Sunday, November 10, 2019

Lech Lecha after Pueblo - November 8, 2019

Dear Friends,

In this week’s parashah, Lech Lecha. We are introduced to Abram and Sarai – soon to become Abraham and Sarah. In the beginning of the parashah, Abram is challenged by God with the words: Lech Lecha -"go forth" - to a new place – from all you know - " a land that I will show you." They do not know their destination – or the route they will take. All they know is that they must leave and begin anew. 

Biblical scholars have taught that the first few chapters of the book of Bereshit/Genesis are a series of new beginnings chronicled in multiple Creation stories:
  • The 6 days of Creation
  • Adam and Eve
  • Cain and Abel
  • The Flood
  • The Tower of Babel
And finally, we come to the Creation of the Monotheistic faiths through our common progenitors, Abraham and Sarah. God’s Command, Lech Lecha is not merely an invitation to change their horizons and seek their fortune, it is, in the most basic sense, a radical transformation – a new way to see the world and our relationship with our Creator.

Tonight, as we sit in this holy place and once again read this foundation story of Am Yisrael – the nation of Israel: this story of an uncertain future and a blind faith in God -  we also are acutely aware that there is another, parallel narrative taking place– one that is both ancient and new and that resonates deep within our collective psyche and that has been played out for generations – a narrative of persecution and hatred.

Last weekend, as we heard the news of the foiled attempt to bomb our sister congregation, Temple Emanuel of Pueblo, it was hard for many of us not to give in to the twin demons of demoralization and fear that have increasingly been part of our daily consciousness. As we all know, documented cases of anti-Semitic violence have risen exponentially over the last 3 years as the boundaries of civil discourse and mutual respect have been rapidly deconstructed and racists and hate mongers have become emboldened.

Pueblo now joins Pittsburgh and Poway as the most recent symbols of the toxicity of hatred that is poisoning our nation. And we in the United States are not alone. Throughout Europe and, indeed all over the world, Anti-Semitism is on the rise. In England, leaders of the Labour party have been blatant with their anti-Semitic scapegoating  Just yesterday we learned that an 89-year-old Italian Holocaust survivor and “Senator for Life,” Liliana Segre has been assigned police protection as a result of a barrage of anti-Semitic messages that emerged after she called for the Italian Parliament to establish a committee to combat hate. Jews in France, Argentina and around the globe are fleeing their homelands due to anti-Semitism and moving to Israel.

Over the past week, I – and every Jewish leader in Colorado – have been trying to find ways to deal with what happened in Pueblo. The answer is not so simple. The truth is, that even though the perpetrator was captured before he could carry out any physical damage (thank God), we have not emerged from this incident unharmed.  The residual effect of the news that White Supremacists are feeling emboldened enough to attempt such a heinous action has sent shockwaves through our community that have damaged our sense of safety and complacency.

On the same day that the Pueblo bomber was caught, Anti-Semites dressed as ChasidicJews were passing out literature here in Denver and in Boulder that claimed, among other things, that the Holocaust never happened, and that Jews were responsible for 9-11.

There is a painful irony in the fact that on this Shabbat when we come together in the aftermath of these events, we are also acknowledging the fact that tonight marks the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht – the “night of the broken glass.” On November 9th, 1938, brown-shirted Nazi Thugs carried out pogroms throughout Germany – destroying Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues while arresting over 30,000 Jewish men, publicly beating them and sending them off to Concentration camps in what history has now come to understand as a “test run” for the final solution.  The deafening silence from world leaders in the aftermath of Kristallnacht was an ominous foreshadowing of the complacency of the “civilized” world in the face of the genocide of European Jewry.

My mother and her parents lived through Kristallnacht and, luckily were able to leave Germany one month later– leaving behind everything that they knew in order to start a new life in a mysterious and unknown land called America. They were among the fortunate. Too many others did not have that option – and paid the ultimate price as a result. The quota system and the Antisemitism of the State Department during Roosevelt’s administration has been clearly documented. The only reason that they were able to come to the United States was, ironically, because my Grandparents were not allowed to hold German passports. They came to Germany in the 1920’s from the Ukraine and because of the rampant official anti-Semitism of the third Reich, they had to keep their Russian passports.  Since no Jews by that time could leave the Soviet Union, they were permitted to enter the US under the Russian quota.  That is why I stand before you today.

For many of us, as Jews and as a nation, we are finding ourselves, like Abram and Sarai, entering uncharted territory. Like our Biblical ancestors, we do not know what we will encounter as we travel on our journey into the future. Each step we take brings us further away from the touchstones we thought we could count on to steady ourselves as individuals and as a nation. We are in shock – we don’t know where to turn. 

So how do we deal with the fear and uncertainty that these recent events have caused within us? If my mother was still alive today, I know that she would have been traumatized as she relived the painful memories of her childhood in Germany. In many ways, although I miss her dearly, I can give thanks that she is not with us and experiencing these events.

