Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Walking with Humility - A Divine Dance. Invocation for the Colorado State House, 2/28/13

Opening Prayer for the Colorado State House
February 28, 2013
Rabbi Joseph R. Black- Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO
 Yesterday I learned a powerful teaching from the Reverend James  Ryan –outgoing Director of the Colorado Council of Churches.  In an interfaith Bible study he taught a group of clergy a new way to look at the prophet Micah who writes in Chapter 6, verse 8:

It has been shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what the Eternal GOD requires of you:
Only to act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Powerful words – but what do they really mean?

Acting justly and loving mercy seem to make sense… but walking humbly?  With God? 

In his teaching, Reverend Ryan posed the following question to us:  Why does the text state:  “Walk humbly with your God?”   Why doesn’t God walk with us?
His answer is simple – yet profound.  The prophet is teaching that if God walks with us – then it might seem that we are leading the way.

If we walk with God, however, then we have no choice but to travel on the path that God sets before us……  We are not in control.  Our humility opens us up to both vulnerability and the potential for change. We don’t know the twists and turns that we might take – or the remarkable souls that we might encounter along the way.

It’s as though we are partners in a Divine dance - pulled forward by the rhythm of an unseen orchestra:  God leads and we follow - with each subtle touch, or push, or weight shift we are propelled in a different direction - whirling and spinning for the sheer joy of the music and the mystery of the next cadence.

Dear God,

On this day of deliberation, as we look ahead to the tasks that await these legislators and, indeed, every soul in this chamber, we pray that we might all consider the direction of our Divine dance.

Help us to walk with You – to dance with You.  Teach us to find new paths that might bring us to a greater understanding of Your purpose.

In our journey together, may we find solace, inspiration and a renewed commitment to forge partnerships that transcend politics and party.

May each step propel us to act with justice, to love mercy, and find humility in the awareness of the responsibility we all share to better ourselves and our great State of Colorado.

Let us all journey together – in humility and in Love.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Prayer for Tolerance: Invocation for the CO State House 2/21/13

A Prayer for Tolerance:
Invocation for the Colorado State House of Representatives
February 21, 2013
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

Our God and God of all people:

God of the poor and God of the wealthy;

God of the meek and God of the mighty;

God of the impassioned and God of the impoverished

God of those who have no God…..

There are times when we look at your world and see the delicate balance that you have bequeathed to us. 

Sunlight, seed and moisture come together to feed, soothe, heal and inspire us.

Bones, sinews, and tissue are infused with the gift of life and understanding.

Seasons change.

Time passes.

And we who have been granted the ability to discern stand in awe of it all.

And yet – all is not perfect in your world, O God - all is not serene.  Beneath the surface beauty that inspires is the reality of constant struggle.

Your creatures fight to survive.

Scarce resources are claimed by the strong, the swift, and the fortunate.  Those who can take will live to see another tomorrow.  Those too weak are quickly extinguished.

But we, who are human, claim to have conquered our savage selves.  Our laws and systems of governance and justice are designed to help us rise above our passions. We claim to be Your partners.  And yet we still have not found a way to govern without conflict. We create both winners and losers.  In this very room, tempers have flared and hurtful words have been spoken.  As this legislative session progresses and gathers steam; as late nights and early mornings give way to frayed tempers and intolerance, we pray that any debate that takes place be devoid of personal prejudice or political patronage.  May the differences that divide these representatives serve the good of all our citizens.  Help them to remember that humanity is created in the Divine image – as such, all creation is worthy of respect.

Let these leaders learn tolerance, O God – even for those whose core beliefs are different from their own.  May empathy guide their deliberation.  Help them to listen to one another and see that their task is dialogue, not diatribe.  They are allies, not adversaries.  May we all remember that the differences that separate us are an essential aspect of our diversity, our humanity and our strength.



Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Brokenness and Wholeness - CO State House Invocation, 2/7/13

Invocation for the Colorado House of Representatives
February 6, 2013
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel - Denver, CO

We all know the story: Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. He descends and finds, to his horror, that in his absence, the people built a Golden Calf. Smashing the tablets in anger and disgust, he once again ascends God’s holy mountain.
Upon returning, Moses gently puts the second set of the Ten Commandments into the Ark of the Covenant.
Throughout their forty years of wandering, the Israelites see that Ark and those Tablets wherever they travelled.
The rabbis of old asked a question: What happened to the original, broken set of tablets? Were they discarded? Recycled? Abandoned?
One answer is that they were placed inside the Ark next to the second pair that was whole.
So that the people could see them and realize that brokenness is as much a part of life as completeness.

