Monday, December 12, 2011

Tebow, Faith and Fantasy

What a Game!!!!  I’ve noticed that much of the hoopla surrounding the Denver Broncos recent spate of last-minute nail biters has revolved around faith:  faith in the team, faith in Tim Tebow and, of course, Tebow’s faith in God.  If you were to go through all of the post-victory commentary surrounding his recent victories and count all the times the words:  “faith,” “believe” and “believer” were uttered I’m pretty confident it would be overwhelming.  Last week, I was interviewed by a reporter from the Wall Street Journal about how Tebow is being perceived by the non-Christian Faith Community.  (Here’s the link:
The basic premise of the article was that Tebow’s unabashed expressions of faith have provoked as strong a reaction within the general populace as his remarkable ability to rally to victory in the last few minutes of every game.

What is it about Tim Tebow’s faith that is so compelling?  Why do so many people find it difficult to swallow the fact that he sees no disconnect between his actions on the field, in his house of worship and in his daily life?  There is no doubt in my mind that he is genuine.  He believes – deeply – in God and is convinced that God has placed him here to witness the power of what he believes God’s truth can do.

From a theological perspective, the idea that God favors one football team over another is ludicrous at best – taken to its logical extreme it is disturbing, even obscene at worst.  Yes – our stadium is located a Mile High – but that doesn’t mean that we are closer to God.  And, to his credit, Tebow has never stated that God is on the side of the Broncos.   At every opportunity he has praised his teammates and acknowledged his frailties.   And yet, it’s hard not to consider, even for a moment, the possibility that Tebow’s last-minute comebacks might have just a little bit of divine intervention in them.  And if you read some of the comments posted on the right-wing blogospere, you will see that there are many who have no doubt that God is a Bronco fan who wears an orange and blue jersey with the number 15 on the back.

The problem is that those who claim to have God on their side areusually dangerous.  Football is fairly benign.  There are other, far more sinister arenas where the concept of Divine Triumphalism has taken its toll.   Throughout history - from the Crusades to September 11th  - holy warriors have been responsible for great suffering.  Perhaps this is why so many people are upset with Tebow’s prayers and pronouncements.  If God favors one side then, by logical extension, the other side must not be in God’s favor.  What would happen if every team prayed for victory before every game?  Instead of looking at coaching, game plans, raw talent and luck we might instead have post game analysis linked to theological consistency and liturgical spirituality…..The possibilities boggle the mind.

Moving away from logic, there is one upside of the Tebow phenomenon.  It has people talking about faith, about God and about belief.  In my opinion, these are all good things.  If we are uncomfortable with Tebow’s faith, what kind of faith is comfortable for us?  And who said that faith needs to be something we are comfortable with?  From my experience, those moments when we confront our faith are the times when we are out of our comfort zones:  times of great joy and great sorrow; times of angst and times of absolute certainty.  Judaism teaches that we should search for God not only in the highest of highs and the lowest of lows – but every day.  God is found in the “still small voice” that calls to us when we are ready to hear.

So I want to take this opportunity to thank Tim Tebow for giving us the opportunity to have this discussion.  Go Broncos!!!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Two Different Kinds of Light

My Dear Friends,

In a few weeks, we will be kindling the candles on our Chanukiot (Chanukah Menorahs.)  There is an interesting argument in the Talmud between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai regarding the proper way to light the Chanukiah.  Shammai contends that we begin with eight lights and remove one each night.  Hillel says the opposite – we begin with one and add more until the last night is the brightest.  The law, of course, follows the school of Hillel – and yet, in order to show respect to Shammai, we light the candles from left to right – instead of right to left.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about lighting candles. As many of you know, my father, Sidney Black died and was buried last month in Chicago.  Immediately upon returning from the cemetery, my family and I lit a Shiva Candle that burned for seven days.  We spent the first half of the shiva in Chicago and the second half here in Denver.  Unlike the Chanukiah which increases in brightness with every added candle.  The light of the Shiva Candle is designed to gradually extinguish itself– a powerful reminder of both of the passage of time and the fragility of our lives and those whom we love.
Over the 25 years of my rabbinate, I have guided many families through periods of mourning.  I have stood by and said prayers when loved ones tear the keriah ribbon – acknowledging the wounds in their hearts.  I have stood at graveside and said kaddish and shuddered at the sound of earth falling on a coffin.  I have helped light Shiva candles and held the hands of those who were saying kaddish for the first time.   Until now, however, I have never had the experience of experiencing the power of allowing others to be there for me in my time of loss.

Like the gradually extinguishing light of the Shiva candle, the path of mourning is designed to help those who grieve to descend to the depths of their emotions and gradually to rise up once again to become part of society.  It is a slow and deliberate process that allows and forces us to confront both
For my family and me, the most powerful aspect of sitting Shiva has been the outpouring of support and love we have experienced from our community.  It was not merely the words that were said to us, but the physical presence of others that reassured us that, although the flame of my father’s life has been extinguished, his memory will still glow in our hearts.
The word, Chanukah means rededication.  The act of mourning can force us to rededicate ourselves to living our lives in keeping with the highest ideals of those whom we remember.  May the light of the Chanukiah help all of us to see the brightness and the beauty of the community in which we live and may it reflect the glow of love that we have been given by those who came before us.