And yet, even in our darkness, it is important to remember that, unlike the Jewish communities of Germany in the 1930’s, we are not alone. I cannot tell you how many political, religious and community leaders have reached out to me personally and to our congregation at large in the aftermath of last weekend’s events. Initially, when people heard that “Temple Emanuel In Colorado” was targeted, I received messages from all over the world asking about my safety and that of our congregation.  When it because clear that it was Pueblo, and not Denver that was the target, the calls did not stop coming. People of good faith – Muslims, Christians, politicians and lay people all were deeply disturbed by the situation. Just as our sanctuary was filled in the immediate aftermath of the Tree of Life Synagogue tragedy, so too, today, our neighbors and friends have shown us the courage of their convictions and stood in solidarity.

Two nights ago, I attended the ADL Torch of Liberty Annual event. Our dear friend and past president of Temple Emanuel, Scott Levin – the regional Director of the ADL – in his remarks said that the best way for us to combat hatred is to never allow it to have power over us. Instead of hiding our Jewishness, we should flaunt it. He shared that he was now wearing a Kippah all of the time. He encouraged us all to step forward, to “Go forth” and proclaim not only the fact that we are Jewish – but that we are proud of it at the same time.

Our task, as we go forth in the aftermath of these disturbing events,  is to speak up and make our voices heard if and when we see injustice and bigotry injected into our daily lives. Our character will be on display as we go forth into this wilderness. Will we be able to speak truth to power?  Will we be voices of conscience, compassion and consistency, or will we allow the waves of ugliness that the current climate has unleashed go unchecked?

In addition to commemorating Kristallnacht, tonight is also the Yahrtzeit of the singer/songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen. His powerful song, Anthem, contains the following: “There is a crack, a crack in everything that's how the light gets in.”
Every tragedy provides us with an opportunity to reflect and appreciate the good that comes with the bad. Tonight, even in our fear, anger and confusion, we can give thanks for those who shed light – through their support, their determination to fight evil and their ability to help us see that we are not alone. For this we can give thanks. As I conclude my remarks, I want to invite Cantor Sacks and Ken Mervine, our pianist, to join me as we sing Cohen’s song.

The birds they sang, At the break of day
Start again - I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be
Yeah the wars they will Be fought again
The holy dove, She will be caught again
Bought and sold, And bought again
The dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in

We asked for signs - The signs were sent
The birth betrayed -The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood- Of every government
Signs for all to see

I can't run no more With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they've summoned, they've summoned up A thundercloud
And they're going to hear from me

 Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, October 10, 2019

REAL Time. Kol Nidre, 5780

Kol Nidre, 5780
Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Dear Friends,
About 15 years ago, when our family was living in Albuquerque, my then 10-year-old son, Ethan, came up to me when I was furiously working on a sermon. He asked me if I could help him with something. Now – you must understand that I was highly stressed. I was facing a deadline. I had a lot of work to do and not a lot of patience.
 He said: 
  • “Dad – I need you to help me learn how to play a song on the guitar.”
  • “Can it wait?” I asked.  “I’m really busy here!”
  • “It won’t take long…it’s a great song.”
  • “Ethan – I really can’t help you right now.  Soon…”
  • ”Please????”
  • I started to get annoyed. “What song do you want to learn?”
  • Cat’s in the Cradle – by Harry Chapin.”  He had a big grin on his face…..
  • He had me.
  • We both laughed…..
  • “Give me the guitar and I’ll show you, I said….”
If you’re not familiar with “Cat’s in the Cradle,” – it’s a song written by the late, great singer/songwriter Harry Chapin about a father who has no time for his young son. When he grows into adulthood, the father craves time to be with him, but by then, his son has no time for his dad – he’d grown up to be just like him….
Tonight, on this holiest night of the year, I want to talk about how we experience time. Cat’s in the Cradle is a song that is timeless. It tells a powerful truth about the need to prioritize and savor each moment with which we are blessed – because once they are gone, these moments can never be recovered. Time is precious. It is fleeting.
So - let’s begin at a vitally important place.  Let’s talk about my DVR – my Digital Video Recorder.
I think the DVR is one of the greatest inventions of our time. When I was growing up, we had three TV channels. We watched the news at 6 and 10 and, if we were lucky, we got to see a few of the other programs that took place between these two bookends (if we finished our homework on time….).  If we missed a show, we had to wait until it came around again – or heard what happened from friends.
Then, miraculously, as our options for entertainment grew, as the number of channels multiplied exponentially, the technology to store and record TV shows grew as well. It started with VCR’s and then the technology improved. Today – we can basically watch anything we want, any time we want – taking it from our stored recordings or searching for them online.
But some programs are best viewed in “Real Time.”  On Sunday, I was officiating at a baby naming in our chapel while the Broncos were playing the Chargers.  “What’s the score?” I asked someone as we gathered to begin the ceremony.  “Don’t tell me!” shouted the grandfather of the baby.  “I’m recording it - so don’t spoil it for me. I want to watch it tonight!”
Really? First of all, the Broncos won – Finally!  It’s practically impossible to hide yourself from this amazing piece of information. Truth be told, if you don’t watch the game in Real Time, unless you cut yourself off from all technology, its almost impossible to stay uninformed.
“Real time…..”  
It’s a phrase that we bandy about with ease, but I’m not sure I know what it actually means. Isn’t all time “real?” Whoever came up with that expression is a genius!
Tonight, I want to talk about “real time” – what does it mean for us as people who live in a world that is governed by time – some might even say obsessed with time?
We tend to view time as a precious resource – but unlike other resources such as water, coal or nuclear fission, it cannot be refined, stored, or controlled.  While time can be measured – it cannot be tamed, it cannot be recycled – even on our DVR’s.
In his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, the late educator, Neil Postman writes about how our society’s insatiable appetite for being entertained has stripped away our ability to think rationally about the important issues with which we are confronted. He cites Lewis Mumford, the great American philosopher and historian of technology.  Postman writes:
In Mumford’s great book, Technics and Civilization, he shows how, beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time keepers, and then time savers, and now time servers. In the process, we have learned irreverence toward the sun and the seasons, for in a world made up of seconds and minutes, the authority of nature is superseded. Indeed, as Mumford points out, with the invention of the clock, Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events. And thus, though few would have imagined the connection, the inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment; that is to say, the clock introduced a new form of conversation between man and God, in which God appears to have been the loser.  Perhaps Moses should have included another Commandment:  Though shalt not make mechanical representations of time[i].

