The Smallest Acts are also the Holiest

I remember my first summer as a CIT at Camp Ramah in Nyack. I have spent many summers there, as a counselor and Rosh Edah (Division Head), but it was those initial weeks during my first summer that I truly learned what leadership looked like from the camp’s director, Amy Skopp Cooper. Being a CIT was a ton of fun and a lot of work — a balancing act between caring for children and also having to work in the kitchen, serving hundreds of hungry children and even hungrier counselors on a daily basis. Admittedly, on hot summer days, I would hide in the walk-in fridge with other CIT’s – using this space as our experimental air conditioning – and avoid being asked to bring a fourth serving of grilled cheese to a table of fifth graders. I was about to enter college and clearly had a lot to learn about leadership. But ultimately, Amy taught me the most important of lessons.

Every afternoon featured ice cream popsicles and sandwiches on the migrash, the grass field in the center of camp where only hours earlier we would begin our days with Israeli dancing. By week three, you could notice the divots made in the sod from the extreme ruach-filled dancing to HaYeladim Koftzim. The mid-summer look of the migrash was evidence of joyful Judaism in action. But each afternoon, that same field was full of ice cream wrappers, a sign of satisfied campers, and well, children who aren’t so good at cleaning up after themselves.

During those first few weeks of my CIT summer, I vividly remember walking through camp, and speaking with Amy Skopp Cooper about the Jewish future. As we walked and had a very intense and yet quite informal conversation, she slowly would pick up a piece of litter and hold unto it until we found a trash can. I noticed the humble act and began to do the same. So did the other CIT’s around us. She never delegated this responsibility, expecting someone else to take it on. Rather, humbly as the camp director, she understood that the smallest of acts as a leader are the holiest.

In Parashat Tzav, we not only learn of the multitude of sacrifices that the priests were to perform, but also of their responsibility to clean up those sacrifices.

“He [the priest] shall take off his [priestly] vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes the outside the camp” (Lev. 6:4).

The priests did not delegate such “dirty work” to those who were lowest on the totem pole. Instead, they understood the importance of rolling up their sleeves. The sacred work wasn’t just about the ritual. It was about the everyday work that we too often take for granted, delegate to someone else, or ignore altogether. In fact, Rabbeynu Bahya, of 14th century Spain, clarifies that this act of “cleaning up” was a part of the sacrifice itself. In essence, he was saying that this act, the simple and everyday, was as holy as the ritual of sacrifice, if not more so. The haftarah for this Torah portion, taken from the book of Jeremiah, suggests that we weren’t even meant to offer meaningless sacrifices.

Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, explains:

“For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you’” (Jer. 7:22-23).

Jeremiah is suggesting that if we only focus on the ritual and miss everything else, then the ritual becomes meaningless. If we only look at the letter of the law, and ignore the meaning behind it — the intent — then it is meaningless. If our holy acts become rote, devoid of any form of intention, then they are meaningless. Furthermore, walking in God’s ways, the everyday acts of life and our routines, are holier than the occasional rituals themselves.

Maybe then it is not those rituals that matter most of all. Ritually speaking, anyone can learn how to recite the proper words of liturgy. B’nai mitzvah can learn the trope to chant an Aliyah of Torah. From a leadership perspective, an elected official can put out a carefully edited and wordsmithed press release. But what do they do when the cameras are off them? What do they say when a journalist isn’t asking for a quote?

Our holiest of acts — those that define who we are — aren’t the pomp and circumstance of ritual. It’s not the sacrificial ritual acts. It’s the everyday and simple acts. It’s the cleaning up of the ashes by the priest. It’s the picking up of the ice cream wrappers on the migrash by the camp director. It’s the way an elected official acts when they aren’t posing for a photo shoot. It’s our everyday obligations to each other. That is what should define us. So let us all be more aware of our simplest acts. They have the power to be our holiest acts.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Hearing God’s Call by Recognizing the Godliness in Each Other

The entire book of Leviticus begins with the announcement: Vayikra – and God called out to Moses. Immediately after that, the text says Vaydaber Adonai Ailav — And God spoke to him. Why then must God first call out to Moses before speaking to him? God also calls to Moses as Moses ascends Sinai to experience revelation. Similarly, we learn that when Moses was a shepherd and looking at the burning bush, God called out to Moses from within the bush.

