Friday, November 23, 2018

Remarks at 2018 Interfaith Thanksgiving Service 11-22-18. Temple Emanuel - Denver, CO

Dear Friends:

Happy Thanksgiving!
I want to begin my remarks this morning with a very old story that many of you have probably heard….. but just in case you haven’t, it’s worth repeating.
There once was a Jewish man who was shipwrecked on a desert island for 10 years. One day, as he gazed out into the horizon, he saw a ship heading his way. He quickly built a bonfire to signal his location. Luckily, his signal was seen, and the ship sent out a rescue party.
The Captain of the ship himself accompanied the rescuers and the man greeted him with great joy. “Before we leave the island,” he asked his rescuer, “would you like a tour of the city I built?”  “Of course,” said the captain and he was amazed when he saw all that the man had created.
“Here is my home,” he said – pointing to a beautiful ranch complete with driveway and immaculately shaped hedges.
“Amazing!’ said the captain.
“And here is the school. And the power plant. And the Gym and the grocery store…”
The marooned man showed the ship captain beautiful building after beautiful building. When they came to the center of the town, the man turned to the tallest and most beautiful structure of them all. “Here,” he said, “is the most important building of all:  My synagogue!”
It truly was a wonder to behold. It had stained glass windows and gorgeous stonework. There was a large religious school and a beautifully landscaped lawn. There was even a cellphone tower in the parking lot.
“This is unbelievable!” said the captain. “But what is that building across the street?” – pointing to a smaller, but no less impressive edifice with a Jewish Star adorning the portico.
“That?” said the shipwrecked man with a tone of disdain.  That is the Synagogue that I would never set foot inside of!”
 I’ve actually heard that joke told about a Methodist and a Presbyterian as well….but no matter. It rings true. There’s something about human nature that craves and eventually creates conflict – even when there is no logical rationale for doing so. We tend to find ways to isolate the “others” in our lives.
In Jewish tradition, each week we read a portion of scripture – starting in the book of Genesis and moving through Deuteronomy. Jews all over the world read the portion – regardless of where they live or how they worship.
When we finish reading the last of the books – when Moses dies at the edge of the promised land, we immediately begin reading about the Creation of the world. There is no pause, no break – because learning never ends.
This week’s Torah portion from the Book of Genesis is called Vayishlach. It begins with the story of how Jacob prepares to meet his brother, Esau and wrestles with a mysterious stranger until daybreak. He emerges victorious, but limping from his battle.  He is given a new name, Israel – meaning the one who struggles with God.
But before Jacob encounters the stranger, he says the following prayer:

Two camps. Interesting choice of words, no? This could refer to the fact that Jacob, in preparation for confronting his estranged brother, Esau, has literally divided his family and possessions in two - just in case Esau attacks one camp – at the very least, the other can survive.
But it also can be interpreted as an example of Jacob’s success. In other words, what Jacob is saying, in essence, is: “God, when I started out on this journey – all I had was my walking stick. Now look at me:  successful, wealthy, with a large family and entourage.” And yet – as prosperous and blessed as he is, he still needs to confront his past. He awaits his brother Esau whom he has not seen since he cheated him out of his birthright. Jacob, at the height of his success, still struggles with the division that is both within him and around him.
This is an important concept for us to consider – not only at this Thanksgiving service – but also at a moment when we, as a nation, like Jacob, are so bitterly divided. I cannot recall another time in my adult life when the passions that are inflamed by our differences have cause so much anger, bitterness and division.
Divisiveness and conflict are not all bad – they are a part of human nature. Researchers have shown that conflict can be an important part of creativity and productivity. And yet, if not held in check, those same creative forces that propel us forward can also be dangerous and destructive. I firmly believe that recent rhetoric from our highest elected officials has fanned the flames of hatred and racism that lie just beneath the surface of society – waiting for an opportunity to break forth. This was especially evident in the lead up to and aftermath of our midterm elections.
Three and a half weeks ago, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a gunman opened fire on worshippers at a Saturday morning service. One day before Pittsburgh, a lone gunman opened fire at African American patrons of a Grocery store in Jeffersontown Kentucky after he was unable to access a local black church. Countless other shootings motivated by hatred and bigotry have taken place in our nation. And we do nothing. The death and destruction that these events have caused are byproducts of our divisions.  Words that not so long ago would have been instantly condemned by every decent sector of our nation are ignored or, even worse, amplified by the angry rhetoric of those who cynically manipulate fear to further their political or personal goals.
And today we come together – celebrating a festival whose message is the antithesis of hatred. Thanksgiving is a time for focusing on the blessings that we, as a nation and as individuals have received during the past year.
Giving Thanks is essential – but it’s not enough. It’s too easy to share a feast and put words to those things for which we are thankful, but if our words of appreciation are not accompanied by meaningful action, we abdicate our responsibility, as people created in the image of God, to bring godliness into the world. In times of darkness, we need to shine the light on the fearmongering, hypocrisy and bigotry that manifests itself in the chaos of divisiveness.
In the aftermath of the Tree of Life synagogue shootings, our community joined with thousands of other communities across our nation– and indeed around the world - as we convened in a solidarity vigil – here in our sanctuary. Just as we sit here today – from multiple faith traditions, every inch of space in this sacred place was filled. Over 3,000 souls spilled into the aisles, and stood against the walls.  Many of you were here. You filled our hallways and our overflow social hall seats when there was no more room. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Mormons, members of the LGBTQ community, elected officials, police officers and firefighters, people of multiple genders, ages, economic and political backgrounds came here because they  - YOU - needed to be here.  We wanted – desperately – not only to show solidarity with Pittsburgh and every other place where violence and ugliness reared their heads – but to be present with others who were as shocked, frightened and yes, angry as we were. Even though we all came from different backgrounds, we were all united in our determination to not allow hatred to define us; and to find the holiness – the godliness that is implanted within all of us.
The most important lesson that we can take home with us on this Thanksgiving is to strive to see that holiness – that godliness - in every person we meet – even in those with whom we disagree. We must embrace our differences – not be threatened by them. This is our sacred task at this most quintessential of American holidays: to celebrate and dedicate our actions so that we can inoculate ourselves from the evil that threatens to infiltrate into our daily discourse. If we leave this service feeling thankful – that is good, but not good enough. For thanks without acknowledgement of the need to make change is empty. May our prayers and fellowship propel us to see the holiness and the ugliness that surrounds us on all sides.
I want to conclude with a song that I wrote a few years ago. As you will recall, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai and encounters a bush that is burning but is not consumed. Our rabbis asked a question:  How did Moses know that the bush was not being consumed?  He had to stare at it for a long time before he could see that he was in the presence of a miracle. The text in Exodus says that Moses “turned aside to look at this marvel.” The act of turning – of looking for holiness in ourselves, our surroundings and those around us – is the best way for us to give thanks and see God’s presence all around us. And when holiness cannot be found – we are tasked with working to perfect this all too imperfect world in which we are blessed to live.
(YouTube Link:

