Kol Nidre 5780: Children are Our Rainbow

Growing up, my family had an odd obsession: we would collect Noah’s arks. Anything that was Noah’s Ark related found in catalogues or at antique sales would end up in our home. To this day, the countertops of my parents’ kitchen covered with rainbow arches above miniature models of wooden boats, surrounded by parading animals, lined up two-by-two. I loved the story so much, I named my son after the biblical character. For my family, the story of Noah and his ark, was one about building a future, and a promise from God, a rainbow in the sky that we still see after every thunderstorm turns to sunshine, and a dove, complete with olive branch in beak, representing the possibility of peace.

This biblical narrative though is a troublesome one. Noah is called an Ish Tzadik Tamim haya b’dorotav, a righteous and simple person for his generation, the only person who God deems worth saving among a wicked generation. And so, he builds a lifesaving ark for himself and his family, and all animals that God created to ensure repopulation of the earth. But when God announces the imminent destruction of all humanity, Noah doesn’t flinch. He has a lifeboat – literally. He is safe. Throughout Torah, Abraham goes toe-to-toe with God in an attempt to save the innocent of Sodom and Gamora, cities where he did not reside. Moses stands up to God to defend the same Israelites that he spends most of his tenure as leader being critical of. But for Noah, he is only concerned with his own family and never thinks about the impact of his ambivalence or the world that he is left to live in after it was destroyed.

Approximately two million students from over 250 countries participated in a global climate school strike on Friday, September 20, ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit that took place days later. Coordinated by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, the strike was meant to gain attention to the issue, but also to make sure that young people on this planet, the ones whom we are leaving the earth to in this state, have a seat at the table and are part of the conversation. And the reality that we are leaving them is a scary one: hotter, drier weather in the Middle East has dried up the Tigris-Euphrates river basin; about 40% of the 10 million people who live in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta live below sea level, forcing the country’s President to announce that they will actually be moving the capital to higher ground; Miami and other coastal towns may not exist decades from now; droughts in California have caused water shortages and wildfires.

On this day where we admit our transgressions, my teacher and dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School, Rabbi Daniel Nevins writes: We were created amidst a clean and pure world, but now it is headed for destruction in our hands. Not on our own merits do we beseech You, Lord our God, for we have sinned, we have wasted, we have destroyed:  For the sin of filling the sea and land with filth and garbage;  For the sin of destroying forever species which in Your great mercy were saved from the flood;  And for the sin of laying bare the forests and habitats from which all creatures receive life.” Forgive us, Pardon us, Grant us Atonement.

I have a confession to make: I am not a very green person. Far from it actually. I use paper plates a lot because I hate doing the dishes. I often forget to separate out the recycling. When it was time to lease a new car, I went with the gas guzzling SUV instead of hybrid or electric models, because I was more interested in a third row with lots of leg room, not my carbon footprint. It’s not that I don’t care about protecting the planet. It’s more that I am unsure me doing anything can truly make a difference. Everything I’ve read suggests that we have passed the point of no return. After the forty-day-and-forty-night flood, there will be no rainbow in the sky.

Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University explains that a switch from plastic straws to paper straws alone won’t save the planet. He writes that, “focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption  heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall.”

On Yom Kippur, we pour our hearts out to God, not just admitting our mistakes, but we are meant to experience a spiritual death of sorts. And we make confessions as a community. Ashamnu. Bagadnu. Al Chet Shechatanu Lefanecha. Each statement is in the plural. We have sinned. We have transgressed. We have let this happen. We, together, have caused our communal death; we have brought this upon ourselves.

After all, when God gives responsibility of the utopian Eden to Adam and Eve, first God blesses them, and then says to them: be fruitful and multiply and fill the land. Then, v’chiv’shu’ha, and subdue it, Urdu bigdat Hayam, uv’of hashamayim, u’v’chol chaya haromeset al ha’aretz, and have dominion over the fish, and birds, and all mammals that roam the earth. Sforno, the Italian Rabbi and Biblical commentary of the 16th century explains that v’chiv’shu’ha is not a directive to conquer earth with muscular power, but to subdue it by means of humanity’s superior intellect. He understands Torah to mean that we must use our intelligence to protect earth. Our own intelligence, and courage, is what will save us.

Greta Thunberg first gained notoriety in August 2018 when she would stand outside the Swedish Parliament, then alone, holding up a sign that said “School Strike for Climate,” but through social media, her movement grew, launching a Fridays for the Future campaign, as well as this global school strike that some of our own children participated in just a couple of weeks ago. At her speech to the United Nations, she chastised world leaders:

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

But what gave Greta Thunberg hope that we can change was convincing her family to become vegan, convincing them to no longer travel by airplane. She realized that she could make a difference. She could change. She could save the world. We all can.

Al Gore, who has arguably become more influential and famous as an environmental hero than he ever was as Vice President, writes that he still has hope for the future. He says his hope “stems largely from the recent, unprecedented groundswell of youth activism that has raised public consciousness to new levels and is pushing political leaders to develop bold and ambitious ideas to confront this challenge. Harking back to the great social movements in history — youth activists are taking the lead.”

Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, of blessed memory, tells a story of a young child who cries out to God and declares that the world is such a mess. The child challenges God: Why don’t you send someone to change the world? God responds, I did send someone. I sent you. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubuvitcher Rebbe, taught: “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs to repair.” It is our job now to repair the world. God sent us.

The theology of Yom and the concept of ‘who shall live and who shall die,’ is hardly believable for us. That is partially because we live in a world where we expect something and get it right away. That is because we fully expect to go to sleep tonight and wake up again in the morning. We care about the here and now, and we fully expect to be in the here and now. We don’t know about the future, but we don’t seem to be worried because that won’t affect us.

We learn in Taanit 23a of the Babylonian Talmud about a man walking along the road who comes across Honi the Circle Maker planting a Carob Tree. He looks at Honi and asks him: “how long will it take for the tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” Honi replies. “Seventy years?!?” The man cannot believe it. “You will not be alive in seventy years. Why would you plant a tree whose fruit you never get to eat,” the man scoffs. Honi quietly and confidently responded, “when I came into this world, there were carob trees ripe for the picking. Just as my parents planted for me, I will plant for my children.”

It is easy for us to not care about the future of the planet because we know it won’t affect us. We don’t have to worry about buying real estate on some space colony on Mars. We don’t have to worry about continents being submerged by water or animals becoming extinct. Not in our lifetime. But if that is how we view the future, then we are understanding the true message of Yom Kippur incorrectly. It’s not about the next day or the next year. It’s not about making it to the end of Neilah. It’s not about 5780. It is about what we want our legacies to be. What impact do we want to have in this world? Are we only concerned with us being written and sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come? Or do we want to make sure there is a Book of Life to be written into?

In our liturgy this evening, in our machzorim, we do not only that we have transgressed. We also ask God v’tein b’libeinu la’azov derech resha, to inspire our hearts to abandon this terrible path. Saying sorry isn’t enough. We need to be inspired to change. We need to be willing to change. We need to understand that what we as individuals strive to change may not be enough. But we ask God to inspire in our hearts to make a collective and communal change.  We admit our mistakes collectively. If we are going to save our planet, we must do so collectively as well.

Greta Thunberg concluded her UN speech with this promise: “We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.” Change is coming. And change must be coming here.

We have sinned. We have transgressed. I acknowledge that we have talked the talk on the bimah but not always walked the walk. We waste. We use paper and plastic. We leave lights on and don’t use energy efficient bulbs. We aren’t relying on renewable energy. That is about to change. In the year 5780, our newly constituted Beth El Green Team, will be working to make our sacred space and holy community one that understands and appreciates the importance the holy ground and sacred space of this planet, that when we make a promise of Tikkun Olam, to repair the world, we literally understand our need to save HaOlam, planet Earth.

RainbowInTheSkyThe power of the rainbow at the conclusion of Noah’s Flood was not just the promise and covenant that it represented. The rainbow represents the opportunity and ability to rebuild. It was a reminder that no matter what pain and destruction, metaphorical or literal, that we have caused and that we experienced. We can rebuild this world anew. No matter what the last year was, this year will be better, as long as we put in the work to make it so. Our past doesn’t need to dictate our future. The rainbow is our future. We do not see where it ends. If we put in the work, our potential to save this world is limitless. And our children will lead us. The prophet Isaiah promised (54:13) that children shall be disciples of God and how great will the peace of your children be, v’rav shalom baniyich. Midrash suggests that rather than reading this verse as baniyich, your children, we should read it as boniyech, your builders. Our children will follow God’s path, even if we don’t, and will build a world of Shalom. But Shalom here is not peace. Shalom comes from shalem, meaning whole. The Prophet Isaiah is revealing to us is that it is our children who will fix our past mistakes and transgressions. They will lead us. They are our rainbow. They are our dove with an olive branch. May we plant for them so that there is still a world left for them to repair. May we save the world for them. May they save the world for us. And may our entire planet be inscribed in the Book of Life.  Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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What if we don’t make it?

Last week, 24 hours before Rosh Hashanah, before we entered the new year and the Gates of Heaven, the Gates of redemption, opened, we focused on Moses’ words, noticing as we prepared to enter the covenant — both the covenant that Moses focuses on with the Israelites and the covenant that we re-enter with God each and every year — we did so Atem Nitzavem Hayom, standing still.

This past Shabbat, Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Return, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is all about transition. We are in a state of limbo. We have been written, but not yet sealed, in the Book of Life. Additionally, our Torah reading focuses on the transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua.

Moses says: “I can no longer be active. Moreover, God said to me ‘You shall not go across the Jordan” (Deut. 31:2). Moses then calls to Joshua and tells him “be strong and resolute” (Deut. 31:7). Chazak v’amatz. These words literally mean be strong and courageous. Midrash HaGadol says that when Moses tells Joshua “Chazak v’Amatz,” what he actually means is be strong in Torah, and to have courage means that one shall not fear, for God is with you.

