Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Four Weeks of Elul 5779: Week Three – Our Spiritual Selves

Dear Friends,

Several years ago, Sue and I joined a group of friends on a 7-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. The experience of travelling through this majestic place was both overwhelming and life-changing. It evoked simultaneous feelings of uniqueness and insignificance that has shaped my view of both time and space to this very day.

All the travelers on that tiny raft shared in the knowledge that we were incredibly fortunate to be able to traverse through this ancient wilderness. We felt blessed and special to be able to see it from the bottom up: reveling in both the power and beauty of God’s creation. At the same time, the sheer magnitude of this wonder of nature that was carved into the earth’s crust over millions of years – drop by drop through the power of the water that flowed through it - made us feel very small and inconsequential. Our brief sojourn in the shadows of the canyon’s walls was nothing more than a blip in time in comparison to the enormity of what we were experiencing.

Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha was reported to have taught the following: "Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: 'For my sake was the world created,' and in his left: 'I am nothing but dust and ashes.'" In this way, we can strive to keep ourselves in balance. When we are feeling overwhelmed by the many forces in our lives that force us to question our meaning and purpose, we should reach into our right pocket and see just how fortunate we are to have been given the gift of life. The fact that we are lucky enough to experience daily life reminds us to make the most of every second given to us by our Creator.

At the same time, however, during those times when we allow our ego-driven selves to gain ascendance; when we are full of pride and self-confidence, we should reach into our left pockets and remind ourselves of our frailty and mortality.

Coming to terms with our spiritual selves means that we need to be cognizant of the delicate balance between the dual feelings of uniqueness and insignificance. Judaism’s insistence on ritual and daily spiritual practice can help us to balance ourselves as we traverse the sometimes-treacherous waters of the rivers of our lives.

With this awareness in mind, I offer the following questions for the third week of Elul that deal with our spiritual selves:

  1.  Have I been able to balance the ups and downs of daily living and see them from the perspective of something larger than myself?
  2. What events have caused me to question my faith during the course of the past year?
  3. When/where was the last time I felt close to God (however I define God)…?
  4. How often, during the past year, have I been able to set aside my own needs for something bigger than myself?
  5. Jewish tradition teaches that all of us are created in the Divine Image. When was the last time I looked for holiness in the people that I love the most?
  6. When was the last time I was able to pray without any distraction?
  7. How many times, over the course of this past year, have I taken the time to give thanks for the gift of my life?

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 are two classes left. You don’t have to come to every class to find them meaningful.

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

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Four Weeks of Elul - 5779: Week Two – Personal and Professional Relationships.

My Dear Friends,

July 1st marked the beginning of my 10th year as your Senior Rabbi.  It is hard to believe that so much time has passed since Sue, Ethan and I left Albuquerque to come to Denver. (Our daughter, Elana, was a sophomore in College out of state at the time.) We feel truly blessed to be part of this Kehillah Kedosha (sacred community). One of the ways that we mark the passage of time is to reflect on the relationships that we have forged and lost. I have been a rabbi for over 32 years. This means that I now find myself in the blessed position of being able to perform the weddings of the children of couples I married when I was a newly minted Rabbi. I also have had the difficult task of burying dear friends who I have met over the years. Each person with whom we connect becomes a touchstone along the path of our lives.

Truly, it is the relationships we create that give our lives beauty, depth, meaning and purpose. In the book of Genesis, when Adam was created in the Garden of Eden, God said: “It is not good for humans to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18). Indeed, it is possible to state that the entire Torah is a guidebook for strengthening and maintaining relationships – those between humans and God, and those between ourselves and others as well.

Our tradition teaches that on Yom Kippur the sins we have committed against God will be forgiven if we are truly repentant. The sins we commit against others, however, cannot be forgiven unless and until we have asked those whom we have wronged to forgive us.   In many ways, this is one of the most difficult aspects of Cheshbon Ha-nefesh – taking an inventory/accounting of our souls.  It means that we have to take risks by reaching out to others.  We may encounter resistance, anger, or resentment.  Sometimes it is impossible to reach out to others – and yet, it is our duty to do all that we can to assess whether or not reconciliation is possible.  If there is even the slightest hope then we need to try - even if we fail.

