Categories
Torah

Scapegoating and Sacred Self-Awareness: Questions for Acharei Mot/K’doshim

This week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot/K’doshim, contains two familiar narratives. The first is the ritual of the Scapegoat—on Yom Kippur, two goats are selected. One is sacrificed and the other is sent off to Azazel with the sins of the people upon its head (Leviticus 16:7–8). The second passage contains what we now call the “Holiness Code.” The words, “You will be holy, for I, Adonai your God am Holy” (Leviticus 19:1–2), resonate as a powerful exhortation to find the holiness implanted within us all as we attempt to uncover God’s presence in our lives.

At face value, these two commandments appear to have very little in common. The Scapegoator seir l’Azazel— is an ancient ritual of purgation that, to our modern sensibilities, has little, if any meaning. The commandment for us to find God’s holiness within ourselves, however, resonates strongly within many who seek to understand our purpose in the world.

And yet, if we attempt to dig just a little deeper than the literal meaning of our text, we can find powerful truths that are especially relevant during this difficult time of social distancing. Scapegoating, as we know, is the act of looking to find others to blame for underlying problems in society. The term comes from the ritual we find in our parashah of banishing a goat into the wilderness with the sins of the people placed upon it by the High Priest. We don’t exactly know how this was observed in ancient days, but the symbolism of finding a target upon which to place our troubles has been part of our history as a people. Scapegoating, in essence, is an attempt to externalize our fears and find ways to explain away those things which plague our society. As Jews, we know all too well the dangers inherent in being scapegoated as well as scapegoating others.

Our second text, however, teaches us that holiness is not some external force that can be captured or controlled. On the contraryit is part of our very nature. You will be holy, because Adonai our God is holy.” We who are created in the Divine image understand both our ability and the inevitability of experiencing the sacred simply because of how we were created. The text continues on to teach us how to act with holiness: to honor our parents, form a just society, and treat the weakest among us with the respect and dignity deserving of holy beings.

In a very real sense, these two concepts create a dichotomy of human behavior. On one extreme, we all too often look outside of ourselves to point blame and rationalize our actions and missteps. Scapegoating is a refusal to accept responsibility for our failures. The other extreme, however, teaches us that the mitzvah of understanding our intrinsic, internal holiness leads us to own and embrace our actions and our humanity. When we see ourselves as striving to be holy, everything we do leads us towards our goal and helps us to celebrate all of God’s creation rather than looking for easy targets for scorn and hatred.

These past weeks have shown us both sides of our two parashot. We have witnessed how ignorance, fear, and prejudice have blinded people and created irrational and racist tropes which begin in the far fringes of society, but all too often are rapidly and eagerly consumed by those looking for easy answers. The targeting of Asians, medical professionals, and accusations of conspiracy against leaders who set boundaries in order to help save lives are just a few examples of the kind of ugly behavior brought about by scapegoating. And yes, Jews have been targeted as well.

But we also have found examples of incredible holiness in response to the pandemic. The selfless caring exhibited by health care professionals, first responders, and all those who literally risk their lives by going to work every day so that the rest of us might be safe, shows us holiness in real time. Their sacrifice and dedication remind us to look for God’s presence wherever we gaze.

And so, my questions for this week revolve around our tendency to both externalize our fears and embrace the holiness that is within us.

  1. How often, over the past weeks of social distancing, have I found myself blaming others in order to rationalize my fears, anxieties, and self-doubts?
  2.  How tolerant have I been of others’ weaknesses—especially those exhibited by our leaders?
  3. Have I been quick to judge policies and emergency measures without looking for the underlying reasons they were put in place?   
  4. How often have I allowed myself to give thanks for the ability to shelter-in-place and be safe in the midst of this pandemic?
  5. Have I been able to see the holiness in myself?
  6. Have I been able to see the holiness in others in my household?
  7. As a sacred “work in progress,” have I been able to acknowledge that only God is perfect—even though I have the capacity for holiness within me? Have I been able to see my mistakes and flaws as benchmarks towards my personal journey to find internal holiness?

Again, these questions are in no way complete. They are designed to help us look within ourselves and our souls as we journey together through the unknown.

May we all learn to accept, embrace, and anticipate our growth as imperfect beings with the capacity to seek out holiness and celebrate it in our lives.

