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