Thursday, September 20, 2018

RIVERS: Yom Kippur Morning 5779-2018



My Dear Friends,

Some of you may remember that exactly five years ago this month, a huge flood devastated parts of Colorado. The flooding impacted 24 counties, causing nearly $4 billion in damage. As rivers overflowed their banks, more than 1,800 homes were destroyed. In all, 27 state highways were shut down, covering some 485 miles. It cost more than $700 million to repair and rebuild those roads[i]. Today, as we sit here in this holy place – on this holiest day of the year, our thoughts are also directed to those who have been impacted by Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, and those who are still impacted by Hurricane Maria one year later – especially in Puerto Rico – which is still reeling from the death and destruction it caused. When natural disasters like fires, hurricanes and flooding hit a community, the carnage and devastation can be overwhelming. We feel powerless and fragile in the face of the awesome power of these events. Scientists tell us that man-made climate change is releasing more and more CO2 into the atmosphere - thus exponentially increasing both the likelihood and severity of future natural disasters. On this 5-year anniversary of the massive Colorado floods, when rivers overflowed their banks I want to talk about lessons that we can learn from rivers – and how we can apply them to our own lives.
The first thing we learn from Rivers is the power and the inevitability of change.
We are like rivers - for like rivers, we change.

Rivers have currents. Rivers are constantly changing. The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, taught that you cannot step into the same river twice. Rivers flow - they are movement itself.  In the Torah, in Jewish folklore and mysticism, rivers are powerful symbols. We are told that 4 rivers flowed out from the primordial waters of the Garden of Eden:  the Pishon, the Gichon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates[ii]. On their currents traveled the innocence of humanity - going further and further away from that garden paradise. Throughout the Torah we find images of rivers as powerful symbols of change.


When Jacob prepares to meet his brother Esau after years of anger and mistrust, he must cross the river Yabok. Before his crossing, he wrestles with a mysterious stranger until daybreak. When he arises from the encounter, he is a changed man. He crosses that river with a new name, Yisrael - and a new outlook on life. Rivers are all about change.

Yom Kippur is about change as well. We sit here in this sanctuary - and we pray that we might find the strength to change - to better ourselves - to fulfill the role that is set out for us. This is not an easy thing to do for we must confront the most painful aspect of ourselves - our limitations. This takes a tremendous amount of effort.

When we look at a river, we can see the stillness of the water. All appears to be peaceful on the surface. Nonetheless, we know that beneath that calm there is a vast, intricate ecosystem that manifests itself in a battle for life and death. So many of us present an unruffled, smooth facade - while underneath we are a mass of combating urges and impulses. We struggle with our inadequacies and shortcomings - our desires and temptations – our secrets and psyches. We are weak, and we easily succumb.  Because of our weakness, we need the cleansing power of Teshuvah - of repentance.

There is a custom that many Jews practice on Rosh Ha-Shanah called Tashlikh. This consists of going to a body of water and throwing out bread crumbs. The crumbs are symbolic of our sins. We watch as they are carried away by the currents or devoured by fish or birds. This symbolic act shows that we are ready to change our ways. We cast our sins upon the water as a sign that we are ready to do Teshuvah - to turn in repentance.

This morning, we have come to this place, in order to admit our failures, and promise to begin anew. We do teshuva in order to cleanse ourselves. The flow of a river can be cleansing. Teshuva is like a river's current. It can carry our burdens away - if we open ourselves to the possibility of change.

To be open to change - is to admit that we are weak-is to confront the fact that we have hurt those whom we love; that we have become distanced from the paths of wholeness and holiness that are set out for us. Teshuva means turning back in repentance. On Rosh Hashanah the shofar called out to us:  "Listen," it said. "Remember who you are."  "Remember how far you have drifted."  "Come back. Come back."  On this holy day it is our task to heed it’s call for turning.

When we repent for our sins, our tradition teaches, we are moving back in synch with the current of our lives. These currents teach us the true meaning of teshuva - of repentance.

The second lesson is that rivers teach us about boundaries.
Four rivers flowed out from Eden. They spread out over the world to form the boundaries of civilization as we know it. Rivers serve as borders between nations and communities, they also become focal points of tension. The West bank of the Jordan river symbolizes statehood for the Palestinians - and security for the Israelis. Similarly, the shaky peace between Israel and her neighbors by necessity involves a different understanding of the boundaries of the land of Israel than that found in Genesis 15:18 where we find:

On that day, God made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.....'[iii]

When we look closely at rivers, we find that they also can symbolize the way we perceive ourselves. Just as rivers define physical and geographical boundaries, they also can teach us about other types of barriers. So many of us believe that the boundaries and limitations we face every day are really tests or obstacles that must be overcome, rather than accepted and assimilated. So much of what we do - so much time and effort is spent on improving, developing or re-shaping our physical, emotional and spiritual environments - testing our limitations - that we often lose sight of who and what we are.

Sue and I have a cousin who supplemented his income handsomely while he was in graduate school in Manhattan by working as a tutor for wealthy families who wanted to give their children “an edge” that would allow them to get into the best nursery schools, so that they will get into the best private schools, so that they will get into the best colleges, graduate schools and “make it” in life. Sue’s cousin admitted that a lot of what he did made him feel uncomfortable. He saw how these parents placed such high expectations on their children that they were sending a message that failure is never an option.      