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Friday, November 11, 2011

Eulogy for Sidney Black

My father, Sidney Black, passed away on November 8, 2011 after a long fight with Alzheimer's disease.  His funeral was  at Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston, IL.  Sidney was a pillar of Beth Emet.  His love and laughter helped make it a very special place.  These are a few words I spoke at his funeral.

Sidney Black – November 10, 2011
Beth Emet Synagogue – Evanston, IL
Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Standing on this pulpit and looking at all of you – many who have been a part of my life and that of my family for so many decades, I’m thinking about the word Yerusha – which means, legacy or inheritance. In many ways, this week’s parasha, Vayera, which contains the powerful text of the Akedah – the binding of Isaac, is all about Yerusha. Abraham and Sarah are promised a son. Isaac is born, then almost taken away. God then reaffirms the promise made to Abraham - guaranteeing that his descendants shall inherit God’s blessing throughout the generations.

My father, Sidney Black, bequeathed a sacred yerusha to all of us who knew and loved him. And there were so many who knew and loved him. As I think about all that he gave to us, so many images come to mind. But I want to focus on three things: Family, Faith and Rhythm.

Family was everything to my dad. He grew up in the midst of a huge family - it was so big that he sometimes got lost in the shuffle. But he taught us all, through his words, his laughter, his tears and his example how to love and be loved and for that we are grateful and blessed. When he met my Mother and they fell in love – they knew that creating a loving family was one of the most important acts that they could perform. But my parents’ family went beyond blood. So many of you here today – and too many who have died – but whose memories fill this sanctuary – understood that they were part of my father’s family: whether here at Beth Emet, or at the seder table, at the minyan, or any of the myriad ways that he shared his love and joy.

Faith – My father loved being Jewish. He passed that love on to my sister, Nina and to me. And we, have passed it on to our children. He loved the sound of Hebrew and prayer. He loved chanting torah. He loved leading the Minyan here at Beth Emet. He loved studying torah with Herbert Hubert and his shabbat afternoon coffee clatch. He loved going to services and singing along at the top of his lungs. He lived for the opportunity to perform Mitzvot and help others. Acts of G’milut Chasadim – lovingkindess – were part and parcel of everything he did. As far as I’m concerned, he embodied all that was good and holy in our tradition.

Rhythm. My dad always had a song running through his head. This is a trait that he bequeathed to me and my sister Nina and for that I am eternally grateful as well. Until the very end, he was always singing, or whistling, or jangling the change and keys in his pocket to some song. Even towards the end – when his illness had progressed to the point that he hardly recognized any of us – he still responded to and remembered music – especially prayers. Any musical gifts that I have been given are part of this holy yerusha. The rhythm of my father’s life was not only felt through music, however. We felt it in his kindness, in his laughter, in his tears, his caring and his love.

I conclude with a poem I wrote last year after a particularly difficult visit to see my dad as the Alzheimer’s that stole his awareness was taking its toll.

My Father Has Hazel Eyes
My Father has hazel eyes.
I’d like to think when he was younger
He could see a world of wonders
With an emerald sheen
In between
The hardship and the hope
The need to fight or cope
With a panoply of lies.

My father’s skin is smooth
Though easily bruised.
He stares into a distant
Seeing. Not seeing.
Being .  Not being.
Perhaps recalling for an instant
A time
When legs and lips and loins competing
Jingling pocket sounds completing
A trajectory of mine.

My father, always singing
(Telling me that he was there).
With ancient rhythms mingling
Through our home and in the air.
His laughter pierced the sadness
His anger deep below
His love was filled with gladness
And his heart did overflow
His hopes lay in his offspring
And his dreams were locked up tight
With every day an offering
Whistling praises in the night.

My father’s voice is gone now
Like a winter’s lawn now
Or a debt repaid
Or a bed unmade
Waiting to be stripped
A hand that’s lost its grip
On the world that spins around him
Or the people that surround him
Preparing their goodbyes.

My son has hazel eyes.
He sees with intuition,
A clarity of vision
Searching hard for things that matter
Amidst the riffraff and the chatter
In the greenish hues of spring
In the songs he loves to sing
And every day a new surprise.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Interesting Article on the Israeli Rabbinate

I'm attaching a link to an article from the Israeli newpaper,Ha-Aretz that talks about the necessity for changing the current corrupt and morally bankrupt monopoly that the Israeli Rabbinate holds over the citizens of the State of Israel.  Even the ultra Orthodox community is finding ways to sidestep the necessity for dealing with this monolithic and destructive institution.  I look forward to your feedback:

Friday, October 14, 2011

H.E.S.E.D. at Temple Emanuel - Rosh Ha Shanah Morning - 5772

H.E.S.E.D. at Temple Emanuel
Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning – 5772
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

