Monday, September 11, 2017

The Four Weeks of Elul 5777: Week Four – Our Physical Selves

Dear Friends,

Over the past several days we have all been focused on news about the hurricanes, earthquakes and fires that have devastated communities around the world.  In Texas, Florida, the Caribbean and throughout the Gulf Coast we have watched in horror as destructive winds have destroyed homes and business while floodwaters engulfed entire cities.  In Mexico, a catastrophic earthquake has wreaked havoc on already impoverished communities.  Raging fires in California, Montana and throughout the West have engulfed thousands of acres of woodlands – causing our skies to become hazy with smoke.  Reports of massive flooding in Asia and natural disasters around the world are becoming more and more commonplace. Those of us with family and friends in affected areas have waited nervously for news of their safety. Regardless of our connection to affected individuals, the scope of the misery playing out in front of us in real time has is impossible to ignore.

In 1943, psychologist, Abraham Maslow published his seminal theory of the Hierarchy of Needs that posited that unless and until we have our physical needs met, we cannot focus on higher concepts of living and awareness that culminate in what he described as “Self-Actualization.”  If we do not possess the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter; if our physical health and safety are not assured, he wrote, we become stuck in the present and unable to move forward.

While most of us do not have to worry about our daily bread, if we are not physically healthy, then we cannot perform Tikkun Olam - the repairing of our world. Our bodies are holy.  The Torah teaches that we are created B’tzelem Elohim - in the image of God. In this light, taking care of our physical selves is a sacred task.  We also are taught that helping others find health and wellness is a vitally important mitzvah.  The simple act of visiting someone who is ill can make a huge difference in their physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

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 the questions will provide you with a starting point for examining and improving the relationships in 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. Have I reached out to help those affected by recent natural disasters?
  5. How much stress is in my life?  Is it affecting the way I live my life?
  6. What bad habits have I cultivated that I need to change?
  7. Have I been avoiding going to the doctor, dentist or other health care professionals due to financial concerns or fear of what I might discover?

Again, these questions are in no way complete.  If answering any of them causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbi Immerman, Cantor Sacks and I would welcome the opportunity.  Note that all of these materials will also be available in hard copy at the Temple Office. If you know of anyone else who might want to receive these mailings – whether or not they are members of the congregation, contact the Temple and we will send them to you.  They also will be linked to our website and posted on our Facebook page and my blog.

I also want to take this opportunity to remind you about our Selichot program and services that will be taking place this Saturday night, September 16th beginning at 8:00 PM.  We will be welcoming Dena Samuels, who specializes in Diversity and Inclusiveness Training.  Dena will lead a conversation about the work we must do to create a more equal and just society. As Judaism teaches us to struggle with our past, Dena will briefly lead us through an exploration of historical racial injustices to identify the systems that were intentionally created to exploit and marginalize people of color in the United States. She will then discuss how we can use the past to inform our work now and for the future.  Her presentation will be followed by a brief Selichot service using our beautiful new Elul and Selichot prayer book:  Mishkan HaLev – The Sanctuary of the Heart that will help us to welcome in the New Year.

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

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Hiding Behind Our "Screens"...The 4 Weeks of Elul 5777 - Week 3: Personal and Professional Relationships

Dear Friends,

Like many of you, I spend a lot of time staring at screens.  Whether it is my cell phone, computer or television, I am increasingly aware of the amount of time and energy that I devote to social media and electronic entertainment.  The fact that we can summon any type of information at the push of a button – anytime or anywhere, is truly remarkable.  The rapid spread of technology has revolutionized every aspect of our lives.  Mobile commuting has made it possible to redefine our sense of permanent space and even time.  Video conferencing and advances in telecommunication have redefined work space and the classroom.  Long distance calls are a thing of the past.  Last month, when we traveled on our congregational Israel trip, there were no restrictions on our ability to be in daily contact with our homes.

While the easy availability of this technology is beneficial, it also has its drawbacks.  Too many of us (myself included) spend inordinate amounts of time involved in communicating and gleaning information from our electronic devices, with the unintended result of isolating ourselves from the people around us.  The easy accessibility of instant information and entertainment can take its toll on our relationships with those who matter most in our lives. “Unplugging” is often a necessary task so as to ensure that we participate in face to face communication.

In the Deuteronomy 34:10 we read of the death of Moses.  The text states: “Never again did there arise a prophet like Moses who knew God Panim el Panim – face to face”.  The beautiful intimacy reflected in this passage can be seen as a challenge to all of us during the month of Elul.