My friends, there is nothing wrong with striving to do our best. But the truth is that our borders and boundaries are as important as our potential - for they help us to define our goals. We also need to teach our children — and ourselves — how to fail.

Failure is increasingly becoming taboo. Our president repeatedly uses the adjective to describe people and institutions – especially those in the media that he dislikes. The pejorative “loser” is insidious. It equates failure with weakness; winning becomes our ultimate goal. Those who come up short are worthy of contempt.

In this light, some flooding and other disasters can partly be blamed on our fear of failure and our hubris -- our vain egocentrism as a nation. As we witnessed last year in Houston, and as we have seen time after time across our nation, our belief in our superiority caused us to build cities on natural flood plains. We were confident that our engineering could protect us from the waters. We reasoned that if we built our walls high enough, strong enough and with enough ingenuity, we would never have to worry about flooding. We were wrong. We failed and did not allow ourselves to learn from our failures.

But rivers do not only represent boundaries within society, they also serve as powerful symbols for the limitations we place upon ourselves.

We are like rivers: our lives also flow between the banks of our own, personal boundaries. We move through the events, expectations, compromises and covenants by and through which we gauge the passage of time and the fulfillment of our expectations. There are moments when our banks overflow - when we cannot contain the feelings, emotions, and passions which course through our veins like a raging torrent.


Along the banks of our own, personal rivers, there are high points which teach us of the meaning and purpose of our very existence.  When we stand under the Chuppah; when a child is born; when we hold the Torah for the first time as a Jew by choice; when we overcome illness or misfortune; when we rejoice with our children or grandchildren as they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah -  these are defining moments of our lives .... when our banks overflow with joy and happiness.

But there are low points as well - when, instead of flooding, we experience drought. When a cherished loved one dies, a marriage fails, illness strikes cruelly and unexpectedly - all too often we can find ourselves in the midst of a barren, dry river bed - parched and utterly alone. We gaze up at the heights along the banks - we cannot seem to find a way to climb up out of the abyss.

For many of us, these times when the banks of our lives are changing - whether overflowing or drying up - are unnatural. We often don't know how to deal with them. I cannot tell you how many times when, as a rabbi, I stand with people at moments of great joy or great crisis and they do not know what to do. "Rabbi," they say, "I promised myself that I wouldn't cry at my son's Bar Mitzvah."  Or, "Rabbi, I can't allow myself to break down at my mother's funeral - I don't want to lose control - I'm afraid that I might never get it back...."

I want to tell these people: “Good! Go ahead and cry!!!  Lose control - that’s what you’re supposed to do.” 

All too often we build walls around ourselves to keep from overflowing or to serve as reservoirs during times of drought. We create artificial levies, bridges and dams to prevent the floods from disrupting our daily routines. We strive for ways to control, monitor and regulate the high and low points in our lives. And yet walls and bridges cannot really help us. They cannot give us strength during times of spiritual emptiness - nor can they prevent the torrents of emotion from overwhelming us.   Like floods and hurricanes, like the current drought much of our state is experiencing today, eventually, these defenses will be breached - and we can find ourselves at the mercy of events and feelings - and we don't know what to do because we have not allowed ourselves to experience the power of allowing our emotions, our feelings, our joy, our fear, our pain.... to overflow.

My friends, this is dangerous, for part of who and what we are is based on our ability to appreciate, accept and assimilate our lives in their totality - the good and the bad; the highs as well as the lows. The more walls we build, the more we keep our emotions, our loved ones, our fears, hopes and dreams in check - the less in touch with our true selves we become - and the more alienated we are from life.


The ancient Egyptians understood the dangers of building walls. Every year, the Nile river would overflow its banks. Instead of catastrophe, this yearly flood brought with it prosperity. The Nile was a sacred river. Its overflow brought new life to the desert soil on its banks. The people worshiped the Nile because of its rising and falling - its highs and lows. It became the source of their spiritual and physical life. They made no separation between the two.

As Jews, we have a vehicle for expressing ourselves at those moments when our banks overflow and when we are parched with drought. At times of our greatest joy and sorrow, we express ourselves in Tefillah - in prayer. The Psalmist said it best perhaps in the 23d Psalm:  "You have anointed my head with oil, my cup runneth over..."   Tefillah - prayer is a central theme of these Days of Awe. We come together as a community and examine our deeds. We look deep inside at our successes, our failures - our highs and our lows. We travel down the banks of the river of the past year.

Milton Steinberg, in his book, Basic Judaism, called prayer a "bridge to God."[iv]  Prayer becomes a bridge - not for the avoidance of our essential selves, but towards understanding who we are and what is truly important. Through prayer, we find the words, the opportunities and the paths to cross over or submit to the barriers in our lives. Prayer is a humbling experience. To speak to God means to admit that there are things in our life that we cannot truly understand. What if God does not hear us?  Or even worse, what if there is no God at all?  What if all our words, our liturgy, our deepest thoughts are emptied out into an abyss of nothingness? 

These are real questions....they cannot be avoided.

To attempt to stand in the presence of the Divine is to expose ourselves to the unknown. It's risky. And yet, it is precisely because of this risk that prayer can be so powerful. When we pray - we gaze down at and inside of the river of our lives. We step back and appreciate all that we have. We take stock in ourselves and our world. We allow our banks to overflow.

