Thursday, December 7, 2017

Reflections on President Trump’s Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital and the Proposed move of the US Embassy in Israel

My Dear Friends,

I write this reflection while attending the Biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)-a gathering of almost 6,000 committed Reform Jews from across North America and around the world. 

Yesterday, our president recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel and pledged to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As you can imagine, this statement has reverberated throughout the hallways, workshops and plenary sessions at the Biennial. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ President, in a statement released immediately following President Trump’s speech, wrote:

“President Trump’s ill-timed, but expected, announcement affirms what the Reform Jewish Movement has long held: that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Yet while we share the President’s belief that the U.S. Embassy should, at the right time, be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we cannot support his decision to begin preparing that move now, absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process. Additionally, any relocation of the American Embassy to West Jerusalem should be conceived and executed in the broader context reflecting Jerusalem’s status as a city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.”

While I share Rabbi Jacob’s concerns about the timing, messaging and potentially dangerous impact of President Trump’s decision, I also cannot help but feel a sense of excitement. The moral, political and spiritual truths that are encompassed by this announcement resonate within the context of both my love of Israel and the fundamental beliefs that define me - as a rabbi, as a Jew and a committed Zionist. I have always viewed the deliberate dance that previous administrations have had to perform vis-a-vis the status of Jerusalem to be more than a bit hypocritical. To obfuscate around the reality that The City of Peace is, has been and always will be the Eternal Capital of the Jewish people is to set aside thousands of years of history. Jerusalem is embossed upon the hearts minds of the Jewish people. We pray facing Jerusalem. At the conclusion of our Passover seders we affirm: “L’shanah ha-baah B’Yerushalayim -Next year in Jerusalem.”  To walk upon the streets of Jerusalem is to immerse oneself in the fabric of our faith and the axis of Jewish experience.

And yet, despite all of the emotional tugs on my heartstrings when I hear the Leader of the Free World proclaim the truths that should be obvious to all, I cannot help but worry about the ramifications of our President’s statement.  While I have no illusions that the enemies of Israel are constantly on the lookout for reasons to condemn her, I also understand that the complexities of peace are not easily addressed by grandiose proclamations that pander to constituencies that hunger for something positive from the White House upon which they can hang their hats. If I truly believed that this change was the beginning of a cohesive and coherent policy that has a chance of paving a way towards peace between Israel and her neighbors, I would be shouting for joy. Unfortunately, the past months of this presidency have shown us that many policy decisions are not the result of careful analysis. The tendency of our leader to shoot from the hip in order to appease his base have cost our country a great deal of prestige and our diplomatic power is greatly diminished.  I fear that this gesture of dramatic change might very well serve to weaken, not only the United States, but Israel as well.

I hope that my concerns are unfounded and that this move might be positive.  I would love nothing more than to be proven wrong about this. I also understand that many, if not most of us, are confused and concerned about the immediate aftermath of this pronouncement.  If history is to be a judge, and if the shouts of hatred and calls for violence by Israel’s enemies are to be heeded, we could be in for a very difficult time over the next few weeks and days.  Time will tell.  

Now our sacred task is to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.  I plan to write and speak more about this upon my return from the Biennial.

Shalom from Boston,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Monday, November 13, 2017

My Mother's Kristallnacht Reflections

My Mother, Sophie Black (z"l) was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1926.  On November 9th, 1938, when she was 12 years old, she and her parents, Abram and Esther Koven, hid from hordes of brown-shirted Nazi thugs who systematically destroyed Jewish businesses, synagogues and other institutions in what is now known as Kristallnacht - the "Night of Broken Glass."  Historians see this event as a pivotal moment in the unfolding of Hitler's Final Solution.  As you will read below, Sophie was able to escape Germany a few weeks following that terrible night, but those memories haunted her the rest of her life.

Each year, at her Synagogue - Beth Emet, in Evanston, IL, she would share reminiscences of her experiences on Kristallnacht.  I don't have copies of all of her speeches, but I shared the following at Shabbat services at Temple Emanuel on Friday night, November 10, 2017.  Here is the text that she delivered on November 5, 2010:

                Several events occurred in the month of November during the last century which are of vital importance to the Jewish people.  The most recent was on November 4, the fifteenth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which is within memory of many in this room.  However, the one upon which I wish to focus this evening took place in Germany in 1938 during the night between November 9 and 10.  History books refer to it as Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass.  I remember those days 72 years ago most vividly and want to share a few memories with you.
                Some historical references are necessary.  In the middle of October 1938 the Polish government issued a decree threatening to deprive all Polish citizens living in Germany of their Polish passports.  This Polish measure was widely regarded as an action directed primarily against Jews, and fearing that thousands of Jews were about to be marooned in Germany, the German government turned the tables on the Poles and rapidly deported Jews who held Polish citizenship to the Polish border. They were unable to take more than a small suitcase with them, and what happened to their belongings and businesses is not available in history books.  No one in Poland had anticipated this, and when the trains arrived during the last days of October 1938 at the border between Germany and Poland, the German guards forced the people off the trains, but the Polish border guards refused to let them step unto Polish soil. 
                For several days it was utter chaos at the borders.  Eventually people were settled some place in Poland, and after the Second World War broke out in September of the following year, many of those were sent to the death camps.  Whatever lives they had, after deportation from Germany, were difficult, to say the least. 
                In 1938 Herschel Grynszpan was a young man living in Paris with relatives.  He was born in Germany, had arrived in France earlier that year, but his parents remained in Germany.  They were Polish citizens and were subjected to the deportation.  When he learned of their fate, he went berserk, bought a gun, and went to the German embassy in Paris.  He asked to speak to a person in charge, was sent to a deputy called Ernst von Rath, and shot him.  Von Rath died two days later.  Grynszpan’s fate is unknown.  There are various stories; one even suggests that he survived the war years in prison in Germany, returned to France, and lived out his life with a new identity.
                Kristallnacht, which in German records is referred to as the spontaneous reaction to Grynszpan’s deed, provided the Nazi government with the opportunity to remove all vestiges of Jewish life from German soil.  Synagogues were totally destroyed; businesses could not be continued, unless they were managed by Germans.  All Jewish schools were closed, and every man could expect to be arrested and taken to a concentration camp.
                My parents and I went into hiding on Friday, November 10.  We were scheduled to leave for America a week later, and the only reason we were able to keep that date was because we were not at home, when the Gestapo came to arrest my father.  I remember the days in hiding as terribly tense times.  We were not personally affected by the Polish deportations, because my parents did not carry Polish passports.  They were stateless persons, having fled from the Ukraine in 1920, which cost them their citizenship.  My father had built up a business in Leipzig, and until 1933 life was quite good.  However, he realized quickly that there was no future for Jews in Germany after 1933, and being an ardent Zionist, he made numerous attempts to get certificates for the three us to immigrate to Palestine.  However, his lack of citizenship was a deterrent, and in the spring of 1938 he asked his sister in America to send him an affidavit.  She did, and that accounted for our scheduled departure.
                We had reservations on the boat called The New Amsterdam, and when we left Leipzig on November 19, we were scheduled to go to Rotterdam.  The trip to the Dutch border was about four hours long, and those were literally the longest hours of my life.  I was terribly frightened.  Would the border guards let us cross?  Would they let my father leave?  Where would they take us, should they not allow us to leave?  However, we were in luck; everything passed smoothly, and suddenly we were in Holland.  Nevertheless, it took several days, before I was able to get rid of the dread that had settled in the pit of my gut.
                The impact of an experience such as Kristallnacht is hard to describe.  No matter how one turns the events, there are always unanswered questions.  I think about my classmates.  Half of them did not survive the Shoah.  I think about my parents’ friends, who did not make it out of Germany.  And I think about people who were able to carry out the cruelties and horrors that took place in Germany, and I have no answer.  All one can do is to hope and to pray that such events will never occur again, and that people will finally accept that we are all created in the image of God.  I pray that the Eternal One will stay close to us and will give us the vitality to make the world a good place for all people, so that everyone will be able to walk in peace and achieve fulfillment.  Keyn y’hi ratson.(May it be God's will.)

SKB – November 5, 2010                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Monday, November 6, 2017

Guns and Idol Worship

PHOTO: Investigators work at the scene of a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Nov. 5, 2017. (Jay Janner/ via AP)
Once again, our nation is reeling from senseless and tragic mass shootings.  This week the victims were at a Wall Mart near Denver and a small church in rural Texas.  Last week they were in Las Vegas.  While the locations may shift, the basic details are familiar and rapidly becoming routine.  A lone gunman – usually a white male with anger issues and easy access to high-powered weaponry indiscriminately shoots into a crowd of innocent bystanders.  Whether it takes place in a school, movie theater, store, concert or place of worship, the bloodshed and carnage caused by military-grade rifles in the hands of alienated men has been swift, effective and deadly.  These attacks have become relentless and commonplace. According to the Gun Violence Archive, the Texas church shooting was the 307th such incident in 2017[i].  For those keeping track, that is more than 1 such shooting a day. 