Soon after, God says to Moses “The time is drawing near for you to die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting” (Deut. 31:14). Midrash explains that when a divine voice called out to Moses and told him that this was his last day on earth, he went from the Levite camp to the Israelite camp and spoke to each person personally. He left nothing unsaid, no word left unspoken.

A week ago, we had been standing still, and now, although we have moved forward, we are stuck in this in-between. We have been written, but not yet sealed. And what if we don’t make it? What if we too don’t get to cross the Jordan? I am not suggesting or wishing that any of us choose to live our lives believing we won’t be alive tomorrow. To do so would make life totally unbearable. But what I am suggesting is that we take for granted that we will be here. We are already placing our bagel orders for break-fast.

But what if we don’t make it? Moses had the opportunity to know ahead of time. The truth is, he knew well in advance. He first got word in Sefer Bamidbar, in Parashat Chukat, after he struck that rock. But he didn’t accept it. He suppressed his fears and anxiety. Only now, once he heard a bat kol, a Heavenly Voice, call out to him did he accept this was reality. And Midrash explains that he didn’t hold anything back. He said what he needed to say.

And let that be a lesson to us all. On Yom HaDin, on Yom Kippur, on Judgement Day, we stand before the Almighty Judge, asking for compassion and forgiveness in the name of Justice. But we do not know what the sentence will be. We do not know if we will cross the Jordan. So let us make sure that we leave no word unsaid. Say what is on our minds, what we’ve been wanted to say for years, to our friends, family, and loved ones. Make sure they know how we feel and what we think.

When Moses tells Joshua, Chazak v’Amatz, maybe he isn’t really talking to Joshua at all. He is projecting. He is talking to himself. He is telling himself to stay strong, to not fear, as he goes on this unknown path. May those be words of inspiration for all of us during this days of repentance. May we all be strong and courageous as we face the unknown. We don’t know what the end result will be, but let us make sure that we leave no word left unsaid.

G’mar Chatima Tova.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Rosh Hashanah 5780: “Avengers Assemble”

The following sermon was delivered on the First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5780 by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey: 

Every summer as a child, I’d go to Camp Grandparents. We would drive the 4 plus hours to the suburbs of Washington DC where my parents would drop off my brother and me at my grandparents’ home for a couple of weeks full of getting spoiled. It was only once I became a parent myself that I realized the importance of these weeks — not just so I could develop a close and special relationship with my grandparents, but also conveniently – and logistically – for Camp Grandparents to take place during that inconvenient time at the end of August when camp is over, but school has not yet started. And so now, as a parent, I appreciate Camp Grandparents more than ever, where at the end of August my own children spend days at their grandparents’ home along with their cousins.

This past summer, with seven kids between the ages of two and nine, it was a packed and exhaustive schedule full of activities, so much so that when a trip was planned to take all of them to Hershey Park,

I was called in for reinforcements, with a strong need for another adult body to play zone parenting defense against this group of kids. At one particular moment in the water park section, we settled on dividing and conquering. We spread out between the corkscrew water slides and the kiddie pool, the big pool and the little slides, the lily pads and the splashpad. And when we came together afterwards, we realized that no one knew where Hannah was. There were three adults, but only six children. My two-and-a -half-year-old daughter had wandered off, with each adult thinking she was with another one.

The panic immediately set in and the screaming of her name began soon after. For approximately ten minutes, all of which seemed like an eternity, Hannah was gone. I found her in the arms of an employee, a first aid staff member, soaking wet, wrapped in a towel. The employee explained that she apparently wandered over to the deep end of the adult pool and with a smile, jumped in.

I asked if a lifeguard brought Hannah to her. She responded with a definitive ‘no.’ With hundreds of kids in the pools and on the water slides, the lifeguards were pulled in too many directions and never even saw her fall in. Apparently, a young mother was wadding in the pool with her infant in her arms and saw this happen from a distance. She bolted over there, scooping my daughter out of the water with her one free hand and handing her to the first aid squad. When I saw Hannah, she was all giggles and smiles, having no idea the ordeal that she had put us through or what she had done. We spent that evening in the emergency room, with Penn State’s Children’s Hospital conveniently located across the street from Hershey Park, making sure she didn’t suffer from secondary drowning. And throughout the evening, she continued to smile and laugh the entire time, like we were just on another amusement park ride.

I asked the employee to introduce me to the young woman who saved Hannah and pulled her out of the pool. But she had left. She said that the woman handed her my child and went back to her family. We walked around to see if she could find her, so I could hug her, and properly thank her for saving my daughter’s life. But she was gone. This stranger saved her life, saved our world, and I don’t even know what she looks like. I do not know her name. I never spoke a single word to her. And yet, she had more of an impact on our family than she’ll ever know, for she changed our destiny in that very moment.

The Talmud teaches that there is nothing more pious than saving a life, and we have no idea the impact of any of our interactions. We have no idea when we become a superhero and have the power to save someone’s life. Ultimately, that is our role in this world — to protect others, as uncomfortable is it sounds. Our role is to honor God. We see God and we find God’s Presence in this world in each other. And so, our responsibility is to protect each other. Of course we protect our loved ones. We would do anything for those that we love.

