Thursday, October 22, 2020

Reflections on being an Alternate Delegate to the World Zionist Congress

Dear Friends,

Over the last couple of days, I have served as an alternate to the Reform Movement's delegation to the World Zionist Congress (WZC). The WZC meets every 5 years and is made up of Zionist organizations from around the world and across the wide political and ideological spectrum of modern Zionism. The WZC is not part of the Israeli political landscape per-se, but it does include representation from members of the Israeli Government and helps to lead and direct the direction and policy of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and other important institutions that both represent and proliferate the Zionist movement. One of the main reasons that the WZC has become so important is that delegates to the Congress not only determine the leadership of the Zionist movement for the next 5 years, they also vote on how hundreds of millions of dollars will be distributed. The very first Congress was convened before in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 – prior to the establishment of the State of Israel - by Theodor Herzl. This year marked the 38th Congress.

While the WZC ideally represents the totality of the Zionist movement among the Jewish people, it also, in recent years, has become a lightning rod for the divisions among us as well. The tensions between the Secular, Ultra-Orthodox and Progressive Jewish movements have played out in back room negotiations and floor fights. In recent years, world Progressive Jewry - in particular the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements - have been very successful in mobilizing our constituencies to vote for their slates so that we could have a powerful role in the deliberations. This year, we were very successful and had a robust coalition- thereby giving us an important seat at the table. But we were not alone. At the beginning of the congress, there was an attempt by Far-Right Wing and Ultra-Orthodox movements to hijack the leadership of the WJC with a hostile takeover. It almost succeeded. But, thanks to the involvement of several "legacy" Zionist organizations (that traditionally have not exercised their right to vote on contentious issues of leadership) such as B'nai Brith, Hadassah and The Federation movement, cooler heads prevailed.

As American Jews, we do not (and should not) have a role to play in the Governmental elections in the State of Israel.  Most of us are not Israeli Citizens. We can, however, allow our voices to be heard in the arena of Zionist ideology and organization. This is why the WJC is so important. The attempts to sideline progressive Jewish voices is alarming and disturbing. While the Far-Right groups failed this time, they did gain a strong foothold.

I want to thank everyone who voted for the Progressive Jewish slate in this year’s congress. Because of your efforts, we were able to maintain the essential balances of power that represent the reality of world Jewry. Our fight is far from over, however. I am attaching a statement by Rabbi Rick Jacobs  - president of the Union For Reform Judaism and leader of our delegation – that gives additional perspective.


Rabbi Joseph R. Black


Reform Movement Statement Following the 2020 World Zionist Congress

We remain committed to fight on behalf of an inclusive Zionism and our values

October 22, 2020 - Following today’s compromise agreement by the World Zionist Congress reflecting more inclusive representation, the leadership of the organizations of the Reform Movement issued the following statement: 

The Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Movements, along with our partners in our international and progressive Zionist organizations, have successfully mobilized our Movements in Israel and around the world to prevent the marginalization of progressive voices at the WZC. That effort toward marginalization, reflected in the dangerous “Agreement on Principles” by leaders of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, would have weakened the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli National Institutions (WZO, KKL, JAFI, Keren HaYesod). This new agreement specifies the important roles our Reform leaders will hold in the Zionist institutions and will continue funding for our Movement’s critical work in Israel and around the world.

The broad coalition we helped assemble proved to be the decisive difference in turning a disastrous agreement into one that we can affirm. We are proud that through our collective efforts we defended the long-standing principle that these institutions serve as the roundtable in which all Jewish Zionist viewpoints are recognized and respected.

There is no question that the current agreement, which reflects the current Israeli political reality, grants significant power to the right-wing parties. However as a result of our negotiations, there will be more pluralistic leadership that will enable important checks and balances and help enforce the critical need for transparency and accountability.

We are enormously proud of our global Reform Movement’s efforts over the past year to turn out the vote in the WZC election and over these last days for standing up for an Israel that respects and includes all of our people and all of her citizens.

In 1897 Theodore Herzl hoped that the World Zionist Congress would be the “Parliament of the Jewish People” with a wide cross section of Jews and Zionists joined in common cause for the Jewish People and the Jewish State. We are committed to continuing our efforts to fight on behalf of that vision and the Israel we love. Thanks to our Movement, all voices that believe in gender equality, inclusion, pluralism, tolerance, and Jewish unity will continue to be represented in the World Zionist Organization.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Bereshit: Holiness and Helplessness


Why do we have a story of creation at all?  What purpose does it serve?

I suppose we could say that it needs to be included in order for us to know from whence we came…but I believe that there is much more to the story than the fact that we had to start someplace.

Our task, as Jews - as careful readers of our sacred scriptures - is to see the world  from the perspective that all we experience must be filtered through the prism of the promise that we are created in the image of God – that we are to be a blessing – and we need to live out that blessing. 