The God In Me
Words and Music ©
Rabbi Joe Black – 2018

Moses on a mountain saw a bush that was all aflame
He turned aside to look then he heard God call his name
It wasn’t till he took the time for turning that he could see that the bush was burning
And that was when he found his destiny
We all need to learn to turn around ,just so we can see
The wonders that lay in our path, the God in you, the God in me

Huddled on a freeway ramp with a battered cardboard sign
She’s hungry, scared and homeless she hasn’t got a dime
The drivers in their cloistered cars pretend that they don’t see
They’re too afraid to turn their head and feel her misery
We all need to take the time to turn our heads and see
The ugliness that’s in our path, the God in you, the God in me

We turn away - We turn within
We hate to lose - We have to win
But if you turn - Turn  to see
The God in you  -The God in me.

We're always in a hurry can't afford to waste the time
Our heads are filled with worry we see every missed deadline
The rewards of all our labor we believe will set us free
When working is our passion we can forsake our family
We all need to learn to take the time to turn around and see
The loving that is in our lives, the God in you, the God in me

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Solidarity Shabbat After the Pittsburgh Tragedy

Parashat Chaye Sarah
Rabbi Joseph R. Black, Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO
November 2, 2018

Where were you last Saturday?
How did you hear about the tragic events that took place in Pittsburgh?

I was sitting in our Chapel, celebrating the Bat Mitzvah of a wonderful young girl when my Apple Watch started to buzz frantically with texts from colleagues, family members and concerned congregants. I normally do not respond to text messages in the middle of a service – unless I am texting our Executive Director Steve Stark to tell him that it’s too hot or too cold in the chapel….  This time I stepped out and looked at the news.

When I saw that there was a mass shooting at a Synagogue, my blood ran cold. While the final tally of destruction had not yet been posted at that time, it was clear that what was taking place was going to be horrific and life-changing for the American Jewish community.  During the service, I briefly shared what news I had learned to those present. When we took out the Shoah Scroll and told the story of its journey from Kolin, to a warehouse in Prague, to the Westminster Synagogue in London, England, and eventually here to Temple Emanuel – where it was placed in the very ark that where it began– and ended up as the spiritual center or our congregation – the raw emotions that I was experiencing were shared by everyone in our chapel.

And so now we sit – one week later – after so many things have transpired: here in our community and around the country. In a little more than 24 hours after news of the shooting reached us, our community rallied and together with the ADL, Jewish Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council, we put together a Solidarity Vigil in which over 3,000 souls came together in this sanctuary – and overflowing into our foyer and Social Hall. To see representatives from the Christian, Muslim and Sikh communities joining together on our Bema - along with the leadership of our city and State and Federal government and law enforcement was overwhelming. The tears that flowed, the powerful words that were shared, the anger angst and love combined with grief that filled our sacred space provided a necessary space and time to process and express our feelings. In the days following the Vigil, we have received hundreds of calls, letters, flowers, emails and visits from well-wishers from multiple communities who wanted to show their love and support to the Jewish people. Truly, this is a time of both horror and wonder as we have witnessed both the worst and the best of humanity coming together at one and the same time.

Even though the last of the funerals for the victims of this shooting was today, Jews around the world have been mourning since we received word of this horror. In Jewish tradition, after 7 days of mourning, we symbolically rise from our mourning and conclude Shiva. This Shabbat, we join with synagogues around the world as we come together in our grief and solidarity to remember our dead, recite the mourner’s kaddish and look ahead to the future.

As I thought about what I might say tonight at this service, I looked into this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah. 

Like many portions in the book of Genesis, Chaye Sarah has multiple stories that are woven into the narrative.   It begins with the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Abraham.  Abraham purchases the cave of Machpelah in Hebron.  He then sends his servant to Canaan to find a wife for Isaac. At the end of the parasha, Abraham dies.  
Our text reads as follows:
Genesis 25:8-10:  Then Abraham passed on, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre; The field which Abraham purchased from the Hittites; there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of this text is the fact that Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together.  If you recall, the last we have heard of Ishmael was when Abraham sent him and his mother, Hagar, out into the wilderness because Sarah did not want Ishmael to be a threat to Isaac and his eventual birthright.  Abraham had scarred Ishmael by casting him away.  He also had scarred Isaac by almost slaughtering him on Mt. Moriah.