Dear Friends,
L’Shanah Tovah, Happy New Year.
            Have you ever wondered why Rosh Ha Shanah precedes Yom Kippur?  Why do we begin a New Year – full of hope and joy; apples and honey cake – and then, ten days later – we’re miserable:  fasting, and thinking about all of our mistakes?  We move from rejoicing to rehashing our most painful moments of the past year and repenting for our sins.          
           It’s very Jewish isn’t it?   You have one moment of joy and then…… guilt. 
            Why isn’t it the other way around?  Think about it….if we get the hard stuff out of the way first – the repenting, the confessions, the fasting, then we can truly enjoy Rosh Ha-Shanah. 
            I guess that’s one way to look at it.  But the truth is, if we take it to its logical conclusion, the fact that we are rejoicing in a New year – giving thanks for all of our blessings – changes our view of the world around us and gives us an opportunity to understand our role in the unfolding of creation – some might even say that it helps us to understand our purpose in life.  And once we understand this, then we have no choice but to act on this understanding
There’s a chasidic story of which I am particularly fond:
Once, 3 distinguished Rabbis were travelling from Warsaw to Breslau – a three day journey.  They had timed their travels so that they would arrive at their destination before the onset of Shabbat. It was now Friday afternoon.  The shadows were lengthening and the wind was bitterly cold.  The rabbis were very concerned about arriving at their destination on time.  As they came closer to the city, they urged the horses that were pulling their wagon to go faster and faster so that they would not violate the Shabbat by arriving after sundown.  Suddenly, one of the Rabbis heard a faint sound - it sounded like a young child – and it was coming from the forest – just beyond the trees on the side of the road.  As they turned the corner, the sound got increasingly louder.  The continued on their journey – slowing down to see what the noise was, and suddenly they saw, to their amazement, the sight of a boy – dressed in rags – obviously hungry, tired and cold… who was dancing and singing at the top of his lungs!
The rabbis stopped their cart and walked over to the boy.  “are you all right?” they asked him. 
“No!” he shouted as he danced and sang with joy.
The rabbis were puzzled. 
·         “Why are you here in the middle of the woods?” 
·         “Because I’m lost!  And I’m hungry!” the boy sang out and danced some more
The rabbis looked at each other in amazement. 
·         “But if you’re lost and hungry, why are you dancing and singing?” they asked
The boy stopped dancing for a moment, caught his breath and looked at the three rabbis.  It was as though he was seeing them for the 1st time.  He then told them the following story: 
“Three days ago, my parents and I were travelling in these woods and we were attacked by robbers.  My mother hid me in the back of our cart and when the robbers weren’t looking, she told me to run as fast and as far as I could into the woods.  She told me not to try to come back to the cart and that she and my father would find me.  And so I ran and I ran until it began to get dark, and cold.  I spent that first night in the forest in terror.  I cried out for my parents to come and find me – but they never came.  I couldn’t sleep – there was nothing to eat.  I was terribly afraid.  The next day, they didn’t come, nor the next.  By that time, I was so hungry – I couldn’t stand it.  I tried to find nuts and berries – but I didn’t know what to eat. I started to cry because I was so tired and so hungry. I cried myself to sleep.  When I woke up and realized that it wasn’t a dream – that I was really all alone in the forest, I started to cry again.  But then, all of a sudden something came over me. I thought to myself: ‘Wait a minute, I’m hungry…I’m tired…. I’m scared….. I can feel my hunger, my exhaustion, my fear….if I can feel it, then that means, that I’m alive…!  What a gift – to be alive – to feel pain, and fear and hunger.  And so I started to dance and sing because I realized that I was alive – in the middle of God’s creation – how lucky can I be!”

The rabbis realized that this was no ordinary boy.  And so, the story goes, they brought him with them to Breslau where he was reunited with his parents.  Eventually, the boy grew up to be a great scholar – a mystic – who came to be known as Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav.

            I love that story – it teaches a basic truth that we need to incorporate into our lives – the realization that life is a gift.  As we welcome in a New Year, this truth has special resonance:  no matter how bad things get; no matter what difficulties we may face – we still can cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
            Today we rejoice in renewal.  Like the young Rebbe Nachman who saw beauty even in the midst of despair – our prayers today can enable us to open our eyes to the wonders that surround us.  But feeling gratitude:  seeing and appreciating the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of the world – isn’t enough.  If all we do is appreciate what we have, then we have missed a vital opportunity to use that sense of appreciation and turn it into a powerful force for good.

            As Rabbi David Wolpe writes: 
All Tikkun, all reparation, begins in appreciation. We heal relationships because we understand their value. We seek to restore the imbalances in the natural world because its native pageantry dazzles our eyes. Yom Kippur is the outcome of our Rosh Hashanah vision: surrounded by possibility, we need to heal what we have hurt, or nurture the untended patches of God’s garden. Seeing the cracks in creation, we acknowledge our obligation to fill them. First comes gratitude, then regret, then restoration.[1]
            On Rosh Ha Shanah we give thanks for our blessings – but for some of us – the blessings we take for granted are as much a result of circumstance as they are of hard work. We don’t choose to be born at a specific time.  We cannot select our families.  From the perspective of history, we live in the richest country in the world in a time of relative prosperity – despite the current economic downturn.  We are privileged:  we have access to health care and education;  however flawed these may be – compared to what others have, it’s remarkable.  We have security, sustenance and sustainability.  Many of us here this morning are very fortunate. 
            And we are grateful for our good fortune.