But that is not what we are taught. We must protect everyone, even the strangers among us. Tractate Sotah teaches about a person who sees a child struggling to swim in the river while he was in the middle of his morning prayers and responded by saying, let me first remove my tallit and tefillin before I save him. As he is unwrapping his tefillin, the child drowns. The Talmud calls this person a “foolish pietist.” There is nothing pious about their actions. There is nothing praiseworthy. But the stranger, who saves the life of the one that they don’t even know, that is to be admired. That is who we strive to be. And sometimes, we don’t even realize the impact of our actions in that moment.

Now Jacob loved Joseph more than all his children… And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so much so that they could not speak a friendly word to him. Joseph became Jacob’s eyes and ears, making sure his siblings followed directions.

Halo acheicha ro’im bish’chem, l’cha v’eshlacheicha aleihem (Gen. 37:13) – Your brothers are pasturing in Shechem, Jacob said to Joseph. Come and I will send you to them. Joseph answered, Hineni. I am here. I am ready. When Joseph reached Shechem, his brothers were not there to be seen. Vayimtza’ehu ish v’hineh to’eh ba’sadeh (Gen. 37:15). He found a man – an ish – wandering in the fields. The man explained Nas’u mizeh ki shamati omrim nelcha dotanah (Gen. 37:17) – They have gone from here. I heard the say they were going to Dothan. And with that single exchanged Joseph changed course. We know what came next. He went down to find his brothers, who first thought about killing him, then threw him in a pit, sold him into slavery, where he ended up in prison, and then eventually rose up to become Pharaoh’s second-in-command, saving the entire region from starvation during famine.

A stranger, someone who Joseph only speaks a handful of words to, has the greatest influence on the path he ends up on. A stranger seemingly so insignificant that he isn’t even given a name in the Torah, has a great impact. The Torah seemingly goes out of its way to help us understand his influence. By not naming him, but simply referring to him as an ish basadeh, a man in the field, we are reminded that it’s not always those closest to us that impact us, not just those who we are on a first name basis with. Sometimes, strangers, those whose names we don’t even know, those who we encounter on our way, are the ones who still influence our destinies. Midrash Tanchuma suggests that this man was the archangel Gabriel, who took the shape of a man. Maybe the strangers that influence our lives are angels. Or maybe it’s a reminder that we all have the ability to be angels for each other.

This past year, The Jewish community in this country lost one of our great cultural influencers, one whose passing went unnoticed by many, and influence not realized by most. Stanley Martin Lieber died last winter. If that is a name you might be familiar with, it’s understandable. You might be more familiar with his, nom de plume, Stan Lee, former comic book writer, editor, creator, and producer, who helped turn the humble and small Marvel Comics into a worldwide Multimedia brand, responsible for creating some of the most iconic superheroes around. [I apologize if I sound like I am “geeking out” a little bit.]

Stan Lee wrote in his memoir that superheroes and comic books became especially popular during WWII, roughly 80 years ago, when the term superhero came into usage. But he noted, after wartime, comics books continued to be popular. He believed that was because the heroes he created were those that readers could look up to, but also relate to. They were superhuman, but still human. They were heroes, but still flawed. As Lee put it: “they weren’t glossy do-gooders who never made mistakes — they were men and women with heart and humanity. Their appeal was undeniable.”

SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOMEAnd maybe that is what has made these superhero movies the highest grossing films of all-time. Not just the blockbuster nature of it all. Not just the team-ups and battle sequences. Not just to see if they return from being snapped to finally defeat Thanos. [And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you need to added “watching the highest grossing movie of all-time” to your new year’s resolution.] What makes these movies so popular — and the comic book stories before them — is that despite superhero powers caused by being bitten by a radioactive spider, or being exposed to gamma radiation, or being injected with a super soldier serum, the human nature of these heroes made each of us feel like we too could be a hero. We too have the power to stand up to evil. We too have the power to help the strangers among us. That’s only if we are willing to. That’s only if we accept our power. Because as Spider-Man was once told, with great power comes great responsibility.

But those with great power, those with the loudest voices, largest soapboxes, and most frantic tweets, are trying to tell us to be afraid of strangers. They are trying to tell us to ignore those who call out to us for help. This administration is doubling down on efforts to say that those who look differently than us, or speak differently than us, or pray differently than us, are people we should be afraid of. The Statue of Liberty declares Emma Lazarus’ poetic words, words that resonate with so many of our own ancestor’s Jewish immigration stories: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddle masses yearning to breathe free.” Yet, the President’s policies suggest we must build walls to keep our distance from strangers. They reinforce xenophobic ideas that we should be scared of those who are different than us, when in reality, we should love those who are different than us.

V’ahavtem et haGer ki Garim heyitem beretz mitzrayim. Love the Stranger for we were once strangers. We are commanded to love the stranger. We are commanded to love those who are different than us. Not just sojourners and migrants. We are commanded to embrace the stranger because we were once strangers. Loving the stranger ultimately means we understand that we have the ability to impact each other. Loving the stranger means actively embracing our ability to make a difference in another’s life. Loving the stranger means understanding that we are all interconnected. We can and must rely on each other.

