Sunday, December 30, 2012

Love Thy Neighbor: A Response to Racist Attacks Against Muslims

The following is a sermon I delivered last Friday night at Shabbat services at Temple Emanuel.  I have been shocked at the vitriol directed against me, the Muslim Community and the ADL in the days following our press conference announcing the campaign combatting racist anti-Muslim ads on RTA buses. 

Love Thy Neighbor – Parashat Vayechi  
December 28, 2012
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

This week we read the end of the Joseph story and the book of Bereshit (Genesis).

From here on - our story moves from the private to the public - we have moved from a story about a family – the Children of Israel (B’nai Yisrael) – to a story about   people – the Nation of Israel (Am Yisrael).

Exodus begins a story that unfolds to impact the whole world.  The second book of the torah is very different than the one which precedes it.  The rabbis note that the 1st words in the book of Exodus are“v’ehleh shemot b’nai yisrael. - and these are the names of the children of Israel.” They observe that it is highly unusual to begin a chapter with the word “v’eyeleh”“and these”.  This teaches us, they say, that the book of Exodus, although radically different in style and scope than the book of Genesis, is a continuation of the story.  The “vav” in V’eyleh shemot - is a storytelling technique.  In other words:   “OK, you’ve heard the beginning, now let us proceed with the rest....”And ..... here it is....”

In Genesis, the scene is set for the foundation of a people.  Exodus picks the story up - not as a separate chapter - but as a continuation of an epic story - with a new dimension added - that of national consciousness.

This weeks parasha is about tying up all of the loose ends of Bereshit - it is also about what comes next - the connection between the past , present and future - the stage is set for God’s liberation and divine plan to unfold.

One of the most powerful and telling narratives in this week’s parasha comes when Joseph and his brothers have returned from burying their father, Jacob in the cave of Machpelah in the land of Canaan. We read:

Genesis Chapter 50
4. And when the days of his mourning were past, Joseph spoke to the house of Pharaoh, saying, If now I have found grace in your eyes, speak, I beg you, in the ears of Pharaoh, saying,
5. My father made me swear, saying, Behold, I die; in my grave which I have dug for me in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me. Now therefore let me go up, I beg you, and bury my father, and I will return.
6. And Pharaoh said, Go up, and bury your father, according as he made you swear.
7. And Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt,
8. And all the house of Joseph, and his brothers, and his father’s house; only their little ones, and their flocks, and their herds, they left in the land of Goshen.
9. And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen; and it was a very great company.

The Rabbis ask an interesting question.  Why did Joseph and his brothers go to bury their father with such a large company of Egyptians – chariots and horsemen?  Also, why did they leave their wives and children behind?

Perhaps it was because of the honor that was bestowed upon Jacob – the father of Joseph – 2nd only to Pharaoh….  Or maybe it was for another reason.

Maybe, the children were being left behind as hostages – to make sure that the brothers would return.  Maybe the horses and chariots were guards….

Maybe this is a deliberate foreshadowing of what is to come in the next chapter – when we are enslaved in Egypt by a new king.

The rabbi’s paint a very explicit picture of Egypt’s duplicity vis-à-vis the Israelites. In the midrash we read of how, shortly after Joseph’s death, a new king arose – who gradually, almost imperceptively, enslaved our ancestors.  At first, they were asked to build cities – for pay.  Indeed, even Pharaoh himself, the midrash teaches, was in the trenches with Egyptian and Israelite together.  After a while, Pharaoh and the Egyptians stopped working, but the Israelites continued. After a while, their pay was reduced and their freedoms curtailed until they found themselves enslaved.

It is chilling to read these midrashim in light of modern history.  We know that the Nazis, in their attempt to dehumanize the Jews, also gradually restricted Jewish rights and began a process of enslavement that progressed to the horror of the Shoah.  We also know that had people spoken up in the beginning – if there had been protest from within Germany – or anywhere in the world, for that matter, Naziism may not have succeeded.

Many, if not most Jews, share a passionate concern for civil rights and liberties.  We who have experienced the terror of dehumanization and extermination understand better than anyone how vitally important it is to safeguard the dignity and humanity of all peoples – friend and foe alike.

I speak of this tonight because this past Monday morning – December 24th, I participated in a joint press conference with Imam Karim Abuzaid of the Colorado Muslim Society, Jeremy Shaver – director of the Colorado Interfaith Alliance, Scott Levin – Director of the Mountain States Region ADL and other members of the Denver Muslim Society.  The purpose of the press conference was to call attention to the advertising campaign that the Muslim Society was launching entitled “Love Thy Neighbor.”  For the next few weeks, several busses in Denver will be displaying banners with the words:  “Love Thy Neighbor” prominently displayed alongside verses from the Torah, the New Testament and the Koran that reflect these values.  The banners were created in response to ads placed on buses for four weeks in Denver, New York and Boston. Paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the ones in Denver read: "9,757 Deadly Islamic Attacks Since 9/11/01. It's Not Islamophobia. It's Islamorealism.[i]"

Rather than combat these racist ads with lawsuits or demonstrations, the Colorado Muslim Society, along with the ADL and the Interfaith Alliance decided to teach us that we need to focus on ways to build bridges between peoples – not demonize them.  Hence – “Love Thy Neighbor.”

Some of you may have read about the Ad campaign in the Denver Post this past Tuesday.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that our little press conference generated a lot of publicity – not only here in Denver, but in websites and blogs around the world.  Many people have responded positively to our initiative, but there also have been some negative responses.  The other day, I received an email from someone I did not know which read, in part: 

Rabbi Joe Black, have ever heard of taqyyia,have you ever read passages of the quran full of hate for Jews, and how muslim duty/ jihad is to kill till the last Jew, do you listen or watch the news, do you see how they destroy Churches and slaughter Christians?  In Nazi Germany some Jews tried to be friends with the SS, they where called Capo.  Please, make us, Jews, proud, and stay away from the muslim snakes. They laugh at you in private.

I understand that Imam Abuzaid and I differ on many theological and political issues.  But, I also believe that he is an honorable man.  If we allow our fears and ignorance to blind us to the humanity of any group of people – if we allow the hate-mongers among us to demonize others because of their ethnic or religious heritage, or the color of their skin, or how they love and who they love then we are giving in to hopelessness and bigotry. 

Are there Muslims who hate us?  Yes, of course there are.  But there are extremists in every community.  The author of the original bus ads is a Jewish woman named Pamela Geller.  Her organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) has likened Muslims to Savages in her previous attempts at Defamation .[ii]  As Jews, as a people who are committed to finding and celebrating the sacred in every aspect of life, we must be extra vigilant to ensure that justice is celebrated and protected – for all. 

