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.

Yom Kippur Morning, 5774 - the Gift of Shabbat

The Gift of Shabbat
Yom Kippur Morning- 5774/2013
Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO
Dear Friends,

Two and a half weeks ago, our youngest son, Ethan left for college.  Sue and I are now officially empty nesters. We knew it was coming – we had prepared ourselves and are proud of both of our children’s achievements and accomplishments.  Nonetheless, when the car was finally packed and Ethan and Sue were ready to begin their drive to Austin, TX where he was to begin his Freshman year, I looked at my handsome, 6’ tall son and I felt like Tevye in “Fiddler On the Roof” about to sing Sunrise Sunset. Although I was determined not to get emotional, the minute I hugged him goodbye, the tears began to flow…. What a cliché! I suddenly had flashbacks of all of the times when I was there for him – and the times when I wasn’t. I remembered all of the little league games I attended – and the many more that I missed.  I remembered the tears and the laughter. I remember the times we spent playing music together – and especially the time he came up to me – guitar in hand and asked if I would teach him to play Harry Chapin’s song, “Cat’s in the Cradle…”  I was really busy - in the middle of something, I recall, but what was I going to say, “No – I’m too busy to teach you to play ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’?”  I remembered the times that I was filled with pride and the moments of disappointment as well; the times I was there and when I was absent. All of the memories of fatherhood came flowing out at that moment.

Now, I know I’m not the only parent who has experienced a flood of emotion when sending a child off to college – but the experience is very real nonetheless – many of you have experienced it…. Some of you will in the near future. There are moments in our lives when we are acutely aware of the limits of time, of our inability to slow down the clock - to hold on and be present – to take in the beauty and the pain of seeing our lives pass by us and through us – as though in an instant.  Try as we might to gain control of time –to somehow bypass the laws of nature – we cannot.  That is the price of our mortality.  All we can do is to savor each precious moment we are given.

Just a few moments ago, we read these powerful words from the Torah:  Atem Nitzavim – kulchem hayom – Lifnei Adonai Eloheychem.  You are all Nitzavim –before Adonai Your God.

I deliberately didn’t translate the word Nitzavim because it is filled with nuance.  Nitzavim is often translated as “Standing” – but it means much more.  It implies standing at attention - like a soldier, or an athlete – waiting for an command to be issued, or a ball to be snapped, or the starter’s gun to go off – fully present –awake - aware, prepared for whatever comes next. 

Nitzavim means that there are can be no distractions – we are fully focused on what is in front of us.

·         It is increasingly becoming more and more difficult to stand as we did at Sinai - Nitzavim

·         We live in a society that places distractions and obstacles in front of us nall the time.

·         I have a colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Miller who is the Sr. Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham AL.  Rabbi Miller announced the following to his congregation on Rosh HaShanah: 

"Saturday, September 14 is a big football day," the announcement said. "Some of Temple Emanu-El, and all of the clergy, are college football fans. It is because of our support (that) the past seven National Championships have been won by the Southeastern Conference and, the last four, in Alabama. On Yom Kippur, and the hours afterward, we will not discuss or even insinuate the scores of football games. It is a violation of our Holy Day, and it will ruin the post Break-The-Fast experience some of us hope to have when the day ends. No scores, or high fives, or Roll Tides or War Eagles. If even a peep gets out, our pages in the Book of Life will be compromised and all of us will suffer."

The message is clear.  Even though almost anyone has access to the scores on their smart phone - Yom Kippur trumps football.  But there is another message as well.  We have the power to access information at any time and any place – but that doesn’t mean we should.  There are moments when we need to be fully focused on what is in front of us. 

And this isn’t always easy.

o   We possess technologies that claim that they can allow us to bypass the limits of time – promising the ability to be in multiple places at the same time.

o   We hold in the palms of our hands the incredible power of social media – of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and whatever new app is currently being developed.  Social media has helped to overthrow governments, find lost children, prevent tragedies from occurring –

o   but I fear that it has also threatened our ability to be in touch with the sacred experience of being present – in the moment;  and replaced it with an obsession over what we are missing….