Invariably, in the aftermath of a gun violence incident, angry voices from all sides of the political spectrum shout their talking points:
  • From the anti-gun forces we hear calls for sane gun laws.
  • From the NRA and other gun lobbies, we hea r about protecting the second amendment with calls for more “good guys” with guns to prevent the “bad guys” from carrying out their plans.  Instead of curbing gun sales, we should instead ensure that every American is armed and ready.
Politicians call for thoughts and prayers.  Police and first responders are praised.  The dead are buried.  The wounded are treated and those who were not directly impacted by the tragedy go on with their daily lives. Those in the line of fire, or whose loved ones are victims, however, suffer irreparable physical and psychological damage.  Nothing changes.  We move on and wait until the next tragedy occurs.

This cannot continue.

It is time to acknowledge the fact that when much of the discourse around these tragic events revolves around legislation and personal freedom, we are missing another underlying cause of this national crisis: that of Idolatry.

Let me explain.  In Jewish tradition, Idolatry is not merely praying to objects.  It is a state of mind.  It is a way of perceiving our relationship to the world around us. Idolatry creates a belief that human beings are the ultimate arbiters of meaning and purpose in life. An Idolater believes that his or her own creation is more powerful than the natural order.  To worship a “thing” is to override the mystery, beauty and meaning of our relationship with God and community.  The Bible opposes idols because they isolate us from the holiness that surrounds us.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that Shabbat is the antidote to “thingness.”  Judaism does not find holiness in things, but rather in Time.  When we focus on the physical, on objects of our own creation, we engage in acts of hubris that block out the potential for holiness and Godliness to enter into our lives[ii].  It also removes us from community – the central value of Jewish identity.

Much of the discourse around gun control seems to revolve around the questions of personal freedom and individual rights. Restricting access to firearms is perceived by many gun advocates as limiting our access to power.  Guns protect us.  Guns keep us safe.  Guns make us feel better about ourselves. They also isolate us from one another and the values that strengthen community. The myth of the rugged individual who stands above the fray and maintains peace through strength is the bedrock of our national consciousness. The Firearms Lobby would have us believe that placing limits on gun ownership is a form of emasculation that will ultimately not only remove our ability to defend ourselves in times of danger, but also is profoundly anti-American.  To take away our weapons is to take away our freedom.

As each violent incident occurs, the rhetoric ramps up.  The NRA and its partners are spending millions of dollars on advertising campaigns that cast attempts to limit access to firearms as a threat, not only to liberty, but to human rights.  Anti-gun forces are portrayed as “elites” who want to impose their beliefs on a nation that is defenseless – save for their own personal protection.  The gun lobby appears to be warning its supporters to prepare for an epic, apocalyptic battle between the forces for good (pro-gun) and the forces of evil (gun control)[iii].

Through its lobbying efforts, the NRA has also made it practically impossible to measure the impact of firearms on society[iv].  There are no pathways to compromise.  Politicians are beholden to and afraid of the money and power exerted by the gun lobby in Washington. Working for sane gun legislation is akin to blasphemy and political suicide.  As such, the only form of discourse available to us is polemical.  This creates a climate where weapons become sacred objects worthy of veneration.  Those who perish in gun-related tragedies can be seen as sacrifices to the gods of Freedom and the 2nd Amendment.

I am not opposed to firearms, per se.  I know many good people who own them. I am, however, strongly opposed to hiding behind the false god of personal freedom in order to worship at the cult of death and destruction that has been unleashed by the NRA and its allies.

[ii] Cf. AJ Heschel’s seminal work, The Sabbath
[iii] Cf. this recent ad published on NRA TV:
[iv]The 1996 appropriations bill, known as the Dickey Amendment declared that "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” C.f.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Getting “Woke”- Yom Kippur Morning, 5778

Getting “Woke” 
Yom Kippur Morning, 5778
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel- Denver, CO