Next week we read how fear and suspicion plunged a nation into bondage and servitude.  If we do not speak up for those who are wronged, who will speak up for us?  As Rabbi Hillel taught: 

Im Eyn ani li mi li?  U’kshe ani l’atzmi mah ani?  V’im lo achshav ey-matai?…..  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am ONLY for myself, what kind of person am I?  And if not now, when?”

Let us pledge to work together to rid the world of hatred and violence.  But let us do so from a framework of justice and hope.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

New Song: "Give 'Em All Guns."

I wrote a song in response to the Newtown Tragedy.  Here are the lyrics.  There is also a link to my facebook page where a video of the song is posted:

Give 'Em All Guns
Words and Music - Joseph R. Black
© 12/14/2012 Lanitunes Music - All Rights Reserved

Too many people feeling aimless
Too many hanging up the phone
You know that no one here is blameless
Don't make them face their fears alone
It's not our duty to constrain them
It's not our way to curb their fun
The gilded cage we've built contains them
Give 'em all guns

There's not enough here who are willing
Not enough blood on our screens
We have the chance to make a killing
Bring out the newest fun machines
Too many children are contented
There's a war that must be won
With fear and hopelessness cemented
It's time to give 'em all guns

March forward no retreating
There can be no compromise.
Hear the drums that we are beating
Taste the logic of our lies. 

No time for any contemplation
There's too much money to be made
Bullets, steel and desecration
Pull the trigger, feel the blade
The headlines scream out our frustration
Another damaged mother's son
Yesterday's anger must be rationed
Give 'em all guns!/photo.php?v=4300171297459

Friday, December 14, 2012

Another Prayer in the Atermath of Tragedy

Another Prayer in the Atermath of Tragedy.

On this 6th day of Hanukah, we pray for all those who were affected by the terrible events that took place at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  Our hearts are breaking as we read the news of the tragic deaths of young children and adults.  Tonight, as we kindle lights in observance of Hanukah and Shabbat, the brightness of our celebration is eclipsed by the horror of these events.

Once again, we have seen how one person with easy access to firearms can unleash the demons that plague his soul upon unsuspecting innocents.

Once again our nation is in shock as we comprehend the immensity of a tragedy that could have easily been prevented.

How many times must a massacre like this occur before we realize that the epidemic of violence which plagues our society must be stopped?

When will the time be right to address the root causes of random and senseless violence?

When will those who reap power and profit from the sale and manufacture of deadly assault weapons be called to account for their manipulative propaganda?

Now is time to use the shock, anger and grief that we feel in the wake of this tragedy to demand laws that restrict and prohibit the sale and easy access to weapons of mass destruction in our society.

Tonight we will celebrate the power of the few against the many – the powerless against the powerful.  As we light our hanukiot, let us also raise our voices in grief and demand that action be taken to rid our nation of this scourge.

O God who dwells in the hearts and minds of all who seek Your presence, we ask your guidance and comforting presence in this time of trouble.  Give us the strength to bring peace into Your troubled world.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Hands of Esau, The Voice of Jacob

The Voice of Jacob, The Hands of Esau



Dear Friends,

I write this letter from Chicago where I am attending the 100th Anniversary celebration and the National Convention of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).  Temple Emanuel member, Barry Curtiss-Lusher will soon be installed as the National President of the ADL – a well-deserved honor in which we all can take pride.  After the Convention, I will be staying on for a few extra days in order to dedicate the headstone on my father, Sidney Black’s (z”l) grave.

I feel compelled to write and share some thoughts with you about the events which are taking place in Israel and the Gaza strip where, as I’m sure you know, Hamas terrorists have been launching rocket attacks on Southern Israel on a daily basis.  Over the past 12 years, more than 12,000 rockets have been launched – instilling fear and uncertainty in the daily lives of innocent civilians within reach of their deadly ordinance.  Once again, the State of Israel finds itself in the position of having to defend its borders and its citizens. Once again, world opinion is inevitably condemning the IDF for daring to take action against those who seek to destroy the Jewish State.  Make no mistake, the targeting killing of Ahmed Al-Jabari – commander of the Al Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing – was a powerful message to all those who would seek to use violence to achieve peace.  Al-Jabari had enough blood on his hands to justify any actions against him.  He was the architect of multiple missile attacks, kidnappings, and terrorist actions that have caused anguish for Israelis for many years.  It was Al Jabari who masterminded the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit and his comrades in 2006. 

Hamas has taken advantage of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring Egypt to smuggle massive amounts of rockets and other weaponry through the porous border with the Sinai Peninsula.  The constant barrage of rocket attacks that have resulted from this increased ordnance could not possibly have been ignored.  The fact that it has taken this long for Israel to respond to Hamas’ unmitigated aggression is, in itself a remarkable act of restraint on Israel’s part.

It is difficult for those of us who are not living in Israel to understand what it must be like to know that any second a terrorist rocket could be aimed at our homes.  It is difficult to comprehend the agony of those soldiers, pilots and military strategists who are tasked with stopping Hamas’ aggression – knowing that it is quite possible, if not probable that innocent civilians may be harmed due to the deliberate placing of terrorist bases and arms caches in the midst of congested population centers.  Those who are responsible for killing innocent Israelis by firing missiles indiscriminately on schools, hospitals and residential centers have no compunction against creating martyrs for their own cause by using their own women, children and civilians as human shields.

In addition, the war against Hamas in not only being waged in the streets of Gaza.  A massive anti-Zionist propaganda effort is being launched by those who hate Israel.  The airways, newspapers and Internet are being flooded with disinformation.  Our task is to remain firm in our support of Israel at this time of trouble.  If you have access to Twitter, Facebook or any other social medium, be vocal in your support of the State of Israel, the IDF and Operation Pillar of Defense.

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, when Jacob comes to his blind father dressed in Esau’s clothing and covered in sheepskin, Isaac exclaims:  “The hands are the hand of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob.”  Over the centuries, many commentators have used this phrase to differentiate between those who would use violence to achieve their goals (the hands of Esau) and those who would use words (the voice of Jacob.)  Of course, we try to eschew the use of force whenever possible, but there are moments when we have no choice. This is such a time.  Let us pray that Israel’s campaign will be swift, successful and will pave the way for an era when rhetoric can replace rockets and peace can prevail.

I look forward to seeing you upon my return.  With prayers for peace and wishes for a happy Thanksgiving, Iam…..


Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chaye Sarah and Krystallnacht – the Aftermath of the Election

Chaye Sarah and Krystallnacht – the Aftermath of the Election
Rabbi Joe Black

The robo calls have stopped.
The lawn signs are coming down.
The buttons, bumper stickers and mass-mailings are in the trash or recycle bin.
The buzzwords and talking points have been recorded in the history books
The election is over.  Whether your candidates won or lost.  Whether you are happy or disappointed by the results – it’s now time to move on.  
WE can now breathe a bit sigh of relief.
Maybe I have deliberately blocked previous experience, but I cannot remember a more divisive election cycle than the one which has just concluded. Passions have been so very high over this election.  I know many people who feel that they cannot even talk to friends, relatives and co-workers anymore because of their political differences.

The anger and the rhetoric – from both sides:  the accusations and denunciations that were so easily levied against the candidates and their supporters have taken their toll.
As I said at services last shabbat:  
 as the campaign comes to a head, we need to be careful how we treat each other.  Too many times over the past weeks, I have been painfully aware of our inability to speak civilly to one another about political issues.
After the votes are counted – we still will need to live together – regardless of the outcome of the election.
And this is what I am most concerned about as we, as a nation, move forward.  In thinking about what I might speak about tonight, I looked into this week’s torah portion, Chaye Sarah.  
Like many portions in the book of Genesis, Chaye Sarah has many stories that are woven into the narrative.   It begins with the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Abraham.  Abraham purchases the cave of Machpelah in Hebron.  He then sends his servant to Canaan to find a wife for Isaac. At the end of theparasha, Abraham dies.  Our text reads as follows:
Genesis 25:8-10:  “Then Abraham passed on, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before MamreThe field which Abraham purchased from the Hittites; there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this text is the fact that Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together.  If you recall, the last we have heard of Ishmael was when Abraham sent him and his mother, Hagar, out into the wilderness because Sarah did not want Ishmael to be a threat to Isaac and his eventual birthright.  Abraham had scarred Ishmael by casting him away.  He also had scarred Isaac by almost slaughtering him on Mt. Moriah.
Abraham’s death unites these two brothers.  They both understand pain.  They both understand loss.  They both realize that, no matter what events have taken place in their lives, they are bound together by a common task and purpose.
Isaac and Ishmael had cause to hate their father –and to hate each other.   The Midrash, in particular is filled with stories of their warfare.  Yet, at the end of our parasha they come together in peace in order to bury Abraham. They realize that, despite their history, they are linked together. In burying Abraham, they are also symbolically burying the past and moving ahead to the future.
Here in our community – especially within the Jewish community – we have found ourselves on different sides of many issues.  During the election, the question of which candidate is a stronger supporter of Israel became very divisive.  A friend of mine told me a story last week of how he went into a synagogue recently wearing a kipa that had the name of of one of the candidateson it – it doesn’t matter which one it was.  When he sat down to pray – the person next to him asked him to leave the synagogue because he found thekippah offensive.  My colleague pressed his accuser and asked him:  “Do youreally want me to leave because of my political beliefs?  Think of what you are saying!”  The then went on to describe how he and this man sat down and talked togheter.  In the end, his accuser apologized saying:  “You are right.  It’s crazy that I go so caught up in this election that I felt that I couldn’t even pray with you.  I’m sorry.”
How many other people were in similar situations – but didn’t have the conversation that was necessary to unpack this insanity?
I have heard other stories of people being cornered by friends and family because of their support of a particular candidate and being told that if they voted for him, then they were “unJEwish” or “Anti Israel” or immoral…
Friends have been lost over this election – and not only on Facebook.
Like Isaac and Ishmael burying their father – it is time for us to unite – to come together and bury the pain of this election and move on.  WE must repair our community and remember that we are more than simply the sum total of our political beliefs.  WE are a diverse and complex people – and yet, despite our differences, as Jews and as Americans, we are blessed by the fact that we can both disagree – while at the same time, accepting the fact that our differences make us holy.
This idea is especially important tonight – not only because it is the Shabbat following the election – but because of today’s date.
Tonight is November 9th.  On this day, 74 years ago, the world was changed – forever.  November 9th was the day that came to be known as Kristallnacht – the night of the Broken Glass.  Kristallnact was the beginning of the end of European Jewry.
On this night, Nazi thugs burned synagogues and destroyed Jewish businesses throughout Germany and Austria.  Jews were beaten publicly in the streets.  Men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.  Hitler and his thugs waited to see what the reaction would be from world leaders.  The deafening silence that ensued in the shadow of terror was a clear sign to the Nazis that they had a green light to take whatever steps they wanted to rid the world of the “Jewish problem.”
My mother and her parents lived through Krystallnacht.  They were among the lucky ones.  One month later they were able to get a visa out of Germany and immigrate to the United States.
They memory of that night of terror is indelibly linked into the consciousness of our people. From the pain and horror of November 9th and the darkness and evil that it spawned, we have emerged - wounded, yet determined to honor the memory of those who perished in the Shoah and rebuild our lives, our people and our homeland.
Like Isaac and Ishmael – we are united by our grief and our loss.
If we can survive and thrive in the aftermath of this historical and spiritual darkness, how much the more so are we obligated to move on from the pettydivisions caused by electoral politics?
Though there are those who sought to use fear and mistrust to accomplish their political ends – we are stronger and better than that.  Now is a time to come together and find unity in our historical memory and the vision of a world that ,while incomplete, awaits for each of us to use our talents, strengths and faith to perfect God’s Creation.
We owe it to ourselves.
We owe it to the memory of those who are no longer with us
We owe it to our nation to move on from our divisions and distractions and focus on ways that we can work to perform the mitzvah of Tikkun Olam – of repairing our all too imperfect world.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Poem: On Lighting a Yahrtzeit Candle for the First Time

Tonight is my Father, Sidney Black's (z"l) first yahrtzeit.  As I was leaving the house this morning, I said to Sue - we need to light a yahrtzeit candle.  We didn't have any in the house - we'd never had to light one before.  This poem is a reflection on this realization.

On lighting a yahrtzeit candle for the first time…

This glass jar
Should be filled with Jam –
Made from plums plucked from trees
Planted by those who never thought they’d taste
The fruit of their labors.
This candle
Should be saved for when the power goes out –
Bringing light to the darkness
Warming the hearts and souls of all who gather round its flame. 
This match
Should be lighting firecrackers, pinwheels and whizzing gewgaws
Spreading delight in the eyes of children and those who love them.
These tears
Trace a path down my cheek
Etched in
Memories of eternity.
Yitgadal V’yitkadash

Thursday, September 27, 2012

My Father’s Tallis. Yom Kippur Yizkor – 5773

My Father's Tallis

Yom Kippur Yizkor – 5773

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO


Dear Friends,

Our son, Ethan recently was given an assignment for a photography class at his school. The teacher asked the students to create a photographic montage of the items that they would take with them if they had to quickly evacuate their homes in case of fire. Ethan chose wisely. Among the items in his collection were a guitar, a book of letters from the friends he made in while studying in Israel last semester, his Confirmation Bible, a book that my mother gave him, a quilt made out of old T-shirts, his Ultimate Frisbee Jersey and our dog, Roscoe's collar. When I asked him why the collar, he told me that Roscoe wouldn't sit still for the picture.

