Bound Up and Becoming

The following sermon “Bound Up and Becoming” was delivered on Yom Kippur Morning 5779 prior to the Yizkor service at Congregation Beth El:

When I first met my future father-in-law after Andrea and I had been dating for a few months, he was already sick, although we were unaware at that time of his diagnosis. He was ill for much of Andrea’s teen years. Each time we would go to visit him though, in preparation for those visits, she would share stories and memories she had as a child, of his pick-up soccer games in town or taking her to TCBY for Frozen Yogurt after school. Once he was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, a neurological degenerative disorder, when we were in college, he declined quickly. He was too ill to attend our wedding, and we had an additional separate ceremony in his nursing home weeks later, so he could see his daughter get married.

He passed away a few of months after that. I think back to Andrea sharing those memories with me. She would keep those memories in the front of her mind when he was sick, and all those more so after he had passed away, because that was the part of him that she wanted to hold unto. The positive. The joyful. The memories that put smiles on her face. That was the part of him that she chooses to remember. That is the part of him, that in turn, becomes a part of her.

As his first yahrtzeit approached, I remember the conversation Andrea and I had. She decided that she wanted to make a Shabbat dinner in his honor. Since he was from Colombia, she decided to make Spanish themed dinner, with paella as the main dish. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with paella, but it’s a Spanish rice dish filled with chorizo sausage, shellfish, and prosciutto, not the ideal dish when you keep kosher. Living in Jerusalem at the time, we went from open-air market to market, searching for kosher alternatives to these very non-kosher meats. If I remember correctly, we settled on a variety of salami and chicken. And the taste didn’t even matter. What mattered was that it was meant to be a vehicle to keep my father-in-law present, to actively remember him. To bring him to that moment. To keep him in our lives.

It was a single Shabbat meal, but it was more than that. I remember my wife’s desire, thanks to social media, to begin interacting with many of her father’s extended relatives whom she had never met before. We returned from Israel and she became determined to volunteer with the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, HDSA, the national organizational that does research to find a cure for HD. Like many who choose to raise awareness for an illness or a disease after that illness took our loved one from this world, I believe we become involved in these organizations for two reasons. First, it is to make sure that fewer suffer through the same physical pain that our loved one’s did, to search for a cure, to save lives as a result. But second, it is to ensure that our loved ones live on. Because if their lives inspired us, then they didn’t die in vain.

When we recite the words of the El Maleh Rachamin, the Memorial Prayer, we pray that our loved one’s memory endures as inspiration for commitment to their ideals and integrity in our lives. We don’t just shape our lives based on the causes which they once held dear. We become them. They become a part of us – Tehe Nishmatam tzerura bitzur hachayim – we pray that their souls are bound up in the bond of life, and we become them.

 

At the very end of Parashat Noach, the Torah portion that focuses on the infamous forty-days-and-forty-nights flood and the building of the Tower of Babel, we read of the lineage that links the generation of Noah to the generation of Abraham, the next protagonist in Genesis. Abraham is preparing to go on his own prophetic journey, to hear God and on faith alone, travel to wherever it is that God instructs him. But first, Parashat Noach ends with the declaration that Terach, Abraham’s father, took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, and his daughter-in-law Sarai and they set out for the land of Canaan, but when they arrived at Charan, they settled there instead. With that, the Torah portion ends.

Yet, we spend a great deal of time focused on Abram’s Lech-Lecha journey, his journey to the land of Canaan, or as the Divine Promise reads: to a land that I will show you. But Abram wasn’t going on a new journey. He had simply recommitted to continuing the journey his father was already on. Terach set out on his journey, but stopped short of his destination and never continued. Abram’s journey was not a fulfilling a Divine command, even if he heard God’s angelic voice calling out to him from the Heavens. Rather, he was walking in his deceased father’s footsteps, carrying on his legacy. He was striving to fulfill what his father could not, and in doing so, keep him alive and his legacy alive in this world. He was doing more than that. In a way, he was becoming his father. He was using his father as inspiration to do what he set out to do, to achieve what his father was unable to. He was making sure his father was bound up in the bond of his life, by doing as he did, by learning from him, by walking in his ways, and by leading by his example.

 

When I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, I would often stop at the Gate Gas Station. Not just to fill up my tank, but the small gas station convenience store there was always open. It was always filled with middle schoolers on Friday afternoons, much like the 7-Eleven is here in downtown South Orange. It was at that gas station that Jordan Davis was shot and killed by Michael Dunn on the evening of November 23, 2012. What did 17-year-old Jordan Davis do wrong? He was riding with friends in an SUV late on a Friday evening. He was blasting music on the stereo system. And he was black. Because of Dunn’s racism, and because of Florida’s dangerous Stand Your Ground law, Dunn started shooting at the car parked next to him, murdering Jordan as a result. Michael Dunn was found guilty, given a life sentence without parole. But young Jordan Davis, who had his full life ahead of him, would never get to live that life.

His mother, Lucy McBath, spent most of her life as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines. When they would live together in Atlanta, she would make sure that she would only fly on Delta’s short commuter flights, to fly out in the morning and fly back soon after, in order to be home for dinner and bedtime. She was a working mother. She never wanted to be a politician. In a powerful ad, Lucy McBath says, “Jordan didn’t deserve to be shot at, or to die that way. I lost my son Jordan, but I am still his mother, I continue to mother him by making sure I preserve the lives of other children like him.” She wanted to ensure that he lived on by working to keep other children safe, so that they too wouldn’t become the victims of gun violence. But she also made sure he lived on by keeping a part of him with her, by becoming him.

When she announced her campaign for Congress, she declared: “Jordan wanted to be a community activist. What I thought I saw in him is what I’ve become.” What she thought she saw in him, she became. We may be familiar with children taking after their parents, seemingly holding unto them after they leave this world, becoming them. But she took after her son. He was the role model for her. She became him.

At the conclusion of her ad, she asks, “How do you turn grief into purpose?” Lucy McBath saw her son violently murdered, another victim of gun violence, and decided to run for Congress, not just to change policy, but because she imagined that her son would be an elected official one day. She carried on his legacy, by fulfilling his dreams that he never got to see come true. She realized his potential in herself.

 

Our biblical patriarch Isaac had a challenging relationship with his father Abraham. Just last week, on Rosh Hashanah, we read of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. As an adult, despite his tumultuous and troubling relationship with his father, Isaac buries Abraham when he dies.

