…And this is the Law

Zot Chukat HaTorah. This is the law of the Torah. These insignificant words mean little in the continuing narrative of our Torah. In fact, these initial words from last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chukat, introduce the ritual laws of the red heifer, laws that we struggle to understand, laws that we certainly no longer practice.

Yet, as we reflect on the historic events of this past week, we also come to understand the power and significance that the words Zot Chukat HaTorah, this is the law of the Torah, have. We learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, the teaching of Ben Bag-Bag:

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.

Ben Bag-Bag taught that every time we read from the Torah, it offers insight into our lives, and the monumental moments in history shed light on our understanding of Torah. In witnessing this historic decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, a decision that legally guarantees marriage equality in all fifty states, we witnessed the power of law as well as the power of the evolution of law and legal interpretation. We should be blessed that we live at a time and in a society in which the highest court in the land interprets our constitution to understand that all of humanity, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, has the right to marry. I am proud to be rabbi of a community in which we can also celebrate such a decision, in which we can declare that Zot Chukat HaTorah, that such a decision is also the law of the Torah. We celebrate the kedusha, the sacred nature of this ruling.

SCOTUS Marriage EqualityAs we celebrate such a historic decision, we cannot forget the many steps that led to such a historic decision. Beginning with the initial Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969 that launched the modern fight for LGBTQ rights in this country, continuing to the SCOTUS decision of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 which ensured that same-sex sexual activity was not an illegal act, to the groundbreaking passage of marriage equality in Massachusetts in 2004, to the rapid pace of state after state allowing marriage equality in recent years and the SCOTUS decision defeating the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013, each step led to this historic decision.

Every action causes a reaction. Every event causes another resulting event. We read in Parashat Chukat about Moses’ actions which led to him not being permitted to enter the Promised Land. Yet, we ignore the steps that took place that ultimately led to this turning point in our narrative. The Israelites are thirsty. Moses strikes a rock to give them water. Miriam provides a well for them. Miriam dies. The well dries up. The people are thirsty again and complain to Moses. Moses again strikes a rock, but ignores God’s command to speak to the rock instead. As a result, the Torah tells us that Moses and Aaron will not enter the land of Israel. This wasn’t just about the striking of a rock. This was about every step along the way, every moment in the Israelites’ journey, that led to this turning point.

So too, as we celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday June 26th, we must also pause to celebrate, honor, and remember, the many steps that were taken, the many events in our history, and the many leaders who dedicated their lives to fighting for equality, that led to this moment. We also know that we have a long way to go for true equality. We know that even though marriage equality is legal in all fifty states, in many states individuals can still be fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The fight for true equality is far from over.

Still, we need to pause and celebrate the many steps that have led to this moment, that allow us to celebrate marriage equality and say that Zot Chukat HaTorah, that this legal decision which emphasizes that each individual is equal, and made in God’s image, is also the law of our Torah.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing up in Solidarity

On September 15, 1963, three members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite right outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The church was always busy, serving as a local meeting place for civil rights leaders. On Sunday morning, due to worship services and the many activities it hosted, it was particularly packed. At 10:22 AM that morning, the dynamite exploded, killing four young girls, and injuring an additional 22 people. This was domestic terrorism, clearly a racist hate crime.

Over fifty years later, we are left asking what has changed? Last week, a man entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white man joined congregants for bible study and stayed for over an hour, before opening fire on the African-American men and women present, killing nine, ranging in age from 16-87, including the church’s pastors. In custody, Dylan Roof admitted that he was hoping to start a race war.

We celebrate the advances in society towards equality and yet, we ignore that racism is alive and well in this country. The confederate flag flies high at statehouses in this country and is sold in stores. Highways are named after Southern generals who laid down their lives fighting for slavery. Since this tragic murder, many including South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, have called for the confederate flag — a flag that is a symbol of racism, slavery, and the greatest blemish on this country’s history — to be removed from the statehouse. Wal-mart and Amazon are among the companies that have declared that they will stop selling the confederate flag. While this is progress, albeit too late — after the murder of nine innocent victims, there is much that  our religious leaders and political leaders still must do.

I am proud to be a part of the local South Orange-Maplewood Interfaith Clergy Association. Last Friday, before Shabbat, we organized a last minute vigil at the South Orange NJ Transit train station to mourn, pray, and hope together. Although the vigil was scheduled at the last minute, well over a hundred members of the community attended to cry together and pray together. This was a power experience of unity. Yet, we must do more than pray. We must challenge our leaders.

