Saturday, December 14, 2013

A New King: Forgetfulness and Gun Violence

December 14, 2013

My Dear Friends,

I write this post just before sunset on a beautiful Shabbat afternoon in San Diego.  I am attending the Biennial Convention of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Women for Reform Judaism, along with about 14 other members and staff of Temple Emanuel.   There are approximately 5,000 delegates from all over the world attending this Biennial. It has been an amazing experience up until now and I will be writing more about it in future blog posts and sermons.  This afternoon, however, my thoughts are focused on the fact that, once again, our beloved city of Denver has become the focus of world attention with the occurrence of yet another act of gun violence.

Normally, I refrain from writing and posting Blogs on Shabbat.  Since I was unable to be with the congregation last night and this morning, I now feel a need to share my thoughts with you.

This morning, we finished reading the book of  Bereshit (Genesis).  This afternoon and throughout the week to come we will begin a new chapter of Torah - Shemot (Exodus).  In Shemot 1:8 we find the following:

Vayakam Melech Chadash al Mitrayim asher lo yada et Yosef
A new king rose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.

The rabbis ask a question:  "How long did it take until the memory of Joseph was forgotten?"  Some say that it took an entire generation, others say that it was only a few years.  But there is one Midrash that states that the legacy of Joseph only lasted for a short while - during the 7 years of famine.  In other words, it wasn't a new Pharaoh at all - it was the same leader who, once Joseph's services were no longer needed, cast him and his memory aside.  Joseph's legacy of planning for the future - of caring for the long-term vision of Egypt's survival - was burdensome and, as such,  replaced with the old system of profligate spending and irresponsible governance that preceded Pharaoh's dreams of famine and plenty.  This, in turn, led to the enslavement of the Children of Israel.

How could Pharaoh not remember all of the good that Joseph had brought to Egypt?  Why would he see the Children of Israel as a threat and not an asset?  The answer lies in the fact that society tends to reject new thinking until there is no other choice.  Unless and until we are confronted with a crisis and change becomes the only route we can follow, our instincts are to follow the path of least resistance.   All too often, when an immediate crisis is over, the need for urgent change falls away - at least until the next crisis arises.

What relevance does this have to the horrible acts of violence that took place at Arapahoe High School yesterday?  To start with, this event occurred on the one year anniversary of the school shootings in Newtown Connecticut.  If you recall, in the immediate aftermath of that horrible tragedy, there was a call for action against gun violence.  The horror we all felt as we helplessly watched the heart wrenching stories of death, destruction and heroism that took place at the Sandy Hook Elementary school (especially in light of the memory of Aurora) caused us to search deep in our souls and try to comprehend the root causes of violence.  Our state Legislature passed laws that called for stricter controls on firearms.  And then, as our passions cooled and attention was focused elsewhere, opponents of gun control took action.  They were vituperative and effective.  The smear campaigns against vulnerable legislators were swift and unyielding.  The backers of  recall campaigns against those who supported ANY limits on firearms put these elected officials in their sights, took aim and fired.  They flexed their muscles and took no prisoners.  The horrific images of Sandy Hook and Aurora were replaced by the victory dances of the Gun Lobby.  The rhetoric became increasingly more defamatory.  The polarization grew.  And nothing was changed.

So today, here we sit - feeling the pain of yet another senseless act of violence inflicted upon and by our children.  We put aside the pain of the recent past in favor of political posturing and, once again, we find ourselves replaying the tapes and reliving the grief that accompanies tragedy.

Vayakam Melech Chadash al Mitrayim asher lo yada et Yosef
A new king rose over Egypt who did not know Joseph

The time has come for us to put aside our selective memories and work - TOGETHER - from all sides - to find a way to address this epidemic of violence.  Legislation is not the only answer; but neither is it the problem.  Better access to mental health services that will both provide help to those who are suffering and identify potential problems before they occur is yet another path that must be pursued.  We need to bring ll sides to the table to stop the killing.  Unless and until we admit the fact that we are in a crisis,  every moment that we delay brings the next senseless tragedy one step closer.

Pray for the families of the children affected by this most recent tragedy.  But, at the same time, pray that we might remember how we feel right now, and use that memory to affect real change.
Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Joe Black