My Dear Friends,
A story is told of the untimely death of a man who left behind a young wife.  After the initial period of mourning had ended, the deceased’s widow purchased a grave-marker and set the date for the unveiling.  As the time for the unveiling came closer, the widow discovered, to her dismay, that her husband had not been completely honest with her.  In fact, instead of providing her with financial security, he left her with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt – the result of some questionable investments.   She also found out that he was not entirely faithful to her during the course of their marriage.   As you can imagine, she was devastated.  She was also very angry.  It was too late to cancel the unveiling:  guests had been invited and the stone had already been ordered and carved with an inscription.  She called the monument company to see if anything could be done and they told her that while they could not cancel the stone or erase the engraving, they could add something to the inscription – but it had to one of their “standardized” texts – to personalize it any more would be prohibitively expensive.  She asked for a list of standard inscriptions and eventually she found one to her liking.
The day of the unveiling arrived and the widow came with her friends and family to the cemetery.  When the stone was unveiled, everybody present saw two inscriptions – the old and the new -  side by side, which read: “Rest in peace…..Until we meet again.”
It’s a funny story -but it also belies a hidden truth that calls out to us on this Yom HaKippurim – this day of Atonement.  There are moments in our lives when we are confronted with a truth that we didn’t ask for and didn’t want to know about, but once we hear it or see it, we have no choice but to act upon what we have learned. 
And so, this morning, I want to talk about how we look at the world and how our preconceptions and closely held notions of who we are can sometimes put us in places and positions that take us out of our comfort zones and force us to either live in denial by shutting out the reality in front of us, or rethink our priorities and take a stand for a cause that we know is just.
A good example of this was how, this past week, we all were placed on the sidelines of the NFL watching as players, coaches, pundits and our president weighed in on the practice of athletes kneeling during the singing of our national anthem.  To some, kneeling is sign of disrespect - to our nation and its flag.  To others, it is a powerful form of protest – not against the flag or our nation, but against systematic racism and injustice against people of color that continues to exist in the face of denials by those in power. Both sides have let their feelings be heard – loudly and clearly.  Ideally, the national conversation sparked by this controversy could have paved the way for dialogue and understanding among different communities.  Unfortunately, that does not seem to be happening. If anything, the opposite has occurred.  There are many who delight in and profit off of the division that is being sown, the polarization we are experiencing, and the demonization of the opposition that is taking place all around us.  As I have lamented for some time, dialogue has been replaced by diatribe in our society and civility is paying the price.  We either do not want or are unable to listen to one another anymore.
There’s a phrase that originated in Black culture that I learned in the context of interfaith and inter-religious dialogue.  I am uncomfortably aware that using this phrase could be seen by some as an act of cultural appropriation – but I think that its meaning and history can help us to understand an important and necessary reality that we all face.  The phrase is: 
“Getting woke”
Getting “woke” means that you have been enlightened to important issues that confront us as a society:  issues such as institutionalized racism, religious and ethnic persecution, environmental pollution and economic injustice. When someone is “woke,” they no longer can ignore the inequities that surround them.   The Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan, perhaps anticipated and expressed this concept best in the 1960’s when he asked the question: “How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?”
Moses was Woke.
In the book of Exodus we read how this child of privilege – who grew up in Pharaoh’s household - went out “…to his kinfolk”.  He saw a taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave and when he saw that no one else was doing anything to stop the violence, he stepped in and slew the Egyptian[i].
Moses was not alone. If you think about it, “waking up” or “getting woke” is a central motif that has always been present throughout literature and popular culture:

  •   From Jacob’s ladder to Hamlet’s ghost;
  • From the black and white of Kansas to the technicolor splendor of the Land of Oz;
  •  From Harry Potter’s Hogwart’s letter, to Oskar Schindler’s list      
our collective unconscious is indelibly linked with the idea that once we see the world as it really is we are forced to make a choice about whether we can accommodate the new reality with which we are confronted. Rabbi Shmuel ben Nahmani, is quoted in the Talmud as saying: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are[ii].”
A few years ago, I read an interesting book called Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlife by David Eagleman. It’s an easy read - consisting of 40 short contemplations about what the afterlife might be like. This is not a religious text – Eagleman is a neuroscientist, not a theologian. In his essays, God exists – but not in a way that we might recognize. Sometimes God is portrayed as a married couple, or a committee, or an entire species of dimwitted creatures that created us by mistake. In one essay, God is the size of a bacterium. In another there is no God at all and people in the afterlife battle over stories of God’s non-existence.
I want to share one portion of one of Eagleman’s essays. He writes:
When you die, you feel as though there were some subtle change, but everything looks approximately the same. You get up and brush your teeth. You kiss your spouse and kids and leave for the office. There is less traffic than normal. The rest of your building seems less full, as though it’s a holiday. But everyone in your office is here, and they greet you kindly. You feel strangely popular.
Everyone you run into is someone you know. At some point it dawns on you that this is the afterlife: the world is made up of people you’ve met before.
Eagleman continues to expound and expand on this concept – and it soon becomes clear that all the choices you made in this life are played out for eternity: the people you connected with in this world are the only people that exist in the next world. If you limited yourself in life – death is also limited. After a while – you see just how shallow or deep your life really was.
Eagleman’s afterlife is the world we create for ourselves. If we worked to make the world a better place – than the afterlife is a better place. If not – it is lonely, isolating and monotonous. How many of us currently live our lives in a narrowly defined, carefully crafted cocoon? How hard do we work to prevent ourselves from seeing, hearing or getting involved in things that make us uneasy or uncomfortable? How often do we change the channel when we hear news that upsets us?
The great theologian and social activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “…indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, … in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”[iii]
Elie Weisel taught: The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.[iv]
When we recite the Al Chet prayer – one of the key sins we confess is:
Al chet she chatanu lifanecha – b’imutz ha lev
“For the Sin we have committed against You by hardening our hearts.”
In other words, on this Yom Kippur we need to acknowledge the fact that when we harden our hearts to the truths around us, we sin against God and ourselves.  In order for change to occur; in order for our lives to be truly meaningful - we need to be committed to changing ourselves.  That is what this sacred day of Yom Kippur is all about. 
As we read a few moments ago in our Haftarah for Yom Kippur:
"Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?[v]"
Judaism teaches us that we have the ability to change the world – one action at a time. With that ability comes responsibility