Abraham’s death unites these two brothers.  They both understand pain.  They both understand loss.  They both realize that, no matter what events have taken place in their lives, they are bound together by a common task and purpose.

Isaac and Ishmael had cause to hate their father –and to hate each other.   The Midrash, in particular is filled with stories of their warfare.  Yet, at the end of our parasha they come together in peace in order to bury Abraham. They realize that, despite their history, they are linked together. In burying Abraham, they are also symbolically burying the past and moving ahead to the future.

If there is anything that we can learn from this horrible tragedy, it may be found in the outpouring of love and solidarity that we experienced on Sunday.  I truly believe that is a reflection of the best that our nation has to offer. So much of the language we are hearing is divisive; the politics of isolationism and victimization have taken a toll on our souls. Especially in the days leading up to November 6 – election day-  everyone is on edge. To see people from multiple communities coming together to show their love and support in the shadow of terror is both an affirmation of what we, as a nation are all about and a powerful reflection of how we, like Isaac and Ishmael, can rise up above our divisions in solidarity and celebrate the awareness that we are all created in the image of God.

Tonight is November 2th. In one week, November 9th, 2018, we will be commemorating the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht – the night of the Broken Glass.  Kristallnacht was the beginning of the end of European Jewry.

On that night, 80 years ago, Nazi thugs burned synagogues and destroyed Jewish businesses throughout Germany and Austria.  Jews were beaten publicly in the streets.  Men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.  Hitler and his thugs waited to see what the reaction would be from world leaders.  The deafening silence that ensued in the shadow of terror was a clear sign to the Nazis that they had a green light to take whatever steps they wanted to rid the world of the “Jewish problem.”

My mother and her parents lived through Krystallnacht.  They were among the lucky ones.  One month later they were able to get a visa out of Germany and immigrate to the United States.

The memory of that night of terror is indelibly linked into the consciousness of our people. From the pain and horror of November 9th and the darkness and evil that it spawned, we have emerged - wounded, yet determined to honor the memory of those who perished in the Shoah and rebuild our lives, our people and our homeland.

Like Isaac and Ishmael – we were and are united by our grief and our loss.

If we can survive and thrive in the aftermath of that historical and spiritual darkness, how much the more so are we obligated to persevere in the shadow of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre?

Let us have no illusions. The battle against evil is not over. The haters who have become emboldened in recent months will not disappear overnight. They will lie beneath the surface as they always have – waiting for the next opportunity to strike. We must remain vigilant and defiant. We know that though there are those who seek to use violence fear and intimidation to accomplish their ends – we, as a people and nation must never allow hatred to determine the path along which we walk together.

Now is a time to come together and find unity in our historical memory and the vision of a world that , while incomplete, awaits for each of us to use our talents, strengths and faith to perfect God’s Creation.

We owe it to ourselves.        

We owe it to the memory of those who are no longer with us

We owe it to our nation to move on from our divisions and focus on ways that we can work to perform the mitzvah of Tikkun Olam – of repairing our all too imperfect world.

Zichronam Livracha – may the memory of the righteous be for an eternal blessing. AMEN

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Opening Prayer for the Solidarity Vigil at Temple Emanuel

On October 28, at 5:00 PM, over 3500 people came together at Temple Emanuel to voice their pain, anguish, anger and frustration in the wake of the tragic murders of 11 pure souls at the Tree Of Life Synagogue In Pittsburgh, PA. Our sanctuary was filled to overflowing with people from multiple traditions and backgrounds. Hundreds more crowded into our foyer and social hall where there was overflow seating. The event was co-sponsored by Jewish Colorado and the Anti-Defamation League. The outpouring of solidarity we all felt was remarkable. The Governor, Mayor, Chiefs of police from Denver and Aurora joined with religious and community leaders from multiple traditions. Here are my welcoming remarks: 

Our God and God of all people:
God of the slain and God of the injured;
God of the first responders and God of aggrieved;
God of young and God of the Old;
God of the faithful and God of those who have no God:
We at Temple Emanuel are painfully honored to be able to welcome so many friends to our sanctuary. We come from different traditions and faith communities – yet we are all bound together by our grief, shock, anger and horror. We pray for the victims of this tragic event. 

Our hearts and souls are directed towards Congregation Tree of Life in Pittsburgh – those who came to worship and celebrate on a Fall Shabbat morning; those whose lives were taken; those who were injured by bullets and debris; those who were injured by the shock of being in the presence of evil and violence; those who lost loved ones; and all of us who demand an end to the seemingly endless news of violence spurred on by hateful rhetoric that plagues our nation.

We welcome all who come in peace. May our presence here this evening send a message to our city, our state, our nation and our world: May this period of hatred and violence soon become a painful footnote in our nation’s history.  And let us say:  AMEN

October 28, 2018

Thursday, September 27, 2018

On Witnessing Powerful Testimony During the Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings

As I listened to the impassioned testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford this morning on my way to the synagogue, I was overwhelmed by a variety of emotions. It was obvious that recounting and sharing her experiences as a young girl was very painful. She did not want to be in that hearing room. It was also clear that her story was not only compelling, it was heart wrenching as well. As I listened, I could not help but to think about the thousands of people for whom hearing about a violent attack and the fear and powerlessness that it evoked may have triggered painful memories- especially for those who also had been similarly victimized. In addition, the anger and frustration that was reflected in Judge Kavanaugh’s words also touched a powerful chord in many. Regardless of the outcome of these hearings, their impact and the residual shock-waves that they have spawned should reverberate throughout our consciousness and compel us to go through a period of serious self-reflection as a nation for a long time to come.

