To be a Person of God, you must see your Fellow as a Person of God

Congregation Beth El began our celebration of Pride month with beautiful Torah written by my rabbinic colleague, Rabbi Rachel Marder.



This teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunin, the reminder that the world was created for our sakes, is found in Tractate Sanhedrin 37a of the Babylonian Talmud. The mishnah where this appears comes to this conclusion following the reminder that each of us was created from the same being, each of us are descendants of Adam HaRishon, the first human. The mishnah clarifies that each of us was created from a single being for the sake of peace, so that no single person can say, I am greater than you, or you are less than I am, because of how you look,  how you speak, how you dress, how you identify, or how you love.

The haftarah reading for Parashat Naso  introduces a woman who desperately wants to be a mother, and vows to become a Nazarite so that the message from an angel of God that she will have a child will come true. Once that child was born, at the end of the haftarah, he becomes the most well-known of all the Nazirites in our Bible, Samson.

The text tells us that a Malach Adonai, an angel of God comes to Manoach’s wife to give her this prophecy. But when she describes what happened to Manoach, she says something different. She refers to this beings as an Ish Elohim, a man or person of God. She was able to see the being who came to speak to her, and saw the divine nature of that person. She saw his very essence. And that was enough.

Ultimately during Pride month, and each and every day, that is what we are to do. We must see each individual — gay and straight, bisexual and  pansexual, transgender and cisgender, queer, and ally, as an Ish Elohim, an Isha Elohim, a person of God> We must see each person as an individual whose words are those of prophecy, whose voice matters, whose presence matters, whose life matters. For we are all unique. We are all different. And yet we are all the same, created form the same Adam HaRishon.

As this same mishnah on Sanhedrin 37a notes, while we are all fashioned, each human being, form the very first stamp of the very first human, not one of us resembles our fellow. We are each different. We are each unique. Therefore, we each must say that the world was created for my sake. And we must see each of us as an Ish Elohim, as an Isha Elohim. We must see each other as more than just an angel. We must see each other as a person of God, made in God’s Image.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Lost, and Found, in the Wilderness

The book of Numbers – Sefer Bamidbar – begins with Parashat Bamidbar, literally meaning “in the wilderness.” The book begins with God speaking to Moses, and in turn the Israelites, in the wilderness of Sinai. With no word in the Torah being insignificant, Midrash comes to understand that this must mean that Matan Torah, revelation at Mount Sinai, when the Israelites received the Torah, intentionally happened bamidbar, in the wilderness.

Numbers Rabbah explains that if the Israelites received the Torah once they entered the Promised Land (which was the whole purpose of their wandering in the wilderness in general and their ultimate destination) then only the inhabitants of Israel would feel connected to Torah. However, midrash stipulates that Torah was given in the wilderness so that all Jews should feel connected to Torah and should experience revelation, no matter where we reside, including right here at this moment in South Orange, New Jersey. The Mechilta clarified further that every Jewish persion has an equal share and obligation to uphold the values of Torah, to cling to it as a tree of life. No Jews is more connected to Torah than another.

Each and every Passover, we read the words of the Haggadah: In every generation we are to see ourselves as if we left Egypt. Each and every Shavuot, we also see ourselves as if we stood at the foot of Sinai, as if we received the Torah. Because each and every Shavuot, we do receive the Torah, anew. And whenever we feel lost bamidbar, in the wilderness,  the lessons of Torah help us feel found.

The wilderness represents something else as well – humility. Tractate Nedarim 55a in the Babylonian Talmud explains that the wilderness represents more than just the diaspora, more than just not Eretz Yisrael. The wilderness is not actually a part of any place. It is ownerless. When one wanders in the wilderness one doesn’t belong anywhere or to anything. We understand the importance of community, of Jewish community. We  know that you can’t be a Jew on a deserted island because Judaism is not just about belief, but it is about community. Midrash teaches that the reason Moshe Rabbeinu shattered the tablets of the covenant when he saw the Israelites building the Golden Calf was not out of anger or disappointment. It was not because he was mad. Rather, it was because the Torah was too “heavy” – metaphorically speaking – for him to carry on his own. He was only able to carry the responsibility and burden of Torah because he thought that community, that B’nai Yisrael, was carrying it with him. This in essence is Torah.