  • to speak out when we see injustice
  •  to act when we can make a difference
  • to refrain from doing nothing when confronted with the need for change.
It is for this reason that I want to share with you a small portion of a statement published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis that many of my colleagues from within the Reform Rabbinate are also sharing during the High Holidays this year. It is entitled: 
One Voice for the New Year, 5778
The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” As Jews we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One chutzpadik medieval commentator teaches we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”
Today I speak words of protest, joining hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent. We will, without hesitation, decry any moral abdication of people in leadership who fuel hatred and division in our beloved country.
This is not a political statement.
We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action. We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All the people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.[vi]
I share this statement this morning not because of political philosophy, or liberal or conservative leanings, but because I cannot be silent when I see moral equivocation in the aftermath of neo-Nazi thugs marching through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. 
I share this statement because I see women being debased and degraded and their right to choose how they will take care of their own bodies is threatened. 
I share this statement because I see rights of my LGBT brothers, sisters and congregants threatened.
I share this statement because I see freedom of our press weakened by accusations of “fake news” that echo dangerous patterns of governmental repression against which we, as a nation have fought and for the sake of protecting, too many of our finest have died.
I share this statement because I am worried about the rise of anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia and intolerance that is plaguing our country and that has not been forcibly condemned by those whom we have chosen to lead.

I share this statement this morning aware that it may upset some of you.  If it does, that was not my intention – but instead of stewing over your feelings, or writing a anonymous note or email – call me.  Let’s sit down over a cup of coffee and talk to one another.  We may not agree, but at least we can disagree in a way that reflects the holiness and humanity that God has implanted within us.
I am aware that intolerance is a two-way street.  There are many on the left and the right of the political spectrum who have contributed to the climate of distrust and division that infects our nation.  There is a great deal of work to be done to bridge this divide.
My dear friends, this next year will be filled with challenges and opportunities. For those who are troubled by inequities - here in our own nation and around the world, we cannot sit silently. We are compelled to act.
As Jews, we are tasked with Tikkun Olam  - repairing our world. Today is about getting “woke” – about asking difficult questions about whether or not we did all that we could to bring about change.  We need to look at one another with compassion and understanding – regardless of who we are, how we voted, what we believe – how we live and how we love.  We can start by working together to make a difference.
Imagine what the world would be like if every person in this sanctuary went out of their way to volunteer or make a difference for two hours a week. Just two hours... Imagine what we could accomplish! I know that many of you do give of your time and resources in the community – you help those in need - you feed the hungry, you volunteer for Family Promise here at Temple or Habitat for Humanity. You sit on boards and share your knowledge and resources.  One thing that I want to ask of all of us as we continue the vital work of repentance and renewal that is the hallmark of this holy day:  The next time you read a tweet, or feel wronged, or find yourself overwhelmed by a feeling that nothing will ever change, do something to make the world a better place.  Volunteer. Send a letter to a loved one.  Call your mother…whatever you can do to change the negativity that surrounds us to something positive.  If you are “Woke” then use your awakened state to make the world a better place.
May the promise of this holy day help us all to bridge the gap between the world as it is – and the way that the world is supposed to be.
Amen - Gmar chatimah Tovah – May we all be sealed for an awakened  blessing in this New Year.

[i] Exodus 2:11-12
[ii] Talmud Bavli - Berakhot 55b.  Whether or not this is a proper translation of Rabbi Nahmani’s comment – which referred to our understanding and interpretation of dreams is under debate.  This quote was also ascribed to Anias Nin in her essay, “Seduction of the Minotaur.”  Cf.
[iii] AJ Heschel, "The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement" (1972); later included in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (1996)
[iv] US News & World Report (27 October 1986)
[v] Isaiah 58:6-7
[vi] Adapted from the statement:  “One Voice” Written by Rabbis Elka Abrahamson and Judy Shanks – edited by Rabbi Karen Kedar.  As of this writing, over 400 Reform Rabbis signed on to this statement and many delivered it from their pulpits.