Saturday, November 30, 2013

My Remarks From the 2013 "Thanksgivukah" Interfaith Service at Temple Emanuel

Denver Thanksgiving Interfaith Service
November 28, 2013
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO.
Here’s an old story:
A mother asked her son: “Johnny, what did you learn today in Religious School?”
Johnny: “I learned how, when the Israelites came to the shores of the Sea of Reeds they saw that Pharaoh’s army was closing in on them. So Moses radioed for reinforcements and God sent a fleet of Drones who attacked the Egyptian army. That gave the Israelites time to build a pontoon bridge and they crossed the Sea of Reeds. As soon as they crossed the sea, the Egyptians followed after them, so Moses and the Israelites blew up the bridge and the Egyptians sank to the bottom.”
Johnny’s mom looked at her son and asked: “Johnny, is that REALLY what they taught you?”
“Well, not, exactly, but if I told you what they really taught me, you’d never believe it!”
The Story of Chanukah is about a miracle – most of us know about it: It’s the story of how the oil in the Temple that was supposed to be enough to burn for one day, lasted for eight days. Truth be told, it’s not the most impressive of miracles. I mean, think about it:
· Compared to the parting of the red sea
· Compared changing water into wine (in the Christian Bible)
· Compared to splitting the moon in two (in the Koran)
It's pretty meek......
And yet – the story of the miracle of the oil is an essential element of the Chanukah story. I’ll come back to that in a bit, but first, this morning we have come together to acknowledge and celebrate a remarkable and rare event – the convergence of the quintessentially American Holiday of Thanksgiving and the Jewish Festival of Hanukah. The last time the two holidays fell on the same date was in 1888. The next time won’t be for another 79,000 years.
Now I could take the time to explain how the peculiarities of the Jewish and Gregorian Calendars work and why this anomaly has occurred on this year in particular – but I don’t want to bore you. And besides, you can always Google it on your own time – so I won’t - except to say: This is it, my friends. We will never see it again. Live it up!
Actually –if we look at the historical record found in the book of Maccabees, there is another reason that we celebrate the festival of Chanukah for 8 days besides the story of the oil. The Maccabees were a small band of fighters from the ancient city of Modin (a city that today has been reborn as a thriving bedroom community in Israel equidistant between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.) These brave fighters who, under the leadership of Judah - son of Mattithias, defeated the Hellenized Assyrians in 160 BCE . They marched into Jerusalem and when they came into holy the Temple they found it desecrated by Pagan statues and Greek gods. They rededicated the Temple and since it had been several years since anyone was able to offer sacrifices, they decided to celebrate the 8 day festival of Sukkot – or Tabernacles –in the Winter month of Kislev. Sukkot was the grandest and most joyous of the festivals. So Hanukah is really sukkot in winter.
The story of the oil that lasted 8 days came later – much later – in Jewish history.
Now let’s turn to Thanksgiving. When the Pilgrims came to America they saw themselves as the “New Israelites” - escaping from religious persecution in England. For the Pilgrims, England was their Egypt, and Plymouth Rock was the first step into their new Promised Land. They survived the winter, planted and harvested their first crops and gave thanks for the bounty given to them by God. In creating the holiday of Thanksgiving, like the Maccabees 2000 years earlier, the Pilgrims looked into the Bible and adapted the harvest festival of Sukkot as a time for giving thanks to God.
So, setting the calendar aside for a moment, the combination of these two festivals isn’t that unusual after all. Both have their roots in Biblical tradition. Both have important Universal messages that are essential for all of us to hear – and it’s these messages that I want to focus on this morning.
There’s a story from Jewish tradition that comes from the legendary community of Chelm. Now, for those of you who don’t know about Chelm – let me explain. Chelm is no ordinary city. The Chelmites, we are told, were clueless, not too bright and absolutely unaware of the world around them. They had their own peculiar kind of logic – that made perfect sense to them – but to everyone else, they were a mystery. Here is a story from the Wise Men of Chelm:
A certain Wise Man of Chelm journeyed to the city of Minsk and obtained lodging at a local inn. Seeing a stranger, the innkeeper tried to entertain him. He put the following riddle to the Chelmite: "Who is it that is my father's son, yet he is not my brother?"The Chelmite racked his brain for the answer, but in vain.
"I Give up!" he said finally. "Now tell me, who is it?"
"Why it’s me!" cried out the innkeeper triumphantly!
The Sage of Chelm was amazed by the cleverness of the riddle, and when he returned home, he lost no time in assembling all of the other Wise Men.
"My masters," he began gravely, stroking his long beard. I am going to ask you a riddle and see if you can answer it: Who is it that is my father's son, yet he's not my brother?"
The Sages of Chelm were greatly perplexed. They thought and thought and finally said:
"We Give up. Tell us, Who is it?"
"He is the innkeeper of Minsk!" cried the sage, triumphantly!
I love that story. We laugh at the foolishness of the Chelmite, but the truth is, oftentimes we are just like our wise man: we fail to see that it is us – as individuals and as a community - who are the central players in the riddles and the problems that life poses to us all.
In just a few hours, we will gather around our tables with Friends and family and give thanks for the bounty that God has bestowed upon us. Truly we are blessed. Most of us here this evening have food on our tables and clothing on our backs. We have loved ones who share our lives and homes that provide us with shelter. Most of us have meaningful work which helps us to support ourselves and our families. Giving thanks to God for all the good that has been bestowed upon us makes sense at this holiday season. But is it enough? Can we, as people of faith, be satisfied merely with thanking God for our lot in life, or is there more that we must do?
On Thanksgiving, we rejoice in our blessings and bounty. But if all that we do is rejoiceand give thanks – we truly have missed an important truth: The message that Thanksgiving must be combined with reaching out beyond ourselves if it is to have any meaning whatsoever.
The society in which we live - with all its goodness, has a dark side as well. It’s very easy, in our culture of consumption, to simultaneously give thanks for what we have, and turn our backs to those around us who, for whatever reasons, do not or cannot share in our bounty. And this is compounded by the fact that there is a subtle – and sometimes notso subtle message we receive when we look at those less fortunate than ourselves and find ourselves slipping into the cadence of condemnation that fills our airwaves, our inboxes and our subconscious.
Especially at this point in our history – this time of economic and political instability- when so many of our friends, neighbors, fellow congregants and family are facing job and food insecurity, health care confusion, and a host of other ills brought about by our modern world.
Especially at this difficult time when, too many people, instead of coming together to find ways to reach out and help – are closing ranks; casting aspersions; looking for scapegoats; shaming and blaming the most vulnerable elements of society.
We live in a time of extreme polarization.
We live in a world and a nation where enormous amounts of wealth and power lie in the hands of a tiny fraction of the population. The inequities and imbalances within our society are so vast that they hearken back to an earlier and darker time in world history.
As people of faith we are both commanded and compelled to give thanks for the blessings and work to change the injustice in our society. This is our prophetic heritage. The great teacher and rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote 50 years ago of what he called the “theology of common deed.” This means that
“….. God is concerned with everydayness, with the (seeming) trivialities of life...and that the outcry of the poor is an outcry of pain in which the sickness of our total society comes to expression... Supersonic planes and substandard housing, esoteric science and vulgar ethics; an elite of highly specialized experts and a mass of illiterate and unprepared laborers...”[1]
Religion becomes a mockery, he reminds us, if we remain callous to these everyday ironies and inequities with which we are confronted.
My friends, our prayers of thanksgiving cannot be fully realized if we are only giving thanks for what we have- and not working to make a change. If we cannot see ourselves in the suffering of others, then we cannot truly give thanks.
Like our Wise Man of Chelm – we must see that is each of us who is required to take our place in helping to solve the riddle of life.
This morning we have come together to give thanks. Today we come together to acknowledge that there is work that is yet to be done. But we also are here to acknowledge that we need help – God’s help – in finding the paths, the prayers and the strength to fill the voids that we see around us.
So now, let’s get back to the story of the oil that lasted 8 days. As I said at the beginning of my words, it’s not clear whether or not this story is historically verifiable. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter. There’s one aspect of this narrative that I find compelling. Think about it: nobody was expecting a miracle when the lamps were lit in the Temple. They expected the oil to burn until it was depleted. But it kept on burning. It took a while before the Maccabees and the priests in the Temple realized that something new and unusual was happening – right before their eyes. They had to watch that flame. They had to open up their eyes and see it burning and burning. No, it wasn’t a huge miracle. It took time to unfold in front of them. But when it did, they knew that they were in the presence of something remarkable.
Right now, in this sanctuary filled to the brim with pilgrims from many different traditions, we too could be witnessing something wondrous happening. Not only because of the uniqueness of the confluence of holidays – but because of the holiness and the potential within all of us who are here. Maybe this morning, we can light a flame within ourselves. Maybe we can make a pledge – to give of ourselves to make our congregations, our communities, our cities, our nation –our world – just a little bit better. Then we can truly celebrate our festival of Thanksgiving.

