Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Four Weeks of Elul 5778. Week 3: Personal and Professional Relationships

Dear Friends,

I write this message shortly after hearing the news that Senator John McCain has died. The outpouring of grief, the tributes from colleagues on both sides of the political spectrum and world leaders all attest to the fact that Senator McCain was a man of principle who, despite his fervent and often controversial statements and positions, had the ability to disagree – sometimes fervently – with his opponents, while retaining the respect and friendship of most of the people with whom he came in contact. While we would hope that his example would be the norm, not the exception in our nation’s capital, his ability to cross the sectarian, ideological and political divides that are plaguing our national discourse was unique. His strength of character and willingness to speak his truth to power while separating politics from personality can serve as a model for our personal and professional relationships as we enter into this third week of Elul.

This time of Cheshbon Ha-nefesh (taking an inventory of our souls) during the month of Elul gives us an opportunity to examine the central relationships in our lives. Almost everything we do involves other people. We have different kinds of relationships: personal, professional, romantic and platonic. And yet, all our dealings with others have the potential for holiness. The Torah teaches that every person is created in the image of God. How we treat others must reflect this awareness. In our modern, technology filled, and cloistered worlds, all too often, relationships that are challenged by opposing world views can become disposable when conflicting values and belief systems emerge. It is easy to cut off those who make us uncomfortable – sometimes with the click of a mouse. As a result, we are rapidly losing the ability to disagree – and to move beyond our disagreements. This is a dangerous trend which poses a severe challenge to our society and the institutions upon which it is built.

The month of Elul is all about asking for and receiving forgiveness. The Mishnah teaches that on Yom Kippur the sins we have committed against God will be forgiven if we are truly repentant. The sins we commit against others, however, cannot be forgiven unless and until we have asked those whom we have wronged to forgive us. In many ways, this is one of the most difficult aspects of Cheshbon Ha-nefesh. It means that we have to take risks by reaching out to others. We may encounter resistance, anger, or resentment. Sometimes it is impossible to reach out – and yet, it is our duty to do all that we can to assess whether reconciliation is possible. If there is a slightest hope – then we need to try – even if we fail. In addition, we are taught that when others come to us asking for our forgiveness, we should do everything in our power to grant their requests.

The following questions are designed to make us think about the current status of the many different relationships in our lives. Again, this is by no means a complete list. Hopefully it will provide you with a starting point for improving the relationships in your lives.

1.       Are there any relationships in my life that are damaged? Have I done all that I could to repair them?
2.       Are there people I have wronged that I need to ask to forgive me?
3.       Will I be able to forgive those who come to me to ask for my forgiveness?
4.       Have I taken part in any business or personal transactions this past year that were against my religious, moral or ethical principles?
5.       Have I taken time recently to let the most important people in my life know how much I care about them?
6.       Are there people who feel that I have wronged them – even if I don’t think that I have? Have I reached out to them to try and come to an understanding?
7.       Have I shut out the pain of others in other parts of the world? In my country? My City? My congregation? My neighborhood? My family?

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

L’shanah Tovah U’metukah – may you have a good and sweet new year,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Four Weeks of Elul 5778. Week 2 - Our Spiritual Selves

The month of Elul provides us with an opportunity to examine and evaluate our spiritual selves.  The word, “spirituality” has a different meaning to many of us. It can used to both elevate and denigrate. Some traditions teach that there is only one pathway to enlightenment. For those who accept their particular teaching, there can be no deviation. Salvation is based on acknowledging weaknesses and flaws and accepting that we are powerless to fight or question. Access to enlightenment is black and white. Outsiders are mistrusted and even condemned. While everyone is entitled to their own perspectives, there is a danger when those in power feel the need to impose their beliefs on others. When faith becomes a litmus test, we can cause great harm to both society and human dignity.

While there are certainly fundamentalist pathways within Judaism, much of Jewish Spirituality revolves around exploring the mysteries that surround us. It also is not exclusively external. We find God’s presence in celebrating the uniqueness and diversity of Creation. The pathway to enlightenment is not only the province of the faithful - it can be found in giving thanks, helping others and performing daily mitzvot.

For the purposes of this list of questions, I want to broaden our focus. Let us define spirituality as referring to those aspects of our lives that help us to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. We grow spiritually when we feel that our lives have meaning and purpose and we are open to the possibility of the miraculous around us.

During this time of Chesbon Ha Nefesh, one of our tasks is to examine the status of our relationship with God, Torah, and our own mortality. As always, the following questions should not be perceived as a complete listing – they are merely a beginning. If you have other questions that you think may help others in our community, I would love to receive them.  I will post them on my blog – which is linked to both Facebook and our Temple Emanuel website.