Yet, Midrash speaks about the wilderness being ownerless, being alone. Rashi explains that if the wilderness is ownerless, then it is free for all who wish to step on it. So too, one must be like the wilderness, must be bamidbar, to receive Torah – humble. The Talmud continues that humility is a necessary part of receiving Torah – Torah cannot be understood, appreciated, or transmitted if one is not humble. Let us always be humble enough to receive the Torah anew. Let us be humble enough to ask more questions, to appreciate that we don’t have all the answers, and yet still, we come to grasp Torah. For it is only a Tree of Life if we hold fast to it.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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You Shall Lie Down and No One Will Terrify You

In Memory of Rashad Jones

Parashat Bechukotai, the last Torah portion of the book of Leviticus, begins with the promise that those who follow God’s ways will be blessed. And then goes into detail about the blessings that they will receive:

I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit… You shall eat your bread and be satisfiedI will grant you peace in the land. You shall lie down and no one shall terrify you (Lev. 26:4-6).

Rabbinic commentary is clear that these are three separate blessings, even if each comes one right after the other. The Sifra, midrash on the book of Leviticus, explains that the reason we are told that we will eat and be satisfied immediately after being told that we will have an abundance of food is to teach us a lesson that abundance doesn’t equal satisfaction. It is only after the over abundance that we realize that although our natural instinct is to always want more, to always strive for more, we should realize that the blessings that we already have in our lives are enough.

But then the midrash continues: it doesn’t matter what we have, and it doesn’t matter if we are satisfied with what we have, if we don’t have peace, if we don’t feel safe in this world and we don’t feel like we are protected.

The Torah is quite specific in what this means:

v’cherev lo ta’avor be’artzeichem. And no weapon shall pass through this land (Lev. 26:6).

WearOrangeBethEl2019The Torah is suggesting that we will only achieve peace when we rid our world and ourselves of weapons of murder. This week, at the entrance to Congregation Beth El, we have orange lawns signs posted out front, with the word #ENOUGH written on them. Tree branches hang over these signs, each with orange ribbons tied to them. This week, we observe Gun Violence Awareness Day and wear orange to say enough is enough. This week, we declare that the blessings in our lives don’t matter, that being happy with what we have doesn’t matter, as long is we don’t have peace in our lives, as long as approximately 100 Americans are killed by guns every day.

Why orange? Because that was Hadiya Pendleton’s favorite color – and that is what her friends wore in her memory. She was shot in the back, and murdered in 2013, while on a playground in Kenwood, Chicago, with friends, after taking a school exam; she was murdered one week after performing at President Obama’s second inauguration.

Just this past weekend, a disgruntled former employee walked into the Virginia Beach Municipal Building, the Town Hall where the Mayor’s office is, and starting shooting, killing 12 people in an officie complex that housed 400. This mass shooting is the deadliest in our country this year. We might focus on the tragic mass shootings that cause us fear, school shootings like at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland, or synagogue shootings like at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, but we cannot forget the daily losses of life by gun violence. The loss of life that becomes just a number, those who are victims of this epidemic that kills 36,000 Americans a year. Like Hadiya Pendleton. Or like Rashad Jones.

Anita Pittman, a wonderful person and a dear member of our community and professional team, works as Beth El’s Financial Administrator. As we gathered for Shabbat services last Shabbat to read Parashat Bechukotai, she was burying her 20-year-old godson and cousin, Rashad Jones. He was shot and murdered just miles from here, sitting on his front stoop, in Newark last week. An innocent soul. And just one of the over 36,000 that are victims of gun violence every year. We cannot just be fearful of mass shootings. We need to end the gun violence epidemic that ends the life of a child on their front porch on a warm spring weekend evening.

We can wear orange. We can put up ribbons. We can post lawn signs that say #Enough. But that really isn’t enough. And we can be thankful for all the blessings we have in our lives. And believe that they are enough. But they aren’t. Because it won’t be enough until we stop bury children. It won’t be enough until our elected officials stop participating in avodah zarah, until they stop worshipping AR-15s like they are idols. It won’t be enough until our elected leaders are beholden to voters, to their constituents, instead of the gun lobby. And it won’t be enough until we pass federal laws to reduce gun violence.

And we will not stop fighting this epidemic until we see God’s blessings – God’s promise — of cherev lo taavor b’artzeichem, of no weapons of murder in our land, come to fruition. May the memory of Rashad Jones be for a blessing. And may we finally see God’s promise in our lives. May the prophecy of Isaiah become reality as we turn our swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, as we plant flowers in our gun barrels. Because we cannot truly be satisfied, until we can build a world where we are all safe. May it be so. May it happen speedily in our day. And may we do the holy work, the necessary work, to make it happen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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Bringing the Joy of Jewish Camping to our Community

There’s a legendary story often told among experiential Jewish educators about the child who returns from Jewish sleepaway camp. Upon returning home, her parents ask her how camp was, and she responses with a smile that camp was incredible. When asked what her favorite part of camp was, she quickly responds that it was Havdallah. Her parents are elated. Among all the activities at camp, it was a Jewish ritual, the moment when we say goodbye to Shabbat for the weekend, when we separate out that which is kadosh – holy – from that which is chol – ordinary – that stuck with her most. When asked if she wants them to start doing Havdallah together as a family every Saturday night, she quickly responds “no!” When her parents ask her why, she clarifies: “we don’t have a lake!”

While this story is meant to cause us to laugh, there is some truth to it. Jewish summer camp is one of the most successful institutions in the American Jewish community for engaging Jewish youth in joyful Jewish experiences. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to bring those experiences back to synagogues and Jewish communities who are in search of the community building and spiritual growth that the utopian environment of Jewish camping provides. At Congregation Beth El, we too were interested in bringing the joy of Jewish camp to Beth El. Our answer was to bring Beth El to camp.

Ever since I arrived at Congregation Beth El, I had a vision of having a congregational retreat at a summer camp. I know that some members of our community had this vision long before I was a part of the community. Thanks to our dedicated volunteers who made up our retreat committee and an enthusiastic community, we had over 250 members of our community join us over Memorial Day Weekend at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah in Milford, Pennsylvania.

RetreatShabbatService2019This retreat was an incredible opportunity to build community, to disconnect from the outside world and our devices and screens that often consume so much of our time (including mine!), to be with loved ones, to make new friends, to strengthen existing friendships, to connect with God as Creator in the beauty of nature, to try new things, to have fun, and to appreciate the sanctity of Shabbat. The melodies and singing of prayers and Hebrew songs brought Judaism to life. Shabbat services outdoors in the amphitheater and weekday minyan by the lake allowed us to experience the Presence of God that we were praying to all around us. Our meals allowed us to break bread with new friends, building intergenerational connections around the tables of the dining hall. And friendly competition – congregational-wide softball, kickball, and ultimate frisbee games – helped build community as well. The gorgeous whether was an added bonus.

RetreatBonfire2019.jpgOn Saturday night, as we saw three stars glisten in the sky, we gathered by the lake for Havdallah, just like the camp experienced in that urban legend. Earlier, each child had made their own havdallah candle, and slowly as the light of one candle extended to another, and the flickering flames of over 100 candles illuminated our circle, we experienced the true light of community. Singing and swaying and saying goodbye to Shabbat transitioned into a late-night bonfire with s’mores and karaoke.

RetreatZipline2019.jpgAnd although we had a closing activity on Sunday morning, with everyone taking home a new friendship bracelet to wear, reminiscent of the new relationships we’ve built, there were no tearful goodbyes or bus notes to write. We weren’t saying goodbye to a community, to a home away from home. Rather, we were bringing the joy of camp back home with us, as a community. The ruach of that experience will carry with us in so much that we do. And for those who yearn to go back, we are already beginning registration for next summer.

May the joy we feel at summer camp carry with us all the time. May we always smile like we do when we are singing outdoors, or zipping down the zipline, or tie dying our t-shirts, or hitting the bullseye in archery. And may we always have enriching Jewish moments, without needed a lake to make them happen.


We are especially grateful to the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and One Happy Camp NJ for their generous grant that helped make this retreat a reality! One Happy Camper can help your child find the right Jewish summer camp for them. Click here for more information.

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

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Denying a Woman’s Reproductive Rights is Profaning God

V’lo tichalelu et shem kodshi. You shall not profane my holy name (Lev. 22:32).

You shall not profane God’s name. And we are left asking ourselves what does it mean to profane God’s name and in turn, to profane God? Essentially to our understanding of all texts is that God created each person made in God’s image. Each person has a divine spark within them. Therefore, when you deny a person their rights, you profane God’s name. When a group of male legislators try to make decisions regarding a woman’s body, they are profaning God’s name. And when they seem to take more of an issue with abortion, then with rape, incest, or sexual assault, they are profaning God’s name.

I’m angry. And I’m tired.

I am tired of people using the term “pro-life” when they are not. I am tired of those who say they are “pro-life” but in actuality, are against a woman having any rights in her life. I am tired of those who claim to be “pro-life” but have no concern for the life of a pregnant woman or the decisions that she makes. Because it is her body. And her choice. When states like Alabama and Missouri were passing laws that criminalized abortion this week, including in cases of rape or incest, and would send a doctor who performed an abortion to prison for longer than the perpetuator who raped that woman, those laws are not “pro-life.” They are quite the opposite. Any such law that is passed, including that which was signed into law this week in Alabama, is not a “pro-life” law and don’t let anyone else suggest otherwise. Because any such law isn’t really a case of banning abortions. What Alabama is attempting to do is ban safe abortions. And thus, putting women’s lives at risk in the process.

I’m tired.

I am tired of those on the religious right claiming that the stances they are taking are based on so-called “Judeo-Christian” values. I’ll let you in on a little secret: there is not such thing as “Judeo-Christian.”  People can take whatever stances they want based on their own right-wing extremism, but don’t bring Judaism into it. For starters, Judaism is a faith that celebrates reproductive rights and reproductive justice. I can quote text, biblical verses, Mishna, and modern halakhic responsa that justify and legitimize a women’s right to choose what she does with her body according to rabbinic tradition and Jewish law.

But the truth is, I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t have to respond to claims from right-wing Christian extremists that quote a verse that is anti-choice, with the rebuttal of another verse or teaching that is pro-choice. We don’t need a war of quoting scripture – and I say this especially as a rabbi and a person of faith –  because we should not be legislating based on faith. We live in a country that is supposed to govern based on a separation of church and state. Still, it is quite clear in Jewish texts that life does not begin at conception and life begins when a child becomes its own independent being out of the womb. And while Mishnah is clear that an abortion is not only permitted but required if a fetus is causing any harm to the mother, the Conservative Movement clarifies that it is up to each individual – it is a woman’s right – to define that harm for herself, be it physical, emotional, mental, or otherwise. In fact, when Roe v. Wade became law in 1973, l the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement came out with a statement the next year, not only quoting text of our tradition that protects a woman’s right to choose, but opposing any legislation, including a constitutional amendment, on the federal or state level, that would outlaw abortion.

V’lo tichalelu et shem kodshi. You shall not profane my holy name (Lev. 22:32).

In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 86a, the Talmud asks: “What are the circumstances that cause desecration of God’s name? Rav said: For example, in the case of someone like me, a public figure and pious rabbi, if I take meat from the butcher and do not give the butcher money for it immediately, [people are likely to think that I did not mean to pay at all, and thus would be desecrating God’s name.]” Now, if someone was poor, and food insecure, it wouldn’t be seen as a desecration of God if they didn’t pay the butcher right away. But a pious rabbi, it would.

Rav is essentialy saying in this section of the Talmud that if one has a responsibility in a position of authority and uses their position to only help themselves and harm others, ithey are profaning God’s name. When an elected official has a responsibility to protect the rights of their constituents, and he, and in this case I very much mean he, goes out of his way to pass policies and legislation that deny the rights of women, when a group of legislators that are men are getting together to limit the rights of women, when a group of legislators pass policies that deny the rights of anyone, they are profaning God’s name. And that is exactly what the elected officials in Alabama and Missouri did this week.

I’m tired.

I’m tired of too many of us being silent. When you, when I, when we, are silent about one’s human rights, one’s reproductive rights being taken away, then that too is a Chilul Hashem, we are profaning God’s name. Protecting women’s rights is not only a women’s issue and too many people who do not identify as women remain silent. So specifically to all the men out there: SPEAK UP. SPEAK OUT. Or you too are profaning God’s name. The Talmud also teaches that silence is equal to complacency. Let’s stop being silent. Let us make our voices heard. A passed bill or law doesn’t mean that such a law is just. In actuality, such a law is desecrating and profaning God. So we must stand up and fight when women’s rights are being challenged. Because to remain silent, is also a Chillul Hashem.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Here’s a list of organizations to contribute to, that are on the grounding, fighting to support women’s reproductive rights:

Planned Parenthood 

Planned Parenthood Action Fund Planned Parenthood Action Fund 

NARAL: Pro-Choice America

Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice 

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Holiness is Defined By How We Treat Others

You should be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am Holy (Lev. 19:2).

The very beginning of Parashat Kedoshim, which we read last Shabbat, is a command to strive to be holy, to strive to be like God. While the word ‘holy’ is quite difficult to define, this command is followed by several other mitzvot that attempt to explain how we should be holy.

We are told how we should treat our family members, focusing on the holiness of the home.

We are told that we should not make idols or worship false gods, emphasizing that the root of holiness is our relationship with the Creator of all life.

And then, we are told:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God (Lev. 19:9-10).

In this case, holiness is defined by how we take care of the most vulnerable. Holiness is ensuring that we look out for others rather than only being concerned with ourselves. This is truly a challenging task since our natural instinct is to care for ourselves first. We make sure we are okay; we protect our children. Yet, the Torah is telling us that only looking out for yourself and ignoring the needs of another is the opposite of holiness. Rather than a sanctification of God, it is a desecration of God, because when you ignore the needs of others, you are ignoring those made in God’s image. In turn, you are ignoring God.

We also find holiness defined this same Torah portion with the command to love our neighbors:

Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). 

The command to love is a challenging one. One cannot be commanded to feel something. And yet, we are commanded to love another, essentially to treat others the way we want to be treat. For if we truly loved another in the same way we loved ourselves, then we would take care of the most vulnerable. We wouldn’t reap from the corners of our fields — metaphorically speaking — and would ensuring that no one went to bed hungry, wondering where their next meal was going to come from.

So be holy. Not just because God is holy. Be holy for the sake of holiness. Be holy because all are created in God’s image and that make each of us holy. So we cannot ignore the needs of another. We cannot ignore the holiness of another. Rather, we build in our holiness by seeing the holiness in others.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Living Without Fear

Acharei Mot. After death. That’s how last Shabbat’s Torah portion begins, barely referencing the tragic loss of Aaron’s two sons that previously occurred. The text doesn’t focus on mourning. It doesn’t focus on grief. It just gets back to business. After the death of Aaron’s two sons, the Torah explains that God speaks to Moses and continues to instruct him on the laws of offerings and how Aaron must preside over these offerings.

I am left wondering why the Torah doesn’t give us, or Aaron the High Priest, time to grieve. When this loss occurred in Leviticus chapter 10,  the Torah simply states that Aaron was silent. I can’t get over these words though: Acharei mot, after death, especially after the deadly mass shooting at the Chabad of Poway, California a little over a week ago on the final day of Passover, six months to the day since the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Because we cannot simply move on. We cannot do what the Torah is telling us and just act like all is normal. We cannot accept this as the new normal. There is nothing normal about shootings at houses of worship. There is nothing normal about accepting mass shootings as a part of society. There is nothing normal about anti-semitism rearing its head and causing harm in the most violent attacks on Jews in our country’s history. But somehow, for whatever reason, we do. Only here. Nowhere else in the world. And we wait until the 24-hour news cycle has moved on to the next topic, and like the Torah even does, Acharei Mot, after death, we move on.

The Sifra, the halakhic midrashic word on the book of Leviticus, explains that these laws regarding entering the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, at inopportune times were commanded directly after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu so that one can understand the deadly consequences of one’s actions. The problem with this midrashic interpretation is that it is telling us to live our lives in fear. Midrash is suggesting that we should fear death and act accordingly. I refuse to do so.

Rabbi Yisrael Goldstein, the rabbi of Chabad of Poway, refused to be immediately treated for his wounds, after the shooter shot off his two index fingers, as he held his hands up to try to protect himself and his community, from the gunfire raining down on his community at the hands of a domestic terrorist with an AR-15. Instead, he used whatever he could find to stop the bleeding, including a tallit, a prayer shawl, and gathered the congregation outside their sacred space that had become a crime scene.

He pulled a chair and in front of the building, stood on the chair and gave the sermon he was going to give and started saying over and over again, Am Yisrael Chai. “Am Yisrael Chai,” he said. “We are a Jewish people that will stand tall. And we will not let anyone or anything take us down.” He was essentially teaching the opposite of what this week’s parasha suggests, we do not live our lives based on fear. We do not fear for our own lives because of those whose lives were lost. Instead, we say what Rabbi Goldstein said, Am Yisrael Chai. We are proud of who we are and will never hide who we are or what we believe.

At the Passover seder where we celebrated being freed from slavery through a festive meal and ritual retelling, we still said “Hashata L’Avday, L’shana Haba’ah b’nai chorin, We are still slaves. Next year, may we be fully free.” At the meal when we celebrated freedom, we acknowledged that we are not yet fully free. And in 2019, in America, in a country and at a time when Jews have experienced more religious freedom than at any other time in Jewish history of 2000 years living in the diaspora, we are still not free from anti-semitism. And society is not free from hatred. We say these words because we recognize that we cannot truly be free until we are all free. This tragic shooting in Poway on the last day of our holiday that celebrates freedom was just a reminder of that. We will not simply move on Acharei Mot, after death. We will not simply continue like this is the new normal.

During these days between Passover and Shavuot, we count the Omer. These days of counting the omer representing our people’s spiritual wandering, as we wandered throughout the wilderness, from the exodus from Egypt until Revelation at Sinai, lost. After another deadly anti-semitic incident, we feel lost. We are left wandering in a tearful daze. But we will not simply move on, Acharei Mot, like this is the new normal. We will proudly declare, as Rabbi Goldstein did, Am Yisrael Chai, and live our lives as Jews with pride, fighting to ensure our freedom, and everyone’s freedom from hatred and bigotry.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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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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