[1] Adapted from "The White Man on Trial," published in a collection of Heschel's essays, The Insecurity of Freedom[Farrar Straus, 1996; paper, Schocken, 1972], pp. 101-102

Saturday, November 23, 2013

50 Years After the Kennedy Assassination

50 Years after the JFK Assassination
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO
November 22, 2013
My Dear Friends,
I want to begin with one of my favorite pieces of Torah:
Genesis 37:14
One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem, Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem,  Come, I will send you to them.”  He answered, “I am ready.”  And he said to him, Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.”  So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
When Joseph reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields,  The man asked him, “what are you looking for?”  He answered, “I am looking for my brothers.  Could you tell me where they are pasturing?”  The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say:  Let us go to Dothan.”  So Joseph flowed his brothers and found them at Dothan.

I love this text because it teaches a wonderful lesson.  Joseph is going down to find his brothers.  As we read the story, we know what is going to happen next:  We know that as soon as his brothers see him, they’re going to throw him into a pit, tear up his multi-colored cloak, sell him into slavery, and set in motion the story that ends up with Joseph’s ascension to power in Egypt, reuniting with his family, causing them all to move to Egypt, followed by a New King arising over Egypt who will enslave the Israelites– leading up- to Moses, the burning bush, the ten plagues, the Exodus from Egypt and finally – to the Ten Commandments at Mt Sinai.

Quite a narrative –
a lot depends on Joseph finding his brothers, doesn’t it? 
But it almost doesn’t happen!
Were it not for this strange man that Joseph encountered,  none of us would be here.  The world would have been a radically different place. 
Our text is playing with us:

When Joseph reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields,  The man asked him, “what are you looking for?”  He answered, “I am looking for my brothers.  Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” 

What if this man in the text had said:  “How should I know?”  Or what if he gave him bad directions?  Or what if Joseph had acted like most men and refused to ask for directions?
Why is it even necessary to have this little digression in the text?  Why doesn’t the text say,  Joseph went down to Shechem, found his brothers and they through him in the pit?
The story would have worked just as well, wouldn’t it?

No, it wouldn’t.  You see, that man was essential to the story.  He is there to teach us something – his job is to show us that one person – one chance encounter – one split second - can change history.

As we all know – today marks the 50th anniversary of the Assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas’ TX. In the blink of an eye - a  split second, - the amount of time it took for Lee Harvey Oswald to pull the trigger on his 6.5 mm Carcano carbine rifle from the window of the Texas book depository – our entire world changed. Without a doubt, history was irrevocably transformed on that November afternoon in 1963.  So many people in this chapel tonight remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated.  A colleague recently remarked that it has become so much a part of the ethos of our nation, that she feels like she remembers it herself – even though she wasn’t even born yet.  I was only 4 years old at the time, yet I clearly remember the sight and sound of my parents’ sobs as they sat around our Black and White Television set watching the news unfold.