But prayer is not only for those times in our lives when we are overcome with emotion. Prayer can be a powerful, ongoing affirmation of who we are, and where we want to be. On Yom Kippur our sanctuary is overflowing – and we love to see everyone hear. But we have services every week! Join us! To pray on a regular basis is to acknowledge to ourselves and our God that we appreciate and are thankful for all that life has to offer - all the time. It prepares us for when we need to pray the most, it provides us with a reservoir from which we can draw when we have to find the words, the feelings, the ways and means with which to confront and contend with our highs and our lows.

The banks of the rivers of our lives are built on the prayers of our hearts.

The third thing we learn from rivers is that everything is connected.

We are like rivers - for like rivers, we are connected to one another. Four rivers flowed from Eden. They all shared a common source. One of the lessons we learn from flooding is that the actions of cities and towns at the head of the river affects those communities down below. As each community downstream builds the walls of their dams and levies higher and higher, the pressure is increased on the walls of successive communities until the inevitable occurs – walls collapse, and flooding ensues.


A third message of these High holidays is the importance of Tseddakah. This is often mistranslated as "charity" - but it means much more. Tseddakah literally means righteousness. It means that we have an awareness of how our actions can impact others - for bad or good. In the Mishnah, tractate Avot, we read:  Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, averah goreret averah - Acts of loving kindness lead to further acts, transgressions lead to further transgression[v]. Rivers are systems - nothing is independent. The water is contained by the banks, the currents flow to the sea, the plant life and the animals - all are dependent upon one another. Rivers teach us that everything in life is connected.  We are no exception.

This afternoon, we will be reading from the Book of Jonah. If you will recall, at one point in the story, a huge storm erupts while the prophet is fleeing from God. All the sailors and passengers pray to their gods to save the boat which is being mercilessly tossed by the wind and the waves. Jonah, however, goes down to his bunk and falls asleep. When the Captain finds him snoring away he confronts him: “How can you sleep? Get up and pray to your God so that we might be saved![vi]” Jonah’s selfishness and inability to see the pain of others was part of his undoing. As I said last night, we need to listen to one another. We need to have compassion and empathy - to cooperate and understand that everything and everyone is connected.

All of us are responsible for one another - we are taught in our sacred texts. My world does not end with my family, my synagogue, my neighborhood,  my country, or even my people. All people are God's children. Rivers teach us of our interdependence and connectedness.

In the Siddur we are told that On Rosh Ha Shanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die, who by flood and who by fire........

But we are told that Teshuvah, Tefillah, U'Tseddakah maavirim et roa ha gezerah – repentance, prayer, and acts of righteousness temper God's decree.

On this Yom Kippur, may we learn the lessons of the rivers. May the currents that pull us in every direction show us the path to true Teshuvah - turning towards repentance for our sins. May we learn to live within the changing banks of our lives through Tefillah - the prayer of our hearts. And may we learn that we are all interconnected through the process of Tseddakah. Then, truly, our lives will be for a blessing.

L'Shanah Tovah Teychateymu --- may we all be sealed for a blessing in the book of life, blessing and peace.

AMEN




[i] https://kdvr.com/2018/09/10/5-year-anniversary-of-colorados-historic-floods/
[ii]Genesis 2:10-14
[iii] Genesis 15:18
[iv] Steinberg, Milton Basic Judaism Harcourt Brace, p.116
[v] Mishnah, Avot 4:2
[vi] Jonah 1:6


“In Your Mouth and In Your Heart” - Kol Nidre - 5779


My Dear Friends,
I recently heard a story about a woman was flying from Chicago to Denver. Unexpectedly, the plane was diverted to Omaha along the way.
The flight attendant explained that there would be a delay, and if the passengers wanted to get off the aircraft the plane would re-board in 55 minutes…
Everybody got off the plane except the woman who stoically sat in her seat…
A man noticed her as he walked by and then he saw the seeing-eye dog that lay quietly underneath the seats in front of her. He could also tell that she was a regular on this flight because the pilot approached her, and calling her by name, said, “Kathy, we are in Omaha for almost an hour, would you like to get off and stretch your legs?”
Kathy replied and said, “No thanks, but maybe Buddy would like a little walk.”
The pilot was happy to help her – and took Buddy off the plane and into the terminal.
All the people in the gate area came to a complete stand still when they looked up and saw the sunglasses-wearing pilot walk off the plane with a seeing eye dog! This was followed by a mad rush to the ticket counter to change their flights.
[PAUSE]
It’s so easy to make snap judgements about the world in which we live, isn’t it? On this holiest night of the year, I want to talk about how we allow our perceptions of the world around us to color - not only the way we see things, but also how we speak to one another.  Let’s start with the prayer that began our service tonight – Kol Nidre.
Kol Nidre is essentially a legalistic formula asking God to not hold us accountable for vows that we will make during the coming year that we cannot fulfill.  That’s it.
But I want to expand our consciousness a bit tonight.  Rather than seeing Kol Nidre as an insurance policy against perjury, perhaps we should also understand it as a petition for forgiveness. Maybe we need to ask God to overlook not just the vows we utter, but also the way we judge others and ourselves:
·         for the words that we say - words that wound;
·         and the words that we do NOT say – words that can heal.