While I was fascinated by and pleased to see the items he chose, the assignment, itself, got me thinking: what would I take with me if I had to gather up my most prized possessions at a moment's notice? There are many items that came to mind – photographs, guitars, jewelry, but the first thing that popped into my head was this prayer shawl that I am now wearing.

This was my father's tallis. He used to wear it every Shabbat morning at our synagogue when I was growing up. My sister and I have so many memories of sitting next to him in shul when we were children. I remember playing with the fringes on the edges of this tallis when I was fidgety in services. My Dad, Sidney Black, co-led a small minyan in our Reform synagogue in Evanston, IL that was a mixture of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform traditions. I started playing my guitar there when I was in Jr. High School. In many ways, I credit those Shabbat mornings for instilling in me a love of prayer that set me on the path to this pulpit. I remember how my father would chant torah – fast – often making up his own tune as he went along – but nobody really cared – we just loved hearing him chant. He was as close to a Chazzen – a Cantor – as they had in the "downstairs minyan." He would wrap himself in his Tallis, sway to the music and sing in a beautiful baritone. After he died this past November, he had very few possessions left. The one thing of his that I wanted more than anything else was this Tallis.

I wear it now and I breathe in the aroma of fine wool – mixed in with a bit of garlic, coffee and other earthly aromas – and I'm instantly transported back to those days of my youth when he was vibrant– and full of life. I hear his laugh. I remember his touch. I prefer to remember him in this way – not as he was at the end of his life when the ravages of Alzheimer's robbed him of his strength and dignity.

It's amazing how physical objects can be so important. The Talmud teaches us that monuments need not be erected for the righteous – their deeds are their memorials – and yet, the act of going to the cemetery to dedicate or visit a gravestone is an essential piece of our collective journeys through the mourning process. We touch the stone and remember how that sacred place was the last time we were in physical proximity with our loved one.

As human beings – made of flesh and blood we need touchstones. At a funeral service, the mourners perform the mitzvah of keriah – of tearing a piece of fabric. Whenever I explain this custom to a grieving family, I always say the power of this ritual can be experienced because we need something to do with our hands at a time of trouble and sorrow. Of course, keriah is also a powerful symbol of the tear in the fabric of a family. It also marks a transition for the mourners – from taking care of details and planning a funeral – to allowing others to take care of them.

The objects and the heirlooms that we pass from generation to generation help us to tell the stories of our loved ones. As Rabbi Immerman taught us so powerfully this morning, it is the act of telling our stories that creates a sense of holiness in the midst of our everyday interactions. There is a reason that Rabbi Foster began the tradition that I have also embraced of telling the story of the Synagogue furnishings and torah scroll from Kolin that hold an honored place in our chapel. Each time I tell that story, I am keeping the memory of those who perished in the Shoah alive. Nothing is more sacred.

This is the first time that I am participating in a Yom Kippur Yizkor service as a mourner. Like most of you here this afternoon, I feel the ache of loss. There is a powerful intimacy in this large sanctuary – felt by all who understand the surreal quality of wanting to share this moment with loved ones whose physical presence is no more – but whose memory is very much alive in the moments that we treasure, and in the legacy of love and caring that we have inherited.

The reality of loss that we all feel at this sacred moment is painful and palpable. We hold on to our precious heirlooms and keepsakes to remind us of what once was – and can never be again. And yet, if all we do is feel our grief – if our only response to loss is to remain rooted in the past, then we have not yet fully emerged from the depths of grief into the heights of life.

We mourn our dead. We feel their loss. While each of us tread the same path, we do so at our own pace and tempo. Some are quicker than others – but we also know that, at some point, we must emerge once again out of the darkness into the light of day and live our lives so as to honor the memories of those who gave us life. The true legacy that our loved ones bequeath to us is not found in the possessions we treasure – but the values for which they lived and wanted us to embody as well.

A story is told of a very wealthy orthodox Jew who died. After he had bequeathed a sizable majority of his estate to Charity, he still left behind a huge fortune for his children. He left two wills, directing that one be opened immediately, and the second be opened after the Sheloshim (30 days of mourning after burial).

Among the instructions left in the first will was a request he be buried with a certain pair of socks that he owned. The man's children immediately brought the socks to the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society), requesting that their father be buried in them.

The Chevra Kadisha refused their request, reminding the family that it's against Jewish law to be buried in anything other than a traditional burial shroud.

They pleaded, explaining that their father was a very holy, pious and learned man, and he obviously had a very good reason to make this request. The Chevra Kadisha remained firm in their refusal.

The family frantically went to their rabbi for help, and he gently explained to them, "Although your father left that request when he was on this world, now that he's in the world of truth, he surely understands that it is in his best interests to be buried without the socks."

The man was buried without his socks.

30 days later, the second will was opened, and it read something like this:

"My dear children. By now you must have buried me without my socks. I wanted you to truly understand that a man can have 1 billion dollars, but in the end, he can't even take along one pair of socks!"

My dear Friends: This story teaches an important lesson. Life is finite. It is precious. While we are here we can and should treasure all the goodness of God's creation. After we are gone, our treasures mean nothing. But – If and when we live our lives to the fullest, when we take advantage of every moment – every opportunity to share our lives and our love, then the reality of our own mortality can be offset by the legacy we leave behind to those whose lives we have touched.

As this holiest of days begins to wane, as we prepare ourselves for the final t'kiyah gedolah that will take place at the end of Neilah that follows this Yizkor service, let us strive to live our lives to the fullest. Let us remember to treasure the gifts that our loved ones have left us – both the tangible and the intangible. And let us commit to repairing our all too imperfect world – for their sake and for those who will come after us –

G'mar chatimah tovah – may we all be sealed for a blessing in the book of life. AMEN

We, The Sinners – Kol Nidre, 5773

We, The Sinners
Kol Nidre 5773
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO
My Dear Friends,

In case you hadn't noticed, there's going to be an election in November. Our nation is split down the middle and the campaigning is fierce. One thing that all sides agree upon is that this is one of the most important elections in recent history: both candidates have radically different world views. Each side is convinced not only that theirs is the only path to the future, but also that the other side is a recipe for disaster.