Volumes have been written about the Kennedy assassination.  We will never know what the legacy of our 35th president might have been if he had not been murdered on that day.  And yet, we also know that just as his election symbolized a sense of hope for an entire generation, his murder marked a turning point in our confidence as a nation.  Five years after the death of JFK, we also witnessed the public killings of Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.   With each successive violent act, our nation realized that hope and history are intertwined with the vicissitudes and randomness of the acts of individuals. On November 4th, 1995 the State of Israel came to a similar realization as a Jewish assassin named Yigal Amir gunned down Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

Many of you may have seen the powerful video produced by the Anti Defamation League in honor of their 100th Anniversary.  Entitled, “Imagine a World Without Hate,” it begins with the strains of John Lennon’s anthem “Imagine.”  It is then followed with imaginary headlines from newspapers showing Anne Frank, Rabin,  JFK, Dr. King and other victims of hatred – living into 80’s and 90’s and documenting all of their achievements throughout their long lives….. 

One person can make a difference.  Whether that person is a galvanizing and charismatic leader or a madman with a rifle, our actions – be they innocent or pre-meditated – can and do change history. 

But it is not only our actions that bring about change.  Sometimes our inactions can speak volumes as well.  In a recent blog post, my colleague, Rabbi Seth Limmer[i]:  writes that parashat Vayeishev contains another story of how one person can make a difference – not by what he or she does, but by what he or she doesn’t do.  He writes about how young Joseph, in the beginning of our story, brags to his brothers about his dreams of one day ruling over them.  The brothers’ anger at Joseph leads them to hate him and to concoct a scheme to get rid of him.  In Genesis 37:11 we read that “…[Joseph’s] brothers became jealous of him, and his father observed the matter.”  The words, “Jacob observed the matter…” seem somewhat innocuous at first glance, and yet, if we really explore them in the context of the story, there is a deeper, and perhaps more tragic aspect to them.  Think about it:  If Jacob knew about the hatred between Joseph and the rest of his sons, why didn’t he intervene?  And why did he send him out to meet them – putting him in harm’s way? 

Rabbi Limmer indicts Jacob for not preventing the potential fratricide between Joseph and his brothers.  Had he been more attentive, he might have thought twice about sending his favored son out to see his brothers and setting in motion all of the events that followed.

Our task, as we commemorate this solemn anniversary, is to look deep inside ourselves and our souls and ask ourselves if we are prepared to accept the fact that each of us can make a difference – maybe not in a global sense, but certainly within the context of our families our community and our own growth.

Next week we will gather around our Tables surrounded by family and friends to give thanks for the bounty that God has given us.   I believe that one of the key messages of Thanksgiving is to remember that we are essential to one another – that we can impact one another – with a desire to help – to change things – to renew our relationships, our commitments, our resources – both physical and spiritual – and transform the very essence of the world in which we live.

It doesn’t take much. 

  • Sometimes all it takes is to turn to the people we love – and tell them that we love them.
  • Sometimes all it takes is a smile, a caring hand, a sympathetic ear.
  • Sometimes it requires that we speak up in the face of injustice
  • Sometimes it requires that we work to support the causes and organizations we believe in
  • Sometimes it takes all of our strength and all of our patience –
  • Sometimes it only takes a moment to remind us that every person in this room – and every person we meet on the street – is created in the image of God.  And when we see that – we realize that all of us are holy vessels.
I want to conclude tonight with the words of John F Kennedy’s favorite poet, Robert Frost – a poem that was read at his funeral service 50 years ago.  This poem that captures the beauty of a single moment – frozen in time  - also reminds us of that we have a responsibility to work to make the world a better place – what we, in our tradition call Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.  We have “Miles to go” before we sleep.  Let us embrace and accept the fact that we all have the ability and the responsibility to change the world.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost 1874–1963
Whose woods these are I think I know.  
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow.  

My little horse must think it queer  
To stop without a farmhouse near  
Between the woods and frozen lake  
The darkest evening of the year.  

He gives his harness bells a shake  
To ask if there is some mistake.  
The only other sound’s the sweep  
Of easy wind and downy flake.  

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.  
But I have promises to keep,  
And miles to go before I sleep,  
And miles to go before I sleep.


Friday, October 11, 2013

A Blessing for New Members of our Congregation

Tonight, at our Erev Shabbat services, our congregation will be welcoming and celebrating new member households who have become part of the Temple Emanuel family over the past year. We have been blessed with significant growth leading up to and following the High Holy Days.  Our Clergy staff has been thinking about creative and meaningful ways to bring these new members into our community.  We decided that, in order to truly represent the Brit - the sacred partnership that is inherent to joining a synagogue - our ritual needed to be more than simply the Clergy extending a blessing - it had to come from within the entirety of the congregation:  Clergy, new members and current members should all participate in the blessing  together.  Here is what we came up with:

Our God and God of all people.  We thank you for the gift of partnerships that connect us to You through the blessing of shared experience.  Tonight our sanctuary is filled with these new members of our congregation. We ask your blessing on these men, women and children as they become part of our lives – and we become part of theirs. Show them the path to meaningful involvement and life-changing connection as we join together to make our congregation more complete.

