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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Love and Legislation" Invocation for the Colorado State House 2/12/15

Today is February 12th. In case any of us here this morning forgot, In just 2 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 our greed and our 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.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Opening Prayer for the Colorado State House February 5, 2015

Opening Prayer for the Colorado House of Representatives
February 5, 2015
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

Our God, and the God of all people:
God of the poor and God of the powerful;
God of the rich and God of the wretched;
God of hubris and God of humility;
God of those who believe and God of those who are beleaguered;
God of those who have no God:
We come together this morning – in this place of privilege and power – to pray on behalf of those who have been chosen to lead our great State of Colorado.
On this day of deliberation we pray that You might open our eyes so that we might see the possibilities that lie in front of us.
We ask that you allow us to hear the cries of those who are in pain – who suffer from the inequities and inequalities that plague our cities and towns. 
We ask that you allow us to hear the exuberance of those who are inspired by hope and the promise of tomorrow.
May this be a day of transformation.
May these legislators find ways to connect with one another – to build bridges of cooperation and collaboration that break down the barriers of political isolation and one-upmanship.
May every disagreement that occurs today be for the sake of our common vision of a path to improve our State – to improve  our districts – to improve this sacred chamber –  to improve ourselves.
God, You have given us the ability to learn and to grow.  May each of us strive to accept the gifts that we bring to our work.  May we treasure the possibilities that emerge from our deliberations and, in the process of doing so, take one more step towards the perfection of Your all too imperfect world.
Forgive us for our weakness.
Push us to go beyond our limitations.
Inspire us with the blessings that are waiting for us to open our eyes so that we might see them in plain sight.
Help us to see Your presence wherever we gaze.
And let us say:  AMEN

Friday, January 23, 2015

Say It Isn't So - Sky Mall!!!

I just read that the uiquitous "Sky Mall" Magazine might be going out of business. (
In tribute, I had to post this song I wrote on a plane a few years ago......

Sky Mall- January 14, 2008
Words and Music ©  2008 – Rabbi Joe Black - All rights reserved
I was sitting on a plane just the other day
With a broken IPod and no tunes to play
I was bored and desperate to find a way
To keep from climbing the wall
I saw a magazine that was stuck in the seat
I pulled it out and I started to read
I suddenly knew my life was incomplete
When I opened up the Sky Mall                                                      

Sky Mall, Sky Mall – who says you can’t have it all?
So much stuff it’ll make your skin crawl
In the pages of the sky mall

I saw a big fake rock where I could hide a key
A genuine ice cream factory
If I bought a Ginsu®  knife I’d get three for free
I couldn’t resist the call
So I whipped out my Trusty American Express
I was out of control, I must confess
I engaged in an orgy of self-excess
In the pages of the sky mall

I bought a trouser press that made a perfect pleat
A pair of space age slippers that would warm my feet
A life time supply of doggy treats
And a genuine pashamina shawl
An inflatable bed for a weekend guest
A bluetooth wrist watch GPS
A pair of his and her latex sweater vests
From the pages of the Sky Mall

In a few days the packages started to arrive
FEDEX trucks swarmed like bees in a hive
I felt like I was truly alive
As I gazed out on my haul
I was buying stuff from dusk till dawn
But soon I began to lose my calm
My wallet was empty – I was overdrawn
I was hooked on the Sky Mall

This was no simple case of buyer’s remorse
If I didn’t find a way to change my course
Things would only get worse and worse
I was blind and couldn’t see
I needed someone with lot’s of clout
So I gave my congressman a shout
He said:´No problem, son I can help you out”
“Just become a 501c3.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

Who Will Be France's Midwives?

