outwitted him for the birthright and their father Isaac’s blessing, Esau cries to his father, “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father.”

Isaac does offer words of blessing but it is clear that the older brother, Esau shall serve the younger brother, Jacob.  This is a pattern that began with Isaac and his older brother Ishmael.


Isaac in some ways was never his own man.  He was always someone’s son-close to his mother Sarah.  Comforted by his wife Rebekkah, Isaac perhaps scarred from the experience of near death on Mt. Moriah beneath the knife his father held kept him from being able to stand on his own and stand up for his own ideas.

We are all products of our families as Isaac was of his.  He saw the strife between Hagar and Sarah.  He was bound to an altar by his father only to return to his mother.  He saw the infertility of his wife and then the subsequent constant trouble between his twin sons.  Isaac was always caught in a storm.

Ironically his name has to do with the laughter of his mother when the angel’s announce his impending arrival.  And yet Isaac’s life is not filled with laughter.  Perhaps that is a reminder to all of us: to look beyond the ways our family destiny keeps us entwined and to work spiritually and psychologically to break free from that which holds us from becoming fully liberated and empowered human beings.  We don’t divorce our families but growing up and maturing is really about the ability to take the good of our families and the not so good and grow beyond them while integrating what’s best.  Onward to the task together.

The Beginning of the Creation

Parshat Bereshit

Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

This week we start the reading of the Torah from the first column of the scroll.  This week we read Parshat Bereshit, the very first portion in the Torah and the descriptions of creation as imagined by our ancestors.  I say descriptions in the plural because there are at least two versions of the origins of humanity in this week’s Torah portion!  And while some try to conflate the two versions, they are very distinct.  In the first, a human being with both male and female characteristics is described.  In the second story of creation we have the more familiar story of Adam and Eve.

Every society has its stories of the beginnings of the world.  The ancient Egyptians believed that at first there was only Nun, the primal ocean of chaos that contained the beginnings of everything to come. From these waters came Ra who, by himself, gave birth to Shu and Tefnut. Shu, the god of air, and Tefnut, the goddess of moisture gave birth to Geb and Nut, the earth god and the sky goddess. And so the physical universe was created.

The Babylonian creation myth begins this way:

When the skies above were not yet named

Nor earth below pronounced by name,

Apsu, the first one, their begetter,

And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,

Had mixed their waters together,

But had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds;

When yet no gods were manifest,

Nor names pronounced, nor destinies decreed,

Then gods were born within them.

What is most powerful about the retelling of the creation myth in our Torah is that instead of many gods and goddesses collaborating to make something out of the chaos we have a single entity that creates the universe out of chaos and void. As it says in Genesis 1:1, “When God began to create, the universe was chaos and void,”

The rabbis added to this creation myth by imagining eternal things and ideas that were created or contemplated by God even before the creation!  These include the Torah, and the Throne of Glory, the Patriarchs, and the People Israel, The Temple and the name of the Messiah! (Midrash Bereshit)

These stories of Jewish tradition are not about science.  But the creation myths are about understanding the eternal values which help us place ourselves in the world and in relationship to other people around us.  Our stories of creation and the beginning of the world and the beginning of humanity help us to see our partnership with God in the care for our Garden Planet, Earth and our need to understand our role in perpetuating eternal values of goodness and justice for all people.

So the next time someone wants to read the Creation story literally with you.  Tell them the literal understanding is in the values of caring for our world that they should be consumed with.

Standing before the New Year


Parshat Nitzavim

Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

This week we read the Torah portion right before Rosh Hashanah, Nitzavim.   Shabbat Nitzavim comes literally a day before the New Year.  As we read the words, we are literally standing at the edge of the New Year.  The Israelites too are standing at the edge of the Promised Land.  We don’t know what to expect and they didn’t know either.


In both cases our ancestors and for us are renewing the covenant with God.  Each year as we come to the edge of the New Year we come face to face with our traditions and the chance to renew our connection to God through our holy covenant, first given at Mt. Sinai.  On the New Year and during the Ten Days of Awe through to Yom Kippur even as we purge ourselves of our sins and purify ourselves from them, we get ready to stand up and receive the Revelation of our unique path in the world. The Torah, our covenantal promise and ethical blueprint for living is renewed and we re-affirm our commitment to this Jewish way of life!



