Monday, August 21, 2017

Elul and the Eclipse: The Four Weeks of Elul. Week 1 - Our communal Selves

Image result for eclipse

My Dear Friends,

The first day of the Hebrew month of Elul arrived concurrently with a total solar eclipse - the first in 37 years over the contiguous United States.  Ironically, this is a perfect introduction to the sacred tasks that lay before us as we prepare to enter into the Yamim Noraim – the High Holy Days.  Many of us donned our protective glasses and sat outside with our heads tilted skywards and watched as the sun gradually disappeared into the moon’s shadow.  Here in Denver, we were not able to see the sun become completely blocked, but the effect of watching the sudden darkness that passed over us was powerful nonetheless.

In scientific terms, the moment of “totality” – when the eclipse is complete and only the sun’s corona is visible – provides a rare glimpse into the mysteries of the brilliant orb around which our planet revolves.  For a brief moment, scientists are able to directly measure the intensity of the sun’s energy and huge amounts of data are gathered and analyzed so that we can learn more about our solar system.

In many ways, the month of Elul resembles an eclipse – albeit on a more regular and sustained basis.  For four weeks, our tradition teaches, we are given an opportunity to strip away the filters and biases that conceal us from our true selves and focus on the sacred work of cheshbon hanefesh – ‘taking an inventory of our souls.’ During this sacred season, we look closely at our relationships, thoughts, deeds, fears, and dreams. We do this so that we can enter into the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – spiritually and personally renewed and prepared for the process of teshuvah (repentance/returning). Our tradition teaches that the month of Elul is when we ask those around us whom we have wronged to forgive us for our actions. We are also commanded to forgive those who ask us as well.

As we reflect back over the past year, it is important that we put every aspect of our lives into perspective. As in previous years, during the month of Elul I will be sending out weekly lists of seven questions (one for each day of the week) to members of our community and to all who wish to receive them. These questions are designed to help us examine our lives in all of the varied aspects and arenas in which we live: Communal, Spiritual, Physical, and Interpersonal. Hopefully, by answering these questions we will be better prepared to enter into the New Year. The purpose of these questions is not to make us feel bad or unworthy, but rather to “nudge” us into looking at these vitally important aspects of our lives. There will be seven questions in each list – one to consider each day of the week.

I welcome your comments and suggestions for additional questions and formats that we can use.   If answering these questions causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbi Immerman, Cantor Sacks and I would welcome the opportunity.  Note that all of these materials will also be available in hard copy at the Temple Office.  They also will be posted on my blog and linked to both the Temple website and Facebook page. If you know of anyone else who might want to receive these mailings – whether or not they are members of the congregation - please contact the Temple office and we will be happy to send them.

Week One: Our Communal Selves
Being part of a synagogue means that we are committed to the concept of building a strong community. Together at Temple Emanuel we study, pray, socialize, commit to social justice, celebrate joyous occasions, and find comfort during times of difficulty. Building and sustaining our kehila kedosha (sacred community) is not always easy.  It requires that we work together to create and sustain multiple portals of entry so that every member finds a place where they feel fulfilled and useful.
The following are a few questions designed to help us explore our communal selves as we begin the process of cheshbon hanefesh:
  1. Have I taken advantage of the many opportunities for learning, prayer, social action, and culture that my congregation and community have to offer?
  2. Have I taken my own comfort for granted and “looked the other way” when I saw poverty or despair in my community?
  3. Have I allowed the current political divisions to damage my perspective on our common values?
  4. When I am at synagogue, have I done all that I can to make others feel welcomed in the same way that I want to feel welcome?
  5. When asked to help support the important institutions in my community, have I given as much as I could or should?
  6. Regardless of political perspective, have I been vocal in my support of the State of Israel?
  7. When confronted with change, have I been open to new possibilities and opportunities?

These questions are in no way complete.  They are designed to help all of us to begin the process of looking deep within ourselves and our souls as we enter into the month of Elul. Again, we want to hear from you. If you have thoughts, questions, or comments about anything we encourage you to let us know.

