Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Four Weeks of Elul 5774 – Week One

The Four Weeks of Elul 5774 – Week One

My Dear Friends,

Today, August 26, 2014, marks the eve (Rosh Chodesh) of first day of the Hebrew month of Elul – the month preceding the High Holy Days. It is customary during this holy month to begin intensive personal preparations for the New Year. This process, called Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh – ‘an inventory of our souls’ – requires that each of us engage in a process of self-examination. We need to look closely at our relationships, thoughts, deeds, fears and dreams. We do this so that we can enter into the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – spiritually and personally refreshed and prepared for the process of teshuvah (repentance/returning). This is the time when our tradition teaches that we need to ask those around us whom we have wronged to forgive us for our actions. We are also commanded to forgive those who ask us as well.

As we reflect back over the past year, it is important that we put every aspect of our lives into perspective. It has become my custom, during the month of Elul to send out weekly lists of seven questions (one for each day of the week) to members of our community and to all who wish to receive them. These questions are designed to help us examine our lives in all of the varied aspects and arenas in which we live: Spiritual, Physical, Interpersonal and Communal. Hopefully, by answering these questions we will be better prepared to enter into the New Year. The purpose of these questions is not to make us feel bad or unworthy, but rather to “nudge” us into looking at these vitally important aspects of our lives. There will be seven questions in each list – one for every day of the week.

This has been a difficult summer. We have watched as Israel has been attacked – on the battlefield and in the cities and towns where missiles fall indiscriminately on innocent civilians. Israel has faced crises before. But somehow this time feels different. It is not only the Jewish State that is facing attacks, but Jews all over the world are being singled out for violence and demonization in the media, online and in the streets of our cities. As we approach the Yamim Noraim our process of Cheshbon takes on new significance as we struggle to understand our Jewish selves in light of the rising tide of Anti-Semitism that has poisoned the waters of rational discourse and contemplation.

It seems as though everywhere we look the world is in a tailspin. From the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, to the riots on the streets of Ferguson, MO; from the outbreaks of Ebola in Africa to the aggressive invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops – international paradigms are shifting and standards of behavior are in a constant flux.

Our task, as we enter into this sacred time, is to try to make sense of what we are experiencing and, if we can’t do this, than at least to reconnect with our own values. This is not easy – and, truth be told, it’s not supposed to be.

I welcome your comments and suggestions for additional questions and formats that we can use.   If answering these questions causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbi Immerman, Cantor Heit, canto Sacks and I would welcome the opportunity.  Note that all of these materials will also be available in hard copy at the Temple Office.  They also will be posted on my blogs and linked to both our website and Facebook Page. If you know of anyone else who might want to receive these mailings – whether or not they are members of the congregation, please contact the Temple office and we will be happy to send them out.

Week One: Spiritual Selves

As we enter the month of Elul, we must examine our spiritual lives. Spirituality is one of those words that mean different things to different people. For the purposes of this list of questions, I want you to focus on Spirituality as referring to those aspects of your life that help you to feel connected to something greater than yourself. We grow spiritually when we feel that our lives have meaning and purpose and that we are part of a Divine Plan. The liturgy of the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – is filled with the language of God’s judgment. Rather than perceive this is a negative or punitive light, try to imagine that we are being judged for the way that we fulfill the spiritual potential that God has given us.

This week's questions deal with our Spiritual Selves. During this time of Chesbon Ha Nefesh, one of our tasks is to examine the status of our relationship with God, Torah, and our own mortality. As always, the following questions should not be perceived as a complete listing – they are merely a beginning. If you have other questions that you think may help others in our community, I would love to receive them.


  1. Has my faith been shaken by the painful news of world tragedies we all have experienced over the past few weeks.
  2. When/where was the last time I felt close to God?
  3. Have I been able to catch glimpses of the Divine in the faces of those whom I love?
  4. What aspects of my personality reflect the values that I have inherited from my family? From society? From Popular culture? From my own inner holiness?
  5. When was the last time I was able to pray without any distraction?
  6. How often, during the course of the past year, have I been able to set aside my own needs for something bigger than myself?
  7. If I were put in the position of explaining my beliefs to others, would I feel comfortable in doing so?

May you utilize these and all of your questions to help you gain a better understanding of your spiritual selves.

L’Shanah Tovah,
Rabbi Joe Black

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Summer to build Your Life On - August 15, 2014

Five years ago, when I first applied for the position of Sr. Rabbi at Temple Emanuel and was invited to come for a visit, I remember looking at the Shwayder Camp plaque in the hallway and seeing the words: 
“ A Summer to Build Your Life On…”

 I thought to myself—hmmmm, that sentence is grammatically incorrect!  It should say, “A Summer on which to Build Your Life.” 

But sentence-ending prepositions notwithstanding, that slogan will not be changing any time in the near future because Shwayder Camp values its traditions and legacies.  And I can live with that.  As a matter of fact, I can do more than live with it – I celebrate not only the grammatically incorrect slogan, but also its truth.

Shwayder camp is place where lives are built, friendships are made, God is found – in the music, the mountains, the moments of prayer and the many traditions and cherished spaces that have forged so many incredible memories over the past 65 years.

Yes, lives are built during Shwayder Summers.  Character is strengthened and Judaism and Jewish life are brought to new heights – not only because of the close proximity of the heavens at 10,200 feet, but because of that “Shwayder Magic” that is infused through ever experience and memory that thousands of campers have been blessed to receive.

Shwayder Camp is also a place where we teach our children to strengthen their relationship to Judaism and the State of Israel.  In a time when Israel is being attacked – physically, economically and existentially -- we desperately need places where we can expose our Jewish children to Israeli counselors and campers as well as providing them with multiple opportunities to learn to love and celebrate the Jewish State.

Temple Emanuel is uniquely blessed by this bequest of the estate of Maurice B. Shwayder.  Every summer, we are entrusted with the precious souls of our campers, SIT’s, senior staff and everyone and anyone who survives the drive up the camp road and enters into our sacred space in the mountains.  We do not take that responsibility lightly.  We should never take Shwayder for granted.  There are only 3 other congregations in the country that have their own summer camps.  The legacy of the past 65 summers truly sets Temple Emanuel apart.  Tonight we begin our anniversary celebration but the work of strengthening Shwayder will continue long after this weekend is concluded – through the support of everyone here, through the dedication of our Shwayder staff, the parents who send their children to camp and the donors to our Shwayder Capital Campaign who will make it possible for future generations to experience Shwayder magic. 

Tonight we will try to capture and encapsulate the love that Shwayder has generated.  At the end of our service, we should feel a profound sense of gratitude and amazement that we have been privileged to have a place to build our lives on……

Shabbat Shalom