Sunday, May 5, 2019

“My Heart Is In The East:”

Dear Friends,

I am writing you this message while on a ship traveling on the Iberian Peninsula. I am participating as a faculty member on a unique Jewish Music Cruise sponsored by the World Union For Progressive Judaism.  During the course of our journey we will be visiting Jewish Communities from Portugal to Spain. I will be performing music and teaching while aboard ship.  

While Sue and I are enjoying the many amazing experiences on our journey, news from around the world makes it difficult to focus on our surroundings.  Over the past two days over 600 rockets have been launched from Gaza into Southern Israel. The IDF has responded by seeking to root out and eliminate the Hamas terrorists who are responsible. As I write these words, we have learned that four Israelis have been killed in unprovoked attacks.  Twenty two Palestinians have died and there have been many injured on both sides. These numbers will surely increase. Already the propaganda wheels have been churning. News reports have been focusing on the damage inflicted on the Palestinians. Israeli casualties are but a footnote. Little has been said about the fact that this was an unprovoked attack upon civilians that demanded a forceful response.

This Thursday, I will be teaching a class onboard the ship about the Hebrew Poetry of two medieval writers - Yehuda Halevi and Solomon Ibn Gabirol. One of Halevi’s most famous works begins with the words:  “My Heart is in the East, and I am in the uttermost ends of the West.” This poem, written in 12th Century Spain, encapsulates both the longing for and the love that our people have expressed towards the Land of Israel. No matter where we live - in Denver, in Spain, in Ramat HaNegev (our partnership community in Israel that is directly in the line of fire), or any other corner of the world - Jews have always turned our hearts towards our homeland. The words of this poem echo in my consciousness as I travel in the footsteps of the poet and listen to the news of this latest outrage.

Regardless of our feelings about the current political climate, we must commit ourselves to supporting and caring for our brothers and sisters in Israel. Now is a time for public and vocal support of the legitimate actions of the IDF as they act to protect their citizens. The words of Halevi are as profound today as they were 900 years ago. Let us pray for peace. Let us strive to provide a sense of balance as we turn our hearts towards Jerusalem.

I look forward to seeing you all upon my return,


Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Friday, April 26, 2019

Crumbs and Rememberance - Pesach Yizkor, 2019

Pesach Yizkor – April 6, 2019
Rabbi Joe Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

Pesach always has been my favorite holiday. No – I don’t like eating matzah.  By the end the 4th day, I usually find myself dreaming about pizza and pasta. What is most special about pesach is not merely gastronomical (although I do love Green Chile Matzah Balls – something I picked up after 14 years in New Mexico).  Pesach is about memory.  It’s about tradition – the way we come together, tell an ancient story about rebirth and renewal and simultaneously holding on to ancient traditions that bind us together.  Pesach is as much about family recipes, personalities around the Seder table, love and laughter as it is about the powerful story of redemption and freedom that we retell every year.

But, as we grow older, we realize that Pesach – and other important occasions as well – are also about loss.  It’s impossible for me to go to or lead a Seder without remembering my parents, grandparents and dear family friends who used to sing, laugh, cook for us and eat with us – and who now exist only in fond and fading memories.  When I sing Chad Gadya, for example, it is the voice of my father who guides me.  When I cook Chicken soup for the Seder, I try to make it taste like my Grandmother used to make it – and I always fall short.  And, inevitably it hits me: my memories of pesach propel me to ensure that I create new memories for my children, family and friends, so that they, too can share the legacy of love and caring that shape their connection to Judaism and tradition.

There comes a time in each of our lives when we are suddenly thrust into awareness that a baton has been passed – that we are the ones responsible for telling the story to the next generation – the story that was told to us by our parents and grandparents – and that they, in turn, inherited from those who came before them.

Sometimes this awareness comes gradually.  Other times it is sudden, jolting and disruptive. This past week, as I was preparing to host my own Seder, for some reason, I was suddenly transported to the day that I learned that my father died. It was November, 2011.  My phone rang.  My sister, Nina was calling.  I picked up the phone and heard the words: “Daddy’s gone.” At that moment, everything changed. I remember telling someone: “I need to go home – my father just died.”

Saying those words, “My Father just died,” seemed surreal.  Impossible. I didn’t cry right away – although many tears were shed in the days and weeks that followed. I managed to hold it together and drive home – although, in hindsight, I probably should not have gotten behind the wheel. I remember looking at other people and thinking to myself: “These people are oblivious. They are going about their daily lives. They are experiencing joys and frustrations, but they still have a father – I don’t.”

Everything changed at that moment.

But the truth is, we have no idea what traumas and tragedies people are experiencing at any given moment. Each person’s loss is unique – but it is also universal. Those of us who have been blessed with relatively painless lives cannot conceive of others’ suffering until we are suddenly thrust into the abyss of loss. Most of us have been there.  Most of us were not prepared. Maybe that’s yet another function of Pesach. The Book of Exodus teaches us that the Israelites left Egypt in haste – eating Matzah because there was no time for bread dough to rise.  Matzah is not only the bread of affliction, it is also the bread of overnight transformation. On the eve of the Exodus, our ancient ancestors were suddenly thrust into a new reality.  They had little, if any time to prepare.  Matzah is messy – each year when we open our haggadot, the stale crumbs of last year’s Seder fall into our hands. Each crumb can be seen as a memory. Each speck of last year’s festivities remind us of just how fragile life is. Love and loss are intertwined. Memories, like matza crumbs, get nestled into the nooks and crannies of our life-stories and appear, without warning, when we least expect them. Sometimes they are welcome guests. Other times, they force us to relive the traumas that reshaped our lives in an instant.

When someone precious is taken away from us, we are bequeathed with both a gift and a responsibility. The gift, as painful as it can be to receive, is the opportunity to cherish the memories and the love that has been bestowed upon us. The responsibility is to share them with others and ensure that they will be passed on to the next generation.

On Pesach we celebrate rebirth and renewal. We give thanks for new beginnings and new life – even as we feel the pangs of our loss.
I want to conclude with a poem that I wrote about my father, shortly before he died.

My Father Has Hazel Eyes
My Father has hazel eyes.
I’d like to think when he was younger
He could see a world of wonders
With an emerald sheen
In between
The hardship and the hope
The need to fight or cope
With a panoply of lies.

My father’s skin is smooth
Though easily bruised.
He stares into a distant
Seeing. Not seeing.
Being .  Not being.
Perhaps recalling for an instant
A time
When legs and lips and loins competing
Jingling pocket sounds completing
A trajectory of mine.

My father, always singing
(Telling me that he was there).
With ancient rhythms mingling
Through our home and in the air.
His laughter pierced the sadness
His anger deep below
His love was filled with gladness
And his heart did overflow
His hopes lay in his offspring
And his dreams were locked up tight
With every day an offering
Whistling praises in the night.

My father’s voice is gone now
Like a winter’s lawn now
Or a debt repaid
Or a bed unmade
Waiting to be stripped
A hand that’s lost its grip
On the world that spins around him
Or the people that surround him
Preparing their goodbyes.

My son has hazel eyes.
He sees with intuition,
A clarity of vision
Searching hard for things that matter
Amidst the riffraff and the chatter
In the greenish hues of spring
In the songs he loves to sing
And every day a new surprise.

Chag Sameach

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Tragedy and Transcendence: Opening Prayer for the CO State House in a Time of Holiness and Horror

Our God and God of all people:

This Friday night, Jews around the world will tell the ancient story of Passover.  We will gather around our seder tables and experience the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom and redemption. On Easter Sunday, Christians will celebrate the potential to be reborn with hope and faith.

This is a sacred time – when we are reminded of both the fragility of life and the potential for renewal and redemption. Now should be a period of gratitude and introspection that helps us to see the best in all of humanity.

And yet, in the midst of these festivals of holiness and hope, over the past two days our state was suddenly and brutally thrust into a climate of terror and dread brought about by a heartbreakingly disturbed young woman who played out her demons as we anticipated the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

The juxtaposition of the anticipation of these two sacred festivals with the ugliness and paralysis of potential violence reminds us just how little progress has occurred in the years since our innocence was shattered on April 20th, 1999. We have become numb to the horrors of violence brought about by each new tragedy. For a parent to have to tell their child that it is too dangerous to go to school is an obscenity and anathema to the values that are embodied in this sacred chamber.

When messages of rebirth and redemption are overshadowed by fear, we must take stock in who we are and who we are becoming. We can try to write off each tragic incident as distinct and separate, but taken in an aggregate we have no choice but to acknowledge that there is a sickness in our nation that cannot be ignored. Whether it is caused by easy access to weapons of destruction or the political divisions that paralyze us, it is essential that we come together to bring about change – to strive to see the veracity and sanctity of all humanity – even if we disagree. If the deaths of innocents are not enough to move us to action, then what have we become?

May the messages of hope and rebirth symbolized by both Passover and Easter motivate all of us to see the holiness infused in every soul. As we anticipate this painful anniversary, may we be inspired to use every means at our disposal to ensure that the hopelessness and despair that we have been feeling these past two days will be replaced by a sacred determination to bring about healing and change.  Only then will we be able to ensure that we are doing God’s work on earth.


Friday, April 12, 2019

My remarks at the Religious Freedom Day Event at the CO State Capital - April 12, 2019

Our God and the God of all people:
God of the rich, and God of the poor;
God of the strong and God of the weak;
God of the faithful and God of those who have no God.
We come here today – from many different faith traditions – to celebrate the beauty of diversity and the freedom to proclaim, celebrate and practice our faith traditions without fear.
Our nation was built on a foundation of both tolerance and hope.  The immigrants and refugees who, in the past came to this country – and those who strive to follow in their footsteps today – all too often were driven to our shores out of desperation and with a vision of hope for a better world.
We also know that others were brought here in captivity in order to sustain a system of profit-making built on the backs of slave labor.
Our past is checkered.
There have been times when our doors were closed to outsiders.
There have been times when the ugliness of bigotry and prejudice threatened the very values upon which our constitution was framed.
In times of darkness and in times of hope, our nation’s strength has always been found in the twin premises of diversity and openness.
Let our prayers and supplications ascend – not only to the heavens, but also to all who challenge the freedoms that are the bedrock of our civilization:
·        The freedom to worship in safety;
·        The freedom to pass on our values to the next generation;
·        The freedom to serve those less fortunate than ourselves;
·        The freedom to proudly proclaim our allegiance to both our God and our Country without fear
As we gather today to celebrate religious freedom, let us also remember just how fragile and precious our freedoms truly are. We call you by many names.  We pray in different voices – but we are linked together in a chain of faith.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Our Budget Reflects Our Values: Invocation for the CO State House - April 4, 2019

Our God and God of all people:

On this sacred day – these legislators are focused on the difficult task of approving a $32 Billion budget for our beautiful State of Colorado.   While many perceive the budgeting process as a tedious wrangling of numbers from one column to another, there is another perspective.  Instead of seeing columns, figures and numbers, I humbly suggest that we also consider the fact that each dollar allocated can be an opportunity to bring about change and instill hope in the lives of all too many of our citizens whose capacity for wonder is compromised by the brutal struggle for daily existence.

Our budgets reflect our values.

Our values color our vision of the world around us.

Our vision determines the way we fulfill the sacred responsibilities that have been entrusted to us – as legislators, citizens and servants of a God who holds us to high standards of compassion and cooperation.

On this day of deliberation, let us pray that instead of numbers, these lawmakers might see faces of the men, women and children who are  affected by each column in the balance sheet and each line item that is added or subtracted before the final results are tallied.

At the end of this day, may all of these dedicated public servants be able to find peace in the knowledge they have done all that they could  to make our world, our state, our neighborhoods, our homes – ourselves – just a little bit better.

May politics and pride be no stumbling block to the achievement of the shared goal of working to perfect this all-too imperfect world.

God, we thank you for the opportunities You have given us to make a difference.  May we continue to go and grow from strength to strength.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Remarks at the Solidarity Vigil at the Denver Islamic Center Following the Shooting in New Zealand

Our God and God of all Humanity. 

