Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Stumbling upon a mission. Reflection on a chance encounter in a field. (Genesis 37:16-18)

Here is a new poem or lyric for a song yet to be written. It is based on the story of Joseph being sent on a mission by his father to find his brothers. He met a man who changed the course of his life.
Genesis 37:16-18

16He said, "I am looking for my brothers; please tell me where they are pasturing the flock." 17Then the man said, "They have moved from here; for I heard them say, 'Let us go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.18When they saw him from a distance and before he came close to them, they plotted against him to put him to death.…
Stumbling On A Mission
(c) Rabbi Joe Black
December, 2014

He was wandering: Alone in the field
On a mission from his father- it's purpose unrevealed.
Joseph walked along a path that would change his life for good
But he had lost all of his bearings in this distant neighborhood.

He stumbled on a man who asked "why do you look so bleak?"
He said "I'm looking for my brothers - It is my destiny I seek.
The stranger looked at him - seized him up with kind demeanor
"They have left here and have moved on to pastures that are greener
You can join them if you want to - but your road will not be smooth
Or you could run away right now - and never learn the truth."

At this defining moment
at this place in time
When lives all come together
with purpose intertwined
We never know the reason
Or the meaning of our quest
But, in looking back at our journey we can see that we were blessed.

He found his brothers pasturing their flocks in Dothan
When they saw him coming towards them with his colored jacket on
They remembered how they loathed his childhood tales of domination
Anger, jealousy and distance were a lethal combination
They grabbed him and they threw him in a pit so dark and deep
They wanted to destroy his dreams that robbed them of their sleep.

At this defining moment
at this place in time
When lives all come together
with purpose intertwined
We may never know the reasons
Or the meaning of our quest
But, in looking back at our journey we can see that we were blessed.

What if the stranger never told him of his brothers' altered course?
What if his siblings never sold him, or had done him something worse?
Would the telling of their stories change the way we saw the world
Would our narratives be different as our history unfurled?

As we contemplate our journeys and the people whom we meet
As we number every day and pass by strangers in the street
Remember that our words, our deeds, the way we treat each other
Could change the world for better - or pit brother against brother.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Jacob's Voice Vs. Esau's Hands: The Aftermath of A Massacre. Toldot - 5775

Jacob's Voice Vs. Esau's Hands:  the Aftermath of a Massacre
November 21, 2014
Toldot, 5775
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO


This has been a very difficult week.

For me, personally, on Monday morning – the day after Sue and I returned from a fantastic trip to New York with our 10th grade Confirmation class I underwent a planned, laparoscopic surgical procedure to remove my gallbladder.  As I emerged from the fog of anesthesia and pain medication on Tuesday morning, I tried to get caught up in what was happening in the world around me.

I learned of the horrific attack on a synagogue in the Har Nof section of West Jerusalem. Armed with knives, meat cleavers, and handguns, two Palestinian terrorists burst into a holy sanctuary during morning prayers – killing five Israelis - Rabbi Moshe Twersky, Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, Rabbi Kalman Levine (who had family in Boulder), and Police Officer Zidan Saif.  Three of the slain held American/Israeli citizenship, one held British/Israeli citizenship, and one was a Druze Israeli police officer. In addition, seven civilians were wounded, three seriously. Images of bloody worshippers still wrapped in tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries) shook us to the very core.

This attack is part of an ever-escalating series of violent incidents in and around Jerusalem that seem to point towards a coordinated resumption of violence in the Israeli Capital.

Making matters even worse, in the aftermath of this murderous and reprehensible act of violence, we witnessed rejoicing in Gaza and certain other sectors of the Palestinian community.  Men, women and children were dancing in the streets, passing out sweets and celebrating this “victory”– a victory that consisted of the brutal murders of innocents and of police officers who were assigned to protect them.   The fact that the attack was against a Jewish religious target – a synagogue – and the victims were engaged in the sacred act of prayer made the reality of what happened all the more horrifying.  This was not an act of war – not could it be disguised as such.  This was a blatant act of violence against the Jewish people.

In addition to the increasing violence and tension occurring in Jerusalem, here in the States, we are all watching and waiting to see what will happen in Ferguson, MO – where a Grand Jury is set to announce its decision in regards to the case against Police Officer Darren Wilson, the man who fatally shot Michael Brown – an unarmed African American young man – this past summer. 

And just yesterday, another act of violence occurred when a disturbed young man with easy access to guns and ammunition opened fire at a University campus – this time at Florida State University in Tallahassee,  He wounded three students – one seriously, before he was killed by police officers.

Violence on the streets– is very much alive.  But there is a difference between what is happening in our nation and what we are witnessing in Jerusalem.  As tragic and disturbing as recent events on the streets of our cities might be, no one in America is rejoicing over the murder of innocents.  No one is celebrating the lives of the killers – calling them heroes in the wake of their cowardly acts.

