What Will Your Legacy Be?

Canaan was a terrible place for Joseph. It was the last place he’d ever want to go to. That was where he was bullied by his brothers. That was where he was thrown into a pit. That was where he was sold into slavery. Yet, that is exactly what Joseph wants. At the very end of Parashat Vayehi, during the concluding verses of the book of Genesis, Joseph asks his brothers:

So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘when God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here’ (Gen. 50:25).

Joseph lived his best life in Egypt. It was there that he was viceroy. It was there that his wife and children knew as home. It was there that he saved civilization from famine, so much so that he should be celebrated. A federal holiday in Egypt should be named for him. Students should be off from school. Office buildings should be closed. Egypt is where Joseph was successful. And yet, he still asks his family to take him out of Egypt one day.

Bereishet Rabbah teaches that Joseph stipulated specifically that Joseph’s brothers should bring Joseph bones back to Shechem because that was the place where he was sold into slavery. Midrash tells an allegory:

When an individual went into his basement, his wine cellar and saw two men down there who broke open a barrel and drank of its contents, the owner did not scold them. He simply said, “I ask only one thing of you: when you finish, put the barrel back where it belongs.”

The image is one that suggests no matter how much Joseph felt he fit in in Egypt, that was not where he belonged. That was not where the wine barrel was meant to be stored.

But I think Joseph’s message is a greater one: he does not want to be forgotten. He saved the region from famine, and yet,  at the beginning of the book of Exodus, there is already a new Pharaoh that rises up that does not know Joseph.

Joseph realizes that his legacy is not in Egypt. But his legacy isn’t in Canaan either. He does not wish to return there because of his relationship with the Promised Land. Rather, he wishes to return there because that is where his family will eventually be going.  His legacy is with his family. And he is asking them to take him with them, to remember him..

We think our legacies are in the work that we do, in the money we make, the job titles we hold, or the impact we have in our professional lives. But ultimately, we will not be remembered not for our professional work. We will be remembered in the lives of those we are closest to, those that we touch the most – our family, friends, and community. We turn to our loved ones and ask them to carry our bones with them, to carry us with them, so that long after we leave this world, our legacy lives on within them.

It is no where we are, but who we are with that matters most. Let us remember that, and let us always surround ourselves with our loved ones who will take us with them, no matter where they go, even long after we’ve left this world.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Bereshit Rabbah, the midrashic commentary on Genesis, asks a question concerning the building of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, that eventually gets built at the end of the book of Exodus. Included among the many materials that are listed as needed to build this portable sanctuary is cedar wood and the rabbis try to clarify where that cedar wood came from since it was nowhere to be found in the wilderness of the desert. The rabbis are similarly perplexed as to why Jacob would stop in Beer Sheva on his way to reunite with his son Joseph in Egypt (Gen. 46:1). Midrash concludes that Jacob stopped in Beer Sheva and cut down the cedar trees that Abraham had planted there generations before, so that the Children of Israel could bring that cedar wood with them 400+ years later when they left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness, and eventually use it to build their Portable Sanctuary to God. 

A week ago, at the hanukiyah lighting at Rabbi Rottenberg’s home in Monsey, a man drove 35 miles from New York City to this Hasidic enclave, and entered the parsonage, attached to the synagogue, pulled out a machete, and began slashing community members. This highlighted a week of violent antisemitic attacks in the New York area on the Jewish community during Hanukkah. At a time when the Jewish community was following their obligation to literally add light to the darkness, the darkness that we were experiencing was almost unbearable.  And yet, our mission, is to continue to add light, long after we are done lighting our menorahs. That is the only way we rid the world of this darkness. That is the only way we end such violent hate towards Jews.

There was nothing noticeably “Jewish” about Joseph; he wore Pharaoh’s clothes and jewelry, and even took on the Egyptian name Tzafnat Paneach. He hid his identity to ensure his safety and success. Yet Jacob brings the cedars of Beer Sheva with him. He brings with him that which his ancestors planted, preparing to build a place to publicly show his faith and idenity. While Joseph hid himself to everyone, including his brothers, Jacob proudly brought his Jewish identity with him.

Like Jacob, we carry the weight, burden, and history of our ancestors who have come before us. We carry the weight of those who fought, fled, hid, and in many cases died, because they were Jewish. We are the branches of the roots that they planted. We are their cedars, and to paraphrase the words of Psalm 92, we are strong cedars because of their righteous actions. The midrash clarifies that the past was meant to build the future, that Jacob went to Egypt with the intent of continuing his relationship to God and the Jewish people. He refused to ever hide who he was or what he believed.

As my friend Seffi Kogen, Global Director of Young Leadership at AJC, writes: “we will not win [against hate] by guarding our identity, but by celebrating it. We will win not by hiding who we are, but by trumpeting it, and by being embraced by our friends in other communities.”

We defeat hate by using the metaphorical strong cedars that we carry with us, the strength of our ancestors, to build our sanctuaries, to publicly display our Judaism and to publicly express our Judaism. We do not hide who we are like Joseph did. Instead we celebrate who we are like Jacob did, and bring our Judaism with us wherever we are and wherever we go.

With that in mind, I invite you to join members of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest community and surrounding Jewish communities tomorrow to participate in the No Hate – No Fear Solidarity March against Antisemitsm. Organized by UJA Federation of New York, the Anti-Defamation League, AJC, Torah Trumps Hate, and other co-sponsoring organizations, this March will meet at Foley Square at 11:00am on Sunday, January 5 and march across the Brooklyn Bridge to Columbia Park.

Additionally, these organizations are planning a #JewishandProud day on Monday, January 6, encouraging community members to publicly show their Jewish pride. We invite you on Monday to wear your kippah in public, wear a Star of David, a Hebrew t-shirt, or another identifiable Jewish item. 

For like Jacob, we carry with us the strong cedars of our ancestors. And like Jacob we will build our sanctuaries of the future. We will not hide who we are. We declare today and always, we are Jewish and Proud.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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But the Essential Lesson is to Not Live in Fear

I want to share the text of a letter our congregation received this week from SOMA Action, a local progressive advocacy group in South Orange-Maplewood that we often partner with:

Dear Rabbi Olitzky and the Beth El Community, our friends and neighbors, 

During this time of increased anti-semitism, and violence directed at Jews in our state, SOMA Action stands with our neighbors and friends in renouncing hate and violence.   We thank your congregation for always being welcoming, and please know we stand with you in denouncing hate crimes against all peoples including those motivated by anti-semitism. 


The Board and Chairs of SOMA Action


Parashat Vayishlach begins with Jacob’s fear:

Vayira Yaakov me’od v’yeitzer lo. And Jacob was greatly frightened and distressed. He was scared and anxious (Gen. 32:8).

Jacob responded by praying to God:

Hatzileini Nah miyad Achi miyah Esav ki Yarei Anochi oto pen-yavo v’hikani em al-banim. Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, because I am fearful and I am scared, that he will come and strike me down — that he will hurt me — me, my children, and the mother of my children alike (Gen. 32:12)

Midrash HaGadol, a compilation of aggadic midrashim by Rabbi Adani of 14th century Yemen, shares the midrash of Jacob’s wives seeing his fear. Together, the four of them ask, “if you were scared, then why did we go on this journey? If you were scared, then why did we ever leave our father’s home?” They are essentially saying, we wouldn’t been safer if we stayed inside, if we never left our home.

Fear is real. In this biblical narrative, Jacob saw his brother who held a grudge towards him, who presumably sought revenge, approaching with 400 men. Jacob assumed that Esau hated him, and was fearful for his own safety. I feel for Jacob. And lately, I’ve felt like Jacob.

ap_19345465469150Just last week, another deadly antisemitic attack occurred in this country, this one hitting especially close to home, taking place a short drive away in Jersey City. Jersey City is the second largest city in our state, with over a quarter of a million residents. It is a city that is home to many congregants, and a city that used to be home to others. It’s the natural place where so many in our community move to after leaving New York City, a stop along the way before settling in South Orange-Maplewood, and similarly, it has become the place where so many have moved to after downsizing and leaving SOMA, but close enough that they can remain a part of our Jewish community.

And I admit, I am scared, even in a place where I know I shouldn’t be, even in a community that celebrates diversity. This is a community where I’ve always felt comfortable wearing a kippah around town; I’m just as comfortable doing so in the halls of South Orange Middle School as I am at our local Jewish Day School, Golda Och Academy; I’m just as comfortable doing so strolling down the aisles of the local Stop & Shop as I am when I shop at Aron’s Kosher Market; I am just as comfortable wearing a kippah on my head when I sit on the lawn at Memorial Park during Maplewoodstock as I am when I attend morning minyan. But comfort and reassurance doesn’t necessarily change fear.

The Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the 17th century rabbi of Prague, wonders how it is that Jacob could even be scared. He ponders: what reason does Jacob have to be fearful? God already promised to protect him – first, in his vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder to the Heavens, and second, when he left his father-in-law Laban’s home.

The Kli Yakar is essentially wondering how it is possible that even when God reassures Jacob that he will be safe, that he is still fearful for his safety. But that is how we all feel. And that is what we are going through. We should feel safe in our community, but are still fearful.