We can go on with our lives oblivious to that message and charge, but if we do, we lose a basic existential understanding of what it means to be Human – to be created in the image of a benevolent and Divine sacred being.

If we look at all the stories that follow Bereshit, they can be understood on their own, but if we place them in the context of God’s creation, they show us a radically different perspective.

In addition, each story builds upon the one that preceded it:

·        God calls Abram and Sarai and tells them Lech Lecha – go forth – and be a blessing

·        God tells them that through their offspring, goodness and blessing will flow throughout the world

·        Through trial and error – the messages of God’s presence and the demands that God makes upon us become manifest.

·        Our forefathers and Mothers were imperfect beings – they make mistakes, and yet, they grow and ultimately learn that they – and we who are their offspring - have an obligation to be a blessing – to build upon the lessons learned in previous generations; to avoid making the mistakes of those who came before us– to see the holiness in all of God’s creation.

You see, the function of Bereshit is to teach us three basic ideas

1.     Life is a gift

2.     We are imbued with a capacity for experiencing and expanding holiness in the world

3.     Because we see life as a gift and experience the holiness that is a consequence of our creation, we must work to increase the good in our world.

In Pirke Avot 3:14  we find words that encapsulate these three ideas: 

“Beloved is humanity for we were created in the image [of God]. Especially beloved is humanity because we were made aware of the fact that we were created in the image [of God]…”

This awareness is a key component of both our humanity and the holiness within us. As we both observe and participate in the world, Judaism teaches that the decisions we make – about ourselves, our communities – even our elected officials – must reflect these basic ideas and values.

God’s Creation is in turmoil right now. We who have inherited the legacy of Bereshit face multiple threats – here in American and around the globe:

  • The Pandemic that has radically reshaped our world shows now signs of slowing and, as we have learned today from both our Governor and Mayor, the dangers of infection are exponentially increasing.  Our healthcare system is stretched to the limit and our ability to help those impacted by COVID-19 is increasingly being tested.
  • In addition to those who are ill, so many others have been hit hard by economic turmoil.  Each day that we are unable to resume “normal” life increases the pressure on our livelihoods.
  • The economic divide between the wealthy and poor is growing. While a select few are enjoying enormous success, the vast majority of our society is languishing. 
  • Racial tension increases every day. 
  • Our climate is threatened. The Wildfires that ate raging in our State of Colorado and around the world are stark warnings of the hubris and harm that we have inherited.
  • The political and ideological divides that our nation is facing are widening. The toxic tensions our nation is facing are eating away at civility and I fear for the repercussions of our post-election society.

Now, more than ever, we need to focus on finding the holy in our lives-wherever and whenever we can.  This does not mean that we avoid the problems that we are facing.  The other day, I had a conversation with a friend who shared with me that he is uncomfortable when issues that he deems to be “political” enter into our worship experiences. “I come to services as an escape, Rabbi.  I don’t want to hear about current events!” he said.

I shared with him that I agree that politics have no place on the pulpit (or zoom screen as the case may be…), but prayer must never serve as a means to avoid the tensions that surround us. A central purpose of worship is to acknowledge both the holiness that exists in the world, as well as opening a portal to perspective.  As I am fond of saying, Rav Kook – the first Chief Rabbi of the modern State of Israel taught that one should never pray in a room without windows. In order for prayer to be meaningful, we need to see God’s creation Spread out before us – warts and all.  If worship – if prayer - merely serves as an escape, then it is not real. If our liturgy does not reflect the reality of what is occurring around us, then it is merely words – with no efficacy, meaning or purpose.

To be created in the Divine Image is to accept the radical and life-changing awareness hat we are partners with God. Like the flaws in our ancestors; like the prophets that God sent to chastise the people for their inability to see the ugliness in society and in themselves, our partnership with our Creator is not only efficacious when times are good – no – our awareness of the potential for holiness within us calls us to strive to perfect this all too imperfect world every day.

This week, we have begun a new chapter of Torah. Let us pray that other new beginnings will soon be upon us – replete with opportunities to make real change.

AMEN  Shabbat Shalom.


Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Presence Of The Past

This past January, I officiated at the tragic unveiling of a young man taken too soon. After the service, I wrote this poem. Given the state of our nation today, it is important to remember how decisions made in places of power do not only have political implications - they impact families and individuals on a deeply personal level - whether about healthcare, national security,  the Supreme Court or a myriad of other topics. 

As Castanada taught: Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
Here’s a YouTube link to the song:

The Presence Of The Past 
Rabbi Joe Black 
(C) January 20, 2020 

A sunny day in January 
A mother’s hand caressed a stone 
The cruel wind in that cemetery 
Blew harshly as it moaned 
The Diamond ring upon her finger 
Cast rays of prism’d ancient light 
A teardrop on her cheek did linger 
As though frozen, holding tight 

The Winter grass was almost golden 
Against the wind it stood steadfast 
No clouds above to hold the cold in 
We felt the presence of the past 

In halls of power, men are meeting  
Charting out our nation’s course 
You can hear the war drums beating 
As they scheme with no remorse 
Their arguments are taut and twisted  
Biting like the winter wind 
Their pockets full, their spirits lifted 
 Last year’s hope, they now rescind 

And as soldiers wait their orders 
There’s a question no one’s asked: 
Before we trample all the borders 
Where’s the presence of the past? 