StandAgainstRacismOrganizations representing the Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist movements in Judaism announced this week that they have joined together to declare that this Shabbat will be a Shabbat of Solidarity with the African-American community against racism. I appreciate the sentiment and always stand with my black brothers and sisters against racism. I don’t think you will find anyone in their right mind who wouldn’t agree that what happened at the Emanuel AME Church was a heinous, racist attack. The murderer said so himself! But we cannot only take a stand against racism when such terrible murders happen in this country and ignore the systemic racism that exists in society and that too many deal with on a daily basis. Where was the solidarity Shabbat following the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, or Freddie Gray? Where was the solidarity Shabbat when Trayvon Martin was killed for wearing a hoodie or young black teens were tackled by police for swimming in McKinney, Texas? The Jewish community — and society as a whole — has been too quiet in standing up to the systemic racism in this country. We all must stand up against racism, but I must ask, what has taken us so long to take a stand?

As we stand in solidarity, the tragedy of Charleston must be a spark that forces us to stand up more. We cannot wait for our leaders to act. We must stand up to our leaders and demand that they act. Last Shabbat, we read Parashat Korach. In this Torah portion Korach challenges Moses’ leadership and attempts to start a rebellion. He embarrasses Moses publicly, fails in his attempt to overthrow the leadership, and ends up being swallowed up by the earth. The Torah commentator Rashi suggests that Korach failed because he was only interested in his own power. Yet, maybe he wasn’t wrong in his efforts, just in his execution. There are times when we must stand up to leadership. There are times when we must stand up to apathy and stand up for what we believe in. We must take what Korach attempted to do and channel it for the right cause — to change society and make a difference in the world. Fifty years later we need to stop standing up a lot more.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Pride Is…

Last week, my congregation participated in the annual North Jersey Pride week, hosting a “Progress in the Pulpit” conversation on Monday night, speaking about Pride and equality on Shabbat from the bimah, celebrating with a Pride ice cream social on Shabbat afternoon, and being present at last Sunday’s Pride Festival. Pride week, and Pride month, is observed in June because of the Stonewall riots that took place in late June of 1969, which was arguably the turning point event leading up to the modern fight for LGBT rights.

PrideFest1Last Shabbat, during Pride week, we read Parashat Shelach Lecha, and read the narrative of the twelve scouts being sent to the Promised Land to scout the land and the nations that inhabit the land. This narrative though is about more than scouting the land. This story is really a story of how we see ourselves and not a story about how we are seen by others.

In Numbers 13:33, ten scouts report back:

We saw Giants there and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.

More than anything else, this is a statement about self-esteem and self-confidence. Who we are as a people and who we are as a community is determined by how we make people feel. We fail if there are those in our community that have low self-esteem, doubt who they are, who they love, and how they identify because of statements we make.

PrideFest2According to the Trevor Project, while suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens and young adults, LGBT teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Yet, as Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, explains, if they are shown that they are loved and excepted by their teachers, families, and faith communities, then the statistics even out.

So Pride is to be like Joshua and Caleb. We do not just condone; we celebrate each individual. We must teach each
individual to be like Joshua and Caleb, to believe that they are good enough, brave enough, and strong enough, to be themselves. Anything else is unacceptable.  That is what Pride is.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Seven Ways to Make Jewish Institutions LGBTQ-Friendly

This article was originally published on June 8, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

HaaretzPride Month is the perfect time to celebrate the sexual orientations and gender identities of all our community members.

prideparadeThe commencement of Pride Month is a fitting time to acknowledge the progress the United States has made toward LGBTQ inclusion. Same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia; television shows increasingly include gay, lesbian and transgender characters; and, just last week, Caitlyn Jenner introduced her new – post-gender transition – self on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

Yet, with all this progress in secular America, the Jewish community here has a way to go until it can be considered truly inclusive.

Being inclusive is about more than just whether or not Judaism recognizes same-sex marriages, or “condones” LGBTQ individuals. It is about celebrating the divine nature of each person, keeping in mind that each of us was created in God’s divine image.

This month, the American Jewish community has an opportunity to stand against the discrimination, hatred and homophobia that too many religion- and faith-based institutions nurture. Here are seven ways we can make our institutions more inclusive:

  1. Values matter

Jewish institutions should have a values statement. This is different from a mission statement. The values statement focuses on what the institution stands for. If an institution is welcoming to the LGBTQ community, then this should be put in writing. My synagogue’s values statement, which hangs on the wall at the entrance to our synagogue states that we welcome all individuals, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.

