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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Dialogue, not Diatribe. Letter to the Denver post.

Over the past several  months, I have been part of a consortium of interfaith clergy sponsored by Colorado's Interfaith Alliance. Entitled "Interfaith Force For Good" and under the inspired leadership of Reverends Jim Ryan and Amanda Henderson, we are comprised of multi-racial and multi-cultural Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Sikh clergy and involved laity who come together for the express purpose of showing a face of religious leadership that is neither fundamentalist nor intolerant of others. Through the use of letters to the editor, Op-Ed pieces, social media, public pronouncements and personal example, our goal is to educate our community that the words "religious" and "tolerant" are not mutually exclusive.

It is unfortunate that, all too frequently, the loudest religious voices come from the far right. These are often voices of extremism, condemnation and intolerance. They foment anger and fear against some of the most vulnerable elements of society - including the LGBT community, Muslims, and minorities. During this volatile period in our nation's history-when we are divided along political, racial, religious, ethnic and economic lines, it is more important then ever to find reasoned, spiritual voices of moderation and acceptance.
Here is my letter to the editor that was recently published in the Denver Post:

To the Editor:
Our nation’s founders understood that tyranny and oppression were incompatible with Judeo-Christian principles.  They created a government that allowed a multiplicity of voices and opinion to be expressed.  Reasoned and respectful debate was built into our national DNA.

As a member of the Denver clergy, I am increasingly concerned by the tenor of political and societal discourse. People are afraid to talk to one another.  Friendships have been lost. Lines are being drawn in the sand. Fruitful dialogue has been replaced by hurtful diatribe.  This year’s presidential campaign, in particular, has been painful and divisive.

Now is the time for us to remember the words of the book of proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Isaiah urged us:  Come and let us reason together.” Our faith traditions provide us with powerful messages of tolerance. We need to heed them before it is too late.

Rabbi Joseph R. Black- Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO. 

(Click HERE for a link to the Denver Post Page:  )

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

New Song: God Plays Hide and Seek

One of the integral aspects of our humanity is our search for meaning and purpose.  To know God is to understand that our lives are not inconsequential or accidental.  Finding God is often a complicated and frustrating proposition.  This song is a reflection of that search.

God Plays Hide and Seek
Words and Music (c) Rabbi Joe Black - Lanitunes Music.
August, 2016

God plays hide and seek
Leaving trails of crumbs for us to find
With twists and turns along a crooked road that winds 
Among the valleys and the peaks 
God plays hide and seek

God plays hard to get
With feigned indifference to our daily toil 
Like a pot-  you watch it, but it never boils 
Like a sideways silhouette 
God plays hard to get

But even when you're  halfway thru the race 
And you find yourself in hot pursuit 
Take some time and think about the chase 
It's not the finish line you seek- it's each step along the route 

God plays fast and loose
The rules change daily at a moment's whim 
There's no devotion, prayer, or ancient hymn 
To bring about a truce 
When God plays fast and loose

Monday, July 11, 2016

Opening Prayer for the Mayor’s State of the City Address- 7/11/16

Opening Prayer for the Mayor’s State of the City Address
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
 Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO
July 11, 2016