Information has become the most powerful currency in our modern world.  We want to be “plugged in” – in contact with everyone and everything.  I am as guilty as anyone – I love my phone.  I’m constantly checking email, facebook, twitter and instagram.  Siri and I are on first name basis. I have an extra battery in my cell phone case so I’m never out of power.  If I discover that I left my cell phone at home and am without it for a couple of hours, I get nervous.    I either leave wherever I am and go home to retrieve it or, more often than not, I call Sue to see if she can drop it off at Temple if she hasn’t left for work yet.  Without my cell phone, I tend to go through a sense of withdrawal.

And I’m not alone.  How many times have you been in a restaurant and seen a table full of young people who all have their noses buried in their phones?  Instead of engaging the people around them, they are carrying on multiple conversations at once.  We announce to the world where we are, who we are with, what we are doing, but in the process of doing so – we lose the ability to be fully present.  I recently learned of a custom where, when a group of people are at a restaurant together, everyone is required to set their phones to “vibrate” and then the phones are placed, face down, in the center of the table.  If a phone rings, nobody knows whose it is.  The first person to reach for the pile of ringing phones to see if the call is for him or her has to pick up the check for the entire table.  Try that the next time you’re out for dinner…..

Research has shown that there is a physical component to our addiction to technology.  Several recent studies show that access to information stimulates the dopamine receptors in our brains – giving us instant gratification – but leaving us wanting more and more stimulation.  These result in what can only be described as “Information Loops” that cause us to go from one click to the next on the internet as we totally lose track of time.[1]
Judaism teaches us to be present – to be Nitzavim – whenever and wherever we can.
At the beginning of our service last night we recited the Bracha:
/v®Z©v i©n±z‹k UbŠgh°D¦v±u Ub¨n±h¦e±u Ub²h¡j¤v¤J 'oŠk«ug¨v Q†kœ¤n 'Ubœ¥vO¡t ²h±h 'v¨T©t QUrŠC
We praise You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who gives us life, sustains us, and brings us to this sacred time.
The Shehechianu is a prayer that we say almost routinely.  And yet, if we truly examine its message, it teaches that we need to be aware of the fact that we are in the middle of something holy – something wondrous.  God has brought us – it says – to this moment.  Time is sacred. Let us acknowledge it. Let us savor it.  It truly is a gift.

Of all of the gifts that Judaism has given the world, none is more precious than an awareness of the precious nature of time.  And of all the rituals and observances that teach us this important truth – none is more important than Shabbat.  Shabbat is more than simply a weekly observance with prohibitions and rituals.  It is a way to see the world.  The concept of Divine Rest, I believe is one of the most radical and powerful ideas that has ever been formulated. In the book of Genesis, God gives us Shabbat as a parting gift.  Shabbat is the reward for creation and a motivation for celebrating the fact that we are created.  When we understand the true meaning of Shabbat, we are, in essence transforming ourselves from creatures who live for the purpose of sustaining ourselves, competing for limited resources and avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, to partners with the unfolding of meaning and purpose in the Universe.

The great 20th Century theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a book called The Sabbath that transformed my understanding of the power and beauty of Shabbat.  Indeed for several generations of modern Rabbis, this short book was and continues to be – a pivotal centerpiece of personal theology.   Heschel writes:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space.  Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space: on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.  It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.[2]

In other words, Shabbat is the day in which we turn away from the trappings of the physical world – the pleasures and the pain; the labor and the logistics, the planning and the profit-making – and focus on the simple fact that we are so incredibly fortunate to be able to be alive.  For six days, Heschel writes, we create things, we labor in the fields of our daily toil – but one day a week – instead of creating – we focus on the fact that we are CREATED. Instead of making, spending or wasting time – we mark time – with our prayers, our joy, our loved ones and our community.

Shabbat is a window into something much bigger than ourselves- an opportunity to put away the trappings of our complicated world and share in the beauty of the fact that we are fortunate enough to be alive.  Shabbat is the day when we put aside all of the distractions of our modern world and focus on being present – with ourselves, our loved ones and our community.

Some of you know that this past Spring, during the 6 weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, we shook things up a bit on Friday nights here at Temple.  We changed the times of services, offered new alternative worship options and created opportunities to gather together as a community before and after services. We asked for your feedback and received some important information.  Our goal was – and still is - to use the experience of Shabbat worship to build a stronger sense of community among our members and worshippers.