Following the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, there is not again a single word of dialogue between father and son in the rest of the Torah. Yet, Isaac not only returned to burying his father, in mourning, he walked in his father’s footsteps. Not only did he sow the land, but we read:

Vayelech Misham Yitzhak va’yichan b’nachal Gerar vayeshev Sham. Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar and settled there. Vayashav Yitzhak vayachpor et b’erot hamayim asher chafru biy’mei Avraham aviv vay’satmum p’lishtim acharei mot Avraham Vayikra lahen shemot Kashemot asher kara lahen aviv. Isaac then du ganew the wells which his father Abraham had dug, which had been stopped up by the Philistines after Abraham’s death. And Isaac gave them the same names that his father had given them. (Genesis 26:17-18)

Isaac physically retraced his father’s footsteps, went on his father’s journey, dug the wells his father dug, and named them the same names that his father had given them. Intentionally or unintentionally, in  grief, he sought to become just like his father.

Psychologist Diane Barth tells a story that sounds all too familiar. A young mother was trying to get her struggling three year old daughter into her stroller when she heard herself saying words she had vowed never to utter – phrases her mother had used throughout her childhood. Despite all of her efforts to parent her own children very differently, she found that those familiar sentences were the first to come into her brain and out of her mouth.

There are times when we strive to be just like our loved ones who have passed away. We want to hold on to the best parts of them. But even when we strive to be different than them, we still become a part of them; they still become a part of us. We take on characteristics (the good, the bad, the annoying, and the beautiful) of parents, of siblings, of spouses, and even of children.

A finding of Psychology Today suggests that we become just like our loved ones because of neuroscience. We are programmed to develop through interactions with others. This is why early paternal behavior has such an impact on our psyches, the article notes, but also suggests that this is why and how we change and evolve throughout our lives. Interactions with those closest to us, siblings and parents, spouses and children, colleagues and friends, can teach our brain new patterns, can alter our sense of self.

Or to put it in a more spiritual sense, each time someone has an impact on our lives, a little bit of their soul becomes intertwined with our souls. The Hebrew words for soul is Neshama. Torah teaches that God breathed life, breathed their souls into the first human beings.

Thus, the Hebrew for breath is the same root, Neshima. For not only does God breathe our souls into our bodies, as tradition teaches, but with each breath we take, we share ourselves and the souls of our loved ones with this world. We are told that their souls are bound up in the bond of our lives. But it is more than that. Their souls become intertwined with our souls. They remain in our lives because they guide us in our lives. We hold unto them by doing more than just taking them with us. They become a part of us.

How do we carry on the legacy of our loved ones who have left this world? How do we ensure that our loved ones are bound in in the bond of our lives? How do we, as Lucy McBath asked, turn our grief into purpose? We become them. For better or worse, we become them.

We sit in this holy space, at this most serious of times, as we prepare to recite the words of Yizkor, as we prepare to remember our loved ones. But memory is active. Memory is about more than just recalling those who’ve we lost and bringing us back to a specific moment in time. Memory is about keeping our loved ones alive. With every joke that we tell, with every phrase that we say, with every gesture that we make, with every cause that we fight for, with every lesson that we teach, with every aspect of our being, we remember our loved ones because we do as they did, we become them.

We are often named after loved ones that we did not know as a way to carry on their legacies, as a way to carry on their lives. We keep them alive, in hopes that the best parts of them are instilled within us. The Ohr HaChayim’s commentary on Deuteronomy suggests that parents receive a glimmer of divine inspiration when choosing a name for their child. God guides us in making sure that we name after loved ones, God ensures that our loves ones’ souls are bond up in the bond of life, in the lives of those who come after them.

It says in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 7b, that God’s works are drawn into this world through a person’s name. A person’s name is a guide to whom they will become in this world.

And so, when we named our own children, little Hannah Faye, after my grandmother and great grandmother, Noah Abraham, after my grandfather, and Cayla Penina, after Andrea’s grandmother and father, my father-in-law, our hopes and prayer was that they would live on through them.

One of the first dishes that Andrea and Cayla made in the kitchen together, chef with sous-chef by her side, was Colombian. And Cayla’s favorite afterschool activity: a trip for frozen yogurt. We mourn on this day and at this moment, all of our loved ones who have left this world. But maybe, we should also celebrate for they are all around us. Their presence is felt all around us. For they are a part of us.

May the memories of all those we mourn at this moment be for a blessing. And may we always remember that they are not gone. They are here. Their souls are bound up in the bond of our lives. And they are a part of us. We have become them. Amen.

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Less is More

The following sermon “Less is More” was delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5779 at Congregation Beth El:

My daughter threw up two weeks ago. I know. That’s not really the best way to begin a sermon or to reel you in. But, my daughter threw up two weeks ago. And my wife and I hesitated. Not because we aren’t used to vomit. With three kids, we have seen our share. But it was our seven-year-old’s vomiting last January that led to six months – a winter and spring – full of hospital stays and infusions. It seems that her end of summer virus was just a bump in the road. But as I reflect on this past year, I can’t help but hold my breath with every deep chested cough, slight limp, low grade fever, or sense of exhaustion.

If this sermon sounds somewhat familiar, it’s not déjà vu, although it sort of felt that way to me. Last year, I stood on the bima on Rosh Hashanah, while four-year-old Noah was in the hospital. Days later, he was diagnosed with HSP, an auto-immune condition that caused an inflammation of his blood vessels, and as a result, in his case, inflamed joints and an inflamed abdomen.

By November, thank God, he was off medication and back to his crazy four-year-old self, training for American Ninja Warrior on our living room furniture.

I remember when Cayla would complain that her legs hurt. “They’re growing pains,” I’d say. “Stop being lazy,” I thought. “You have to walk. You’re seven. And I need to carry your brother.” The complaints would continue, as would the extended rests on the couch. “Let her rest,” I thought. “Let her watch tv. That will occupy her while I tend to her brother.”

It would be months before she noticed purple splotches on her legs. We were convinced it was bug bites and we even sent her to school the next day. By midday, I picked her up from school and carried her, because her joints were too swollen to walk. She too was diagnosed with the same auto-immune condition, HSP, that Noah was. Hers was a much more severe case, that caused inflammation of her kidneys, eventually leading to a Spring of chemotherapy infusions to reduce the inflammation. And now, for the most part, she is back to herself. She is still on a lot of medication, and still immunosuppressed, because of that medication. But she is back to doing cartwheels in the backyard, or making videos on my phone, pretending to be a YouTube star. But every time she gets sick, like that virus two weeks ago, we hold our breath.

With every hospital stay, blood test, infusion, or follow up doctor’s appointment, I couldn’t help but to have it in the back of my mind. Did I ignore her? With each stomachache, or complaint or leg pain, or exhaustion, I questioned if I ignored her symptoms? Was I too focused on one sick child, that I ignored the other?

The funny thing is, in February, during one of Cayla’s lengthier hospital stays, Noah complained that we were spending all our time in the hospital with his sister, completely ignoring him. Again, focusing on one child’s needs and ignoring the other. And when we explained that we wouldn’t leave his sister’s bedside, just as we didn’t leave his bedside when he was in the hospital only months prior, he looked at us and responded in perfect four-year-old fashion: “when was I ever in the hospital?!”