For those of us who are praying for peace in Israel, we must ask the question:  How can peace come when there are those who not only do not discourage violence, but actively encourage others to engage in random, senseless killing?  How can there be hope when the murder of innocents is greeted with raucous rejoicing?  What chance is there for a negotiated settlement in light of the tyranny of terror?  How can we continue to paint the situation in Israel as political when there are those who are deliberately and actively attacking religious targets – like synagogues - that have nothing to do with Statehood?

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we are introduced to twin brothers – Jacob and Esau – whose entire life is consumed with fighting.  We are told how, when Rebekah was pregnant with her sons, they “struggled within her” (Genesis 25:22).  We learn of how Jacob tricks Esau into selling his birthright and how, with his mother’s help, he deceives his father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing that was supposed to have been given to Esau.

In our text, we read of how, when Jacob comes to his blind father dressed in Esau’s clothing and covered in sheepskin, Isaac is confused and proclaims: “The hands are the hand of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob.” Over the centuries, many commentators have used this phrase to accentuate the differences between those who would use violence to achieve their goals (the hands of Esau) and those who would eschew violence and use dialogue and negotiation to accomplish peace (the voice of Jacob). 

It is clear that time is running out for the prospect seeing any kind of negotiated settlement in Israel and the territories.  Violence begets violence and only serves to strengthen those who would champion the hands of Esau and silence the voice of Jacob. 

Our tradition has made it clear that there is a time and a place for the use of strength and power.  It is a Mitzvah to defend ourselves when placed in a dangerous situation.  The state of Israel and the Jewish people will never allow ourselves to be destroyed by our enemies’ attacks.  This is why the war in Gaza this past summer was not only justified, but essential.  At the same time, once we have established our physical well-being and safety, we also are commanded to  Bakeysh Shalom V’Rodfeyhu – Seek peace and pursue it.”  At several times during our services this evening we will pray for peace.  It is quite possible that the moment that the four rabbis were murdered in the midst of their prayers they were saying the words:  Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu YaSeh Shalom Aleynu V’Al kol Yisrael – May the One who makes peace in the High Heavens, make peace for us and all Israel.”

This week we are reminded of the tension between the hands of Isaac and the Voice of Jacob.  Let us work and pray for the time when our voices will be louder than our fists.

The families of the four rabbis who were murdered this week in Jerusalem just put out the following Shabbat plea:

 With broken hearts, drenched in tears shed over the spilt blood of holy men – the heads of our families.

We call on our brethren wherever they are – let us come together so that we may merit mercy from Heaven, and let’s accept upon ourselves to increase love and comradery, between each individual and each community.

We ask that every person accept upon himself on this Sabbath Eve (Parshat Toldot, November 21-22, 2014), to set aside the day of Shabbat as a day of unconditional love, a day during which we will refrain from words of disagreement and division, from words of gossip and slander.

May this serve to elevate the souls of our husbands and fathers who were slaughtered while sanctifying Gd’s name.

Gd will look down from the heavens, see our suffering, wipe away our tears and put an end to our tribulations.

May we merit seeing the coming of our Moshiach (Messiah) speedily in our days. Amen.

Signed with a torn heart,

Mrs. Chaya Levin and family

Mrs. Bryna Goldberg and family

Mrs. Yaacova Kupensky and family

Mrs. Bashy Twersky and family

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Gall Bladder Blues

This past Monday, I had surgery to remove my gallbladder.  As surgeries go, I'm told, its a relatively simple procedure.  They used a laproscopic technique that was minimally invasive so my recovery is going well.  I hope to back at work by the end of the week - slowly..... 

Here is a poem/song that I wrote about it.  The first half was written the night before.  Last stanza was composed the first day of my recuperation. 

Gall Bladder Blues 
(c) November 18, 2014
By Rabbi Joe Black

They're going to make four small incisions
And pump me full of air
Then they'll take a look inside me
To see what's wrong in there

They'll gas and dull my senses
and with a twisting of his wrist
The surgeon, deftly dancing
Will do what he does best

How my body has betrayed me!
How dare it act alone!
What gall it takes to play me
Like some 3 card Monty clone

It's hiding 'neath the paper cups
And slipping side to side
Now you see it now you don't
As it takes me for a ride

Sometimes it sits contented
With a mind that's all it's own
Until it strikes with claws extended
And makes its presence known

And when it all is over
And the offensive organ's gone
And I walk about when healing's done
With savings overdrawn.

Will I change the way I see things
Will my voice be somewhat strained?
One part is gone
A useless thing?
The source of so much pain.

God made us all with wisdom
Some are happy some are sadder
I, for one am quite content
To get rid of my gall bladder.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Standing With Israel - Yom Kippur Morning, 5775

Standing With Israel
Yom Kippur Morning – 5775
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

Back in the heyday of the Soviet Union, a Jewish man once visited the great zoo of Moscow. To his amazement he found a lion and a lamb sleeping together in a cage. The man went to the zoo keeper, a fellow Jew, and said, "Comrade, this is amazing! The Messiah has come. How else can you get a lion and a lamb to lie down together in one cage, much like the prophecy of Isaiah?"