Each time we fail to raise our voices 
Each time we sit and acquiesce 
Each time we watch as fatal choices 
Push us deeper in the mess 
The die are cast with every lesson 
Whenever good folks fail to ask 
The one important, vital question:  
Where’s the presence of the past? 

In solemn fields, the headstones glisten 
In rows so straight and long and vast  
When will those in power listen 
To the presence of the past?

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Finding Peace: Yom Kippur Yizkor 5781

 It has been 9 years since my father died – and there isn’t a day that I don’t think of him. His death came slowly. It was cruel.  Alzheimer’s Disease robbed him of his memories, his dignity and his ability to connect with those who loved him

Many people have said that the process of mourning is like a journey.  Each step takes us further away from the immediacy of loss  And yet, each day also reminds us of our loved one’s absence – as the moments we want to share with them become reminders of the fact that they are gone:

§  Milestones

§  Birthdays

§  Successes

§  Failures

§  The times when we crave their presence the most are also poignant moments of awareness of their absence

But I’ve learned something over these past 9 years – something important that is not unique or new – but it is vital nonetheless.  You see, as years pass and the immediacy of loss becomes more and more distant, it is replaced with a sense of Shalom

The time that has passed has allowed me – and my family – and everyone who knew and loved and was loved by my father – to focus, not on his illness and death, but rather, to reclaim him in his prime – to give thanks for the gifts he bequeathed to us – his laughter, his caring, his creativity and his goodness.

There is a saying that time heals all wounds.  That’s not true.  Time does not and cannot heal.  What time can do, however, is to provide us with us perspective. It helps us to see that grief and loss, while very real, are only one part of the totality of the reality of the relationships we shared with those who have been taken from us.  To only focus on their absence is to deny the power of their presence – and the gifts they have bequeathed to us

The Hebrew word, “shalom” does not only mean peace.  It also means completeness and fulfillment.

We find Shalom  - when the missing pieces in our lives are gathered together  - when we are given the gift of understanding how events, emotions, experiences and encounters combine to form a mosaic of meaning and incredible beauty.

Grief creates a hole in our soul – a deep wound that never fully heals – and is reopened with each subsequent loss we experience and the longing that accompanies them

And yet, there is a healing. The pain of the immediacy of loss can evolve into acceptance and gratitude. And this can lead us to Shalom – to wholeness

As we think about our loss, we can give thanks for the blessing of having known, of having loved and been loved by those who were taken from us.

Memory can be a gift when it allows us to realize that the pain and loss we equate with the death of our loved ones is just one part of the totality of a life that was fully lived.

I saw my father for the last time a few months before he died. He didn’t know who I was then – and that was hard. But the empty shell who barely occupied the bed in which he lay was not the sum of his existence.

The passage of time – the gift of these past 9 years – has given me the gift of retracing his life – and my own life as well. We are forever entwined – not only in memory – but in the values and the legacy that he bequeathed to me and I, in turn, have been able to pass on to my family.

I wrote the following poem shortly after that last visit:

My Father Has Hazel Eyes © Joe Black July 6, 2011

My Father has hazel eyes.

I’d like to think when he was younger

He could see a world of wonders

With an emerald sheen

In between

The hardship and the hope

The need to fight or cope

With a panoply of lies.


My father’s skin is smooth

Though easily bruised.

He stares into a distant

Seeing. Not seeing.

Being .  Not being.

Perhaps recalling for an instant

A time

When legs and lips and loins competing

Jingling pocket sounds completing

A trajectory of mine.


My father, always singing

(Telling me that he was there).

With ancient rhythms mingling

Through our home and in the air.

His laughter pierced the sadness

His anger deep below

His love was filled with gladness

And his heart did overflow

His hopes lay in his offspring

And his dreams were locked up tight

With every day an offering

Whistling praises in the night.

My father’s voice is gone now

Like a winter’s lawn now

Or a debt repaid

Or a bed unmade

Waiting to be stripped

A hand that’s lost its grip

On the world that spins around him

Or the people that surround him

Preparing their goodbyes.


My son has hazel eyes.

He sees with intuition,

A clarity of vision

Searching hard for things that matter

Amidst the riffraff and the chatter

In the greenish hues of spring

In the songs he loves to sing

And every day a new surprise.


Masks and Faces - Kol Nidre – 5781/2020


My Dear Friends,

Gut Yuntif – L’Shanah Tovah!

Were we sitting together in our Sanctuary tonight, I would begin my remarks asking you to raise your hands if you have worn a Mask at some point in the past week?