Along with the myriad of economic, foreign and domestic policy issues that will confront the next administration, in all likelihood, our next president will be nominating new Justices to sit on the Supreme Court. This, more than almost any other action that a president can take will have an impact on our nation that will reverberate far beyond their tenure in the White House. Issues ranging from the separation of church and State, a Woman's right to choose, immigration, health care and many others will come before the court. The power of the president to nominate future justices will, without a doubt, determine the direction our nation will be headed.

Tonight is Kol Nidre. Tonight, I will not speak about the Supreme Court. But I do want to talk about another court - one, that, in a very real sense is even more powerful than that august Body of nine justices that meets in our nation's capital. The court of which I speak is a Beyt Din - a religious body that actually convened earlier this evening - here on our Bema. Cantor Heit was the spokesperson. She was flanked by our Rabbis, our president and leaders of the community. Each year, on Erev Yom Kippur, in every synagogue around the world, a similar beyt din is convened. Each time the Kol Nidre is chanted we – the congregation – stand in witness. The Torah scrolls are removed from the ark so as to highlight the solemnity of the court's procedings. Tonight, as in every synagogue around the world, before Cantor Heit began to sing the hauntingly beautiful melody of Kol Nidre, our beit Din - our court - issued the following decree:

B'yishiva shel Malah u'vyishiva shel Mata, al dat ha makom v'al data ha-kahal anu matirim l'hitpaleyl im ha-avaryanim
In the heavenly and the earthly court, by consent of God and by consent of this community, we are permitted to pray with avaryanim - with sinners.
This ancient formula always precedes the chanting of the Kol Nidre. But what does it mean when the beyt Din proclaims: "We are permitted to pray with sinners?"

There are actually several theories:

One theory is that the Avaryanim were the Marranos; the Jews of Spain and Portugal who, during and following the Spanish Inquisition, disguised themselves as Christians. But once a year, when Kol Nidre came, feeling the tug of tradition they slipped into the synagogue and asked to be admitted. Other commentators do not agree with this theory. They say that this declaration could not possibly have referred to the Marranos because it pre-dates the Inquisition and probably has it's origins in Ashkenazic, not Sephardic sources.

Another theory is that refers to the philosophers - the rationalists - the epicorsim: those who challenged their faith by asking radical, even heretical questions - about God, about Torah, about Justice. Most of the year these people boycotted the Synagogue. But, like so many here tonight, when Kol Nidre came, they, too, felt a tug, rational or not, and found their way back into the community.

The third theory about the avaryanim is the simplest and yet, it is the most profound.

There's a story that tells of how one day God was looking down at Earth and saw all of the evil that happening below. As a result, God decided to do some investigative reporting. So God called for an angel and sent her down to check it out. When she returned she told God, yes it is bad on Earth - very bad. 95% of the people are sinners and 5% are not.

God was not pleased. God thought for a moment and decided to send down a different angel to get a second opinion. When the second angel returned he went to God and said: "Yes, the Earth is in a major decline. 95% of the people are sinners and 5% are not."

God said "This is not good. But at least there are the 5% who are not sinners."

So God decided to send e-mail to that 5% in order to encourage them and give them hope.

Do you know what that e-mail said?

Neither do I. I didn't get one either.
Anu matirim l'hitpaleyl im ha-avaryanim.....
We are permitted to pray with sinners....

The third theory about the avaryanim is that they are us, my friends. They are you and me: All of us - the plain, simple, ordinary everyday sinners, who cheat a little, steal a little, lie a little.

We are the ones…..

  • who are impatient with our spouses;
  • who mess up our houses,
  • who have corners we cut;
  • and doors we slam shut.
We are ones with no time for our children; who gossip and make excuses for our lapses every day of our lives. We are the imperfect ones. We are the ones who, for the next 24 hours, will be standing before God and pleading for forgiveness for our own sins and for the sins of those around us.

Tomorrow afternoon we will read the story of Jonah. Now Jonah was an unlikely candidate for a prophet. Not only was he reluctant - he was down-right defiant - even petulant. He tried to escape God's call by boarding a ship and sailing as far away as he could. Soon after setting sail, a mighty storm came that threatened the entire ship and crew. When Jonah was discovered to be the cause of the storm, the captain and crew of the ship asked him the following questions:
  • What is your occupation?
  • Where do you come from?
  • What is your country?
  • And of what people are you?"

Jonah answers the captain with a simple phrase:

"Ivri Anochi - I am a Hebrew....."
The word, Ivri is one of the oldest names for the Jewish people. It dates back to Abraham. The authors of the book of Jonah knew what they were doing when they put those words in his mouth because if we look closely at the word, Ivri, we can also see that it has the same root as Avaryanim (sinners): - ayin, vet, resh. In other words, to say, "I am a Jew," is also to say "I am a sinner." I am imperfect. Jonah has to come to terms with his own imperfections in the belly of the boat and of the beast, so to speak.

Tonight, before we chanted Kol Nidre, our communal beit din - our Rabbinic Court - came along to say - there is no such thing as a morally unblemished human being. There is only us - the avaryanim -the sinners -the Ivrim - the Hebrews - the imperfect and the incomplete - not only are we permitted to pray with avaryanim - we are required to pray with them; there is no one else with whom to pray! And it is precisely because we are avaryanim that we need each other so much.

The Talmud tells a fascinating story at the very end of Yoma, the tractate which addresses Yom Kippur. Rav, the great Scholar, had a falling-out with a local butcher. In some way, at some time this butcher had sinned against Rav. But the butcher never came to the Rabbi's house to do Teshuvah - to try to make amends. Finally, on Erev Yom Kippur. Rav himself went to the butcher in order to do teshuvah.. The great rabbi walked into the butcher's shop and found him busy cutting meat.

Eventually, the man looked up from his work and saw Rav, and he said: "Ah, it's you - go away! I have nothing with you - no business with you; nothing to say to you; I have nothing in common with you!" Rav remained silent. The butcher turned back to his meat; he raised his cleaver and swung it down, and as he did, a fragment of bone shot up at him and killed him.

What is the point of this story? Is it to teach us never to insult a rabbi? Is it to show the power of a Talmudic scholar?

I believe that the message is much deeper. I believe that the butcher does not die because he insulted Rav; his death is God's way of responding to what he had just said to Rav: "Go away; you and I have nothing in common!" Indeed, he had a great deal in common with Rav - his mortality. The response is death - not merely as a punishment - but to teach us that the one thing all of humanity has in common is the fact that one day, death will take us all. We don't want to think about it, but there is no greater Truth. The butcher denies this basic connection between himself and the rabbi; he insists that they have nothing in common, and therefore he has no need to talk or to reconcile with him. God, in effect, is saying to the butcher, "You don't understand; you have everything in common with Rav. You are both mortal; you are both limited; you are both imperfect; you are both human."