The divine act of calling out is a wake-up call, a reminder to pay attention. While God speaks to Moses immediately after calling out to him, God must first call out to him, to make him aware of the moment, to make him aware of what is happening, of what is about to be said, of what is about to take place.

This is also a reminder to all of us that we must answer the call. There is is a difference between hearing God’s words – Vaydaber – when God speaks — and answering God’s call – Vayikra.

As we prepare to celebrate the festival of Purim, we look forward to chanting from Megillat Esther, the book of Esther. With Esther in a position of power, she uses her authority and her position of influence as Queen to stop Haman’s attempted massacre of the Jews of Persia. Mordechai tells Esther in 4:13:

 “do not think because you live in the King’s Palace that you alone will be saved.”

He is essentially saying that hate does not discriminate and it doesn’t matter how much privilege you have – living in the King’s palace — or how much you conceal your identity to “fit in” – like changing your name from the Hebrew ‘Hadassah’ to the more Persian sounding ‘Esther’ as she does in the first verses of the Megillah. Hate against one minority is a threat against all minorities. Hate against another because one sees them as “the other” is the true form of injustice. And it was exactly being the other – the fact that Mordechai and thus all Jews worshipped differently than what Haman wanted or permitted – that led him to want to murder the Jews of Shushan. But maybe Esther would’ve been saved. Maybe Mordechai was wrong. Maybe as King Ahashverosh’s favorite Queen, living in the palace with a Persian name, she would’ve been spared. Which makes her openness to hearing God’s call to action all the more remarkable.

Megillat Esther stands out among the books of the Tanakh because God does not appear in it at all, or at least not explicitly. God is very much present in this text because “Vayikra” – Esther hears God’s call, a call to stand up and to speak up, a call to fight against persecution, hate, and injustice, not just because it is happening to her people, but because it is happening to God’s people, for we are all God’s people. The book of Esther is not just a story about the Jewish people being saved. It is a story about someone using their power, privilege, and influence to stand in unity with those in need – not because Esther was a Jew, but because Esther was Queen.

This past Shabbat, we were not just instructed to hear God’s call – and not only God’s words, but understand exactly what God’s call is. What does it mean? On Shabbat Zachor, we read of Amalek – we read about those who snuck up on the Israelites from behind as they were wandering through the wilderness, and attacked the women, children, and elderly. We read this on the Shabbat prior to Purim because we believe that in every generation, Amalek rears their heads again and that Haman was a descendant of the Amalekites. Last week’s tragic shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand was the latest example of the hate of Amalek. The white supremacist terrorist who sought to publicize such hate by livestreaming the mass shooting and terror attack and by posting a 75-page screed on social media prior to the shooting that made reference to white pride, xenophobia, and President Trump, was also a descendant of Amalek. We are commanded in the verses of Deuteronomy to both “not forget” what Amalek did to you, and yet to also “blot out the memory” of Amalek. How do we reconcile both such acts, that are seemingly contradictory?

We are told to never forget such hate – never forget that hate is always lurking in the shadows. Amalek is always trying to sneak up behind us. Haman is always waiting in the wings. White supremacists are amplifying their voices through social media and through elected office, through a rise in bigotry, Islamophobia, Anti-semitism, and xenophobia. But we still strive to erase such hate – we strive to blot out such hate nonetheless. We do not let that hate define us, for we believe that we have the right to pray without fear – and so do people of all faiths, including our Muslim brothers and sisters. We have the right to gather in celebration without worrying about our safety.