Let us pray:
Dear God – help us to see and hear the brokenness around us:
· On the streets of our cities;
· In the cries of children and parents who cannot care for them;
· In our parched landscape that thirsts for moisture;
· In the overcrowded schools where students thirst for knowledge;
· In the eyes of the innocents;
· In the lies of the guilty.
But let us not stop with mere perception – lest we build another Golden Calf of apathy and callousness. We pray that our seeing and hearing might spur us to action.
May the pristine surroundings of this beautiful chamber not blind us to the incompleteness that awaits us once we leave these hallowed halls.
On this day of deliberation, may these legislators be healers – bringing wholeness to the brokenness that propelled them to serve our great state of Colorado.
May this day be a day of hope, of wholeness and of collaboration. Then we shall all be a blessing.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Poem: Akiva


Perched atop a darkened snowy roof
Night after night
He maintains his tenuous grip.
Shivering, steadying himself with thoughts of Eternity
He listens intently, envying the discourse
Unfolding beneath his whitened knuckles.

Warmed by the hearth-light,
The bearded ones busy themselves
In endless argument.
Encircled by rhetorical flourish,
Oblivious to the desperate balancing act
Occurring above their heads.

Truth-seeking all too often requires climbing.

Teachers must be ladders -
Bridging the gap between
The seekers and the sought
The tangled and the knot
Things remembered and forgot.

With each precious rung:
Words, laughter, praise, rebuke
They raise us up to loftier vistas.

Akiva, as the story goes, was discovered and embraced.
He descended from his precarious post and joined the ranks of the initiated.
Nonetheless, every night he dreamt of stars.

We, who follow in his footsteps
Must first overcome
Our fear of heights.
*Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time. Legend teaches that he began his studies late if life - perched on the roof of the great academies of learning- trying to glean understanding of the teaching that was happening below him.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Parashat Yitro: Fear and Flight. Idolatry and Guns

Here is the sermon that I delivered last Friday Night at Shabbat services about the link between Idolatry and Guns.
Parashat Yitro:  Fear and Flight
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO
February 1, 2013
My Dear Friends,
On this Shabbat we stand together at Mt. Sinai.
Our tradition teaches that Sinai was a moment of absolute clarity.  At Sinai there were no doubts.  God’s presence was absolute.
God appeared. 
God’s voice was heard.
The people SAW and HEARD.
At that moment – all was complete – the true meaning of Shalom  - Wholeness – was brought into the world.

In Exodus 20:15, we find the following verse: 
V’chol ha-am Ro-im et ha kolot v’et ha-la-pi-dim.
And all the people “Ro-im” the thunder and the lightning.

I didn’t translate the word Ro-im because grammatically it seems out of place.  It comes from the Hebrew root, resh, aleph, heh which means “to see.”  But the the text is full of contradictions;

1st of all – it is written in the present tense – it is described, not as an historical event – but as an Eternal Now – revelation is happening all around us – all the time.  In this sense, the translation is:  “And all the people are seeing the thunder and the lightning.  In this context, what happened at Sinai was not in the past, but occurs all the time. Just as the Israelites saw the events then – we – their descendants – still witness them today.

Secondly – how do we See Thunder? 
Some commentators state that this means that the awareness was so complete that it transcended physicality – the ability to see and to hear became intertwined.  There was total understanding – total acceptance.
But then… the text continues…the people fell back and stood at at distance.  “you speak to us!” They said to Moses “and we will obey, but let not God speak to us- lest we die!”

 The people were too overcome by the experience to allow it to last longer than a brief moment.  They couldn’t take it all in…

There are many midrashim on the ten commandments – one says that this moment of supreme awareness occurred only during the 1st commandment – Anochi H’ Elohecha’ -  I am Adonai Your God – which truly is not a commandment – but a statement of fact.
Others say that the only word that the Israelites heard was Anochi – “I”.
Others say that all that was heard was the first letter of the first word, “Anochi” – the letter Aleph which, as most of you know – has no sound at all – it is the beginning of sound -  the sound of taking a breath….  Even that was too much.

Have there ever been moments in your life when everything was absolutely clear – when you knew what you were seeing, hearing, experiencing?  When you knew what your task was to be in life?  When you were overwhelmed with joy:

·        Under the chuppah?
·        At a Bar/Bat Mitzvah
·        A Conversion ceremony?
·        A Graduation?
·        At the birth of a child?