Most of us, because our daily lives are so removed from the natural rhythms of time, feel subjected to a more oppressive, human generated, unnatural sense of time – and it is relentless.  Exhausted by this, we crave control. We try to master it and sometimes even cheat it, and yet, no matter what we do; no matter how many technical advances we discover, time still slips through our fingers.

As a result, many of us live disconnected from Real Time.  We are out of synch with the world around us and with one another. And to compensate for this disconnect, we look for artificial means of regulating and experiencing time:  cell phones, the internet, DVR’s, even movies where time stands still through digital manipulation.  How many recent films have allowed us to see the world in a kind of suspended animation that freezes all the action and presents us with multiple, digitally enhanced perspectives?  We crave control over time – we try to master it – and yet, as we know all too well – we cannot succeed for time does not belong to us.

At the beginning of our service tonight we recited the Bracha:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melech Ha-Olam, shehechianu, v’kiimanu, v’higianu lazman hazeh.
Praised are You, Adonai, Ruler of the Universe, who gives us life, sustains us, and brings us to this holy moment.
The Shehechianu is a prayer that we say almost routinely.  And yet, if we truly examine its message, it teaches us to focus on the fact that we are in the midst of something holy – something wondrous. God has given us life, sustained and brought us – it says – to this holy moment!  Time is sacred. Let us acknowledge it. Let us savor it. 
We are supposed to say the Shehechianu whenever we do anything for the first time- in a year- or in our lives – whether it is eating the first fruit of a season or standing underneath a chuppah – a wedding canopy.  It is a prayer that helps us to see and live in time and recognize time as a gift.
As Jews, we mark time, not by ticks on a clock, but by cycles of the moon. Our holidays are regulated by seasons, not seconds. We remember anniversaries – and we measure the years that have passed for each cycle.
For example, each year, for the past 8 years, when November 8th roles around or, if I’m in tune with the Hebrew Calendar, the 19th of Cheshvan, I am reminded of my father’s yahrtzeit – or the anniversary of his death. On the 9th day of Av – we commemorate the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples.
We often talk about “Jewish Time” in jest, but the truth is – Judaism does have a great deal to say about time. It is all relative - especially when we examine our lives in the light of the uncertainties, joys, events and obstacles that are placed in our paths. 
Our tradition presents us with a complex multi-dimensional structure wherein the past, present and future merge to create a sacred whole.  Every aspect of Jewish life is predicated on this.

In our liturgy, for example, we re-experience the Exodus from Egypt each time we recite the Mi-chamocha.  In the Aleynu, we envision a world outside of time - whole and healed as we give form and meaning to the dream of the coming of the messianic age. At the Passover Seder, we say the words:  B’chol dor vador, Chayav Adam Lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah mi Mitzrayim -  In every generation, each of us is required to view ourselves as though we, individually, went forth out of Egypt.  The foods we eat, the songs we sing, even the way we sit at the seder table help us to relive and experience the Exodus from Egypt and the sweet taste of liberation.
“Jewish Time” is not a resource to be harnessed – it is an arena by and through which we experience the sacred.  The great theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel called Shabbat “holiness in time.”  He writes:

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.  The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our holy of holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: The Day of Atonement.[ii]

There are no sacred spaces in Judaism – there are only sacred moments.
The fact that we all sit here tonight in our beautiful sanctuary – experiencing this holy time is remarkable! There are so many other things that we could be doing – and yet, we commit ourselves to performing these ancient rituals which are eternally new – as we seek to return to the times and the places where we can be our best. What a blessing to be here all together!