            But, as we know all too well, outside the walls of this sanctuary, there are many men, women and children who are not so privileged; who live lives of quiet desperation.  Do we see them?   How many people with cardboard signs, standing on street corners did you pass as you drove here this morning?  How many homes in your neighborhood went into foreclosure over the past year? How many children went to bed hungry last night?  How many jobs were lost?  How many businesses shut their doors?  How many people lie awake at night – having to choose between paying for health care, or food, or basic necessities?  How many opportunities for growth, learning, renewal were lost for lack of funds, or lack of champions?

            My friends, there is an unease and an ugliness that is underscoring much of the ethos of our nation.  When I was growing up, I was taught that the American Dream meant that anyone could reach their goals and find success.  If we applied ourselves and worked hard enough – we would succeed.  And so many have succeeded.   But as we are all know, for too many in our nation, the promise of prosperity is rapidly fading.  The gap between rich and poor is growing exponentially larger and the middle class is in danger of eroding before our eyes.  This is not a result of laziness or lack of initiative – it is simply a fact of economic, political and social reality.

            The flip side of the American dream seems to imply that if someone does not achieve their goals, or faces a setback, they must NOT be working hard enough.  Something must be wrong with them.

            Now, intellectually, we know that this kind of logic is erroneous – even cruel.  And yet, it creeps into our consciousness.  Sometimes we secretly resent those who do not appear to share our appreciation for life’s blessings.  We avert our gaze.  And in our own lives - when we are faced with loss or failure, all too often we become ashamed.  It’s as if we must have done something wrong to have this happen to us.

            Over the course of the past year, I have sat in my study and listened as members of our congregation have bared their souls – sharing their fears and embarrassment over the fact that they have lost a job, or failed to achieve the successes that they assumed they had earned or deserved.  And they’re reluctant to talk about it.  This is not supposed to happen!  And I know that for every person with whom I have spoken, there are many more that would never come to me.      

            The underpinning of American ideal is the concept that the purpose of life can be found in the pursuit of life liberty and happiness.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and yet, Judaism teaches that we need to set our sights higher: we believe that the purpose of life is kedushah and tikkun, holiness and repair. And holiness and repair are not achieved when we are complacent and content; they occur when we are in disturbed and troubled and ask aloud: “why?”

            A story:   Once a group of people were having a picnic by the side of a river.  It was a beautiful day – the sun was shining - the river was bubbling merrily alongside the picnickers.  Suddenly, the party was interrupted by the sound of screaming.  A young child had fallen into the river and was struggling to stay afloat.  Quickly, all of the people ran to the river and jumped in to save the child.  Thankfully, they brought him out of the river – shaken and drenched, but safe.  They returned to their picnic.  But soon the sound of another child was heard – she had fallen into the river as well.  The picnickers ran to the riverside and, once again saved the second child.  Then another child was seen, then another.  The people quickly surmised that they needed to do something.  They formed a bridge of hands and ropes and, one by one, they plucked the children from the river.  This went on for several hours until someone looked at the rest of the group and said:  “Maybe we should go downstream and find out why so many children are falling into the river in the first place….”

            My friends, this morning, I want to challenge all of us here to stop and think about how we – as a congregation – as a community – are addressing the problems that we see around us every day. 

            Are we using the tremendous amount of resources at our disposal to make a difference in the world?

            I have a question:  What is it that keeps you awake at night?  The environment?  The economy?  Homelessness?  Unemployment?  Healthcare?  Education? Israel?  It doesn’t matter what the issue is, what does matter is that we allow ourselves – as individuals and as a community – to acknowledge that, unless we address the root causes of the problems that we are facing, we are no better than those picnickers on the banks of the river – devising ways to rescue the children – but never thinking about why so many were falling into the river in the first place.

            This morning I want to tell you about a new initiative that we are introducing at Temple Emanuel.  It is called the H.E.S.E.D. Project.  Hesed is a Hebrew word that means loving-kindness.  But it is now also an acronym that stands for “Healing, Empowering and Serving at Emanuel Denver.” The goals of the H.E.S.E.D. Project are to enable members of Temple Emanuel:

·         To talk about issues of concern in our society – what is it that keeps us awake at night?