Like a solar eclipse, this sacred time provides us with a rare opportunity to see ourselves in a new light. May we utilize these and all of our questions to help us to gain a better understanding of our communal selves.

L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Banality of Evil: Why We Must Respond Forcefully to Racism

Watching the reports of violence, hatred, hypocrisy and political turmoil in the wake of the  Neo-Nazi, racist riots on the streets of Charlottesville, VA is especially poignant as I am writing from Jerusalem- where Sue and I have just finished leading a congregational Israel trip. We are staying in Israel for a couple more days to visit family before we return home. News of the riots reached us soon after we visited Yad Vashem - the Israeli Institution dedicated to teaching about, commemorating and researching the Shoah. As we walked through the exhibits that painstakingly traced the evolution of the Nazi genocide, I was overcome by the realization that, as many times as I have taken groups through this sacred place dedicated to teaching the world about the impact of evil, racism is still a disease that impacts us today.

In her seminal work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, historian Hannah Arendt taught us how easy it was for an entire society to reject its humanity and watch as the unthinkable took place beneath their noses. Hitler would never have succeeded in his War Against the Jews if ordinary citizens had not remained silent and complacent. The recent news reports from Charlottesville that detailed Neo-Nazi hooligans marching with torches, displaying the Swastika and shouting anti-Semitic slogans brought to mind the artifacts, testimonials and photographs that graphically documented the step by step progression of Hitler's war against the Jews.  While we can take comfort in the unequivocal denunciations and condemnations that have been posted by many elected officials (including both of our Senators from Colorado) the public pronouncements from the White House have been both vague and troubling.  When the President of the United States speaks of the hatred, bigotry and violence of "...both sides..." that contributed to the violent and murderous outcome of the demonstration, I cannot help but to be appalled that he is using the language of moral equivalency. Adding to this, the fact that he used this opportunity to speak to our nation to tout his administration's achievements adds insult to injury.  Using the language of moral equivalence to contrast White Supremacists with political opposition is inexcusable. We look to our leaders to rise above politics and self-aggrandizement in times of crisis.

My mother, Sophie Black (z"l), died two months ago.  She and her parents left Germany shortly after November 9, 1938 - Kristalnacht - the "Night of Broken Glass" that heralded the beginning of the end for European Jewry. She was a young girl when she fled Germany, but she lived her 91 years in fear as a result of the violence she witnessed.  Although I miss her terribly, I feel a sense of relief that she did not live to see the torch-bearing marchers of Charlottesville.
Our task, as we confront the rise in extremist rhetoric and action that is taking place in our nation is to let our voices be heard in the face of evil. This is not a political statement. Politics should not be conflated with morality.  In Deuteronomy 22:3 we find the commandment:

"לא תוכלו להתאלם - You shall not remain indifferent..."

As Jews, as caring citizens of our nation - regardless of political affiliation - we must stand firm against racism and persecution - wherever and whenever we find it.  Now is the time to thank our elected officials for their strong statements of denunciation.  We also must speak out and demand that our president lead us with dignity and purpose in a manner befitting his office.

I look forward to seeing you all upon my return later this week.

שלום מישראל. - Shalom from Israel

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Eulogy for my mother, Sophie K. Black

June 6, 2017
Beth Emet The Free Synagogue – Evanston, IL
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
My mother, Sophie Black at her 91st birthday party, February 20, 2017

The truth is, I really didn’t want to speak this morning.  I spoke at my Father’s service because I knew it would give my mother joy. And she spoke at her mother’s funeral because she felt compelled to do so - and, I believe, she wanted to model what children are supposed to do for their parents when they die… so here I am - I have no choice.

This is hard.  It’s hard because I loved my mother very much.  It’s hard because there is so much to say.  It’s hard because words, for Sophie, were everything:  She lived for and loved words.  She chose them very carefully – her grammar was always perfect and precise - God forbid one should dangle a participle or end a sentence with a preposition; or use “me” instead of “I;” or misspell their or there or they’re…. Or, Chas V’Chalila use the phrase “…each and every…”  - I shudder to think about it…..