My guess is that most of your hands would be up. I hope we all understand that the wearing of masks can help us to fulfill the Mitzvah of pekuach Nefesh- preserving life. 

No matter how we feel about masks – and no one really likes them - they are an integral and inescapable part of the landscape of our daily lives in this pandemic-inspired period of social distancing and self-isolation. They pose all kinds of problems that no one anticipated.

For example - It's very frustrating when I try to use my iPhone, but I can’t because face recognition doesn’t work when I’m wearing a mask….

How many of us, in the grocery store produce section find it impossible to open up the plastic bags because we can’t lick out fingers?

And let’s not even talk about glasses fogging up…..

At our second day Rosh Hashanah “drive through” shofar sounding, it was wonderful to see some of you in person at Temple. But since everyone was masked and we maintained social distancing, it was difficult at first to recognize everyone - I couldn’t see your faces from far away.  It was only when I got close enough (within the appropriate 6 feet) that I could see who who had come.

Masks have become part and parcel of our lives - whether we like it or not.

Tonight, I want to talk about masks – and faces.

This sacred day has many names.  One of those names is Yom Kippurim.  We just heard Cantor Sacks’ hauntingly beautiful rendition of Kol Nidre in which she sang:  “Mi Yom Kippurim zeh, ad Yom Kippurim ha ba aleynu l’tovah – from this Yom Kippurim to the next – May it be it good for us…”

In previous years, I’ve shared with you how our rabbinic tradition takes the name, “Yom Kippurim” – which we translate as the “Day of Atonement” – and makes a pun:  Yom K’purim – “a day that is like Purim.”

How are Yom Kippurim and Purim connected?  One answer is that on Purim, we put on our masks – on Yom Kippur, we take them off. Another refers to the book of Esther. “Esther” is not a traditional Hebrew name. Some scholars believe that it is linked to the Babylonian goddess of fertility, Ishtar (which is also the name of a terrible movie…) – while Mordechai refers to the Babylonian god of war, Marduk.

But the name Esther is also connected to the Hebrew word, Hester, which means hidden.” The concept of Hester Panim refers to God’s hidden face. Esther is the only book in the Bible in which God’s name is never directly mentioned. God is hidden in the Purim story.  While Esther does not wear a mask, she was hiding something – as her name suggests. 

·         She hid her identity as a Jew.

·         She hid her dignity while dealing with the boorish King Achashverosh.

But eventually, she needed to show her true self – for her own sake and that of her people – and reveal who she really was. This became the heroic act that allowed justice to prevail and the Jews to defeat Haman.

During the next 24 hours – we, like Esther, will be removing our masks, standing before God and pleading our case for the New Year. We will show our true faces.

The Hebrew word for face is panim.  In Yiddish, it’s punim – same thing. An interesting thing about the word, “panim,” is that it is one of the few Hebrew words that is singular but written and pronounced in the plural. There are a few others – but not many. 

·         Mayim – water

·         Chayim – life.

But if you think about it – the plurality of panim makes sense. Our faces are constantly changing. And the truth is, we have many faces -   Some we show.  Some we mask.

In English – as well as in Hebrew, “face” is both a noun and a verb.  We can see a face, but we also face: 

  • our fears
  • the unknown
  • the future
  • the truth

We face one another, but we also face ourselves – and we don’t always like what we see. Sometimes we go through all kinds of efforts to fit a preconceived notion of who we think we are or want to be:

A story is told of a man who was to be married in three months.  He wanted to make sure that he would look his best at his upcoming wedding, so he went to a tailor and ordered a custom-made, bespoke suit.  The Tailor took his measurements, showed him the options for fabrics and told him to return in two months for a final fitting.  Two months later the man returned to the tailor shop - expecting to find his new suit.  He was greeted by a very apologetic tailor who told him that he was so busy, the suit wasn't finished yet, but if he come back in two weeks, his suit would be ready.  The groom had no choice and, two weeks later he returned.  Again, the tailor apologized and said that the suit was not ready - but it would be in a week.  A week later he came back and - you guessed it - no suit.  The groom was panicking.  His wedding was a few days away.  “Don't worry,” said the tailor – “come to my store on the morning of the wedding and I absolutely guarantee the suit will be ready.” 

The day of the wedding came.  The groom walked into the tailor shop and the tailor, with a broad smile on his face presented him with his new suit.  The groom was in such a hurry that he didn't even stop to try it on.  He got to the synagogue, put on his brand-new suit and to his dismay he discovered that it didn't fit at all!  One sleeve was too long, the other too short.  One leg was shorter than the other.  It was a mess!  There was no time to fix it - the wedding was scheduled to begin in just a few moments.  His best man looked at the groom  and at the suit and said:  "You know, if you twist your shoulder, and bend one of your legs when you're walking down the aisle, the suit looks like it just might fit."  And so, as the music began for the processional, the poor groom walked down the aisle with his shoulder high in the air and one leg bent.  And as he passed the guests who were seated on the aisle, he could hear them whispering to one another:  "That poor man! Look at him - all bent out of shape like that – but look at that suit…what a great tailor!!!”