Our God and the God of all people.
God of the rich.
God of the Poor.
God of the hunted.
And God of the protector.
God of the faithful
God of those who have no God.
We come here today to celebrate our great city, our mayor and other public  officials, and to share in the power of vision, community and purpose.
These are troubled times, O God.
Our cities are in turmoil.  Young Black men live in fear of violence and police officers are targeted while they work to protect the peace.
Too many lives have been tragically snuffed out by the blindness of bullets and those who use them.
Tensions are high, O God. Grief, anger and hopelessness for too long have been the watchword of those who labor to better your world. On this day of self-awareness, bless our City and its leaders.
Bless our citizens – those who live in comfort and those who live in fear; those who are hopeful and those who only know despair.
Help us to look deep into ourselves and our souls so that we might atone for our sins and peel away the layers of denial and diversion that keep us from seeing the ugliness that lies in plain sight.
But in the midst of our atonement, let us not lose sight of the breathtaking beauty, promise and potential that all of us share.
We, who are blessed to live in this beautiful place must find time to see You, O God – in the majestic mountains, in the towering buildings, and in the faces of our leaders and our fellow citizens.
Governance is all too often a thankless task.  In our coming together – let us not forget to give thanks for those who struggle on a daily basis to ensure that our great city of Denver Colorado will serve as a model of tolerance, cultural and educational excellence, financial growth and sacred communion with every person created in God’s image.
We ask your blessing on this gathering; on our mayor, our leaders and upon us all.
Oseh Shalom Bimromav, hu yaaseh Shalom:
May the One who makes peace on high, bring peace to our city, our nation and our world.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Prayer in the Aftermath of the Orlando Mass Shooting

I offered a prayer on behalf of the Denver Jewish Community at a solidarity vigil for the victims of the terrorist attack that took place last night in Orlando.  Joining me in prayer were Imam Ali of the Denver Islamic Center and Reverend Amanda Henderson of Interfaith colorado. Most of Denver and the State of Colorado's elected officials were in the program as well as representatives of the LGBTQ community. Here are my words:

A Prayer in the Aftermath of the Tragedy in Orlando
Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO
June 12, 2016
Our God and God of all people:
God of the rich and God of the poor,
God of the powerful and God of the powerless,
God of those who have no God.
This is a sacred time for the Jewish and Islamic communities.
Last night and today, Jews all around the world celebrated the festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost – where we gave thanks and celebrated the gift of Divine revelation through the Torah.
Our Muslim sisters and brothers are the midst of the sacred month of Ramadan.  They, too, are celebrating the gift of God’s revelation in the Koran.
This is a time when we are acutely aware of the potential for good in the world.  This is a time when Your children are open to the Universal messages of peace and love found in our sacred texts.

But as the horror in Orlando has once again shown us, and as we have seen all too often:  In France, in Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and in locales too numerous to mention, there are those who refuse to see the holiness of all of Your creation.
When fear and hatred become the filters through which Your hopes for humanity are received we all are diminished.

And so we come here tonight - numb with grief and disbelief.  Once again, violence and the carnage brought about by the deadly combinations of hatred, intolerance and easy access to weapons of destruction have transformed mothers, fathers, lovers, spouses, relatives and friends into mourners. 
Tonight, we are all mourners.  The categories which once defined us – who we love, how we love; where we pray and when we pray; the languages we speak and the music we sing have melted into the common parlance of our anger and our grief.
We are here tonight to show solidarity.
We are here tonight to proclaim the inherent goodness in all of your creation.
We are here because we have to be here – to see within each others’ eyes the determination to stand up to hatred, bigotry and inhumanity.  Tonight we grieve – tomorrow we work to tear down the walls of intolerance that too many want to build.

Baruch Ahtah Adonai, she bara et ha-adam b’tzalmo.  We praise You, Eternal – who has created all humanity in your image.  AMEN 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Scapegoats, Sacrifice and the Campaign Trail

Scapegoats and Sacrifice
Aharei Mot
Rabbi Joseph Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver
May 6, 2016

My Dear Friends,
Yesterday, I was at the State Capital to deliver the morning prayer – as I do every Thursday – when I noticed a group of people in front of the building who were holding a sign that stated:  “Today is the National Day of Prayer”
Coincidently, yesterday was also Yom HaShoah V’Ha-g’vurah -  the day of remembrance of the victims of the Shoah and the bravery of those who resisted their Nazi oppressors.  I was both surprised and somewhat gratified when I thought, at first, that the juxtaposition of these two days was deliberate. And then I paid more attention to the people who were gathered in front of the Capital in celebration of the national “Day of Prayer.”