"It's easy," said the zoo keeper. "We put a new lamb in the cage every day."

I tell you this story today, on Yom Kippur morning, because
  •  as a Jew;
  •  as a Zionist;
  •  as a lover of peace and a believer in peace
  •  as a person of conscience who grieves the loss of life – no matter whose life it may be;
  • in the aftermath of one of the most difficult summers we can remember experiencing – most of us from a distance – but some of us from very close quarters;
  • and in anticipation of what will follow, 
I cannot stand idly by while the world tries to paint Israel as a devouring lion while, at one and the same time, forcing her to play the role of a sacrificial lamb.
I also cannot remain silent when I see the Jewish State vilified around the world – and in this community – for reasons that range from a naïve desire for peace to basic anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism.
This past summer, as you all know, Sue and I – along with Janet Bronitsky and Mark Suprenand – led a group of 44 members of our congregation on a life-changing trip to Israel.  We arrived at Ben Gurion airport on June 27th and immediately became immersed in the miraculous reality that is the modern State of Israel.  We witnessed first-hand how the Jewish State was created out of the dreams and hard work of visionary Chalutzim – pioneers.  At the same time, we encountered our ancient history as a Jewish people – in the archeological excavations of Masada and the City of David; and in the hills of Tzfat and the beauty of Jerusalem.  We experienced the vibrancy of modern Tel Aviv and the solitude of the Negev.  We met with and learned from an array of teachers and visionaries who make up the multi-ethnic quilt of Israeli citizenship.  And – oh yes – while we were there, a war broke out…..
This past summer we watched the funeral of three young boys who were brutally murdered at the hands of terrorists for no reason save that they were Jews.  We also learned of a horrific crime committed by Israeli Jews against a Palestinian Muslim boy who was burned to death in a racist rampage.  We heard about missiles being fired from Gaza by Hamas terrorists and we witnessed the ramping up of police and military security.

On the day that most of the members of our group left Israel for the United States, Operation Protective Edge was officially launched by the Israel Defense Forces.  Sue and I stayed on a few extra days to visit family in northern Israel.  We saw on TV how the Iron Dome System intercepted deadly missiles that were fired – not only on the southernmost communities of Israel, but also on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem  - the economic and spiritual heart and soul of the Jewish State.  We saw how Sue’s cousins’ kibbutz – Sasa – prepared to welcome families from S’derot and Ashkelon into their homes. These were families who needed rest and respite from constant bombardment and fear in the wake of Hamas’ missiles.  We saw how innocent Palestinians in Gaza were trapped in their homes, schools, Mosques and hospitals while terrorists used them as human shields for launching their deadly missiles – knowing full well that Israel’s retaliation would result in innocent civilian casualties.  We saw how the IDF did all that it could to minimize collateral damage in its attempt to eliminate the terrorist threat posed by Hamas – broadcasting in advance the locations of its attacks – asking civilians to leave – even calling them on their cell phones to warn them of the danger they faced.  We saw the maze of tunnels that Hamas had dug beneath Gaza– tunnels which used cement and other building materials that the world had donated to Hamas for the purpose of rebuilding  schools, hospitals and mosques –but instead were appropriated for the machinery of death and terror.

We returned home to a cacophony of voices surrounding the war.  Yes, our community let our voices be heard.  But we were not the only ones.  The streets of Denver were filled with anti-Israel protestors – like every other State in the Union and around the world.  I feel gratified to know that, while some of these voices were loud and obnoxious, they had little true impact on our elected officials who stood by Israel in her time of need.
Jewish Colorado sponsored a rally in support of Israel that was held here in our sanctuary.  Almost every seat was filled.  There were other rallies and actions within the Jewish community as well - some were sponsored by far right groups – others were held by organizations on the far left.  Some supported Israel and called for the death of her enemies.  Others were quick to condemn – using much of the same rhetoric that those supporting Hamas have used.  It is clear that, despite the grave situation that Israel and World Jewry faces, our American Jewish community is not united around a single narrative or perspective.

These are troubling times indeed.  For Jews in America and throughout the diaspora, the question of how we relate to the State of Israel has never been more complex.  In a recent article in the New York Times, Laurie Goodstein writes about the fact that some American rabbis are thinking about avoiding talking about Israel over the High Holidays because of the divisions in the American Jewish community. Some rabbis have been sharply condemned by their membership for daring to criticize certain aspects of Israeli policy.  In other communities, Rabbis have created conflict because they were reluctant to join in with members of their congregation in condemnation of Israel[i].  This, my friends, is cause for alarm.  As we are seeing in so many other areas within society – from the media, to our school systems – especially in Jefferson County - , attempts to censor legitimate discourse is the first step on the road to ignorance at best and totalitarianism at worst.   As I said from this pulpit last Rosh HaShanah, it is vital that all legitimate voices be heard in the conversation around Israel and her neighbors. 

