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

Sunday, September 9, 2012

4 weeks of Elul 5772 - #4 Our Physical Selves

4 Weeks of Elul 5772 - Week Four: Our Physical Selves

My Dear Friends,

Without a doubt, my favorite prayer in the morning service is about openings and closings. It states (and I paraphrase): 

“We praise you, Adonai our God, who has created human beings with wisdom – providing openings that open, and closings that close.  It is well known before Your glorious throne if that one of these openings cannot open, or one of these closings cannot close – we would not be able to stand before You.” 

In case you are wondering, yes – you are correct.  This is a prayer about going to the bathroom.  (I love teaching this to 5th graders….They always giggle when I talk about God on the "throne".).  This prayer, called Asher Yatzar, is the one of the 1st blessing we recite when we enter into worship.  It makes sense, doesn’t it?  Judaism acknowledges the fact that we are physical beings – and that our bodies are the vessels in and through which we encounter both the physical and the spiritual realms.  If we are not physically healthy, then we cannot perform Tikkun Olam - the repairing of our world. Our bodies are holy.  The torah teaches that we are created B’tzelem Elohim - in the image of God. In this light, taking care of our bodies is a sacred task.  We also are taught that helping others find health and wellness is a vitally important mitzvah.  The simple act of visiting someone who is ill can make a huge difference in their physical and mental well-being.

During this last week of Elul, I want us to focus on our physical selves.  Again, this is by no means a complete list.  Some questions are repeated from previous years.  Hopefully the questions will provide you with a starting point for examining and improving the relationships in your lives:  As such – I offer the following questions:

  1. Have I taken care of my body through diet and exercise?
  2. Have I prepared medical directives that are clear and unambiguous stating my desires for illness and end-of-life issues?
  3. Have I done all that I could to comfort those around me who are affected by illness – have I performed the mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim – visiting the sick?
  4. Am I aware of the fact that, despite all of the politics that surround health care, the consequences of a failure to find compromise can be life threatening to many?
  5. How much stress is in my life?  Is it affecting the way I live my life?
  6. What bad habits have I cultivated that I need to change?
  7. Have I been avoiding going to the doctor, dentist or other health care professionals due to financial concerns or fear of what I might discover?

As we enter into this last week of Elul, 5772, I hope and pray that the coming High Holydays will be filled with meaning and beauty for you.  Sue, Elana, Ethan and I truly feel blessed to be part of this sacred community.  Again, I welcome your comments and suggestions for additional questions and formats that we can use. If answering any of these questions causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbi Immerman, Cantor Heit and I would welcome the opportunity. Note that all of these materials will also be available in hard copy at the Temple Office. If you know of anyone else who might want to receive these mailings – whether or not they are members of the congregation, contact Susie Sigman at .

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


Rabbi Joseph R. Black


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

September 2012 Bulletin - From Aurora to Elul

My Dear Friends,
I write this article in the aftermath of the Aurora tragedy.  In the days following the shooting, the world press took the spiritual, physical and emotional pulse of our community.  I was contacted by multiple new sources and asked 2 basic questions.  The first question was:
Where was God in this tragedy?
My answer was straightforward and simple.  God had nothing to do with the tragedy. God was in the response to tragedy. God was present in the acts of heroism, comfort and consolation that we witnessed.  God was in heroism of the police officers, EMT’s, ambulance drivers, medical professionals, 911 Emergency personnel and everyone else who answered the call to help.  God was in the acts of those who risked and, in a few occasions, lost their lives in order to save others.

The second question was always some form of:   
What should the religious response be to terror?
Again, my response was simple and straightforward:  The religious response to terror can best be found within the context of community. By coming together – to pray and to grieve, to comfort and console one another we were bringing God into our lives.
Soon we will be entering into a new year.  When we gather together at Temple for High Holy Day services, we are doing more than simply performing an age-old ritual.  We are also affirming the importance and centrality of creating and celebrating sacred community.  Whether we are at “Rosh HaShanah Unplugged,” or in our sanctuary service, or at Shwayder camp, the simple act of coming together as a community strengthens our souls and our congregation.  This year, in the shadow of the events in Aurora, our need to pray, to celebrate and experience community is all the more intense.
The sounding of the shofar is a clarion call for us to support one another – in times of difficulty and in times of joy.  Each note offers us an opportunity to engage in the process of Cheshbon HaNefesh examining ourselves and our souls in the context of our community.  If it has been a while since you’ve been in Temple – it doesn’t matter:  we want to welcome you home.  If you are new to our congregation – now is the perfect time to find your place.  We need and want your presence.