It is a plea for understanding: “God,” we are asking, “…please forgive us for our instinctual, gut-level reactions to the world around us.”  Please forgive us for:
·         Speaking without thinking,
·         Lashing out in anger
·         Judging others based on pre-conceived notions of who they are because of their
o   Ethnic background
o   Skin color
o   Gender
o   Sexuality
o   Political affiliation
·         Forgive us for holding back words that need to be said.
·         Forgive us for remaining silent in the face of bigotry, inequality and abuse
In this light we can see the Kol Nidre prayer as asking God to protect us from ourselves – when we make snap judgements and pronouncements based on our first impressions – when we lash out in anger and when we say stupid things; when we allow our basest impulses to guide our actions.
This past summer, there was an incident which took place at that most hallowed of sacred sanctuaries – Wrigley Field – home of the 2016 world Champion Chicago Cubs – that brought this idea sharply into focus.
The NPR commentator and host of the “Weekend Edition” radio program, Scott Simon, wrote the following:
In the 4th inning of …[a]… game between the Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs first base coach tossed a foul ball to a smiling youngster in the stands who wore a Cubs hat endearingly too large for him. The kid bobbled the baseball. What people saw next in video clips that zapped around the world was a man with close-cropped hair, who sat behind the boy, scoop up the baseball and give it to the woman next to him.
Tweets and other social media posts began a barrage about the man who filched a foul ball from a little boy. There could be no doubt. We saw it.
The Cubs front office quickly dispatched a staffer down to the seats. He gave the youngster a new ball signed by Javy Baez, the Cubs shortstop. The little boy smiled under the brim of his boat-sized hat, and held up two baseballs.
The Cubs tweeted the photo to say, "A @javy23baez signed ball should take care of it."
What the Cubs discovered from people nearby, however, was that the man in question wound up with four balls during the game, and gave three to children, including the young man who had appeared to be swindled. He also gave one to his wife; it was their anniversary.
Julian Green of the Cubs said in a statement, "Unfortunately, a video that was quickly posted and unverified has made a national villain out of an innocent man."
The man doesn't want to be identified, but said through the team, "Many foul balls came our way that day and were happily shared among the children in our area. No one left disappointed. I am not 'that guy' that the media and social media made me out to be[i]
Simon concludes his essay with the question: “How many of us today would rather be outraged than informed[ii]?”
In today’s world of instantaneous electronic social-media driven communication, it is devilishly simple to spread rumors, innuendo and false information with the click of a mouse.  Our basest instincts can be easily satisfied at any time, place or situation.
Indeed, there are many who thrive on and profit from fomenting anger, fear, frustration and creating a sense of outrage – especially during the non-stop political campaigning that has become part and parcel of our daily lives. Just spend 20 minutes watching television during an election year. The personal attacks, alternative facts and abusive syntax that fill our eyes and ears can take their toll. This hateful rhetoric plays on our emotions.  It becomes ingrained into our daily discourse.
The ability to score points by name calling and abusive behavior is, for some, a badge of honor that we see reflected in the highest offices of our land.
Regardless of political perspective, no one in this sanctuary can deny that our nation is bitterly divided.  Partisan pundits and prognosticators have done an excellent job of driving wedges between us.
While this may make for excellent reality Television drama and compelling Twitter feeds, I fear that the overall degradation of civility and discourse is causing a rupture in normative behavior that is essential for a healthy society to flourish.
We have lost the ability to disagree in a respectful manner – and this does not bode well for the future.
As I have said on numerous occasions, dialogue has been replaced by diatribe – and we are all the worse as a result.
In the passage of Torah that we will read tomorrow morning - in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 we find the following:
For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote.  It is not in Heaven that you should say: “Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it down to us, that we may do it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say: “Who will cross the sea for us and bring it over to us, that we may do it?” No, it is very near to you, B’ficha Ul’va-ve-cha in your mouth and in your heart, that you might do it.

B’ficha Ul’va-ve-cha – in your mouth and in your heart.

I’ve read that passage hundreds of times over the years, and I never asked the question: “What does this really mean? Why does the Torah say “…in your mouth and in your heart?" Shouldn’t it say something like: “In your hands and in your heart?”  or "...in your ears and in your mouth?" This year, however, for several reasons, it is foremost in my thoughts.  And so, I ask the question: 

What is the significance of B’ficha– “in your mouth?”

The great 11th century French Torah commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, or “Rashi” writes “…the Torah has been given to you in writing and orally.”[iii].  this refers to both the written Torah and commentaries. It also means that if words of Torah are “in our mouths” then we can repeat them and pass them down to each generation.

What then, is the significance of B’lavecha – “in your hearts?”
The Psalmist wrote: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Your sight O God.[iv]” When our hearts are in synch with words of Torah, then our words and actions are reflective of our basic values.
But perhaps, there is another way for us to understand this text.  In 1964, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke the following words on the occasion of his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize:
"Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words.  Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart. [v]

In other words, there are moments when it is unnecessary – and perhaps even unseemly to speak. Silence is often the best response to situations in which we find ourselves – especially when we are tempted to give in to the cacophony of criticism and contempt that has polluted our national discourse.

On this day of judgement – Yom Ha Din – we must acknowledge that not only are we being judged – but that we judge others – all the time.  And so, today I want to ask us all to take a pledge – to bring civility into our lives.