If watching this process unfold has invoked a need for you to talk to a member of our clergy team, please do not hesitate to get in touch. We are all here for you. 

On Kol Nidre, I spoke about the power of words – how they can wound and how they can heal. We need to care for one another at this sacred time in our Jewish calendar as well as the difficult time in our nation.

I look forward to seeing many of you at services this Shabbat and especially at Simchat Torah and Yizkor on Sunday night and Monday morning.

Happy Sukkot!

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Thursday, September 20, 2018

RIVERS: Yom Kippur Morning 5779-2018

My Dear Friends,

Some of you may remember that exactly five years ago this month, a huge flood devastated parts of Colorado. The flooding impacted 24 counties, causing nearly $4 billion in damage. As rivers overflowed their banks, more than 1,800 homes were destroyed. In all, 27 state highways were shut down, covering some 485 miles. It cost more than $700 million to repair and rebuild those roads[i]. Today, as we sit here in this holy place – on this holiest day of the year, our thoughts are also directed to those who have been impacted by Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, and those who are still impacted by Hurricane Maria one year later – especially in Puerto Rico – which is still reeling from the death and destruction it caused. When natural disasters like fires, hurricanes and flooding hit a community, the carnage and devastation can be overwhelming. We feel powerless and fragile in the face of the awesome power of these events. Scientists tell us that man-made climate change is releasing more and more CO2 into the atmosphere - thus exponentially increasing both the likelihood and severity of future natural disasters. On this 5-year anniversary of the massive Colorado floods, when rivers overflowed their banks I want to talk about lessons that we can learn from rivers – and how we can apply them to our own lives.
The first thing we learn from Rivers is the power and the inevitability of change.
We are like rivers - for like rivers, we change.

Rivers have currents. Rivers are constantly changing. The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, taught that you cannot step into the same river twice. Rivers flow - they are movement itself.  In the Torah, in Jewish folklore and mysticism, rivers are powerful symbols. We are told that 4 rivers flowed out from the primordial waters of the Garden of Eden:  the Pishon, the Gichon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates[ii]. On their currents traveled the innocence of humanity - going further and further away from that garden paradise. Throughout the Torah we find images of rivers as powerful symbols of change.

When Jacob prepares to meet his brother Esau after years of anger and mistrust, he must cross the river Yabok. Before his crossing, he wrestles with a mysterious stranger until daybreak. When he arises from the encounter, he is a changed man. He crosses that river with a new name, Yisrael - and a new outlook on life. Rivers are all about change.

Yom Kippur is about change as well. We sit here in this sanctuary - and we pray that we might find the strength to change - to better ourselves - to fulfill the role that is set out for us. This is not an easy thing to do for we must confront the most painful aspect of ourselves - our limitations. This takes a tremendous amount of effort.

When we look at a river, we can see the stillness of the water. All appears to be peaceful on the surface. Nonetheless, we know that beneath that calm there is a vast, intricate ecosystem that manifests itself in a battle for life and death. So many of us present an unruffled, smooth facade - while underneath we are a mass of combating urges and impulses. We struggle with our inadequacies and shortcomings - our desires and temptations – our secrets and psyches. We are weak, and we easily succumb.  Because of our weakness, we need the cleansing power of Teshuvah - of repentance.

There is a custom that many Jews practice on Rosh Ha-Shanah called Tashlikh. This consists of going to a body of water and throwing out bread crumbs. The crumbs are symbolic of our sins. We watch as they are carried away by the currents or devoured by fish or birds. This symbolic act shows that we are ready to change our ways. We cast our sins upon the water as a sign that we are ready to do Teshuvah - to turn in repentance.

This morning, we have come to this place, in order to admit our failures, and promise to begin anew. We do teshuva in order to cleanse ourselves. The flow of a river can be cleansing. Teshuva is like a river's current. It can carry our burdens away - if we open ourselves to the possibility of change.

To be open to change - is to admit that we are weak-is to confront the fact that we have hurt those whom we love; that we have become distanced from the paths of wholeness and holiness that are set out for us. Teshuva means turning back in repentance. On Rosh Hashanah the shofar called out to us:  "Listen," it said. "Remember who you are."  "Remember how far you have drifted."  "Come back. Come back."  On this holy day it is our task to heed it’s call for turning.

When we repent for our sins, our tradition teaches, we are moving back in synch with the current of our lives. These currents teach us the true meaning of teshuva - of repentance.

The second lesson is that rivers teach us about boundaries.
Four rivers flowed out from Eden. They spread out over the world to form the boundaries of civilization as we know it. Rivers serve as borders between nations and communities, they also become focal points of tension. The West bank of the Jordan river symbolizes statehood for the Palestinians - and security for the Israelis. Similarly, the shaky peace between Israel and her neighbors by necessity involves a different understanding of the boundaries of the land of Israel than that found in Genesis 15:18 where we find:

On that day, God made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.....'[iii]

When we look closely at rivers, we find that they also can symbolize the way we perceive ourselves. Just as rivers define physical and geographical boundaries, they also can teach us about other types of barriers. So many of us believe that the boundaries and limitations we face every day are really tests or obstacles that must be overcome, rather than accepted and assimilated. So much of what we do - so much time and effort is spent on improving, developing or re-shaping our physical, emotional and spiritual environments - testing our limitations - that we often lose sight of who and what we are.

Sue and I have a cousin who supplemented his income handsomely while he was in graduate school in Manhattan by working as a tutor for wealthy families who wanted to give their children “an edge” that would allow them to get into the best nursery schools, so that they will get into the best private schools, so that they will get into the best colleges, graduate schools and “make it” in life. Sue’s cousin admitted that a lot of what he did made him feel uncomfortable. He saw how these parents placed such high expectations on their children that they were sending a message that failure is never an option.      