·         To identify specific issues that we, as a congregation want to change
·         To learn as much as we can about those issues
·         To build partnerships with other faith communities and congregations in the greater Denver area

·         To engage in dialogue with other communities and community leaders and policy makers about the issues we have identified

·         And finally, to hold our community  leaders accountable for carrying out and implementing change
            The way that the H.E.S.E.D. Project works is as follows:  We will start by bringing together small groups of congregants to meet in living rooms, coffee houses, or here at the Temple.  At these initial meetings, we will reach out to one another and engage in meaningful conversation about the issues that concern us - whatever they may be.  There is no pre-conceived agenda in play here. The issues around which we will gather will come directly from the concerns that our members raise during the initial discussions. We ask that you only attend one of these meetings.  Our goal is to hold at least 50 such small gatherings of no more than 10 people each over the course of the year – enabling approximately 500 members of our community to share their thoughts and feelings.  The sense of meaning and purpose that can occur when we join together in dialogue is very powerful.

            If nothing else happens after these meetings are finished – we could call the H.E.S.E.D. Project a success – because it will have opened doorways and portals of entry for members of our congregation, who, for too long, have felt on the “outside;” who have been searching for a way to connect with other like-minded individuals.

            But of course, we want to do more than simply meet and talk about our concerns.  Our goal is to make an impact on our community.  The next step in the process will take place once we have decided on the issue or issues that we will address.  We will then enter into an educational phase where we will learn as much as we can about the background of these issues.  We will consult with experts from all sides of the political and social spectrum in order to ensure that have a full picture of what and who we are dealing with.

            The next step will be joining together with other Denver area congregations who share the same concerns around our identified issues -  and holding forums with elected officials and policymakers who are in positions to implement change.  At these forums we will make a case for our concerns and ask that specific changes be made.  

            The next step is following up with those officials with whom we’ve established contact – to help them clarify our position and to urge them to act.

            The next step is evaluating our progress – and, if necessary re-tooling our efforts to be more effective.

            Once we feel that we have accomplished our goals – we will start again by identifying other issues that we feel need to be addressed.  And the cycle will renew itself.

            My friends, we are not acting alone in creating the H.E.S.E.D. Project.  Here in Denver, we will be working with the Metro Organization for People (or M.O.P) which has a 30 year history of partnering with local congregations and schools - helping them to identify the issues of concern that link them with other institutions in the community. In the past, M.O.P. congregations and affiliates have successfully organized around issues as diverse as clean drinking water and school accountability.  Actions by congregations affiliated with MOP, have resulted in improved public transportation, environmental cleanup and the dedication of resources to job training and scholarships – to name just a few successes. When like-minded individuals come together and share their passion for social change, amazing things can happen.

            We are also not alone in the Jewish community.  Many other Reform Congregations around the country have recently introduced similar initiatives and all reports have indicated that this process can have a significant impact on every level of congregational involvement – from leadership development to an increased sense of spirituality, to adult education.  When we unite around issues of shared concern – and we help bring about needed change - we are putting our Jewish prophetic values into practice and actively pursuing Tikkun Olam – the repairing of the world.

            For years, Temple Emanuel has had a well deserved reputation for being a leading voice for social justice in Denver.  In particular, our rabbis have historically served as spokespeople for civil rights and human dignity.  We are justifiably proud of this. Many individual members of our congregation have also made a significant impact on our community. In addition, we have made an impact through service projects such as K’vod Catering and Mitzvah day.  And yet, over the years, we have not done a very good job of acting as a united communal voice for change.  On this Rosh HaShanah – it is time for all of us to use the hope and the promise of the New Year as a motivating force to change our world. That is truly what this day is about.

            As you leave the sanctuary this morning, you will find literature that provides more details about what we hope to accomplish in the next few months.  You may also see several people wearing special Temple Emanuel Lapel pins.  These are all people who are or will be involved in the H.E.S.E.D. Project.  Talk to them.  Everyone involved in the H.E.S.E.D. Project will receive a similar pin.  I urge you to take part.  If you would like to be on the coordinating committee of the H.E.S.E.D. Project, please get in touch with us – after the holidays…..

            My friends, the sound of the Shofar reminds to be thankful for all of our blessings.  But it also serves as a clarion call for never allowing our own thankfulness to go to waste.  As we welcome in another year, let us be filled with hope, conviction and knowledge that we can make a difference in perfecting our all too imperfect world.