We come here today to express our grief in the aftermath of the tragic and horrific act of terror that took place less than 48 hours ago in Christchurch, NZ. 

Our hearts are broken as we think about the violence and hatred that stole away the lives of at least 50 precious souls who did nothing other than come to a sacred house of prayer to worship on their holiest day.  We grieve with their spouses and parents, their children, family and friends who will have to deal  with this senseless act of violence and terror for the rest of their lives. 

For Members of the Jewish community, today is also a holy day. We have come here-some who have walked long distances in observance of the Shabbat- because we know the pain, the fear, the anguish of being targeted. 

Four and a half months ago, our synagogue- Temple Emanuel- was filled to overflowing - just as this holy Mazjid is also filled- with people of every faith, skin color and creed. The aftermath of the tragedy in Pittsburgh-showed members of the Jewish community that we are bound together with our sisters and brothers in the Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and every other religious tradition in solidarity as we confront the evil of racism and intolerance. 

We pray that the God of Abraham and Ishmael, of Moses and Muhammad (Peace be upon him), of Jesus and Buddha of everyone who sees the holiness implanted with all humanity might inspire every human heart with compassion and determination to end our potential for hurt and see the good within all of us. 
We come together in peace. 
We come together in love. 
We pray that our next gathering will not be the result of violence- but a promise of hope.
עושה שלום בימרומיו, הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל יושבי תבל
May the One who makes peace in places far beyond our understanding, send peace to us and all humankind -and let us say, amen.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Urgency of the Halfway: Opening Prayer for the Colorado State House

The Bible teaches that Moses lived to be 120 years old. This May, I will be celebrating my 60th birthday. If I strive to be like Moses – I will have lived half of my life when I celebrate this milestone of 6 decades on earth. Modern medicine notwithstanding, the odds of replicating Moses’ longevity and strength are slim to none. Nonetheless, I’d like to think that I have a few more good years ahead of me.

At such a liminal moment, it is impossible not to think about two different, yet complimentary ideas: longevity and productivity. 

There are times in all our lives when we are confronted with a realization that many, if not most of our goals, hopes, dreams and visions no longer lie in some fuzzy future, but rather they become the province of the past and the vision of a very real present. They can taunt us with an unwelcome awareness of urgency – as though the lengthy path on which we have traveled suddenly transforms – becoming increasingly rocky – our ascent grows steeper as the summit draws near. And if we try to retrace our steps to see how far we have come; when we comprehend how little time and space lie in front of us, we suddenly realize that the end is now closer than the beginning.  We marvel both at how quickly the days are passing and how often we spurned the precious hours afforded us to complete our treasured tasks.

This morning, we come together in this sacred place at the half-way point of our legislative session.  We marvel at the passage of time while simultaneously feeling the anxiety of the layers of unfinished business that loom in front of us.  In a world that all too often demands unyielding perfection from its leaders, there is little, if any, margin for error.  Words of condemnation come easy in political parlance.  But as hard as we are on our colleagues, we are even more merciless on ourselves.  Those who have been chosen to serve feel the burden of answering the clarion call of the people:  to make a difference; to change the unchangeable; to fix the flaws in our laws, fate of our state and the holes in our souls.  And yet, the realities of time and space force us to acknowledge that we cannot complete every task.

And so we pray:

Dear God, You  created us with imperfections.  Watch over all who serve in this chamber:  the legislators and the lawyers, the captains and clerks; the interns and the innovators.  Give them both the strength to pursue the task of governance, and the patience to accept that there is always more to accomplish than is humanly possible.  Protect the souls of your servants who are exposed to the harshness to human expectation.  Help them to support one another –even in the heat of debate and disagreement.  Let any conflict that arises be for the sake of our Great State of Colorado and teach us to quickly forgive and forget the sting of slogans and slights that are thrown about in the messy process of  crafting legislation.   As the end of this session looms ever larger in the forefront of our consciousness, may every person here become reconciled to the sacred necessity for compromise and communion.

We thank You for the ability to make a difference.  We see You in the passion of our colleagues.  We seek Your presence in our daily lives.  AMEN