The first thing I noticed was a sound that was very familiar.  Someone was blowing a shofar – and doing an impressive job, I must say.  And then the particpants started marching  - passing by me as I was parking my car.  I saw people wearing tallitot and kippot. I saw people wearing Tzitzit.  Israeli Flags were flying.  Then I saw a group of people carrying a mock-up of the Ark of the Covenant – where the 10 commandments were kept – replete with cherubin and angels.  They were dancing to what sounded like Israeli music – dancing the hora, as a matter of fact – but the words were in English.  Then I looked even closer.  Mixed in with the kippot, Shofarot, the Ark of the Covenant were a smattering of crosses and “Jesus Loves Me” t-shirts.  I felt like I was in a parallel Universe.  What was going on here?  Later on in the day, after searching the internet (thank you Rabbi Google), I discovered that I had stumbled upon what was being labelled a “Jericho March” by the fundamentalist Christian conveners of the Denver commemoration of the National Day of Prayer.  Like Joshua in the Bible, participants were marching 7 times around the State Capital.  If we were we to take the Joshua/Jericho theme to its logical conclusion, I guess that the goal of the march was to have the walls of the State Capital “Come tumbling down…”  I’m sure that would have upset the legislators inside –especially after we spent all of that money re-guilding the Capital’s dome…. But, thankfully, no one was harmed in the shofar-blowing and faux-hora dancing.
It’s a pretty fair assumption that the people wearing Tallit, kippah, tzitzit and dancing with the mock-up of the Ark of the Covenant probably had a different take on the meaning of those symbols than I did…..
While they may have appropriated Jewish symbols and ritual items –possibly even buying them from our own gift shop – they had no conception of what they meant to authentic Jews – and probably didn’t care either. 
I didn’t engage them.  They were gone before I was able to get out of my car, so I wasn’t able to ask anyone about what they were doing.  Even if I would have been able, I wasn’t sure what to ask:  “Excuse me – why are you appropriating my sacred symbols?” didn’t seem like a very polite thing to do early on a Thursday morning.  Besides, there were a lot of them and just one of me …. More on that later.
The act of appropriating and instilling a personal agenda into ancient texts and rituals actually brings us to this week’s parasha, Aharei Mot.
 The basic idea of the text is that Aaron, the High Priest, is commanded to choose two goats and, by drawing lots, mark one goat for sacrifice, and the other to be set free to roam in an area called “Azazeyl.”
The first goat is set aside to be sacrificed in order to purge the Israelites of their sins.  The second goat becomes symbolic repository of the sins of the people.  When it is sent into the wilderness of Azazeyl, the people see their sins literally walking away.   
It actually is a highly efficient process.  The community is rid of its sins through two public and highly symbolic acts – one of sacrifice, the other of communal banishment.
In many ways, these two goats and the way in which they are dispatched serve a powerful purpose in unifying the community.  Yom Kippur, as described in the torah, is a “do-over” day – when acts of sacrifice and contrition level the playing field between God and the Israelites.
Of course, this concept has evolved over the centuries. The only remnants of this practiced can be found in the obscure ritual of Kapparot, (or Kappores) that is practiced by a few ultra-orthodox communities.  (See hyperlinks for more information…) 
Today, the term scapegoat has another meaning entirely. As Jews, we understand all too well the power and ramifications of becoming identified as the scapegoat for all of society’s ills.
As I said earlier, yesterday was Yom HaShoah –Holocaust Memorial Day.  This sacred and somber 24 hours was established shortly after the creation of the State of Israel.  On Yom Ha-Shoah we honor the memory of the 6 million Jews and 5 million others who perished in Hitler’s machinery of death. 