Peter Beinart, a well-known leftist Jewish thinker has taken the issue of speaking from the pulpit about Israel even farther.  He writes that it is inappropriate for Rabbis to speak about Israel at allnot because of the controversy it might engender, but rather because most of their congregants have access to the same information as their clergy for learning about the complexities of the situation[ii].  According to Beinart, rabbis have no business talking about Israel.  That should be left to the academics, the politicos and people like….himself.  He writes that instead of preaching about Israel, rabbis should instead teach Torah on the High Holidays.  

While I often disagree with much of what Beinart writes, he is correct in saying that Rabbis should teach Torah on the High Holidays.  But I virulently disagree with him when he states that Israel has no place on the pulpit.

So let’s look at the Torah portion that we heard chanted so beautifully this morning.  In Deuteronomy 29:9 we read the following: 

You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel,This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live;This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live;
your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers…..

In other words, the entire community of Israel was standing before God – united - as we are today on this most sacred day.

In chapter 30, verse 19 of Deuteronomy, we read the following:
This day, I call upon heaven and earth as witness before you: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.

One of the aspects of these specific pieces of Torah that have always fascinated me is the fact that there is no equivocation whatsoever.  God calls all of us together.  We stand at rapt attention.  God tells us that we have a simple choice: 
Good or Evil.  Life or Death.  Blessing or Curse. 
Boom – that’s it. 
It’s pretty simple.
Black and White.
Everything is clear.  Our choices lay in front of us. 
That was probably one of the last times in our entire history that all Jews could agree on one thing.
Today, the choices faced by the Jewish State are in no way clear or self-evident.  As the Israeli author and scholar, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in a recent essay in the New Republic:
“I have two nightmares about a Palestinian state,” [he writes] … “That there won’t be one and that there will be one[iii].” 
Throughout the last 66 years that we have prayed for peace in the Middle East, Israel has been willing to give up territory, release prisoners who have murdered her children, even shake the hand of sworn enemies for the sake of true peace.  The Jewish State has had to take risks in her quest for Shalom. Some of those risks have born fruit – even if the pay-off is a bit shaky at times.  Egypt and Jordan, while not what anyone would call “friendly” to Israel, still have upheld the peace treaties that were negotiated.  Other risks – such as Lebanon and, of course, Gaza have not played out so well.

Over the years, pundits, politicians and average “Jews in the Pews” who cared have shared a wide variety of strong opinions vis-à-vis Israel and the peace process.  They range from those who feel that giving up one inch of territory is a sin, to the other extreme that questions the necessity and validity of having a Jewish state in the first place.

I find it fascinating that while we, who consider ourselves to be Israel’s supporters cannot agree on what it means to be a loyal, supportive or critical of Israel, our enemies have no such qualms.

Israel is consistently demonized by her enemies: on college campuses in the United Nations, in the media,

Make no mistake about it, my friends, these are troubling times, not only for the state of Israel, but for the Jewish people as a whole.  This past summer we have watched as Israel was attacked – not only by Hamas rockets and terror tunnels, but in the world press, at national conventions of the Presbyterian Church (USA), at meetings of academic organizations and labor unions, on college campuses and on the streets of major capitals around the world.

We have witnessed a world that is quick to boycott, divest, sanction and condemn the Jewish state for so-called “Crimes Against Humanity” while turning a blind eye to far more horrific actions taken by Governments like Syria, Egypt, Iran, China and  North Korea, to name just a few – not to mention the rise of a Frankenstein-like hybrid of Radical Islam and Fascism called the Islamic State that has left a path of death and destruction in the wake of achieving its goal of creating a new Islamic Caliphate.

We also have witnessed the natural progression of a virulent anti-Zionism morphing into classical anti-Semitism with chants of “Death to Israel” quickly evolving into “Death to the Jews!”  We have witnessed bombings and shootings in Jewish institutions and the beating of Jews on the streets of Paris, Amsterdam, Rome[iv], Brussels[v], Budapest and throughout the European continent[vi].

Our Torah teaches is to “Choose Life” so that we and our descendants might live.  It sounds so simple – but, when it comes to Israel, each choice can become an existential nightmare.  Perhaps Prime Minister Netanyahu said it best in 2006, following the end of a particularly brutal conflict in Lebanon when he stated on the floor of the Knesset: 

"The truth is that if Israel were to put down its arms there would be no more Israel. If the Arabs were to put down their arms there would be no more war.[vii]

While I do not always agree with everything that Prime Minister Netanyahu says or stands for – especially in regards to settlement expansion and his hands-off approach to religious freedom for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel – these words ring true and help us to understand exactly what the State of Israel is facing on a daily basis.  Just because this last war has ended in a cease-fire and Hamas appears to be crippled, there can be no cause for rejoicing.  There are many others who are ready, willing and able to continue the fight.