Amen.


Rabbi Joe Black is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. 

Categories
Healing member support mental health Torah

Confronting Our Fears through Tazria and M’tzora

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria and M’tzora is difficult. It also has a reputation for inspiring fear and dread of any bar or bat mitzvah student who receives it for their Shabbat service. Tazria and M’tzora speak of bodily functions, illness, and quarantine. It talks about:

  • Childbirth
  • Disease
  • Contact with bodily fluids
  • Afflictions of the skin

It also speaks of how, when a person contracts a condition like this, they need to go through a series of ritual cleansings, inspections, and separation before they are allowed back into the community.

The disease, Tzaraat (which I’ll talk more about below) is not only a human disease—it can affect the walls of people’s homes as well—thereby giving it another dimension that expands its reach from that of a human disease to a more global condition.

It’s tempting to try and draw parallels from the fact that these two Torah portions speak of disease and quarantine while our community, state, nation and, indeed, the entire world is coping with the coronavirus—but, rather than succumbing to this temptation, I want to talk instead about why these chapters are included in our sacred text in the first place. What lessons can we learn—not only from the content of our parashah, but the context in which the discussion takes place? You see, I don’t think that all of these laws about tzaraat—which we translate as leprosy, but clearly is something else—are included in the narrative to teach us about cleanliness, diagnosis or medical care. Rather, I think, they are about our fears.

Tzaraat, in our text, is a disease that clearly has a powerful impact on the Ancient Israelite community. It is not only experienced physically, but spiritually. The fact that houses can be infected, as well as humans, should give us a clue that more is going on beneath the surface than is readily apparent.

This time of quarantine, illness, and loss has taken its toll on all of us. The facts that we cannot be physically close to one another; that our economy is suffering; that our national political discourse has become so toxic, are taking a toll on us physically, emotionally and spiritually. We do not know how long this will continue. We worry about our health and those of our loved ones—some of whom are dealing with the virus, others who are vulnerable, and others who are on the front lines providing medical care, research, support, and other crucial services that allow us to function. We worry about how we will emerge from our isolation and what our world will look like once we do.

In Tazaria and M’tzora, our ancestors had to deal with the unknown. They were afraid of something over which they had no control. The rituals of isolation, immersion, and re-entry were designed to provide a safe framework for the people to feel that they were not endangered by this unseen enemy.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how psychologists and other mental health professionals are keenly aware of the fact that everyone is affected (infected?) by COVID-19, regardless of whether or not they contract the virus. The radical overturning of our daily lives that we are experiencing is enough to shift our emotional equilibrium. This can manifest itself in many different forms—from depression to compulsive behaviors, to denial, revolt, and even other physical ailments.

Perhaps one of our key tasks at this time is to try to understand and anticipate our fear of the unknown and our reactions to it. As such, I want to propose the following seven questions for us to explore as we continue on our journey:

  1. Research has shown that staying physically active during quarantine is an essential part of staying healthy. Am I engaging in enough physical activity?
  2. For those who are in quarantine with others: Am I aware of the needs of others in my home? Am I doing all that I can to understand what they are going through as well me? Am I tolerant of my own missteps as well as those with whom I am living?
  3. Am I doing all that I can to be productive during this time? Are there tasks that need to be completed? Do I have outlets for creativity and meaningful outlets other than television, the internet, and other passive activities?
  4. Am I looking for ways to help others? Are there ways that I can volunteer my time or expertise as well as my financial resources?
  5. Am I willing to receive help from others?
  6. Psychologists teach us that it is important that we not dwell too long on the length of time that we have been—or will be—socially distant. We need to remind ourselves that this is a temporary situation that will be resolved someday. We also need to be “in the moment” as much as we can.
  7. There will be times when our fears will get the best of us. No one can be strong all the time. Have I been able to forgive myself for those moments when I don’t feel productive or give into the despair of the moment?

Again, these are only a few questions designed to help us process our fears of the unknown. Like our ancestors wandering in the wilderness, there is much that we do not know. At the same time, however, we also have the blessing of being part of a sacred community that cares for one another.


Rabbi Joe Black is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. 


Categories
Prayer

For Danny, Elyse, and Devra z”l

This poem was written after hearing the tragic news about the sudden death of the child of dear friends and colleagues. Their lives were suddenly and irrevocably changed as they were thrust into intense grief and loss. The phrase, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of death,” found in Psalm 23 has always evoked images of a journey of grief. The mourning process helps us to walk through the Valley, not to be stuck in it.  For some the journey is longer and more painful than for others.  Most of us are unprepared for the shock of a tragic loss. We do not walk alone, however. We are accompanied both by those who travelled before us and those who hold us up along our painful journey.



For Danny,  Elyse and Devra z”l

גם כי אילך בגאי צלמוות
(Psalm 23)

Those who walk through the Valley of Shadows wear no shoes.
Their feet are cut and torn as they stumble through the darkness. 
With no time to pack a bag or say goodbye, they begin their journeys unprepared.

Some are dressed in finery: jewels gleaming like stars in the dim light.
Others are in pajamas, work clothes, prayer shawls or bathing suits.
Some clutch briefcases, papers, blankets or teddy bears.

And everyone wears their grief.

With each cautious, painful step, they move further into the abyss.
The chasm narrows.
Stretching out their fingers they trace the grooves carved by previous pilgrims
 – handholds hewn into the cold canyon walls.

Sometimes they march in silence.
Other times, singing hauntingly beautiful melodies, their voices echo to the very vaults of heaven.

The river that created this place does not flow from on high:
It was formed and filled by the tears of those whose bruised souls traversed the trail. 

No one walks here alone: 
Stumbling pilgrims are quickly caught and held aloft by those who travel beside them –
They are caressed and carried through the brambles and branches that, unexposed and hidden from sight, add to the chaos and confusion of the journey.

In time (for some) a light appears in the distance – piercing through the veil of darkness.
Hope – long buried, rises to the surface like a beacon

And with it, the weary marchers ascend to find a world that has been changed forever by their absence.
They return with pale faces and broken hearts.
But now, as experienced travelers, they will always have a suitcase packed and ready.


Rabbi Joe Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. 

Categories
interfaith Passover Pesach Prayer

Tragedy and Transcendence: Opening Prayer for the CO State House in a Time of Holiness and Horror

Rabbi Joe Black read this opening prayer for the Colorado State House of Representatives before they began their session on Wednesday, April 17, 2019.

Our God and God of all people:

This Friday night, Jews around the world will tell the ancient story of Passover.  We will gather around our seder tables and experience the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom and redemption. On Easter Sunday, Christians will celebrate the potential to be reborn with hope and faith.

This is a sacred time – when we are reminded of both the fragility of life and the potential for renewal and redemption. Now should be a period of gratitude and introspection that helps us to see the best in all of humanity.

And yet, in the midst of these festivals of holiness and hope, over the past two days our state was suddenly and brutally thrust into a climate of terror and dread brought about by a heartbreakingly disturbed young woman who played out her demons as we anticipated the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

The juxtaposition of the anticipation of these two sacred festivals with the ugliness and paralysis of potential violence reminds us just how little progress has occurred in the years since our innocence was shattered on April 20th, 1999. We have become numb to the horrors of violence brought about by each new tragedy. For a parent to have to tell their child that it is too dangerous to go to school is an obscenity and anathema to the values that are embodied in this sacred chamber.

When messages of rebirth and redemption are overshadowed by fear, we must take stock in who we are and who we are becoming. We can try to write off each tragic incident as distinct and separate, but taken in an aggregate we have no choice but to acknowledge that there is a sickness in our nation that cannot be ignored. Whether it is caused by easy access to weapons of destruction or the political divisions that paralyze us, it is essential that we come together to bring about change – to strive to see the veracity and sanctity of all humanity – even if we disagree. If the deaths of innocents are not enough to move us to action, then what have we become?

May the messages of hope and rebirth symbolized by both Passover and Easter motivate all of us to see the holiness infused in every soul. As we anticipate this painful anniversary, may we be inspired to use every means at our disposal to ensure that the hopelessness and despair that we have been feeling these past two days will be replaced by a sacred determination to bring about healing and change.  Only then will we be able to ensure that we are doing God’s work on earth.

Amen

Rabbi Joe Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. This blog was originally shared on his personal blog.

Categories
Prayer

Prayer on Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day

Our God and God of compassion:

In the Jewish Calendar – this day is called Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day.

This morning we stand – not merely in prayer – but in remembrance.

We remember the more than 13,000,000 souls destroyed in the nightmare of the Shoah – the Nazi Holocaust. Among those innocents exterminated by the Nazis were:

  • Intellectuals
  • Communists
  • Socialists
  • Catholics
  • The Mentally and Physically infirm
  • Gypsies/Roma
  • Gays and Lesbians
  • And, of course – 6 million Jews – of whom 1.5 million were children.

These numbers are not new.  I have lived with them all of my life.

My mother passed away this past June at the age of 91.  She was born in Leipzig, Germany.  She lived through Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass that took place on November 9th, 1938.  She and her parents were able to escape to America and begin new lives here – but the shadows of that night and the months and years that followed, never disappeared from her consciousness until she suffered a stroke on the day after her 91st birthday. As devastating as that event was in our lives, in some ways it was a blessing since it allowed her to find relief from the fears and anxieties that plagued her all of her life as she confronted the memories of her experiences as a young girl in Nazi Germany.

Today, Jews and people of faith all around the world remember how hatred and bigotry came together with modern technology to create a machinery of death that had never before been witnessed in human history.

Auschwitz, Birkenau, Bergen Belzen, Dachau, Treblinka – these  and so many other names are forever etched into our consciousness – these places of pure evil that taught  the depths to which human beings will descend in order to deny the Divine Image implanted within each of us….

In trying to understand the enormity of evil represented by the dark period of the Shoah we must accept the fact that in some cases there can be no understanding.  To state that one and a half million children died for a reason is blasphemy.  In a world where we strive to see God’s presence, the reality of evil can eclipse even the brightest flame of holiness.

Our task, in remembering those precious souls who perished, must be to strengthen our resolve to call out and combat evil wherever and whenever it arises. When we are silent, we are complicit.

Elie Weisel – the great writer and teacher wrote:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

When we turn our backs to the ugliness in our world – we are desecrating God’s presence in our midst.  Let us remember that with the holiness implanted within us comes the responsibility to shine a light on both good and evil – wherever it may find itself.

Rabbi Joseph R. Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, CO. This prayer was originally posted here and read for the Colorado House of Representatives.

Categories
Gun Control Social Justice

Praying With Our Feet at the March For Our Lives in Washington, DC

Dear Friends,

I write this while on a plane en route from our nation’s capital after having shared in a remarkable and life-changing Shabbat experience. On Friday night, I was honored to be asked by my dear friend, Rabbi Bruce Lustig, to participate in an Erev Shabbat service at Washington Hebrew Congregation along with other musicians including Dan Nichols, Stacy Beyer, Noah Aronson and Alan Goodis. Our Director of Youth Engagement, Megan Garrett, and two parent chaperones also accompanied a delegation of several of our teens.  They spent the night in the Synagogue along with over 450 young people from across the country. During the service,we were joined on the Bema by several young people who spoke – many who were students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  Others were leaders of their NFTY regions.  After the service, my musical colleagues and I led a short concert and song-session during which I sang the protest anthem that Steve Brodsky and I co-wrote, “Praying With Our Feet.”  While the music was an important part of the evening, the primary focus was on the teenagers. The poise, pain and incredible leadership that these young people displayed while sharing their stories was both moving and inspiring.

On Shabbat morning, the entire NFTY delegation and many other adults prayed together in a pre-rally Shabbat service.  We were joined by many dignitaries – including Debbie Wasserman Shultz – the US Congresswoman who represents Parkland, Florida, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs who addressed the congregation via video feed. But once again, the major focus of the service were the young people who led us in prayer and song.  There was one incredibly moving moment towards the end of the service when my friend and colleague, Rabbi Brad Boxman, who serves a congregation in Parkland, FL, shared how, on the first Shabbat following the shootings, he asked all of the adults in his packed sanctuary to turn to the children who sat with and near them and bless them.  He then asked all of us who were present to do the same.  As we placed our hands on the heads of these beautiful teenagers and said the words of the Priestly blessing together, tears flowed freely down our faces. You see, we knew that we had come to DC to protest. We knew that change had to come. We were charged and ready. But there was something about praying for God’s protective blessing on these precious, beautiful souls that shifted our focus and made everything very real. We were not about to march for a cause: we were marching for our children’s lives.  And then we started our journey to the rally.
We carried signs and banners with sacred texts:
  • “If not now, when?”
  • ‘It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from carrying it out.”
  • “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds”
We chanted, we sang, we enjoyed a beautiful sunny day. But our march soon came to a halt when we realized that there were so many people filling the streets that we could only go a few blocks. Every space in the street surrounding the Capital was filled.  But it didn’t matter. We watched on video screens, heard from loudspeakers and felt the determination in the million other marchers who were with us. We came from all walks of life – all colors and creeds – but we shared in our determination to speak up and say enough:
  • Enough killing;
  • Enough pretending that the issue is not guns, but people;
  • Enough ignoring the plight of people of color;
  • Enough manipulation from the gun lobby;
  • Enough silence from legislators who are afraid to address the issue of easy access to weapons of mass destruction.