Upon hearing the news of this terrorist attack, I reach out to my friends at the NIA Masjid and Community Center. Rabbi Rachel Marder and I, as rabbis at Congregation Beth El, along with our rabbinic colleagues in South Orange, New Jersey, joined our Muslims brothers and sisters at the NIA Masjid and Community Center for their Jumu’ah prayers. Why? That is how we blot out the hate of Amalek. That is how we ensure that hate doesn’t win. And yes, we could stay silent. Or, like Esther we could stand up and speak up. We could hear God’s call – Vayikra — and act. And be united. So how do we not forget and still blot out? By standing with our brothers and sisters, no matter faith or ethnicity. We answer God’s call by seeing the Godliness in each other.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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At the Center of our Relationship with God is the Broken and Whole

We just concluded the book of Exodus and in doing so, also concluded the narrative that focused on the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites brought with them as they traveled throughout the wilderness.

At the end of this section, God reminds Moses how to set up the Tabernacle:

Place there the Ark of the Pact and screen off the ark with the curtain. Bring in the table and lay out its due setting, bring in the lampstand and light its lamps and place the gold altar of incense before the ark of the Pact. (Ex. 40:3-5)

And then Moses does exactly that.

He took the Pact and placed it in the ark, and he fixed the poles to the ark, placed the cover on top of the ark, and brough the ark inside the Tabernacle. (Ex. 40:20)

Central to the Tabernacle is not the altar where offerings and sacrifices took place, but instead the Ark of the Covenant. And what was in that ark? What was at the center of this sanctuary that was core to the Israelites relationship with God?

broken tabletsThe tablets. But not just the second set that Moses carved again. Both sets of tablets were placed inside the ark. The broken and the whole.

While the Talmud Yerushalmi teaches that two Arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness— one in which the Torah was placed, and the other in which the Tablets broken by Moses were placed, the Babylonian Talmud offers a different interpretation. Tractate Bava Batra teaches that Rabbi Meir clarifies that something else was in the ark — the broken tablets side-by-side with the whole tablets.

At the center of the sanctuary, at the center of that in which God’s divine Presence, Kavod Shechina, finally resides, and thus at the center of where the Israelites saw God, felt God, and found God, was not just a reminder of their commitment and relationship to God, but also a reminder of their mistakes, of their imperfections, of their brokenness.

We must wrestle with God when we feel broken, just as much as when we feel whole. We find God in loss and illness, in mourning, in heartache. We find God when we do wrong, and when we are looking to rebuild our own Tabernacles. We find God when we curse and yell and cry at God, not just at times of joy and celebration, times of success and light. May we always place at the center of our sanctuaries. And at the center of our relationship with God, me we always put forth that which is whole, and that which is broken. For both are holy.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Tabernacle and Disney Magic

After returning from a week-long family trip to Disney — notice I did not refer to it as a vacation, because if you’ve ever taken kids to Disney World before, you know it’s not a vacation — I can’t stop thinking about the power of Disney. I’m not just referring to the happiness and the “Disney Magic.” I’m referring to the customer service. Like when my nephew was upset that at a character breakfast, Donald Duck signed his autograph book and signed it over Cinderella’s autograph. Daisy Duck immediately noticed and picked him out of the crowd to dance with him and turn his frown into a smile. Or when my son was trying to trade Disney pins on his lanyard (if you don’t know about Disney pin trading, that’s a whole other story) one night before a fireworks show and then realized that his lanyard was back at the hotel room with half of the family (and a sleeping baby.) When he began to get teary-eyed, the individual working the cash register selling ice cream bars noticed and gave him the two pins he wanted. Again, the goal was to turn his frown into a smile.

GoofyBecause Disney employees aren’t really employees. They are cast members. They are all playing a part. They are all integral in making up the Disney community and creating Disney magic. This isn’t just about Mickey and Minnie Mouse. This includes the individuals who are checking your tickets, those selling cotton candy, those working in the gift shops, those taking your pictures in front of Cinderella’s castle, and even those sweeping up the food you just spilled on the ground. They are all cast members. And they are all integral to making sure that your experience is magical.

It was an important lesson, reminding me not just that every person matters, but every person can have an impact. In fact, every person must have an impact.

On Shabbat Shekalim, we read the special maftir Torah reading in which we are told:

“Everyone shall give a half shekel… the rich shall give no more and the poor shall give no less” (Ex. 30:14-15).