I was so focused on the needs of one child, that I completely ignored the needs of another. And when Cayla was sick, I was so focused on her, that I completely ignored the needs of Noah. And poor Hannah, all of 18 months. I’m just glad that she doesn’t talk yet. She can’t complain that I’ve been ignoring her this whole time. Maybe that is reality. In fact, a friend joked when we had our third child, that we are doing it right as long as one of the three is crying or mad at us at all times.

I was hard on myself. How could I not give of myself to all my children. How could I ignore one child for the sake of another? Didn’t I have enough love for them all? But of course, the answer was no – not in those moments. I couldn’t give of myself to all of them. And maybe that is true for all of us. We cannot give all of ourselves to everyone, all the time. We do not have enough love to give. We don’t have enough of ourselves to give. And that is okay. There is no secret to how to do this. We just get up each day anew and try to live life.

Struggling with this realization, my mind turned to Torah. In Parashat Toldot, when we learn of the sibling rivalry of Jacob and Esau, rabbinic tradition paints Jacob as the righteous one and Esau as the villain. However, the text tells us:

Vaye’ehav Yitzhak et Esav ki Tzayid b’fiv, v’Rivka ohevet et Yaakov. Isaac loved Esau because he was a hunter, he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob more. (Gen. 25:28)

In reality, Jacob and Esau were not hero and villain, or vice-versa. They were simply children, yearning for their parents love. And neither Isaac nor Rebekah were able to give of their love to both of their children. The infamous narrative ends with Rebekah devising a plot to deceive her husband. On his death bed, with eyes too dim to see, Isaac sends Esau out to hunt for a meal. Rebekah in turn, dressed Jacob up in Esau’s clothes, and Isaac blesses Jacob as he approaches in disguise. When Esau returns with a prepared dish of hunted game, his father is confused. Esau and Isaac realize that Jacob had masked his identity to receive a blessing. But despite rabbinic attempts to paint Esau as a violent man seeking revenge, his first instinct isn’t to hunt down his twin. Instead, he sits and cries.

Vayitz’ak tzeaka gedolah u’mara at meod vayomer l’aviv baracheni gam ani avi. Esau bursted into wailing and bitter sobbing and said to his father, ‘bless me too’. (Gen. 27:34)

But Isaac explained that Jacob took his blessing.

Halo atzalta li beracha. Don’t you have a blessing for me too?,” he asked. (Gen. 27:36)

Habracha achat hee lecha avi, baracheini gam ani avi. Don’t you have one more blessing, dad? Bless me too, father. (Gen. 27:38)

This heartbreaking biblical tale is not about deception or the art of the con. It is an acknowledgement that we can’t give all of ourselves to everyone. We do not have enough of ourselves to give. We are finite. And that is okay. I am admitting that I too cannot give all of myself to everyone at all times.

And I am asking for forgiveness, from all of you, from friends, from my wife, and from my children, when one need, or one person, takes up all of myself and I neglect other things as a result.

And this isn’t only true for the individuals whom we love and want to be there for, but can’t always make the time for. This is also true for the causes that we care about, the issues that define us, the values that are at our core. It this era of activism, we can’t make every rally, attend every march, or show up to every protest. But that doesn’t mean that we do not care. It doesn’t mean that our hearts are not present. It just means that we cannot give of ourselves to everyone and everything all the time. And that is okay. We are enough.

Each and every year we try to focus on being better. But what does that mean? We tend to think being better is about doing more or being more. We tend to think that being better is about make more time for family, for friends, for community, for those in need.

But in doing so, we end up judging ourselves and our actions based on others. We need to do more because we see how much someone else is doing. We need to be more present because we see every other family’s happily together all the time on our Instagram feeds. But we don’t strive to be better. We just strive to be the best version of ourselves.

The Hasidic master Reb Zusya once came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him, what’s the matter? He replied, “I learned the question that I will be asked by God’s ministering angels when I leave this world.” “But you are a scholar,” they answered. “And so pious,” they said. “What possible question could you be asked that would have you in tears.” Zusya replied, “I will not be asked ‘why weren’t you more like Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ I will not be asked ‘why weren’t you more like Joshua leading your people into the promised land.’ They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?’”

We may be flawed individuals. But that is what makes us beautiful. We are beautiful in our imperfections. So stop trying to be perfect. When we try to be perfect, we try to be somehow else. In the new year, let’s try being more like ourselves, imperfect and finite, with not enough of ourselves to go around, and not enough time to do all that we want to do. Flawed. And beautiful. And holy.

We read in the Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16b, of the three books that God supposedly opens on Rosh Hashanah. The book of life for those who are perfectly righteous, the book of death for those who are fully wicked, and the beinonim, the book for those who hang in the balance. It is said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that we all are written in that third book, for we all are imperfect. We are not expected to be better. We are just expected to be the best version of ourselves. And sometimes, the best version of ourselves means that we need to focus more time or energy on work, or a meeting, or on a specific child, or on a relationship.

And sometimes that means that at that moment, we don’t have time, energy, or emotion to give to others. The best version of ourselves means that we cannot balance everything. Even if it looks like we are, we are not. Even if we are able to juggle all the balls in the air for a moment, we eventually drop them. Because a life in balance is impossible.

Moments ago, we read from the Torah about the biblical narrative of Abraham’s challenging relationship with his family. It’s not great. And it gets worse. Spoiler alert: tomorrow, we read about him trying to kill his son Isaac. In today’s reading we read of Abraham being pressured to kick his firstborn son Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother Hagar out of his home, because of his wife, Sarah’s, jealousy. He doesn’t love Ishmael any less than he loves Isaac. Our rabbis even suggest that Abraham deeply loves Hagar. Some commentators conclude that Ketura, whom he marries after Sarah passes away is even Hagar whom he abandons in the wilderness in this morning’s Torah reading.

This is not a pleasant story. It’s a story of a flawed person. The patriarch of our people. The one who inspired us to put our faith in Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, Blessed Be God, who we turn towards on this holiest of days. And what do we read? We read of an individual who at times failed his family, who made his children cry, who couldn’t find a way to give all of himself to everyone, who at times chooses one family member over another. We read of a flawed individual. But we do not celebrate the individual’s actions or inactions. We celebrate the biblical character’s imperfections, and celebrate our own imperfections as a result. We celebrate that we are far from perfect, that we can’t do it all or have it all.

In Tractate Kiddushin 39b, the Talmud teaches that one who performs a single precept is well rewarded. But for one does not perform a precept, good does not come to that person. We understand how difficult it is to balance the scales. Even a balanced scale slightly shakes back and forth. Rabbi Shemayah explains that even if there is equal balance, the scales are still tipped. This means that balance is impossible, that perfection is impossible.

