Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Passover, Ramadan and Easter: Finding Hope in Dark Times - Opening Prayer for the Colorado House of Representatives

This is a sacred time for many religious traditions. All over the world, Muslims are celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. For Christians, Easter begins on April 9th. This Wednesday night, Jews around the world will begin celebrating the festival of Passover.  On the first and second nights, we will gather around festive tables and retell the ancient story of our redemption at a special meal called a seder.  With song, prayers, special foods and ancient symbols we will heed the call to relive the experience of liberation from Egyptian bondage. 

For seven days we will refrain from eating foods that are leavened - no bread, no pastries, nothing that contains yeast - in order to remember the haste with which our ancestors had to flee Egypt.

Passover is a joyous festival.  As we tell and retell our ancient story of deliverance, we literally taste the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom.  We drink 4 cups of wine to remember the 4 divine promises of salvation.

As we look around the world today, we see that there are many people for whom the messages of freedom and redemption are a distant hope.  In too many dark places freedom is stifled.  Repression is rampant. 

A little over a year ago, we witnessed the brutal invasion of Ukraine which reminds us that tyrants will always try to force their will upon the innocents. Over the past several weeks we have, once again grieved as terror broke out – here in Denver and in Nashville – as students, teachers and administrators were gunned down by weapons of war in halls of learning.  As we bear witness to the genocide unfolding in front of us – in Ukraine, the streets of our cites, in churches, mosques, synagogues and schools - we are compelled – not only to pray for the safety of those in harm’s way, but also to do all we can to support the innocents.

But despair does not only exist at the end of a gun.  There are those outside these walls who are enslaved to lives of violence, poverty, drugs, alcohol, homelessness, and abuse. The suffering in our streets and the cries of the downtrodden call upon us to build bridges of compassion and understanding while tearing down walls of separation and degradation. The festivals of Passover, Easter and Ramadan all teach us of the necessity to look for hope in the midst of darkness.  Their messages must echo deep in our hearts and souls.

Here in this sacred chamber, we also must ask painful questions: How many of us are enslaved to enmity and strife?  How often do we refrain from reaching out in compromise and retreat to partisanship?

On this day of hope and promise, O God, we ask Your blessing on this place.  May these legislators, officials, clerks and dedicated public servants find new hope in the process of governing.  May any arguments that arise during deliberation and debate be catalysts for communion with You and one another. 

O God – You have bequeathed to us a world filled with beauty and hope.  Help us to find the eternal messages of liberation and self-determination that echo within this sacred chamber and in our hearts.  May the messages of our holy festivals stir within us all a burning desire to bring hope and freedom to all.  And Let us say, AMEN

Monday, March 27, 2023

Protests In Israel: Hardened Hearts and a Longing for Hope


Thursday, March 23, 2023

Opening Prayer For the CO House of Representatives the Day After the Denver East High School Shooting - 3-23-23

 Last night I sat in a room filled with 35 students, members of my congregation, parents, clergy and teachers from East High School. My colleagues and I listened as they shared their experiences of being in lockdown – of not knowing whether they would be safe.

We heard their tears, anger, frustration, and grief.

We listened to the anguished cries of parents who mourned the loss of their children’s innocence. I saw their sense of powerlessness as they displayed the physical pain of worrying about the safety of their loved ones.

We sat in painful respect as our students shared the experience of being forced to sit in absolute silence for 3 hours as they waited for the “all clear” signal that would allow them to return to their homes and their anguished parents.

3 hours of absolute silence!  They couldn’t move or go to the bathroom. They couldn't talk or cry. What were they thinking?  Try to imagine the prayers of terrified teenagers…. Put yourselves in the shoes of their parents who wanted only to hold their children and weep.

