I Love You, Now More Than Ever

Watch Rabbi Olitzky’s Virtual Sermon for Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim entitled “I Love You, Now More Than Ever”

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Our Words are Insufficient, But We Cannot be Silent

Watch Rabbi Olitzky’s Virtual Sermon for Parashat Shemini entitled “Our Words are Insufficient, But We Cannot be Silent”

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Counting Our Days

Watch Rabbi Olitzky’s remarks from the second day of Passover 5780, entitled “Counting Our Days”

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We Are All in this Together

Watch Rabbi Olitzky’s remarks from the first day of Passover 5780, entitled “We Are All in this Together”

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Our Nurses are Elijah, Our Doctors are the Messiah

Watch Rabbi Olitzky’s remarks from Shabbat HaGadol entitled, “Our Nurses are Elijah, Our Doctors are the Messiah”

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Putting Blood on our Doorpost

Watch this video of Rabbi Olitzky’s remarks “Putting Blood on our Doorpost”

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Looking for a Leader

Our country tuned in to a televised address from the Oval Office on Wednesday evening looking for leadership. We were looking for encouragement. We were looking for direction. We were looking for a plan. We found none. I have often been critical of President Trump. I have been critical because of his rhetoric and I have been critical because I believed many of his policies were antithetical to my Jewish beliefs. Still, I tuned in, like most of the country, hoping that during a pandemic, he would lead.

We want a leader to respond in a time of crisis with strength and with humility. We want a leader to accept their mistakes and shortcomings, to take responsibility. But when someone in a position of power passes the buck, kicks the can down the road, or places the blame on someone else, that person has failed their community as a leader.

When Moses was atop Mount Sinai for too long, the Israelites were nervous. They lost faith in him and lost faith in God. So they turned to Aaron and asked him to build them an idol. He told them to bring him their gold. Our commentators try to defend him, suggesting that this was a stall tactic, that they actually wouldn’t bring him their gold. He figured that by the time they finally did, Moses would return. Others cite a midrash that involves the Israelites first approaching Hur and asking him to build an idol. The midrash claims that he refused and was killed by the mob of Israelites, so when they approached Aaron, he was simply trying to stay alive. Yet when Moses asked him about the idol, he said that they gave him the gold and he hurled it into the fire and a golden calf came out. Aaron was essentially saying “it wasn’t me!” He tried to place blame on others and refused to take responsibility.

No one is expecting our leaders to be perfect. They will all make mistakes along the way. We all do! But we are expecting our leaders to lead, and that can only happen is and when they put others first. Leaders lead when they put the needs of the community they serve before their own ego, image, self-interests, or bank account. Leaders lead when they admit their fears, concerns, and shortcomings.

I hope and pray for a leader that will lead us during these challenging times. I find inspiration from the response of officials on the state and local level, and community organizations who are leading by example and doing what they must to keep our communities safe, even when the leader of the free world refuses to do so. Being a leader is not about a title that one has. Being a leader is about how one acts. So let us all lead by example and act in a way that puts the health and safety of ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities first before anything else.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Creating Sacred Community During a Pandemic

Shammai taught that we should  Mekabel et Kol haadam b’sever panim yafo,, greet every person with a cheerful embrace (Avot 1:15). Some understand this to simply mean that we should greet everyone with a smile. I read it differently. To me, this means that we should truly embrace each other, to draw each other close to us.

I’m a hugger. Most know that about me. The first time I meet someone, I often give them a hug. And yet, as our community responds to a global pandemic, I – we – are forced to adjust. Instead of hugging and kissing, and instead of shaking hands, we are touching elbows, or we are bashing and bumping forearms. In China, they have actually recommended shaking feet, in which people kick their feet together, instead of shaking hands.

This will be an adjustment for us – for all of us. It will certainly be an adjustment for me. But we are asking for everyone’s help with this; we can only keep our community healthy and safe if everyone follows our recommended guidelines. That means washing your hands frequently using soap and water, and when that is not possible, using Alcohol-based hand sanitizer, which we have available all throughout our synagogue building. And of course staying home and contacting a health care professional if you have a fever, a constant cough, or shortness of breath.