Everyone was to bring a half shekel. This was a reminder that everyone is community mattered. And everyone counted. Everyone did not bring a full shekel. Everyone only brought a half, a piece, because it was only together that they were whole.

And so too, in Parashat Vayakhel, we were commanded to bring gifts to build the tabernacle, and told to give of our skills and materials. So much was brought that it was more than enough. But it was only more than enough because everyone participated. If only one person gave all of themselves, no matter how much they gave, it wouldn’t have been enough. But everyone gave and so it was more than plenty.

Disney wouldn’t be magical, even if you got to meet Mickey and Minnie, if it was dirty, and messy, and people were mean and unhelpful. What makes it magical is the smile on everyone’s face. What makes it magical is that everyone is invested in its success.

What ultimately made the Tabernacle holy was the contribution of all. We are taught that Kavod Shechina, God’s earthly Presence, eventually resided in the Mishkan once it is complete. Because God resides where community resides. God was present where community came together. It was through community, through each person mattering, counting, and serving as a “cast member” of the Israelite community, that we were able to see God’s earthly Presence, that we were able to see God in each other.

Similarly, let us see the value and worth, the Presence, in each person. Let each individual bring our skills and our goods, and be a cast member, as we build holy community together. Then we can see the magic. We don’t need fireworks shows or Tinkerbell’s pixie dust. Just seeing each other as divine allows us to see the Divine. And hopefully, the lines won’t be as long.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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It’s About Values, Not Buildings

The Israelites are commanded to bring all sorts of materials – gifts of their hearts – to build the Tabernacle. They bring gold, silver, and linens, even animal skins. Our rabbis clarify that, just in case you were concerned where they were getting these materials from, there was plenty of wealth from what they took with them when they left Egypt. And Shemot Rabbah even explains that for the righteous, when manna fell from the heavens, it also rained down precious stones, gems, and rubies for them.

But what is most challenging to make sense of is not the precious stones or gold or silver. It’s not even the crimson yarn, or the tachash, the skin of a dolphin – or even a mystical creature that no longer exists as one Talmudic section suggests. What doesn’t make sense to me is all the acacia wood, the atzei Shittim, that was needed to build the Mishkan.

Most suggest that acacia wood is native to Australia and southeast Asia. So how did the Israelites get their hands on it? Truthfully, how did they get their hands on any wood in the midbar, in the desert? They were not wandering through the rain forest. They were in the desert, without the shade that trees create. So where did all this wood come from?

Breishit Rabbah says that when Jacob was on his way to reunite with Joseph in Egypt, he had a vision that the Israelites would need acacia wood to build the Tabernacle. He stopped in Beer Sheva, to pick up plants that Abraham had planted long ago and brought them with him to Egypt to replant them, so the Israelites could take the acacia wood with them when they left Egypt.

I think we are overthinking this though, because we will never be able to explain all the wood the Israelites had in the wilderness. Maybe Atzei Shittim isn’t a special type of wood at all. Midrash suggests that the Hebrew word Shitim, is actually an acronym. The Hebrew letters of this word, Shin, Tet, Yud, and Mem, represent Shalom (peace), Tova (goodness), Yeshua (redemption), and Mechila (forgiveness). It is not that we needed to build the Tabernacle with these specific materials, but instead we needed to build it with these values: peace, goodness, redemption, and forgiveness.

StaindedGlassCeilingI often think about the magnificent spaces that we pray in, that we make our houses of worship. How lucky we are to take these holy spaces and create holy community within them. But we must be reminded that holy community can exist no matter the space we are in. And just because we are in holy space, that does not mean we create holy community. Midrash is suggesting that for God to reside in any space, within the Tabernacle or our own sanctuaries, our communities need to be built on our values and ideals. Cavernous gorgeous spaces will remain empty, no matter how packed the pews are, if they are devoid of the values that we hold dear. May we also never forget that ultimately, it is our values that guide us, not our buildings.