Our calendar moves us through a holy cycle – from week to week – Shabbat to Shabbat.  Most of our holidays are agriculturally based:  they are about planting and harvesting. This is not accidental. Even though most of us do not grow our own food anymore, the message of living with and through the earth is paramount. When a farmer plants her crops there is no guarantee that they will grow. We are totally dependent on the whims of weather and time.
When she brings in the harvest, we are commanded to give thanks – to appreciate the bounty that God has given. On this holy day, we gather in the harvest of our deeds.

Judaism commands us to remember the past.  Elie Weisel, upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1986, said the following:
For us, forgetting was never an option.   Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered[iii].     

The High Holy Days are also about remembering.  In the Amidah, we insert the following petition:
Zokhreynu l’chayim, Melech Chafetz Ba chayim, L’ma-an-cha Elohim Chayim.
Remember us unto life, O Sovereign who delights in life, for Your sake, O God of Life.
Remember us O God.  But maybe, in asking God to remember, we are prompting ourselves to remember as well.  At this most sacred time of the year our main task is to remember: 
·         we remember our proudest moments.  
·         We remember when we were humbled to the core.
·         We celebrate our triumphs and suffer our tragedies.
·         We remember loved ones who are no longer with us.
From joy to sadness we look back and strive to find meaning in the time that has passed since we last sat together in these seats.
Real time is not just about remembering the past.  It also forces us to look ahead. Just a few moments ago, at the very beginning of our service, we heard the haunting melody of the Kol Nidre. This ancient refrain that links us to our past also prods us to look ahead to the future.
The text of Kol Nidre is deceptively simple:
“Let all our vows and oaths, all the promises we make and the obligations we incur to You, O God, between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be absolved of them.”
If you think about it, Kol Nidre is a strange prayer. Why, on this sacred night of repentance when our deeds are symbolically paraded in front of us, are we not asking God to forgive us for the broken vows and promises we made during the past year?  Instead, we begin this most sacred of days saying, in effect, “we know that we’re going to mess things up in the future – so let’s just dispense with the asking God for forgiveness for what we’ve already done and look ahead to the future for the mistakes that we will be making.” 
I believe that there is a vitally important reason that the Kol Nidre deals with vows that we will break in the future – and not in the past. What this prayer is trying to tell us is that Real Time isn’t linear. It teaches that we can’t dwell exclusively in the past –we must also look ahead to what comes next. The past, present and future are all intertwined.
How many people do we know who live only in the past – who are unable to let go of either the pain or the joy of what once was and now is no more? How many of us hold on to grudges and shut out those who are closest to us? How many of us are keeping score and waiting for the next opportunity to right a wrong that occurred against us somewhere or sometime long ago – and yet continues to consume us with anger or remorse? 
If we are to truly appreciate the gift of time, we need to let go – to have faith in the future – no matter what the future holds.
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes about how Real Time plays itself out in this context:
If you think of life as a road along which we travel, then the past is behind us--that’s the part of the road we’ve already covered --and the future is in front of us. That’s the part we haven’t gotten to yet. But suppose you don’t think of life as a road to be traveled. Suppose you think of it as a story being played out on a movie screen. Then the past would be in front of you. It would already have been shown on the screen. And the future would be behind you, in the projection booth, not having reached us yet. [iv]   
In the Torah, in Leviticus 23:24 we are commanded to celebrate the New Year on the first day of the 7th month – the month of Tishrei – not the First Month – the Month of Nissan. I’ve always felt that this was a powerful statement. We announce the new year in the middle of the year – when we can see where we have been and look ahead to where we are going. These Ten Days of Repentance are about taking a step back – thinking about our past and planning for the future – often at the same time.
My friends, a key message of Yom Kippur is that sometimes we need to live in multiple dimensions –at the same time. These 24 hours of self-reflection are sacred because they allow us – no, they FORCE us – to confront who we are, who we have been and who we are becoming. This is not always easy. It can be unsettling – but essential. Another key message is that we are not in control. Life occurs around and through us. We are along for the ride. Real time – JEWISH TIME -- is experienced – not controlled. We can’t record it on our DVR’s and come back for it later. Life is full of uncertainties.  Maybe the message of these holidays is that we need to see time– not as a resource that needs to be exploited, but as a sacred gift in and through which we can experience life fully.
Real Time is a gift.  Life itself is a gift. The seconds, hour, minutes, days and years which we are allotted are precious. “Teach us, Eternal God, to number our days,” the Psalmist writes, “….that we might acquire a heart of wisdom[v].”
My friends, on this Erev Yom Kippur – this night when we are so keenly attuned to the passage of time – let us pledge to find the time -- the Real Time – to experience the daily gifts that we are given. Each moment is precious. Let us not waste them with pettiness, grudges, or cutting ourselves off from those who mean the most to us.
I cannot tell you how many times I have sat in my study and listened as people have shared their grief and poured out their hearts as they tell me how family members have shunned them; how dear friends have turned their backs; how they have tried to make amends for mistakes - to no avail.  The pain of lost friendships and family connections is unbearably sad. They are experienced in Real Time – all of the time.
For the next 24 hours we have both an opportunity and an obligation to look back and ahead and to focus on ways that we might be able to make vitally important changes in our lives. And so, once again on this holiest night of the year I challenge you:
  • Tell the people you love that you love them. 
  • Reach out to those who need you. 
  • Ask for help from those who want nothing more than to be there for you.
  • Make amends with those who have hurt you – and to those whom you have hurt as well. 
I know that there are times when forgiveness and reconciliation is not possible – when chasms have been created by callousness and, even worse by abuse. Not every action can be forgiven and not everyone can forgive. And yet, whenever possible, we must try to forgive those who come to us in true repentance – and even those who can’t or won’t.  Holding on to grudges takes up too much of our time.  There are more important things to do in life.
There’s just not enough time in the world to let the pain of the past wreak such havoc on the precious moments that God has gifted us.  And so, I pray that this holy day will help us to let go of the past while we embrace the future.  May we find the time – the REAL TIME to live firmly in the present and, in the process of doing so – to find God in our lives.
AMEN – Chatimah Tovah