So how should we, on this Yom Kippur – this holiest of all days – approach Israel?  Despite the rise of Anti-Semitism we have witnessed around the globe, most experts agree that the United States is still the safest place for the Jewish people the world has ever seen.  We can sit back and watch without getting involved in Israel and it probably won’t change our external lives at all.  In addition, recent studies have shown that fewer and fewer American Jews find Israel to be an important part of their Jewish identity[viii].  When we factor in age and affiliation with a synagogue or a religious movement, the numbers are even more disturbing.

Is Israel important?  Does it have a place on the pulpit?  Does it belong around our break-the –fast tables and in everyday conversation?  Or are we weary – and we wish it would just go away so we don’t have to worry about it.

My friends, you all know my answer.  And yet, I’m going to say it anyway.  Let’s set aside the historical, spiritual and emotional connections that Jews have had with the Land that we call the State of Israel for a moment – and let’s focus on the following four fascinating facts about the Jewish State:
  • Israel is almost finished building a cyber/Technological center in Beersheva in partnership with several multi-national corporations that rivals what the United States has built in Silicon Valley; what Russia, China, India and any other nation has built to date.  Israel will soon be a cyber super power[ix].
  • By end of this decade, Israel will be weather independent for its water through the use of pioneering and proprietary desalination technology that it is exporting around the world[x]
  • Within the next decade, Israel’s Leviathan natural gas field will have will have the capacity to revolutionize the energy supply around the world. Israel will have enough natural gas to remove Russia from its current position as the prime supplier of energy for Eastern Europe.  It already has entered into deals to supply gas to Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority[xi].
  • Israel has already become a global leader in bio-tech, nano-technology and computer science.
Now imagine if you could build a nation from scratch that could guarantee that it would feed its own people, provide water for agriculture and human consumption, be energy independent and become a technological innovator in multiple areas – while maintaining, at the same time its Democratic, principles, defending its borders against hostile enemies and retaining a centuries old tradition of spiritual and religious values.  You’d be impressed wouldn’t you?

I firmly believe that Jewish life and the Jewish people are inexorably linked with the State of Israel.  We need Israel as much as she needs us.  We need to travel to Israel. We need to learn as much as we can about Israel and we need to support groups and organizations that work on her behalf.

Last year, as you will recall, I spoke about the need for all partners in the Zionist enterprise to have a seat at the Table of communal discourse.  I still believe this.  In the next few weeks you will be receiving information about two major events that will be held here at Temple Emanuel – one will be sponsored by J-street and the Other by AIPAC.  These are not our programs – they are being held in our building – but it is important that we hear from all sides of the pro-Israel spectrum.   I’m also very happy to remind everyone that, once again, the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council –in conjunction with all of the congregations, Jewish Colorado and CAJE are once again offering iEngage. If you have not had the opportunity to take advantage of this special opportunity to learn more about Israel and engage in open and educated discussion about the issues surrounding the Jewish State, I urge you to do so.  Information about iEngage is in all of our educational materials, our website and Facebook. 

I also plan on attending the annual AIPAC policy conference that will take place in our nation’s capital on March 1st through the 3rd. I hope that many of will join with me as well. I am proud of the fact that many national and regional leaders of AIPAC have come from our congregation.  This year, more than ever, we need to show solidarity with Israel.  The AIPAC policy conference is one of the best ways that we can show both the State of Israel, and our own elected officials that we stand with Israel.  Remember, if it had not been for AIPAC’s efforts, the Iron Dome Missile system that saved thousands of Israeli lives may not have been in place.  Please join me in DC this year.  It is an amazing experience to spend 3 days learning and lobbying our leaders about the vital importance of the partnership between the United States and Israel.

My friends, today is a day when we focus on those aspects of ourselves and our souls that truly matter.  None of us is perfect – and neither is the State of Israel. But, as I said last night, perfection is not a Jewish value – perspective is.  WE have both the ability and the responsibility to learn about, visit and show our support for the Jewish state. 

Today, our Torah teaches, we are given a choice.  Let us choose life – for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel.

The Ticket - Kol Nidre, 5775

The Ticket
Kol Nidre– 5775
Rabbi Joseph R. Black

My Dear Friends,

A few weeks ago, Sue and I drove Ethan to the airport to begin his second year of college at the University of Texas.  Now those of you who have ever said goodbye to a college student know very well that, as much as you want to pretend that it’s no big deal….it is a big deal – you’re saying goodbye to your kid for at least 3 months.  Each year of college is one year closer to your child becoming an adult and leaving the nest for good.  And as we drove, I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t going to get upset.  I tried very hard to be nonchalant – and so, as a way to avoid my feelings, I peppered Ethan with questions:
  • Who’s going to pick you up at the airport?
  • Did you forget to pack anything?
  • Will you call us when you get to Austin

And then there was one more question:

  • Why is that police car behind me with his lights flashing?

And then I looked down at my speedometer…..

It turns out, I was driving 70 miles an hour in a 55 mile an hour construction zone…on Pena Boulevard…

Now, of course, we all know that EVERYBODY speeds on the way to the airport!  I wasn’t going any faster than the other cars around me.  But I got caught.  I was distracted by trying to pretend that I wasn’t upset about Ethan leaving for college…..