My friends, there is nothing wrong with striving to do our best. But the truth is that our borders and boundaries are as important as our potential - for they help us to define our goals. We also need to teach our children — and ourselves — how to fail.

Failure is increasingly becoming taboo. Our president repeatedly uses the adjective to describe people and institutions – especially those in the media that he dislikes. The pejorative “loser” is insidious. It equates failure with weakness; winning becomes our ultimate goal. Those who come up short are worthy of contempt.

In this light, some flooding and other disasters can partly be blamed on our fear of failure and our hubris -- our vain egocentrism as a nation. As we witnessed last year in Houston, and as we have seen time after time across our nation, our belief in our superiority caused us to build cities on natural flood plains. We were confident that our engineering could protect us from the waters. We reasoned that if we built our walls high enough, strong enough and with enough ingenuity, we would never have to worry about flooding. We were wrong. We failed and did not allow ourselves to learn from our failures.

But rivers do not only represent boundaries within society, they also serve as powerful symbols for the limitations we place upon ourselves.

We are like rivers: our lives also flow between the banks of our own, personal boundaries. We move through the events, expectations, compromises and covenants by and through which we gauge the passage of time and the fulfillment of our expectations. There are moments when our banks overflow - when we cannot contain the feelings, emotions, and passions which course through our veins like a raging torrent.

Along the banks of our own, personal rivers, there are high points which teach us of the meaning and purpose of our very existence.  When we stand under the Chuppah; when a child is born; when we hold the Torah for the first time as a Jew by choice; when we overcome illness or misfortune; when we rejoice with our children or grandchildren as they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah -  these are defining moments of our lives .... when our banks overflow with joy and happiness.

But there are low points as well - when, instead of flooding, we experience drought. When a cherished loved one dies, a marriage fails, illness strikes cruelly and unexpectedly - all too often we can find ourselves in the midst of a barren, dry river bed - parched and utterly alone. We gaze up at the heights along the banks - we cannot seem to find a way to climb up out of the abyss.

For many of us, these times when the banks of our lives are changing - whether overflowing or drying up - are unnatural. We often don't know how to deal with them. I cannot tell you how many times when, as a rabbi, I stand with people at moments of great joy or great crisis and they do not know what to do. "Rabbi," they say, "I promised myself that I wouldn't cry at my son's Bar Mitzvah."  Or, "Rabbi, I can't allow myself to break down at my mother's funeral - I don't want to lose control - I'm afraid that I might never get it back...."

I want to tell these people: “Good! Go ahead and cry!!!  Lose control - that’s what you’re supposed to do.” 

All too often we build walls around ourselves to keep from overflowing or to serve as reservoirs during times of drought. We create artificial levies, bridges and dams to prevent the floods from disrupting our daily routines. We strive for ways to control, monitor and regulate the high and low points in our lives. And yet walls and bridges cannot really help us. They cannot give us strength during times of spiritual emptiness - nor can they prevent the torrents of emotion from overwhelming us.   Like floods and hurricanes, like the current drought much of our state is experiencing today, eventually, these defenses will be breached - and we can find ourselves at the mercy of events and feelings - and we don't know what to do because we have not allowed ourselves to experience the power of allowing our emotions, our feelings, our joy, our fear, our pain.... to overflow.

My friends, this is dangerous, for part of who and what we are is based on our ability to appreciate, accept and assimilate our lives in their totality - the good and the bad; the highs as well as the lows. The more walls we build, the more we keep our emotions, our loved ones, our fears, hopes and dreams in check - the less in touch with our true selves we become - and the more alienated we are from life.

The ancient Egyptians understood the dangers of building walls. Every year, the Nile river would overflow its banks. Instead of catastrophe, this yearly flood brought with it prosperity. The Nile was a sacred river. Its overflow brought new life to the desert soil on its banks. The people worshiped the Nile because of its rising and falling - its highs and lows. It became the source of their spiritual and physical life. They made no separation between the two.

As Jews, we have a vehicle for expressing ourselves at those moments when our banks overflow and when we are parched with drought. At times of our greatest joy and sorrow, we express ourselves in Tefillah - in prayer. The Psalmist said it best perhaps in the 23d Psalm:  "You have anointed my head with oil, my cup runneth over..."   Tefillah - prayer is a central theme of these Days of Awe. We come together as a community and examine our deeds. We look deep inside at our successes, our failures - our highs and our lows. We travel down the banks of the river of the past year.

Milton Steinberg, in his book, Basic Judaism, called prayer a "bridge to God."[iv]  Prayer becomes a bridge - not for the avoidance of our essential selves, but towards understanding who we are and what is truly important. Through prayer, we find the words, the opportunities and the paths to cross over or submit to the barriers in our lives. Prayer is a humbling experience. To speak to God means to admit that there are things in our life that we cannot truly understand. What if God does not hear us?  Or even worse, what if there is no God at all?  What if all our words, our liturgy, our deepest thoughts are emptied out into an abyss of nothingness? 

These are real questions....they cannot be avoided.

To attempt to stand in the presence of the Divine is to expose ourselves to the unknown. It's risky. And yet, it is precisely because of this risk that prayer can be so powerful. When we pray - we gaze down at and inside of the river of our lives. We step back and appreciate all that we have. We take stock in ourselves and our world. We allow our banks to overflow.

But prayer is not only for those times in our lives when we are overcome with emotion. Prayer can be a powerful, ongoing affirmation of who we are, and where we want to be. On Yom Kippur our sanctuary is overflowing – and we love to see everyone hear. But we have services every week! Join us! To pray on a regular basis is to acknowledge to ourselves and our God that we appreciate and are thankful for all that life has to offer - all the time. It prepares us for when we need to pray the most, it provides us with a reservoir from which we can draw when we have to find the words, the feelings, the ways and means with which to confront and contend with our highs and our lows.