New Members rise as they are able and recite:
We give thanks for the opportunity to become a part of this congregation.  May our involvement bring us friendship, meaning and purpose.   We are committed to help build this sacred community.  

Current Members rise as they are able and recite:
We are thankful for the new perspectives and spiritual gifts you bring.  May we learn from and strengthen one another.  Together let us share our joys and find comfort in times of sorrow.  We welcome you with excitement and commitment.

Baruch Atah Adonah, Eloheynu Melech Ha Olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, V’tzivanu livnot kehillot kedoshot
We Praise You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us through the commandments and commands us to build sacred communites.

Clergy offers Priestly Blessing

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Bye Bye Booby Beaver (Herb Graham z"l)

I wrote this short eulogy for a memorial service  that took place in Chicago today for Herb Graham - a man with whom I was fortunate enough to work when I was my kids' age. In addition to being the voice of United Airlines, Sears, Statefarm Insurance and the Obama Campaign, he also donated his incredible talents for community service. Many of us who grew up in Chicago remember him as the voice of Booby Beaver on the CBS television program, The Magic Door. That was where I met him........ Here is one of his obituaries from the Chicago Sun Times.
Herb Graham was a remarkable man - in so many ways. We all remember the tenor of his voice - that remarkable instrument that could inspire you with its gravitas, soothe you with its smoothness or convince you to vote for any candidate. But Herb was more than a voice. His talent was a reflection of the depth of his soul, not the vibration of his vocal chords.
I only knew Herb for a short time - 3 years - when, as a college student, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime to play the role of Tiny Tov on the WBBM television show, "The Magic Door." Herb was the voice of Booby Beaver - a loveable, mischievous rodent puppet who served as a center of chaos in almost every episode. Herb was one member of a remarkable cast of professional actors, puppeteers and voice over artists who basically donated their time to this long-running Chicago TV institution. I was the young kid with a guitar and green tights who was dropped in their midst.
What I remember most about Herb was his calming presence and his wicked sense of humor. He was incredibly supportive of me. From day one, he welcomed me, calmed my nerves and taught me how to be a professional.
One of the most powerful memories I have is how, during the run-through rehearsals that would take place at the beginning of each taping of the show, Herb and other cast members would riff on the script. You cannot imagine the liberties that they would take with their lines. WE would laugh until we cried. Now remember - I not only played the role of Tiny Tov - I grew up watching him and the Magic Door as a young child in Chicago. Hearing Herb spewing raunchy double entendres in Booby's voice during rehearsals was amazing.
I never heard him say a negative word about anyone. Herb Graham made me feel like part of a family - and this is truly who we were.
In Jewish tradition, when someone has died we say: 'Zaycher Tzaddik Livracha" - may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.
Shalom Herb - you will be missed!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Noach and the Government Shutdown

This sermon evolved from a discussion on the Central Conference of American Rabbis Facebook page - where several colleagues discussed how to approach preaching about the current crisis in Washington vis-a-vis the weekly parasha.  I want to especially thank Rabbis Tom Albert and Bruce Block for their insights.
Noach and the Government Shutdown
October 4, 2013 – 1 Cheshvan, 5774
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel - Denver, CO
Shabbat Shalom!

In this week’s torah portion we read two powerful stories:

·        The generation of the flood

·        The Tower of Babel.

Both of these stories are well known – and yet – when we look at them closely, we find that they are not as simple as one might think.

The story of the Flood is about a generation that has become so corrupted that God decides that it must be entirely wiped out.  Only one man and his family – Noah – are righteous enough to be saved and they all are chosen not only to preserve their own lives, but to ensure that all of creation will be able to survive and continue on after the end of the deluge.  Noah builds an ark, the animals board the ark in pairs, the rains come and eventually they land on the top of Mt. Ararat and the world begins anew.

The story of the Tower of Babel tell of how, after the Flood, the people decided to build a tower out of bricks that would extend up to heaven. God, seeing the people build the tower, frustrated their plans by confusing their speech, causing each person to speak a different language. Unable to understand each other, the people abandoned the tower and scattered (Genesis 11:1-9).

As you can imagine, the Rabbis wrote many commentaries and  midrashim about the stories of the flood and the tower of Babel.

One of the main commentaries about the story of the flood revolved around the Character of Noah. 

In describing Noah, the text says that he was an Ish Tzaddik - Tamim Hay b’dorotav a righteous man – compared to those of his own generation.  Those words:  Tamim Haya B’dorotav – literally translated mean that he was straightforward in his own generation

The Talmud teaches that Noah was a righteous man – but he only saw what he wanted to see at the time.  He was not a person of vision.

In the Zohar, we find that when Noah emerged from the Ark – he cried out to God:  “How could you have done this?”

God answers:  “Now you’re crying?  Where were you when I told you that I was going to destroy the world?  Too little too late!”

All too often, we tend to put on blinders when we see the world around us – we see only what we want to see – and block out the things that bother us.  Noah chose not to the think about the consequences of what God was planning to do to the world – he only thought about saving his own life and that of his family.  The rabbis contrast him to Abraham who argued with God – who bargained with God when he heard about the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The story of the tower of Babel has a lot to teach us about how we see the world around us as well. According to a classical Midrash, the Tower was of such great height that it took a person a year to climb from the base up to the top. Every brick that was baked on the ground and brought to the top of the Tower was, therefore, considered extremely valuable—it represented a huge investment in energy, time and resources. As the Tower grew taller, according to the midrash, its builders began to see bricks as more precious than people. "If a person fell and died they paid no attention, but if a brick fell they sat and wept, saying, 'Woe upon us! Where will we get another to replace it?'" (Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer 24:7).