All in all – our experiment was a success – although we made a few mistakes along the way.  We learned that, for many of our congregants, the familiar rhythms and melodies that have been a part of Temple Emanuel for decades are a vitally important touchstone to the past and to their personal spiritual journey.  We also learned that there are many who are hungering for new opportunities to explore ritual and liturgy.  We learned that every time we gather together:  whether in song, in prayer or merely to share food, we elevate the spiritual components of our lives.  Finally, we also have learned that in order for any change to be lasting and important, it cannot only come from the clergy and staff.  We need to involve all of you – the members of our congregation.

This year, we are continuing our quest to reshape Shabbat at Temple Emanuel,  We have a series of initiatives and programs designed to strengthen our sense of community and connection through Shabbat.  We have some changes in store – but before we finalize anything, we need to hear from you.  As part of our initiative, we will be creating multiple opportunities for individuals and small groups to talk about what Shabbat means to you.  This afternoon, during the study session that follows the morning services, Rabbi Immerman and a core group of facilitators will be teaching about and listening to your input on Shabbat and how it impacts your lives.  I encourage you all to come and be part of the conversation. During the coming weeks and months there will be other opportunities to share your thoughts and feelings as well.

As we learned in our experiment, not everybody wants change and so, any changes instituted will be small, gradual and there will many opportunities for traditional worship experiences.  One thing that will remain constant, however, will be our desire to use the Shabbat experience as a way to strengthen and build our sense of communal connectivity.

My friends, Shabbat is a gift.  It provides us with an opportunity to experience life fully – purposefully.  Shabbat also teaches us the importance of community.  When we come together in prayer, we are not only fulfilling our own spiritual needs – but we are helping those around us do so as well.  Jews don’t pray alone.  We need a community for true prayer and true connection to God to occur.

It was said that The Baal Shem Tov – the founder of the Chasidic movement – used to pray for hours at a time.  So intense were his prayers, that he would appear to be transformed and transported to another world.  His disciples, while pious, never were able to reach the same heights of spiritual bliss as their master and, invariably, after two or three hours of prayer – they would stand around and watch as the Baal Shem Tov continued – seemingly oblivious to their presence.  One day, one the students said to his fellows, “Why don’t we just sneak out for a while – he won’t notice.  We can come back in an hour and he won’t have moved an inch.”  That seemed to make sense to the others, and so they decided to leave the synagogue for a brief respite.  As soon as they started to leave, the Baal Shem Tov turned with a start and cried out:  “What happened?”  The chagrinned students admitted that they had finished their prayers and were getting restless.

“Don’t you understand?”  said the Baal Shem Tov.  “When I pray, I ascend a ladder to heaven.  Each of you becomes one of the rungs on that ladder.  When you left, I could no longer continue, for the foundation upon which all of my prayers was based was taken away from me.

My friends, as we enter into a new year – let us strive to find the meaning and purpose that so much of society strips from us.  Let us learn to support one another – in joy and in sorrow – so that we can experience the beauty of the world around us.  We have the tools at our disposal to help put our lives in perspective – chief among them is the gift of building our community through Shabbat observance.

May the coming year bring with it opportunities for all of us to savor every minute with which we are blessed.  And may we bring that blessing into the world.
AMEN Shabbat Shalom, Chatimah tovah.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

An Open Community- Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774

An Open Community
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5774/2013
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel  - Denver, CO

My Dear Friends,
A story is told of a King whose daughter was to be married in 3 months.  He sent out invitations to his entire kingdom for everyone to come and celebrate at the wedding feast.  He also asked that guests bring no gifts.  All that he requested was that each household, in the weeks before the wedding, should bring a pitcher of their finest red wine to the town square.  There, he had erected a huge barrel - 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide.  During the weeks that led up to the wedding, each household was to bring their pitcher of wine to the barrel, climb up a ladder and open the lid and pour it in.  In this way, when it came time to toast his daughter and her new husband, they would do so using the shared bounty of the entire community.
As the weeks and months passed and the wedding date grew closer, a representative from each household came to the town square, climbed up the ladder, opened the lid and poured their pitcher into the huge barrel.  It slowly filled with each offering until it was almost completely full.
Finally, the day of the wedding arrived.  The bride and groom stood under the Chuppah, rings were exchanged, the glass was broken. Everyone shouted MAZAL TOV!!!  Then, at the beginning of the feast, the King prepared to bless the wine and called for the 1st toast.  He held a clear, crystal glass up to the tap on the bottom of the barrel.  He broke the seal, opened the spigot and out came a stream of pure…..water.