This was not a political rally – although, after today’s events, many politicians will be worried about keeping their seats – and they should be. We marched for moral, not partisan reasons. This was not, as some have charged, a volley of Left Wing talking points – it was a rising up of a generation raised in the shadows of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Las Vegas, Parkland and too many other tragedies that have been lost in the endless cycle of shootings that have become yesterday’s news.

The rock stars and celebrities who were on stage were not the focus of the rally either. No, it was the children- the survivors who have taken on the mantle of leadership – who stirred our souls and compelled us to action. We heard about the toll that daily violence on the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington DC has taken. We wept along with speakers who had lost brothers and sisters to bullets. We heard the passion of the newly-energized victims of school shootings who have watched as the adults in their lives relinquished the responsibility of protecting them and, as a result, have taken it upon themselves to give notice to their elected officials that silence is complicity, and that they refuse to remain silent.

As I contemplate this remarkable 24 hours, I am in awe. The vision, poise, leadership and power that these young activists have discovered gives me hope that not all is lost, and that the future will be in good hands. I also am more determined than ever to both speak out against and call out the hypocrisy and callous disregard for human life that the gun lobby and its enablers have fostered in our society.

Let me be very clear:  I am not opposed to guns per se. I am, however, opposed to the idolatry that gun worship has spawned in our nation. We owe it to our children to speak out as loud and proud as they do. They have taken on the mantle of leadership. I am compelled to follow. Will you join with me?

We can do no less.

Rabbi Joe Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado.  This blog was originally posted on his personal blog
Categories
Gun Control Healing Prayer

Prayer in the Aftermath of a Tragedy

Our God and God of all people,
God of the Rich and God of the poor.
God of the teacher and God of the student.
God of the families who wait in horror.
God of the dispatcher who hears screams of terror from under bloodied desks.
God of the first responder who bravely creeps through ravaged hallways.
God of the doctor who treats the wounded.
God of the rabbi, pastor, imam or priest who seeks words of comfort but comes up empty.
God of the young boy who sees his classmates die in front of him.
God of the weeping, raging, inconsolable mother who screams at the sight of her child’s lifeless body .
God of the shattered communities torn apart by senseless violence.
God of the legislators paralyzed by fear, partisanship, money and undue influence.
God of the Right.
God of the Left.
God who hears our prayers.
God who does not answer.
On this tragic day when we confront the aftermath of the 18th School shooting in our nation on the 46th day of this year, I do not feel like praying.
Our prayers have not stopped the bullets.
Our prayers have changed nothing.
Once again, a disturbed man with easy access to guns has squinted through the sights of a weapon, aimed, squeezed a trigger and taken out his depraved anger, pain and frustration on innocents:  pure souls. Students and teachers. Brothers and sisters. Mothers and fathers- cut down in an instant by the power of hatred and technology.
We are guilty, O God.
We are guilty of inaction.
We are guilty of complacency.
We are guilty of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by politics.
The blood of our children cries out from the ground.
The blood of police officers cut down in the line of duty flows through our streets.
I do not appeal to You on this terrible morning to change us. We can only do that ourselves.
Our enemies do not come only from far away places.
The monsters we fear live among us.
May those in this room who have the power to to make change find the courage to seek a pathway to sanity and hope.
May we hold ourselves and our leaders accountable.

Only then will our prayers be worthy of an answer.

AMEN
Rabbi Joe Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado.  This prayer was originally posted on his blog