Each of us is involved in many kinds of relationships – from families and loved ones, to work associates, to acquaintances we see only occasionally.  Our tradition teaches that every person with whom we come in contact helps us to understand the profound truth that all humanity is created in the image of God.  As such, all our interactions with others – from the most intimate to the merely mundane – contain the potential for holiness.  If we approach them from this perspective, then maintaining healthy relationships takes on a sacred dimension.

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

1.      Have I set aside time to let the most important people in my life know how much I care about them?
2.      Have I taken part in any business or personal transactions this past year that were against my religious, moral or ethical principles?
3.      Have I done all that I could to repair damaged relationships in my life?
4.      Have I ignored or been impatient with those I love the most?
5.      Are there people I have wronged that I need to ask to forgive me?
6.      Will I be able to forgive those who come to me to ask for my forgiveness?
7.      Are there people that I need to forgive who will not acknowledge that they have hurt me? (This is, perhaps, the most difficult question of all…)

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.  Last week was our first class and was filled with eager and joyous learners. You don’t have to come to every class to find them meaningful.

May you utilize these and all your questions to help you gain a better understanding of your personal and professional relationships.

L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Four Weeks of Elul 5779. Week One: Our Communal Selves

My Dear Friends,

For the first time in a long time, the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul is also the 1st day of the secular month of September. 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.

As we reflect back over the past year, it is important that we put every aspect of our lives into perspective. As is my tradition, during the month of Elul, I will be sending out weekly lists of seven questions (one for each day of the week) to members of our community and to all who wish to receive them. These questions are designed to help us examine our lives in all of the varied aspects and arenas in which we live: Communal, Interpersonal, Spiritual and Physical. Hopefully, by answering these questions we will be better prepared to enter into the New Year. The purpose of these questions is not to make us feel bad or unworthy, but rather to “nudge” us into looking at these vitally important aspects of our lives. There will be seven questions in each list – one for every day of the week.  In addition, I also will be teaching a class that corresponds to each list on Thursday evenings from 5:30 to 6:30.  Our first class will be this Thursday, September 5th.

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

Week One: Communal Selves

Once again, we are about to conclude a year that, like the year that preceded it, has been filled with controversy. We have witnessed political and social tensions which have divided our nation around topics such as Immigration, Foreign Policy, Racial Prejudice, Gun Violence, Women’s Rights, Freedom of the Press, Climate Change, LGBTQ rights, and basic civil discourse. We have seen a rise in acts of violence. Mass murder is part and parcel of the landscape of our nation. The gridlock in Congress has served as a backdrop for feelings of futility and hopelessness as our nation appears to be losing our place as a source of strength and moral clarity.

Jewish tradition teaches that one of the most important bulwarks against despair is a strong and dynamic community. It is in the context of community that we can find meaning and purpose when we see the chaos swirling around us. But a healthy and strong community is not a given. We are responsible to creating, sustaining and supporting our community. Most of us live in many different communities. It is my hope that Temple Emanuel is or will be a central part of your communal experience and expression.

The following are a questions designed to help us explore our communal selves as we begin the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh:
  1. Have I allowed my political perspectives to color my relationships with those with whom I disagree?
  2. How have I helped sustain my congregation and community during the year? Have I given all that I could in terms of my time? My resources? My experience?
  3. Have I taken advantage of all that my congregation and community have to offer?
  4. Have I taken my own comfort for granted and “looked the other way” when I saw poverty or despair in my community?
  5. Regardless of political perspective, have I been vocal in my support of the State of Israel?
  6. When I am at synagogue, have I done all that I can to make others feel welcomed in the same way that I want to feel welcome?
  7. Have I explored ways to address the conflict and tension that have become commonplace in everyday discourse?

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. 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.

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

L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Friday, August 23, 2019

The "Loyalty" Trap

In the Torah portion we read for this Shabbat, Parashat Ekev, Moses is speaking to the people – reminding them of their history.  We find the following in Deuteronomy 8:3:

And God tested you, and let you hunger, and fed you with manna, which you knew not, neither did your parents know; that God might make you know that Humankind does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of Adonai does Humankind live.