[i] Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. USA: Penguin. P. 11
[ii] Abraham J. HeschelThe Sabbath.  p.8. (I changed the language to be gender-sensitive)
[iii] Elie Wiesel   -- Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1986
[iv] Rabbi Harold Kushner -- Sermon:  “Facing Forward.”  From The American Rabbi 17/4
[v] Psalm 90:12

Monday, September 30, 2019

Stuck in the Thicket - Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5780

My Dear Friends,
L’shanah Tovah!
Tomorrow, at our Rosh HaShanah morning service, we will once again hear the stirring and disturbing story of the Binding of Isaac –the Akeydat Yitzchak.  Each year that we read this text, I try to find a new perspective to share with you.  This year, I want to approach it from the viewpoint of the unsung hero – or maybe a better title might be the victim – of our story:  The Ram that was sacrificed in place of Isaac.
Our text reads as follows: (Genesis 22:13)
Abraham lifted up his eyes and behold! his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So, Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.
Jewish tradition has a lot to say about this particular animal.  One of the reasons that we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is because the Ram took Isaac’s place on the sacrificial altar[i]. My question is: “How often do Rams get caught in thickets?”  Think about it: Rams are majestic animals.  They can leap from the tops of the highest mountains and tread on the narrowest of alpine paths. They are nimble, strong and agile. What could cause a Ram to get stuck?
The Mishnah teaches that the fact that it just “happened” to appear at the right time to replace Isaac was one of the miracles created by God in the last moments of creation.[ii]  That is one plausible answer, but it really isn’t all that satisfying.  There must be another reason that the ram was there.
I posed this question recently to colleagues at a Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council retreat and the answer I was looking for came from our own Rabbi Hyatt.  She posited:
“Maybe the Ram’s horns were too big and unwieldy….it couldn’t see them, and, as a result, it got stuck!”
Thank you Rabbi Hyatt. What a perfect answer!
The Ram got stuck because it was in the way of itself!
I’m sure we all know people who fit into this category, don’t we? Men and women – perhaps even members of our own family who consistently make stupid mistakes, and are oblivious to what everybody else sees so very clearly…… 
I want to share a story with you about a Wise Man of Chelm. If you aren’t familiar with the legendary people of Chelm, the best way to describe them is that they are a mythical community of fools. There are hundreds of stories about their endearing naivete and buffoonery. And yet, since they all possessed the same characteristics, they lived happy lives – oblivious to their own foolishness.  Now this particular Chelmite was on a visit to Minsk and he joined a circle of kibitzers at a local inn. Seeing a stranger, the innkeeper tried to entertain him.  He put the following riddle to the Chelmite: 
"Who is it that is my father's son, yet he is not my brother?"
The Chelmite racked his brain for the answer, but in vain.
              "I Give up!" he said finally.  "Now tell me, who is it?"
              "Why it’s me!" cried out the innkeeper triumphantly!
              The Sage of Chelm was amazed by the cleverness of the riddle, and when he returned home, he lost no time in assembling all of the other Wise Men. 
              "My masters," he began gravely, stroking his long beard.  I am going to ask you a riddle and see if you can answer it:  Who is it that is my father's son, yet he's not my brother?"
              The Sages of Chelm were greatly perplexed.  They thought and thought and finally said: 
              "We Give up.  Tell us, who is it?"
              "It’s the innkeeper of Minsk!"  cried the sage, triumphantly!
We laugh, but the truth is, there is a little bit of Chelm in all of us. Sometimes we are so unaware of our own blind spots that we get stuck – literally and figuratively.
Many years ago, when our now 28-year-old daughter Elana was in Kindergarten, my wife, Sue made her a costume for the Purim carnival.  She was a Hamentashen. 