This summer’s story of Serena Williams is a remarkable one. She had already etched her image into Tennis’ Mount Rushmore, but a year ago, following the birth of her daughter Olympia, she had a near death experience. The emergency c-section delivery of her baby caused a pulmonary embolism, leading to five surgeries and months of bed rest. The fact that she made it to the finals in Wimbledon this summer on sheer grit was the comeback story we were all waiting for. The fact that she made it to the finals of the US Open only days ago, is an exclamation point on that comeback story. But in between, she was ousted in the opening round of a tune up tournament in San Jose to someone no one has ever heard of. And she spoke about how training to get back on the court meant spending less time with her daughter.

Her trainer concluded that to get physically fit again for competition meant that she had to stop breastfeeding. Her coach told her she needed to put tennis before family to return to form.

On the cover of Time Magazine last month, she acknowledged that in her struggle, failing to balance being a parent and being an elite athlete. She said, “there is nothing about me that is perfect. But I am perfectly Serena.” And she is right. We are imperfect. That is who we are, so that is whom we should strive to be.

So in the new year, may we stop trying to balance everything. May we stop trying to fit more unto our overflowing plates. May we stop committing to do more or to be more. May we do less. Yes, in the new year, let us do less. We can become the best version of ourselves by doing less. Because when we only have so much of ourselves to give, less is more.

I’ve learned to forgive myself, to not feel guilty for the blessings I give to one person instead of another, for the time I spend focused on one activity and neglect other responsibilities, for the cause that I dedicate myself to and the others that I care about, but don’t make time for. So in the new year, do not try to be better. Do not try to take on more.

In the new year, become a better version of yourself by doing less, by refocusing on the areas that we do not give enough attention to, by appreciating the blessings that we give and receive to all, by making time for all of our loved ones, by creating a true work-life balance, by reconnecting with the world and at times disconnecting with the world.

I try to focus more time on each of my children now. And maybe that means that I spend less time with my wife, or at work, or with each of you. As the imbalanced scale of life constantly shakes back and forth, may we embrace the shakiness of life, understanding that we cannot be everything for everyone all the time. Let us just be. Because that is enough.

In the end, Esau finally got his blessing. It may not have been the blessing he wanted, or the blessing that Isaac intended to give, but the dying parent still found a way to bless his beloved child. May that be a lesson to all of us. What we are able to offer is enough. The love that we can give is enough. Who we are is enough. Instead of trying to be better, just be. Shana Tova.

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Society Needs to Do Some Serious Cheshbon HaNefesh

This past weekend marked the one-year anniversary of last year’s bigoted marches and protests in Charlottesville, which led to the death of Heather Heyer, and the injuries of several more. For me it led to nightmares of Klansmen, no longer concerned with hiding their faces under white hoods and instead wearing polos and khakis, with tiki torches in hand chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

And this weekend, White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis continued to spew hatred and bigotry. This time, they were just up the road in the Nation’s Capital, having received permission to hold a rally, directly in front of the White House. Only a couple dozen showed up for that so-called “Unite the Right” protest in DC, while thousands of counter-protestors were there taking a stand again bigotry. Still, the lack of attendance this weekend is not a sign of bigotry’s demise. The opposite is true.

In  The Atlantic, Adam Serwer writes about how “The White Nationalists are Winning.” The reason, he writes, is because their message is being amplified by media personalities. When cable news hosts say things like “Latin American countries are changing election outcomes here by forcing demographic change in this country” or “the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore because of massive demographic changes as a result of both illegal AND legal immigration,” they become the megaphone to amplify the bigoted message that American is somehow “at risk” because it is becoming more diverse.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Re’eh, and we read of two juxtaposed verses. The first verse (Deuteronomy 15:4) demands that there shall be no needy among you. This is something to strive for, something to live for. This is a goal to achieve. The second verse (Deuteronomy 15:7) tells us to not harden our hearts and shut our hands against those in need. These verses speak about more than just feeding the hungry. These verses are juxtaposed because the first speaks of a messianic dream-state, a reality that we always strive for, but we know may be out of our grasp and out of our reach. The latter, focuses on the reality, until that Gan Eden arrives, that we must fight for what is right. These verses speak of a perfect world that does not exist and how we must continue to roll up our sleeves and work, and fight, to build that world.

My colleagues and friends, Rabbi Aaron Alexander and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, of Adas Israel Congregation in DC, hosted a press conference at their synagogue last Thursday with DC Mayor Bowser and District Police to explain how they will ensure safety and security for their building and the Jewish community as these Neo-Nazis marched into town. Rabbi Alexander quoted the prophet Amos and said: “Let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream,” charging the congregation and the District of Columbia, saying: “we are the water for which justice rolls, we are the stream in which righteousness can flow. All of us together.”

I do not believe in a world where hate will cease to exist. Still I pray for that world and work towards that reality. I did not believe that the bigots and racists, the anti-Semites and homophobes all changed their ways. I just believed that we lived in a society, where such hate should remain in the gutter where it belongs, and that hate and bigotry has no place in public discourse or debate. Claiming that a single race, religion, or ethnicity is above anyone else has no place in society. But these Charlottesville protesters from a year ago, and these DC protesters a year later succeeded. Their racist slurs and chants, and their anti-Semitic signs and slogans added fuel to the fire and empowered each other; to believe that hatred and bigotry in broad daylight, in public, was not only again socially acceptable, but was to be celebrated.

That is the reality that we live in. It is a far cry from the messianic dream of Deuteronomy 15:4. Which is why we have Deuteronomy 15:7, a verse that is telling us to get to work. And as the silence of the President and his administration grows deafening, as his refusal to call out such hate, and in many cases his choice to spread hate based on bigoted policies, we must get to work. To paraphrase Rabbi Aaron Alexander, it is up to us to BE the water, to BE the stream.

As we read Parashat Re’eh this past Shabbat, we also celebrated Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. This is a time to spend this month doing Cheshbon Hanefesh, doing an internal accounting of the soul. And this country desperately needs to do some Cheshbon Hanefesh, to help us realize how we got here; to help those who come up with excuse after excuse to understand how problematic it is that we ARE here; to admit that we haven’t done enough; to admit that we have been too silent when hate didn’t directly impact us, even though all hate impacts all of us; to admit that we were concerned about being political and partisan so we refused to call out hate for what it is.

Let’s spend this month doing Cheshbon Hanefesh, let’s spend the year to come BEING the water, and BEING the stream, to rid the world of hated and bigotry, to heal this broken world.