  1. Language is critical

Truly inclusive institutions should not assume that each family unit is made up of a mother and a father (or that it comprises two-parents, for that matter.) We need to celebrate the diverse range of Jewish homes – whether they have two moms, two dads, one parent or multiple. The language on membership forms should reflect that the institution does not make heteronormative assumptions about the sexual orientation of its members. Furthermore, the language that institutional leaders and representatives speak should acknowledge this fact: When the rabbi talks about family units, does he or she say “mom and dad,” or use a more general term like “parents?”

  1. Teach inclusivity

Inclusivity begins with institutions’ youngest members. We need to recognize and respect that some children may already be questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity. Others may have gay parents. Institutions must ensure these children feel equally included in the community. Some preschools celebrate Shabbat every Friday by having a Shabbat Ima (mother) and Shabbat Abba (father), but this reinforces a heteronormative culture. At my congregation’s Thelma K. Reisman preschool, we have Shabbat boys and girls; sometimes with two boys, and sometimes with two girls. Schools can also ensure teaching materials are LGBTQ inclusive. Preschool teachers should read children storybooks with LGBTQ characters, and high schools should have Gay-Straight Alliances.

  1. Provide inclusive facilities

Most communal institutions have public restrooms that revert back to a gender-binary system: a men’s room and a women’s room. While having multiple stalls and urinals in each room serves to accommodate more people at a time, making the choice of which restroom to enter can be unwelcoming for members that are transgender or gender nonconforming. Providing gender-neutral bathrooms is as integral to the sacred nature of the building as is creating a transcendent prayer space.

  1. Build LGBTQ leadership

As the Jewish community builds inclusive congregations, they also want to make sure that there are role models for all congregants. While one should never be selected for a leadership position or hired for a job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, an inclusive institution makes it clear that the LGBTQ community is warmly invited to be a part of its leadership team.

  1. Participate in pride programs

Participating in Pride Month and hosting pride events emphasizes and exhibits an institution’s commitment to inclusivity. Ways to mark the month can include hosting pride parties for the institution’s LGBTQ members and allies, holding educational programs, adding unique rituals and blessings to Shabbat prayer services, or joining the city-wide festivals and parades.

  1. Prohibit hate

Ultimately, being an inclusive congregation means not tolerating hate, discrimination and bigotry. Enforcing this can include formally stipulating that such views are not welcome, and, by contrast, reinforcing what is welcome, by hanging up signs throughout the institution – including on the doors of the rabbis’ offices – stating that this is an LGBTQ safe zone.

I am proud to be a congressional rabbi of an LGBTQ-inclusive community. My experience as a leader of such an institution has taught me that welcoming everyone requires welcoming change. In order to be inclusive, communities must first and foremost be committed to shifting the way they operate.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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We Must Be Prophets

On Tuesday June 2nd of this past week, I intentionally wore orange. While orange is my favorite color, I donned such a hue with a specific purpose. I wore orange as part of the first annual National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Such a day of awareness was brought to the national level with the help of Everytown for Gun Safety, but it was not the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT or at the Movie Theater in Aurora, CO that sparked this day of awareness. It was not the systemic racist shootings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, or Michael Brown that launched such a day of awareness.

wear-orange-gun-violence-awareness-dayRather, the day was started by the friends of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was mistakenly shot by gang members in a Chicago Park in 2013. An honors student who only days earlier had performed in Washington DC at President Obama’s second inauguration, Pendleton and her friends were taking cover in a Chicago park during a rain storm when two men thought the group gathering together was a rival gang and began shooting. Her friends launched Project Orange Tree, asking people to wear orange on Tuesday because it would’ve been Hadiya’s 18th birthday. Everytown for Gun Safety brought such a day of awareness to the national level and elected officials and legislators, actors and actresses, athletes, and so many others, tweeted out just as I did, that they were wearing orange to raise awareness.

As my colleague and teacher Rabbi Aryeh Cohen pointed out, I’d rather than elected officials symbolically wearing orange, we need them to pass legislation to truly make this world a safer place. And so, a day after I attempted to raise awareness through pictures, tweets, and hashtags, I woke up and got dressed, this time putting on a white dress shirt instead of orange. That day, I followed the news closely as Maplewood Middle School was on a Code Red lockdown because a seventh grader brought a loaded 9mm Glock handgun to school at lunchtime.