I can’t help but apply some of the lessons that we learn from reading this week’s torah portion to the current crisis that is unfolding in front of us in our nation’s capital.  And, I want to say from the start, I have a strong opinion about this.  I usually try to stay away from topics that some might perceive as political or partisan.  Not tonight.   I do not believe that this is a political sermon – it is a sermon about morality, sanity and perspective.  Tonight I want to speak about what is right and what is wrong and how a small minority of extremists in our Government are trying to force their worldview on our nation, and, in the process are inflicting tremendous harm on its citizens.

Unlike Noah who said nothing, I cannot stand idly by and remain silent when I perceive the flood of political fanaticism hijacking our governmental process.  Under the guise of self-righteous indignation, a small group of extremist legislators are attempting to undo a program designed to provide access to health-care to all and level the playing field of insurance coverage. Is it a perfect law?  Of course not.  Is it the law of the land?  Absolutely.  42 attempts to defeat it in congress have not prevailed.  The Supreme Court has upheld its legality.  And yet, this small group of radicals has decided that, for the sake of their own ideological purity they are willing to bring the Government crashing down – no matter the consequences.  Like children throwing a temper tantrum in the supermarket when they don’t get what they want, they refuse to bow to reason and have dug in their heels despite the tremendous damage they are inflicting on hundreds of thousands of individuals and communities who are suffering as a result of their power-grabbing petulance.

Noah was willing to close the doors of the ark to those who were going to suffer.  For this, he was rebuked by our tradition.  I believe that, imperfect as the current law might be, the vision of affordable health care for all that it champions is a basic human right.  To portray it as anything else is criminal.

Noah’s self-absorption, the Midrash teaches, prohibited him from seeing the suffering of humanity as they faced the onset of the flood.  So too, these legislators are willing to ignore the impact of their actions on our nation.

In the story of the Tower of Babel, the message is just as clear.  The builders of the Tower could only see the value of the bricks they had created.  Human life meant less to them than material gain.  Our legislators see that they are not only playing with numbers in the midst of their jockeying for power; they must be held accountable.  The programs and policies they are trying to undo are designed to help the weakest and most vulnerable populations in our society.   There are lives in the balance here.

Our tradition has a lot to say about placing a love of material objects, money and power ahead of human life.  We call it idolatry.  It was for this reason that the Tower of Babel had to be destroyed.  My prayer on this Shabbat is that cooler and saner heads in Washington will soon prevail and that our Government will be able to find a way to work for, rather than against its citizens.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Kol Nidre, 5774 - Our Failures

Kol Nidre 5774/2013 – Our Failures

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Temple Emanuel – Denver Colorado

My Dear Friends,

Several years ago, the NY Times printed the following transcript of an ACTUAL radio conversation between a U.S. naval ship and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland.

Canadians: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Americans: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.


Canadians: This is a lighthouse.  Your call[1].

None of us would argue with the laws of physics.  You can’t move an immovable object.  Sometimes we need to acknowledge that there are things in our lives that are out of our control.  Yet all too often we enage in acts of self-delusion – we try to convince ourselves that we are immune from the realities of everyday life.  We don’t like to be wrong – we’re stubborn like that.  And yet, the truth is we are here tonight  - on this Kol Nidre eve – because we know that we are not perfect.  We do make mistakes – we have failed, we have missed the mark set before us.

At the beginning of this service, we heard Cantor Heit chant the hauntingly beautiful Kol Nidre.  This prayer speaks about our failures – our inability to carry out the commitments that we all take on ourselves.  And so – this is why we come here tonight - both out of habit and out of a compulsion to acknowledge our weaknesses, our imperfections and our failures.

Tonight, I want to talk about failure.  All of us fail – even though we don’t like to admit it.  We fail in our jobs, our relationships, our goals and visions for how we want to see ourselves.  We fail our spouses, our children, our parents and our friends.  Most of all, we fail ourselves.  To be human is to fail.  Not all of our failures are catastrophic, some aren’t even noticeable – but they are very real, nonetheless.

Failure is an integral part of our humanity – but I believe that it goes beyond our mortal selves – for even God fails.

Think about it: 

·        In the book of Genesis – there are two creation stories – one which details each day of creation and one that tells the story of the Garden of Eden.  But then, God sees the evil in the world and realizes that the first attempt was a failure.  Humanity is not following the path set before it.  And so God begins again – first with the flood, and then again with the Tower of Babel.  On two occasions, Moses is informed that God wants to destroy the Israelites after some spectacular failures – but Moses prevents this from happening.

·        In the Hindu faith – one of the primary manifestations of the god Shiva is that of destroyer of the world - clearing it of imperfections – so it can be recreated again.

·        In Christianity – Jesus never finishes his task of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth – his death  - his failure to deliver – becomes the basis of redemption

·        In Greek mythology – the gods are constantly battling one another for dominance….some win and some fail.

If you look at every major character in the Bible – most of them have spectacular failures:

·        Adam and Eve fail God’s test and are expelled from the Garden of Eden

·        Moses fails to heed God’s command and is prohibited from entering into the Promised Land.