 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing Up for the Angels Among Us

Sometimes you need something extraordinary, something that is literally extra ordinary, seemingly impossible and unbelievable to help us understand that which is believable, to help us appreciate that which is right in front of us that we have been told to ignore. And that is exactly what we saw as thousands of rallies took place across the country on Saturday morning to stand united in a fight to end xenophobic and discriminatory immigration policies, to stand united in the fight to keep families together. Appropriately, that is also what we read in Parashat Balak, in the weekly Torah reading this past Saturday morning – the unbelievable to help us remove the blinders from our eyes and stigma from society.

When the evil King Balak hires the magician Balaam to travel to the encampment of the Israelites and curse them, he begins his journey riding his trusted donkey. However, time and time again that donkey stops and refuses to move. Finally, as Balaam yells at and abuses the animal, the donkey unbelievably talks!

“…The angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again. Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?’ Balaam answered the donkey, ‘You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.’ The donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?’ ‘No,’ he said. Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown…” (Numbers 22:22-31)

For a magician who claims to cast spells and curses, it seems odd that Balaam is unable to see this angel right in his path. It is even more odd that the donkey is able to see God’s divine messenger, but Balaam is not. Ramban clarifies that because God had to uncover Balaam’s eyes, this must mean that he was not a prophet. Rashi though understands the donkey’s ability to see this angel and Balaam inability to do so as something deeper. Rashi comments that the donkey was able to see and Balaam wasn’t because God gives animals the ability to see more than human beings. He concludes that humans can’t see the angels among us because we fear that which may harm us. I believe this is teaching that some in society try to brainwash us into fearing those who are different than us. Some try to convince us that they are dangerous, or as President Trump shamefully propagates: they are rapists, drug dealers, gang members, and murderers. Animals though, without being influenced by bigotry and discrimination, are able to see the divinity and holiness of all.

A little over a week ago, ProPublica released an audio recording of children separated from their families, crying out alone in these detention centers. You could hear the children crying out again and again: “Mami! Papá!” And then you hear a border patrol agent laugh as he refers to the cries as an orchestra, suggesting that the only thing missing is a conductor. Because when you are taught to fear something, or someone, when you have a trickle down xenophobia that demands the separation of families and the incarceration of children, we – these border agents, our government, and many in society – fear even children when they enter our country. Like Balaam, they then can’t see God standing right there in front of them. They cannot see the divine spark calling out for their parents. And if we cannot see God in the eyes of our children, then we will stop seeing God in this world.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the tyrant Pharaoh also demanded the separation of children from their parents. Pharaoh directed midwives to separate newborns from their parents, even going as far as to kill the newborn baby boys. But two midwives, Shifra and Puah, stood up and refused. They said no. They were not leaders of a revolution or resistance. They were the members of society who refused to ignore and execute the discriminatory policies being implemented. They refused to be silent. They refused to be complacent. They saw the angel standing right there in front of them in the eyes of those children when Pharaoh could not – that same angel that Balaam could not see, that ICE cannot see, that the President cannot see, that, as a result, far too many in our country refuse to see. We must be like Shifra and Puah and fight for these children, and their families. Sometimes it takes a talking donkey – or spending Shabbat protesting with thousands – to teach us how to see God’s presence within each other.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The same law for citizens and sojourners

childDetentionCenterIf there were 2300 children separated from their parents without any tracking system, without even knowing where they are, without having any way to reunite them with their families, and they were white children, American citizens, government officials would be arrested and tried for trafficking children. If we kept American children in cages, the entire country would be up in arms. But they are not, so the government tries to convince us that somehow, their actions are completely justified. They suggest that the laws that are meant to protect our civil rights and human rights don’t apply to them. Somehow, these laws are meant to keep us safe from them. But these are children. And they are human beings. Forget for a second about supposed laws that have been broken. Think instead about how many hearts and souls this administration has broken, the broken souls of babies, of parents, of our nation.

Today a federal judge ordered immigration agencies to quickly begin reunifying these families that have been separated due to Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy. While such an order is a positive step in the right direction, that does not change the President’s intentions of using his executive powers to treat someone human beings as animals, as inferior, as profane.

Last Shabbat, Jewish communities read around the world the Torah portion of Chukat. Parashat Chukat focuses on two well-known biblical narratives, Moses’ striking of a rock and the death of Aaron. However, the Torah portion begins with a list of seemingly outdated laws regarding the ritual impurity. Regardless of the laws or the reasoning behind these laws, the text is clear that laws regarding the sanctity and holiness of individuals apply equally to all individuals:

“This shall be the same law for citizens and sojourners who reside among you” (Numbers 19:10).

Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Torah commentator from Northern Spain, explained that “even the strangers who reside among them must abide by this rule, for the land of Israel is holy, since the Presence of God dwells there.” However, such biblical law was to be followed while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness prior to entering the promised land. While I appreciate Ibn Ezra’s explanation, it had nothing to do with where one resides. For many like myself who believe in God, or at least wrestle with God, we believe that the Divine doesn’t reside in a specific place. God is everywhere and all are made in God’s image. Here too then, we must understand that one human being must be treated the same way as another. The same law must apply equally to citizens and sojourners who reside among us. While the President may be quick to point out the laws of American citizens do not apply to these immigrants who are being detained, certainly citizens and sojourners have the same basic human rights, and thus must be treated as such. To disagree with this is to deny the divine spark within each person. These ‘zero-tolerance’ policies exemplify how morally corrupt we have become. As mentioned, not only have we broken the souls of separated parents and children, but we have broken the soul of this nation. And a soulless nation doesn’t see the Godliness of each child. A soulless nation puts children in cages.

But I believe that we are better than that. I believe society is better than that. That is why we continue to fight — to build a society where the same basic laws and human rights apply to citizens and sojourners alike, to see the divine spark in each individual, to build communities not cages, to build bridges not walls. May we continue to fight to reunite each child unconscionably taken from their parents. May we continue to fight to end a system that incarcerates children. And may we continue to fight until the sanctity of each human being, regardless of ethnicity, race, or immigration status, is recognized and celebrated.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Stop Using the Bible to Justify Discrimination!

This past Sunday, my family asked me what I wanted to do for Father’s Day. First of all, I acknowledge that Father’s Day is a “Hallmark” holiday. In my family, it is an opportunity to simply spend the day together, something that I often don’t get to do on Sundays when I am working during the school year. So when my kids asked if I wanted breakfast in bed that morning, I responded that instead, I wanted to protest against discrimination and bigotry.

My wife and I joined hundreds at the ICE Detention Center in Elizabeth, with our daughter carrying a sign she made herself that read “Keep families together,” our preschooler on my shoulders, and our toddler in a stroller, because we couldn’t celebrate family without fighting for those whose families are being torn apart by discriminatory policies.