No matter the infrastructural challenges that any building faces, challenges with heating or cooling, or even a leaky roof, the building does not make holy community. We make holy community. The book of Exodus ends with God filling up the space of the Tabernacle. God didn’t do this because the building was finally complete. Rather, God did so because the community was finally living up to the values it was supposed to. A building must be based on how we treat each other, and what we stand for. May our builds always be rooted in the values we stand for – and that is what matters most about them.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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If We Forget That, Then Nothing Else Matters

Appropriately named, Parashat Mishpatim is filled with laws. Immediately after revelation at Sinai, this Torah portion is filled with all the laws that make up this covenant that the Israelites just entered with God. In the middle of all these Mishpatim, all these laws, about slaves and servants, about damages, sorceresses, and worshipping false Gods, we are simply told:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt (Ex. 22:20).

Literally, moments ago. In case the Israelites forgot, two parshiot ago, they were just freed from slavery. Seven chapters ago, they crossed a split sea to freedom.  But how quickly we forget that we too were strangers in a strange land. And then the Torah continues:

And Every widow and orphan you shall not mistreat (Ex.22:21).

The Mekhilta stipulates that one should not even mistreat them in the smallest or slightest way. These three are linked together in the middle of all these otherwise odd laws: do not mistreat the stranger, the widow, the orphan. Do not mistreat those who biblical society deemed to be the most vulnerable among us. Shemot Rabbah concludes that what caused the destruction of Jerusalem was when judges perverted the judgement of widows and orphans, when we no longer sought to be kind and compassionate towards the most vulnerable. Jersualem was destroyed when we took advantage of the most vulnerable. The Malbim even adds that the prohibition against oppressing orphans and widows is not meant to be specific towards orphans and widows. Rather, it is an example of a general rule that it is forbidden to take advantage of any person who is vulnerable and in a state of helplessness.

This is smack in the middle of all these laws. How often do we focus on the intricacies of ritual, or making sure we stick to the letter of the law, and how often do we ignore the divine mandate to look out for those most vulnerable? How often do we make sure we are loudly pronouncing each letter of the Torah chanted correctly, but refuse to speak up for the voiceless? How often do we make sure that our animals are slaughtered precisely, but ignore those who are food insecure?

We live in a society of haves and have-nots. And if we are so lucky to be part of the haves instead of the have nots, how often do we ignore the plight of the have-nots. Even though we all once were in a state of vulnerability. We too were strangers in a strange land. Too many speak about what it means to be a person of faith, and ignore how our faith commands us to treat other people. These commands are in the middle of these laws, in the middle of this Torah portion, because they are meant to buttress all the laws are them. They are the basis for everything. If we neglect the most vulnerable among us, then nothing else matters. If we ignore the struggle of those made in God’s divine image, then we are failing in our covenant with God.

New Jersey’s junior senator, Senator Cory Booker, is often quoted as saying:

“Don’t speak to me about your religion; first show it to me in how you treat other people. Don’t tell me how much you love your God; show me in how much you love all God’s children. Don’t preach to me your passion for your faith; teach me through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as I am in how you choose to live and give.“

Among all these laws, laws that we struggle with, laws that we still follow every day, laws that no longer make sense in the society we are living in, let us not forget the law to take care of the most vulnerable around us. If we forget that, then nothing else matters.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Praying to the same God

When Moses crossed the split sea into the wilderness, he didn’t first reunite with his wife or sons. Jethro, Moses’ father in law, takes Tzipporah, Gershon, and Eliezer to see Moses. But the Torah says that Moses instead went to see Jethro. The first person he saw and met was Jethro. They greeted each other, bowed low, and kissed each other. They asked about each other’s welfare and went into the tent.

Why does Moses connect with Yitro, instead of with his wife and children? Abarbanel, the 15th century commentator, says it was unbecoming to greet your wife before you greet your father-in-law. Ibn Ezra, the 12th century commentator, said that it was not the custom of a respected individual to go out and greet his family. He instead waited for them to come to him. I would suggest though that the main reason that Moses greets Jethro first is not because Jethro is his father-in-law. He is not greeting family. He greets Jethro because of Jethro’s other title, High Priest of Midian.

After they connect, Moses recounts to his father in law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians, And then the Torah tells us that Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel when God delivered them form the Egyptians. And Jethro said: Baruch Adonai. Blessed be God.

