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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.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

Amalek And AIPAC

Amalek and AIPAC
March 18, 2016
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

In my former congregation in Albuquerque, one of the ways that we celebrated our community's 100th anniversary was by commissioning a sofer (scribe) to write a new Torah scroll.
When a sofer prepares to write, there is a special ritual that she or he goes through to check the quality of the quill and ink – to make sure that it will work properly. The scribe spells out the name AMALEK in Hebrew and then crosses it out.
This custom actually comes from a special section read on this Shabbat before Purim – Shabbat Zachor - Deuteronomy 25:17-19. The text reads as follows:
17 “Remember what Amalek did to you son the way as you came out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off the weak ones who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when Adonai your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that Adonai your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”
The reason that we read this particular passage  on the Shabbat before Purim is that our tradition teaches that Haman was a descendant of the Amelekites – the arch-enemy of the Israelites.  The commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek is tied into the sounding of the Grogger when Haman’s name is mentioned.
This is a puzzling piece of Torah.  It tells us, at one and the same to remember what Amalek did AND to blot out his memory.
It’s almost as though we are receiving two contradictory messages at the same time – we’re told to both  remember and forget; to blot out Amalek's name while preserving his actions for eternity. How can we do both?  The Torah seems to be deliberately manipulating us. It just doesn't make sense.
I’m sure that many of you, like me, have been watching the rhetoric around the presidential primaries and feeling that, like the extra passages in this week’s parasha -  perhaps we all have fallen down a rabbit hole.  In particular, the circus atmosphere around the Trump campaign has brought political action to new depths of absurdity.
I am not here tonight to promote or denigrate any political candidates.  That is not my role as a rabbi.  I do feel, however, that when Jewish values are being trampled upon, it is my responsibility to point out when and where these abuses are taking place.
When a campaign appears to publicly  attack and denigrate immigrants and Muslims, when humiliation and accusations of opponents’ weaknesses become major talking points, when self-aggrandizement becomes the basis for domestic, economic and foreign policy, when violence against opponents is encouraged and incited from the dais, there are many who feel that a line has been crossed between legitimate political discourse and Lashon Harah – or hateful speech.
Tomorrow night, I have been given the honor of leading Havdalah at this year’s AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC.  I will be joining with over 15,000 other pro-Israel activists who come together in our nation’s capital each year to study, dialogue and lobby on behalf of the State of Israel.  As always, AIPAC extends invitations to all of the candidates running for the highest office in our nation and most of the candidates have accepted – including Donald Trump.  Unfortunately, I will not be in Washington when he speaks on Monday night – I am returning to Denver that evening.
Nonetheless, if you’ve been following the news, you probably know that there are over 1,000 rabbis, cantors Jewish communal leaders and lay people who have agreed in principle – not to protest when Trump speaks, but to leave the arena before he speaks  - where they will gather together and study sacred texts on sinat chinam  - baseless hatred - and Lashon Harah – hateful speech.  I support this movement and, if I were to be in the arena on Monday night, I would join with my colleagues in their silent protest
Here are the guiding principles of this movement entitled “Come Together Against Hate”:
We come to AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC to support the strong and unbreakable bond between America and Israel. However, upon hearing that Donald Trump, along with other presidential candidates, will be speaking at AIPAC Policy Conference, we come together as Rabbis, Cantors, Jewish Professionals, and members of the Jewish community to repudiate the ugliness that Mr. Trump espouses.

We appreciate AIPAC’s commitment to bipartisanship and do not stand up to Donald Trump because of his party affiliation. We stand up because, as Jews, we must take a stand against hate. We denounce in the strongest possible terms the the bigotry, racism, xenophobia, and misogyny expressed by Mr. Trump, and violence promoted by him, at various points throughout his campaign.  We refuse to stand idly by and let his hateful message become a part of the AIPAC Policy Conference.

AIPAC’s theme for Policy Conference is “Come Together.” Our grassroots effort spans many denominations, ages and political affiliations. We are committed to coming together against hate. We are committed to saying that Donald Trump does not speak for us or represent us, and his values are not AIPAC’s values. They are not the values of the Jewish community. They are not the values of our founders’ vision of an America where all citizens are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” (!about/c4nz)

On this Shabbat we read about how Amalek attacked the weakest and most vulnerable among the Israelites.  We are told to do all that we can to stop this type of behavior.  I believe in the political process and I also believe that everyone should participate and vote for whichever candidates represent their values.  I also believe that we have a right and a responsibility to speak out when our Jewish values are being trampled upon.  History has shown again and again that when specific ethnicities, religions and ideologies are singled out for attack, others soon follow.  This week’s parasha, in reminding us to both blot out the memory of Amalek and never to forget his tactics of attacking those who are weakest rings as true today as it did 4,000 years ago.