·         to learn to listen with our hearts – before we open our lips
·         to see the humanity in every person we encounter – even in those with whom we disagree
·         to move away from talking points – and create building blocks of community and consensus that focus on the inherent worth of every person created in the image of God

But silence is not always the best response to every situation.  There are times when we must speak out. This past year, we have seen how silence can be both criminal and deadly – it can promote and sustain abusive patterns of behavior that destroy lives and perpetuate brutal and dysfunctional systems of oppression.  We have also seen how powerful and brave voices can challenge the status quo and uncover the ugliness that hides beneath the surface.

The Catholic church is now being forced to come to terms with the heavy price of its silence around predatory priests.

The #Metoo movement is freeing women to come forward with disturbing tales of sexual harassment and abuse that in some cases have brought down powerful men and forced all of us to undergo a serious process of Cheshbon HaNefesh – soul searching and repentance. There still is a long way to go – but dramatic progress has been made.

In response to tragic and very public deaths involving celebrities, we have seen a significant increase in and awareness of suicide that is opening doorways by challenging the stigmas around mental health. In turn, we are witnessing the beginning of a national dialogue that is helping us to see that mental illness is a disease that must be addressed openly – without stigma – with compassion and concern.  This November, as part of our ongoing partnership with Rose Medical Center, we will be hosting several programs focusing on a Jewish response to mental health.  Our Jewish community is also coming together to talk about and create doorways of acceptance and welcome that builds upon the pioneering work of Temple Emanuel’s Mental Health Task Force.

But there are still areas where we need to do much, much more.

The epidemic of gun violence that is gripping our nation must also be addressed – publicly and forcefully – in order to prevent more tragic events that are becoming commonplace in our public spaces. If the horrors of Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and hundreds of other locations that have turned into monuments to monstrosity - where the blood of innocents cries out to us from the ground ; if these do not cause us to stop and think about the insanity of gun worship that has taken the lives of thousands upon thousands of men, women and children then we, as a nation, are guilty of the sins of indifference, idolatry, and self-absorption. It’s one thing to protect the right of citizens to bear arms. It is quite another to remain silent in the face of mass murder; to do nothing about stopping the influx of assault weapons into our homes, schools, houses of worship and literally every other place where people gather. Are we content with defeatism? Can we accept that that we are powerless to change – or to bring about change? My friends, committing to change is what this holy day is all about.

The inhumanity of an immigration policy that severely limits asylum seekers to a bare trickle and separates parents and children is immoral, un-American, and contrary to our most basic Jewish values. The phrase, “you shall not oppress the foreigner, for you know the heart of the foreigner -having yourselves been foreigners in the Land of Egypt” – occurs no less than 36 times in the Torah. How many of us are sitting here this evening because our ancestors fled from persecution to come to a new land of freedom and hope? How many more perished in the flames of the Shoah because of a State Department that was riddled with well documented anti-Semitism in the 1930’s and 40’s?[vi] If we remain silent in the face of brutality and abuse, then we have no moral standing. If our words and our deeds do not reflect our history, our values and the ache in our hearts, then we are complicit.

The tension around race has brought many to question and challenge the status quo.  African Americans and other minorities are standing up – and in some cases, kneeling down – and refusing to remain silent or complacent in the face of institutionalized and internalized racism. It is easy for those of us whose skin color is not dark to feign ignorance or cast aspersions in response. For those of us who are uncomfortable seeing our own privilege called out, this process is painful and profound. It is hard to acknowledge or affirm the trepidation and fear that people of color endure daily. And yet, a systematic and deeply ingrained pattern of prejudice exists that is part and parcel – not only of our nation’s history, but is also very real on the streets of our cities and the back alleyways of daily life.

These are not political statements – although I know that some of you will interpret them as such.  They come from a deep love of and concern for key Jewish values that guide us as a people. And they are only a few examples of the need to speak out – with our mouths and hearts when intolerance, hatred and violence pollute our society.

During the month of November, Temple Emanuel will be hosting a special exhibition entitled “Talking It Out:  Getting to Agreement.”  We also will be hosting several programs and speakers designed to help us engage in difficult conversations: to listen to one another and find common ground – even with our differences.  I hope that you will seriously consider participating.

But when we think about the phrase B’ficha U’livavecha – with our mouths and our hearts, we also must acknowledge that it is not only with those with whom we disagree that words need to carefully chosen and lovingly bestowed. On this holiest night of the year, we also must recognize that we need to carefully choose our words to those closest to us as well.

  • Sitting here tonight is a teenager who longs for nothing more than to hear a kind word from a parent.  
  • Here among us tonight is a widow – who lives in the crushing empty silence of her home – waiting to hear from a son or daughter who never calls……
  • Here tonight there are families and individuals who are new to our community – who long to hear the words: “Welcome!  Nice to meet you!”  They are looking to build new connections and friendships to fill the emptiness left behind by leaving their former communities.
  • Here tonight is someone who made a big mistake – and who was punished.  Now she is terrified that everyone who looks at her sees only the mistake she made – and not the person she has become.  She, too longs to hear words of comfort and welcome.
  • Sitting here tonight is someone looking for a spiritual path – who is disillusioned by the faith of their family and community and has come to this service to find, perhaps, one last opportunity to connect with God.  This person is looking to hear words of meaning and purpose.
All of these people – and so many others -  are living with words that they long to hear – that they long to say:  words of welcome, words of faith, words of apology – words of forgiveness - words of love – words of hope; words that could build bridges of connection --- words that are frozen in the silence of their absence.

And they are not alone.  All of us, at some time in our life, find ourselves trapped by our inability to find and to use the words that we so desperately need to say to the most important people in our lives – but for whatever reason, we do not.