How often do we twist and turn ourselves in order to fit some preconceived notion of who we wish we were, but deep down, we know we never will achieve?

On this Yom Kippurim, we stand, unfiltered before God and ourselves. All pretense gone. All masks discarded.

Tomorrow, we will read Moses’ stirring words: 

“Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem Lifnei Adonai Eloheychem.

You stand -ALL of you – this day – facing Adonai Your God.”

Moses is both a troubled and, often and troubling figure in the Torah. In the last verses of the last chapter of Deuteronomy we find the words:

“And there has not risen another prophet like Moses who knew God Panim el Panim – face to face.”

The intimacy between God and Moses is remarkable.  When Moses returned from Mt. Sinai with the second set of Tablets his face was radiant, and the people could not look at him. Every subsequent time Moses encountered God in the Tent of Meeting, before speaking to the people he would cover his face with a Mask so that he could communicate with them. Some commentators posit that Moses always wore a mask when speaking to the Israelites.  Think about that for a moment. Moses could speak to God Panim el Panim – face to face – but he could not face his own people without a mask. Like so many of us, he hid his true self.

On this Kol Nidre night – we come together – but we are hidden from each other. This year we are separated by our computer screens.

There is a passage in the Zohar, the 11th century Kabbalistic text, that teaches that in the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul each of us stands Achor el Achor – back to back. But, as Elul ends and we reach Rosh Hashanah, we begin to turn, and on Yom Kippur we stand Panim El Panim – face to face: With God // and with one another. That is the power of these days of awe. These words take on a significant and powerful meaning  - especially during this time of isolation.

We need to stand Panim El Panim.  We need to face God, ourselves and one another. That, I firmly believe, is one of the most important and central aspects of belonging to a congregation. These past 7 months have been so difficult, and yet so filled with creativity and a new comprehension of community. We have prayed together online. We have studied, celebrated simchas and found comfort in times of sorrow. One of the main questions that Jewish professionals and prognosticators are asking today revolves around the future of the Synagogue. Will our success in providing a virtual platform ultimately harm us? After all, as we said on Erev Rosh HaShanah: it’s nice attending services in your living room… You don’t have to get dressed up. You don’t need to rush to get a seat or a parking space. You can chat with those around you or online.  I’m actually quite fascinated with the discussions that take place on Facebook when our services are simulcast. The greetings, comments and heartfelt prayers that many of you post are quite beautiful. But not everybody agrees with me.  Some of my colleagues don’t like them at all.  They feel that they are a distraction from the service and are inappropriate. Not me.  Comment away!  (Right now…write a comment!!!! I’ll wait)

There’s a saying attributed to the 20th century Jewish humorist, Sam Levinson who was once asked why he went to synagogue since he wasn’t religious. Levinson responded: “There are many reasons one would go to the synagogue,” “Take Ginsburg. He goes to talk to God. Me? I go to talk to Ginsburg.”

So, in this age of virtual community, what will happen to the Synagogue?  There are two answers: 

The first is that those congregations that cannot or will not adapt to live streaming technology will suffer. I don’t mean just turning on a camera in the sanctuary and broadcasting the service. That will not be enough. We have learned a great deal over the past 7 months. A key lesson is that meaningful worship can and does take place online. But – it needs to be carefully crafted in such a way as to open a doorway of welcome and spirituality to all those participating. It can’t be a show – but it also should not be inaccessible. It must be a moving experience for all – designed to include those who are present and those who are unable to attend in person. We at Temple Emanuel are committed to providing engaging and powerful online worship: now and in the future. We are particularly grateful to the Reynolds Family Foundation for a grant that has enabled us to purchase and soon to install new, state of the art broadcasting technology in our sanctuary, chapel, social hall and throughout our building that will enable us – when we can return safely - to stream classes, worship services,  meetings and life-cycle events anywhere around the world.

The second answer to the future of the synagogue in a post-COVID-19 world lies in the concept of Panim El Panim – face to face. As important as virtual worship has become, it will never replace the power of real-time, face to face connection.  It is here in the synagogue where we foster and create sacred community - that we can take off our masks and find meaning. It is in the ancient rituals and their modern interpretations that God’s presence can be found with others. It is in moments of awe and spiritual awakening - in the laughter we share and the tears we shed.  It is in the power of Torah and the excitement of learning; it is in the beauty of the simchas and the depths of sorrows that take place within our walls.

When we stand Panim El Panim – face to face – with ourselves, our God and one another, we create a Kehilla Kedosha – a sacred community that no pandemic can possibly destroy.