This is what it means to pray with Avaryanim - with sinners, for by accepting the fact that every one of us is a sinner, we are joining together and acknowledging our bond of weakness. Ironically, this is also our strength. The butcher could not ask forgiveness of Rav because he refused to acknowledge that he was flawed. But once we stop pretending, once we realize that we are all limited and all flawed - that we are all avaryanim - sinners - then and only then can we ask forgiveness of others and grant it to them as well.

This holiest of days also reminds us to accept ourselves as we really are. It teaches us to see ourselves with clarity.

A story is told of a businessman who had some time to kill at a train station. Now this was not a particularly large station and, consequently, there was not a lot for him to do except wait for his train. While he was waiting, he noticed a scale with a sign that stated: "Your weight and fortune, 5 cents." He put in a nickel, and out came a card which read: "Your name is David Aaronson, you're Jewish and you weigh 189 pounds." He was astounded. He put in another nickel and the same card popped out: "Your name is David Aaronson, you're Jewish and you weigh 189 pounds." He couldn't believe that this was for real, so he ran up to one of the porters at the station and asked him to get up on the scale. He put in another nickel, and the card popped out, saying: "Your name is Samuel Cunningham, you're Catholic, and you weigh 187 pounds." Aaronson was astounded; moreover, he thought someone was playing a trick on him – and he didn't like it. He knew of a certain waiter in a Chinese/Mexican restaurant around the corner. He ran to get him, put him up on the scale, and out came the card, which read: "Your name is Juan Chang, you're half-Mexican, half-Chinese and you weigh 158 pounds." Determined to fool the machine, Aaronson remembered that he knew of a friend of a friend who was 1/3 Hawaiian, 1/3 Russian, and 1/3 French, and moreover, had grown up in Saudi Arabia - being raised by the Bedouins in the Desert. He somehow managed to get this person to come to the train station and on to the scale. Out came the card which read: Your name is Boris De-kaukaloa. You are 1/3 Hawaiian, 1/3 Russian, and 1/3 French, and you weigh 250 pounds. By this time, Aaronson was infuriated. He ran around the corner to a costume shop, bought a wig and a beard, filled his suitcase with rocks, put on sunglasses and got on the machine. Out came the card which read: "Your name is still David Aaronson, you're still Jewish, you still weigh 189 pounds….and you just missed your train."

Now there is a reason that I told this particular story - apart from the fact that its fun to tell….. How many times are we confronted by the obvious; and yet determined not to see it? Yom Kippur reminds us to accept ourselves as we really are.

Once we come to terms with our true selves, we need to accept others' trues selves as well. And this, my friends, is our main task on this Yom Ha Kippurim- this day of Atonement: The task of Teshuvah - repentance.

The Mitzvah of Teshuvah teaches us that we live life to the fullest when we connect fully with those around us. Tomorrow, when we recite the full litany of confession in the Al Cheyt prayers, I want you to notice that we list only those sins we have committed against human beings - not sins we have committed against God. The essence of teshuva is in the reestablishing of balance in our relationships. When we do teshuvah, we acknowledge the fact that we are all works in progress. We are aware that our actions impact others; that it is essential that we maintain the health of our relationships - with our loved ones, our friends, our colleagues - even with our enemies - or those whom we think are our enemies.

We share so much - all of us. Our hopes, our dreams, our flaws and imperfections..... But sometimes we can't see what we share – we can only see our hurt and our anger.

I can't tell you how many times I have been with families who refuse to talk to each other. Whether they are sitting in my study or standing on the Bema - I have watched as people forget that everyone is flawed - that everyone is a sinner. I have seen how families and friends can destroy each other:

  • fathers and mothers who once shared a vision of the future and now use their children as weapons to hurt the other.
  • I have seen brothers and sisters, parents and children who refuse to talk to each other.
  • I have seen former friends who turn into enemies - pretending that the other does not exist - holding on to grudges - nurturing them, feeding them with anger, rage and sorrow.
  • I have seen how I myself can succumb to anger and mistrust over small pettiness and items of no concern.
And then there are the truly heart-wrenching moments - the times when there is no more time; when we realize that the flaws that we could not bear in others were only a small part of their totality - but it is too late. The most painful words that I have ever heard are "...if only..."

  • I hear them said by children, spouses, siblings and friends - sitting by a hospital bed or standing at the grave of a loved one:
    • "If only I told him that I loved him more often......"
    • "If only I wasn't so stubborn...."
    • "If only I spent more time...."
    • "If only...."

I hear these words said months, even years after a loved one is gone – when the guilt, the pain and the loss are so great – and there is no time left to tell those whom we loved the words they desperately needed to hear – and that we needed to say. 

We are all avaryanim, my friends. We all possess great beauty and great ugliness. Our worth is measured, not by our wealth, or even our wisdom but by the degree to which we accept our own flaws and those of others around us.

Today is the day that we stand before a holy beyt din – convened by none other than the Eternal God. Today we are reminded of what is truly important in our lives: our relationships, our ability to make a difference in the lives of the people in our homes, our families, our friends and our community.
My dear friends, don't put off telling those whom you love that you love them - you may never have another chance.

  • Make amends - do it tonight, before it's too late.
  • Speak to your estranged family and friends – I know it's hard – but anything of value in life shouldn't come easy.
  • Stop the fighting.
  • Say you're sorry
  • Do Teshuvah
  • Even more important - accept other's teshuvah and forgive them.

And once you've done this sacred, cleansing act of Teshuvah, then take the next step – work to make the world, just a little bit better. Get involved in our community. Help others in need, find a cause that moves you and make a difference. Come to synagogue more – it couldn't hurt…..

Yes - we are ALL AVARYANIM - we are all sinners. May we allow that awareness help us to see the humanity in those around us:

  • let us have more patience – more understanding.

That is the message of our service tonight. That is why we come here. During the next 24 hours we will have opportunities to reflect on how we allow our own sins to impact our lives - and the lives of those around us. Remember - no matter how much we may feel slighted or hurt or even betrayed by others, all of us are equal in the eyes of God.

B'yishiva shel Malah u'vyishiva shel Mata, al dat ha makom v'al data ha-kahal anu matirim l'hitpaleyl im ha-avaryanim
In the heavenly and the earthly court, by consent of God and by consent of this community, we are permitted to pray with avaryanim - with sinners.

G'mar Chatimah Tovah - may we all be sealed for a blessing in the book of life.