But there are other times when our sense are overloaded – times of tragedy and fear:

·        At the funeral of a loved one?
·        Perhaps on an airplane- in the midst of turbulence
·        Or on a cart as you are being wheeled into surgery?
·        Or after the airbags deploy in your car…..
These moments of joy, of fear, of passion…bring a clarity of purpose to our lives.  Ideally, they can move us to find ways to change our actions, our perceptions, our purpose.
Sometimes they do – and sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes they linger with for a long time – most of the time, they quickly disappear.
Sometimes we see things a little bit differently – for a while =- but then slowly, almost imperceptibly, we revert back to old patterns of behaviors and beliefs.

As a people –we experienced this type of moment at Sinai.

As Americans – we have experienced it as well:

·        July 4 1776
·        November 22. 1963 – the day that John Kennedy was shot
·        10 years ago today – when the Challenger disaster occurred –
·        8 years ago when our 1st African American president was sworn in and then four years later, on the anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King
·        And just two months ago – on the 7th day of Chanukah – December 14th, a deranged gunman shot his way into a Connecticut school room and massacred 20 children and 6 adults after shooting his mother and then killing himself with high-powered automatic weapons

It has been a little over 6 weeks since the events of Sandy Hook united our nation in grief and disbelief.  For a brief moment – we all stood together as we cried our pain and sorrow.

It has been a little over 6 months since the Aurora Tragedy. 

How long did it take until the shock and pain of these events brought us back to ‘business as usual?”

Just last week, there were several incidents of violence involving guns and automatic weapons.  They filled our headlines for a day – but then, things went back to normal….or what we want to FEEL is normal.

I have to say, when I saw the lead story on the news last night about how Wal Mart stores in Denver are rationing ammunitions sales, I felt a little sick to my stomach.

When I read that permits for concealed carrying of handguns in Colorado are at such a high demand that in some counties, a lottery is being set up to determine who can apply on each day…

When I read of how the Gun Lobby is sending out urgent messages to its followers – urging them to buy as many guns as they can – before the laws change to restrict their “Right to bear arms….”

I am sad – and, yes,  I am angry.

What kind of sick reasoning uses the tragic deaths of innocent children to promote the purchase of weapons designed for no other purpose than to kill as quickly and efficiently as possible – the very weapons that were used to slaughter innocents in Aurora, Sandy Hook, on the streets of our cities and in schools, houses of worship and too many other places to mention?

At Sinai – we stood as one – afraid and united by the prospect of a new Revelation.  But it didn’t last.  We couldn’t take it.  We told Moses to intervene – we were too frail.

Moses ascended the Mountain and, 40 days later, we were building a Golden Calf.

The third of the 10 commandments prohibits the practice of idolatry.
Idolatry, by definition, is the worship of that which is not Divine.  We commit idolatry when we focus our values, our attention, our passion on items, or even ideas that detract and deflect us from the pathway that God has set out before us.

There is no doubt in my mind that the so-called “Gun Culture” that the NRA and other groups promote is a nefarious and deadly form of idolatry.

Simply put: too many men and women in our nation worship guns.  The gun lobby claims that it is protecting our freedom – our ability to defend ourselves against an enemy that crouches just around the corner.  But the freedom that they claim to protect comes with a price – the price of the death of innocents so that some can feel powerful with their hands wrapped around a trigger.

Now I know that guns are not responsible for all evil.

I know that there are many people – perhaps even here tonight – who own guns and are responsible, law abiding citizens.

I know that access to mental health care and treatment is an important goal that we must pursue – one that we, a congregation are actively engaged in bringing to the attention of our community and its leadership.

[I want to encourage everyone here tonight to attend our community forum on mental health sponsored by our HESED community organizing effort that will take place on March 3rd at 5:00 PM]

But when fear and intimidation are the tools that are used to protect the freedom to possess machines that are designed to kill; and when the deaths of innocent children are used as a tool to promote the sale of guns, I believe we have strayed too far from the purpose of our freedom in the first place.

At Sinai we all stood together – if only for a moment.

We heard God’s voice and understood that with freedom comes responsibility and responsibility comes with purpose and that our purpose is to be a holy people – created in the image of God.

We cannot allow our society to succumb to the Golden Calf of fear.

We need to remember the moments when we were united – in our anger and our grief…in our pride and our passion…in our hope and our hunger for justice, peace and a vision of a better world without violence.

We need to go back to that moment – when we are hearing and seeing and feeling God’s presence.

That is our task.  We can do no less.

Shabbat Shalom.