Moses took the Israelites through the split sea and moments later they complained. They experienced God’s miracles and yet doubted God’s majesty. Yet, Jethro didn’t experience that at all, but simply hearing of God’s omnipotence still led him to praise God.

Moses was a man of faith, the leader of the Israelites, who spoke directly to God and served as a prophet. As the High Priest of Midian, Jethro was also a man of faith; he was a faith leader. And no matter their differences, their faiths connected them, for there was far more that united them than divided them.

For the past month, as part of our MAKOM Teen Post-B’nai Mitzvah educational program, some of our teenagers have been participating in a course called “The Tie that Binds: What Jews and Muslims have in Common.” We’ve had the privilege of learning with friends from the NIA Masjid and Community Center in Newark, the mosque that many in our congregation visited when we attended Friday after Jumu’ah services a couple of years ago as a sign of unity in the face of rising Islamophobia.

makomjewsmuslimsThis past week, teens from the NIA Masjid joined our MAKOM teens, many of whom were visiting a synagogue for the first time. They asked each other questions about their faiths and beliefs, and compared their favorite television shows (The Office and Brooklyn 99). Soon after though, they discussed the shared challenges, as Muslims and Jews, of being a religious minority in this country, especially given the rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in this country. But most of all they got to know each other. And realized that there was so much more that united them than divided them. They understood that they could hear the words of each other and say Allah Achbar, Baruch Adonai, Praised be God. No matter the name they used for God, or how they worshipped that God, they weren’t so different.

And I imagine a world in which we can all do so; we can all praise God together, no matter what name we call that God. For that is the greatest miracle. More so than experiencing a split sea, they learned to experience that the God of my fellow, is my God as well, that to know the other is to truly know myself. May we all continue to know each other, and come to appreciate that we are all made in God’s image.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Our Liberation is Bound Up Together

We read about the Kriat Yam Suf, the splitting of the sea, this past Shabbat, as we also celebrated the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And we did so, as many across the nation continued to march, organize, and protest. When we read of the splitting of the sea, the greatest of all miracles that our people experienced, and the marching, walking, singing, and dancing that took place as we crossed, I can’t help but connect these two images: the image of the marching across a split sea and that of marching for justice and equality.

splitting the seaThere are countless midrashim, rabbinic explanations, that detail the splitting of the sea. These midrashim focuses on the ripple effect – pun intended – that such public actions, and such miracles, can have. The Mechilta says that the roar of the split sea was so loud that it was heard in neighboring countries. Shemot Rabbah says that all waters split, not just those of the sea that the Israelites crossed. As those waters split, so too did the waters of the lakes and wells, and even water in people’s glasses and jars. The impact was felt by those who were not even present.

Midrash focuses further on the actions of the angels during this experience. These celestial beings, who are perfect in the Heavens, wanted to sing and celebrate as the Israelites crossed the split sea. But God stopped them for the Israelites were not yet free, were not yet safe. “How can I let you sing as they fear their lives?”, God challenged the angels. Essentially, God is asking, how can you be content, when others fear for their safety? God is even telling the angels, God’s messengers meant to guide us in God’s path, that they are not superior or holier than we are. We are bound up together. They cannot be content if others are not free.

Lilla Watson, the 1970’s Queensland Aboriginal Activist, reminds us:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Your liberation is bound up with mine. And mine with yours. Our liberation is bound up in one another. And so Midrash Avkir even concludes that the angel Gabriel walked with the Israelites as they crossed the split sea, holding back the water on the right and on the left, and preventing the walls of water from collapsing on them. He could not remain in the Heavens on high, simply relaxing and being content with his life when others feared for theirs. He – an angel of God – marched arm-in-arm, side-by-side, with the Israelites and protected them in their most vulnerable state. He acknowledged that our liberations are bound up together.