And so, as I do every year on Kol Nidre, I ask you:  What are the heartfelt words you need to say to those around you? To your family members and your friends? What is holding you back? How can we make amends for the harm we have caused over the past year that has contributed to the climate of confrontation and chaos that has contaminated our national discourse? What are we waiting for?
B’ficha Ul’va-ve-cha – in your mouth and in your heart.

My dear friends – tonight can be a new beginning. Tonight, at this sacred place – in this sacred time – we can change – we can heal – we can make our world a little more holy. We can speak out and make a difference. We can vote in November. We can savor the love and make new connections that will allow us to listen to the possibility of Shalom – of wholeness and fulfillment for which we so desperately strive.

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight – O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.

AMEN – G’mar Chatimah tovah.




[i] Scott Simon on NPR weekend edition – July 28, 2018 https://www.npr.org/2018/07/28/633199563/opinion-when-a-video-isnt-the-whole-story
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Rashi on Deuteronomy 30:14
[iv] Psalm 19:14
[v] Dr. Martin Luther King:  “The Quest For Peace and Justice.”  Nobel address – December 11, 1964 – Oslo, Norway.  https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1964/king/lecture/
[vi] C.f. Wyman, David S.The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945.New York; Pantheon Books, 1984.  Also – the following Bibliography is an excellent source:  http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/33d/projects/usholo/USHoloLinksBib.htm



Monday, September 3, 2018

The 4 Weeks of Elul 5778 - Week 4: Our Physical Selves


Dear Friends,

I recently had the sad task of participating in the funeral of the 36-year-old son of dear friends from out of town who died suddenly and without warning – leaving behind a new bride and a devastated community. This young man had his entire life ahead of him.  He had a promising future and was set to embark on a new career path. Seeing the grief and pain that was etched into the faces of all who knew and loved him as his body was lowered into his grave brought the fragility of life sharply into focus.

A tragedy such as this reminds us that we are physical beings. Each day we are gifted on earth is precious. Each moment we are blessed with the ability to experience the joys and hardships of daily living is sacred. One of the Hebrew words for soul is neshamah. Interestingly, neshamah also can be translated as “breath.” Jewish tradition teaches that our spiritual and physical selves are intrinsically linked.  Each breath we take is both an affirmation and an opportunity to witness the miracle of life itself. As such, it is incumbent upon us to care for our bodies as an act of spiritual practice.

During this last week of Elul, I want us to focus on our physical selves. Again, this is by no means a complete list.  Some questions are repeated from previous years.  Hopefully they will provide you with a starting point for examining and improving your lives:  As such – I offer the following questions:
  1. Have I taken care of my body through diet and exercise?
  2.  Have I prepared medical directives that are clear and unambiguous stating my desires for illness and end-of-life issues?
  3.  Have I done all that I could to comfort those around me who are affected by illness – have I performed the mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim – visiting the sick?
  4.  How much stress am I experiencing?  Is it affecting the way I live my life?
  5. What bad habits have I cultivated that I need to change?
  6.  Have I been avoiding going to the doctor, dentist or other health care professionals due to fear of what I might discover?
  7.  Have I been supportive of efforts to provide health care to those who cannot afford it in my community?

As we enter into this last week of Elul, 5778, I hope and pray that the coming High Holy Days will be filled with meaning and beauty for you.  Sue, Elana, Ethan and I truly feel blessed to be part of this sacred community.  Again, I welcome your comments and suggestions for additional questions and formats that we can use.  If answering them causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbis Hyatt and Baskin, Cantor Sacks and I would welcome the opportunity. 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 out.

L’shanah Tovah U’metukah – may you have a good and sweet new year,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Four Weeks of Elul 5778. Week 3: Personal and Professional Relationships




Dear Friends,

I write this message shortly after hearing the news that Senator John McCain has died. The outpouring of grief, the tributes from colleagues on both sides of the political spectrum and world leaders all attest to the fact that Senator McCain was a man of principle who, despite his fervent and often controversial statements and positions, had the ability to disagree – sometimes fervently – with his opponents, while retaining the respect and friendship of most of the people with whom he came in contact. While we would hope that his example would be the norm, not the exception in our nation’s capital, his ability to cross the sectarian, ideological and political divides that are plaguing our national discourse was unique. His strength of character and willingness to speak his truth to power while separating politics from personality can serve as a model for our personal and professional relationships as we enter into this third week of Elul.

This time of Cheshbon Ha-nefesh (taking an inventory of our souls) during the month of Elul gives us an opportunity to examine the central relationships in our lives. Almost everything we do involves other people. We have different kinds of relationships: personal, professional, romantic and platonic. And yet, all our dealings with others have the potential for holiness. The Torah teaches that every person is created in the image of God. How we treat others must reflect this awareness. In our modern, technology filled, and cloistered worlds, all too often, relationships that are challenged by opposing world views can become disposable when conflicting values and belief systems emerge. It is easy to cut off those who make us uncomfortable – sometimes with the click of a mouse. As a result, we are rapidly losing the ability to disagree – and to move beyond our disagreements. This is a dangerous trend which poses a severe challenge to our society and the institutions upon which it is built.