Dear Friends,
The year was 1894.  A young journalist named Theodor Herzl was working as the Paris correspondent for the Viennese newspaper the  Neue Freie Presse.  While in Paris, Herzl covered the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a highly decorated Captain in the French Army who happened to be Jewish.  Dreyfus was falsely accused and convicted for treason.  Following the conviction – which was later overturned – Herzl witnessed and wrote about mass anti-Semitic rallies in the streets of Paris where many chanted: “Mort aux Juifs!” “Death to the Jews!”  The experience of covering this trial had a profound impact on Herzl and, legend has it, was the impetus for writing his book, Altneuland which paved the way for the modern Zionist movement and, ultimately, the creation of the State of Israel 54 years later in 1948.

One of the key themes of Herzl’s writing was the fact that, if France, the birthplace of the Emancipation could voice such animus against the Jews, then there was no solution for the problem of anti-Semitism other than the creation of a Jewish State.  Jew hatred was an eternal conundrum that could only  be solved by nation-building.

Today, in the wake of 3 Terrorist acts that have shocked the world, we have, to our great sorrow, once again witnessed the grotesque dark shadow of murderous anti-Semitism pass over the beautiful facades of the City of Love and Light.   Of course, this is nothing new.  The rise of Islamic extremism and the French Muslim population explosion has long-branded Paris as the epicenter of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric and terror in Europe. 

How can we, as American Jews living in relative safety, understand and comprehend these incomprehensible events?  What are the lessons, if any, that we might begin to glean in the aftermath of today’s horrors?

I wish I knew…

All that I can do is to somehow try to place today’s evil in the context of our weekly torah portion. 

On this Shabbat, we begin a new chapter of Torah –Shemot/Exodus- that contains the phrase:  Vayakom Melech Chadash Al Mitzrayim Asher Lo Yada Et Yosef  - and a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8)

Why was it important to mention Joseph’s name in the context of speaking about the new Pharaoh?  Our tradition teaches that perhaps it was only because of the greatness of Joseph that Pharaoh allowed the Israelites to live in peace.  Once Joseph was out of the picture, any security that the Israelites may have expected disappeared. 

Overnight, the fortunes of the Israelites changed from a protected and valued people, to that of outsiders who were ripe for enslavement.

How could this have happened?  Were there no signs or warnings that would have indicated that this new Pharaoh was so hostile? Our commentators differ in their answer to this question.  Some posit that, even in the last chapters of the book of Bereshit (Genesis) the Egyptians were showing the beginnings of their fear of the Children of Israel.  For example, when Joseph and his brothers go to Canaan to bury their father, Jacob, Pharaoh sent an army of soldiers to accompany them – officially as a sign of the high esteem in which Joseph was placed – but also, quite possibly, the soldiers were sent in order to ensure that they would return to Egypt.

Whatever interpretations we might want to ascribe to our text, the lesson is clear enough:  just because one generation finds itself in relative safety and comfort, this safety is not guaranteed into the future.  Attitudes, prejudices and fears of the other are fickle.  Yesterday’s hero is tomorrow’s pariah.  All we need to do is look at World attitudes towards the State of Israel to find proof of this fact.  Following the 1967 war, everybody loved Israel –the underdog; the David facing the Arab Goliath.   As Israel prevailed against her enemies, we witnessed a turning of the tide to the point where Israel was portrayed- not as the victim, but as the perpetrator of evil.  Israel’s acts of self-preservation in the face of terror and violence have been re-interpreted by many, if not most of today’s Europe as illegitimate.  And, as we have seen all too often, anti-Israel discourse quickly morphs into the classic tropes of anti-Semitism.  Many European countries have also become a safe-haven and breeding ground for the radicalization of young, impressionable Muslims who themselves are not accepted into mainstream European society.  This creates a toxic combination of medieval anti-Semitism with Islamic xenophobia and Jew-hatred that is both ancient and new.

The reality is that, no matter how good it may be for the Jewish people today, the possibility of a radical shift occurring in the attitudes of non-Jews towards Israel and the Jews, is always there – lurking underneath the surface.  Think of Spain in 1492 – the beginning of the Inquisition; or Germany in 1933 – in the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power.  Think of the situation of the Jewish Communities in Morocco, Iran, Iraq and throughout the Arab World following the establishment of the State of Israel.  Communities that had thrived for centuries were decimated overnight.