So what is our mission, our obligation, our responsibility in 2019, as bigotry against all minorities is on the rise, as hate groups seem to have come out of the sewers and back into daylong? Our mission is to be united against the shared adversity that we face.  Our mission is to not sit and sing while others fear. Our mission is to be angels for each other, to stand united against police brutality, against mass incarceration and a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color, to stand against transphobic and homophobic policies pushed by the White House, to stand up to Islamophobic travel bans and xenophobic policing of immigrants, to unite against a rise in anti-Semitism, to break down walls that are trying to be built to divide us. Our mission is to understand that we are all in this together. And only then, when we all cross that split sea, leaving Mitzrayim, the narrowest places of society behind, can we truly sing and rejoice. Then, and only then, will we all finally be free.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Committed to the Cause

Last week saw the beginning of the 116th Congress of the United States, with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats controlling the House, and Mitch McConnell remaining in control as the Majority Leader of the Senate and Nancy Pelosi returning to the role of Speaker of the House. Additionally, we saw a record 102 women sworn in the House and 15 in the Senate. 36 women are freshman members of Congress; 23 Freshman House members are people of color. There are also currently more than 10 out openly LGBTQ members of Congress. We saw the first Muslim women and the first Native Americans sworn into Congress as well. This Congress is without a doubt the most swearinginbooksdiverse in our country’s history. CNN shared a picture of the variety of books that members of Congress chose to place their hands on when taking the oath of office. This included the Christian Bible, the Tanakh, the Book of Mormon, the Quran, the Buddhist Sutra, the Hindu Vera, and the Constitution itself. Locally, new members of Congress are veterans, former employees of the state department, and worked in previous presidential administrations.

I was mesmerized by the social media posts of these newest members of Congress, documenting the beginning of their tenure as elected officials, promising to represent, We the People. No matter our views on their positions or promises, their documenting this experience is truly incredible:

Or newly sworn-in Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer for Iowa’s First Congressional District:

Or Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who tweeted:

Or Congressman Brian Mast, a military veteran who congratulated two new freshman members of Congress who are also military veterans with the tweet:

To see these individuals enter a leadership role is a reminder of the power that each of us has to become leaders. Parashat Va’era focuses on the first seven of the ten plagues that fall upon the people of Egypt. Prior to those ten plagues though, the Torah recounts the genealogy of Aaron and Moses, linking them all the way back to Jacob’s children, and in doing so, linking the leaders of this exodus narrative to our biblical patriarchs and matriarchs that made up much of the Genesis narrative. Exodus 6:20 notes Amram took to wife his father’s sister Yocheved and she bore him Aaron and Moses. The Torah then says something a bit odd:

This is the same Aaron and Moses to whom God said, ‘Bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt, tribe by tribe. It was they who spoke to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to free the Israelites from the Egyptians; these are the same Moses and Aaron (Ex. 6:26-27).

Most biblical commentators wonder why the Torah awkwardly states that “these are the same Moses and Aaron.” Rashi explains that the reason it is repeated and stipulated that these are the same Moses and Aaron is because the Torah is clarifying that they remain committed to their cause. Quoting Tractate Megillah of the Babylonian Talmud, Rashi writes: They remained in their mission and in their righteousness, from beginning until the end.

It is common for leaders to change, to become different people than they were when they rose to leadership. Most elected officials end up disappointing us, because they change their views, because they don’t live up to campaign promises – many of which were unattainable to begin with, because they might cozy up to lobbyist and special interests, or because they are more concerned with reelection than they are with governing or passing legislation.

So let us pray that the members of the 116th Congress live up to the values found in the books that they placed their hands on as they were sworn into office. Let us pray that they live up to the ideals of the Constitution that they promised to protect. And let us pray that they, like Moses and Aaron, remain the same people they were before the titles “Representative” or “Senator” were place in front of their names. May they still be driven by the same mission; may they live a life full of the same righteousness. And may they be guided by the same principles. May they not become burnt out, or corrupted, or influenced, or bigheaded. Instead, may they be who they were meant to be. These are the same people as they were before, the Torah tells us. May they lead. And may our nation be better off as a result.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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On Privilege and Injustice: Joseph’s Role in helping some while hurting others

Joseph could no longer control himself, the Torah tells us.

“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’” (Gen. 45:1-4).