I look forward to sharing my experiences at AIPAC with you from the pulpit and online.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

My Remarks at Today's Press Conference in Opposition to Two "Personhood" Bills in the Colorado State Legislature

I am here today, as a faith leader in our community, to state that our God is a loving and caring God – who feels our pain and whose teachings cause us to believe that a woman has the right to make her own choices about her body. 

We are all here today because we have struggled, prayed and debated with one another, with ourselves and our souls and come to the conclusion that we believe that this proposed legislation that effectively outlaws safe and legal abortion would do more harm than good and that access to safe and legal birth control and abortion services are a reflection of a just and moral society.

Despite rhetoric which labels anyone who supports Choice as anti-God, anti religion and anti humanity,  we know that our support of a woman’s right to choose is based on our faith in God and the ability of human beings, created in the image of God, to make important decisions about health, safety and wholeness.

Despite the attempts of those who disagree with us to paint us as evil, we are not “pro-abortion.” 

The decision to terminate a pregnancy is very difficult and painful.  It should never be taken lightly.  And yet, we also feel, passionately that such a decision should be made by individual women – in consultation with family (whenever possible), or with clergy, or counselors and, ultimately with God.  We do not believe that Government, Church, synagogue or mosque should be placed in the position of legislating or interfering in the most intimate aspects of our lives.

There are those who have struggled with the issue of abortion and, after deliberate and careful analysis – after much prayer and reflection – have come to the conclusion that they cannot support a woman’s right to choose.   While I, personally, do not agree with their conclusions, I respect their deliberation and I feel that the process of dialogue and discussion is vitally important.  We can agree to disagree- honoring the process that has brought us to our own particular conclusions.   But for too many – the fact that we disagree on an important issue means that the other must be demonized and marginalized.  This, my friends, is unforgivable.

We are here today because we are disgusted by the hypocrisy that we witness on a daily basis that justifies the creation of laws that, on the one hand, prohibit a woman from terminating an unwanted pregnancy, and on the other hand, make it difficult for that same woman to receive proper healthcare, nutrition or childcare once that unwanted pregnancy comes to term.

Throughout history, demagogues have always looked for easy targets– creating demons that represent the evils of society.  Recently, we have seen how women   - especially poor women - have once again become a favored target.  We have seen how Fundamentalist, conservative legislators have tried to undo decades of progress in women’s health and bring us back to a much darker time.

This legislation will only serve to increase the divisions within our society.  Our task today is to find ways to build bridges – not demonize honest citizens faced with difficult choices that should not be legislated by our government.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Love and Legislation - a Prayer for the CO State House In Advance of Valentine's Day.

There’s been a lot of love in the air recently.  On Monday, a Million souls gathered together outside of this building to show our love and appreciation for the World Champion Denver Broncos who demonstrated to everyone how hard work, true grit and perseverance can triumph on the football field.
But there are all kinds of love, aren’t there?  Today is February 11th. In case any of us here this morning forgot, in just 3 days it will be Valentine’s day. You still have time to buy a card for that special someone in your life…..but the clock is ticking.
Some here today – the more cynical among us - might think that a day set aside to focus on love is a ploy to sell chocolate and flowers. And they may be right. After all, shouldn’t we show our love every day? Shouldn’t we be grateful for the laughter and the tears, the kisses and caresses, the support and the joy, the passion and the playfulness we share that makes each day seem brighter than the one before? The love that we give and receive makes us better human beings…….
But we aren’t always aware, are we? We are forgetful. We are creatures of habit. We take the people around us for granted and we expect them to love us nonetheless. And the crazy thing about it is that they do. Most of the time….
Let us pray.
Dear God,
Our diverse traditions teach us that Your essence is love. You love us –otherwise why would you tolerate us?
If You did not love us, how would you be able to stand idly by while we diminish Your image by despoiling your beautiful world with toxicity and waste?
If You did not love us, how could You let us live when we ignore the suffering of the innocents in our streets or the violence that is daily fare for women and children; for those targeted for hate because of the color of their skin, their birthplace, who they love or how they love?
If You did not love us, you would not have given us a conscience that wakes us from our slumber and forces us to realize our weakness, our frailty, our greed and our hubris.
Help us to love You  - O God of Love. Help us to love one another – so much so that we might rise above the pettiness and partisanship that all too often places stumbling blocks in the path of social change.
Help us to live so that we see that our very ability to love is a gift.
Bless these legislators O God. Help them to love one another. Help them to love their compassion and their quarrels. Help then to love the differences and the moments of clarity that occur when they do Your sacred work and help to perfect our world.
On this Valentines day – may we all find ways to rejoice in the love that makes our lives complete.
It takes time to love – it takes patience. Sometime it even takes chocolate and flowers.
But sometimes, our love makes Your love a reality.
May it be so today.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