Study of the Shoah has taught us that Anti-Semitism was not unique to Hitler.  The architects of the Final Solution were able to draw upon thousands of years of Jew-Hatred and scapegoating to convince the masses that mass murder was justifiable.  What was unique about the Shoah, however, was in its lethal combination of hatred and technology that paved the way for the systematic extermination of a people.  Without Auschwitz, Treblinka, Maidanek and the other death camps; without a seamless system of transportation, without masterful propaganda and the means to distribute it, an entire generation of Jews would not have been murdered by the Nazis and their willing partners.
So we need to ask ourselves, as we move beyond Yom HaShoah:  Has the world learned anything from the Holocaust?  It’s hard to tell.
Looking at Europe today we see an alarming rise in Anti-Semitism – some of it originating in radical Islamic propaganda and some that has been ignited by blowing on the glowing embers of latent, centuries-old Jew hatred – disguised all too often as anti-Zionism - that originated in the early Christian Church.  We also see a backlash against Muslims, immigrants and anyone who does not fit the “classical” Caucasian stereotype in the countries that make up the EU. We know all too well that when times are difficult – or when people are TOLD that times are difficult, scapegoating is rampant.
If we look into our own nation - focusing especially on the current Presidential primaries, it is now clear that rhetoric of personal vilification, bullying and fear-mongering has paved the way for a general election that will be unlike anything most of us have ever seen.  Scapegoating has become a powerful tool for ensuring votes and creating simple solutions to very complicated dilemmas.
In a nation that elevates personal responsibility into a touchstone for ethical behavior, it is becoming increasingly clear that this concept does not necessarily mean that we call ourselves into account for our actions – but rather, all too often we look for others to blame:  whether they be members of the opposite political party, or immigrants, Hispanics, Muslims, Transgendered men and women, or a myriad of other categories that are easily vilified and targeted for bullying.
As I think about the upcoming election in November, I am truly afraid.  Many pundits and observers are using the term “revolution” to describe what is taking place in both our electoral and governance systems.   It is quite clear that, come November, there will be casualties.  Some say that civil discourse and compromise will be the victims. Others posit that the two-party system is on its last legs.  Others say that such radical change is exactly what we, as a nation need to set ourselves on a pathway to prosperity.
I truly don’t know where we are headed – but, if we look at our torah portion we can see that the two options it contains - sacrifice and scapegoating – are both in play, and neither are attractive or sustainable.  We cannot allow civility, compromise and cooperation to be sacrificed on the altar of personal aggrandizement.  At the same time, we need to fight vocally against attempts to foist the blame for all of society’s problems on the back of the most vulnerable among us.
I wish I had had the time and the presence of mind to say something to those fundamentalist Christians who appropriated sacred Jewish symbols at the State Capital to fit into their own narrative of religious and political relevance.  My failure to do so remind me of the disconnect between words and deeds.  Our job today – in this ever-changing and ever-consistent world in which we live – is to be vigilant to call out hypocrisy, scapegoating and demagoguery whenever and wherever we see it. 
I for one will not remain silent.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Opening Prayer for the CO State House On The Day Before Passover