We must open up and be kind to strangers because we have no idea the impact that that kindness will have on our lives. When Abraham saw three travelers in the distance, he was not fearful that they were approaching him. He did not lock his door. He ran to greet them. He approached them and invited them into his home.

Don’t misunderstand me: Abraham is a terribly flawed person. He casts out part of his family, and almost kills other members of his family. He lies to the King and pretends that his wife is his sister, just to save himself. We see that he is human. We see that he is imperfect. And we also see him going out of his way to be kind to the strangers he encounters.

In quoting the book of Job, Exodus Rabbah tells us that “The stranger should not lodge outside.” Midrash explains that this means that God sees no creature as unfit. The gates of repentance — at this time of year, but also at all times — are always open, all who desire may enter it. Such Midrashic explanation requires that we see each individual as divine, as made in God’s image. It means that we do not see strangers as strange. Instead, we see them as angels.

Abraham did not know that these strangers were angels. They are simply called men. Yet, a single interaction with them changed the course of his life’s journey. These strangers were angels, Malachim, divine messengers. And so too are the strangers among us, those that we don’t know who in some ways, have a greater influence on our lives than those that we do. Our unexpected interactions with them lead us to unexpected consequences.

We can’t control who those angels are in our life. We have no idea what interaction will metaphorically, or literally, save our lives. We just have to be willing to embrace all in our midst. Doing so not only allows for us to encounter our angels, but to be angels for one another, to truly love the stranger.

This requires us to change our mindset. This requires that we tear down the walls that divide us – the literal bigoted walls that are built, but also the symbolic walls that are the reason we avoid strangers. Look around. I am sure you see someone who you don’t know — maybe it’s someone who you’ve never seen before, and maybe it’s someone who you awkwardly and inauthentically smile and nod at, but don’t really know (and of course, you’ve smiled and nodded so many times, you can’t introduce yourself again). Know them. Care about them. They are not in your family. They are not in your social circle. And yet, they matter. And you have the power to make sure they know they matter.

Rabbi Meir taught that there is no greater definition of wickedness than that of the city Sodom, the biblical city that God was keen on destroying. He said that when a person is so wicked, you call them a Sodomite. And yet, the book of Ezekiel explains the sins of the city of Sodom: They were arrogant. They did not care about others and were only concerned with themselves and their own needs. If we do not seek to embrace the kindness of strangers, if we do not seek to be those strangers and exude kindness, then we all become Sodomites. Then we destroy our society. Look at what we’ve become.

Maybe Stan Lee was a hidden biblical scholar. After all, he was born in Manhattan to Jewish Romanian Immigrants who, at the turn of the 20th century, set out to be heroes themselves, to provide a better life for their family. Maybe his daily afternoon learning in cheyder as a child informed his understanding of heroes. For they are just like the Bible’s depiction of angels. They appear in the everyday as human and flawed. But in masked disguise, they are larger than life. In the original comics, these heroes make sure to stick to their aliases and alter egos.

They go to great lengths to make sure that the world doesn’t find out who the man – or woman – is behind the mask, never conflating the ordinary with the extraordinary. They do not seek to take credit or be celebrated. They act, because how could they not. Because they understood their responsibility. They understood exactly what the Talmud understood, that even without a magic hammer or a mechanical suit of armor, to save a single life is to save the world. They understood that they are divine messengers, for we are all divine messengers. We are all heroes. We are all angels.

To the woman whom I’ve never met who saved my daughter’s life at Hershey Park: Thank you. To the woman who did not wait around to be celebrated or rewarded, and yet, did not flinch when she saw a young child in need of her help, thank you. I don’t know who this woman is, but I am sure, like each of us, she is far from perfect.

For all I know, she could be sitting in a pew somewhere similar to here right now, acknowledging her own failures and misdeeds, hoping for a clean slate to be written and sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come. Yet, none of that stopped her from being our hero, from being our angel.

We spend these Days of Awe hoping to change. But we end up spending so much time focusing on what we’ve done wrong, on our mistakes, how we have disappointed others, and how we’ve disappointed ourselves, that we ignore that we’ve still been heroes this past year. You may not even realize, because we never do. We don’t get to read ahead in life like we do in Torah; we don’t know what becomes of the Josephs that we meet after a single interaction. But we have been heroes without even realizing. Appreciate your power and embrace your power.

Now, in the new year, as we examine our souls and examine ourselves, let us use our power to still make a difference in the life of the strangers among us. Because with great power, comes great responsibility. Shana Tova.

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Standing Still…

In Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken, he concludes with these words:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Atem Nitzavim HaYom. You stand here today. This is how Parashat Nitzavim begins.All of you stand here: men, women, and children, and elders, and tribal leaders, woodchopper and water drawer. The Hebrew is odd. It says Nitzavim rather than Omdim. Rather than, “you stand here,” the text is better translated as “you are stationed here.” We are still. We are not moving.

We stand on this day, as we prepare to conclude 5779, as we await for the gates of Heaven to open and usher in 5780. We stand on this day, all of us, together. No one is better than another. When we prepare to stand in front of the All Merciful Judge, we do so on equal ground, on a level playing field.