As you can see – she was very cute and delicious. She won first prize in the costume contest.  The only problem was that, as wonderful as her getup was – it was completely impractical and unwieldy.  She couldn’t sit down, fit through doorways or play any of the carnival games.  Like the ram caught in the thicket because of its horns, she couldn’t maneuver her way around obstacles and kept getting stuck. Eventually, we had to change her out of the costume so that she could enjoy the festivities.

At other times, our blind spots are less obvious – and sometimes they have more serious consequences. We are now all painfully aware of the inappropriate comments of Representative Ilhan Omar – who serves the district where Sue and I used to live in St. Louis Park, MN – who used anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish dual-loyalty and money in reference to the activities of AIPAC. Even though she eventually apologized, the fallout from her insensitivity is still quite damaging. Similarly, at a recent executive session of the Trenton, NJ City Council, Kathy McBride, the Democratic council president, used the phrase “Jew them down” - referring to the outcome of a lawsuit negotiated by a City Attorney – whose last name happened to be Cohen. Mcbride – and three other council members – when asked about the comment, at first dismissed it – saying that the term, “Jew Down” was not anti-Semitic.  It was merely a colloquialism that was common parlance – especially in the African American community – with which all of these particular council members were affiliated.  After news of the comment spread via the internet and national outrage ensued, her defenders changed their tone and apologized. McBride, after another day had passed, finally apologized as well[iii].

But prejudice, ignorance and blindness are not limited to words. 11 months ago, on October 27, 2018, a lone gunman walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and murdered 11 worshippers in cold blood. The gunman screamed out anti-Semitic slogans – among other things, shouting that Jews were responsible for illegal immigrants coming to our country. Exactly 6 months later – to the day, on the last day of Passover, in a Synagogue in Poway, CA, another racist and anti-Semitic gunman opened fire, killing one person and wounding 3 others – including the Rabbi.

There is no question that anti-Semitism is on the rise. We see it on both extremes of the political spectrum. While some of the troubling comments and actions we have witnessed in recent months have been said out of ignorance, others are very deliberate in their choice of words and the timing of their actions.

Those on the extreme Far Left tend to link anti-Semitism with Jewish oppression – usually in the form of anti-Zionism. They promote Boycott Divestment and Sanctions  - or BDS – and want to see the State of Israel destroyed. They work to paint Jews and Zionists as colonialists who ignore and abuse the civil rights of minorities in order to achieve their nefarious goals. Those on the Far Right utilize ancient stereotypes and conspiracy theories to justify their actions. Their hatred has little to do with Jewish practice or belief – they focus on our very existence. Those who marched in Charlottesville two years ago shouting, “Jews will not replace us!” believe that we are a source of evil that must be exposed, contained and, in the most extreme cases, destroyed. While the rhetoric from the Left has not yet manifested itself in violence against the Jewish Community, it is no less disturbing.

With the rise of Anti-Semitism that has been so clearly documented by the Anti-Defamation League, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies[iv], we also are facing a quandary within our own Jewish community. The need to upgrade security in every Jewish institution is a sad, but unfortunate necessity given the rise in violent rhetoric and all too often, acts of domestic terror that we have experienced over the last several years. While prudent use of security is an essential aspect of protecting ourselves from both the perceived and real threats that face us, it also can be isolating and expensive. Fear of the “other” all too often becomes a force that limits our ability to fully actualize the potentials of our institutions. We tend to “hunker down” and focus only on the threats that are becoming increasingly common in a society that grows more violent every day.
Obsessing about our own pain and fear can cause us to lose perspective. Like the Ram caught in the thicket, when we focus only on our security and safety, we are unable to see the rest of the world around us. We also lose opportunities for building essential alliances that can strengthen everyone.

A powerful truth that we need to recognize is that from suffering – redemption can and often does follow. We need to acknowledge that these moments of tragedy have also created moments of clarity. Who can forget the massive outpouring of support, love and solidarity that we experienced in our overflowing Sanctuary in the immediate aftermath of that tragic Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh? Representatives of law enforcement, Government officials, and leaders of the Christian, Muslim, Sikh, African American and so many other communities filled our pews, spilled into the aisles and overflowed into our foyer and social hall in a spontaneous and heartfelt demonstration of love and support for the Jewish community in our time of trauma.