From Diatribe to Dialogue - Yom Kippur Morning 5776

From Diatribe to Dialogue
Yom Kippur Morning – 5776
Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO

Dear Friends,
As many of you know, this past summer I travelled to Israel with a small group of Reform and Conservative Rabbis on mission sponsored by the  American Israel Education Foundation, the educational arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  While we were in Israel, we encountered multiple aspects of Israeli society.  We visited the Knesset and met with a broad cross-section of political leaders:  from Shalom Achshav (peace now) to the head of the settlers’ council. We visited the Palestinian city of Ramallah and sat with Saeb Erekat – the lead negotiator for the Palestinian Authority.  We met with LGBT activists and leaders of the Ethiopian and Israeli Arab communities. We saw checkpoints and border crossings.  We stood on the borders of Lebanon and Syria and literally saw the conflicts in both of these war-torn countries play out in front of us.  In addition to meeting with ethnic and political leaders, we also studied with some amazing teachers.  This was not a “pleasure trip.”  We were going non-stop at least 16 hours a day – and sometimes even longer.  Many of you followed my blog posts over the summer – and I encourage those of you who have not read them to go to the Temple Emanuel website and find them. 

One morning, a few of my colleagues and I decided to wake up early and deviate from our scheduled itinerary.  The day was Rosh Chodesh – the New Moon and the first day of the Hebrew month of Av.  We were in Jerusalem, and Nashot Hakotel – the Women of the Wall -  were assembling to pray.  For those of you who were fortunate enough to meet Anat Hoffman – our scholar in Residence two years ago – you will know that Nashot Hakotel is a group of women who come to the Western Wall on the first day of every month in order to worship together and welcome the new moon.   They are not anti-religious – far from it.  They come from observant Orthodox, Conservative and Reform backgrounds.  Their goal is not to tear down the Mechitza – the barrier that separates men and women in traditional prayer, rather, they come to pray together as women and read from a Torah scroll at Judaism’s holiest site.  There is nothing Halachically wrong with this – most scholars agree that women are not prohibited from reading the torah in the presence of other women, but the Rabbinic authorities at the Wall see this as a rebellious and sacrilegious act and have placed multiple obstacles – legal and physical – in their path.
The women rabbis in our group joined Anat Hoffman and several dozen other worshippers in the women’s section (including our own Temple Emanuel member, Judy Altenberg, who was in Israel in her role as chair of the International Lion of Judah conference at the same time).  The men stood behind the women in the courtyard in a show of support.  The sound of women’s voices joined in prayer and song rose to the heavens in the women’s section, and those of us standing behind them began our prayers as well.  Suddenly, from all sides, a sea of black-hatted Ultra-Orthodox Jews surrounded us and began to shout and scream obscenities.  The police quickly formed a barrier between the supporters and the protesters.  I took out my phone and started recording what was happening.  Those of you who have seen the video posted on my Blog know that these so-called “pious” scholars tried to attack us. They cursed us. I tried to engage one of the leaders of the group in conversation.  He spat at me and called me a Nazi.  “Go back to Germany!” he screamed.  “May your name be blotted out!” 

(Here is a link to the Video:

There was a tremendous and horrible irony in the fact that we were at the Kotel on the first day of the Hebrew month of Av.  You see, it was on Tisha B’Av - the 9th day of Av that both the first and second Temple were destroyed.  Our tradition teaches that the destruction of the Temple occurred because of divisions in our community. In the period before the destruction of the second Temple, under Roman rule, the city of Jerusalem was divided into three different factions.  The Pharisees – who eventually became the Rabbis – advocated for a new interpretation of Torah that allowed for adaptation to the modern world.  The Sadducees had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo – they were linked to the Priestly class and had the most to lose if the temple were to be destroyed.  The Zealots advocated for war.  They were revolutionaries and, history teaches, were the main instigators of the uprising against Rome. Among the Zealots were a small, but deadly group called the Siccari – or dagger-carriers – from the Latin sicarius.  These radical extremists carried out attacks against Roman soldiers and were so committed to their vision of a pure holy city that they would not hesitate to murder other Jews who did not share their ideology.  