Joseph reunites with his brothers. He is the hero and he is the savior, not just for his family, but for all of Egypt. Or so we are led to believe. Pharaoh responds by telling Joseph’s family that “the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours” (Gen. 45:20). Pharaoh says, “the land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land” (Gen. 47:6). And in turn,  “Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones” (Gen. 47:12).

It seems everything works out. And Joseph saves all of Egypt from famine by supplying them with food that had been collected during seven years of plenty. It was a happily ever after conclusion to the story. As Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote and the ensemble of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat sang: “Joseph how can we ever say all that we want to about you, We’re so glad that you came our way; we would have perished without you.”

But the Torah tells us that Joseph wasn’t the savior that that is portrayed under the lights of Broadway. It wasn’t so happily ever after, at least not for those who weren’t a part of Joseph’s family. When the famine became so severe and there was no bread in the land, Egyptians began turning to the vizier of Egypt.  But Joseph wasn’t giving away “handouts.” This was not an act of tzedakah or charity. First, Joseph takes their money: “Joseph gathered all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt” (Gen. 47:14). And when there was no money left Joseph said, “bring me your livestock” (Gen. 47:16).  And when no animals were left they were desperate for food and said: “take us and our land in exchange for bread” (Gen. 47:19).

As Rabbi Shai Held, Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, points out: “Joseph is an adept manager, but he is also seemingly a ruthless one: He saves the Egyptians but, as we shall see, he also enslaves them.” Joseph ends up creating a system of indentured servitude. The Egyptians couldn’t pay for food. First, they gave their money, and then their cattle, and then their homes, and then finally themselves. Joseph is no tzedek. He is not giving out food during a humanitarian crisis, like we would expect FEMA or the Red Cross to do. He is taking advantage of the straits that the Egyptians find themselves in and acquires them. Joseph enslaves them.

We are often left wondering: how is it possible that a king could rise up at the beginning of Exodus who doesn’t know Joseph, who in turn enslaves the Israelites?!? But what if the Israelites were the last to be enslaved? As troubling as the exodus story is, and as essential as the exodus experience is to our communal memory, what if we read it differently? What if according to this understanding, all of Egypt were enslaved except for the Israelites. All had succumbed to the reality of serfdom while the Hebrew privilege, the privilege that came from being a relative of Joseph allowed the Israelites to live in the best of the land, never having to worry about where their next meal would come from. But then all of a sudden, we become enslaved and finally demand justice. Moses only speaks for God in referring to the Israelites when demanding “Let My People Go!” However, when everyone else was enslaved under Pharaoh’s rule, they were ignored.

We never acknowledge the discrimination, injustice, and enslavement of our neighbors in Egypt. We know others were enslaved. The Torah tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, there was an erev rav, a mixed multitude of diverse individuals who joined in the Exodus with the Israelites. They were enslaved as well, marching with us side-by-side through a split sea to freedom. Yet, we ignore them – or at least ignored them – until we were the victims of an unjust system. What if the Israelites were apathetic – at best – to the injustices around them and directly responsible – at worst – for them?

The problem with the Exodus narrative that brings us such hope is that we only care about our own freedom and ignored the enslavement and injustice of others because it didn’t directly affect us.

Let’s not celebrate Joseph’s dreams coming true. Let’s not celebrate Joseph saving the day. Because he didn’t. Let’s remember Dr. King’s teaching that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. If we refuse to stand up to injustice when it happens to another, it will ultimately happen to us as well as well. And no one will be there to stand with us as allies. It shouldn’t then be a surprise that the Israelites were eventually enslaved if they were content with the enslavement of everyone else in Egypt.

We cannot only stand up and scream because of the rise of anti-Semitism in this country. It is deeply troubling, but if we only care about that, and aren’t equally concerned about the rise in hate crimes across the board – about the rise in Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and racism – then we can’t be shocked with the spike in hatred towards us. If we witness injustice happening all around us but are content because Pharaoh supplies us with bread on our tables and the best of the land of Egypt to live in, then we are just waiting for injustice to happen to us as well. Let us remember that your liberation is bound up with mine, and mine with yours. So let us work together to create a wholly just society, where no one’s success is the result of anyone else’s demise.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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