When a tragic shooting occurred just a few weeks later in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, members of the Jewish community again joined with interfaith, law enforcement, government and religious community leaders. We attended Friday prayers at the Denver Islamic Society and showed our love, solidarity and support. These events were powerful – but they were not enough.

My friends, as we enter into a New Year, I believe that it is vital that we commit ourselves to not only combat anti-Semitism, but that we also make a sincere and vigorous effort to acknowledge and strive to understanding our own prejudices and biases.
As Jews we have known the pain of prejudice and persecution. As a result of our own suffering, we also understand the importance of standing up for others who are oppressed.

In particular, I speak of our relationship with the African American community.

Historically, our Reform movement was in the forefront of the struggle for Civil Rights. In the 1950’s and 60’s Reform Rabbis, community leaders and congregants  – including our own Rabbi Foster - marched hand in hand with people of color throughout the South. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC – named after Kivie Kaplan – an active and committed Reform Jew who was a founder or the NAACP.
And yet, despite our history of activism and our ability to say the right things and be at the right places at the right times, despite our recent powerful expressions of support in the wake of tragedy, I believe that, in many ways, when it comes to understanding issues of race today, many of us are like the Ram caught in the thicket – unable to extricate ourselves from the gordian knot of fear and mistrust that plagues our society.  What further complicates issues is that fact that, although we, as Jews, have been the recipients of hatred and racism, most of the members of our Jewish community are not people of color. Our White Privilege is very real – whether we choose to see it or not.
In addition, recently, there have been many unfortunate incidents of miscommunication and discomfort between communities of color and the Jewish Community. From the anti-Zionist statements in the Black Lives Matter platform, to the incidents I referred to earlier in the Trenton State Legislature and the comments of Representative Omar, the potential for conflict and tension is very real.
This past August marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival in Virginia of the first captive African slaves who were brought to the New World in chains and misery. The painful and ugly truth about American success is that much of it was earned through the suffering and torture of innocents:  human beings who were callously bought and sold as commodities. While the horror of sanctioned slavery officially ended on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox, the legacy of prejudice that it spawned is still felt today – although it is easy to deny its impact. The ugly and uncomfortable reality of White privilege is that, while we may be intellectually aware of our history of racial injustice, we do not have to live with it on a daily basis.
In a recent article in HaAretz, my friend and colleague, Rabbi David Stern - past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Sr. Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, TX writes:
“…Here are the truths which defy simple answers: that a white teenager and a black teenager see the symbol of a police cruiser through radically different lenses related to dramatically different experiences, and that you dress those same two kids in the same hooded sweatshirt, and they will receive radically different reactions.” 
He continues:
“…The involvement of Jews in the civil rights movement fifty years ago does not grant us a free pass today. As Jews, we will need to expand our circle of prophets — because the voices of Jeremiah and Amos are carried forward in our day by writer/activists like Ta-Nehisi (Ta-Ne-HAH-see) Coates and Bryan Stevenson.   
Instead, the God who heard the cry of the oppressed requires us to listen — to narratives of racism, to exposures of white privilege and educational inequities and mythic meritocracies. We do not need to agree with everything we hear, but we need to hear it. And when that hearing produces pain, then we need to feel it. And if that pain motivates us to create a more just and safe society instead of silencing the truths that disturb us, we will know that we have broken through the silence towards hope. The books of the Hebrew prophets are fundamental to our identity as Jews, but they do not make good bedtime reading. This healing will sting before it salves[v].”
My Dear Friends previous attempts at Temple Emanuel to understand and confront our own fears and prejudices have been underwhelming. This must change.
We live in a time and a place where the separations in our society are becoming increasingly paralyzing. The political, religious, racial and ideological chasms we have created are amplified through technology and Social Media. The more removed we are from one another, the more those who profit from fear and mistrust are successful. We owe it to ourselves and our souls to unpack and uncover the root causes of our divisions and, in the process of doing so, find pathways to healing and partnership that can only serve to strengthen one another.
It is for this reason that we, at Temple Emanuel, are starting an important initiative entitled:

Racial Equity from the Inside Out

The main objective of this initiative is to identify, explore and understand the culture of racism that has existed in our country for the past 400 years. Some of the concrete goals of this process are:

  • To increase racial literacy among and within our congregation.
  • To create a congregational culture of commitment to ongoing learning about race and racism – personally, inter personally, institutionally and structurally
  • To support Jewish communal health and integrity through engagement in anti-racist work
  • To address the complexity around Jewish identity and oppression, racism and anti-Semitism

There will be several components of this initiative. The first will take place at a workshop tomorrow morning at 11:15 – which is concurrent with our 2nd Rosh Hashanah morning service – (plan accordingly). We have engaged the services of two facilitators - Debbie Zucker and the Reverend Dr. Amy Rowland  - both of whom have extensive experience working with congregations around the city in exploring the role that Racism and White Privilege play in our lives.
The second component will be a 6-week intensive series of conversations with a pre-selected, small group of congregants who will explore the history, impact and consequences of how racial identity and prejudice have impacted our nation, our institutions and our community. We are currently compiling a list of interested members.  This will be an invitation-only group – but if you are interested in learning more about this, please contact me at Temple and I will add your name to the list. I can’t guarantee that you will be chosen for this particular set of conversations, but I want to know those who wish to participate. We will be creating other opportunities to get involved in both the open, congregational workshops and the next round of small group experiences once these pilot programs have taken place.