And so – this morning – in this hallowed hall - as we try to imagine the deafening silence that existed in those terrified classrooms, let us – ALL of us – take a moment of silence: to put ourselves in their places


[30 seconds of silence]


Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught that we should never pray in a room without windows. He taught that if we cannot see or experience what is happening outside the walls of a synagogue, mosque, temple or church, legislative chamber – or any place where people of faith – if we cannot put ourselves in the minds of the people with whom we share God’s earth – then God  can’t  hear our prayers.


God – on this day of self-reflection, let us strive to hear the stories and see the faces of those in terror and pain.  And then, let us work to make a change.



Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Opening Prayer for the Colorado House of Representatives: 3-26-23 "Screens"

 Our God and God of all humanity:

Yesterday, we received the gift of a small taste of the springtime that is ready to bloom. We basked in the sunshine. We felt the warmth of what is yet to come.  Even though, we know all too well, that this month of March can be cruel – with shirtsleeves one day, giving in to snow shovels the next.

And yet, on those mornings when we see Your glory resplendent in the budding tree and the blooming crocus…

At this time of hope and promise fueled by the warmth of the sun and the smiles on our faces

Remind us to go outside for a while…

Give us moments where we can turn aside from the tasks that confront us..

Allow us to appreciate the wonder and the beauty of Your creation.

Turn our eyes away from the screens that we depend on – the computer, the phone, the GPS, the tally board, the Television – and let us look at the scenes of wonder that play around us all the time.

Teach us that our task is not to be entertained – but to be intertwined – with one another, with those we love and those we fear and those we do not even see because our eyes are too focused on those little screens.

Help us to avoid screening ourselves – from both the beauty and the hopelessness that lie  just outside these doors. 

Show us - unfiltered  - the hope that gives us the courage to act and to make sacred change.

The psalmist teaches:  I lift up my eyes to the mountains – from there comes Your help.

Let us lift up our eyes – all of us – as we do our daily work.

Remind us of the sacred task of perfecting Your all too imperfect world.

Let the beauty of this day – this season – give us the courage to be brave – to be unscreened and unfettered by the bonds of politics and rivalry and focus instead on the possibilities of partnership.

AS we consider the beauty of the communities in which we are fortunate enough to live and serve, give us time to appreciate and give thanks.  And in thanking You, let us thank one another – for the chance we have to make a difference. 


Testimony on behalf of Senate Bill SB23-190 “Deceptive Trade Practice Pregnancy Related Service.”

 I was asked to testify on behalf of  the Colorado State Senate Bill SB23-190 “Deceptive Trade Practice Pregnancy Related Service.”

This bill makes it a deceptive trade practice for a person or organization to make or disseminate to the public any advertisement that indicates, directly or indirectly, that the person provides abortions, emergency contraceptives, or referrals for abortions or emergency contraceptives when the person knows or reasonably should have known that the person does not provide those specific services.

A health-care provider engages in unprofessional conduct or is subject to discipline in this state if the health-care provider provides, prescribes, administers, or attempts medication abortion reversal in this state.

Here is my testimony:


My name is Rabbi Joseph Black.  I serve as Senior Rabbi at Denver’s Temple Emanuel – the largest and oldest Synagogue in the State of Colorado.

I support this legislation because of my faith. Most of the so-call “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” that cater to vulnerable and frightened individuals are based on a narrow, Christian Fundamentalist perspective. While I certainly believe that the sponsors of these deceptive centers are entitled to their own beliefs and opinions, they do not have the right to force their beliefs on others. This is unethical and, frankly un-God-like

I believe that it is vitally important that anyone faced with making a difficult decision about health care should be able to make informed choices about the options available to them.

I believe that Abortion is health care and it is immoral to try to coerce, deceive or mis-inform individuals who are in a vulnerable state.

Just because we are people of faith, we still need accurate medical information – not unproven and potentially dangerous recommendations that are medically inaccurate.

My tradition teaches that the decision to terminate a pregnancy should never be taken lightly. At the same time, there are many reasons why someone would need to have an abortion. It is not our place to judge or cast aspersions on anyone faced with this difficult decision.