In a Midrash[i], the Rabbis asked question:  How did God test us?  Manna was Divine food – how was that a test?  The answer they gave was that it tasted different for each person who ate it.  They then compared the taste of the Manna to the way in which each individual Israelite heard God’s voice at Mount Sinai.  For some, the voice of God sounded like a blaring siren.  For others, God’s voice was soothing – the sound of a parent.  Each person was able to hear God in their own way – according to their own experience and their need.

I love this Midrash! A key component in Jewish thought is that, throughout the generations, we have held on to this concept of God speaking to each of us according to our ability to hear. This vitally important idea has been one of the reasons that Judaism and the Jewish people have survived and thrived over the centuries.  Our modern faith is built on the dual premises of flexibility and accountability. We celebrate both the accessibility of societal change and the necessity to seek God’s presence in the everyday experiences of our lives. We continually affirm and reaffirm our eternal covenant with the Divine that binds us to one another while working to fulfill God’s promise of Redemption through the performance of Mitzvot and the keeping of our traditions.

While there have always been individuals and groups within our community who have felt a necessity to assert power and authority by attempting to legislate a uniformity in religious practice, communal involvement, and political affiliation, such attempts always have failed. We Jews are – and have always been - a stubborn people. The idea that God speaks to each of us in a unique voice has been an essential aspect of our religious experience and communal strength from Sinai until now. Any attempt to speak for the entirety of the Jewish people has been met with ridicule at best – and condemnation at worst.

In addition to how we have seen ourselves internally, Jews have often had vitally important relationships with the ruling powers of the lands in which we have found ourselves. There have been times in our history when Jewish scholars, doctors, philanthropists, teachers, even Generals have played key roles in the unfolding of political dynasties – serving as advisors and leaders in their own right. 

Of course, our history is also replete with examples of how Jewish communities that felt secure in their position as important and influential participants in society and governance suddenly found themselves serving as scapegoats for the ills of whatever country they may have found themselves. As we have painfully seen with horror here in the United States, anti-Semitism can lie dormant for a period of time, but under the right conditions, it can creep out of the sewers when tensions are raised and fear is ripe.

In 1894, a French Army Captain named Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason. Even though there was no evidence to support this claim, the wave of virulent anti-Semitism that swept through France and accompanied this accusation – as well as the trial that followed - became one of the inspirations for a young Austrian Journalist named Theodor Herzl to form a unified Zionist movement that came to fruition two years later in Basel Switzerland. Herzl, an assimilated Jew, felt that if charges of disloyalty to France – the birthplace of the Enlightenment – could spur such hatred and fervor, then there was no hope for the Jewish people outside of their own homeland.

Similarly, many German Jews who fought in World War One – who had medals and commendations from the highest military sources – could not fathom the concept that their beloved country might turn against them. Hitler’s claims of Jewish disloyalty meant that the ovens of Auschwitz were filled with the ashes of decorated Jewish soldiers and their families – who just a few years earlier had fought for what they though was their beloved homeland -Germany.

It is for this reason that charges that our president recently levied against Jewish Democrats are so profoundly disturbing. Speaking about congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar’s support of the BDS movement and the recent decision of Prime Minister Netanyahu to change his mind about allowing them to visit Israel, President Trump accused Jews who vote for Democrats of having "either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty."

Setting aside, for a moment, the question of to whom he was charging Democratic Jews of being disloyal – was it Israel? the United States? or the Jewish people in general? – the notion that political affiliation can become a litmus test for bona-fides of patriotism, Zionism or Judaism is chilling in and of itself. 

Let there be no ambiguity here - I disagree strongly with Representatives Tlaib and Omar.  I believe that their support of a movement that seeks to paint Israel as a pariah state is both offensive and dangerous. But most other members of the Democratic party as well as the vast majority of the American Jewish community share my beliefs. The best way to deal with their claims is to refute them forcefully and work to ensure that their constituents hold them accountable – both in Congress and at the ballot box. By attempting to tie their offensive comments to an entire political party, in addition to stirring up ancient anti-Semitic tropes of dual loyalty, our President is also creating a situation where the cherished US bi-partisan support for the State of Israel is being threatened. That does not bode well for the future of the Jewish State. The fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu appears to be a willing participant - at worst, or is taking a “hands off” approach - at best, is also deeply disturbing. This can be seen as yet another dangerous step towards creating a reality where an increasingly Right Wing Israeli government sees itself free to unilaterally destroy the prospect of a two state solution and eradicate more and more democratic principles in favor of a totalitarian regime where Fundamentalism and triumphalism reign supreme.