The path to understanding is long, winding and sometimes difficult. There will be times when we, like that Ram on Mount Moriah, might get stuck in the thicket of our fears. This does not mean that we should refrain from our holy work, however. We are deeply committed to seeing it through.
The Brazillian Author, Paulo Coelho (Kwell-jew) de Souza wrote the following:
A Rabbi gathered all of her students together and asked:
How do we know the exact moment when night ends and day begins?
A student raised his hand and began:
“It is when, standing some way away, you can tell a goat from a lamb, then the night is over and the day has begun.”
The rabbi was unmoved, she waited for another student to join in the discussion.
Another brave soul jumped in:  “No, it is when you can tell an olive tree from a fig tree.”
“No,” said the rabbi. ‘The night is over and the day begins when a stranger approaches and we recognize him as our brother. That is the exact moment when night ends and the day begins.” [vi]

My friends, as we enter into this New Year, let us do so with a will to make change – to see the holiness and humanity implanted within all of God’s Creation.  May we strive to get “unstuck” from the many pitfalls and snares that lie in our path.
May 5780 be a year of growth, of hope, of healing and promise.
AMEN L’Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu!

[i] Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 16a.  Rabbi Abbahu said: Why does one sound a blast with a shofar made from a ram’s horn on Rosh HaShana? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Sound a blast before Me with a shofar made from a ram’s horn, so that I will remember for you the binding of Isaac, son of Abraham, in whose stead a ram was sacrificed, and I will ascribe it to you as if you had bound yourselves before Me.
[ii] Mishnah Avot, 5:8

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Four Weeks of Elul 5779. Week Four: Our Physical Selves

Dear Friends,

50 years ago, at a Music and Art Festival on Max and Miriam Yazgur’s farm in Woodstock, New York, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang Joni Mitchell’s beautiful lyrics that defined a generation and its philosophy:

“We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil's bargain
And we've got to get ourselves
back to the garden.”

I have always been both haunted and hypnotized by these words. The brilliance of Joni’s lyrics and music has always been her ability to encapsulate complex ideas in sparse phrases. To state that the building blocks of our bodies are “Stardust” and “Billion Year Old Carbon” is to acknowledge that the Universe is fashioned from the same primordial material. Everything and everyone are intertwined.

When we think about our bodies, all too often we try to separate our corporeality from our spirituality. And yet, the more we learn about the world in which we live and the more secrets of the Universe we uncover through the study of physics and chemistry, it becomes difficult to find the border between our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves: everything is connected.

We know that when we eat healthy foods, maintain a regimen of regular exercise and get enough sleep, we feel better about ourselves and the world around us. As a result, we can appreciate God’s Creation with clearer eyes and mind. In this light, focusing on our physical selves is a prerequisite for understanding and experiencing every other aspect of our lives.

With this in mind, I offer the following questions for this last week of Elul:

1.    Have I taken care of my body through diet and exercise?
2.    Have I prepared medical directives that are clear and unambiguous stating my desires for illness and end-of-life issues?
3.    Have I done all that I could to comfort those around me who are affected by illness – have I performed the mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim – visiting the sick?
4.    How much stress am I experiencing?  Is it affecting the way I live my life?
5.    What bad habits have I cultivated that I need to change?
6.    Have I been avoiding going to the doctor, dentist or other health care professionals due to fear of what I might discover?
7.    Have I been supportive of efforts to provide health care to those who cannot afford it in my community?
Again - 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 the month of Elul. Some of them are repeated from previous years. Again, we want to hear from you. If you have thoughts, questions or comments about anything, we encourage you to let us know. Feel free to contact any of the Clergy at Temple if you want to explore any of these questions further. These questions will also be posted on my blog, the Temple Emanuel website (, and our Facebook page. I also encourage you to attend the “4 Weeks of Elul Study Sessions” every Thursday afternoon from 5:30-6:30 at Temple.  There one class left – this Thursday afternoon. You don’t have to come to every class to find them meaningful.

We look forward to seeing you at Rosh HaShanah Services beginning this Sunday night.  For a listing of all of the High Holy Day options at Temple, go to this link

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

L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black