On Becoming An Orphan. Kol Nidre 5778

My Dear Friends,
I want to begin this evening with a story.  One Yom Kippur morning, Rabbi Resnick noticed little Adam was staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the synagogue. It was covered with names, and small American flags were mounted on either side of it.
The seven-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the Rabbi walked up, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, "Good morning, Adam."
"Good morning, Rabbi," replied the young man, still focused on the plaque. "Rabbi Resnick, what is this?" Adam asked.
"Well, it's a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service."
Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Little Adam's voice was barely audible when he asked: "Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service?"
It’s an old joke…but I still like it.
The truth is, these sacred days – from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur – take us on a journey that explores the essence of our mortality. The messages of these High Holy Days, in their purest form – are about life and death.  Think about it:  10 days ago we celebrated the birthday of the world.  We reveled in the new-ness of creation.  Rabbi Immerman’s powerful and poignant Rosh HaShanah sermon- dedicated to his soon-to-be born child – inspired many of us to tears as we shared in his and Jenny’s hope, fear and joy in anticipation of new life.  As he so beautifully taught us, on Rosh HaShanah we say: “Hayom Harat Olam” – on this day the world was created.
On Rosh HaShanah we are reborn. We are called to action – to make a difference – to do the work of Teshuvah and prepare ourselves for the awesome power of THIS DAY – This moment – yom ha kippurim – the day of Reckoning.
While Rosh HaShanah is all about celebrating life, Yom Kippur is about coming to terms with death.  The traditions surrounding this sacred day both reflect and revolve around our own mortality.

  • We recite a confessional similar to what our tradition teaches is said upon a death bed. 
  • We refrain from eating and focusing on the physical 
  • We deny ourselves – in essence, we rehearse our own death.

The Kol Nidre prayer – chanted so beautifully by Cantor Sacks, is preceded by the ancient formula:  B’yeshiva Shel Malah, u’vyishivah shel matah, anu matirin l’hitpaleyl im ha-avarynaim:
o   In the heavenly court of judgement, and in the courts here on earth, we are permitted to pray with “Avaryanim”.
In previous years, I have talked about the meaning of the word, Avaryanim.  It usually is understood as referring to those who have committed Averot - transgressions, but there are other possible translations.
Another way to understand the meaning of Avaryanim can be found in the most basic translation of the word.  The Hebrew word, Avar – the root of Avaryanim – means “that which is past.” In this light, the prelude to Kol Nidre can thusly be translated: 
o   In the heavenly court of judgement, and in the courts here on earth, we are permitted to pray with “those who have passed on”.
You see, Yom Kippur is not only about confronting our own death, it also is about acknowledging the fact that those whom we love are also mortal.
One of the truths of synagogue life is that people like to sit in the same seats every year.  As we gather together in this sacred place, at this holy time, I see so many faces of men, women and children who, over the past 7 years have become an integral part of my life and that of our congregation. I know where to look for you – in the same seats, every year. And yet, I can also see there are also faces that are no longer here.  We have lost many wonderful members of our community over the past year. So many of us tonight are thinking about loved ones who used to sit among us – but who are now among the Avaryanim – the ones who have passed on. 