A day later, I again got dressed, but instead of orange, I put on a blue dress shirt and followed the news closely that Columbia High School was on a Code Yellow lockdown because a student brought an air soft gun to school.

Thank God, no one was hurt. And yet, as the scare of gun violence and the realities of the world that we live in hit much closer to home, we must realize that raising awareness, wearing orange, only does so much and only takes us so far.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat B’haalotecha. In the Torah portion, we are introduced to Eldad and Medad, who remain in the camp and as God’s spirit rests upon them — v’tanach alehem heRuach — they acted as prophets. Yet, when Joshua hears of this, he is outraged. Next in line to take over as leader and serve as the mouthpiece for God, Joshua complains to Moses, but Moses responds in Numbers 11:29:

But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all of God’s people were prophets and that God would put God’s Spirit on them!”

Moses’ hope is my hope: we must all see ourselves as God’s prophets, and thus, walk in God’s ways, striving to create a safer and more peaceful world, reflective of the world that God set out to create. As prophets, we all have a responsibility to build a safe community, to speak out and stand up, and assure that our children are safe. Just as v’tanach alehem haRuach, as God’s spirit rested upon Eldad and Medad, I pray that v’tanach aleinu haRuach, that God’s spirit will rest upon us as well. We must be prophets so that our children will not have to live in a world where they need to walk through metal detectors in order to take a math test or carry their books home from school in a bulletproof backpack. We must be prophets so that firearms and bullets aren’t sold at the same store that sells food, clothing, and video games.

Some of us may disagree on the solution, but we can all agree on the problem: more than 30,000 people killed every year in United States because of Gun Violence. May we join together, advocate together, and pray together, to ultimately force change together. May God’s spirit rest upon everyone. And may we one day see a day when we are all safe.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Blessing to Lead by Example

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Naso, the Torah portion of Naso. Within that Torah reading, we find the well-known priestly benediction in Numbers 6:24-26:

Yevarechecha Adonai V’Yishmereicha, Yair Adonai Panav Elecha Vichuneka, Yisa Adonai Panav Elecha v’Yasem lecha Shalom.

May God bless you and protect you. May God illuminate God’s face to you and be gracious unto you. May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.

priestly benediction handsThis blessing is a part of so many different rituals. These words are a part of the repetition of the Amidah. Parents use these words to bless their children on Friday night during Shabbat dinner. These words are often recited by parents at a brit milah or simchat bat. I bless couples with these words underneath a chuppah at a wedding and I recite these words when I offer a blessing to a bar or bat mitzvah. These words of blessing are integral to who we are as a people. Yet, this blessing is actually three separate blessings, three separate verse.

The first verse, a blessing for protection, is more than that. The protection we seek is not from the outside world, but rather from ourselves. We pray that God will protect us from the worst versions of ourselves. We pray that God protects us from our evil inclinations, from our mistakes, and from our bad decisions.

The imagery of the last two verses of this blessing though is quite revealing and explains the deeper meaning of the blessing. Most translations ignore the imagery and I believe as a result, misunderstand the blessing. For example, while the literal translation is “May God illuminate God’s face to you and be gracious unto you. May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace,” the Jewish Publication Society translates these verses as “The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you. The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.” The translation ignores the imagery of God entirely. Yet, the idea of God revealing God’s face to us is a beautiful one.

We read in Deauteronomy 34:10 at the conclusion of the Torah, upon hearing of Moses’ death:

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like MOses — whom God singled out, face to face.

Moses had a unique relationship with God. Moses’ saw God’s true face. Metaphorically speaking, we also strive to see God face to face. The blessing is a blessing in which we strive to have a relationship with God just like Moses did. Furthemore, this is a blessing in which we strive to lead just as Moses did. Moses led by example, even when he was not popular, even when he had doubters. Moses led even when he held the minority opinion. This blessing that we offer each other is ultimately a blessing about our actions. This blessing is a blessing about leadership.