These warring factions were constantly at odds with one another. We know how the story ends:  On the 9th day of Av in the year 70 C.E. the Temple was destroyed by the Romans after the Zealots provoked a war. We lost.  The Jews were exiled from the land of Israel.  We would not be able to return in large numbers for almost 2,000 years.
The Talmud teaches that the reason the Temple was destroyed was not because of Roman aggression – it was our own Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred – that did us in.

It was hard NOT to think of the tragic history of Jewish conflict on that morning of Rosh Chodesh Av this past summer.  The hatred and vitriol that we experienced has a long and violent history in that neighborhood.   Whether violence between Jews and Palestinians or, more frequently, Jew against Jew, too much blood and too many angry words have been spoken on that sacred ground.

Unfortunately, our experience at the Kotel was a foreshadowing of what was to be a much more deadly series of events.  Just a few days after we returned from Israel, on July 30th, two horrific attacks occurred – one in Jerusalem and the other in the Palestinian village of Duma.  In the first attack, a deranged ultra-orthodox Jew who, just a few weeks earlier had been released from prison for a similar crime, ran into the middle of the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade with a dagger and stabbed 16 year old Shira Banki and five others.  Shira died a few days after she was attacked.  Concurrently, in a separate attack, an eighteen month old Palestinian baby named Ali Dawabshe was burned to death in his home.  In the weeks that followed, his parents Sa’ad and Reham also died – leaving behind their five year old son, Ahmed who is now an orphan.  This unspeakable attack, by all accounts, was carried out by radical Jewish settlers. These so-called “price tag” incidents have been growing in both frequency and severity.  Jewish terror is very real.
The Siccari have risen again.  Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred – is on the rise.
Of course – while we were on our trip, the world did not stop.  While we were inflight to Israel, the Iran Deal was signed and the controversy that has consumed so much of our psychic, political and spiritual energy over the past weeks and months was set in motion. 

For those of you who are waiting to hear me condemn or support the Iran Deal from this pulpit, I’m sorry, but you will be disappointed.   While I am very concerned about the prospect of a hostile and virulently anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic and anti-American Iranian regime receiving international legitimacy and anywhere from $50 to $150 Billion dollars in sanctions relief; and while I worry about the prospect of a nuclear Iran – I also believe that an Iran that is subject to scrutiny is better than an Iran that is free to do whatever it wants.
I am neither a politician, a nuclear scientist or a military expert. I am a proud Zionist – and I know that there are many ways to support Israel. There are also more than enough points of view already floating around – we all can read and research and most of us here this morning have already formulated - our own opinions  - hopefully based on research and due diligence.  And I also know that wise people – for whom I have a great deal of respect -  on both sides of this issue  - have deliberated and come to conclusions that have set a process in motion that cannot be stopped. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what my opinion is:  The deal will go through.  It is done. 
As such, rather than focusing on the deal itself, I want to spend some time on this Yom Kippur morning talking about the aftermath of the deal – and why I am very concerned about how we, as an American and international Jewish community, have allowed our disagreements to unleash what I believe is a pattern of dangerous and destructive behavior that could, in the last analysis,  cause great harm to come to the Jewish State and to the Jewish people as a whole.

I never dreamed that the anger and vitriol that my colleagues and I experienced at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh Av would make its way over to the United States – but it did.  In response to the Iran deal, passions have run hot and boiled over.  I have read hate-letters and horrific posts online – invoking obscene imagery by calling those who support the deal “Kapos” and “Nazis” – and those who oppose it “War mongers” and “Self-hating Jews.”  Lines have been drawn in the sand.  Friendships have been lost.  There have been death threats levelled against Senators on both sides of the aisle – even against Dan Shapiro – the United States Ambassador to Israel.  I know Dan Shapiro. He’s a nice Jewish boy from Chicago who is fluent in Hebrew and a graduate of our Reform movement’s summer camps.  He is not a threat to the Jewish community.  He is a tremendous asset.

I recently attended a meeting called by Senator Michael Bennett with leaders of the Jewish community in which the Senator painstakingly explained the anguished process that he went through to come to his decision to support the deal.  He shared with us the sleepless nights and countless hours he dedicated to consulting with the leaders of Israeli intelligence, nuclear physicists, military strategists, and many individual, concerned citizens.  He told us of the hate mail that he has received – from all sides of the issue - and how concerned he was about the vitriol that has been invoked both in favor and in opposition.  Whether or not you agree with Senator Bennet’s decision to support the deal – the abuse that he has received is abhorrent.
To those who would use the Iran deal as a crass political weapon to drive a wedge between members of the Jewish community I say, simply, remember the Siccari.