After the policeman gave me the ticket, I started to rationalize – to myself, to Sue and Ethan – to God, perhaps….  After all, I wasn’t doing anything that anybody else wasn’t doing! 

Then I got angry. How dare they issue me a ticket?  Don’t they know who I am? I’m an important member of this community! I’m the Sr. Rabbi of Temple Emanuel!  I’m the president of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council!  I’m a Chaplain for the Colorado State House of Representatives.    I could fight this – and probably win.  I have friends in high places.

And then I looked over at my son – with thte smirk on his face – on his way to college.  I asked myself, what behavior am I modeling here?  What am I teaching my children?  Am I above the law?  Is anybody, really?

I shut up – and when I got home, I paid the ticket.

No matter how important you might think you are – that speed gun doesn’t - or at least shouldn’t recognize anything other than the fact that you were driving over the speed limit and you have to pay a fine.

What an important lesson for me to learn in the weeks prior to the High Holy days – leading up to Yom Kippur!

On this day, we are told, we stand in judgment before God.  Everyone is equal on Yom Kippur.  It doesn’t matter what we do, who we are, what titles we hold, how much money we make.....all of us are mortal.  All of us have sinned.  Many of us have driven above the speed limit......  All of us need to go through the process of teshuvah – turning and repentance.  And that’s not easy.  And that’s why we’re here tonight.

Yom Kippur is the day that levels the playing field.

On Yom Kippur, our tradition teaches, each of us comes to the Synagogue with our bag of sins – our collection of misdeeds from the past year.  All year long we add more sins to our bag.  Some of us carry small little peckelach – little sacks.  Others are carrying steamer trunks.....  But we’re all carrying something.  We don’t like to look at our baggage.  Most of us avoid it at all costs..... and yet, at some point we need to open it up, examine what’s inside, fess up to what we’ve done and ask for forgiveness.  We need to say “I’m sorry” – to God and to one another.

Jewish tradition teaches that Teshuvah – repentance - is a process – it is not something that is done lightly, easily or, for that matter, for profit. The great medieval sage, Rambam – or Maimonides -- articulates in Hilchot Teshuvah—the Laws of Repentance, the steps one must take in order to bring about full teshuvah/Repentance.  Just as a twelve-step program for people with addictions can pave a path towards recovery, so too can a Maimonidean “five-step” program show us the way to a better life.

The first two steps in doing Teshuvah are recognition  - admitting to ourselves that we did something wrongand renunciation – resolving internally that we will never repeat what we have done

These are the acts of looking into the mirror and facing ourselves as we really are – warts and all.  They are often the most difficult of the steps in this process because they are so counterintuitive to what society teaches us.  We tend to measure ourselves by external, rather than internal metrics.  Admitting wrongdoing is seen as a weakness when we compare ourselves to others.

A story is told of a young boy who was sitting  at a restaurant talking on his cell phone.  He dialed a number and asked to speak to Dr. Ginsberg.  The boy said: 
"Hello, Dr. Ginsberg, how would you like to hire a boy to cut the grass and run errands for you?  Oh, you already have someone?  Are you satisfied?  You are?  OK.  Goodbye." 
As the boy was getting up to leave the restaurant, the manager stopped him and said: 
"Listen, son, you seem like an enterprising and hard working young man.  I could use someone like you around the place.  If you're looking for a job, you can work for me." 
"Thank you sir," the boy replied, "but I already have a job." 
"But didn’t I hear you asking Dr. Ginsberg if he needed someone to work for him?" 
"Well, not exactly,” replied the boy, "you see, I'm the boy who works for Dr. Ginsberg and I was just checking up on myself." [Thanks to Rabbi Barton Lee for this story...]

So much of our time is spent comparing ourselves to others!  We want to know how we "measure up".  We play this game in all areas of our lives:  at work, at play.  Even in our families.  And all of this is fueled by the messages - the sales pitches - we receive every waking minute of every day.  If we are to believe what we see on Television, what we read in the many "self-improvement" books that fill our bookshelves,  what we hear from “experts” who have simple answers to life’s complicated problems.... we can have perfect homes, perfect families, perfect jobs and perfect teeth.  We can live in perfect communities where the roads are always free from repair, where crime is nonexistent and the air quality index is above average.  We can drive the perfect car and wear perfect clothing on our perfect bodies.....All we have to do is find the right secret for success.  And those secrets are within our grasp – for the right price.
As silly as it sounds, when our impossible dreams do not come true, our souls are in turmoil.  We hide our true feelings, fears and frustrations.  We also refuse to see that this inner turmoil is controlling us and forcing us to go to great lengths to compensate for them. 

But when we own up to our actions and admit our faults and our frailties, we actually show our strength. That’s why we teach our children that telling the truth about what they did is praiseworthy even if the deed itself was wrong or even illegal (like speeding on Pena Boulevard....).