It’s not that she was critical (although she could be, at times….) It was because she savored each letter, syllable, consonant and vowel and hated to see them misused or abused.  She labored over her writing.  Those of you who were fortunate enough to receive her annual, year-end letters, or attend a class she taught, or be present when she stood on this pulpit and eulogized a beloved member of this community who was taken away from her ever-shrinking circle of friends, or if you were ever part of a Torah Study in which she participated, or listened to her speak on Krystallnacht, or heard her book reviews – you know exactly what I’m talking about.  (By the way – I can hear her voice telling me that the sentence I just read was too long….)

To this day, I have to hold myself back from correcting the grammar of perfect strangers who might find themselves misappropriating a cardinal grammatical principle in my presence…..some habits are hard to break…but I digress.  I am Sophie’s son.

Sophie Black was a force of nature.  She meant so much to so many.  Her story will be told and retold – not only because of its power, but because of the necessity to learn from and both celebrate her life and dedicate our lives to ensuring that the sequence of events that propelled her parents 1st to leave Soviet Russia, and then Nazi Germany  - the forces that are real, ever-present and continue to threaten the values for which she lived and combated every one of her 91 years – will not be tolerated and will be fought everywhere they rear their ugly heads.  In many ways, I’m relieved that these last few months of political obscenity were not in the forefront of her consciousness as she suffered the consequences of the stroke that robbed her of so much on the day after her 91st birthday party.

But I am not here to tell her story this morning – I leave that to others.  I am here to acknowledge and give thanks for the many gifts she has bequeathed to all of us who knew her and loved her.  And, as much as I’d like to selfishly hold on to the idea that her love was reserved only for family: for her beloved Sidney, for Nina and me, and our spouses and our children and grandchildren – I know that it just isn’t true.  Each of you here knew and loved my mother in your own way – and all of you have been impacted by her remarkable presence. Her intensity and integrity were both magnetic and irresistible.  Her gravitas was more than simply the result of her intellect- it was gravitational:  she drew you in. She made you feel special when she came into your orbit – and when you were pulled into hers you had no choice but to hang on and enjoy the ride.  So many people have shared stories with Nina and me and our families over the past days, weeks and months of how our mother was such an important part of their lives:  how she reached out to you and gave you what you needed when you needed it; how she knew, instinctively when to hold your hand, or give you advice, or just be in your presence – providing comfort, wisdom and stability.

And the most amazing thing of all was that she was always surprised when others shared how much she meant to them.  The truth is, my mother was, deep down, an introvert.  She had to learn how to be center stage. Hers was not an easy childhood.  She was always an outsider: In Germany, as the child of Eastern Europeans, she was looked down upon by German Jews and Anti-semites alike.  That experience of not quite fitting in never left her.  She and her parents came to America as refugees – dependent on the kindness of others while working hard to rebuild their lives in a foreign land. She was an only child who spent a great deal of time alone and who had to learn how to make friends, while mastering a new language that was both inviting and intimidating. She was a brilliant student, but, as a woman, her options were limited. Her parents had very high expectations of her. She had no choice but to excel in everything she did – and she succeeded – still harboring doubts and anxieties that plagued her until, just recently, on her 91st birthday, she suffered a stroke that wiped away her fears and left her in peace.  As painful as her decline was, her liberation from anxiety was an incredible gift for us all.

I do want to take a moment and reflect on how blessed our family was that Sophie and Sidney were given the gift of being able to live out their last days surrounded by Nina, Avery and the entire Black-Hart clan.  It wasn’t easy to share a household, provide care and comfort and create a multi-generational home where Judaism was celebrated with a tolerance for diversity and where everyone was welcomed.  They made it seem easy.  It wasn’t.  Nina – I love you and can never thank you enough for the gift you have given to me and all of us.

This week’s parasha, B’ha-alotecha, begins with God telling Moses to light the lamps of the Menorah in a very specific way:  each of the seven lights must project outward – in front of the lampstand.  The menorah lit the paths upon which the priests performed their sacred service.