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


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Gilad Shalit and Sukkot

Dear Friends,
Sukkot is a wonderful holiday.  The ancient Rabbis called it  HeChag – THE holiday.  In the Torah – we are commanded to rejoice on Sukkot.  When we build a sukkah and share meals with family and friends – we are doing more than simply giving thanks for the bounty of God’s harvest – we are also reliving the experience of the Exodus – as the Torah teaches: "You shall live in booths (sukkot) seven order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 23:42-43)
But, of course, Sukkot is more than an excuse to eat and sleep outside.  There are many important symbolic and overt messages that can be found in the commandment to move outside our homes for a week and reside in a rickety booth with a leaky ceiling.  The experience of living in a sukkah can help us to understand the plight of those who have no place to live every day – not just for one week in the Fall.  When we move outside of the comfort of our living rooms and under the leafy roof of the Sukkah, we are acknowledging our own fragility and dependence on external factors to keep us healthy and happy.
This year, on Sukkot, I can’t help but focus my thoughts on events that are taking place in Israel.  From all of the news reports that I have heard, it appears that Gilad Shalit  - an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped 5 years ago by Hamas may soon be freed in exchange for the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
If Gilad truly will be released – this is a time for rejoicing.  I pray that he is well and that he will soon be returned to his family.  Of course, Israel is undertaking great risks for the sake of  his freedom.  Many of the Palestinian prisoners who will be exchanged have blood on their hands.  There is no doubt that not only will they rejoin the ranks of the fellow terrorists – but they also will be greeted as heroes.   Israel may have to pay a high price for the release of one IDF soldier.
There are some in Israel who feel that it is a mistake to negotiate with terrorists – especially in such a lop-sided way.  I just learned that, last night, the memorial to Yitchak Rabin in Tel Aviv was desecrated by what appears to be a far-right group demanding that in addition to the release of the Palestinian terrorists,  Yigal Amir – Rabin’s assassin -- should also be released.  Some families of terror victims are dismayed that the people who killed their relatives may soon be free to murder again.
While, logically, the exchange of 1 soldier for 1,000 prisoners seems absurd - in Israel it makes perfect sense.  The reality of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) is that it truly is a people’s army.  With few exceptions, everyone in Israel serves in the armed forces.  There is not a family who does not see their own children reflected in the sad eyes of Gilad’s photograph that we have come to know so well over the past 5 years.

The other day, I was sent a D’var Torah from the New York board of Rabbis that was written by Rabbis Yaakov Kermaier and Charles Klein.  In this D’var, they talked about the difference between the Lulav and the Etrog.  They write:

On Succot, we place the lulav next to the etrog reminding us that the spine and heart are vital components of human life. What happens when the two symbols are in conflict with each other? – when the spine tells us one thing and the heart suggests another approach. On the one hand, there are those who lean toward the lulav approach, saying that negotiations with terrorists will lead to further terrorism and endanger the lives of other soldiers. On the other hand, the heart tells us that Gilad is a member of our extended family, and we must do everything to reunite him with his own family. Who is not moved by the pleas of his parents who have travelled worldwide to seek support for their child? The proposed exchange between murderous terrorists and Gilad Shalit demonstrates the dynamics of this human conflict.
The lulav says, “Don’t give in to human emotion.” The heart says, “Don’t be so principled that you lose touch with human pain.”
We live in an imperfect world.  There are no easy answers.  Ultimately, when we are faced with a difficult decision, we need to understand that, there are times when we need to look beyond the logical and feel the pain of others.  Sukkot is a time for rejoicing.  If and when Gilad comes home – we know that he, his family and all of us who have been praying for his safety these past five years will truly understand the meaning of this sacred time that our tradition calls:  z’man simchateynu – the time of our rejoicing.
May peace soon prevail in Israel and throughout the world.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Some Elul-appropriate thoughts from Bruce Plotkin

A couple of weeks ago, one of our members, Bruce Plotkin, was honored by the Allied Jewish Federation of Denver for his leadership.  He sent me a copy of his remarks.  After I read them, I asked Bruce if he wouldn’t mind if I shared them on my blog.  I think they are especially fitting during this time of Elul.
Yasher Koach and thank you Bruce for these meaningful words – and, once again, Mazal Tov on your richly deserved tribute.

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Taken from Bruce Plotkin’s response to his being awarded for his leadership by the Allied Jewish Federation of Denver. 

August 29, 2011

In 1945, as the Allied advance pushed ever further into Germany, a young Jewish chaplain was walking the streets of a heavily war damaged German city. Amidst the rubble, he stopped before crossing a street. Suddenly, a man walked up next to him. He leaned in close to the chaplain’s ear and whispered. “Amchu?” The chaplain realized the man was speaking Polish-Yiddish but did not understand. He answered briefly in  American Yiddish. The man became ecstatic, “Boruch HaShem, ir zeit a Yid!”

It took the chaplain some time working in various Displaced Persons camps to learn the significance of what the man had asked. Throughout the war, Jews, facing threats at every turn needed some brief but meaningful way to identify each other. “Amchu” became a popular and, an appropriate choice.

Amchu, or Amcha, is shorthand for Amcha bet Yisrael. Your people, the house of Israel. They did not ask if someone was a Jew. They did not use a coded word for a religious item only a Jew would know. The answer to the question, Amcha, told the questioner exactly what they needed to know. Not just are you Jewish. But, as a Jew, are you a part of our people, the house of Israel? Why is that so important? Because someone who is Amcha, understands two critical components of Judaism: “Kol Yisrael arevim ze ba’zeh” All Jews are responsible for one another and tikkun olam, the Jewish vision to move, to change, to repair the world.

How would you answer, if you were asked, Amcha? Do you feel responsible for other Jews? More importantly, do you take responsibility for other Jews? Do you do your part to repair the world? How do you do that? When you look deep within yourself, what is your answer? Throughout our history, Jews have shown us the way to answer yes, Amcha.

Money: From the first century, every Jewish community had a network of tax supported social agencies including medical care (or what passed for it at the time), dowries for poor brides, burial for the poor, pidyon shivuyim for the redemption of those who were captured by pirates, and other social services. Citizens committees supplemented these funds. Such fundraising wasn’t considered a “Jewish tax” because there really was a Jewish tax. The fundraising was intended to fulfill unmet needs after the publicly provided services.