And why do we stand here? The Torah tells us  L’avrecha Bivrit Adonai Elohecha – To enter the covenant of Adonai your God. But we are not moving at this moment. Even Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of Blessed Memory, acknowledges that more than a people of thought, we are a people of action. But now, we are still.

We constantly look at life as a rat race. We keep moving and moving. We are like the hamster on the wheel, going and going and never stopping. Even our assumption at this moment is l’avrecha, that you shall pass through the covenant, you shall enter the covenant. It is about action.

But now, we are still because we are at a fork in the road and two roads diverge in front of us. There is the common path, the busy walkway that most go on. It is the way that we’ve taken so many times before. It is the way that we travel with our eyes closed. We don’t need to type in the address into our GPS. We don’t need to look for street signs or landmarks. This is the road that is comfortable.

And yet, we are standing still. We are frozen at the intersection, not sure which way to turn. We are comfortable on the path that we always travel, but are desperately trying to turn, and travel on the road less traveled this year, hoping that will make all the difference in 5780.

The Aderet Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Torah, explains that when Moses declares that Atem Nitzavim, that we are all standing here, we must do so with our full selves. We are here not just with our physical bodies, but also with our souls, and with our spirit.

Because that makes all the difference — and that is the hardest part. Our bodies are standing still, but after we’ve spent this Hebrew month of Elul doing cheshbon hanefesh, doing an account of our souls, we cannot remain still. That is what must lead us on this new path, on the road less traveled.

We stand here now, wondering what direction we should take in the year to come. May that new direction be one full of purpose, meaning, and value. And may that make all the difference.

Shana Tova!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Renewing Our Covenant — and Making New Ones

I think about the most recent Elections in Israel and wonder if the goals of Israel and the mission of this Jewish state are the same as they were 71+ years ago when David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s Independence. They say sequels are never as good as the original, but this sequel to the 2019 Israel Elections didn’t disappoint. And the truth is, the concerns during this election were different because the country is different. The world is different. 71+ years ago, world Jewry was different and needed something different.

I think about conservative Supreme Court Justices like the late Antonin Scalia, who consider themselves to be Constitutionalists, believing the exact words of the Constitution, the “letter of the law,” should be interpreted in the exact same manner today, as it was almost 250 years ago at the establishment of this unique experiment called America. But again, America is different now. The world is different now. Our mission may be the same, but our values have evolved.

In fact, the essence of the ideology of Conservative Judaism is the belief that Halakha, Jewish law, is in itself an evolving document – that Torah is a Tree of Life, an Etz Chayim, because it always is meaningful in our lives, but means something different in my life than it may have to those living in Eastern Europe three centuries ago.

Parashat Ki Tavo is one of the most disturbing aspects of Moses’ final speech to the Israelites. He is scared. He knows that he is about to leave this world. He is scared to die. And he is scared of what legacy he will leave behind. Will he be remembered or forgotten? Will the lessons that he taught still resonate, or will the Israelites forge a new path? And as a result, the text is filled with beautiful blessings, but those are understandably totally overshadowed by the disgusting and disturbing curses that threaten the Israelites.

But at the end of the parasha, there is a throwaway verse. At the end of all the curses, we are told:

These are the terms of the covenant which God commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites, to give to the Israelites, in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which God made with them on Mount Horeb, on Sinai. (Deut. 28:69).

We pass over this and yet, this verse might be one of the most important lessons of the Torah. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land. They do so so that they can be a different people when they enter the land. There is an acknowledgement that the slave generation, those who lived a life of servitude in Egypt, needed to die out. A generation of free people, who never experienced slavery are what is to enter the Promised Land. Two generations after the Israelites received the Torah, they are to enter the Promised Land, and within those two generations they evolve into a different people, with different needs, with a different mindset, support system, and ideology. The people who left Egypt are not those who enter the land of Israel. And so, their covenant is different too.

That is our lesson as well. We hold unto these contracts like we are the same people. The Ketubah, the Marriage Contract, the oldest continuous legal document we have in Jewish tradition, doesn’t take into account that people change, and that relationships change. The relationship between newlyweds who are high school sweethearts  is different than that of two retirees who have raised their children and witnessed their own children become parents. That is why couples “renew” their vows, but also why couples need to create new vows.

We need new covenants. We evolve. The world evolves. Our relationships evolve.

At this time of year, as we approach these Yamim Noraim, we do not simply reflect on the past, on who we have been, but we focus on the future and who we want to be. We do not simply remind ourselves of the covenant that we neglected, of the commitments that we ignored, of the promises we’ve broken. Instead, each and every year, we write a new covenant, with God, with each other, and with ourselves.