I look forward to worshipping together very soon.
Sue, Ethan and Elana join me in wishing you all a Shanah Tovah U’metukah – a good and sweet new year.
Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Sunday, September 2, 2012

4 Weeks of Elul 5772 #3 Personal/Professional Relationships

Four Weeks of Elul 5772
Week three: Personal and Professional Relationships

Dear Friends,

Like many of you last week, I watched several hours of coverage from the Republican national convention.  While the speakers and pageantry were effective in presenting the positions and platforms of the party; while the pageantry and excitement that the convention created were palpable – there was one aspect of the convention that was disturbing to me.  This had nothing to do with political positions, but rather the way in which ad hominum attacks were cavalierly delivered from the podium and in the announcer’s booth - by politicians and pundits alike.  I have no illusions that next week’s Democratic convention will be any different.

I fear that our political process and the multi-layered campaigns of persuasion and manipulation that accompany it are coming dangerously close to dehumanizing candidates and destroying relationships.  This makes it difficult, once the elections are over and the work of governing begins, for elected officials to work together in the aftermath of “scorch and burn” political campaigns.  The past several years of gridlock in Washington – and here in Colorado, for that matter - can be seen as but one example of the dangers of allowing the passions of the campaign to enter into the process of governing.

I feel strongly that our nation needs to learn how to build relationships.  We need to understand that intellectual disagreement is not a stumbling block to human interaction. But it is not only in the political arena that we experience these types of impediments to healthy relationships.  How many times over the course of the past year have you found yourself losing patience and cutting off personal relationships with others whose beliefs or opinions are different than your own?

The month of Elul provides us with opportunity to reflect on every aspect of our lives as we prepare in enter into the Yamim Noraim – the days of Awe.  In particular, as we engage in the process of Chesbon Ha-nefesh­ – taking an inventory of our souls – all too often, when we think about our relationships with family, friends and co-workers we realize that we may have not lived up to our highest potential for good.  It is sometimes easy to take out our frustrations, fears and anger on those who are closest to us.  They are convenient targets and we know that we will be forgiven for momentary lapses.  And yet, each time that we fail to see the holiness in those around us – whether at home, at work, or in the community, we damage the relationships that make life worth living.
Our tradition teaches that on Yom Kippur the sins we have committed against God will be forgiven if we are truly repentant. The sins we commit against others, however, cannot be forgiven unless and until we have asked those whom we have wronged to forgive us.   In many ways, this is one of the most difficult aspects of Cheshbon Ha-nefesh.  It means that we have to take risks by reaching out to others.  We may encounter resistance, anger, or resentment.  Sometimes it is impossible to reach out to others – and yet, it is our duty to do all that we can to assess whether or not reconciliation is possible.  If there is a slightest hope – then we need to try – even if we fail.

In the same vein, when others come to us with a pure heart to ask for our forgiveness, our tradition teaches that we are obligated to forgive them.  Sometimes granting pardon is even harder than asking for forgiveness.  And, of course, there are some actions which are too difficult to forgive.  Nonetheless, if we are asked for forgiveness, we need to try our best to see these requests as opportunities to bring holiness into the world.

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


1.      How many times in the past year have I taken the love and friendship that others offer me for granted?

2.      Are there people I have wronged that I need to ask to forgive me?

3.      Will I be able to forgive those who come to me to ask for my forgiveness?

4.      Have I taken part in any business or personal transactions this past year that were against my religious, moral or ethical principles?

5.      Have I taken time recently to let the most important people in my life know how much I care about them?

6.      Have I allowed politics to come in the way of relationships?

7.      Have I shut out the pain of others in other parts of the world?  In my country?  My City?  My congregation?  My neighborhood?  My family? 

Again, I welcome your comments and suggestions for additional questions and formats that we can use.   If answering them causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbi Immerman, Cantor Heit and I would welcome the opportunity.  Note that all of these materials will also be available in hard copy at the Temple Office. If you know of anyone else who might want to receive these mailings – whether or not they are members of the congregation, contact Susie Sigman at .


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


Rabbi Joe Black