We also know that it seems those who might have compromised immune systems, the elderly and young children, and those suffering from other illnesses and are on medications that cause them to be immuno-suppressed, are more at risk. So we can’t just protect ourselves. We need to act in this way to protect others as well.

As part of the Daf Yomi cycle, the daily study of a page of Talmud, we just studied from Berachot 62. On this page, we find a lengthy conversation about going to the bathroom, about when and where one should go to the bathroom. But included in this discussion, Bar Kappara teaches: “When you are hungry, you should eat without delay. When you are thirsty, you should drink without delay. When you have to go to the bathroom, you should go, without delay.” What he is emphasizing here is our need to take care of our bodies so that we can take care of our souls. We cannot have healthy souls without having healthy bodies. We cannot be without a vibrant spiritual community. But we cannot be a vibrant spiritual community if we do not take care of ourselves.

In the days, and weeks, and likely months ahead, that may mean that there are changes we need to make. That includes small adjustments like not hugging or shaking hands, or larger adjustments like finding ways to stream programs and services for those who are isolated, homebound, or quarantined. But we need to work together to make sure that we take care of ourselves, and others, to nourish our bodies, so that we as a community can continue to nourish our souls.

COVIDOn this past Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor, we read from chapter 25 of the book of Deuteronomy, about Amalek. We read about the Amalekites because rabbinic tradition teaches that Haman was a descendant of them. And we are simultaneously told to Timche, erase, the memory of Amalek, and Lo Tishkach, not forget, what Amalek did to us. When figuring out how it’s possible that we could have these two opposing commands, we conclude that we should be sensitive to our experiences with Amalek, but we shouldn’t let them define us. The Torah is telling us that our lives must be a balancing act. We cannot be defined by something, but we must be aware of it. The Israelites couldn’t forever have their lives shaped by what Amalek did to them, attacking them from behind in the wilderness. Their mindset couldn’t be shaped by those fears. And yet, they acknowledged that some of the decisions they made as a community, were very much in response to exactly that.

Similarly, we refuse to let the global COVID-19 pandemic define us and impact our ability to offer a sacred and spiritual home for our community. However, we cannot also ignore the spread of this virus, including within the New York-Metropolitan Jewish community and within Jewish institutions. We must Timche. We can’t have it in our minds all the time. But we also must Lo Tishkach, always be vigilant and aware, in order to keep members of our community healthy. Let us begin by tapping elbows instead of shaking hands, and by offering air hugs to embrace each other. At least for the time being. Let us make sure that we put each other’s health first, to take care of our bodies, so that together as a community, we can take care of our souls.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Seeing God in the Eyes of Each Other

All of Parashat Terumah is filled with rules an stipulations regarding how to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Not only does it list the materials that should be brought, but it also mentions the exact dimensions and placement of these materials. This is the original blueprint of the Tabernacle. Among those instructions, we find the requirement to make an Aron, an ark of acacia wood, overlaid with gold on the inside and out with gold rings and poles to be inserted through those rings so that it can be carried from encampment to encampment as the Israelites brought their portable sanctuary with them through the wilderness. And after making a cover of gold, there should be two cherubs, two keruvim, two angelic figures made of gold at the end of the cover, resting atop the ark that housed the tablets of the covenant, facing each other.

Rashi explains that when the Torah says that they should be of hammered work, that means they should be on one piece of gold, not separate from the ark and then soldered unto the cover, but of the same piece of gold. The angels are just as much a part of the holiness of the ark of the covenant as the tablets that were to be held inside it.

The space that held what was believed to be the word of God was highlighted by these keruvim. They were angelic figures, intentionally with the faces of human beings, suggesting that humanity serves as God’s angels, and they were looking at each other, seeking to find the divine presence in one another.