You see, each townsperson, as they heard about the King’s request, thought to themselves: “So many people are contributing to the King’s toast, and it’s such a huge barrel, if I just pour water in, no one will know the difference!  So, one by one, thinking that their contribution didn’t count, each person poured water, not wine, into the barrel.

The moral of this story is obvious – but worth stating:  Every member of a community has value.  Every one of us has an essential and vital perspective to share.  If everyone does not feel as though their contribution is going to make a difference, then, in the long run, we are all diminished.

Tonight, I want to talk about the importance of hearing and celebrating every voice in our community.  As I look around this beautiful sanctuary, I see men and women, fathers and mothers, married couples and singles, Gays and Lesbians; I see Jews by choice and intermarried households.  I see people of almost every racial and ethnic diversity imaginable.  I see Republicans and Democrats, Independents, Liberals and Conservatives – truly Temple Emanuel is a multi-faceted community.  And although we may not agree on every issue, we are strengthened by the variety of opinions and perspectives in our midst.  We strive to be welcoming and we are usually successful- occasionally we stumble - but most of the time we do a pretty good job.

And yet, in spite of all of our efforts to create a welcoming and diverse community here at Temple, there are still areas where we, as a larger, Denver Jewish Community,  fall short.  In particular, I want to talk about how we understand, support and agree to disagree about The State of Israel.

This topic is so important, that, at a rabbinic retreat this past summer, members of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinic Council came to a consensus that we would encourage every pulpit rabbi to address it at some point during the high holidays.   I believe that this is the first time that the members of our Rabbinic Council have made a conscious decision that that we will encourage all of our members to speak about the same topic.

Tonight, of course, our hearts and minds are thinking about Israel.  The dangers posed by the instability in Syria: the over one hundred thousand souls who have been killed in the conflict so far; the inhumane gassing of over 1400 innocents by the Assad regime; the two years of brutal fighting have taken their terrible toll.  Now, of course, we await Congress’ response to that horrific event. In Israel, the decisions made by our leaders will have a vitally important impact.  The prospect of an attempted Syrian, Iranian or terrorist reprisal in Israel to a military attack by the United States is very real. Once again, Israelis are clamoring for gas masks, reserve soldiers are being placed on alert and everyone is preparing for whatever contingency might arise.  This is a tense time.  This is a time when, more than ever before, the voice of the American Jewish community needs to be strong.  Internal squabbles can only harm our ability to send our support to our leaders here in America –and our brothers and sisters in Israel.

I have spoken about the vital importance of the relationship between the United States of America and the State of Israel on many occasions.  So have others from this pulpit.  That our two nations share the same strategic, political and moral vision is an indisputable fact.  And yet, one of the changes occurring within the American Jewish Community is a growing gap between American Jews and Israel.  Whether because of politics, religious concerns, apathy or ignorance, we are growing apart - and that is something about which we all should be very concerned.  But it is not only between Israeli and American Jewry that there is a growing gap – we can see also it within the ranks of our own community – particularly among those in their 20’s and 30’s.

From the beginnings of our self-awareness as a nation, Am- Yisrael – the people of Israel have been inexorably linked to Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel.  When God spoke to Abraham and told him: “Lech Lecha- go forth  - leave all that you know – and go to a land that I will show you,”  - from that moment on our destiny has been intertwined with a piece of hotly contested real estate.  Traditionally, when we pray, we face towards Jerusalem.  We end our Seder with the words:  L’Shanah Ha-ba-ah B’yirushalayim- next year in Jerusalem.  When the modern State of Israel was established in 1948 – in the aftermath of one of the greatest tragedies ever to befall humankind – we saw this fledgling Democracy as a miracle of redemption  - a spark of hope in the midst of a darkened world.
Today, Israel is a complicated place.  It is a center of culture, science and technology.  Within a relatively short period of time – 65 years – the Jewish state has created a democracy that is both modern and maddening.  Israel is incredibly diverse.   There are no limits on public or political discourse in Israel.   The only exception to this was the banning of the overtly racist Kach Party of Rabbi Meyer Kahane in 1988.  Indeed, within the Israeli Knesset you can find voices from every corner of the Political spectrum- from ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists, to socialist atheists; from hard line Hawks to passionate Doves.  Even Communists and Arabs have a voice.  And yet, despite the crazy-quilt of Israeli politics – or maybe even because of it - the society functions.

If the state of Israel can have so many different political and social perspectives in the Knesset, why can’t we, as an American Jewish Community, encourage diversity of opinion in our own communal organizations?
Like many Jewish communities around the country, Denver has a Jewish Community Relations Council, or JCRC.  The JCRC is made up of representatives from Jewish institutions and organizations in Denver.  Temple Emanuel and all of the Denver synagogues have representatives.  So do AIPAC, the ADL, JFS, and most other community organizations.  The mission of the JCRC is to collectively develop policy positions, advocate community perspectives to elected and appointed public officials, and organize the community in times of crisis.
Last June, at a meeting of the Denver JCRC, an application for membership was submitted.  The organization applying for membership was J-Street.  For those of you who might not be familiar with J-street, it is a pro-Israel, leftist lobbying group that tends to support and encourage efforts by the American government to press for negotiated settlements to the Arab Israeli conflict that will lead to a two State Solution.  J-Street has a large and growing following – especially among younger American Jews.  They have applied and been accepted in other JCRC’s around the country.

Before the meeting during which the was to have JCRC voted on J-Street’s application, several community leaders were invited to share their thoughts about the vote.  I spoke - along with Rabbi Ben Greenberg of BMH-BJ and Rabbi Bruce Dollin of HEA  - who sent a letter because he was not able to attend in person.    Now Rabbi Dollin, Rabbi Greenberg and I do not always share the same opinions on political and religious issues.  In addition, all three of us are outspoken supporter of AIPAC and have attended the AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC.   Nonetheless, all three of us spoke in support of J-Street’s inclusion.  Our rationale for acceptance was not based on J-Streets’ positions on issues or politics.  Indeed, all of us expressed reservations about some of the statements that have been made in their name and some of the groups and individuals with whom they have been connected.  Nonetheless, we felt that it was vitally important for the sake of our community to allow all responsible voices to be heard around the table of communal discussion.

In the sharing of ideas that took place at the JCRC meeting prior to the vote, there was a great deal of anger, misunderstanding and fear expressed around the table.  Many people perceived J-Street as a threat.  Some felt that, by questioning both Israeli Governmental policies around peace negotiations with the Palestinians and by suggesting that it was important for the American Jewish Community to pressure the Israeli Government to push for a negotiated settlement – we were somehow being disloyal to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.  Others vehemently disagreed.

After the rabbis and community leaders spoke, we were asked to leave so that the vote could be taken.  After the ballots were counted, J-Street’s application did not receive the requisite 2/3rd majority and was rejected.  While due process was followed by the JCRC – and it must be said that, for some of the people who either voted “nea” or obstained from voting, one of the main reasons for their vote had more to do with organizational governance than political stances - most of my colleagues and I, as well as many other community leaders, were disappointed – if not dismayed by the outcome.

I believe that J-Street’s rejection was a mistake – one that we can ill afford at a time of growing crisis. Study after study has shown that, despite all of the outreach efforts at our disposal – in particular Birthright Israel - increasingly, younger American Jews no longer see themselves as Zionists.  Israel is rapidly becoming just another Middle Eastern country for too many of our children.  Many will see- and have seen the rejection of J-street as a rejection of an entire generation.  The old paradigms of communal identification are rapidly disintegrating and if we don’t see the need to educate ourselves and our children about the importance of supporting Israel and allowing for all voices to be heard, we do so at our own peril.