  1. What events have caused me to question my faith during the course of the past year?
  2. When/where was the last time I felt close to God (however you define God)…?
  3. Jewish tradition teaches that all of us are created in the Divine Image.  When was the last time I looked for holiness in the people that I love the most? What about those with whom I fundamentally disagree?
  4. What aspects of my personality reflect the values that I have inherited from my family? From society? From Popular culture? From my own inner holiness?
  5. When was the last time I was able to pray without any distraction?
  6. How often, during the course of the past year, have I been able to set aside my own needs for something bigger than myself?
  7. During those moments when I did feel close to God (however you define God…) this past year, was I able to hold on to those feelings and share them with others?

Again, these lists are in no way complete.  They are designed to help us as we prepare for the High Holy Days.  Again, they will be posted on my personal blog (, on the Temple Facebook page and in hard copy at the Temple Office. If any of these questions has caused to you want to speak to me or any of the other clergy at Temple Emanuel, please do not hesitate to call us at 303-388-4013.  You can also send me an email at

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

L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Four Weeks of Elul 5778 - Week 1, Communal Selves.

The Four Weeks of Elul 5778 – Week One
My Dear Friends,

Sunday, August 12th marks the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul – the month preceding the High Holy Days. It is customary during this holy month to begin intensive personal preparations for the New Year. This process, called Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh – ‘an inventory of our souls’ – requires that each of us engage in a process of self-examination. During this sacred season we look closely at our relationships, thoughts, deeds, fears and dreams. We do this so that we can enter into the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – spiritually and personally refreshed and prepared for the process of teshuvah (repentance/returning). Our tradition teaches that the month of Elul compels us to ask those around us whom we have wronged to forgive us for our actions if we have wronged them. We are also commanded to forgive those who ask us as well.
As we reflect back over the past year, it is important that we put every aspect of our lives into perspective. As is my tradition, during the month of Elul, I will be sending out weekly lists of seven questions (one for each day of the week) to members of our community and to all who wish to receive them. These questions are designed to help us examine our lives in all of the varied aspects and arenas in which we live: Communal Spiritual, Physical, and Interpersonal. Hopefully, by answering these questions we will be better prepared to enter into the New Year. The purpose of these questions is not to make us feel bad or unworthy, but rather to “nudge” us into looking at these vitally important aspects of our lives. There will be seven questions in each list – one for every day of the week.

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

Week One: Communal Selves

The past year has been filled with divisiveness – from within and without. I write this post on the one year anniversary of the tragic Charlottesville, Virginia march where our nation watched with horror as a violent display of racist hatred - culminating with the brutal murder of a young woman named Heather Heyer (z”l) - became a rallying cry for extremists. This all took place in an environment where, increasingly and alarmingly our national level of discourse has plummeted to the point where politicians and elected officials have discarded any pretext of civility as they scream at each other on television and social media. 

The relationship between the State of Israel and the diaspora communities has never been more tenuous. Recent statements and actions by the current Israeli Government have alienated and isolated progressive Jewish communities to the point where many American Jews-especially young people - are questioning the entire Zionist enterprise altogether. 

I firmly believe that one of the most important ways that we sustain and strengthen ourselves and our souls is through consistent and meaningful participation in the life of the Synagogue. It is here that we connect with and affirm our relationships with God and one another. Now is the time to evaluate how we both support and participate is sacred community. No congregation or community is perfect. There will always be areas in which we fall short. The real question is: Are you willing to both accept our shortcomings and work to make Temple Emanuel a better place?

One of our tasks, as we approach this New Year, is to find pathways of recognition and understanding that will allow us to have differing viewpoints, but maintain our relationships and shared values.

The following are a few questions designed to help us explore our communal selves as we begin the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh:
  1. Have I taken advantage of all that my congregation and community have to offer?
  2. Have I taken my own comfort for granted and “looked the other way” when I saw poverty or despair in my community?
  3. Have I allowed my political perspectives to color my relationships with those with whom I disagree?
  4. Regardless of political perspective, have I been vocal in my support of the State of Israel?
  5. When I am at synagogue, have I done all that I can to make others feel welcomed in the same way that I want to feel welcome?
  6. Have I explored ways to address the conflict and tension that have become commonplace in everyday discourse?
  7. How have I worked to strengthen the many communities of which I am a part?
These questions are in no way complete.  They are designed to help all of us to begin the process of looking deep within ourselves and our souls as we enter into the month of Elul.  Again, we want to hear from you. If you have thoughts, questions or comments about anything we encourage you to let us know.  

May you utilize these and all of your questions to help you gain a better understanding of your communal selves.
L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black