This week’s Torah portion makes it abundantly clear that this is our task.  The words of Torah to the Israelites remind us that this covenant is made with the Israelites as they stood across the Jordan from Eretz Yisrael and simultaneously this covenant is made with future generations.  That is all of us!  And the Torah portion reminds us that this covenant isn’t too hard to follow.  It is simple no matter what our station in life.  The words of Torah, God’s words of instruction, are clear.

The Torah even describes our straying from the Jewish way.  It describes how we will chase after false gods but it also describes how we will be brought back to the Jewish way of life.  “You will return and listen to the voice of Adonai” (Deut. 30:7).  This is our task during these Days of Awe: To return in love and listen to God speak to us once again, even if we have previously gone astray.   And this is the message of Nitzavim.


The Torah portion reminds us that God gives us free will.  “I set before you this day, life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life that you and your offspring shall live” (Deut. 30:19). We are a people who choose to affirm life.  We are a people whose covenant affirms life and goodness and the blessing that comes from our covenantal way of life.


That is why what happened in Libya to our Ambassador Christopher Stevens and Foreign Service Information Officer Sean Smith and 2 other US personnel is so shocking to our sensibilities.  Protest is one thing. Murder in cold blood another.  In a Democracy even a fledgling one like Libya protest is healthy but when it turns deadly and violent it is a violation of our beliefs. We Jews believe we have free will and can control our actions. Violence of that sort and murder  and terrorism is against our way of life.  Choose life.  That is what we are to do.

As we stand on the edge of the New Year looking into the Promised Land of 5773, we offer our condolences to the families of the slain diplomats.  And we re-commit ourselves to the notion that choosing life and blessing should guide us into the New Year.


Parshat Ekev

Deuteronomy 7:12-11:15

This week’s Torah portion Ekev, continues Moses’ farewell address to the Children of Israel.  Moses is trying to prepare the Israelites for entering the Promised Land. Moses reminds them that despite their errors and sins along the journey from Egypt (The Golden Calf, the lies of the spies, the lack of faith, the demand to satisfy their lust for meat,) God is fulfilling the promise and covenant made with the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  For their sake the Israelites will be able to cross over the Jordan into a new life! 


Moses tries to make sure that the Israelites won’t forget their past! No one achieves success on their own.  By reminding the Israelites of their ancestors and of God’s faith in them the Israelites can go on to achieve great things in the Promised Land.  But Moses also reminds them of their own duty to be faithful to the One God and not stray into idol worship.  These will break the covenant and cause havoc within the household of Israel. They are able to cross over on the merit of their ancestors but to maintain their stakehold in Eretz Yisrael they will be accountable for their own actions.


Moses reminds the Israelites that the bounty of a land flowing with milk and honey must not be taken for granted.  God helped provide this land to them.  And God must not be forgotten.  The wealth and abundance of Eretz Yisrael must not lead them to forget the role the Holy One has played and continues to play in their lives. They are God’s treasured ones. If they let their own egos get in the way-then they will see the land and it’s plenty slip from them.  Thus they are to thank God for the food they eat and bless the land that grows its fruits.


This is as applicable today as it was in ancient times.  All too often we think we do everything on our own.  Our success and our failures are part of a larger picture of ourselves.  We are shaped by our family and friends.  We are shaped by our faith and Jewish traditions and customs.  Even if we are not the most “religious” of Jews, we are taught that everything we have comes from God!  And we can and ought to give thanks for the many gifts that help us succeed.  We have blessings in Jewish tradition for everything; For health, for the body working; for food; for wine; for a rainbow seen in the sky.  Gratitude helps us put our lives and all we have been blessed with into perspective.


In a week when more tragedy has struck our country, the burning of a mosque in Missouri and the deaths of so many at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin and we are barely recovered from the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, we feel the pain caused by hatred.  As Jews we know what it is like to be seen as the other. The unity of all humanity is a principle of Jewish teaching.  The Shema prayer reminds us of God’s oneness and humanity’s task to be one with God.  Even as hatred rears its ugly head to demean others. We must assert each and every day: “Love your neighbor as yourself”.  This is the prime principle.


May the memories of those who died be for a blessing.