This past Shabbat, we read from Parashat Korach, beginning with chapter 16 of the book of Numbers. While Korach was a failed leader, his words still resonate and claims are still worthwhile. He challenged Moses:

“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy. All of them, and God is in their midst” (Num. 16:3).

OlitzkyFamilyRally1Every disturbing decision, policy, and action of this President and his administration regarding the treatment of immigrants represent the antithesis of this verse and of all that our Torah represents. We are commanded to welcome the stranger. We are commanded to love the stranger. And as we read last Shabbat, we are told that each and every member of the community is holy. Yet, the President, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Secretary, even the Press Secretary, defend these actions, and justify them by quoting the Bible.

Stop using biblical verses to justify discrimination!

I understand the irony that I am quoting the Bible to justify loving the stranger and welcoming immigrants while calling out hiding behind biblical quotes to try and justify bigotry. However, that is because one can find scriptural verses of any faith tradition if they tried hard enough that supports or opposes any opinion. You can skew anything to justify your claims. But just because you can find a specific verse and interpret it, or misinterpret it, to mean something, that does not mean that it justifies one’s bigotry.

No religion justifies separating parents from children. Children are our most vulnerable in society. Religion is focused on educating our children, caring for our children, and preparing them for adulthood to live a life full of values and to look out for their fellow human beings. Religion never justifies tearing children away from their families and locking them in cages. If you use biblical verses to justify that, then you are not practicing religion. You are desecrating God’s name, all that faith teaches, and all that faith is supposed to represent.

So I will keep quoting that the Bible tells us to protect our children and to love the stranger. Because to believe that God expects and requires anything else, anything less than that is morally corrupt.

The problem is rooted in those in charge themselves. When Korach rises up to question Moses’ leadership, he does so with many individuals. The text says that he is joined by Anshei Shem, translated as individuals of repute, literally ‘people of name.’ These were individuals whose names were known, whose names, family lineage, and thus privilege, gave them power. They stood beside Korach in demand of more power.

Rabbi Neftali Tzvi of Ropshitz taught that a person of a great name, one who is a descendant of a famous or distinguished relative, should be humble. He should think “are my deeds as great as my ancestors who have come before me?” However, these people end up being arrogant, always seeking to increase their power.

Those is positions of power can use their power for good, to build a more just society, to be God’s partner in creation. Or, they can abuse their power, weakening the most vulnerable. It is shameful that those in positions of power aren’t using their power to help those in need. They are incarcerating children, discriminating against those seeking asylum, and trying to claim that the Bible justifies these actions.

Not my Bible. Not my religion. Not my God. If you are going to pass bigoted policies, stop hiding behind scripture to mask your discrimination. Call it was it is: bigotry.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Pride and Teshuvah

Grasshoppers. Our Torah, in Parashat Shelach Lecha, read last Shabbat, emphasizes that we saw ourselves as grasshoppers. Moses is commanded to send out twelve scouts to scout out the promised land. While Caleb and Joshua give favorable remarks, ten return and say:

“All the people that we saw in the land were of great size – we saw giants there – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Num. 12: 32-33).

Clearly, if we see ourselves as grasshoppers, we fear others see us this way as well. But we never stop to acknowledge why we might see ourselves as grasshoppers and who or what might cause us to think of ourselves as grasshoppers. When we are told that something is wrong with us, we begin to feel that something is wrong with us, we believe that something us wrong with us.

PrideFlagsInLobbyI posted on Instagram at the beginning of the month – because if you know me, you know that I regularly post on social media. (Shameless plug: feel free to follow me @JMOlitzky and everything Congregation Beth El related #BethElNJ). I had posted a picture of our Pride flags hanging in our synagogue lobby as we kicked off Pride month. A rabbinic colleague reached out following my post and asked about why we proudly hang our pride flags. The Jewish community already knows that you are welcoming and inclusive, he said. After all, you are located in South Orange-Maplewood, he said. And this my friends, is the problem with most religious institutions. We thinking it is good enough to be welcoming. We think it is acceptable just to be accepting.

Too many of our institutions refuse to acknowledge the hurt and pain that we have caused. So many of our synagogues and churches, schools, camps, and youth groups caused so much pain to our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer community members for so long. We not only turned away so many amazing individuals from organized religion and God, but also pushed a hetero-normative culture, and hid behind a specific verse of scripture – or a particular rabbinic interpretation of said verse – to suggest that there was something wrong with them because of who they love or how they identify. Our communities are at fault for far too long treating our loved ones, our community members who identify as gay, trans, bi, queer, gender non-binary or gender fluid, as grasshoppers.

AndGodCreatedLGBTQAnd too many institutions, too many houses of worship refuse to even do teshuvah and acknowledge the pain that we caused on generations of members of our communities. It is amazing how many religious communities celebrate the LGBTQ community. At the recent North Jersey Pride Festival, there were five synagogues and three churches present! It is not enough to just condone our community members. It is not enough to just accept our community members. We celebrate. We wave our pride flags high to celebrate. We recite pride blessings to celebrate. We participate in the Pride Festival to celebrate. We celebrate as a way of doing teshuvah. We celebrate so that no one here should ever feel as if they are grasshoppers. We celebrate so we all always feel like giants. We celebrate so that every home we enter, whenever we stand on the precipice of our promised lands, we don’t have to fear entering that new land or fear coming out of the closet. Rather, we celebrate each and every person, and in doing so, we celebrate our faith in God because we celebrate our faith in ourselves, being created in God’s image.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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What the Four Children Can Teach us about Gender Fluidity

This article was originally published on March 19, 2018, on the Keshet Blog at MyJewishLearning.com. The full article can be found on their website here.

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Q: We are taught to ask questions at the Passover seder. We are not instructed to give answers because answers aren’t the essential part of the seder experience. It’s the asking of questions that is most important. The four children ask a variety of questions that represent their identities and relationship with supposed societal norms.

The second Q in LGBTQQIAA stands for questioning, when someone questions their sexual orientation, gender identity, or isn’t sure how to label themselves. The four children represent the wide spectrum of gender identity and understands that we do not live in a binary gender system.

The Haggadah refers to four children: the chacham, the rasha, the tam, and the She’Ano Yode’a Lishol, often referred to as the Wise One, the Wicked One, the Simple One, and the One who Doesn’t Know How to Ask. However, these labels couldn’t be further from the truth. These labels represent that which is expected of them, or the societal stereotypes put on them. If we look at the four children as a way to gain insight and come to understand the fluidity of gender, these labels are placed on these children by a binary gender normative society. These labels don’t reflect truly who these children are. Rather, they reflect how society has forced them to conform for too long.

What does the Chacham ask? “What are the testimonials, statues, and laws God commanded you?” You should tell this child about the laws of Passover, that one may not eat dessert after eating the Passover offering.