Acts of loving kindness: We are commanded to visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger among other things. Acts of Tzedakah/of Tikkun Olam: Throughout our history, our people have volunteered to provide services to others, from burial societies to what we now call food pantries. We have worked to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, Jews and non-Jews alike. We marched and were imprisoned for promoting the rights of blacks during the civil rights era. We have worked to protect the basic rights of a worker, to keep our country a welcoming place for immigrants like our ancestors, and for government to respect the practices of all religions.

None of this is easy. There isn’t enough money or time, the challenges are too great, our individual effort seems futile, and other priorities command our attention. Of course, none of this is really new. Though our ancestors did not have smartphones, they had work, they had children, they friends and relations and enemies, and they had peer pressure and organizational strife. In Pirkei Avot, a source of wisdom gleaned from the sages who lived from the third century BCE through the second century CE, the Rabbis observed that, among other things, the inclination towards evil, the hatred of people, jealousy and the search for glory remove a person from the world (and, therefore, from our people).

Let’s examine our lives. What holds us back from being truly Amcha? Is our failure to get involved, our reluctance to make a donation, our criticism of an agency or a person really driven by our responsibility for other Jews and our vision to repair the world? Or is it driven by other factors that remove us from our people? We let work consume our day. We are driven to push our children towards ever greater heights of athletic or social achievement. We pursue comforts and trappings for ourselves and our children. Work, achievement and comforts are not bad. But are they the ultimate priority for us, our families and our community?

When disaster strikes, we see the victims of tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes andother disasters interviewed. What do they take from their home when evacuating? Their work, their social status, their Wii? Perhaps, but most commonly noted are family photo albums and other pictures. Why? Pictures help us connect with time spent with those who are dear to us and with meaningful moments in our lives. These victims also explain to us that they have come to appreciate what is truly important in their lives.

What do you think they learned? In a similar circumstance, what would you appreciate? Are they the same things that constitute your current priorities? Bruce, you think, that is all well and good but I don’t see you living an ascetic lifestyle, devoid of comforts and the Red Carpet Club. Fortunately, Judaism does not require us to live a life devoid of extras. But it does require us to act, and to be able to act requires us to align our priorities so that we may act. What else holds us back from being Amcha? We are put off by people with whom we do not agree, we are critical of organizations because they have offended us or ill-served us in some way, we leave the work to institutions because we lack the time but then we criticize those institutions for not coming through for us. But who loses out? If we withdraw from participating, do not offer our skills or withhold our money, have we really achieved the “justice” we seek against the person or organization that has wronged us? Or is it the recipient of our lost time, of our withheld dollars who suffers? Although I do not claim to be learned in all of the great sources of wisdom of Judaism, I have yet to come across a passage or teaching that says all Jews are responsible for one another and we must repair the world, except however, in the instance where the aforementioned another and world are represented by or are assisted by a person who is a jerk or a climber or seemingly self-absorbed or an organization that is too bureaucratic or doesn’t support my organization to my satisfaction or has committed some other crime against humanity in our estimation.

If you are Amcha, you are the community and, therefore, you are responsible for the individuals and organizations within that community. If you have an issue with an organization or the individuals within that organization, then step up and become a part
of the solution. The person or organization that troubles you does not fear and will not be threatened by your withdrawal from involvement or your kvetching to your friend or neighbor. But if you step up, along with like-minded people, it is remarkable what change you can bring. We look at Congress these past few months and we are incredulous how our leaders can place petty bickering and posturing above the critical needs of the nation. But what of us? Is the woman in the fifth floor walk-up who has no family and no income responsible for our failure to be seated in the VIP section? Is the boy who cannot afford a Jewish summer camp where he might have received the inspiration for a life-long connection to Judaism responsible for the fact that the person you perceive as phony or a jerk or a loudmouth or even a gossip sits on an organizational committee or board out of recognition of their volunteer commitment? Would you fail to provide a meal to a family that has suffered a loss because the person who asked you to assist is insufferable?

When the prophet Isaiah was called upon by G-d to serve, he was reluctant, to say the least. When he realized he had no choice and G-d asked “Who will go for me?” he responded in a way familiar to many: “Hineni” “I am here.” Less well known is his next word: “Sh’lacheni” – “send me.” Hineni is a state of being, I am here, I am a Jew.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Lessons From the Dog Park.

Over the past several months, Sue and I have developed an early morning routine that revolves around taking our dog, Roscoe, to the local dog park.  For those who have not met our pooch, we think he’s part Australian cattle dog with a little bit of German shepherd and a pinch of wild dingo thrown in for good measure.  He's a great watch dog and very protective. Although he looks a little intimidating when you first meet him, he’s very loving and sociable around people – but, until we started going to the dog park, he didn’t like other dogs all that much. (Now he tolerates them – as long as they leave him alone.) 