·        Abraham lies about Sarah in Egypt and almost sacrifices his son on Mt Moriah

·        Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt

·        Isaac is deceived by Rebekah in order that Jacob might get the birthright over Esau

·        Jacob is deceived by his sons when they tell him that Joseph is dead

·        Joseph goes through a series of failures when he incurs the wrath of his brothers, is sold into slavery and then thrown into jail.

·        King David fails when he seduces Bath Sheba and has her husband killed

·        The list goes on and on……

If we look at our national heroes, we see a similar pattern:

·        Abraham Lincoln lost election after election before he finally became our sixteenth president

·        Susan B Anthony failed time and again as she pushed for the right for women to vote

·        Steve Jobs, Theodor Herzl, Albert Einstein, Golda Meir and so many other important figures of the past century failed spectacularly at some point in their lives,

And of course – over the past decades we have seen failures of epic proportion in our leaders:  From Nixon to Clinton, Weiner to Spitzer – the list goes on.

As a nation – we are obsessed with failure.    Stories of celebrities acting out are front page news – they sell magazines and boost the ratings of television programs.   One only need to see the amount of coverage Miley Cyrus and George Zimmerman have received in recent days – and how that coverage has overshadowed important world events - to see that this is true.

Why are we so obsessed with the missteps of our celebrities and leaders?  I believe it is because we like to be distracted - and in no small way - we like to remind ourselves that, no matter how famous, successful or wealthy someone is – they fail just like we do.

Unless and until we spend time with ourselves- confronting the agonies of our failures- we cannot comprehend or fully experience what it means to be truly alive.  Our failures and flaws – and the way we deal with them – are not fatal – rather they are  tests of our own humanity.  And we are being tested all the time:

·        The everyday tests of life are not graded in order to determine whether we pass or fail. 

·        The everyday tests of life are not about reward or punishment, they are about character.

·        The everyday tests of life are cumulative. They determine our personality, our morality, our humanity.  Each test that we face paves the way for the next one and the next and the next…. And it is only through the passage of time that we can measure their impact upon us.

As we go through our daily lives we constantly make choices about the way that we interact with others and conduct our daily affairs.   Sometimes the tests are very simple:

·        Do we say hello to our neighbors as we leave for work?

·        Do we return the extra change that the cashier has given us by mistake?

·        Do we pay full attention to the person sitting in front of us -  when what we really are thinking about is what we are going to have for lunch in 10 minutes?

·        Do we rush through the yellow light even though we could have stopped?

Sometimes, the tests are more difficult:

·        Do we declare to the IRS that extra income we received by selling our car for cash?

·        Do we avoid making that phone call to our sick friend?

·        Do we cut corners in our work or scrimp or reduce the quality of our output to make a few extra dollars?

Too many of us have lost track of this essential fact.   Ours is a society that values results over reason, profit over potential and winning over everything else.  Often, because of this, when people come face to face with the prospect of failure – they don’t know what to do.

Some people think that it is worse to fail than to cheat.

A story is told of a young Irishman named Murphy who applied for an engineering position at a firm based in Dublin. An American applied for the same job and both applicants, having the same qualifications, were asked to take a test by the Department manager.

Upon completion of the test both men only missed one of the questions. The manager went to Murphy and said, "Thank you for your interest, but we’ve decided to give the American the job."

Said Murphy: "And why would you be doing that? We both got 9 questions correct. This being Ireland and me being Irish I should get the job!"

The manager replied: "We have made our decision not on the correct answers, but on the question you missed."

Murphy: "And just how would one incorrect answer be better than the other?"

Manager: "Simple. The American put down on question # 5, ‘I don’t know.’ You put down ‘Neither do I.’

Think of all of the sports heroes who have been recently disgraced because of their use of banned substances.   Lance Armstrong is a prime example.   In many sports, doping was so endemic that it was a pre-requisite for success.

Cheating has become commonplace on High School and College campuses around the country.  If you want to know prevalent it is, all you have to do is try this simple test:  Go to any internet search engine and type in the words “term papers for sale.”   You will find hundreds of sites designed to sell term papers and dissertations to students.  Interestingly enough, there are just as many sites set up for teachers to detect and catch cheaters.  My guess is that the same companies that sell the term papers also sell a product that tells the teachers how to catch the cheaters.  Think about that for a moment…..  Cheating and fighting cheating has become big business.

Students who learn to cheat in school go on to cheat in life.

Why is there so much cheating?  Because we are afraid to make mistakes! We equate making a mistake with failure, and failure is perceived as a weakness.  As a result “Win – at any expense!”  has become the mantra of a generation.

This is no small problem.  One of the most terrifying statistics I have recently seen is the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 in our nation[2].  The Third leading cause of  death…..

Why are so many young people taking their own lives?  What are the messages we are broadcasting  that might be contributing to this terrible statistic?  Why are we not shouting from the rooftops that this preventable tragedy must be addressed?

What must we do?  I don’t have all the answers – it’s a much bigger question than can be addressed in a Kol Nidre sermon – but I will say this: 

We need to learn for ourselves, and then teach our children, that mistakes are not tragic - they are inevitable, they are a necessary part of life.