Just as Moses reaffirms the covenant made at Sinai, he establishes this covenant in Moab. May we feel inspired and courageous enough to acknowledge that we must establish new covenants in the new year. We do not ignore the past. Rather, we use that as the cornerstones of the covenants that we write for the future. May we find meaning in all the covenants we make, and may we all be written in the book of life for a good year to come.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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Building Safe Communities and a Safe Society

There is a story of a man who lived by the river. He heard of radio reports that the river was going to rush up and flood the town and residents should evacuate. The man said, “I’m religious. God will protect me. God will save me.” The water level rose up and the neighborhood was flooded. A neighbor came by on a row boat and said, “Hop in.” But the man remained steadfast in his beliefs. “God loves me and will protect me,” he said. The waters rose to the point where the man had to find safe haven on his roof. A helicopter overhead dropped down a ladder to take him to safety. But he refused to grab on and shouted up to the pilot. “I am religious and God loves me and will protect me,” he reiterated. The man drowned. And when he stood face-to-face with the divine, he challenged God. “I am a religious man. I pray every day. I wrap tefillin. I keep Shabbat. Why did this happen?” And God replied, “I sent you radio reports, a rowboat, and a helicopter.”

Parashat Ki Tetzei teaches us:

“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it” (Deut. 22:8).

We are told to build a small fence around the roofs of our homes as a sign of protection. Lest one falls off the roof, the fence serves as protection for them. And it is more than just the homeowner covering their bases, ensuring that legal action won’t be brought against them, like a biblical equivalent of a “Caution: Wet Floors may be Slippery” after an area has been mopped or a “Contents may be hot” warning on a disposable coffee cup.

This teaching exemplifies our need to make sure all of our spaces are safe spaces. We cannot build sacred space if we do not have safe space. We cannot depend on God’s protection if we, ourselves, are unwilling to act as God’s messengers and walk in God’s ways to offer safety to each other. It is our responsibility to make sure each of our homes are places where we all feel loved and embraced. And it is our responsibility to make sure our schools and houses of worship do the same.

Let us all put metaphorical parapets on our roofs. Let us make sure that all who walk through our doors feel safe, feel loved, and feel accepted. And instead of waiting for God’s protection, let us see each other as God’s angels, as God’s messengers, and find protection in the arms of one another just as we would under the wings of the Shechina.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Torah is only a Tree of Life, if it Guides us in Our Lives

We learn in Parashat Shoftim:

“’I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,’ you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God.” (Deut. 17:14-15).

The Torah then interestingly adds that when this sovereign is seated on the throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him by the priests. This way, he will not act haughtily toward his follows or deviate from an ethical life.

The king being required to have their own Torah scroll written for him is an important teaching. The Talmud points out that even if a king inherits a Torah scroll from their ancestors, they must have another written. Lest they forget these ethics, the act of rewriting reminds them of these values to live by and govern by. Torah is meant to be lived, not only studied. In fact, Torah ends up being worthless if it is only studied and doesn’t ultimately guide us in our lives. The need for a sovereign leader to have a Torah scroll is also to remind them that society – and humanity – must be guided by these same ethics and values.

The Talmud adds that a king must write their Torah scroll as an amulet, a miniature scroll, to be attached to their right arm, like a Quarterback who during the huddle looks at the notes on his forearm for guidance on the next play. The Torah would accompany them constantly, wherever they went: in the palace or sitting outdoors, during war and peace. They would never forget the values that guide them in their decisions.

There was a second reason though that a king must write a Torah. It was  to remind us that this Torah was everyone’s Torah. This Torah – these ethics —  were the same ethics for sovereign and citizen. No matter one’s position of power, no one is above the law. Let me repeat: no matter one’s position of power, no one is above the law! No one is exempt from morality. May this be a reminder to us all. Let’s not compare ourselves to ourselves, but instead focus on ourselves individually, guided by the same ethics and morals, a reminder that the Torah, just as it was with kings, shall be on our right arm, to guide us through lives always.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Divine Act of Loving the Stranger

A midrashic tale appears in Bamidbar Rabbah. It tells of a shepherd who led his flock of sheep in the fields all day and then gathered them in the stable at night. One day, a deer appeared from the forest and grazed with the flock, and at night entered the stable with the sheep. The shepherd took specific care of the deer. He found special grazing land for it and was gentle with it. At night, he made sure the deer has extra water to drink.

The townsfolk would ask the shepherd why he cared so much for the deer and didn’t give the same attention to the sheep. The presumed answer is that the sheep are comfortable already in their home and their surroundings. The deer left her home for safety and better pastures. It was the responsibility of the shepherd when the deer was most vulnerable to pay special attention to caring for her.

In Parashat Eikev, the Torah reaffirms God’s commitment to help those in need: “[God] upholds the cause of the orphans and the widowed, befriends the migrants, providing them with food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18). Moses then clarifies what it means to walk in God’s ways and observe God’s mitzvot. “You too must befriend the migrant, for you were migrants in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).

While we are commanded to love and welcome the stranger more times than any other command in the Torah, it is especially impactful in this context because here, the Torah is telling us that we should welcome the stranger because God welcomes the stranger. To love and welcome immigrants is about more than just our history of immigration. It is a divine act. It is a holy act. It is what God does, and what God in turn, expects from us. God is the shepherd. And so, we must be as well.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Not 10 for 2. Instead 2 for 12.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks going on a camp tour. Rabbi Marder and I visited our Congregation Beth El kids at the NJ Y Camps, at Nah Jee Wah, Cedar Lake Camp, and TAC. I went last week to see a few of our kids who are at Young Judea Sprout Lake and at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. On Sunday, I visited with our community members at Camp Ramah in the Poconos as well.