In the book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 30, verse 19, we find the following text that is often used against abortion rights. It reads as follows:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live!”

The words, “choose life” are quite powerful.  But they also can be spun and defined in a variety of ways. They can used to motivate us to live to our highest potential – choosing God’s loftiest ideals for our daily living and the choices we make, or they can be used as a weapon to narrowly define an agenda of intolerance.

The purpose of this bill is to ensure that anyone who is facing an unwanted pregnancy has the ability to make an informed choice – without the pressure of deceptive, manipulative or immoral advertising, coercion or unproven, unsafe and unethical pseudo-scientific advice.


Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The Urgency of the Halfway: Opening Prayer for the Colorado State House at the Midpoint of the Legislative Session

The Bible teaches that Moses lived to be 120 years old. In Deuteronomy 34:7 we find: “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.” – pretty remarkable, wouldn’t you say?  


This May, I will be celebrating my 64th birthday. If I strive to be like Moses – I will have lived more than half of my life when I celebrate this milestone of 6.4 decades on earth. Modern medicine notwithstanding, the odds of replicating Moses’ longevity and strength are slim to none. Nonetheless, I’d like to think that I have a few more good years ahead of me.


At such a liminal moment, it is impossible not to think about two different, yet complimentary ideas: longevity and productivity.


There are times in all our lives when we are confronted with a realization that many, if not most of our goals, hopes, dreams and visions no longer lie in some fuzzy future, but rather they become the province of the past and the vision of a very real present. They can taunt us with an unwelcome awareness of urgency – as though the lengthy path on which we have traveled suddenly transforms – becoming increasingly rocky – our ascent grows steeper as the summit draws near. And if we try to retrace our steps to see how far we have come; when we comprehend how little time and space lie in front of us, we suddenly realize that the end is now closer than the beginning.  We marvel both at how quickly the days are passing and how often we spurned the precious hours afforded us to complete our treasured tasks.


This morning, we come together in this sacred place as we near the half-way point of our legislative session.  We marvel at the passage of time while simultaneously feeling the anxiety of the layers of unfinished business that loom in front of us.  In a world that all too often demands unyielding perfection from its leaders, there is little, if any, margin for error.  Words of condemnation come easy in political parlance.  But as hard as we are on our colleagues, we are even more merciless on ourselves.  Those who have been chosen to serve feel the burden of answering the clarion call of the people:  to make a difference; to change the unchangeable; to fix the flaws in our laws, fate of our state and the holes in our souls.  And yet, the realities of time and space force us to acknowledge that we cannot complete every task.


And so we pray:


Dear God, You  created us with imperfections.  Watch over all who serve in this chamber:  the legislators and the lawyers, the captains and clerks; the interns and the innovators.  Give them both the strength to pursue the task of governance, and the patience to accept that there is always more to accomplish than is humanly possible.  Protect the souls of your servants who are exposed to the harshness to human expectation.  Help them to support one another –even in the heat of debate and disagreement.  Let any conflict that arises be for the sake of the greater good and teach us to quickly forgive and forget the sting of slogans and slights that are thrown about in the messy process of  crafting legislation.   As the end of this session looms ever larger in the forefront of our consciousness, may every person here become reconciled to the sacred necessity for compromise and communion.


We thank You for the ability to make a difference.  We see You in the passion of our colleagues.  We seek Your presence in our daily lives.  AMEN

Saturday, March 4, 2023

The Amalek Within. Shabbat Zachor, 5782

Dear Friends,

Purim is coming!  Over the past several weeks, our amazing teen Purim Shpielers have been rehearsing their “Encanto”- themed Purim shpiel under the direction of Cantor Sacks. This past week we have been dressing up in costume, tasting Hamentaschen, marching in our Foster Early Learning Center Purim parade, preparing for this weekend’s Purim Carnival and having a lot of fun in the process. But, in addition to all of the fun and excitement that Purim represents, it also has a darker, historical association. 