As we enter into our third week, I want us to focus on the important relationships in our lives: our families, dear friends and coworkers with whom we share a common bond.  An essential part of the process of Cheshbon HaNefesh¬ (taking an inventory of our souls) revolves around asking ourselves to examine the way we treat the people around us.  Do we honor them and acknowledge how important they are to us, or do we allow ourselves to become complacent?  Are we fully present – seeing them panim el panim (face to face), or do we take them for granted?  Are the many distractions – technological and otherwise – with which we are confronted daily lull us into a false sense of contentment?

The following questions are designed to make us think about the 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.  How many times in the past year have I taken the love and friendship that others offer me for granted?
  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 spent more time looking at electronic devices than I should?  Has this impacted my relationships with others?
  6. Have I allowed politics to come in the way of relationships?
  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, Rabbi Immerman, 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 Joe Black

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Help Our Sister Congregation in Houston, Temple Emanu El

Dear Friends,

Like all of you, I have been following the tragic events unfolding in Houston and throughout the Gulf of Mexico with increasing horror.  The visuals of families in crisis, flood waters swallowing up large swaths of cities and utter devastation are difficult to watch.  We here at Temple have been thinking about ways to show our concern and help those who are affected by Hurricane Harvey. Over the past several days, I have sent out several links where you can donate. The Union for Reform Judaism, Jewish Colorado and Nechama: a Jewish Response to Tragedy are all organizations that have created special funds for helping those in need.

I am writing to tell you about a specific project that we at Temple are creating to help those in need in Houston.  Members of our sister congregation, Temple Emanu El of Houston  have been impacted greatly by the storm.  We have several connections to Temple Emanu El. In addition to sharing the same name, their Senior Rabbi, Oren Hayon, was my intern in Albuquerque.  Rabbi Joshua Fixler, their newly installed assistant Rabbi, is a native Denverite and was my intern four years ago. Cantor Rollin Simmons served the Aspen Jewish Congregation until last year.  In my conversations with Rabbis Hayon and Fixler, it has become clear that many members of their community are facing catastrophic losses.  Homes are destroyed.  Property has been lost.  The sense of hopelessness they are feeling is palpable.

We are setting up a special fund to help members of Houston’s Temple Emanu El rebuild and begin the process of creating new lives in the wake of the storm.  If you would like to donate online, click here.  You can also send checks to Temple c/o Hurricane Relief Fund.  100% of all monies raised will be sent to Temple Emanu El in Houston to provide immediate relief to affected congregants.

Of course, there are many other worthwhile efforts and organizations to which you can contribute. This is only one of many.

At this time of preparation for a new year, our hearts go out to all those who have been affected by this tragedy. If you would like to be part of this important act of Tzeddakah, please give generously.

With best wishes for a Shanah Tovah U’metukah – a good and sweet new year, I am…

L’shalom (in peace),

Rabbi Joseph R.  Black

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Eye of the Storm: Limitations and Possibilities - Our Spiritual Selves. The Four Weeks of Elul: Week Two

Image result for hurricane harveyImage result for hurricane harveyImage result for hurricane harvey
Dear Friends,

As I write this letter, the news from Texas and the Gulf Coast about Hurricane Harvey is foremost on all our minds.  The dramatic images of total devastation and ruin that we are witnessing are almost incomprehensible.  Those of us with family and friends who have been hit by the storm are racked with worry as we wait for news and try to find avenues to provide comfort and support.

When confronted with a tragic event of such magnitude – the effects of which are still unfolding as I write – we are simultaneously made aware of both the majesty of God’s creation and our own inability to control the forces of nature around us. To see houses, highways and hilltops ripped apart by raging waters in a matter of seconds is to acknowledge the helplessness we feel in the face of the storm.

While we acknowledge our feelings of powerlessness, we also must understand that we have within ourselves the ability to respond to tragedy in a way that makes a difference in the lives of those affected.  When the storm finally passes, we can and must help these communities to rebuild. Our financial contributions, physical presence and messages of support and solidarity will be essential in the weeks, months and even years that it will take to rebuild.
It is in the contrast between our feelings of powerlessness and the knowledge that we have both the ability and the responsibility to make a difference in the lives of those affected by tragedy that we can find a glimpse into the spiritual realms of our lives.