In a very real sense, our mother, our Sophie was like the Menorah.  Hers was a life that shined brightly – showing all of us the way to live.  It burned with the brightness of Torah, compassion, activism, leadership, learning and above all,  love. 

We are all blessed to have been able to bask in her light.

Zichronah Livracha – may her memory be for a blessing.  AMEN

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In response to the expected “Religious Liberty” Presidential Executive Order restricting LGBTQ rights:

This is a letter I submitted to the Denver Interfaith Alliance to show my support of the efforts to combat the expected Presidential order on "Religious Liberty" that is a thinly-veiled attack on LGBTQ rights:

For far too long, the loudest voice from the religious community in regards to LGBTQ men and women has been that of condemnation and denunciation. 

This needs to change.

For far too long, men and women who identify as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, transgender or questioning have been ostracized, targeted and subject to discrimination and violence because of who they love and how they love.

This needs to change as well.

In my congregation, in my community, in my family there are many Gay and Lesbian couples who are in long-term, healthy relationships.  I know many men and women who are raising wonderful, well-adjusted children in homes where there are either two mothers or two fathers.  That they have recently been able to legally recognize and sanctify their relationships under the covenant of marriage is an important right that cannot be taken away.

As a Rabbi – as a person of faith - I believe that the most important verse in the Bible can be found in Genesis 1:27.  There we find it written that God created Humanity in the Divine Image.
  •          We are the image of God. 
  •          We are all holy creatures. 
  •          God created us. 
  •          God loves us.
I believe that it is essential for religious communities to become involved in the struggle for LGBTQ rights.  For if we stand idly by and do nothing when basic human rights are denied: 
  • The right to legal protection for families
  • The right to job security. 
  • The right to housing;
  • The right to live free from fear. 
  • The right to ensure that we can carry out the wishes of our spouses and partners when they become incapacitated;
  • The right to visit our loved ones when they are in the hospital;
  • the right to insurance;
  • and so many others…..
...then we are denying the holiness implanted not only within our brothers and sisters – but within ourselves as well.  Silence is complicity.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Trans Jews Belong Here - May/June Bulletin Article

Dear Friends,

In Song of Songs  2:10-12 we read the following: 

“Rise up, my love, my fair one and come away. For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”

This beautiful passage reminds us of how love, rebirth and the beauty of springtime are all intertwined.  After a long winter, we are filled with hope.  We marvel at the incredible diversity of God’s creation.  We revel in the freedoms and possibilities that lie before us as the earth shows off its grandeur and mystery.

And yet, even during this time of infinite possibility, we need to recognize that there are those for whom the ability to celebrate their uniqueness is stifled.  Try to imagine, if you will, how it must feel for someone to be unable to fully express themselves for fear of being excluded, ridiculed, bullied or even physically threatened because of who they are and how they were created.

Society can be cruel.  It was not all that long ago that laws were on the books in parts of our country that forbade whites and people of color from getting married.  We like to think that we have progressed beyond those dark times – and in many ways we have –yet there are still members of our community who are persecuted on a daily basis because of the way that they were created by God.

In particular, I want to call our attention to the treacherous path that non-gender-conforming men and women must walk on a daily basis.  Transgender youth are particularly vulnerable.  Studies have shown that transgendered adolescents are nine times more likely to attempt suicide then their cis-gendered classmates (someone whose gender corresponds to their assigned sex).  These vulnerable and holy children face discrimination and abuse at home, in school, in public and even in sacred places like synagogues.