Monday, September 17, 2012

Erev Rosh Ha Shanah 5773 – The Doorways of a New Year

The Doorways of A New Year

Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5773/2013

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Temple Emanuel – Denver Colorado


Dear Friends,

L'Shanah Tovah. Welcome!!!!! Welcome home......

I want to begin my remarks this evening by asking you a question:

What doorway did you walk through tonight to enter into this building?

Now this may seem like a strange question. After all, most of us came through either the front or back door, after parking our cars, greeting old friends, giving and getting hugs and kisses. But I ask it again - What doorway did you walk through tonight?

[6:30 service]

Tonight, things are a little bit different. Some of us walked into the front door of Temple and turned right into the sanctuary. Others walked into the Social Hall. All who are in this building have come to celebrate Rosh HaShanah – but, for the first time in a long time, there are two distinctly different types of services taking place. Here in the sanctuary – the beautiful voice of Cantor Heit and our choir and organ stirs our hearts and our souls as our prayers sail into the heavens. In the social hall, the sound of contemporary music – a 5 piece band and our Rosh HaShanah Unplugged service offer a very different – but nonetheless spiritually fulfilling experience.

But my question was not really about which service you chose to attend, but rather, which doorway you walked through to enter into this building.

You see, I believe that there are as many doorways to this place as there are people sitting in these seats. I ask the question because I believe that every person entered this sanctuary tonight through a doorway that is uniquely their own - a doorway that they created or inherited or discovered through a variety of experiences, expectations, history and temperament.

There is a passage in the Talmud that teaches about a special blessing that one should say when one sees a great crowd gathering. This blessing is: "Barukh Chacham Ha-Razim - blessed is the One who discerns the secrets of each of our individual hearts."

I love this blessing. In one small sentence it encapsulates a very sophisticated theological concept: God listens to us. You see, although we are all here tonight - a large and dynamic congregation united in worship - each of us is here as an individual - we all have our own expectations, thoughts, fears, joys, sins and secrets.

Those of us who feel we can pray, talk to God in our own individual way.

All of us are unique. All of us are holy. And yet, our tradition teaches that although our prayers and petitions may be different from one another, they all ascend to heaven; they are considered, measured and answered during these High Holy Days. We may not get the answer we desire - but we are answered, nonetheless.

     "Barukh Chacham Ha Razim - blessed is the One who discerns the secrets of each of our individual hearts."

If only we could listen to each other's prayers as well as God does!!! If only we could hear one another above the noise of everyday life. If only our mouths and our ears could be attuned to the messages that fly around us - so many problems could be avoided - so many crises much misunderstanding could be re-directed. But we can't, can we? Each of us experiences the world within the context of our own individual reality.

I know that each of us here tonight is experiencing this service a little bit differently, for each of us has entered this sanctuary through a different doorway.

·    Some of us are seeking answers to difficult questions.

·    Some of us have been inspired by the beautiful music.

·    Some of you are looking at your watches right now - wondering how long I will be speaking;

  • Some of you are wondering why I'm speaking at the beginning of the service and not at the end…. The answer is – because after I'm done delivering this sermon, I'm going to switch places with Rabbi Immerman, and speak at the Rosh HaShanah Unplugged service – it's hard to be in two places at the same time…..

    ·    Some of us are overcome with the joy of sitting together with those whom we love the most.

    ·    Others are acutely aware of the fact that there are empty seats where once loved ones used to sit.

    ·    Some of us are remembering the High Holidays of our youth - shared with parents and siblings

  • Some of you come from multi-generational families here at Temple Emanuel – each time you walk into the building you are filled with memories of High Holidays from your childhood. You see your confirmation picture on the wall – and maybe those of your parents and grandparents as well.
  • For some of you, this may be the first time that you have been in our building – or maybe this is the 1st time that you have participated in a Rosh Ha-Shanah service – or even been inside a synagogue …welcome!

    ·    Some of us are angry with God

    ·    Some of us are filled with joy

    ·     Some of us are lonely

  • Some are hoping to meet a soul-mate
  • Some are looking to make a difference

    ·    and some of us don't know why we are here.....we are seeking meaning, purpose, connection, holiness – and we are open to the possibility that, on this holy night, we might find a small sign that there are thresholds that can be crossed that might lead us to something larger than ourselves.

The truth is – we are a large, dynamic and diverse congregation. And we're proud of our ability to sustain such a large membership. But we also need to be aware of the fact that with size comes complexity. There are approximately 6,000 souls who are members of Temple Emanuel. In addition, tonight there are many here who are not members – but who have come to pray with us as a community – WELCOME! That means that over the course of the next 24 hours there will be thousands of doorways that need to be opened and entered.

This is the third year that I have stood on this pulpit and shared the New Year with you. My family and I feel truly blessed to be able to be a part of the Temple Emanuel community. Over the course of the past two years, as I have come to know many of you personally, I have learned a tremendous amount. There are still many of you whom I have not yet met – but I am committed to changing that. There are also some of you that I have met – but I can't remember your name – I promise – I will keep trying. Do me a favor – please remind me……I'll get there! Slowly but surely, I am getting a handle on what it means to be the Sr. Rabbi of such a large and multi- faceted synagogue.

I want to tell you a story – a true story that happened just last week. I was at a salon – getting my nails done. Now – this may raise a few eye brows….yes – I get my nails done – but just the 4 nails on my right hand – I have acrylic nails put on because I like the way they sound when I play the guitar….. Anyway – I was at the salon and an older woman who is a member of the Temple saw me there and after dealing with the shock of seeing her rabbi getting acrylic nails applied, said: "Rabbi – I need to talk to you!" "Yes?" I said… "Rabbi, I'm worried that you are turning the Temple into an orthodox synagogue. There is too much Hebrew in the service! I came for Yahrtzeit last month and I just couldn't follow along! And I am not alone – there are many others who feel the same way!" I listened to what she had to say – and I understand how she felt. While I don't really think that we are even close to becoming orthodox, there are some changes taking place.

After I left the salon, I recalled a similar conversation that had taken place just a few days before (not at the nail salon….but in my office) where I spoke with a young couple who shared with me that they were concerned that our services were becoming "too watered down" and the Jewish education that their children was receiving was not good enough: "There's hardly any Hebrew in the service!" they complained….. "Our children don't know basic prayers. And we're not alone – there are others who feel the same way."

So who do I listen to? Who is right? The answer, of course – is both. Things are changing at Temple Emanuel – and change – any change – even good change – is always stressful. Tonight, two very different worship experiences took place in our building. In both the sanctuary and the social Hall, people came together to pray, to sing, to find inspiration, to reconnect, to look deep into their selves and their souls and find the answers to the questions that women and men have been asking since the very 1st day of God's creation.