I went to see the magic of Jewish camp, to see the joy that these kids were experiencing while at Jewish camp, joy that we understood and wanted to replicate at Beth El, by having our own Beth El Goes to Camp retreat.

While at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Rabbi Ethan Linden, camp director,  made an important point. All those who work in the camping world have a slogan: 10 for 2. You live 10 months of the year for the 2 months of summer. Those who work year round at camp, work hard for ten months to present a meaningful product over 2 months. Campers put up with school and winter and all that comes with living at home, for 2 months in their happy place, in the utopia that is camp.

As marketers, that is what you want from consumers, for them to yearn to come back, to count down the days until next summer, in the same way that people await the next blockbuster superhero movie to hit theaters, or wait in line to buy the newest iPhone. Camp should be on their mind in the same way.

But as educators, 10 for 2 is a failed model. Because that means that you put all your love and energy into the two months of the summer and then after the summer, that joy and impact stays at camp, remains in the summer, until next summer that is. Maybe it should instead be 2 for 10, or 2 for 12, that the experiences one has over the two months at camp carry with them for the whole year.

ramahpoconosSometimes, we don’t realize the impact in the moment itself, it is only after the fact, when we look back, the memory of the moment is what has the lasting impact. I remember when I’d come home from camp, long before these days where camps would post hundreds of pictures a day online, and the first thing I’d do was go and drop off 20 rolls of film. I’d anxiously wait from them to be developed and then sit and look through picture-by-picture. I’d Looking back at time and place of the memory and better understanding the impact of that experience.

That is what is going on in Parashat Ma’sei, the last Torah portion in the book of Numbers, and originally the last portion of the Torah. Before editors added on the book of Deuteronomy to the biblical canon, Torah ended with a reminder of all the places the Israelites traveled and stopped along the way, a reminder of those places that were inhabitable, a reminder of how quite remarkable it was that the Israelites survived wandering for 40 years.

And for those 40 years, they complained a lot. They made a Golden Calf, they wanted better food to eat, purer water to drink. At times they wished they had never left Egypt. They were “home sick” if you will. And yet, looking back, as we retrace our steps, and retell the story, we come to realize the impact of the journey. The journey, the wandering, defines us as a people, and we weren’t even there for it.

Nachmanides points out that a recounting of the Israelites’ wanderings in these uninhabitable lands only highlights their faith in God that they continued to wander and trust in God. Clearly the experience of their wandering was quite different than how they experienced it in the moment.  The impact of the 40 years of wandering, the Israelites’ metaphorical 2 months at summer camp, was felt more when they returned home, in the recounting of their journey, than during the journey itself.

And that’s our goal as well. Not just for our children who go off to camp, but for all of us, whatever we do and wherever we find meaning. We may not appreciate it in the moment itself, but if done well, the impact is everlasting after the fact, as we continue to recount our journey, even as we continue to figure out our destination.

May every summer be the experience of a lifetime. And may each summer camp experience impact our children’s lives for the entirety of their lives. When they return home, may they reflect on camp and appreciate the holiness of that experience and make those experiences a regular part of their lives.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Be a Sanctuary

Parashat Masei makes mention of the Ir Miklat, the Sanctuary City. Upon assigning and distributing the land of Israel to the different tribes, the Torah mentions that among the land distributed to the Levites, there should be six cities among the forty-eight towns, that are designated as Sanctuary Cities. While these cities are meant for the unintentional murderer to seek refuge from the Goel Hadam, from the relative of the deceased who seeks bloodshed as revenge, these cities of refuge hold a deeper meaning. It suggests that even when someone may no something that is deemed illegal (either by Jewish law or the law of the land), we have an obligation to protect them from the penalty of their actions which could be hurtful and life-threatening.

The New Sanctuary Movement has taken inspiration from the biblical concept of Ir Miklat, suggesting that houses of worship and religious institutions should become houses of refuge for undocumented immigrants, protecting them from the punishments of ICE and unjust and inhumane policies.

The Rambam though interprets that all of the forty-eight cities of the Levites were seen as cities of refuge (MT Rotz. 8:9). While he makes a distinction between those that the Levites resided in and those that they didn’t, the meaning of his teaching is clear: we have a responsibility in our communities to create sanctuary for our neighbors. We cannot build sacred space unless our communities are seen as safe space for all who reside in it. The Levites were spiritual figures, as they participated in ritual. There was a belief that living among the Levites, these spiritual leaders, elevated one’s kedushah, one’s holiness. Rambam reminds us that part of that holiness is protecting those who are most vulnerable and seeing their lives as equally holy.

At a time when immigrants – documented and undocumented – are living in constant fear because of xenophobic policies and enforcement of those policies by ICE, may we take inspiration from this Torah portion. May we strive to create sanctuary for all in need and may our sacred spaces always be safe spaces.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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