The month of Elul is all about asking for and receiving forgiveness. The Mishnah teaches that on Yom Kippur the sins we have committed against God will be forgiven if we are truly repentant. The sins we commit against others, however, cannot be forgiven unless and until we have asked those whom we have wronged to forgive us. In many ways, this is one of the most difficult aspects of Cheshbon Ha-nefesh. It means that we have to take risks by reaching out to others. We may encounter resistance, anger, or resentment. Sometimes it is impossible to reach out – and yet, it is our duty to do all that we can to assess whether reconciliation is possible. If there is a slightest hope – then we need to try – even if we fail. In addition, we are taught that when others come to us asking for our forgiveness, we should do everything in our power to grant their requests.

The following questions are designed to make us think about the current status of the many different relationships in our lives. Again, this is by no means a complete list. Hopefully it will provide you with a starting point for improving the relationships in your lives.

1.       Are there any relationships in my life that are damaged? Have I done all that I could to repair them?
2.       Are there people I have wronged that I need to ask to forgive me?
3.       Will I be able to forgive those who come to me to ask for my forgiveness?
4.       Have I taken part in any business or personal transactions this past year that were against my religious, moral or ethical principles?
5.       Have I taken time recently to let the most important people in my life know how much I care about them?
6.       Are there people who feel that I have wronged them – even if I don’t think that I have? Have I reached out to them to try and come to an understanding?
7.       Have I shut out the pain of others in other parts of the world? In my country? My City? My congregation? My neighborhood? My family?

Again, I welcome your comments and suggestions for additional questions and formats that we can use.  If answering them causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbis Hyatt and Baskin, Cantor Sacks and I would welcome the opportunity. 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 out.

L’shanah Tovah U’metukah – may you have a good and sweet new year,


Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Four Weeks of Elul 5778. Week 2 - Our Spiritual Selves



The month of Elul provides us with an opportunity to examine and evaluate our spiritual selves.  The word, “spirituality” has a different meaning to many of us. It can used to both elevate and denigrate. Some traditions teach that there is only one pathway to enlightenment. For those who accept their particular teaching, there can be no deviation. Salvation is based on acknowledging weaknesses and flaws and accepting that we are powerless to fight or question. Access to enlightenment is black and white. Outsiders are mistrusted and even condemned. While everyone is entitled to their own perspectives, there is a danger when those in power feel the need to impose their beliefs on others. When faith becomes a litmus test, we can cause great harm to both society and human dignity.

While there are certainly fundamentalist pathways within Judaism, much of Jewish Spirituality revolves around exploring the mysteries that surround us. It also is not exclusively external. We find God’s presence in celebrating the uniqueness and diversity of Creation. The pathway to enlightenment is not only the province of the faithful - it can be found in giving thanks, helping others and performing daily mitzvot.

For the purposes of this list of questions, I want to broaden our focus. Let us define spirituality as referring to those aspects of our lives that help us to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. We grow spiritually when we feel that our lives have meaning and purpose and we are open to the possibility of the miraculous around us.

During this time of Chesbon Ha Nefesh, one of our tasks is to examine the status of our relationship with God, Torah, and our own mortality. As always, the following questions should not be perceived as a complete listing – they are merely a beginning. If you have other questions that you think may help others in our community, I would love to receive them.  I will post them on my blog – which is linked to both Facebook and our Temple Emanuel website.


QUESTIONS – WEEK TWO – SPIRITUAL SELVES

  1. What events have caused me to question my faith during the course of the past year?
  2. When/where was the last time I felt close to God (however you define God)…?
  3. Jewish tradition teaches that all of us are created in the Divine Image.  When was the last time I looked for holiness in the people that I love the most? What about those with whom I fundamentally disagree?
  4. What aspects of my personality reflect the values that I have inherited from my family? From society? From Popular culture? From my own inner holiness?
  5. When was the last time I was able to pray without any distraction?
  6. How often, during the course of the past year, have I been able to set aside my own needs for something bigger than myself?
  7. During those moments when I did feel close to God (however you define God…) this past year, was I able to hold on to those feelings and share them with others?

Again, these lists are in no way complete.  They are designed to help us as we prepare for the High Holy Days.  Again, they will be posted on my personal blog (www.rabbijoeblack.blogspot.com), on the Temple Facebook page and in hard copy at the Temple Office. If any of these questions has caused to you want to speak to me or any of the other clergy at Temple Emanuel, please do not hesitate to call us at 303-388-4013.  You can also send me an email at Black@EmanuelDenver.org.


May you utilize these and all of your questions to help you gain a better understanding of your spiritual selves.

L’Shanah Tovah,



Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Four Weeks of Elul 5778 - Week 1, Communal Selves.

The Four Weeks of Elul 5778 – Week One
My Dear Friends,

Sunday, August 12th marks the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul – the month preceding the High Holy Days. It is customary during this holy month to begin intensive personal preparations for the New Year. This process, called Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh – ‘an inventory of our souls’ – requires that each of us engage in a process of self-examination. 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 refreshed and prepared for the process of teshuvah (repentance/returning). Our tradition teaches that the month of Elul compels us to ask those around us whom we have wronged to forgive us for our actions if we have wronged them. 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 is my tradition, 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 for every 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, Cantor Sacks, Rabbi Hyatt, Rabbi Baskin 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 out.