Nonetheless, I also understand why the outcome of the J-Street vote came to pass.   Talking about Israel is hard.  3 years ago, when I first came to Denver, I was amazed that the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council avoided discussing Israel.  We were afraid that the diversity of political opinion within our ranks would somehow poison our ability to work together on other issues.  And so, we never talked about our feelings about Israel – until, two years ago, at a retreat, where we had a program during which we shared our experiences, thoughts and perspectives on Zionism and the modern Israeli state.  We learned a lot from that experience. No one convinced anyone to change their views, but we learned how to take risks – to disagree and yet to see, hear and respect one another.  We followed up our retreat with a powerful course of study published by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem called iEngage.

The iEngage program combines multimedia video presentations from leading rabbis and intellectuals in Israel along with current and thought-provoking readings that are discussed during classes taught by rabbis in the local community. This program has been implemented in cities throughout the country and has been highly successful.   iEngage didn’t tell us what to think about Israel, rather it challenged us, through textual study and discussion, to formulate an educated and sophisticated perspective on how the Jewish State can have more meaning and purpose in our lives.

After we finished studying together as Rabbis, we decided that it was vital that we bring the iEngage program to the Denver Jewish community at large.  The recent vote at the JCRC only enforced the urgency of its implementation.

And so, I’m announcing tonight that the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council in cooperation with CAJE - will be offering the iEngage program  - 9 weekly sessions beginning in October.  Communal classes will be held in our building and at the Hebrew Educational Alliance at two different times:  one during the day and the other in the evening.   In the foyer tonight and throughout the High Holy Days, you will find registration materials for iEngage.  You will also be able to access materials on our website and Facebook page. I hope that many of you will consider signing up.  This curriculum has been implemented successfully in many other synagogues and institutions around the country – but I believe that we, in Denver, are one of the first communities to offer it as a community-wide effort that resulted from inter-denominational Rabbinic cooperation.

In addition to the iEngage program, I also want to let you know about two other important opportunities to learn about Israel that will be taking place over the next year.  During the weekend of February 7th and 8th, we will be hosting Anat Hoffman – Chairperson of Women of the Wall and Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center.  Many of you have followed Anat and the Women of the Wall as they have fought for equality of religious expression for all at the Kotel – the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  You will be hearing more about Anat and her visit in the weeks to come.

I also am excited to announce that Sue and I will be leading an all-ages trip to Israel this summer from June 25th-July 6th.  Information on the trip is also available in the foyer and on our website.  I hope that many of you will seriously consider travelling with us on what I know will be a life-changing experience.

There is a Midrash that speaks of the moment that the Israelites are poised to enter the land of Canaan for the first time as a free nation. Moses summons spies to tour the land and to bring back a report on the people dwelling there. Amidst the details Moses asks them to report on, he tells the spies to see if the Canaanites live in “Open camps” or “fortified strongholds.

One would imagine that a clear sign of strength of the armies that the nation of Israel will soon be encountering would be a country full of heavily fortified strongholds.   Every city, town and village would be surrounded by high foreboding walls and deep murky moats. That would be a people to be reckoned with. However, our tradition teaches us that the opposite is true.

In the Midrash, the Rabbis state that Moses wanted to know about the defenses of the Canaanites cities because the strength of a people is not to be found in their fortifications but in their openness.  A people who can live open and unencumbered - that is a people who is secure in their position and who is strong.

My friends – we need to move beyond the walls and fortifications that divide us as a community.  We need to find avenues of openness that will lead us to productive debate and communal participation.
I hope you will join me in this process of discovery and exploration. I hope you will join me in the iEngage program, along with the rest of our community.  Let us cultivate the tools that will enable us to discuss, support, and yes, at times, disagree about Israel - but from a place of mutuality and respect – that seeks to make room at the table and not to marginalize and divide. Let us take the advice of Moses and build a strong, vibrant and lasting community; a community that is open and not closed; that is accessible and not divisive.

Tonight, as we enter into a New Year, let us pray that it will be a year of peace – for the State of Israel and for us all.  May our openness make us stronger and our faith give us hope.

AMEN – L ‘Shanah Tovah.