And this brings me to one more aspect or community - the need to heal and ask one another for forgiveness: the process of teshuvah – of repentance that this night – that the next 24 hours - is all about. When we remove our masks, sometimes, we see painful things. We acknowledge how we have hurt one another. We know that we are not perfect and that we make mistakes. We see the path we need to take to make amends. This is our sacred task.

And so, once again on this holiest night of the year - as I do every year - I challenge you

  • Tell the people you love that you love them – whether you can do it in person, by phone or zoom.
  • Reach out to those who need you.    
  • Ask for help from those who want nothing more than to be there for you.

·         If you can – and sometimes we cannot - make amends with those who have hurt you – and to those whom you have hurt as well. 

My dear friends, on this Yom K’purim- this day that we remove our masks - we are fragile and fearful, but we are also renewed and reinvigorated.  May our striving for holiness allow us to face our fears and the future. May we be strong and May God’s choicest blessing be on us all.   

G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may we all be sealed for a blessing in the book of life. Amen

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Passing the Test - Rosh HaShanah Morning 5781

My Dear Friends,

Every year, when we read the story of the Akeda - the binding of Isaac, I am struck by the power of the narrative. No word is wasted, every nuance, every action, every moment is carefully choreographed to heighten the drama, the emotion, the energy and the terror of the events being described. Once again we listened to the story of God's asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac – read and chanted so beautifully for us this morning. In our text, father and son walk together to an unknown destination. Abraham leads Isaac to the altar, ties him up and prepares to slaughter him according to God's command. At the last minute, God stops Abraham and a ram which happened to be caught in a nearby thicket was offered up in Isaac's place.

On a literal level, the text teaches us that the binding of Isaac is a test of Abraham's faith. God needs to know if Abraham and his descendants will be able to fulfill their part of the Covenantal relationship.

And yet, we must ask: What kind of a God would ask a parent to sacrifice a child - as a test? And so, each year, I try to find another perspective to help me to come to grips with the Akedah.

This year, I had no trouble. This year, the answer came to me quite clearly - in the sounds of people marching through the streets of almost every city in our nation. These marches and protests took place following the deaths of several Black Americans:  George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Ahbrey and Elijah McClain – to name only a few.

I want to share with you a poem composed by the Israeli Poet, Chayim Gouri. It is called "Heritage"(Yerusha):

The Ram came last of all.
And Abraham did not know that it came to answer the boy's question -
First of his strength when his day was on the wane.

The old man raised his head.
Seeing that it was no dream and that the angel stood there -
The knife slipped from his hand.

The boy, released from his bonds,
Saw his father's back.

Isaac, as the story goes,
Was not sacrificed.
He lived for many years,
Saw what pleasure had to offer,
Until his eyesight dimmed.

But he bequeathed that hour to his offspring.

They are born with a knife in their hearts.

Gouri's final stanza: "They are born with a knife in their hearts" would suggest that Isaac's bequest to his offspring is the memory of the violence that shaped his childhood.

Gouri wrote this poem in the aftermath of the Shoah. The wound of which he speaks is etched into our consciousness as Jews. Indeed, many studies have demonstrated the intergenerational trauma experienced by children and even grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. 

Last year, at our Selichot services, Rabbi Tirtza Firestone shared her research and writing on the topic of intergenerational trauma and the holocaust. I must confess, I was deeply moved by her words. She shared how the descendants of survivors face many fears, trauma and even physiological issues even though they never directly experienced trauma. My mother escaped Nazi Germany when she was 12 years old and my sister and I grew up in a home where fear of the “other” and a perpetual sense of dread were constant companions. This had a profound impact on every aspect of our lives.

Intergenerational trauma, however, is not an exclusively Jewish phenomenon. There is ample evidence in American history of those who were victimized, brutalized and dehumanized and who bear scars to this very day. The legacies of Slavery, Jim Crow, racial segregation, and White privilege have been passed down from generation to generation. They live on in the many hidden and not so hidden barriers, policies, and daily practice of American life. As such, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and so many others did not cause the protests of this past summer.  The slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” did not suddenly emerge as a provocative call to radical revolution. Rather, all these events and ideas were formed and forged in a crucible of history that reached a boiling point that had been set in motion for generations. Add to this the tensions created by the realization that the danger, infection and mortality rates of COVID-19 were highest in communities of color and those on the bottom of the economic ladder. It is clear that the explosion of anger, frustration and fear we witnessed was both understandable and inevitable.

Last year, I also spoke about racial justice during the High Holy Days. In the months that followed, we convened a series of conversations at Temple that resulted in a dedicated group of learners who gathered to explore issues of race and injustice. These were very difficult conversations. No one wants to acknowledge that they may somehow have contributed to or benefitted from a system that was built to promote White Supremacy and privilege. But the evidence is overwhelming.

The African American academic and author, Roxanne Gay, wrote the following this past May:

 “…Some white people…fret over the destruction of property and want everyone to just get along. They struggle to understand why Black people are rioting but offer no alternatives about what a people should do about a lifetime of rage, disempowerment and injustice…The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free[i].”