Please understand – my remarks this evening are not intended to be political in nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am speaking about values – Jewish values. My fear is that by injecting religious identity into the political arena, our President is endangering the vital foundation of separation of religion and governance upon which our nation is founded and is enshrined in our Constitution.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses reminds us that “…Humankind does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of Adonai does Humankind live.” Let us remember that it is our values as a people – enshrined in our sacred texts -  that have ensured that Judaism has thrived for over 4,000 years. Our prophets proclaimed an exalted vision for the world. If we remain silent in the face of injustice, bigotry, falsehood or demagoguery, we do so at our own peril.

Shabbat Shalom

[i] Exodus Rabbah 5:9

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Thoughts on PM Netanyahu's Ill Advised Decision to ban Representatives Omar and Tlaib

Dear Friends,
Today we learned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with encouragement from President Trump, has barred two duly elected members of the United States House of Representatives from entering into the State of Israel because of their support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. There is no question that some of the statements made by Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have been disturbing to those of us who love Israel and who see BDS as a dangerous and thinly veiled effort to delegitimize the Jewish State. In addition, it is clear that their goals in visiting were questionable. I do not agree with their positions or pronouncements about Israel. Nonetheless, as duly elected members of the United States Congress, they are representatives of our country. Banning them from Israel will only serve to create tensions –between our two nations, within our government and within the Jewish community. It also has the potential to backfire - providing Israel's enemies with more reasons to condemn her. As the leaders of AIPAC, the URJ, the ADL and many other Jewish organizations, as well as people from all sides of the political spectrum – from Senators Elizabeth Warren to Marco Rubio[i] - have publicly stated, this action is ill advised and dangerous. Aside from the political ramifications of this decision, nothing good can ever come from using support of Israel (or a lack thereof) as a litmus test of patriotism. Zionism must never be allowed to become a partisan issue. President Trump is not and cannot ever be the arbiter of anti-Semitism.
In this week’s Torah portion, VaEtchanan, we find the words of the Shema:
“Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Our tradition has taught us that God’s oneness is a powerful symbol of the need for our people to be unified as well.  While we cannot always agree on every issue that comes before us, this action – taken by the leader of the State of Israel with encouragement and support from the President of the United States of America - will only serve to divide and weaken our people, our nation and our support of Israel. I strongly add my voice to those who have already opposed and condemned this ill-advised decision.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Thoughts On Immigration and Intolerance

The current polarizing climate in our national discourse is very disconcerting. The policies and proclamations of our leaders are provoking and exacerbating tensions between political parties, ethnic and racial minorities and religious communities.  Nowhere is this more felt than in the area of immigration.
Last week, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Enforcement Agency (ICE) threatened to round up and deport men, women and children who were "illegal".  While it now appears that no action was taken (yet), the atmosphere of intimidation and fear that it fomented has created a moral crisis for those who see immigrants' rights as being threatened. I am posting two items below.  One is a letter to the editor of the Denver Post that, while not published, still deserves to be heard.  The other is a brief drash (short sermon) that I gave at services last Friday night.  
We pray that policies based on divisiveness and hatred might give way to a more moral, sane and caring agenda.
Shabbat Shalom!

Letter to the Editor - Denver Post
July 11, 2019
As a committed Jew, a Rabbi and the child of refugees, I was saddened to see the news that ICE is planning to begin deportation raids in Denver this weekend (“Nationwide deportation roundups to begin this weekend, according to Trump admins,” Denver Post, 7/11/2019). Many American Jews arrived here as immigrants and both my personal and  our communal history, as well as my religious values compel me to speak out against these raids. The Torah commands us 36 times to love and welcome the stranger. In Denver, immigrants are our friends, neighbors and colleagues. These raids will sow fear in this vital part of our community and risk separating families by taking U.S.-born children away from undocumented parents. I urge ICE to cancel the planned raids. We need a just and compassionate immigration policy in the United States – not raids and mass deportations.

Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Sr. Rabbi – Temple Emanuel, Denver.

Chukkat - July 12, 2019

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, we read of how Moses is punished for disobeying God.  The people are rebelling (again) and complaining that they have no water.  God then tells Moses to speak to a rock and water will come forth. But Moses, instead of speaking to the rock, strikes it twice after yelling at the people:  “Listen, you rebels!  Shall we get water from this rock?” After he yells at the people and strikes the rock, copious water poured forth.

There are many Midrashim (rabbinic stories) about this portion.  The Rabbis comment on how Moses’ punishment seems harsh.  The commentators differ as to the reason.  Rashi said it was because he disobeyed God.  Rambam, however, says that his punishment came about because he used the words “You rebels” and struck out in anger.

From this we learn that leaders should not allow their personal anger, grudges or prejudices to dictate the policies, laws and decrees.

Governance out of anger or vengeance always leads to unhealthy and uninformed decisions.

I speak of this tonight when our City of Denver – and a few other selected cities around the country – is preparing for a surge of actions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement – or ICE. As we sit here, members of our community are gathering in protest at ICE facilities in Denver.  The message of the protesters is that any arrests, rounding up of immigrants or threats to do so cause a huge amount of anxiety in a population that is already traumatized by family separation, harsh and inhumane holding cells and camps. Asylum seekers fleeing horrible and life-threatening situations are being treated as criminals.

It would appear that our governmental officials are acting out in anger – rather than compassion.

I am not advocating for eliminating any restrictions on immigration or asylum seeking. There must be a safe and legal way to deal with men, women and children who come to our borders seeking entry.  And yet, the act of looking for a better life for oneself and one’s children is part of the history of our nation.

I am the child of a refugee.

Most of us here tonight are the descendants of men and women who fled their counties in search of a better and safer life for their families.  Striking out in anger will only cause more pain and suffering – not only for those seeking a new life in the United States – but also for all of us.  We reflect the values, policies and actions of our leadership and law enforcement.  The way we treat outsiders will eventually impact the way we treat one another.

In the Torah, the words:  “You Shall not oppress the stranger – for you know the heart of the stranger – having yourselves been  strangers in the Land of Egypt” – occurs no less than 36 times.

When we shut ourselves off from the pain and suffering of those who come to us in desperate straits; when we are indifferent to their suffering and pain; when we demonize them as the “other” and ignore the root cause of their need to come to our borders, we, like Moses, are refusing to listen to God’s voice.

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Walking ‘Round The Lake

Last week, Sue and I walked around Lake Harriet during our annual visit to Minnesota- one of the many beautiful lakes in Minneapolis. I met Sue in the Twin Cities. I began my Rabbinate at Temple Israel.
Walking around a lake is a quintessential Minneapolis pastime.
This poem/song is a reflection on the passage of time and the power of love.

Walking round the lake
July 8, 2019
Words and Music © Rabbi Joe Black
All Rights Reserved

Walking round the lake
The memories keep flooding in
Each time you circle round
It’s sometimes hard to take - 
Footsteps bring you closer
As you dream about the sound.

Of endless days and longer strides
And winsome grooms and bashful brides
And paths you crossed when you were in your prime.
The wonder of a furtive glance
The promise of a new romance
Remembering a different, younger time.

Walking round the lake
You take a pause to catch your breath
And feel the wear and tear
The little creaks and aches
Reminding you to take it slow
Your legs are worse for wear.

But then you stop and look above
You hold her hand and feel the love
And think about the steps that led you here
Although it twisted with your fate
The path you took was worth the weight
You’ve shared it with the one you love so dear

Walking round the lake
You stop and sit upon a bench
Thankful for the breeze
What once was so opaque
Now shimmers like a dragon fly
That floats beneath the trees

Then you lose your shoes and free your feet
You dip your toes to beat the heat
And watch the ripples glisten in the sun
If life is just a circle game
Then I’ll take another turn again

And do my best to play until I’m done

Walking round the lake
The memories keep flooding in
Each time you circle round
Like frosting on a cake
You taste the simple sweetness
That you’ve found

And love is all around