The banks of the rivers of our lives are built on the prayers of our hearts.

The third thing we learn from rivers is that everything is connected.

We are like rivers - for like rivers, we are connected to one another. Four rivers flowed from Eden. They all shared a common source. One of the lessons we learn from flooding is that the actions of cities and towns at the head of the river affects those communities down below. As each community downstream builds the walls of their dams and levies higher and higher, the pressure is increased on the walls of successive communities until the inevitable occurs – walls collapse, and flooding ensues.

A third message of these High holidays is the importance of Tseddakah. This is often mistranslated as "charity" - but it means much more. Tseddakah literally means righteousness. It means that we have an awareness of how our actions can impact others - for bad or good. In the Mishnah, tractate Avot, we read:  Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, averah goreret averah - Acts of loving kindness lead to further acts, transgressions lead to further transgression[v]. Rivers are systems - nothing is independent. The water is contained by the banks, the currents flow to the sea, the plant life and the animals - all are dependent upon one another. Rivers teach us that everything in life is connected.  We are no exception.

This afternoon, we will be reading from the Book of Jonah. If you will recall, at one point in the story, a huge storm erupts while the prophet is fleeing from God. All the sailors and passengers pray to their gods to save the boat which is being mercilessly tossed by the wind and the waves. Jonah, however, goes down to his bunk and falls asleep. When the Captain finds him snoring away he confronts him: “How can you sleep? Get up and pray to your God so that we might be saved![vi]” Jonah’s selfishness and inability to see the pain of others was part of his undoing. As I said last night, we need to listen to one another. We need to have compassion and empathy - to cooperate and understand that everything and everyone is connected.

All of us are responsible for one another - we are taught in our sacred texts. My world does not end with my family, my synagogue, my neighborhood,  my country, or even my people. All people are God's children. Rivers teach us of our interdependence and connectedness.

In the Siddur we are told that On Rosh Ha Shanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die, who by flood and who by fire........

But we are told that Teshuvah, Tefillah, U'Tseddakah maavirim et roa ha gezerah – repentance, prayer, and acts of righteousness temper God's decree.

On this Yom Kippur, may we learn the lessons of the rivers. May the currents that pull us in every direction show us the path to true Teshuvah - turning towards repentance for our sins. May we learn to live within the changing banks of our lives through Tefillah - the prayer of our hearts. And may we learn that we are all interconnected through the process of Tseddakah. Then, truly, our lives will be for a blessing.

L'Shanah Tovah Teychateymu --- may we all be sealed for a blessing in the book of life, blessing and peace.


[ii]Genesis 2:10-14
[iii] Genesis 15:18
[iv] Steinberg, Milton Basic Judaism Harcourt Brace, p.116
[v] Mishnah, Avot 4:2
[vi] Jonah 1:6

“In Your Mouth and In Your Heart” - Kol Nidre - 5779

My Dear Friends,
I recently heard a story about a woman was flying from Chicago to Denver. Unexpectedly, the plane was diverted to Omaha along the way.
The flight attendant explained that there would be a delay, and if the passengers wanted to get off the aircraft the plane would re-board in 55 minutes…
Everybody got off the plane except the woman who stoically sat in her seat…
A man noticed her as he walked by and then he saw the seeing-eye dog that lay quietly underneath the seats in front of her. He could also tell that she was a regular on this flight because the pilot approached her, and calling her by name, said, “Kathy, we are in Omaha for almost an hour, would you like to get off and stretch your legs?”
Kathy replied and said, “No thanks, but maybe Buddy would like a little walk.”
The pilot was happy to help her – and took Buddy off the plane and into the terminal.
All the people in the gate area came to a complete stand still when they looked up and saw the sunglasses-wearing pilot walk off the plane with a seeing eye dog! This was followed by a mad rush to the ticket counter to change their flights.
It’s so easy to make snap judgements about the world in which we live, isn’t it? On this holiest night of the year, I want to talk about how we allow our perceptions of the world around us to color - not only the way we see things, but also how we speak to one another.  Let’s start with the prayer that began our service tonight – Kol Nidre.
Kol Nidre is essentially a legalistic formula asking God to not hold us accountable for vows that we will make during the coming year that we cannot fulfill.  That’s it.
But I want to expand our consciousness a bit tonight.  Rather than seeing Kol Nidre as an insurance policy against perjury, perhaps we should also understand it as a petition for forgiveness. Maybe we need to ask God to overlook not just the vows we utter, but also the way we judge others and ourselves:
·         for the words that we say - words that wound;
·         and the words that we do NOT say – words that can heal.