Once we have gone through the difficult process of looking deep into ourselves and our souls, Maimonides’ next two steps teach us that we have to look outside of ourselves, publicly acknowledging our hurtful actions and actively asking for forgiveness. 

I recently  received an e-mail from someone I hadn’t heard from in a long time – someone with whom I had lost touch over the years.  The heading on the message said:  “L’Shanah Tovah.”  I opened the e-mail and saw that it was not only addressed to me – it was a mass-mailing sent to a group of friends and acquaintances.  The text of the e-mail was as follows:

“In the spirit of Elul, if I have done anything in the past year which caused you any hurt, embarrassment, pain, or difficulty, or was offensive to you in any way, I humbly offer my apologies and ask for your forgiveness.”

I must say, I was saddened when I read his e-mail.  But at least it wasn’t a tweet…. While the spirit of message may have been genuine, it was not a true act of Teshuvah.  The fact that it was contained in a mass-mailing was bad enough, but the truth is, it didn’t accomplish anything other than possibly allaying his personal guilt.  To state:  “If I have done anything that may have offended YOU.....” puts the onus on the one who was offended – not the person asking forgiveness.

I have been guilty of doing the exact same thing - not in e-mail form, but in words that I have spoken.  Before each High Holiday service, those who will be participating in the service or sitting on the Bema gather together in the Green room behind the sanctuary for a short prayer.  Just before we begin the prayer, I thank the participants for all that they do for Temple Emanuel.  And then I ask their forgiveness for anything that I may have done to hurt them over the course of the year.  In reading my friend’s mass-e-mail, I recognized my own words in his remarks.  And so, I will try to enumerate those aspects of my own failings when I ask for forgiveness in the future.

And this brings us to the next step.  Maimonides teaches us that the third step of Teshuvah is putting into words exactly what we have done wrong.  We acknowledge our misdeeds – first to a trusted friend, colleague or loved one – in order to find the proper words.  But then, in the fourth step, we are required to go directly to the person we have wronged, acknowledge how we have wronged them, and ask them for forgiveness.

In other words, it’s not enough to say, “If I have harmed you in any way, I didn’t mean it....”  We need to name our transgressions and own up to them.  We need to make ourselves vulnerable.  We need to let down our guard and face those whom we have harmed. 

True Teshuvah can have no ulterior motives.

True teshuvah must come from the heart – from an acknowledgement that we have hurt someone and we cannot move on until we address the fact that we have created that hurt.

Over the past few weeks, we have watched the leadership of the NFL come to terms with the fact that too many professional atheletes have a problem with domestic abuse.  The way that Commissioner Goodell has dealt with the problems in his league has come under a great deal of scrutiny.  Was he truly apologetic at first?  Did he and the teams under his umbrella  fully accept responsibility for the problems they faced or did they do just enough to satisfy the public’s desire for change? Time will only tell…..

True teshuvah involves risk.  It means that we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection – it means we need to be vulnerable. But nothing worth getting in life comes without some risk.

There are people we know who will do almost anything to avoid having to face the pain of their own inadequacies. 

The Haftarah we will read tomorrow afternoon is one of the most powerful and confusing stories in the Bible - the book of Jonah.  If you remember the story, God calls to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh and proclaim that the city will be destroyed if the Ninevites do not repent.  Jonah decides to flee.  He boards a ship and sets sail for Tarshish.  A great storm shakes the boat and Jonah is thrown overboard.  Immediately, the waters are calmed and Jonah is swallowed by a fish.  For three days he remains in the belly of the fish until he is spewed forth on dry land - at Nineveh:  the very place from which he was fleeing. 

Why do we read this story on Yom Kippur afternoon?  There are many reasons.  Jonah, when first confronted by the size and scope of his task, flees in terror.  The message of the story is that, try as he might, Jonah could not run away - for his problem was not that he had an onerous task to perform - no, his problem was that he was trying to run away from himself.  The book of Jonah teaches us that, no matter how hard we try, eventually we are going to catch up with ourselves - and we are going to have to deal with our mistakes and missteps – it can’t be avoided.

Another reason we run is that we are afraid that, by showing our true selves, we might become repulsive to those around us – especially those who love us.  And this is the greatest mistake that anyone can make.  Love is not based on perfection.  It is based on perspective and acceptance. 

We hide our true selves for fear of rejection.

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes the following:
To love is to accept with enthusiasm that which is less than perfect.  It involves the willingness to accept imperfection and to accept it enthusiastically, not in a spirit of long suffering self-righteousness.  Anybody can be stirred by perfection; you have to accept perfection because it makes an unassailable claim on you.  You have to admire it, but you cannot love it.  It is only by reaching out and accepting, without disdain, the less-than perfect that we show our capacity for love. [I’m not sure the source of this quote. It is either from Rabbi Kushner’s book, How Good Do We Have to Be?A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness or from an article or sermons that he wrote. I could not find the source.]