When our daughter, Elana was in middle school, we went to sixth grade parents’ night at the beginning of her school year. There, we met with each of her teachers and learned about the expectations that were set out for all of the students.  One class, in particular, drew my interest.  Her art teacher explained how each student was required to create a sketchbook of their own drawings.  There were only two rules for use of these sketchbooks.

1.     You have to draw at least a half an hour a week.

2.     You can’t erase your mistakes -- you have to leave them on the page.

What a wonderful concept!  It goes far beyond art lessons. 

·        You can’t erase your mistakes – you have to look at them so that you don’t make them again.

·        You can’t erase your mistakes – instead you need to understand them and use them as guideposts for future progress.

·        You can’t erase your mistakes – but you can show them to other people in your life so that they might be able to learn from them as well as you.

The truth is, we all should carry around some kind of metaphorical sketchbook.  We could see both our progress and our mistakes. Instead of running from our failures – we can learn from them – we can grow from them.  Life is not supposed to be smooth.  Everything will not always be perfect.

I recently came across the following poem: 

The Guest-House

This being human is a guest-house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they're a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond[3].

One of the main reasons that we are here tonight on the Kol Nidre Eve is to acknowledge the fact that we are all tested – and that we are all flawed. 

Our tradition provides us with a mechanism to deal with and learn from failures:

Tomorrow morning we shall recite the Unetaneh Tokef Prayer where we pray the ancient and chilling words:  “Who shall live and who shall die….” At the end of the prayer we say the following:

U’teshuvah, U’tefillah, U’tzeddakah ma-a-vi-rim et roa ha g’zerah.”

And Repentance, Prayer and Charity, temper God’s severe decree.

These three concepts – central to what this day of Atonement is all about – teach us how to understand and accept the daily tests, the successes and the failures we experience.


Yom Kippur teaches us that failure is important - because it leads us to repentance. Teshuvah - repentance - is the way to get beyond the sticking point.  In the Torah, Jacob cheats Esau and 20 years later he goes to meet him with gifts and apologies.  Teshuvah means turning - re-turning to a place where we can begin again.  That is what these holidays are all about.  God does not demand perfection.  If God did, then there would be no need for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur because in a world where perfection is mandated - there could be no repentance - all would be in black and white.  We, however, live in a world with varying shades of grey. 


Confronting our failures is not easy.  It can be lonely and frightening.  Because of this we have Tefillah – prayer.  Prayer certainly is not a cure - but it is a method of transforming ourselves and our lives.  It provides us with a way of reaching out and connecting to something greater than ourselves.  Prayer tells us to slow down - to look around us, to appreciate the world that God has given us. Since prayer is a communal experience, when we come together in prayer we realize that we are not alone. Prayer/Tefillah moves us outside the realm of our failures by forcing us to come together and admit that there are things that we lack in our lives.

The real questions of prayer are not: "Can I pray?" or Should I pray?", but rather, "What should I pray for?" and How will I know if my prayers have been answered?"

The answers to these questions are strangely simple.  "What should we pray for?"  I'll tell you.  Pray for a sense of gratitude.  Pray that you might be grateful for all of the good that happens to you.    And while you're at it, pray that others might do the same too.

You'll know that your prayers have been answered when you feel a sense of satisfaction - of gratitude for who you are - not what you have;  What you can do , not what you own.  You'll know that your prayers have been answered when, instead of hiding from your failures, you cheer on others’ successes.


And finally, we come to Tzeddakah.  Tzeddakah is not merely “charity”.  It is best understood as acts of righteousness – of working to perfect this all too imperfect world in which we live.

Tzeddakah is essential for coming to understand the meaning and purpose of the tests that we undergo every day. 

·        To have a life filled with Tzeddakah is to act and live with a sense of responsibility.

·        To have a life filled with Tzeddakah is share what you have learned with others.

·        To have a life filled with Tzeddakah is to take the gratitude that we have discovered from prayer and to apply it to the world in which we live. 

·        To have a life filled with Tzeddakah is to acknowledge that if we have learned anything from our failures then we must share that knowledge with others. 

My friends, when we come to terms with our failures – and with the necessity to understand and assimilate them within ourselves, the next step is to to look around us and see the fact that all of us have failed – at some point in our lives.

How many of us are holding grudges against family members and friends who have failed us?  How many relationships have been poisoned by our stubborn unwillingness to see the same flaws in ourselves that we condemn in others?

Every year – on Yom Kippur – I say the same thing:  Now is a time to both ask for forgiveness and grant forgiveness to those who are estranged from our lives. 

I know how difficult this can be.  I know that there are some actions that truly are unforgiveable….but not all.  All of us are tested.  We all fail some of the time.

We also are all mortal – why wait until it is too late to make amends?  The time is now – there may never be a better moment to mend a broken relationship.  We never know what tomorrow may bring.

My friends, tonight we stand before God.  All pretense is gone.  All of our defenses are down.  We stand together as a community who acknowledges that we are all flawed.  Let the awareness that we are not alone give us comfort and the ability to work even harder to learn from our failures and our flaws.  And in the process of doing so, let us make ourselves, our congregation and our world just a little more holy.

AMEN – Chatimah Tovah – May we all be inscribed for blessing in the book of Life.


[1] NYTimes 7/5/98, p. 7 Week in Review
[3] Say I Am You: Poetry Interspersed with Stories of Rumi and Shams, Translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks, Maypop, 1994.