Week One: Communal Selves

The past year has been filled with divisiveness – from within and without. I write this post on the one year anniversary of the tragic Charlottesville, Virginia march where our nation watched with horror as a violent display of racist hatred - culminating with the brutal murder of a young woman named Heather Heyer (z”l) - became a rallying cry for extremists. This all took place in an environment where, increasingly and alarmingly our national level of discourse has plummeted to the point where politicians and elected officials have discarded any pretext of civility as they scream at each other on television and social media. 

The relationship between the State of Israel and the diaspora communities has never been more tenuous. Recent statements and actions by the current Israeli Government have alienated and isolated progressive Jewish communities to the point where many American Jews-especially young people - are questioning the entire Zionist enterprise altogether. 

I firmly believe that one of the most important ways that we sustain and strengthen ourselves and our souls is through consistent and meaningful participation in the life of the Synagogue. It is here that we connect with and affirm our relationships with God and one another. Now is the time to evaluate how we both support and participate is sacred community. No congregation or community is perfect. There will always be areas in which we fall short. The real question is: Are you willing to both accept our shortcomings and work to make Temple Emanuel a better place?

One of our tasks, as we approach this New Year, is to find pathways of recognition and understanding that will allow us to have differing viewpoints, but maintain our relationships and shared values.

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 all 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 my political perspectives to color my relationships with those with whom I disagree?
  4. Regardless of political perspective, have I been vocal in my support of the State of Israel?
  5. 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?
  6. Have I explored ways to address the conflict and tension that have become commonplace in everyday discourse?
  7. How have I worked to strengthen the many communities of which I am a part?
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.  

May you utilize these and all of your questions to help you gain a better understanding of your communal selves.
L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black


Saturday, June 16, 2018

"You Shall Not Oppress the Stranger."

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Imagine, if you will, that you work for the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the United States of America. Your job, until a few months ago, was to deal with immigrants who have come to our country illegally and were caught by your coworkers in the process. You have been expertly trained to deal with the exhausted men, women and children who made the difficult decision to leave everything they know, spend all of their savings, expose themselves to unspeakable danger at the hands of ruthless criminals who would think nothing of robbing, raping, or murdering them, trek through blistering heat and bone-chilling cold, and arrive at our border - hoping against hope that by some, miraculous occurrence they might gain entry into a country that they saw as a beacon of light; a place where humanitarian values held sway; a place where they would be able to work very hard and, in the process gain a foothold for a better life - far from the desperation and desolation they left behind. Every day, you see the fear in their eyes and understand their hopelessness, frustration and determination, even though you also were sworn to do your job. You may have children at home whose dependence and trust are the reason you go to work every day- they are the foundation of your gratitude, hope and love.

While you were sworn to defend our borders and prevent unlawful entry, you also have a sense of compassion for your charges’ plight. As a patriot and a loyal American, you can understand why those with nothing left to lose would want to enter into our beautiful nation. Nonetheless, you are also proud of your ability to serve your country and provide a legal, consistent and fair process of law.

Now, I want you to imagine how you might have felt when you learned that the focus of your job had changed overnight. Instead of merely processing these families and ensuring that justice would be served in an orderly fashion, you were now also tasked with being an agent of disruption - ripping children away from anguished mothers and fathers and sending them away to hastily constructed “holding” camps where, after having enduring the unthinkable together, they would now be confronted with cruel separation behind wire fences and armed guards.
You hear their cries:

A dónde llevarás a mis hijos?  (Where are you taking my children?)

And you cannot answer. You hear the desperation of young children calling for their parents. You feel the paralyzing fear of mothers and fathers who cannot help their little ones. You sense their despair and you are sickened and ashamed. You cannot sleep. You look at your own children and cannot avoid seeing their faces superimposed on upon the faces of the little ones whose lives you had just upended earlier in the day.

Suddenly, the job that had given you so much pride just a few days ago has become a nightmare. Instead of being a symbol of hope and promise, you have become an agent of brutality. This is not the America you knew and loved. This is not what you signed up for.

In last week’s Torah portion, Korach, we learn of how a small band of rebels used demagogic rhetoric to attempt a coup against Moses and Aaron. “Is it a small thing that you have taken us out from a land flowing with milk and honey so to kill us here in the wilderness….?” (Numbers 16:13) Korach had the audacity to take the description of the promised land and superimpose it on the bondage of Egypt.

Korach and his minions were adept manipulators. They used hatred, fear and uncertainty to disrupt the people and justify their lust for power. By creating a false sense of nostalgia for a non-existent past, by “making slavery great again” they were guilty of forsaking values for power lust.

This past week, when I heard members of the administration attempt to justify their policy of disruption and cruelty towards immigrants by quoting the Bible, my stomach turned. We have seen this before. Slave owners and Nazis used the exact same verses to justify their evil.

I would recommend that those who seek to find Divine acceptance by cherry-picking from sacred scripture also turn to the words: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt...” which appears no less than 36 times in the Bible.

I understand that illegal immigration is an important issue. Nonetheless, as a Jew, a patriotic American and as the child of an immigrant who fled from Hitler’s evil, I  am repulsed by what our nation is becoming. I feel for the souls of those tasked with carrying out an inhumane and brutal policy. Their pain, however, is nothing compared to the damage that our government is inflicting on the thousands of traumatized asylum seekers and immigrants – men, women and children - languishing in camps and tent cities established in the name of “safe” borders.

I cannot be silent when I see all that I love about our country being trampled by demagogues whose immoral policies are antithetical to all that I hold dear.

Can you?