May we have a relationship with God just like Moses and may God protect us from ourselves, from our own action and inaction, so that we can lead by example. Doing so will make this world a better place. Doing so will fulfill the last part of this blessing. For if we all lead by example, then we will truly bring peace to this world.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Acting for Justice, Searching for Holiness

This past Shabbat, we read the well-known verse and command in Parashat Kedoshim: Kedoshim Tehiyu: You Shall be holy. Yet, we are left looking around society and can’t seem to find that holiness anywhere. Over the past several weeks, following the death of twenty-five year old Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, protests erupted throughout Charm City. Peaceful actions were hijacked by outside agitators, many actions turning into violent riots.

freddiegrayprotestsWe did not find holiness in the death of such a young man, a death which has since causedMaryland State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to charge six officers in his death. We did not find holiness in violent riots that have caused city-wide curfews (that have since been lifted) and brought fear and concern to many Baltimore residents. But we also don’t find holiness in those stand in protest with residents of Baltimore, while still ignore that so many are stuck in a cycle of multi-generational povery, inequality, and systemic racism. We find holiness in taking action, but we must do more than act.

We must do more than be concerned about our neighbors. We must do more than care about our neighbors. We must do more than act for the sake of justice; we must act for the sake of love.

How do we ultimately become holy? By fulfilling the commandment in this Torah portion, found in Leviticus 19:18:

Love your neighbor as yourself.

The term ‘neighbor’ connotes that this is our neighborhood. The actions towards others ultimately impact us as well. Their home is our home. Their unrest is our unrest. So many Baltimore rabbis and members of the Jewish community acted in solidarity with the Baltimore community, searching for justice for Freddie Gray, but also taking a stand against a system that makes life so challenging for so many of the city’s residents. They rallied not out of obligation, but rather, out of love.

They understood that our neighbors are bleeding, just as our neighbors bled in New York, Ferguson, Cleveland, and Florida. They are bleeding and continue to bleed in Newark, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Our job is to stop the bleeding. And that begins with love. It is only through love, that we can truly understand the hardships of our neighbors. It is only through love that we can acknowledge our own privilege. It is only through love that we can truly be holy. So let us love more. In doing so, let our entire communities, all of our neighborhoods, act and evolve through sanctity and holiness.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Appreciating the Eighth Day

By now, most of us have devoured pizzas, bagels, cakes, and cookies. The minute Passover ended, we got our hands on as much chametz as we could, but not because we desperately needed it. We were not malnourished. We were not starving. Rather, after refraining from eating something, we desired it because we could finally eat it.

While I continued to eat matzah last Saturday, many, including my Reform colleagues and the Reform synagogues in the area, as well as all those in Israel, were already eating their much desired chametz. After all, the Torah requires us to refrain from eating leavened products for seven days (Ex. 12:15) and not eight. Yet, while one day of Yom Tov – the special first and last day of a holiday – is observed in Israel, the diaspora traditionally observed two days.

This second day of festival celebration in the diaspora, Yom Tov Sheni shel Galuyot, was established by rabbinic law during the Second Temple period. The reason given for such an observance is because of the lunar system of the Hebrew calendar. When the Temple stood, the length of a month depended on witnesses who had seen the new coming from where the Temple stood in Jerusalem. Once they declared the new month, news would be sent out to surrounding Jewish communities. Those communities further away from Jerusalem may not have received word of the beginning of the new month on the accurate date because of how much time it took for word to travel. Thus, the diaspora communities would observe a festival for two days to ensure that they were observing it on the correct day.

One can confidently say that in 2015, such a practice may not be necessary anymore. One can Google the date that Passover begins in the year 2035 and get the exact date and time. The Reform Movement abandoned the observance of the second day of Yom Tov many years ago. In fact, Rabbis Philip Sigal and Abraham Ehrlich wrote a responsum on behalf of Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in February 1969, suggesting that while there is value to the second day of Yom Tov, the day should not be seen as a permanent enactment, but rather a custom and thus, communities should not feel compelled to observe Yom Tov Sheni.

MatzahStill, some forty-five years later, my congregation — as well as almost all diaspora communities that affiliate with the Conservative Movement – continue to observe that second day of Yom Tov, and thus, observed an eighth day of Passover. Yet, while some observe the eighth day stubbornly and are upset by the additional day of eating matzah, I relish the opportunity. For I needed an extra day with chametz. We all do.

Chametz, leavened products, has to do with the bread of affliction, the unleavened bread that the Israelites took with them when they left Egypt, but it is about more than that. Leavened products, chametz, represents that which puffs us up. Chametz is our ego. The act of getting rid of such leavened products allows us to get rid of that part of ourselves. It allows us to act more humbly in the process. Such an idea – riding ourselves of our inner chametz – is certainly appropriate since Passover is seen as a new year celebration of sorts as well.