This has been a very difficult year for our family.  Amos Rosenbloom, Sue’s father - my father in law – died in April. Two months later, my mother, Sophie Black, was taken from us.  Death and loss have been very prominent in our thoughts. This year, I stand in front of you, for the first time, as an orphan.
It seems strange, at 58 years old, to be calling myself an orphan, but the process of coming to terms with the finality of losing both parents – no matter how old you are or they were -- is both sobering and startling.  For those of us who were lucky enough to have parents who lived to a ripe old age, while intellectually we understood that one day they would be gone, the pain of loss after having shared the blessing of their presence for so long is still palpable.
My mother was fairly healthy until she had a stroke one day after we celebrated her 91st birthday.  4 months later she was gone. Prior to her stroke, we used to talk on the phone several times a day - and she would invariably call me at the worst possible time – usually in the midst of a staff meeting.  My colleagues would joke whenever my cell phone would ring and say “Hi Sophie” before I answered her call. Sometimes she would have a question for me, or she would have important news to share. But as the realities of aging meant that her world grew smaller and smaller, her calls were less about sharing information than they were about just wanting to hear my voice. Sue thinks that, in hindsight, perhaps she wanted to gift me with hearing her voice. 
As inconvenient as her frequent calls were at the time, I miss them.  To this day, I still find myself instinctively reaching for my phone to call her – or wanting to share a sermon or article with her that I have written. She was my biggest fan. Her phone number is still on my speed dial and I haven’t been able to remove it just yet. I still have several of her voice mails on my phone as well.  I can’t bring myself to erase them. 
The truth is, I’m not ready yet to be an orphan.  It’s still too raw.  There is a reason that, in Jewish tradition, a clearly defined path of mourning is set before us.  There are specific steps that take us from the shock of the immediacy of death, through the pain of the funeral, to the 7 days of Shiva, the 30 days of Sheloshim and the 11 months of mourning until the Yahrtzeit.  Not everybody chooses to observe each phase of the traditional mourning process. But the wisdom of our tradition is powerful in the way that it helps us to process our loss.  As your rabbi, I feel incredibly humbled and honored to have been able to help many of you walk the same path.  As Sue and I follow it now, we feel blessed to have had many of you by our sides who have provided comfort and consolation during the immediacy of our parents’ death and continue to send notes and check in with us to see how we are doing.
As I thought about what I have learned and continue to learn as I make my way on this journey of mourning, I focused on one of the central prayers in the High Holiday Liturgy – the Unetaneh Tokef - that compels us to contemplate our own mortality during these 10 days of coming to grips with both life and death.
“Unetaneh tokef k’dushat hayom”  it teaches.Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day.” Today God sits in judgement:  Who shall live and who shall die?”
For those who have lost loved ones since the last time these words were uttered, the message of the Unetaneh Tokef is painful. It also is very real. 
This year, in preparing for this sermon, I found new meaning in the text. There was a message that was hiding in plain sight – but I could not see it without the perspective of loss.  The last words of the prayer are:
Uteshuvah, Utefillah, Utzedakah maavirin et roa ha gezerah
 But Repentence, Prayer and Righteous acts -- temper judgement’s severe decree.
It’s important to note that the text does not say that these three actions change God’s decree.  Our mortality is not subject to bargaining or manipulation.  The text teaches that these three acts temper God’s decree.  The truth is, it’s hard to accurately translate Ma-avirin in English.  It comes from the same root as Avaryanim – the word about which I spoke earlier.  Its root is also Avar - to pass.  Perhaps, in this light, the Untetaneh tokef is being addressed – not only to our awareness of our own finitude – but also towards how we might confront the death of those whom we love.
Perhaps these three actions: 
  •  Teshuvah – repentance,
  • Tefillah – Prayer, and
  • Tzeddakah – righteous acts,
can help those of us who mourn pass through the stages of grief and come to terms with our loss. Maybe this powerful prayer is teaching us how to live our lives as we become increasingly aware of our own mortality and that of those whom we love.

So with this understanding, let’s explore together what this means for us on this holiest of nights:
Teshuvah, which we translate as “repentance,” also means “return.”  The process of returning and repenting forces us to go back to our roots – to trace our actions that led us from wholeness to brokenness. 
One of the difficult tasks that faces every orphan is settling one’s parents’ estate.  In addition to certifying death certificates, closing bank accounts and insurance policies, we also go through personal papers and records.  In the process of sorting through my mother’s things, my sister and I discovered that she kept everything - and I mean everything. She was a librarian – so she kept a veritable treasure trove of report cards from elementary and Hebrew school, letters from camp, attendance awards, artwork, embarrassing photos, old papers from high school and college and just about anything else you can imagine – all catalogued and in the proper place.
The process of emptying out the remnants of a lifetime’s worth of possessions also brought back a flood of memories.  An image that will be indelibly linked in my consciousness is that of my sister, Nina and me, and all of our children and spouses, sitting on the floor with piles of papers – deciding what we needed to keep and what could be discarded.  There was a lot of laughter.  There were quite a few tears as well.
For several years, my mother wrote and delivered an address at her synagogue about her memories of living through Krystallnacht – the “night of the Broken Glass” when, on November 9th, 1938 – as a 12 year old girl - she witnessed Nazi thugs parading through the streets of her city, Leipzig, Germany - smashing the windows of Jewish-owned businesses, burning Synagogues and chanting anti-Semitic tropes – some of the same chants that we saw and heard on the streets of Charlottesville, VA this past month. Each one of these memories is both powerful and painful. Finding and re-reading them together as family was both discomforting and cathartic.  As I wrote in the eulogy that I delivered at her funeral, I am thankful that, at the end of her life, my mother was not aware of the political upheaval that is taking place in America.  I don’t think that she would have been able to handle her fear of history repeating itself in this, her beloved adopted country.
But the process of returning that Teshuvah represents is not only limited to pouring through old records and artifacts.  Part of our task as mourners is also reclaiming relationships.  My father died 6 years ago, but the truth is that the man I remember from my childhood and early adulthood was taken away from us many years before his heart stopped beating.  His memories were stolen by the cruelty of Alzheimer’s disease.  The last few times I saw him, he didn’t recognize me.  Part of the process of returning – of Teshuvah - that I now find myself engaging in revolves around remembering and celebrating who he was when he was in his prime.  I remember his beautiful voice as he chanted Torah in our synagogue. I remember his laughter and the twinkle in his eyes – as well as the joy he felt in playing with his grandchildren.
When our loved ones are alive, we see them in the present.  We see their decline as death approaches as well.  If there is a blessing to be found in orphanhood it is in the capacity to recapture the memories of our parents in their prime – full of life without the debilitating indignities of disease.  Returning to these precious memories is an essential part of the mourner’s path that can be defined through the process of Teshuvah.