If you would like to contribute to efforts within the Jewish community helping those affected by this tragedy, here are a few links:

  •  Nechama – A Jewish Response to Tragedy is on the ground in Texas and the Gulf Coast..  Here is a link to donate to their efforts:
In the book of Kings, 19:11-13, the prophet Elijah experiences God’s presence,

11 And God said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Eternal. And, behold, God passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, rocks were broken into pieces before God; but God was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake: 12 And after the earthquake a fire; but God was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

In this second week of Elul, I want us to focus on our Spiritual Selves.  When we become aware of the contrast between acknowledging our own insignificance in light of the majesty of God’s power, and the “still small voice” that urges us on in the process of Tikkun Olam – repairing the world, we can begin to comprehend our role in the unfolding of Creation.  

The Psalmist wrote “Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me.” (Psalms 23:4).  It is the knowledge of our limitations and mortality, juxtaposed with the realization that we are fortunate to be alive that opens our eyes to the opportunities that lay before us to make a difference. 

In this light, I offer the following questions for your consideration. As always, they should not be perceived as a complete listing – they are merely a beginning. I welcome your comments and suggestions for additional questions and formats that we can use.   If answering these questions causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbi Immerman, Cantor Sacks and I would welcome the opportunity.  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.

The Four Weeks of Elul:  Week Four – Our Spiritual Selves
  1. Elijah experienced the “still small voice’ that prompted him to experience God’s presence.  When, if ever, have I felt God’s voice urging me on?
  2. What events have caused me to question my faith during the course of the past year?
  3. When/where was the last time I felt close to God (however I define God)…? 
  4. How often, during the course of the past year, have I been able to set aside my own needs for something bigger than myself? 
  5. 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? 
  6. Understanding that being created in God’s image means that we are all responsible for one another, how often have I been able to identify with other people in distress? 
  7. When was the last time I was able to pray without any distraction?
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. 

As we confront the crisis of Hurricane Harvey, we are acutely aware of the twin peaks of our limitations and our ability to make a difference.  It is in the contrast between these two realizations that we can begin to strengthen our spiritual selves.  May we all find strength as we search together.

L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die: Reflections on the Unetaneh Tokef Prayer

“On Rosh HaShanah it is written, On Yom Kippur it is sealed:  Who shall live and who shall die…..”
Dear Friends,

Each year, when we read the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer printed above, I am struck by the disturbing power of these words. The idea that God sits in judgement, while central to the theology of the High Holy Days, seems antiquated.  Do we really believe this?  Are we not painting a picture of God as some sort of exalted Santa Claus who watches us, pen in hand, while “…making a list, checking it twice, looking to see who’s naughty and nice?”  Is this the God to whom we want to pray?

I have rabbinic colleagues who have omitted this prayer entirely from the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur liturgy because of their discomfort with its message.  For a long time, I, too, struggled to find meaning in its message.

This year, however, I’m approaching the U’netaneh Tokef with new eyes.  As many of you know, my mother, Sophie Black z”l, and Sue’s father, Amos Rosenbloom z”l recently passed away. While their deaths were not sudden or unexpected, the reality of the loss of a parent brings questions of mortality, meaning and purpose into sharp focus.  The phrase: “Who Shall live and Who shall die....” shifts from the abstract to the concrete.  Suddenly and without warning Sue and I have become one of the elders of our family.  This is both sobering and liberating – a combination of personal loss and responsibility.

Another aspect of this prayer is not found in the concept of God’s judgement, per se, but in reinforcing the central moral principle that our actions make a difference.  If God is truly watching us – then we must ask ourselves whether what we do with the limited time allotted to us is worthy of observation.  In this context, no action is too small or inconsequential to be judged.  We are placed on earth for a limited time.  How we utilize the gifts of the years, months, weeks, days and seconds we are allocated becomes a reflection of our own selves and the awareness of our relationship with the potential for holiness that is an outgrowth of being created in the Divine image.  If God really cares about what we think and do, then we must be important.  One act can either change or destroy the world.  One person can make a difference.  It is up to us to choose.

As we enter into this High Holy Day Season, let us reflect on how we all have the potential to make change – in ourselves, our families and communities and in the world.

Sue, Elana and Ethan join me in wishing you a Shanah Tovah U’metukah – a good and sweet New Year.

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Monday, August 21, 2017

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

Image result for eclipse

My Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Sunday, August 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

שלום מישראל. - Shalom from Israel

Rabbi Joseph R. Black