The supposed ‘Wise One’ is hardly smart. This child simply accepts societal norms. The Wise One was taught not to question, but rather only to do what was told. The Wise One fits into a set system and falls into the stereotypes of this system. The Wise One is certainly cisgender — someone whose identity conforms with the gender associated with their biological sex – but also is only able to see and understand a gender binary system. This child isn’t wise at all; wisdom is misconstrued here as “conventional wisdom.” This child is not interested in pushing societal norms. Unfortunately, it’s these supposed “wise” children that are responsible for promoting transphobia. They are the ones who should be labeled “wicked.”

What does the Rasha say? “What does this mean to you?” To you and not to the child. Since this child chooses to be excluded from the community, this child has denied a basic principle of Judaism. You should blunt the child’s teeth and say: “It is for the sake of this that God did for me when I left Egypt. For me and not for you. If you were there, you would not have been redeemed.”

Wicked is not a fair definition of this child. We tend to think of those who are inexplicably evil as wicked: murderers, terrorists, dictators, etc. There is nothing that this child does that is evil. Yet our tradition uses this label because the child questions societal norms. The supposed ‘Wicked One’ does so in hopes of finding purpose. This child doesn’t settle for societal parameters or stereotypes. Instead, this child challenges norms, to find meaning to accept one’s true self. This child is far from wicked. Maybe that is how Judaism traditionally referred to this child. But, this child is simply transgender or gender non-binary — someone whose gender expression or gender identity differs from the sex one was assigned at birth, someone whose identity is different from the stereotypes of society. This child though doesn’t deserve to be labeled or discriminated. This child must be loved, just like every other child.

What does the tam say? “What’s this?” You should say to the child, “With a strong hand God took me out of Egypt, from the house of servitude.”

The supposed ‘Simple One’ has been taught something their whole lives and only now has

been exposed to something else. The Simple One never knew about the diversity of the gender spectrum. It is our job to offer a simple explanation to a simple question; to educate the Simple One by teaching our children about the gender spectrum. A study from the Medical University of Vienna reveals that there is a neurological distinction between gender identity and biological sex. This scientific study is the basis of what we should teach our children – that we don’t live in a binary gender system, that gender is fluid.

And the She’Ano Yode’a Lishol, you begin, as the Torah says, “And you should tell your child on that day, saying ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.’”

The child who is silent is not silent out of ignorance. This child is silent out of fear. This child grew up in a society that taught that one cannot challenge the binary gender system, that one’s gender identity must be related to their biological sex. However, silence is scary. A study by the Williams Institute reveals that 41% of transgender youth have attempted suicide, compared to 4.6% of the overall population of this country. But a study out of the University of Washington suggests that transgender youth that are supported and loved by their families, teachers, friends, and clergy are no more anxious or depressed than any other child their age. This study reveals that love and acceptance saves lives. This child is silent because this child remains in the closet. The child is closeted because of fear of exclusion or rejection by community. We must respond to this child’s silence by simply showing this child love and support, and honoring who they are, made in God’s image.

At our seder tables, on a holiday that celebrates freedom, we still declare: This year we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free people.

This year, despite progress that we as a society and as a Jewish community have made, transphobia, homophobia, hate, and bigotry still exist. May we continue to build inclusive communities so that next year, we can celebrate the uniqueness of all of us.

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Action item at the Seder: Go around the table and ask each person what their preferred gender pronouns are. To ensure that all around the Seder table feel welcome, make sure that you refer to them in a way that corresponds to their gender identity.

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There is Nothing Sacred about Guns

V’Asu Li Mikdash, V’Shachanti B’tocham. Make for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.

Parashat Terumah focuses on the Israelites giving a variety of gifts so that they may build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. But God explains that doing so allows God to dwell among them. We build buildings, but God does not reside in these buildings. Sometimes we need to build buildings to help us see the divine spark within ourselves and our communities. This reminds us that God resides within People, not a single place. That means it is within the power of the people then to act on God’s behalf. God dwells among us.

17 students and faculty were murdered on Wednesday, victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Children who are scared to go to school. Teachers are wearing Kevlar vests at work. Parents worry that every goodbye each morning may be their last. Many demographics are impacted and effected by gun violence. And there is much demand about what laws should be passed. But can we at least talk about children? Children are the most vulnerable in our society. This may not be the case with other species; birds leave the nest once they can fly. Other mammals learn to hunt for themselves as soon as they are able to walk. But about human beings, our children remain dependent on parents, caregivers, teachers, and community. Children are not expected to take care of themselves, defend themselves, and protect themselves. That is on us. That is our job.

Just as Parashat Terumah focuses on the building of the Tabernacle, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness, the Haftarah reading for this Torah portion, taken from I Kings focuses on Solomon building the Temple in Jerusalem. In the middle of instructions and dimensions of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, the Haftarah clearly states:

When the House was Built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built (I Kings 6:7). 

The rabbis introduce the concept of a shamir, a worm that was able to eat away at stone. Since iron tools weren’t permitted in shaping these stones, rabbinic literature explains that Solomon used this worm to eat at the edges of these stones to make them smooth and not jagged. Mishnah Avot suggests that such a creature was so miraculous that it must’ve been created by God immediately prior to Shabbat during the week of creation.

The Talmud clarifies that the reason King Solomon used such a worm, instead of hammers and axes, was because the Temple was a place that promoted peace – a place that celebrated God’s presence – and thus, one shouldn’t use tools that promoted bloodshed, war, and violence. Because you cannot claim something is holy if it promotes violence. You cannot cling to objects and argue that they are holy when these objects that cause harm are antithetical to the teachings of our faith. But this is where we are at as a society. I thought things would change almost twenty years ago with the Columbine shooting. We all thought things would change five year ago following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. But nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse. Because our society clings to their guns.

While we read of instructions to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness, it is only chapters later that the Israelites build the golden calf, read in Parashat Ki Tissa. How is it possible that only chapters after God instructs the Israelites to build a sacred space, they abandon God by worshipping idols.? After being enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, they were only accustomed to worshipping idols and it was difficult to change. It is a reminder to all of us how difficult it is, despite the verses of scripture that we may espouse, to rid ourselves of the idols among us that we worship.

We are stuck in this vicious cycle of gun violence because we live in a country that worships guns. The religion of guns is controlled by gun manufacturers, whose goal is not to protect lives, but instead to sell more guns. Rather than being guided by ethics and values of scripture taught by clergy, the religion of guns is guided by the NRA and lobbyists who fatten the pockets of elected officials, ensuring inaction continues, and this epidemic of gun violence continues as well. And those who practice the religion of guns, Avodah Zarah, Idol Worship, also forget the essence of what our faith teaches us, that something that promotes war and violence cannot be sacred.