Is there anyone here tonight who watched the terror unfolding in that Supermarket in Paris today and who didn’t ask themselves:  how could this happen?  Could it happen here?  The answer is:  It has happened…and it easily could happen again.  That is the reality of Global terror and hatred.

So how do we deal with all of this?  I think the answer can also be found in a story in this week’s parasha.  If you will recall, one of Pharaoh’s decrees was to kill all male Israelite children.  You also may recall that there were two Egyptian midwives named Shifra and Puah who defied Pharaoh  - who refused to carry out his genocide.  Their bravery – their decision to defy Pharaoh’s decree and speak truth to power ensured that the Israelites were not destroyed.

And so, on this Shabbat, I ask the questions:  Who will be France’s midwives? Who are the Shifra’s and Puah’s of today?  Who is brave enough to confront the faces of evil and say:  “Enough!  We will not allow ourselves and our society to be bullied into submission by Religious Fanatics who distort the meaning of their faith through their acts of violence.”

In 1894, a young Theodore Herzl saw the future in the chants of the mobs of Paris.  If, today, we do not find the courage to proclaim that we will never allow terror to define us in the 21st Century in the aftermath of today’s events, then we have forsaken our sacred duty to stand up to oppression. We must seek out voices of moderation within the Islamic community – voices who will not only condemn extremism in private conversation – but shout from the rooftops that they will not allow their sacred faith to be polluted by terror.  We must be vigilant in the face of attempts to paint Israel and all Jews as evil – whether in the United Nations, the European Parliament, the streets of Paris or here in Denver. 

17 pure souls – at least 4 who were Jewish - lost their lives because of hatred these past three days.  That alone should be a call to action and sanity.  Today we grieve the loss of life due to hatred.  Tomorrow we start building a new future.

Y’hi Zichram Baruch – may their memories be for a blessing.


Special thanks to Rabbi Emma Gottlieb for coming up with the idea of "Who will be France's midwives?"

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Stumbling upon a mission. Reflection on a chance encounter in a field. (Genesis 37:16-18)

Here is a new poem or lyric for a song yet to be written. It is based on the story of Joseph being sent on a mission by his father to find his brothers. He met a man who changed the course of his life.
Genesis 37:16-18

16He said, "I am looking for my brothers; please tell me where they are pasturing the flock." 17Then the man said, "They have moved from here; for I heard them say, 'Let us go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.18When they saw him from a distance and before he came close to them, they plotted against him to put him to death.…
Stumbling On A Mission
(c) Rabbi Joe Black
December, 2014

He was wandering: Alone in the field
On a mission from his father- it's purpose unrevealed.
Joseph walked along a path that would change his life for good
But he had lost all of his bearings in this distant neighborhood.

He stumbled on a man who asked "why do you look so bleak?"
He said "I'm looking for my brothers - It is my destiny I seek.
The stranger looked at him - seized him up with kind demeanor
"They have left here and have moved on to pastures that are greener
You can join them if you want to - but your road will not be smooth
Or you could run away right now - and never learn the truth."

At this defining moment
at this place in time
When lives all come together
with purpose intertwined
We never know the reason
Or the meaning of our quest
But, in looking back at our journey we can see that we were blessed.

He found his brothers pasturing their flocks in Dothan
When they saw him coming towards them with his colored jacket on
They remembered how they loathed his childhood tales of domination
Anger, jealousy and distance were a lethal combination
They grabbed him and they threw him in a pit so dark and deep
They wanted to destroy his dreams that robbed them of their sleep.

At this defining moment
at this place in time
When lives all come together
with purpose intertwined
We may never know the reasons
Or the meaning of our quest
But, in looking back at our journey we can see that we were blessed.