If everyone were perfect, we would have no need for Yom Kippur.  We would have no need for prayer, for this synagogue, for community. We wouldn’t need audacious Hospitality!!!  We would all be complete.  We would all be content with ourselves and nothing more – for what could perfection ever need from another person or institution, or idea.  If we were all perfect, we would all be bored out of our minds.  If we only allowed ourselves to interact with perfect people – no one would be here right now.

We are not perfect.  We are flawed.  For this reason we need Teshuvah.  We need to be able to say “I’m sorry” – and mean it – really mean it.
There is a subtle irony in the fact that, just before Cantor Heit chanted Kol Nidre so beautifully tonight, we proclaimed:  “Tonight we are permitted to pray with sinners!”  The truth is, every interaction that takes place in our lives happens in the company of sinners – we all sin!

No, we are not perfect – we are flawed.  As a result, we also need to be able to forgive those who come to us – afraid, vulnerable, weakened by their own self-awareness, desperately needing our forgiveness.

A story is told about the famous Nazi Hunter, Simon Wiesenthal:

            There was a man living next to Weisenthal in one of the DP camps after the war.  One day, the man borrowed $10 from him and assured him that he had a package coming from a relative any day - and would positively pay him back the next week.  At week's end, he had an excuse for not paying, and the next week he had an even better one, and so it went on for almost a year.  Finally, one day the man approached Weisenthal with a $10 bill in hand and said:  "My visa has just come through.  I'm leaving for canada tomorrow,  Here's the $10 I owe you."  Weisenthal waved him away and said:  "No, keep it.  For $10 it's not worth changing my opinion of you.”

The story rings true, doesn’t it?  So many times, we get so invested in our hurts, our slights, our anger, that we find it difficult to let them go.

Somewhere here tonight is a man who is painfully remembering how he was deceived a partner in business, or a parent, a child, a lover, or friend.....and that memory is like a hot coal – burning angry red in the pit of his stomach.

Somewhere here tonight there is a wife who is so angry at her husband that she is ready to leave him. 

Somewhere a son is seething with resentment that his mother could treat him so badly.  

Somewhere a parent has written off a daughter for her misdeeds. 

Somewhere there is a friend who is deeply hurt by another. 

Somewhere, everywhere – we all have been wronged.  For just as we have sinned, we also have been sinned against by others.

We hold on to our grudges.  They become familiar, habitual, a part of us – and they steal from us our ability to see the holiness – not only in others, but also in ourselves.

Our task – on this Yom Kippur – is to find the strength to ask for forgiveness – and the ability to forgive when we are asked. 

But what is even more important, we are also charged tonight with forgiving those who will not admit that they have wronged us – who won’t or can’t ask for forgiveness – and that is the most difficult task of all.  We need resolution – and when it is not forthcoming –we are trapped by our emotions.  When we hold on to our anger, our resentment, our sense of righteous indignation, we also are allowing ourselves to be controlled by these feelings that sap our capacity to move on and channel our energy from hatred and anger into love and compassion.

Now I also understand that there are some actions that are truly unforgiveable.  Victims of abuse have shared with me their struggle to move on and rid themselves of the anger and fear that they feel when they recall the actions of their abusers. Those who have had loved ones harmed or even murdered by others must deal with both their grief and their anger. But some of these brave souls have also have shared that, through hard work and the support of caring individuals, they can move beyond the fear and hatred.  They understand that holding on to anger and resentment  keeps them linked eternally  to the person who caused their pain in the first place.  This is not an easy process – it takes years of difficult and painful therapy – but it can be done…. These chains can be broken.

Maimonides final step is resolution.  What happens when we are confronted with the same opportunity to sin for which we have asked forgiveness?  Will we succumb?  Will we find the inner strength to resist the temptations that lie in wait for us?  This is the final test of the process of teshuvah. 

A story is told of a rabbi who on the eve of Yom Kippur asked his students, “How far is it from east to west?”  One student eagerly responded, “Hundreds of miles!”  Another shouted, “No, thousands!”  A third proudly replied, “Twenty-two thousand! That’s the circumference of the globe.” 

The rabbi shook his head then calmly spoke, “My children, the distance from east to west is just one step.  Just put one foot forward and turn yourself around.”

Tonight all of us are equal before God.

Tonight we need to pay the fines and move on.

Tonight we recognize, renounce, confess, apologize and resolve to change our deeds.

And so, my friends, once again – as I do every year – I ask you:  To whom do you need to ask for forgiveness?  Who do you need to forgive – whether they ask you for it or not? 

Now is the time – don’t wait until it is too late – that is the message of these Yamim Noraim – these Days of Awe –and especially this holiest of days when we stand before God – in all of our weakness, our mortality and our potential for holiness. Do it.  Ask for and grant forgiveness.  Don’t allow fear, guilt, resentment or anger to control you.  These five steps can and will change your life and your relationships.  I promise.

May we all find the strength within ourselves to take the necessary steps towards Teshuvah.  

And may we learn to drive the speed limit – especially on the way to the airport!.


G’mar Chatimah Tovah