As Jews, I believe that our response to these events– the marches, demonstrations, calls for radical reform and self-reflection – are as much a test as was the binding of Isaac.

·         If we ignore the clarion calls for understanding, for justice and equity that have emerged from the streets of our cities - then we / have failed / our test.

·         If we focus only on the destruction and chaos caused by extremists with vested interests in disrupting and obfuscating messages of pain and trauma - then we / have failed / our test.

·         At the same time, if we do not condemn the demonization and random violence directed against Law Enforcement - - then we / have failed / our test.

·         If we only hear the scattered voices of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that a small number of organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement have spoken – and do not hear the condemnation of these individuals and ideas within the movement – or, even worse, allow these few outliers to provide us a reason to disregard the entire movement, then we / have failed / our test.

·         If we allow ourselves to stand silently while our neighbors, family members, fellow congregants, friends and colleagues bleed – then not only have we failed our test, but we have forsaken the sacred, prophetic cry that our faith, our history and our Torah have bequeathed to us.

Elie Wiesel, in his 1986 acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize said the following: 

Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

And if you feel that cries for racial equity do not apply to us as Jews, then you are cutting off members of our own congregation – our children, spouses, leaders and students. A recent study showed that 12% of American Jews are either “Jews of Color” or live in multi-racial households[ii] - and these numbers are growing.  While these statistics may vary in different parts of the country, the fact remains that our community is changing – for the better. If demographic trends continue, then the Jewish people will continue to grow increasingly diverse and the beauty of multi-ethnic and racial harmony could very well be part and parcel of the legacy of American Judaism.

Like Abraham, we are being tested, my friends. And the way that we, as a community, as people of faith and as a congregation of conscience rise to the challenge will determine, in no small way – our ethical core and consistency. We who have inherited a prophetic legacy of social justice cannot remain silent, passive or oblivious to the reality of racism in our community and our national history.

It is for this reason that I am incredibly proud of the following resolution drafted by members of our racial equity working group that was voted on and overwhelmingly passed by our Board of Trustees in August.  It reads, in part:

Temple Emanuel … strives to create a kehillah kedoshah – a holy community – for all past, present and future members. We believe that Black Lives Matter.  As such, we unequivocally condemn expressions of bigotry, intolerance, violence, and white supremacy.  We firmly stand alongside our friends and colleagues of color as we struggle together toward equity and righteousness. We believe that it is not enough to merely condemn these societal ills, but we must actively become anti-racist by addressing and working to change them. Temple Emanuel and the Reform Jewish community have a long and proud history of partnership, activism and solidarity with Movements for Social Justice and Civil rights in our country. But there is still a great deal of work to be done to achieve racial equality….

As a result, we are fully dedicated to becoming an anti-racist congregation.

To become an anti-racist congregation, we will initially look inward and focus on the following:

    • Providing ongoing educational content and opportunities for self-reflection on issues of racial justice - for our clergy, staff, lay leadership and membership.
    • Implementing an institutional assessment to measure where we are organizationally in terms of diversity, inclusivity, and equity. 

We pledge to work in solidarity with others as we live out the essential Jewish value of B'Tzelem Elohim - all Humanity is Created in God’s image. We are committed to dismantling systems of white privilege wherever they might be found as we celebrate the holiness in every human being.

At Temple Emanuel, the time is now for our voices to rise together so that we can live out the biblical injunction: 

“Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

Our Congregational leadership has stepped forward to proclaim our values as Jews, as concerned citizens and as children of Isaac who know all too well the pain of intergeneration trauma.

I am also very excited to announce that the Rose Community Foundation will be partnering with Temple Emanuel. They have provided us with a substantial grant that will support our enable us to begin the work of becoming an Anti-Racist agenda. We received the following letter this past week:

Rose Community Foundation is proud to provide seed funding to support Temple Emanuel’s commitment to becoming an anti-racist congregation…

In addition to ongoing funding to increase the strength and capacity of Jewish organizations and support programs that are reflective of diverse Jewish communities and offer meaningful and relevant ways to engage in Jewish life, Rose Community Foundation aims to support local Jewish efforts that seek to advance social justice by engaging Jewish people and using Jewish values and traditions to respond to key social issues of our time…We pledge to continue listening, learning and directing our philanthropy toward advancing equity, justice and inclusion, and we are honored to have Temple Emanuel as a partner in that work.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, at 2:00 PM, members of our Racial Justice Task Force will be joining with me to discuss the vitally important work that we will be continuing and expanding over the course of the next year. Our High School Youth Programs will be engaging in a similar discussion this afternoon at 3:00. Join us. Help make a change – in our community and most importantly, in ourselves.

My friends, there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done. Today, our tradition teaches, we stand before God. We are being tested. Like Abraham and Isaac, the way that we respond to the pain and suffering around us will determine whether or not we have passed the test.