The truth is – we can't be all things to all people – and we shouldn't try to be. But we would be fools if we didn't acknowledge that the world around us is very different today than it was even ten years ago.

We need to understand and adjust to the fact that Judaism and the Jewish people in the 21st Century are facing unprecedented new challenges in our almost 4,000 year history. Many recent studies have shown that American Jews – especially YOUNG American Jews, are increasingly viewing their Jewish identity as unimportant or inconsequential. And for those who are choosing to become involved, the portals of the parents are not necessarily the doorways of their descendants. Unaffiliated Jews are, without question, the largest demographic of non-orthodox members of the American Jewish Community.

In the past, Jews joined synagogues for one of three main reasons:

  • To have a place to pray
  • To educate their children
  • To receive the services of clergy for life-cycle events.

Today, this is no longer the case. There are many organizations and individuals who will provide these services without the need of affiliation. We live in a "fee for service" society. We can tailor our personal Jewish experience any way we want. So why do we need synagogues at all? Why do we even need Judaism for that matter?

My friends, these are not rhetorical questions. They are being asked and acted upon every single time someone walks away from our tradition and culture. And if we don't provide an answer to these questions, then we will will ourselves out of existence.

I believe that we do have an answer- and it's a powerful one. You see – despite the fact in today's modern world we have more ways available to us to communicate, busy and entertain ourselves, we nonetheless face a crisis of meaning; despite our technology – or maybe even because of it – we are losing touch with our own humanity.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book, When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, writes:

    "Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through it."

My friends, I believe that Judaism is a radical faith. Torah and Judaism exist for one purpose and one purpose only: To provide a framework for human beings to understand that we are not alone and, in the process, to affirm that our lives have meaning, purpose and value.

Of all of the institutions in Jewish life – and there are many – it is the Synagogue that is poised to provide meaningful answers to the existential questions that keep us awake at night. Here we learn, we grow, we rejoice in the lives of our children and those of our friends and family. Here we grieve and are comforted in our loss by ancient ritual and the presence of a loving and supporting community. Here we work to perform acts of Tikkun Olam – of repairing our all too imperfect world.

I believe that, in today's world, one of the central – if not THE central missions that a synagogue must undertake is the creation of sacred communities that will address the hungers for meaning, purpose and connection that plague our society.

The 20th Century Jewish humorist, Harry Golden once asked his father, "If you don't believe in God, why do you go to synagogue so regularly?" His father answered, "Jews go to synagogue for all sorts of reasons. My friend Garfinkle goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle."

Golden's father was telling a profound truth. The most important ingredient in a synagogue is not the liturgy, not the beauty of the cantor's voice, the choir's harmonies, or the architecture, or the cookies served at the oneg, the programs offered, or even the length of the Rabbi's sermon. What matters MOST in congregational life are the people who come together to perform the sacred work of building a community.

There is a reason that tradition teaches that we need a minyan – a group of 10 or more Jewish adults to say certain prayers. As Jews, we are not supposed to pray alone. Joel Grishaver, a well-known Jewish educator and a mentor, teacher and dear friend of mine, taught me once that the most important sound that we make as a congregation when we pray together is: NU…. NU – as in Eloheynu, Avinu, Malkeynu, Kidshanu…. And on and on. "NU" is a suffix that means "US," or "OUR" or "WE." When we pray: "Avinu Malkeynu" we are saying "OUR parent, OUR sovereign" – not "MY parent, MY sovereign". Jews pray in the plural. We pray with each other and FOR each other. Ultimately, if we do not create a sense of community in our prayers, we end up not praying at all.

At the beginning of this service, I asked you to look around and introduce yourself to someone you didn't know so we "shouldn't pray together as strangers." I did not choose those words lightly. We are not – we CANNOT be strangers to one another. And we need to come together – not only on these holiest of days – but on Shabbat, on Holidays, at classes, social functions, community actions and congregational meetings – to affirm the fact that we value one another.

Having said this, I also understand that this it is not only your responsibility to show up at Temple. We, your clergy and staff, have a responsibility to create doorways through which you can enter. As a Kehilla Kedosha – as a sacred community - we need to provide a wide array of diverse opportunities for our membership to connect with one another on a spiritual, intellectual and communal basis. We can't be all things to all people – but we can and are committed to finding new ways to come together.

  • It is for this reason that we introduced Rosh HaShanah Unplugged this evening at the same time as this parallel service
  • It is for this reason that we are introducing Family Learning Havurot in our religious school so that small groups of families can learn together on their own time – with guidance from talented teachers – and build relationships based on Torah study and communal values
  • It is for this reason that we are expanding our offerings on Shabbat mornings.
  • It is for this reason that we are reshaping the mission of our Library
  • It is for this reason that the HESED program is entering a new phase of learning and activism
  • It is for this reason that we offer multiple options for Shabbat worship and study on Friday nights.
  • It is for this reason that we are radically changing our adult education program: offering weekly classes on Sunday mornings and branching out to multiple locations around the city.

There are many overt and subtle changes that will be taking place this year. In the pockets in front of your seats, you will find a full list of new opportunities for involvement. But programs, by themselves, cannot have an impact unless you take advantage of them. Tonight, on the Erev Rosh HaShanah – the beginning of a New Year, I am challenging every one of you to think about how you might be able to become more involved in Temple Emanuel. Find a class. Come to Shabbat worship on Friday night or Saturday morning. Become involved in Sisterhood or Brotherhood, for our teens, get involved in Youth Programs, volunteer in the library, take part in our HESED project and make the world a little more holy….there are so many ways to get involved.

Everybody here – every person in this room walked through a different doorway to get here tonight. And you are all part of our kehilla kedosha – our sacred congregation. We are committed to helping you find your place at Temple Emanuel.

In several places the Torah teaches that when we build an altar to God, we must not use hewn or cut stones. Instead, we must use stones that we find and try to fit them as they are into the sacred construction. We can't cut any corners, break them or shape them to fit specific holes – we need to work hard to find a way to make them all fit together. If you think about it, this is a wonderful metaphor for our – or any - congregation. Just as every person walks through a different doorway into this sacred space, so too do they bring their unique gifts and experiences with them. Everyone in our congregation is unique and holy. Everyone has a place – if you look for it. It is the differences that make us beautiful and strong that create our kehillah kedosha – our sacred community.

My friends, as we anticipate and celebrate the diversity of our congregation – as we welcome a New Year of blessing and we welcome all who walk through our doorways – as I look out at this holy community, the words: "Barukh Chacham Ha Razim …..- blessed is the One who discerns the secrets of each of our individual hearts."

May the New Year, 5773, be filled with new doorways for each of us. And may we walk through them all together.

AMEN Shanah Tovah