A few minutes ago, we heard the following words read from the torah:

אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֑ם רָֽאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

“You stand this day – all of you, before Adonai your God:  the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, everyone in Israel – men, women and children; from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.”

All of us stood at Sinai – just as all of us are here today.  We are a diverse and complex community.  We do not now and never will agree on everything – and we shouldn’t.  I have no doubts that there are many different opinions about Israel, the Iran deal and many other pressing issues that face the Jewish community here this morning.  This is how it has always been.  The pages of the Talmud are filled with arguments and disagreements.  But the rabbis were very clear about one thing:  any disagreement that is not “L’Shem Shamayim” – for the sake of heaven – cannot and will not be tolerated. 
There is a poem I want to share with you this morning.  I first heard it when Anat Hoffman was our Scholar in Residence two years ago.  It is called “The Place Where We Are Right” by the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

My friends, on this Yom Kippur, let us make room in ourselves and our souls for the ache of ambiguity.  As Amichai teaches:  “…doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow…”  All breakthroughs in science, the arts, and even global politics begin with uncertainty and a willingness to address it.  As Rabbi Immerman taught us so poignantly on Rosh Hashanah, it is only when we acknowledge the facts that none of us are whole and all of us are seeking a common path, that we can use our shared experience and expertise to work together to repair our all-too fragile world.

This does not mean that we must simply hold our collective breaths and wait to see what will happen in the aftermath of the deal. Now is the time for all lovers of Israel to come together and work to ensure that Israel’s safety, security, and moral compass are protected.  We can do this by letting our elected officials know that we expect our government to try to heal the dangerous rifts between the United States and Israel that have emerged during the tumultuous months that have passed.  We also can urge the government of Israel to change its tone and work towards finding paths of common purpose.  Now is not the time for obstinacy and belligerence.  We must move from diatribe to dialogue in order to address the serious challenges that lie ahead.
Get involved.  Whether it be AIPAC or J-Street, Jewish Colorado, ADL, JNF or the myriad other organizations that work to build up the State of Israel, the more we allow our voices to be heard, the greater impact we can have.
And finally, it is vitally important that we travel to Israel ourselves.  Whether for the 1st or the 31st time – it doesn’t matter.  Israel needs us just as much as we need Israel.  Sue and I will be leading an all-ages trip for both first-timers and returnees over Spring break – leaving March 27th and returning April 6th.  I hope that you will consider joining us.
My friends, on this holiest day of the year, may we find the strength and the courage to see the good in everyone around us.  May our differences make us stronger as we confront the very real challenges that lie ahead. 

Gmar Chatimah Tovah

Eulogy Vs. Resume Virtues - Kol Nidre 5776

Eulogy Vs. Resume Virtues
Rabbi Joe Black
Kol Nidre - 5776
My Dear Friends. 
I want to begin tonight with a story.
Two brothers, Sam and Seymour, worked together in a small town.  Over the years, they earned a well-deserved reputation as two of the most callous, corrupt, coldblooded businessmen ever.  They drove other stores out of business; they monopolized commerce; they abused their employees; they deceived their customers.  They used every trick in the book, and a few they wrote on their own, to enrich themselves while despoiling others.  Throughout the city, people despised them.  Their reign of terror lasted many years.

Eventually, as it happens, Seymour died.  Sam went to talk to the rabbi about the funeral.  He walked into the rabbi’s office and declared: “Rabbi, I am prepared to make a gift of five hundred thousand dollars to this synagogue.  But there is one condition.  At my brother’s funeral tomorrow, you have to say that he was a mensch.”  Regretfully, the rabbi replied, “I’m sorry, but there is no way I can do that.  His actions hurt too many people.  The whole congregation will know that I am lying, and I cannot compromise my integrity that way.”  Sam responded, “I will make it a million dollars.”  The rabbi hesitated for a moment, but then he shook his head again and answered, “I can’t do it.  Everyone in town knows how he lived his life.  I can’t say something that is so blatantly untrue, even for a million dollars.”  Sam retorted, “Two million dollars, Rabbi.  I will give you a check right now for two million dollars, if you promise to say these exact words: ‘He was a mensch.’”  The rabbi caught his breath.  Two million dollars was a lot of money.  The things the synagogue could do with two million dollars—the people it could help, the lives it could inspire, the gaps it could bridge.  Finally, the rabbi agreed.  He took the check, immediately deposited it, and wrote the eulogy.

The next day, the funeral was crowded with people curious to hear how the rabbi would eulogize such a man.  At the appropriate time, the rabbi began to speak.  “We all know what kind of a man Seymour was.  He lied.  He cheated.  He swindled.  He had no sense of right and wrong, and he ruined people’s lives without a second thought.  And yet,” the rabbi concluded, “compared to his brother, he was a mensch![i]
Sitting around a table with a family preparing for a funeral is one of the most meaningful responsibilities that I am privileged to perform as a Rabbi.  Over the past few weeks I have had the sad task of having many such meetings.  These are sacred conversations – filled with laughter and tears, joy and sorrow.  When we first sit down together, I often ask families to “Paint a picture with words” about their loved one.  As family members share with me their thoughts, feelings and history with the deceased, a portrait begins to emerge.  We usually start with basic facts, but soon anecdotes and memories come to the surface. These conversations often do not have a linear flow to them.  They ricochet from topic to topic – from generation to generation – depending on the perspective of who is sharing. But once the gates of memory are opened, more and more recollections, reminiscences and beautiful stories emerge.  Eventually, the impact of a lifetime of relationships begins to take shape in front of me:  Personal influences, values, courtship and marriage, parenting, grandparenting, travel, friends, hobbies and talents all come spilling out. 

People are often curious about the process of writing a eulogy.  “It must be hard to write about someone you’ve never met,” they say to me.  My answer is always:  “Not really.  As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s better if I didn’t know the person, because then I won’t have to extricate myself from the text.”  Creating and delivering a eulogy is one of those times when we, as clergy, are able to truly have an impact on people in need.  Our task is to take the love, experiences and relationships of family and friends and put them into words.  If a eulogy brings comfort – it is because the truth has been told.  A eulogy should not “sugar coat” the life of a person.  But it should reflect the overall character of the deceased and help all those who knew and loved him or her begin the journey towards healing.

Some eulogies are more difficult to write than others – especially when things are left unsaid around the table; when traumatic memories or unfinished business cause those left behind pain.  Other eulogies, however, write themselves.  I can always tell when a family’s grief is not blocked by the ache of things left unspoken.  Their grief is palpable, but they have no regrets about the way that their loved one lived his or her life.  Even when death comes too soon – when, God forbid, a young person tragically dies – as we as a community have recently experienced - if he or she left this earth with healthy relationships and a sense of their own self-worth, the pain of grief –while palpable and often paralyzing - can at least be tempered by an awareness of a life that was fully lived – however brief it may have been.

Sometimes these eulogy conversations are heavily weighted towards accomplishments:  jobs held, awards presented, titles and degrees achieved – and these are important – but not as important as one might think.  There is a difference between a Resume and a Eulogy. A resume tells us what a person did.  A eulogy reflects on who a person was and how she lived.

This past summer, I read a book by New York Times columnist David Brooks titled The Road to Character. In his book, Brooks writes about how our vision of success and meaning has changed over the last few generations – beginning in the post WWII era where we formulated the concept of the American Dream.  We have shifted, he posits, from a culture of humility and service to one of self-love that can swing quickly to self-absorption.

All one has to do is look at today’s “Selfie” obsession to find evidence of how much this concept has taken hold.  The cost of focusing on the self can be measured in its impact on the general well-being of society as a whole. 
In a recent article, Brooks writes
“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?[ii]  

Brooks goes on to write about two different concepts that he calls “Resume Virtues” and “Eulogy Virtues.”  Simply put, Resume Virtues are those qualities that are focused on our own accomplishments:  Jobs obtained, salaries negotiated, bank accounts accumulated and awards received.

Eulogy Virtues, on the other hand, are those aspects of our character that will be cherished long after we are gone:  our relationships, our ability to touch other people’s lives for the better, our laughter, our tears, how we made a difference in the world through giving of ourselves to others.

Now there is nothing wrong with striving towards success in one’s business or profession.  Setting up goals and achieving them is an important part of living a full life.  But when our desire for fame and fortune eclipse our connections with family and community; when our self-aggrandizement becomes the be-all and end-all of our existence, we need to take a step back and reconsider our priorities.

Brooks does not make an explicit value judgement between these two differing modes of measuring our lives – but his message is clear nonetheless.  He refers to the great modern Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soleveichik’s masterpiece, The Lonely Man of Faith where we learn about two different creation stories in the Torah.  He labels them “Adam I” and “Adam II.”  (One caveat here – when Soleveichik – or I for that matter - uses the term “Adam” or “Man”  “he” , we  means human being – not simply males….)

Scholars have long pointed out that the first two chapters of the book of Genesis tell very different stories.  In Genesis Ch. 1, we are presented with Creation in very broad strokes.  In each successive day, God creates the world as we know it – culminating in the forming of Man and Woman.  Humans are given the mandate to subdue and master nature.  All of the earth’s bounty is created for our pleasure and consumption. The first person – whom Solevetchik calls “Adam I” -  approaches the world and relationships—even with God, in functional and pragmatic terms. Being created in the Divine Image, in this instance, means that Humanity’s ability to conquer the cosmos is our birthright – our destiny.  Simply put, Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature.  Adam I is resume virtues.  This aspect of our self wants to build, create, produce, and discover.  For Adam I, it’s all about status and accumulation.

Adam II, on the other hand, is the main protagonist of Genesis Chapter II. He represents a different kind of person – someone who is looking for meaning and purpose in life. Here we find the story of the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge and the snake. Adam II does not rule over the garden, he takes care of it – he nurtures it. He is introduced by the words, "It is not good for man to be alone" – and through his sacrifice of a rib and the creation of Eve he gains companionship and the relief of his existential loneliness.  Adam II has a calling, a sacred purpose; he experiences joy and failure, loneliness and love.  He is tasked by God with naming the animals and establishing relationships – with the entirety of God’s Creation.  While Adam I subdues nature to accommodate his own needs,   Adam II realizes his sacred purpose in life.  He represents, you guessed it, eulogy virtues.

Adam I and Adam II are not polar opposites.  We need both to be fully human.  Our rabbis taught that if we did not have drives for success, power and money, nothing would every get accomplished in our world[iii].  And yet, if our lives are only spent accumulating status, prestige and money in lieu of relationships, service and spiritual growth – we lose our ability to fully appreciate the true meaning of the gift of life in all its glory.

Tonight is Kol Nidre.  For the next 24 hours, we acknowledge our mortality, our fragility and our frailty. We refrain from eating and drinking. We confess our sins – to one another and to God.  Traditionally, Jews wear a kittel on yom Kippur – a white garment that is reflective of a burial shroud.  The imagery is real and jarring.

In the Unetaneh tokef prayer we read:  “You write and You seal, You record and recount. You remember deeds long forgotten. You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.[iv]

In a very real sense, the message of the Unetaneh Tokef is that God is challenging us to ask ourselves:  “What will be written in my eulogy?” 

When we hear the question: “…who shall live and who shall die..” , it’s hard not to think of the conversation that will take place around our kitchen table with the Rabbi or the Cantor after we are gone.  What will our loved ones say about us?  Will they talk about what we did, or who we were?  Will they recite our resume, or highlight our humanity? Will the tears and laughter mix mix together to paint a beautiful portrait or will the conversation be stilted and filled with meaningful and painful silence?

Over the next 24 hours we will contemplate our lives, our purpose, our values and our vision.  We will acknowledge that things are rarely black and white.  We know that there are times when we rise to our highest destiny – when we are selfless in our thoughts and deeds – when, like Adam II, we work for the betterment of our world. But we also know that there are times when we focus on getting ahead, on accumulating stuff, on bending the people and the world around us to our will; when we look at the world around us through the prism of Adam I.

Tonight, our tradition teaches us to take a long and hard look at the question:  How am I living my lifeare you living your life?  Do my actions reflect Eulogy or Resume virtues?  For most of us – the answer will be….. both. They key is how we manage to tip the scales in favor of our humanity and away from our hubris. Some of us may not like what we see.  We may feel that we need to change- to shift our priorities.  But change, as we all know, is difficult.  It’s painful. It’s unsettling.

The same prayer that shakes us to the very core, the Unetaneh Tokef – with its message of mortality – also provides us with a channel for change.  In the very last line we find the following: 
Uteshuvah, U’tefillah, Utzeddakah maavirin et roa hagezerah
Repentance, Prayer and Acts of Righteousness temper judgement’s severe decree.

These three concepts:  Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzeddakah – in a very real sense can provide us with a roadmap that can help us to negotiate the tricky pathways between Adam I and Adam II – our Resume and our Eulogy Virtues.

Teshuvah, loosely translated as “repentance,” requires that we look deep inside ourselves and ask if our actions and our values are in synch with one another.  And when we come to realization that they are not (as is often the case…) we need to work hard to rectify this imbalance.  It takes guts to admit our wrongdoings.  It takes even more guts to ask for forgiveness – but this is our task on this most sacred of days.