On the High Holy Days, when the Gates of Heaven are closed at the conclusion of the Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur, we need to continue to atone so such an act continues through Sukkot until Hoshana Rabba. So too, our struggle to rid ourselves of ourselves is an act that must continue. Instead of counting down the days until Passover is over, the past year, and every year, I appreciated that extra day – the eighth day. We all need that extra time to work on being more humble and less ego centric. Long after we are done eating matzah, may the unleavened bread still continue to remind us to look inside ourselves to be a better version of ourselves.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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I’d Rather be Wicked than Wise

Listening to Billy Joel was a part of my childhood. Like most kids from New Jersey and New York, part of growing up was learning the lyrics to his songs. I still rock out to my Billy Joel playlist on Spotify and love that he plays at the Garden monthly. One of my favorite Billy Joel songs – and admittedly my “go to” karaoke song – is Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” In it, he sings to a religious girl, explaining that she is missing out on all the fun in life by hiding behind the strict rules and rites of her faith. I don’t necessarily agree with the lyrics, even if I love the song. As a rabbi, I of course don’t believe that fun and faith are opposing polarities on a single spectrum. Still, I believe there is value in his lyrics. Joel sings, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.” He is essentially saying he would rather be wicked than wise. Except, being wicked isn’t so wicked at all.

This week, during the holiday of Passover, we read about the four children during our Passover seders. The text in the Haggadah introduces us to the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask. One can argue that thesearen’t four separate children, but instead are each a part of us. At times we are all wise, wicked, simple, and silent. I don’t take issue with any of these children. I am bothered though by how each child is characterized.

foursonsWhat makes the wise child so wise? This child asks: “What are the testimonies, the laws, and judgments, that the Lord our God has commanded you to follow?” The wise child is only interested in rules and regulations. He or she is interested in a faith that is black and white, full of “thou shalls” and “thou shall nots.” This child is only about doing, without worrying about meaning or intent behind the action.

We must also ask, what makes the wicked child so wicked? After all, wicked, or Rasha in Hebrew, evil one, is quite an intense descriptive term for this child. Haman was evil. Pharaoh was evil. What makes this child so evil? Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic comments in Jonathan Safran Foer’s New American Haggadah: “The wicked son is not wicked in any of the usual ways. He is not violent or sexually immoral; he does not keep slaves or steal.”

The wicked child asks: “What does this mean to you?” The child is not worried about perfecting ritual or reading liturgy properly. Rather, the wicked child is searching for meaning and understanding. Is that so bad? While traditionally, the rabbis argued that he was scolded because he didn’t care about his people or the scriptural narrative of the Jewish people, I think it is deeper. This text is an attempt by rabbinic tradition to emphasize doing without understanding or finding meaning. Appropriately, when the Israelites received the Torah, they said, “Naaseh v’Nishmah, we will do and then we will understand (Ex. 24:7).”

I am not suggested that there is no value in doing without finding meaning. Of course there is value! Part of doing without truly understanding why we do what we do is tradition, community, and faith. Additionally, the act of doing leads to understanding. Still, I would hardly consider he who only wants to do without questioning why and without searching for meaning as a chacham, as a scholarly and wise individual.

True wisdom is questioning. True wisdom is challenging. True wisdom is constantly searching for meaning and understanding that spiritual journeys are not always straight paths. True wisdom is being committed to doing while challenging. So maybe the wise child isn’t so wise after all. And maybe the wicked child is pretty smart. Instead of chastising the wicked child, we should be rewarding the wicked child. On a holiday full of asking questions, there is no greater question than that which searches for meaning. So I’d rather be wicked than wise, because in the words of Bllly Joel, they have much more fun.

Let us all be wise enough to be “wicked,” to not be as worried about what we do, but to step outside of our comfort zones and search for meaning in what we do.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fifty Years After Selma, Still Fighitng for Liberation at the Seder

50thAnniversaryBloodySundayOn March 7th and March 8th, earlier this month, tens of thousands gathered in Selma, Alabama to mark the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, the first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. President Obama spoke and former President George W. Bush attended. They were joined by Democrats and Republicans —  legislators, politicians, and civilians –  all marching to commemorate the freedom-marchers clubbed and tear-gassed by state troopers as they peacefully marched for the right to vote half a century ago.