I look forward to partnering together to make our world more complete.

AMEN L’Shanah Tovah

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Four Weeks of Elul 5771-Week One: Our Communal Selves

Dear Friends

Today (August 21st) marks the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul.  It is customary during this holy month that precedes the High Holidays to begin intensive personal preparations for the New Year. This process, called Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh – an inventory of our souls – requires that each of us engage in a process of self-examination. During this sacred season we look closely at our relationships, thoughts, deeds, fears and dreams. We do this so that we can enter into the Yamim Noraim– the Days of Awe – spiritually and personally refreshed and prepared for the process of teshuvah (repentance/returning). Our tradition teaches that the month of Elul compels us to ask those around us whom we have wronged to forgive us for our actions if we have wronged them. We are also commanded to forgive those who ask us as well.

This past year has been filled with many challenges: physical, economic, spiritual and emotional.  We have been isolated from one another. We face uncertainty in so many areas of our lives. A dangerous virus lurks all around us and we do not know when, if or in what capacity it may strike. Our economy is suffering.  Jobs have been lost. We cannot be present with our loved ones in times of both difficulty and celebration. This has taken a huge toll on all of us.

Sometimes, when we are in the midst of a crisis, it is hard to find perspective as we confront our challenges head on. And yet, perhaps now is the perfect to try to put every aspect of our lives into perspective. If we only stay rooted in the here and now, we risk losing the possibility of finding hope in what is yet to come.

I started a tradition 24 years ago during the month of Elul where I sent weekly lists of seven questions (one for each day of the week) to members of our community and to all who wish to receive them. These questions are designed to help us examine our lives in all of the varied aspects and arenas in which we live: Communal, Interpersonal, Spiritual and Physical. Hopefully, by answering these questions we will be better prepared to enter into the Days of Awe.  This year, I have invited the members of our incredible clergy team at Temple Emanuel to join with me and choose a week to pose their own questions. The purpose of these questions is not to make us feel bad or unworthy, but rather to “nudge” us into looking at these vitally important aspects of our lives.
In the Torah portion that we will be reading for this coming Shabbat, Shoftim, we are introduced to the concept of Bal Tashchit – which is literally translated as “do not destroy. In our text (Deuteronomy 20:19) Bal Tashchit refers to the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees when we wage a siege against an enemy:

“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?”

Our tradition took this very specific Mitzvah and broadened it into a general rule                                     about the need to not be wasteful of anything. Many Jews have used this text to                                     justify and reinforce the essential aspects of conservation of resources and the preservation of our environment.
If we broaden our perspectives and apply this to the area of Cheshbon HaNefesh and the essential tasks we must take on during the month of Elul, we can also find a powerful metaphor for our own process of exploring our relationships with others in the community. Most trees can care for themselves, but sometimes they need pruning. If we neglect caring for them, they can be damaged.  So too, our relationships. They need care and feeding like everything else in our lives. 

When we look at how our relationships with the communities in which we live are functioning, the metaphor of Bal Tashchit can be very powerful.  Communities are built around the proposition that each of us is responsible for holding the community together. It takes work to maintain healthy institutions. In this time of COVID-19, many communities are endangered.  Not being able to come together physically means that we need to work especially hard to ensure that the values, experiences and basic vision of the communities in which we invest our time and treasure can survive.

The fact that we, at Temple Emanuel, have been able to pivot our worship and life-cycle experiences to on online platform has been both edifying and disconcerting. Yes, we can pray, celebrate and comfort one another when the need arises, but it truly isn’t the same as when we can be together in person. The shifting of priorities brought on by this pandemic can threaten our very survival – a fact about which our clergy, lay and professional leadership are very aware.

This extends beyond our synagogue into every arena in which we operate.  The                                     following questions are designed to help us explore ways in which we can work to strengthen our communal relationships:

  1. Have I allowed myself to become less connected to my congregation and community over the past year?
  2. During this time of political turmoil, have I found myself less open to others’ ideas and concerns when they conflict with my own?
  3. In a “virtual” world, where it is easy to shut out people and ideas that make me uncomfortable, have I allowed myself to “block” people or institutions with whom I otherwise would have engaged in different times?
  4. Have I worked to improve my community?
  5. Have I been able to understand the issues that affect communities other than my own – for example, people of different ethnic, racial or sexual orientation than me?
  6. Have I reached out to support those community institutions that have been especially hard hit by the impact of COVID-19?
  7. Understanding that everyone has been impacted by the pandemic, have I reached out to help those who have been less fortunate than me?

These questions are in no way complete.  They are designed to help all of us to begin the process of looking deep within ourselves and our souls as we enter into the month of Elul. We want to hear from you. If you have thoughts, questions or comments about anything we encourage you to let us know. 

May we all utilize these and all of our questions to help gain a better understanding of our communal selves.

L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black