It is a plea for understanding: “God,” we are asking, “…please forgive us for our instinctual, gut-level reactions to the world around us.”  Please forgive us for:
·         Speaking without thinking,
·         Lashing out in anger
·         Judging others based on pre-conceived notions of who they are because of their
o   Ethnic background
o   Skin color
o   Gender
o   Sexuality
o   Political affiliation
·         Forgive us for holding back words that need to be said.
·         Forgive us for remaining silent in the face of bigotry, inequality and abuse
In this light we can see the Kol Nidre prayer as asking God to protect us from ourselves – when we make snap judgements and pronouncements based on our first impressions – when we lash out in anger and when we say stupid things; when we allow our basest impulses to guide our actions.
This past summer, there was an incident which took place at that most hallowed of sacred sanctuaries – Wrigley Field – home of the 2016 world Champion Chicago Cubs – that brought this idea sharply into focus.
The NPR commentator and host of the “Weekend Edition” radio program, Scott Simon, wrote the following:
In the 4th inning of …[a]… game between the Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs first base coach tossed a foul ball to a smiling youngster in the stands who wore a Cubs hat endearingly too large for him. The kid bobbled the baseball. What people saw next in video clips that zapped around the world was a man with close-cropped hair, who sat behind the boy, scoop up the baseball and give it to the woman next to him.
Tweets and other social media posts began a barrage about the man who filched a foul ball from a little boy. There could be no doubt. We saw it.
The Cubs front office quickly dispatched a staffer down to the seats. He gave the youngster a new ball signed by Javy Baez, the Cubs shortstop. The little boy smiled under the brim of his boat-sized hat, and held up two baseballs.
The Cubs tweeted the photo to say, "A @javy23baez signed ball should take care of it."
What the Cubs discovered from people nearby, however, was that the man in question wound up with four balls during the game, and gave three to children, including the young man who had appeared to be swindled. He also gave one to his wife; it was their anniversary.
Julian Green of the Cubs said in a statement, "Unfortunately, a video that was quickly posted and unverified has made a national villain out of an innocent man."
The man doesn't want to be identified, but said through the team, "Many foul balls came our way that day and were happily shared among the children in our area. No one left disappointed. I am not 'that guy' that the media and social media made me out to be[i]
Simon concludes his essay with the question: “How many of us today would rather be outraged than informed[ii]?”
In today’s world of instantaneous electronic social-media driven communication, it is devilishly simple to spread rumors, innuendo and false information with the click of a mouse.  Our basest instincts can be easily satisfied at any time, place or situation.
Indeed, there are many who thrive on and profit from fomenting anger, fear, frustration and creating a sense of outrage – especially during the non-stop political campaigning that has become part and parcel of our daily lives. Just spend 20 minutes watching television during an election year. The personal attacks, alternative facts and abusive syntax that fill our eyes and ears can take their toll. This hateful rhetoric plays on our emotions.  It becomes ingrained into our daily discourse.
The ability to score points by name calling and abusive behavior is, for some, a badge of honor that we see reflected in the highest offices of our land.
Regardless of political perspective, no one in this sanctuary can deny that our nation is bitterly divided.  Partisan pundits and prognosticators have done an excellent job of driving wedges between us.
While this may make for excellent reality Television drama and compelling Twitter feeds, I fear that the overall degradation of civility and discourse is causing a rupture in normative behavior that is essential for a healthy society to flourish.
We have lost the ability to disagree in a respectful manner – and this does not bode well for the future.
As I have said on numerous occasions, dialogue has been replaced by diatribe – and we are all the worse as a result.
In the passage of Torah that we will read tomorrow morning - in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 we find the following:
For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote.  It is not in Heaven that you should say: “Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it down to us, that we may do it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say: “Who will cross the sea for us and bring it over to us, that we may do it?” No, it is very near to you, B’ficha Ul’va-ve-cha in your mouth and in your heart, that you might do it.

B’ficha Ul’va-ve-cha – in your mouth and in your heart.

I’ve read that passage hundreds of times over the years, and I never asked the question: “What does this really mean? Why does the Torah say “…in your mouth and in your heart?" Shouldn’t it say something like: “In your hands and in your heart?”  or " your ears and in your mouth?" This year, however, for several reasons, it is foremost in my thoughts.  And so, I ask the question: 

What is the significance of B’ficha– “in your mouth?”

The great 11th century French Torah commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, or “Rashi” writes “…the Torah has been given to you in writing and orally.”[iii].  this refers to both the written Torah and commentaries. It also means that if words of Torah are “in our mouths” then we can repeat them and pass them down to each generation.

What then, is the significance of B’lavecha – “in your hearts?”
The Psalmist wrote: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Your sight O God.[iv]” When our hearts are in synch with words of Torah, then our words and actions are reflective of our basic values.
But perhaps, there is another way for us to understand this text.  In 1964, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke the following words on the occasion of his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize:
"Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words.  Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart. [v]

In other words, there are moments when it is unnecessary – and perhaps even unseemly to speak. Silence is often the best response to situations in which we find ourselves – especially when we are tempted to give in to the cacophony of criticism and contempt that has polluted our national discourse.

On this day of judgement – Yom Ha Din – we must acknowledge that not only are we being judged – but that we judge others – all the time.  And so, today I want to ask us all to take a pledge – to bring civility into our lives.

·         to learn to listen with our hearts – before we open our lips
·         to see the humanity in every person we encounter – even in those with whom we disagree
·         to move away from talking points – and create building blocks of community and consensus that focus on the inherent worth of every person created in the image of God

But silence is not always the best response to every situation.  There are times when we must speak out. This past year, we have seen how silence can be both criminal and deadly – it can promote and sustain abusive patterns of behavior that destroy lives and perpetuate brutal and dysfunctional systems of oppression.  We have also seen how powerful and brave voices can challenge the status quo and uncover the ugliness that hides beneath the surface.

The Catholic church is now being forced to come to terms with the heavy price of its silence around predatory priests.

The #Metoo movement is freeing women to come forward with disturbing tales of sexual harassment and abuse that in some cases have brought down powerful men and forced all of us to undergo a serious process of Cheshbon HaNefesh – soul searching and repentance. There still is a long way to go – but dramatic progress has been made.