What if the stranger never told him of his brothers' altered course?
What if his siblings never sold him, or had done him something worse?
Would the telling of their stories change the way we saw the world
Would our narratives be different as our history unfurled?

As we contemplate our journeys and the people whom we meet
As we number every day and pass by strangers in the street
Remember that our words, our deeds, the way we treat each other
Could change the world for better - or pit brother against brother.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Jacob's Voice Vs. Esau's Hands: The Aftermath of A Massacre. Toldot - 5775

Jacob's Voice Vs. Esau's Hands:  the Aftermath of a Massacre
November 21, 2014
Toldot, 5775
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO


This has been a very difficult week.

For me, personally, on Monday morning – the day after Sue and I returned from a fantastic trip to New York with our 10th grade Confirmation class I underwent a planned, laparoscopic surgical procedure to remove my gallbladder.  As I emerged from the fog of anesthesia and pain medication on Tuesday morning, I tried to get caught up in what was happening in the world around me.

I learned of the horrific attack on a synagogue in the Har Nof section of West Jerusalem. Armed with knives, meat cleavers, and handguns, two Palestinian terrorists burst into a holy sanctuary during morning prayers – killing five Israelis - Rabbi Moshe Twersky, Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, Rabbi Kalman Levine (who had family in Boulder), and Police Officer Zidan Saif.  Three of the slain held American/Israeli citizenship, one held British/Israeli citizenship, and one was a Druze Israeli police officer. In addition, seven civilians were wounded, three seriously. Images of bloody worshippers still wrapped in tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries) shook us to the very core.

This attack is part of an ever-escalating series of violent incidents in and around Jerusalem that seem to point towards a coordinated resumption of violence in the Israeli Capital.

Making matters even worse, in the aftermath of this murderous and reprehensible act of violence, we witnessed rejoicing in Gaza and certain other sectors of the Palestinian community.  Men, women and children were dancing in the streets, passing out sweets and celebrating this “victory”– a victory that consisted of the brutal murders of innocents and of police officers who were assigned to protect them.   The fact that the attack was against a Jewish religious target – a synagogue – and the victims were engaged in the sacred act of prayer made the reality of what happened all the more horrifying.  This was not an act of war – not could it be disguised as such.  This was a blatant act of violence against the Jewish people.

In addition to the increasing violence and tension occurring in Jerusalem, here in the States, we are all watching and waiting to see what will happen in Ferguson, MO – where a Grand Jury is set to announce its decision in regards to the case against Police Officer Darren Wilson, the man who fatally shot Michael Brown – an unarmed African American young man – this past summer. 

And just yesterday, another act of violence occurred when a disturbed young man with easy access to guns and ammunition opened fire at a University campus – this time at Florida State University in Tallahassee,  He wounded three students – one seriously, before he was killed by police officers.

Violence on the streets– is very much alive.  But there is a difference between what is happening in our nation and what we are witnessing in Jerusalem.  As tragic and disturbing as recent events on the streets of our cities might be, no one in America is rejoicing over the murder of innocents.  No one is celebrating the lives of the killers – calling them heroes in the wake of their cowardly acts.

For those of us who are praying for peace in Israel, we must ask the question:  How can peace come when there are those who not only do not discourage violence, but actively encourage others to engage in random, senseless killing?  How can there be hope when the murder of innocents is greeted with raucous rejoicing?  What chance is there for a negotiated settlement in light of the tyranny of terror?  How can we continue to paint the situation in Israel as political when there are those who are deliberately and actively attacking religious targets – like synagogues - that have nothing to do with Statehood?

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we are introduced to twin brothers – Jacob and Esau – whose entire life is consumed with fighting.  We are told how, when Rebekah was pregnant with her sons, they “struggled within her” (Genesis 25:22).  We learn of how Jacob tricks Esau into selling his birthright and how, with his mother’s help, he deceives his father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing that was supposed to have been given to Esau.

In our text, we read of how, when Jacob comes to his blind father dressed in Esau’s clothing and covered in sheepskin, Isaac is confused and proclaims: “The hands are the hand of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob.” Over the centuries, many commentators have used this phrase to accentuate the differences between those who would use violence to achieve their goals (the hands of Esau) and those who would eschew violence and use dialogue and negotiation to accomplish peace (the voice of Jacob). 

It is clear that time is running out for the prospect seeing any kind of negotiated settlement in Israel and the territories.  Violence begets violence and only serves to strengthen those who would champion the hands of Esau and silence the voice of Jacob. 

Our tradition has made it clear that there is a time and a place for the use of strength and power.  It is a Mitzvah to defend ourselves when placed in a dangerous situation.  The state of Israel and the Jewish people will never allow ourselves to be destroyed by our enemies’ attacks.  This is why the war in Gaza this past summer was not only justified, but essential.  At the same time, once we have established our physical well-being and safety, we also are commanded to  Bakeysh Shalom V’Rodfeyhu – Seek peace and pursue it.”  At several times during our services this evening we will pray for peace.  It is quite possible that the moment that the four rabbis were murdered in the midst of their prayers they were saying the words:  Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu YaSeh Shalom Aleynu V’Al kol Yisrael – May the One who makes peace in the High Heavens, make peace for us and all Israel.”

This week we are reminded of the tension between the hands of Isaac and the Voice of Jacob.  Let us work and pray for the time when our voices will be louder than our fists.

The families of the four rabbis who were murdered this week in Jerusalem just put out the following Shabbat plea:

 With broken hearts, drenched in tears shed over the spilt blood of holy men – the heads of our families.

We call on our brethren wherever they are – let us come together so that we may merit mercy from Heaven, and let’s accept upon ourselves to increase love and comradery, between each individual and each community.

We ask that every person accept upon himself on this Sabbath Eve (Parshat Toldot, November 21-22, 2014), to set aside the day of Shabbat as a day of unconditional love, a day during which we will refrain from words of disagreement and division, from words of gossip and slander.

May this serve to elevate the souls of our husbands and fathers who were slaughtered while sanctifying Gd’s name.

Gd will look down from the heavens, see our suffering, wipe away our tears and put an end to our tribulations.

May we merit seeing the coming of our Moshiach (Messiah) speedily in our days. Amen.

Signed with a torn heart,

Mrs. Chaya Levin and family

Mrs. Bryna Goldberg and family

Mrs. Yaacova Kupensky and family

Mrs. Bashy Twersky and family

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Gall Bladder Blues

This past Monday, I had surgery to remove my gallbladder.  As surgeries go, I'm told, its a relatively simple procedure.  They used a laproscopic technique that was minimally invasive so my recovery is going well.  I hope to back at work by the end of the week - slowly..... 

Here is a poem/song that I wrote about it.  The first half was written the night before.  Last stanza was composed the first day of my recuperation. 

Gall Bladder Blues 
(c) November 18, 2014
By Rabbi Joe Black

They're going to make four small incisions
And pump me full of air
Then they'll take a look inside me
To see what's wrong in there

They'll gas and dull my senses
and with a twisting of his wrist
The surgeon, deftly dancing
Will do what he does best

How my body has betrayed me!
How dare it act alone!
What gall it takes to play me
Like some 3 card Monty clone

It's hiding 'neath the paper cups
And slipping side to side
Now you see it now you don't
As it takes me for a ride

Sometimes it sits contented
With a mind that's all it's own
Until it strikes with claws extended
And makes its presence known

And when it all is over
And the offensive organ's gone
And I walk about when healing's done
With savings overdrawn.

Will I change the way I see things
Will my voice be somewhat strained?
One part is gone
A useless thing?
The source of so much pain.

God made us all with wisdom
Some are happy some are sadder
I, for one am quite content
To get rid of my gall bladder.