Temple Emanuel is committed to being a safe place for all people - regardless of gender identity, who they love, or how they love.  As such, we are proud to be a partner with Keshet – a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.  We open our doors to all who wish to be a part of our sacred community.  You may have noticed signs around the Temple with the words:  “Trans Jews Belong Here.”  It is on the door of my office and on many other public spaces in our building.  This is more than a hashtag or a slogan.  It is part and parcel of our moral and spiritual fiber.  We welcome and embrace all of our children and adults who are part of the vast and mysterious tapestry of God’s creation.  This means that we will continuously strive to be a safe and open place for all – especially for our young people who struggle on a daily basis to find their place in an increasingly complex and all too often unfriendly world.  In addition, in the coming months we look forward to offering programs and resources that will help us to be a more welcoming place.  We will not tolerate discrimination or oppression of any kind. Our religious school, youth group, Shwayder Camp and every place where students come together will be a safe space for all people – created in God’s image

In the Yotzer Or prayer we find the following:
  מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶֽׂיךָ יְיָ, כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִֽׂיתָ
Ma rabu ma’asecha Adonai, kulam b’hochma asita
How great are Your works, O, God, You made them all in wisdom

At this wonderful time of year, as we embrace the beauty of spring, let us also strive to find the beauty in all of God’s creation.

Ken Yehi Ratzon – may it be God’s will.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Opening Prayer for the CO State House - Seeing Godliness in the Midst of Debate

Opening Prayer for the Colorado House of Representatives
April 20, 2017
Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO

Our God and God of all Humanity:
God of the rich and God of the poor;
God of the young and God of the Old;
God of the haves and God of the have-nots
God of those who have no God.

We come together this morning in this sacred chamber to acknowledge a sense of urgency.  This legislative session will soon be over.  In less than three weeks, the messy business of crafting, fine tuning and negotiating the laws that will govern our state will come to an end and these legislators will return home to take advantage of some well-deserved rest.

Tensions run high when deadlines loom.  Passions are inflamed – here in this place and outside these walls.

In the heat of debate words have been said, aspersions have been cast and alliances have been both forged and broken.

And yet, despite differences that pit men and women on either side of the political divide, the awareness of the fact that what happens in this building is unique and unlike any other endeavor in our great State of Colorado cannot help but forge a bond between the legislators, clerks, bailiffs, lobbyists, aides and all the men and women who labor to ensure that the tasks for which our representatives are elected are completed in accordance with our State Constitution. I’ve seen it – so have you.

That all of us have been privileged to participate in this process links us together in a bond that surpasses politics and propaganda and forces us to see one another through the unique lenses of shared experience.

Our faith traditions all teach that we are created in the image of a beneficent Creator with whom we partner as we go about our lives.

In these last waning days of debate, let us look at one another cognizant of the holiness implanted within our souls.  Help us, O God to see the faces of the Men, Women and Children in our communities who will be affected by the outcomes of the deliberations within these walls.

And when we return home – let us do so with a feeling that every argument and disagreement that occurred was for the sake of heaven.  Then and only then will we be worthy of the great responsibilities bestowed upon us.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Matzah Crunches - April16, 2017

Here's a new ditty about matzah. Enjoy!
Matzah Crunches
April16, 2017
Rabbi Joe Black.

Open up a box, tear away the cellophane
Set it on the table, tell the story once again
Take out a piece of matzah, break it up and then divide it
Watch it very closely, 'cause someone's gonna hide it

You gotta crunch it when you munch it
With the herbs that are so bitter
Then you mix it with Charoset to taste and then consider
How our ancestors built bricks and were slaves to mean pharaoh
We remember it like yesterday though it was long ago.
(Mitzrayim is a Hebrew word that means a place that's narrow)

Four questions
Four sons
Four cups of wine we drink
For something's very special when we take the time to think
About the many ways we celebrate the freedom that God gave us
And all the times we needed a new miracle to save us.

Crunch some matzah:  we were slaves but now we're free
Crunch some matzah: it's quite a simple recipe
Just take some flour and water - make a simple batter
Bake it quick before it rises, keep it flat- then make it flatter

Some people eat it for 7 days or 8
No matter how you break it there'll be crumbs left on your plate
It reminds us of our freedom, but there's a contradiction
Cause the Torah teaches us that it's the bread of our affliction.

Open up a box, tear away the cellophane
Set it on the table, tell the story once again
Take out a piece of matzah, break it up and then divide it
Watch it very closely, 'cause someone's gonna hide it