In the latest xenophobic move of this administration’s anti-immigrant agenda, an agenda that is antithetical to the notion of loving the stranger and welcoming the stranger that we first find as biblical law in Parashat Mishpatim, the Justice Department announced on Wednesday that it had created an official section of its immigration office to strip citizenship rights from naturalized immigrants. Such a move is not only bigoted and discriminatory, but also suggests that we are not all equal under the law. This is the President’s and his administration’s latest attempt to remove immigrants from this country, including those who are here legally, including those who immigrated here and became US citizens and should be seen as equal under the law to someone who was born here. He still sees them as other and as different.

God declared that the Shechina, God’s Earthly Presence, would reside in between these two cherubim, suggesting that God is present in our interpersonal relationships and we find God, and see God, based on how we treat each other. But God also feels absent, based on how we treat each other. The Talmud suggests that the keruvim embracing each other, looking at each other, was a sign that we honored God. They saw God in one another. But when they did not follow God’s will, these angelic faces would actually turn away from one another.

When we refuse to see God in each other, we stop seeing God in this world. When we stop seeing each other as angels, as God’s messengers, as God’s partners, then we stop seeing God, and we stop doing God’s holy work.

The ark was to be covered in gold on the inside and the outside, even though no one ever saw the inside. Why place something as precious as gold on the inside when it was barely seen? Why waste gold on an area that we would not show off? I believe it is because ultimately, it’s the inside that is precious.

Further bigoted immigration decisions by the Justice Department perpetuates xenophobia, and encourages that we judge people based on ethnicity, where they come from, or the color of their skin, suggesting that how one looks is a determining factor in how “American” they are. But we should focus on the gold on the inside, not the gold on the outside. If we are focusing on the outside, if we are judging people and discriminating against them based on how they look or where they are from, then not only are we ignoring the biblical command to welcome and love the stranger, but we are also causing the cherubim, causing God’s angels, to turn away from each other. When we turn away from each other, we turn away from seeing each other as angels, and seeing each other as made in God’s image. If we do so, then we turn away from God as well.

Let us treat each other as cherubim, as angelic figures. Let us see the other, see each other, as precious as gold. And let us treat each other with as much respect as the Mishkan, the Tabernacle itself. Let us never forget that God dwells among us – not just some of us, but all of us. And let us remember that if we are all angels of God, then we come to appreciate that God dwells among us by seeing God in the eyes of all those who dwell among us.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Why We Must Be Reminded to Care for the Stranger

In the middle of Parashat Mishpatim, a Torah portion full of laws, we find arguably the most important law in the Torah. These laws, given immediately after revelation at Sinai, after the Ten Commandments, are meant to be a guide to how to build a society. These mitzvot, commandments, are bein adam l’chavero, are about interpersonal relationships. They are about how we treat our fellow.

And right in the middle of these laws we find “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). The commandment to love, welcome, support, and not oppress the stranger appears more times than any other commandment in the Torah – more than observance of the Sabbath, observance of dietary laws, or even belief in God. One can easily deduce how important it is based on how often the commandment is mentioned.

Yet, I am actually perplexed that it is mentioned here at all. The Israelites crossed a split sea, leaving behind 400 years of being a stranger in a strange land, only two Torah portions ago. How could they have already forgotten to not oppress the stranger? How could they have already forgotten that they themselves were once strangers?

I believe it is not that they forgot, but rather that they needed to be reminded, because human instinct teaches us the opposite. After experiencing oppression, human instinct is to oppress another, lest we become oppressed again. Many who are guilty of assault, violence, and bullying were themselves once victims of such acts and as long as one is the oppressor, they are not the oppressed. The Israelites needed to be reminded to not oppress the stranger out of concern that they would to ensure that they themselves didn’t become oppressed.

But if we only think about ourselves, then we fail – we fail at life and fail as God’s partners in creating this world. Our lives are intertwined. Just as we expect allies to stand with us in oppression, then we must stand with others. We must be reminded to do so. We must be reminded because we were once oppressed, we were once strangers – and how easily we could become strangers again.

Let us take inspiration from the repetition of this command, from the importance of this command. Let it define us as Jews and let it inspire us in how we act.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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