Tefillah -prayer – does come easy to most of us.  When we pray, we look inward and take stock in ourselves and our souls.  Prayer is one of the most personal acts that we can perform. It is also one of the most public. If prayer is talking to God, faith in God means affirming that someone is listening and that someone cares about who we are and what we have to say.
Becoming an orphan can lead us to prayer.  When our parents are living, we know that we are not alone: there is someone who loves and cares for and about us unconditionally.  Even when illness robs them of their ability to function, their physical presence assures us of where we came from and, hopefully, reminds us how we learned to love others by their example.  When they are taken from us, we need to find an avenue to replace that assurance. 
When we pray, we reach out to something beyond ourselves.  While prayer can be a solitary experience, Judaism teaches that it is vitally important that we not pray by ourselves, if possible.  Prayer is best experienced and carried out in community.  The act of saying kaddish - of standing up and exposing our grief – supported by those around you – is both agonizing and affirming.  When we pray we are not alone.  In confronting death, we reach out to the Source of Life and stand together with others who support us in our time of grief.
After we buried my mother in Chicago, we returned to my sister’s home for Shiva.  My sister is Orthodox and lives in a neighborhood that has the process of comforting mourners down to a well-oiled machine.  Friends had arranged food delivery and set up prayer-minyans for every day of the week except Shabbat – when, according to custom, Shiva is suspended.  Since my mother was a member of a Reform congregation, we had multiple services in Nina’s house – one for mom’s Reform community – with mixed seating, and another for the Orthodox community – with men and women separated. When Sue and I returned to Denver, our closest friends and colleagues organized services in our home so that we could pray in the midst of our community.  I will never forget the feeling of warmth we felt - knowing that we would not be alone in our grief. It gave us great comfort.  We experienced the same feeling when Sue’s father died earlier in the year and our friends rallied around us that time as well.

The third and final mitzvah listed in the Untetaneh Tokef  is, Tzeddakah – Acts of Righteousness.
In many ways, Tzeddakah is the ultimate act of coming to terms with loss.  Our actions reflect our values. Our values are bequeathed to us by those who gave us life. When we give Tzeddakah in the form of money, or when we perform acts of righteousness, we are carrying out the legacy of love that we have received.  As an orphan, I now realize that I am taking my place as an elder in my family and community.  As a parent, I understand that I have a responsibility to teach my children by example as my parents taught me.
My parents, while not wealthy, understood the importance of Tzeddakah – of righteous action.  They were very generous with their limited resources. They showed my sister and me, by example, how to help others in need.  They also taught us to speak out when we saw injustice and cruelty perpetrated by others.  The best way that I can honor their memory is by continuing to act in ways that they would – sharing what I have with others and not being afraid to call out and stand up to injustice wherever and whenever I see it.
There is a great deal of comfort in knowing that when I carry out the values bequeathed to me by my parents, I am celebrating their lives.

Uteshuvah, Utefillah, Utzedakah maavirin et roa ha gezerah
But Repentence, Prayer and Righteous acts temper judgement’s severe decree and help us to remember and honor those who have passed on.

My Dear Friends, tonight I speak to you both as your Rabbi and as an orphan.  For those of you who still have loved ones in your life, hold them close.  As I say every year from this pulpit on Yom Kippur – if you have any unfinished business– if there are words that are unsaid, if there are hard feelings or discord between you and the ones closest to you – what are you waiting for?  Life is too fleeting and precious to allow petty grudges  - or even our legitimate grievances – to keep us from giving and receiving the love that God gave us to share.  All of us are Avaryanim  - we are sinners and we are mortal.  Someday, we, too, will pass on. Don’t wait until you are an orphan to tell your parents that you love them.  Celebrate and share your love today and every day.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah – may we all be inscribed for a blessing in the book of life.
And call your mother.