In response to tragic and very public deaths involving celebrities, we have seen a significant increase in and awareness of suicide that is opening doorways by challenging the stigmas around mental health. In turn, we are witnessing the beginning of a national dialogue that is helping us to see that mental illness is a disease that must be addressed openly – without stigma – with compassion and concern.  This November, as part of our ongoing partnership with Rose Medical Center, we will be hosting several programs focusing on a Jewish response to mental health.  Our Jewish community is also coming together to talk about and create doorways of acceptance and welcome that builds upon the pioneering work of Temple Emanuel’s Mental Health Task Force.

But there are still areas where we need to do much, much more.

The epidemic of gun violence that is gripping our nation must also be addressed – publicly and forcefully – in order to prevent more tragic events that are becoming commonplace in our public spaces. If the horrors of Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and hundreds of other locations that have turned into monuments to monstrosity - where the blood of innocents cries out to us from the ground ; if these do not cause us to stop and think about the insanity of gun worship that has taken the lives of thousands upon thousands of men, women and children then we, as a nation, are guilty of the sins of indifference, idolatry, and self-absorption. It’s one thing to protect the right of citizens to bear arms. It is quite another to remain silent in the face of mass murder; to do nothing about stopping the influx of assault weapons into our homes, schools, houses of worship and literally every other place where people gather. Are we content with defeatism? Can we accept that that we are powerless to change – or to bring about change? My friends, committing to change is what this holy day is all about.

The inhumanity of an immigration policy that severely limits asylum seekers to a bare trickle and separates parents and children is immoral, un-American, and contrary to our most basic Jewish values. The phrase, “you shall not oppress the foreigner, for you know the heart of the foreigner -having yourselves been foreigners in the Land of Egypt” – occurs no less than 36 times in the Torah. How many of us are sitting here this evening because our ancestors fled from persecution to come to a new land of freedom and hope? How many more perished in the flames of the Shoah because of a State Department that was riddled with well documented anti-Semitism in the 1930’s and 40’s?[vi] If we remain silent in the face of brutality and abuse, then we have no moral standing. If our words and our deeds do not reflect our history, our values and the ache in our hearts, then we are complicit.

The tension around race has brought many to question and challenge the status quo.  African Americans and other minorities are standing up – and in some cases, kneeling down – and refusing to remain silent or complacent in the face of institutionalized and internalized racism. It is easy for those of us whose skin color is not dark to feign ignorance or cast aspersions in response. For those of us who are uncomfortable seeing our own privilege called out, this process is painful and profound. It is hard to acknowledge or affirm the trepidation and fear that people of color endure daily. And yet, a systematic and deeply ingrained pattern of prejudice exists that is part and parcel – not only of our nation’s history, but is also very real on the streets of our cities and the back alleyways of daily life.

These are not political statements – although I know that some of you will interpret them as such.  They come from a deep love of and concern for key Jewish values that guide us as a people. And they are only a few examples of the need to speak out – with our mouths and hearts when intolerance, hatred and violence pollute our society.

During the month of November, Temple Emanuel will be hosting a special exhibition entitled “Talking It Out:  Getting to Agreement.”  We also will be hosting several programs and speakers designed to help us engage in difficult conversations: to listen to one another and find common ground – even with our differences.  I hope that you will seriously consider participating.

But when we think about the phrase B’ficha U’livavecha – with our mouths and our hearts, we also must acknowledge that it is not only with those with whom we disagree that words need to carefully chosen and lovingly bestowed. On this holiest night of the year, we also must recognize that we need to carefully choose our words to those closest to us as well.

  • Sitting here tonight is a teenager who longs for nothing more than to hear a kind word from a parent.  
  • Here among us tonight is a widow – who lives in the crushing empty silence of her home – waiting to hear from a son or daughter who never calls……
  • Here tonight there are families and individuals who are new to our community – who long to hear the words: “Welcome!  Nice to meet you!”  They are looking to build new connections and friendships to fill the emptiness left behind by leaving their former communities.
  • Here tonight is someone who made a big mistake – and who was punished.  Now she is terrified that everyone who looks at her sees only the mistake she made – and not the person she has become.  She, too longs to hear words of comfort and welcome.
  • Sitting here tonight is someone looking for a spiritual path – who is disillusioned by the faith of their family and community and has come to this service to find, perhaps, one last opportunity to connect with God.  This person is looking to hear words of meaning and purpose.
All of these people – and so many others -  are living with words that they long to hear – that they long to say:  words of welcome, words of faith, words of apology – words of forgiveness - words of love – words of hope; words that could build bridges of connection --- words that are frozen in the silence of their absence.

And they are not alone.  All of us, at some time in our life, find ourselves trapped by our inability to find and to use the words that we so desperately need to say to the most important people in our lives – but for whatever reason, we do not.

And so, as I do every year on Kol Nidre, I ask you:  What are the heartfelt words you need to say to those around you? To your family members and your friends? What is holding you back? How can we make amends for the harm we have caused over the past year that has contributed to the climate of confrontation and chaos that has contaminated our national discourse? What are we waiting for?
B’ficha Ul’va-ve-cha – in your mouth and in your heart.

My dear friends – tonight can be a new beginning. Tonight, at this sacred place – in this sacred time – we can change – we can heal – we can make our world a little more holy. We can speak out and make a difference. We can vote in November. We can savor the love and make new connections that will allow us to listen to the possibility of Shalom – of wholeness and fulfillment for which we so desperately strive.

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight – O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.

AMEN – G’mar Chatimah tovah.

[i] Scott Simon on NPR weekend edition – July 28, 2018
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Rashi on Deuteronomy 30:14
[iv] Psalm 19:14
[v] Dr. Martin Luther King:  “The Quest For Peace and Justice.”  Nobel address – December 11, 1964 – Oslo, Norway.
[vi] C.f. Wyman, David S.The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945.New York; Pantheon Books, 1984.  Also – the following Bibliography is an excellent source: