Friday, July 19, 2019

Thoughts On Immigration and Intolerance

The current polarizing climate in our national discourse is very disconcerting. The policies and proclamations of our leaders are provoking and exacerbating tensions between political parties, ethnic and racial minorities and religious communities.  Nowhere is this more felt than in the area of immigration.
Last week, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Enforcement Agency (ICE) threatened to round up and deport men, women and children who were "illegal".  While it now appears that no action was taken (yet), the atmosphere of intimidation and fear that it fomented has created a moral crisis for those who see immigrants' rights as being threatened. I am posting two items below.  One is a letter to the editor of the Denver Post that, while not published, still deserves to be heard.  The other is a brief drash (short sermon) that I gave at services last Friday night.  
We pray that policies based on divisiveness and hatred might give way to a more moral, sane and caring agenda.
Shabbat Shalom!

Letter to the Editor - Denver Post
July 11, 2019
As a committed Jew, a Rabbi and the child of refugees, I was saddened to see the news that ICE is planning to begin deportation raids in Denver this weekend (“Nationwide deportation roundups to begin this weekend, according to Trump admins,” Denver Post, 7/11/2019). Many American Jews arrived here as immigrants and both my personal and  our communal history, as well as my religious values compel me to speak out against these raids. The Torah commands us 36 times to love and welcome the stranger. In Denver, immigrants are our friends, neighbors and colleagues. These raids will sow fear in this vital part of our community and risk separating families by taking U.S.-born children away from undocumented parents. I urge ICE to cancel the planned raids. We need a just and compassionate immigration policy in the United States – not raids and mass deportations.

Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Sr. Rabbi – Temple Emanuel, Denver.

Chukkat - July 12, 2019

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, we read of how Moses is punished for disobeying God.  The people are rebelling (again) and complaining that they have no water.  God then tells Moses to speak to a rock and water will come forth. But Moses, instead of speaking to the rock, strikes it twice after yelling at the people:  “Listen, you rebels!  Shall we get water from this rock?” After he yells at the people and strikes the rock, copious water poured forth.

There are many Midrashim (rabbinic stories) about this portion.  The Rabbis comment on how Moses’ punishment seems harsh.  The commentators differ as to the reason.  Rashi said it was because he disobeyed God.  Rambam, however, says that his punishment came about because he used the words “You rebels” and struck out in anger.

From this we learn that leaders should not allow their personal anger, grudges or prejudices to dictate the policies, laws and decrees.

Governance out of anger or vengeance always leads to unhealthy and uninformed decisions.

I speak of this tonight when our City of Denver – and a few other selected cities around the country – is preparing for a surge of actions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement – or ICE. As we sit here, members of our community are gathering in protest at ICE facilities in Denver.  The message of the protesters is that any arrests, rounding up of immigrants or threats to do so cause a huge amount of anxiety in a population that is already traumatized by family separation, harsh and inhumane holding cells and camps. Asylum seekers fleeing horrible and life-threatening situations are being treated as criminals.

It would appear that our governmental officials are acting out in anger – rather than compassion.

I am not advocating for eliminating any restrictions on immigration or asylum seeking. There must be a safe and legal way to deal with men, women and children who come to our borders seeking entry.  And yet, the act of looking for a better life for oneself and one’s children is part of the history of our nation.

I am the child of a refugee.

Most of us here tonight are the descendants of men and women who fled their counties in search of a better and safer life for their families.  Striking out in anger will only cause more pain and suffering – not only for those seeking a new life in the United States – but also for all of us.  We reflect the values, policies and actions of our leadership and law enforcement.  The way we treat outsiders will eventually impact the way we treat one another.

In the Torah, the words:  “You Shall not oppress the stranger – for you know the heart of the stranger – having yourselves been  strangers in the Land of Egypt” – occurs no less than 36 times.

When we shut ourselves off from the pain and suffering of those who come to us in desperate straits; when we are indifferent to their suffering and pain; when we demonize them as the “other” and ignore the root cause of their need to come to our borders, we, like Moses, are refusing to listen to God’s voice.

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Walking ‘Round The Lake

Last week, Sue and I walked around Lake Harriet during our annual visit to Minnesota- one of the many beautiful lakes in Minneapolis. I met Sue in the Twin Cities. I began my Rabbinate at Temple Israel.
Walking around a lake is a quintessential Minneapolis pastime.
This poem/song is a reflection on the passage of time and the power of love.

Walking round the lake
July 8, 2019
Words and Music © Rabbi Joe Black
All Rights Reserved

Walking round the lake
The memories keep flooding in
Each time you circle round
It’s sometimes hard to take - 
Footsteps bring you closer
As you dream about the sound.

Of endless days and longer strides
And winsome grooms and bashful brides
And paths you crossed when you were in your prime.
The wonder of a furtive glance
The promise of a new romance
Remembering a different, younger time.

Walking round the lake
You take a pause to catch your breath
And feel the wear and tear
The little creaks and aches
Reminding you to take it slow
Your legs are worse for wear.

But then you stop and look above
You hold her hand and feel the love
And think about the steps that led you here
Although it twisted with your fate
The path you took was worth the weight
You’ve shared it with the one you love so dear

Walking round the lake
You stop and sit upon a bench
Thankful for the breeze
What once was so opaque
Now shimmers like a dragon fly
That floats beneath the trees

Then you lose your shoes and free your feet
You dip your toes to beat the heat
And watch the ripples glisten in the sun
If life is just a circle game
Then I’ll take another turn again

And do my best to play until I’m done

Walking round the lake
The memories keep flooding in
Each time you circle round
Like frosting on a cake
You taste the simple sweetness
That you’ve found

And love is all around

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow: A Reflection on Psalm 23

I  learned this morning of the tragic death of Devra Freelander - daughter of Rabbis Daniel Freelander and Elyse Frishman. She was struck by a vehicle as she rode her bicycle in Brooklyn. Devra was an extraordinarily gifted artist.  She was full of laughter, light and love. I have no words other than to reflect on how grief and love are intertwined. Our lives and those of dear friends intersect in ways both painful and beautiful. Their pain becomes our own as we try to fathom the depths of grief.  We walk together through the valley of the Shadow. 
Here is a poem I wrote in response to the news. 

For Danny,  Elyse and Devra z”l

גם כי אילך בגאי צלמוות
(Psalm 23)

Those who walk through the Valley of Shadows wear no shoes.
Their feet are cut and torn as they stumble through the darkness. 
With no time to pack a bag or say goodbye, they begin their journeys unprepared.

Some are dressed in finery: jewels gleaming like stars in the dim light.
Others are in pajamas, work clothes, prayer shawls or bathing suits.
Some clutch briefcases, papers, blankets or teddy bears.

And everyone wears their grief.

With each cautious, painful step, they move further into the abyss.
The chasm narrows.
Stretching out their fingers they trace the grooves carved by previous pilgrims
 - handholds hewn into the cold canyon walls.

Sometimes they march in silence.
Other times, singing hauntingly beautiful melodies, their voices echo to the very vaults of heaven.

The river that created this place does not flow from on high:
It was formed and filled by the tears of those whose bruised souls traversed the trail. 

No one walks alone here: 
Stumbling pilgrims are quickly caught and held aloft by those who travel beside them -
They are caressed and carried through the brambles and branches that, unexposed and hidden from sight, add to the chaos and confusion of the journey.

In time (for some) a light appears in the distance - piercing through the veil of darkness.
Hope - long buried, rises to the surface like a beacon

And with it, the weary marchers ascend to find a world that has been changed forever by their absence.
They return with pale faces and broken hearts.
But now, as experienced travelers, they will always have a suitcase packed and ready.

Rabbi Joe Black. 7/2/19 - Sivan 27, 5779

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.