Opening Prayer for the Colorado State House
April 21, 2016
Rabbi Joseph R. Black - Temple Emanuel - Denver, CO

Tomorrow night, Jews around the world will gather together around the table to celebrate the Seder as we welcome the  holiday of Passover.   During the course of the Passover Seder, we will eat special foods that remind us of our experience with both slavery and freedom.  We will tell the ancient story of the Exodus from Egypt.

We will be reading from a book called a Haggadah.  The word, "Haggadah" means "telling the story."  As we tell our story, we move from the degradation of oppressive slavery, to the promise  of freedom and redemption.

A key phrase in the Haggadah reads:  "Bchol dor vador, Chayav Adam Lerot et atzmo k'ilu HU yatzah mi Mitzrayim" -- "In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as though we, personally went forth out of Egypt."

We are required to experience both the bitterness of enslavement and the joy of liberation.
This is not symbolic.  Throughout the course of the Seder, we taste the bitterness of slavery in the bitter herbs that we eat.  We eat the bread of affliction - the matza, and we drink the salt water of our tears.  It is only after we recount the story of our deliverance that we rejoice.

The act of experiencing the pain of oppression forces us to be mindful of all who are oppressed - not matter who they are or where they are.  Those who are oppressed because of their faith, the gender, their social status, appearance, who they love or how they love are all created in the Divine image.  We see the oppressed in far away places and literally across the street from this sacred structure.

Let us pray:

Our God and God of all people:
God of the poor
God of the rich
God of the grounded and God of the refugee.
God of the parent and God of the child.
God of the Captain and God of Captive
God of the persecuted and God of the privileged
God of those who have no God.

Tomorrow night, when so many of your Children around the world will tell the story of deliverance that is both ancient and modern, help us to remember your promises of redemption - past and future.
Teach us that it is not enough to wait for Your hand of deliverance - our mission is to BE Your hands.
Use us, O Creator, to bring about the desperately needed change in Your world.
In our nation that values freedom, open our eyes to those enslaved around us.
We see enslavement in those trafficked for evil ends on our streets.
We see enslavement in those whose ideologies cannot allow themselves to see the humanity in those around them
We see enslavement in the crippling effects of economic oppression.
We see enslavement in those who are victimized by brutal governments.
We see enslavement in those who lives are ruined by substances designed to capture the souls of despair and hunger for meaning.
And once our eyes are opened, help us to work, together, to create a society that truly celebrates the freedom that You taught us to love, to fight for and to celebrate.

On this day of deliberation, guide these lawmakers as they work on our behalf and on Your behalf.  Help them to both feel the pain of oppression and the exquisite joy of liberation.  Free them from the bonds of partisanship.  Teach them to listen to the passion of their colleagues. Open doors of dialogue and tear down the altars of diatribe.

At the end of the Seder, we say the words:  "Next Year in Jerusalem" - next year may all be free.  We pray that the vision of the City of Peace may come to be - in our hearts, our homes, our beautiful state of Colorado - and every inch of Your Creation.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Day After the Storm: Opening Prayer for the CO State House

The world is filled with lessons, isn’t it?  We think that we know where we are going; we make plans; we are strategic in our thinking and our actions, and then, all of a sudden, something happens that reminds us just how silly our hubris can be.  There’s an old Yiddish proverb that states:
Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht. – People plan and God laughs”
When we looked out of our windows yesterday morning and saw the snow piling up, many of realized that, no matter how important we thought we were – no matter what vital business lay on our desks, the simple facts that 2 inches of snow was falling every hour and that the howling winds were blowing meant that we weren’t going anywhere.  All we could do was bow our heads and accept our fate.  We were not and are not in control. 
What a vital perspective we can gain when we are put in our places!

Let us pray:

God who causes winds to blow and snow to fall;
God of the storm and God of the quiet;

All too often it is sometimes hard to believe that there is something greater than ourselves.  We live in a society that places supreme importance on the works of our hands and the words of our mouths.  We love to celebrate our own accomplishments and cherish the accolades that come with achievement.

But we also know that our creativity is only a pale reflection of Your Creation.  Our very nature is a result of Your nurturing.

While we often are frustrated when we face obstacles that emerge unexpectedly, we need to learn that control is an illusion and that order is the exception not the rule.

Help us O God to live with patience, so that we can see our limitations as opportunities to learn and  teach others. We thank You for the gift of perspective helps us to see beyond ourselves.

While we are sheltered from the storm, let us remember that there are all too many men, women and children who are caught in its icy grip; for whom every day is a challenge:
  • not to create but to survive;
  •  not to achieve but to keep from being deceived.
As You teach us our limitations, let us also see our strengths and the power that we have – especially those in this sacred chamber – to provide  hope for those who face obstacles every day.

We thank you for the warmth of the sun that melts away the ice of yesterday.
We thank you for the warmth of human kindness and compassion that can help us to combat the uncertainties of life.

You are our shelter. You are our teacher.