On 25 February 1994 – Purim Day, Baruch Goldstein, a resident of the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron, entered a room in the Cave of the Patriarchs that served as a mosque. Dressed in an Israeli military uniform, he opened fire on the 800 Palestinian Muslim worshippers praying during the month of Ramadan, killing 29 and wounding 125 worshippers, until he was beaten to death by survivors.


Putting this in context, the year that this atrocity happened, 1994, was an extremely difficult time in Israel. The great hope for peace that the 1993 Oslo Accords represented was met with skepticism, resistance, and violence from many sides. Both Jewish and Palestinian extremists condemned the Accords for what they believed was abandoning key, existential assumptions about both Israel and Palestine.  Those on the Far Right of the Israeli political and religious camps felt that Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s attempts to negotiate with Yassir Arafat’s PLO was akin to appeasement of terrorists. The Far Right on the Palestinian side echoed similar sentiments – claiming that any form of negotiation with Jews was an abomination. This all took place between the First and Second Intifada – a time of great violence, with many bombings and attacks on Jewish targets and subsequent reprisals by the Israeli military.

One year after Goldstein’s massacre in Hebron, Rabin was himself murdered by a far-right Jewish terrorist named Yigal Amir during a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

It is important to understand that both Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir were followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahana – the founder of the radical US-based organization, The Jewish Defense League (JDL) and leader of the “Kach” political party in Israel that advocated for violent resistance to any form of negotiation or compromise with the Palestinian people. Kach was believed to be so far out of the mainstream that it was banned in 1992 due to its overt racism and calls for violence.

Rabbi Kahane preached that one of the main purposes of the Jewish people was to destroy Amalek, the biblical tribe that attacked the Israelites while in the desert and continued through each generation to try and destroy the Jews. Amalek represents the most reprehensible behavior possible, the most immoral violence, the act of vultures who prey on the weak. 


This Shabbat before Purim, is known as Shabbat Zachor – the Shabbat of Remembrance. Traditionally, in addition to our weekly torah portion, Tetzaveh, we also read a passage from the book of Deuteronomy, 25:17-19

17. Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt;

18. How he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God.

19. Therefore it shall be, when Adonai, your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget it.

Tonight, as we prepare for Purim, we also need to understand that the legacy of Amalek – our arch enemy – lives on not only in the external forces who are seeking our people’s destruction, but also, to my great sorrow, within the Jewish people itself.

I’m sure that many of you have been following the news about recent events taking place in Israel. The current Government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, is the most extreme far right coalition ever assembled in the Jewish State.


One prime example is that of Itamar Ben G’vir  - Minister of National Security in the Netanyahu Government. Ben G’vir is an unabashed Kahanist.  Until two years ago, he had a picture of Baruch Goldstein hanging in his home – a shrine to a terrorist, bigot, and murderer.

This past week, tensions in Israel and the West Bank have exploded. Following the brutal murderous attack on two Israeli Jews outside of the West Bank, Palestinian Village of Huwara, a large gang of Far-Right Jews from the Settler movement rampaged through Huwara – torching buildings, burning cars and beating innocent civilians. Israeli security forces, for the most part, stayed back and allowed this to happen. This action was reminiscent of the pogroms in Eastern Europe that cause many of our ancestors to flee their homes and emigrate to what was then called Palestine, the United States and other countries. The fact that the originators of these pogroms in the territories are themselves Jews is horrific.


Another member of Netanyahu’s cabinet, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich declared, in the aftermath of the Huwara Massacre, that the village should be “wiped out” following the attack on Israeli settlers. Smotrich is well-known to Israeli security forces and was accused of inciting hate against the Arab citizens of the State of Israel.  In 2021, he told Arab Israeli lawmakers in that "it's a mistake that Ben Gurion didn't finish the job and didn't throw you out in 1948!"

In 2005, Smotrich was arrested for being in possession of 700 litres of Gasoline and suspected of participating in an attempt to blow up the Ayalon Highway – the largest arterial road in Israel. 