Besides being loving to his people, Roscoe excels at one thing – he can catch a Frisbee like nothing you’ve ever seen.  Like most herding dogs, he is full of energy and needs a task at all times.  As long as he gets in a good workout in the morning, he’s fine.  Since we’ve adopted Roscoe, I’ve developed a pretty good throwing arm.
The experience of getting up every morning to take Roscoe to the park has been good for all involved.  Roscoe is happy and healthy.  It helps me to start off my day with a little bit of exercise.  It gives Sue and me some time together every morning. But more important, being around a bunch of dogs every day is truly fascinating. 
Every dog knows his or her place in the pack.  There are definite rules of “engagement.”  Some dogs are more dominant.  Others are submissive.  Some love to play.  Others spend their time begging for treats.  Occasionally a fight breaks out - but they are resolved quickly - usually without human intervention.  Roscoe taught all the other dogs to stay away from his Frisbee and, through trial and error, they have learned.
But, of course, in addition to the canines, there are also dog owners at the park.  We, too, have formed a pack of our own.  We see each other every day and share our lives for 40 minutes each morning.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are a lot of things you can learn from a dog park.
Here are a few musings, observations and rules I have gleaned from my daily sojourns:
1.      Everyone is equal at the dog park – it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, if you love dogs you belong.  We have store clerks, retirees, lawyers, engineers, and rabbis (yes – more than one) who join us on a regular basis.
2.      Everyone is responsible for their own mess (and those of their four legged friends).
3.      Dogs have a lot to teach us about how to play.
4.      Nature needs to take its course.  The pack will usually regulate itself – but sometimes you need to step in if it gets too rough.
5.      Bring water and share it with others.
6.      Check in on regulars who don’t show up.  If someone who usually comes misses several mornings in a row – they should get a phone call or at least a Facebook message.
7.     Dont worry about getting dirty.  When dogs show their love – it can be messy.
8.      You can learn a lot about a people by observing how they treat their pets.
9.      If you bring treats – you have to share them
10.  Everyone is happier when they’re not on a leash.
I think that some of these rules apply to other areas in our lives, don't you think?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A wonderful Bat Mitzvah Drash!!!!

One of the great joys of being a congregational rabbi is the fact that I get to work with young people preparing to become bar or bat mitzvah.  In preparation for their big day, every child works with one of our rabbis and writes a D’var Torah (torah interpretation) for the service.  Last Shabbat, a young girl named Syd shared a Midrash about her torah portion that she wrote herself.  I love how she was able to dig beneath the surface of the text to get to another level of understanding. 
Yasher Koach Syd – we’re proud of you!!!! 
Here's what she shared:
Shabbat Shalom!
I want to begin my D’var Torah with my own midrash. A midrash is a story that is about characters in the Torah. The purpose of a midrash is it teaches a lesson or it digs deeper into a story to find out who, where, or why a character in the bible acts the way they do.
Times were tough back then. Jews were slaves to Pharaoh. But then, a miracle occurred: Moses freed the people and led them out of Egypt. But Moses was a complete stranger to all the peoples he led out of Egypt. Korach and his family were part of this group. They were grateful, just like everyone else, but days, weeks and months went by eating the same food, and rationing water. After a while, Korach’s mom got very sick. A couple days later she died from dehydration. Korach took this hard. He started realizing that his dad was spending more time and paying more attention to his sister and brother than to him. That night when Korach fell asleep he had a terrible nightmare. He dreamt that his mother kept dying over and over again. The next day when everybody began praying to God to lead them out of the desert, Korach didn’t join in. He felt as if he didn’t exist in God’s world. All of Korach’s life he had never felt so hopeless and powerless to speak to God, and he became more bitter and envious of anyone who could. That is where the story of Korach begins.
My Parashah is about Korach and Moses. Moses was the leader at the time, so he was the only one who had a relationship with God. However, Korach didn’t agree with that arrangement. Korach stood up to Moses and claimed that he, too, wanted to speak to God, and that it wasn’t fair that Moses got all the power. Korach convinced two hundred and fifty rebels to start a revolution against Moses. Moses, troubled, fell on his face in prayer and then stood up to Korach and the rebels and said, “Come morning, the Eternal will make known who is God, and who is holy. If these rebels die naturally, then you will know that I do not speak for God. If they die unnaturally, then you will know I am telling the truth.”  The next day the earth opened its mouth and swallowed Korach, the two hundred and fifty rebels and all of their belongings. Moses remained in charge, and no one ever questioned his authority again.
I can understand some of Korach’s frustration. When Korach stood up to Moses claiming he wanted more privileges, his punishment was death. He got punished for standing up for what he believed in. I sometimes relate to Korach’s motives when I stand up against something that isn’t fair.  For example, if I, might “occasionally” get in trouble at school, and I think the consequences are unfair, I speak up. Just like Korach, my efforts are usually ignored.
What I have learned from my Torah portion is even if you understand why somebody does something, it doesn’t make it right. Life isn’t always fair! What is harder to understand is why Korach was swallowed by the earth, when all he wanted was a connection with God.