This past Shabbat, March 21st, 2015, was the anniversary of the third DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworthof those three marches, the march that led to the famous picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arm-in-arm with Dr. King, the march that was successful and led to the eventual passing of the Voting Rights Act several months later. This march also marked the moment when religious leaders of all faiths, ethnicities, and races refused to stand idly by, and chose to walk alongside the likes of King, Lewis, Abernathy, Bunche, and Shuttlesworth.

This march was a reminder that freedom is a God-given right so we must walk alongside our brothers and sisters to ensure that our freedom is their freedom. The likes of Heschel, and Rabbi Maurice Davis, and so many other religious leaders who marched, knew that we could not celebrate our freedom and our liberation while others were not yet liberated, while others were discriminated against.

Fifty years later, we still talk about this picture and this march. We talk about how far society has come and yet, how far we have to go. This past Shabbat, as we observed this fiftieth anniversary, we also read a special Torah reading for Shabbat HaChodesh, the fourth of four special Sabbaths leading up to Passover. This special maftir Torah reading comes from chapter 12 of the book of Exodus and goes into detail about how to slaughter the pascal sacrifice and then how to eat that sacrifice. What we rush over, but what is arguably the most significant of instructions, is the reminder to put the blood of the sacrifice on our doorposts. For it was that blood that saved the Israelites and ultimately, following the tenth and final plague, led to their freedom. The essence of the ritual is to remind us of that freedom.

In fact, all rituals of the Passover seder are meant to remind us of freedom and liberation. We are taught:

B’chol Dor va’dor chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo, k’ilu hu yatzah mi’mitzrayim.

In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we left Egypt.

Such an obligation is not about remembering or re-enacting. Such an obligation is about acknowledging that there is still liberation that needs to take place in our society and in our world. Telling the Passover narrative must remind us of the marching that we still need to do, that there is still inequality in society, still those that we must work to liberate. Rabbi Michael Rothbaum of the Jewish social justice organization, Bend the Arc, offers insight into the rabbis of B’nai Brak that we read about in the Passover Haggadah. We learn in the Haggadah that they were so engaged in the seder that theytalk until daybreak, when their students interrupt them. Rothbaum reminds us that they were not discussing ritual or debating halakha, Jewish law. Rather, they were up until the early hours of the morning talking about liberation – about the exodus experience. A room of rabbis suffering through persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire were focused on our communal liberation narrative, in hopes of their own liberation.

For ultimately, that is what the seder is all about: telling the story. In my family, we tend to rush through the rituals aspects of the seder in order to get to the magid section in which we retell the exodus narrative. We do so because we find hope and inspiration in the narrative. Such an exodus from slavery to freedom reminds us of what is possible. It reminds us that we must continue to fight for liberation of all. We must continue to fight racial injustice and gender discrimination. We must continue to fight religious persecution, bigotry, and homophobia. We must continue to fight, to march, and to take action, until we can all experience the journey to freedom.

The Zohar explains that Egypt, Mitzrayim in Hebrew, is derived from the Hebrew MiTzarim, which literally means, “from narrowness.” We march away from narrow-minded discrimination and bigotry towards a promised land of equality and love.

Civil rights leaders organized three separate marches from Selma to Montgomery. The first one ended with peaceful protesters bloodied and beaten. But they marched again, and again. We don’t just look back on a single march, but instead on all three marches, for in continuing to march, we find a determination and dedication to justice and to freedom.

With each plague in Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, but that did not stop Moses from demanding to Pharaoh, “let my people go!” Each march shared a similar declaration. No matter how many times it took, people of all faiths continued to march and were determined to cross that metaphorical split sea.

The image of that third march, of Heschel and King marching together, along with so many other clergy of diverse faiths and backgrounds, is a reminder that we march together for freedom for all. The prophetic words of Dr. King ring true for people of all faiths:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

How can we celebrate freedom when others are not? How can we celebrate liberation when there is still such injustice in our society?

We read in the Haggadah:

This year we are slaves. Next year, free people.

We acknowledge that as long as there is injustice, we cannot truly be free. We cannot celebrate freedom for ourselves until we can celebrate freedom and equality for all. So fifty years later, may we continue to march. May we continue to peacefully assembly and may our seder experiences serve as catalysts in our shared efforts to liberate us all from societal injustice. This year there is still injustice and discrimination. Next year, may we all be liberated.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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