Smotrich is also virulently opposed to the LGBTQ community in Israel and is on record for stating that Gay Pride parades are “worse than Bestiality.” In 2006 he organized a “Beast Pride” parade in Jerusalem as a protest against the gay community.

The Netanyahu Government is currently attempting to fast-track legislation that will effectively neutralize Israel’s Supreme Court – the only check and balance to the far-Right, racist, homophobic and ultra-orthodox government.

This is a frightening development. Israel’s critics have long accused it of being an Apartheid State. The enemies of Israel have used propaganda to create a narrative that casts the plight of the Palestinians as victims of an oppressive, racist and hateful regime – ignoring the fact that the Palestinians daily victimized, not only by Israel, but by their corrupt leadership and the dangerous currents of radical Islam represented by Hamas and the Iranian-backed terror movements who manipulate and rejoice in Palestinian suffering as a means of gaining world sympathy for their anti-Zionist and Anti-Semitic goals.

And if this wasn’t bad enough, the current Government is also determined to erase any gains made by liberal Jewish movements – such as our own – around the areas of Conversion, Immigration, funding for Progressive Jewish Institutions and support for minority communities in Israel. The anger, fear and despair that many leaders of the American Jewish Community are feeling at this time of crisis is palpable. Even Abe Foxman – the long-time head of the ADL and stalwart supporter of Israel has been quoted as saying that if Israel continues down this path, he will have to reconsider his support.


As we can see, the echoes of Amalek that we are currently seeing in Israel come not only from the outside – those who would seek our destruction – but also from within. The extremist efforts to undermine Israel’s democracy could have a chilling effect on the future of the Jewish State.


Fortunately, not everything we see from Israel is depressing. Over the past several weeks, 100’s of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest the new government and its agenda. American Jewish leadership – from multiple movements -  has publicly appealed to Netanyahu to restrain his government from its extremist positions. The cries for Democracy in the face of fascism are daily growing.

I also recently read about an Orthodox Jew and Israeli left-wing political activist, Yair Fink, a former Labor Party candidate, who has launched a crowdfunding campaign for the residents of Huwara. As of this writing, he has raised more than $400,000, with the sum still growing. In his fundraising appeal, Fink mourned the murder of the brothers, Hillel and Yigal Yaniv, whose death was the supposed cause of the massacre and then wrote: “Even in our place of deep rage and sorrow, we must never lose our humanity. That is not our Judaism.”

As many of you know, this April, I will be travelling to Israel as a delegate and representative of the World Union For Progressive Judaism at a special Zionist Congress that has been convened to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary. My goal in attending is not to support the current government, but to lend a voice to world Jewish concern about the direction that the State of Israel is heading.

I believe strongly that it is vital to raise our voices in protest when we feel that the current government is acting in a way that is not only counter to Jewish Values – but also endangers the entire Zionist enterprise.

To those who would abandon Israel at this difficult time, I say – would you abandon a parent, child or sibling who has lost their way? This is a time when Israel needs us more than ever – to be a moderating factor; to shine a light against forces of darkness from within that endanger its very soul? This does not mean that we should be silent, however. 

This June, Cantor Sacks and I will be leading a Trip to Israel with over 67 members of our community. While there, we will be celebrating the B’nai mitzvah of several of our young people and rejoicing together as families and community. We also will be able to see what is unfolding in real time and sharing our love and concern while we are there.

This Sunday night, we will be celebrating the festival of Purim. Our rabbis teach that there is much more to Purim than simply masks and hamantaschen. When we read the megillah of Esther, we find that it is the only book in the Bible where God is absent.  God plays no role in the unfolding of the story. And yet, we also know that in places where God’s presence is not felt, it is our responsibility to do all that we can to bring our own holiness and awareness of the Divine to the surface. Purim teaches us that our enemies will never disappear – but as long as we work to find God’s presence into the world, we will succeed.

Ken Yehi Ratzon