Tefillah – prayer – is the act of verbalizing and acknowledging our deepest joys and fears.  Praying is not easy.  It takes concentration and practice to be able to speak to God – however you define God.  But unless we are able to strip away the layers of self-absorption and denial that accumulate over the years, we deny ourselves the ability to be completely open and honest.  True prayer does not change the world – but it can change our souls – when we allow ourselves to let go of the inhibitions and expectations that society places upon us.  Prayer is at one and the same time a solitary and a communal act.  As I said on Erev Rosh Hashanah, one of the key purposes of religion is to teach us that we are not alone.  Jewish prayer takes place within the context of community.  We share our frailties and vulnerabilities with one another.  Our prayers are deliberately written in the plural form:  “Avinu, Malkeynu, Chatanu”:  OUR Parent, OUR Sovereign, WE have sinned…. Not ME, MYSELF or I.  And yet, we cannot allow our communal supplication to overshadow the fact that each of us has fallen short of where we want to be – where we need to be….. And so, we pray – opening our hearts and our mouths as we cry out to the source of mercy and meaning in our world.  When our prayers come from the depths of our souls, we can begin to reflect on who we are and who we truly want to be.
And this brings us to Tzeddakah.
If all that we do on this Yom Kippur is to acknowledge our sins and ask forgiveness – but if we do not leave this sacred place committed to putting our humility and desire for change to work – we have accomplished nothing.  Tzeddakah does not mean charity.  It means Righteous acts.  It means looking at the world, seeing inequity and injustice and doing all that we can to repair the damage that has been done.  It means finding ways to give of your time and your good fortune to build up and support the institutions, organizations and individuals who labor on your behalf to make the world more whole.  Tzeddakah is not merely writing a large check to the Temple (although that IS a start.)  Tzeddakah means that you realize that each of us was put on earth for a reason.  It means transcending the self-centeredness of Adam I and opening the doorway for Adam II –inviting him into your life and committing to emulate what he stands for.
What are you passionate about?  How do you want to make a difference in life? There is a phrase attributed to Socrates that states:  ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.[v]’ Now is the time for us to commit ourselves to creating a legacy of character

My friends – change is not easy.  It involves sacrifice and practice.  It does not happen overnight – but it does requires that each of us take the first step.  Tonight and tomorrow, as we delve deeply into the recesses of our souls, we have a sacred opportunity to commit to changing our lives – our character, our values and our vision.  Now is the time. 

I want to conclude with a story:

Once there was a father who had a son who was very rebellious.  Every day, this boy would test his father through his actions.  He refused to listen.  He rejected authority.  He caused his father great pain.  One day, the father went to the store and bought a hammer and a bag of nails.  He went into his yard and he pounded a nail into the fence post.  Each time his son acted out, he would take another nail and hammer it into the post.  As the days and weeks went on, the nails accumulated until the fence was completely covered.  One day, the boy asked his father about the nails in the fence.  His father explained that each time he disobeyed, another nail would be added.  He also said that, if the boy started to obey and change his ways – every time he saw that happening, he would remove a nail.  All of a sudden, the boy had a change of heart.  He saw the nails and realized the pain he had caused his father.  And so, he began to consciously think about his actions.  He listened.  He began to show his love and affection.  And each time he did this, another nail was removed.  After a short period of time, the nails were all gone.  The father came to his son and told him:  “Son, I’m so proud of you.  You’ve learned an important lesson.”  The son, with tears in his eyes said, thank you father – but as I look at the fence – I still see the holes where the nails used to be.  His father replied – those holes are reminders of the past.  That cannot be changed.  But each time you see them you will be stronger as you look ahead to the future.[vi]

My friends, as we travel together through the rest of this holy day, may we all resolve to find ways to improve ourselves and our souls.  May we find the courage and the character to change – to make ourselves and our souls more complete.  We know that change can be painful.  It means that we acknowledge that the path along which we have been travelling may not be right one for us.   And yet, if we commit ourselves to truly accepting the fact that our lives and our legacies make a difference, then we are making the most of the gift of life that God has bequeathed to each of us.

And when the time comes for our loved ones to look back and tell the story of our life may our eulogies reflect our values and our vision for a better world.

AMEN G’mar chatimah tovah[vii].

[i] Thank you Rabbi Ken Karr for this version of an old joke….
[ii] David Brooks:  “The Moral Bucket List” – NY Times – April 11, 2015
[iii] Bereshit Rabbah 9:7
[iv] Gates of Repentance (GOR) p. 312
[v] Plato, Apology 38a
[vii]I want to thank Rabbis Dan Gropper and Stephen Reich for sharing their thoughts on Brook’s book with me.  I appreciate their generosity of spirit and character.