The Haftarah clarifies that which causes harm to others cannot be sign as sacred. And as the Torah portion teaches, sacred space is not about buildings, it is about people. It’s about community. It is not about armed guards or metal detactors in our schools either. It is about changing society, and doing all that is possible to prevent harmful tools from ending up in the hands of those who will use them to cause harm. And I don’t understand the argument of “It’s not about guns. It’s about people.” To me it’s about making it harder for people who will use objects to cause harm to gain access to them. But don’t listen to me. Listen to Carly Novell, 17, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School:

“I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there. You don’t know how it felt. Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns,” she said. “And this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.” 


V’Shachanti B’tocham. And I will dwell among them. God is found among the people. So it is up to the people. It is up to us, God’s partners in creation, to end our society’s obsession with worshipping idols, to change a society where the right to own a gun is more important than the right to live. It is up to us, to do better, to be better. God expects that of us. And so does our children.

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Songs of Resistance

There’s a great story told about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. His words may have echoed off the marble pillars of the Lincoln Memorial when he preached his “I Have a Dream” speech fifty-four years ago. But according to Kingʼs speechwriter, Clarence B. Jones, those were not the words he had planned to share. Kingʼs speech was all set the night before. Sitting in his hotel room with seven advisors, his words were put on paper and the press was given advanced copies. And his speech that day on the March on Washington began the same with Reverend King carefully sticking to the script. However, after a brief moment of silence, Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who sang at the event earlier in the day, shouted to Dr. King, “tell ʻem about the dream, Martin.” Dr. King was startled and flustered, but stuck to the script. Again, Mahalia Jackson called out, “Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!”  Next thing you know, King pushed aside the text and shifted gears. The speechwriter leaned over to the person next to him and said: “the people donʼt know it yet, but they’re about to go to church.”

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of learning with Rev. William Barber, when he taught Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox rabbis and rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He retold this story and referred to Mahalia Jackson not a Gospel singer, but as a theomusicologist. He said that Dr. King would sometimes call her up in the middle of the night, wake her when he couldn’t sleep, and say, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.” She would sing, and that ease his anxiety, knowing that God was with him. A theomusicologist. This term suggests that there is something holy, something divine, about singing. This suggests that singing is an act of praying, but also, like prayer, singing is meant to lead to action.

On Shabbat Shira, we read of two such theomusicologists: Miriam in the Torah reading and Deborah in the Haftarah reading. Miriam and Devorah are both called prophetesses; in fact they are two of only five women in the entire Bible referred to as female prophets. Clearly, their song and action is divinely inspired. Deborah is even mentioned as a judge, the only female judge in the entire Hebrew bible, further supporting the case that through her songs, she fights for justice. And these women leaders acted through music to lead the resistance. While it was Moses who sang the Song of the Sea as the Israelites crossed the split Sea of Reeds – Az Yashir Moshe, and Moses sang, the Torah says – the text also says that it was Miriam, who sang with timbrel in hand, that led the Israelites onward in celebrating throughout the wilderness after they crossed the split sea.

Shirat Devorah, Deborah’s Song, makes up most of the Haftarah reading, taken from chapters four and five of the book of Judges. In this song, Deborah declares that we rise up! Song is our declaration to Rise up!

Uri Uri Dabri Shir. Rise Up. Rise Up. And Sing a Song.

There is an inherit connection between song and protest, between songs and marching. This is true for the songs that Moses, Miriam, and Deborah sang. This is equally true for the songs that we sing, for the protests that we participate in, for the marches that we march in. Last weekend, so many in our community participated in the second annual Women’s March, locally in Morristown and Westfield, in Trenton and Manhattan, in Washington DC, and all across the nation. And they marched – we marched – and we prayed, and we sang.

The song I immediately think of as a song of the resistance, a song of protest, is “We Shall Overcome.” This song was an early twentieth century gospel hymn. It was a song of faith. But in 1945 it was sung for the first time by tobacco workers on strike in Charleston as a song of protest. In the 1960s, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger made it an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

We Shall Overcome, We Shall Overcome, We Shall Overcome, someday…

A song of protest that remains a song of prayer.

HistoryHasItsEyesOnYouAnd we sang. And we sing. For Miriam and Deborah led us through song, and song got us through the darkest of moments. And song continues to do so. Song inspires us for what we will be, for what we can be, for the future that we will create. I encouraged members of our community to share pictures and experiences of those women’s marches with me that inspired them. And those pictures inspired me. Specifically, pictures of the youngest members of our congregation holding signs, including those that read: “History has its eyes on you,” “Girl Power,” “Fight like a girl,” “The Future is Female,” and “Girls will save the world.”

We have a long way to go, but what was inspiring about these marches were not the speakers standing at podiums, or those holding the banner who led the way. What was inspiring about these marches, were these children, the future leaders – and in many ways current leaders – of our community. Like the songs of Deborah and Miriam, we need song to move us and inspire us. A powerful song is not just a catchy pop-tune about a crush or a broken heart. A song of protest is a song whose message is as powerful as Torah, whose message is the essence of Torah. These songs remind us to march in the rain and in the cold, when our legs are tired and when we approach the banks of the sea without a clear path in front of us. We need these songs of protest, these songs of resistance, to teach us to rise up and act.

The beauty of the Haftarah is that the song serves as a backdrop; it is the inspiration that leads to action. The narrative of the Haftarah speaks of Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite King Yavin’s army. Deborah declares that she will deliver Sisera and the army into the hands of Barak and his soldiers. But when Sisera flees on foot to Yael’s tent, she greets him, invites him in, seduces him, gives him a strong glass of milk, and waits for him to go to sleep. Although she promised to stand guard, she takes a tent pin and a mallet and drives the pin through his temple, killing him.

Of course I’m not advocating such action. But I think it’s important to remember that is wasn’t Deborah’s song that defeated Sisera. It was Yael. Song leads to action. Song leads to purpose. Song inspires us to rise up. It’s not the leaders, the preachers, the theomusicologists, or the activists whom we know by their first names, that will ultimately make change in our society. It’s not those marching in front leading the way. It’s all of us, in the crowd, marching arm in arm, hand in hand, declaring in acts of civil disobedience that we shall not be moved, that will ultimately bring about the change that we seek.

In the middle of Deborah’s song, she declares:

 Tidrechi Nafshi Oz, March on, my soul, with courage and strength!

She sings so that we have the courage and strength to keep going, to know that our values are right, to keep going in spite of daily headlines that make us want to cry and scream, to keep going when it seems like we are marching against headwinds, to keep marching until we have crossed the split sea and can finally, like Miriam, take timbrel in hand, and have our songs of resistance become songs of freedom. Until then, we continue to sing. And we continue to march. We continue to act. May the words of our lips and the songs of our hearts inspire us to do so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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