Vayishlach continues to tell us that when Jacob was left alone, he wrestled with a man until dawn. Only at daybreak did he realize that the man he was wrestlign was in fact an angel, and the angel blessed Jacob, changing his name to Israel.

Rashbam, the 12th century French Torah commentator, says this angel was there to make sure he did not run and made sure he did not hide. This angel remained with him to make sure no harm would come upon him. This angel is essentially there to make sure he doesn’t follow the advice that his wives recommend in the midrash. This angel makes sure he does not live his life in fear.

I would even suggest that Jacob was wrestling with himself, that he was his own angel. The angel was his own bravery, his own courage, that helped him not live in fear. Either way, the message is clear: an angel watching over him, allowed him to feel safe, because he was safe.

As news unfolded last week about this deadly antisemitic attack, the first calls I received were from those outside of the Jewish community – neighbors, and neighboring houses of worship, advocacy groups, and elected officials — asking what they could do to be there for the Jewish community, what they could do to help us feel safer, what they could do to be our angels.

And in a way, simply by making such an offer, it was clear already that they are.

The answer to not living in fear, in this very scary world, is to be angels for each other – the stand up for each other — and to stand with each other — to protect each other, so that we know we are not alone. We are angels for each other because we realize that hate towards anyone is really hate towards everyone. And we are angels for each other because that is ultimately what God wants for us and from us, to understand that we all have the power to embrace each other just as Jacob and Esau ultimately do, with love.

We sit with our sorrow. And we are understandably scared. But let us sit with our angels among us and around us. And may we be angels to each other. The well-known words of Rabbi Nachman of Braslav, words that we often sing, remind us:

 Kol HaOlam Kulu, Gesher Tzar Meod, V’haIkar, Lo Lefached Klal. The whole world is a very narrow bridge. But the essence and essential lesson is to not live in fear.

He is not teaching that the world is narrow, meaning small. Rather, the world is a very narrow bridge. I imagine it to be like a small and tight rope bridge, swinging over a canyon, with each step we take, the wood creaks, and we hope the bridge won’t snap. And yet, the most important lesson is that we do not fear. Because that is not how to live our lives. Instead we strive to be angels for each other, and angels for ourselves. May we learn from — and live by — this important lesson.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Silence Equals Complacency

In Parashat Vayishlach, we find the disturbing narrative of the rape of Dinah. Dina, the only of Jacob’s daughters mentioned or acknowledged in the text, doesn’t speak a single word of scripture. Yet, when Shechem son of Hamor sees her beauty he “took her and lay with her by force” (Gen. 34:2). The absence of Dinah’s voice is most troubling.

The power of the #MeToo movement is the courage and bravery of women to speak up and share their stories as victims of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse, as difficult as it may be. And by doing so, they reaffirmed for each other that they were not alone in taking this stand. But as Dr. Ellen Frankel points out in her own modern commentary, Dinah spoke up, but she was ignored. Speaking for Dinah, she writes: “when I was raped, my cries went unrecorded. When my brothers negotiated with Hamor for my hand, my wishes were not considered.”

Just as troubling, if not more so, was Jacob’s silence upon hearing what happened (Gen. 34:5). His silence is deafening. He does not speak up to defend Dinah or to call out Shechem and hold him liable. He does not condemn such actions publicly, or even privately, and most alarming, he is not there for his daughter to be a source of comfort for her. In this narrative, Jacob – and his silence – is also responsible.

We cannot just ask victims to speak up for themselves. We must call on all in society, to build a society that doesn’t tolerate discrimination, abuse, or assault of any kind. We cannot only call out the perpetrators like Shechem. We must also hold accountable the silence of the Jacobs in society. As the Talmud (Yevamot 88a) teaches, “silences is tantamount to consent.”

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Turning Fixed Worship into Spontaneous Spiritual Moments

V’yachalom v’hineh sulam mutzav artza v’roho magi’ah hashamayhma v’hineh malachei Elohim olim v’yordim bo. [Jacob] had a dream, a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. (Gen. 28:12)

Rabbinic commentators ask: What does it mean that angels were going up and down, rather than going down and up?! Shouldn’t it be that they were going down first, coming down from the Heavens?

Rashbam, the 12th century French Torah commentator, suggests that this is how we speak. We say go up and down a ladder, even if the angels in reality, were going down and up. His grandfather, Rashi, though was focused on taking the text literally and how it could mean that angels were ascending first. He concludes that angels actually accompanied Jacob on his journey. They ensured he was safe. Those angels ascended the ladder while the angels of Heaven descended the ladder and entered earth.

But Midrash also suggests that Jacob saw so much more than just a ladder with angels ascending and descending. Genesis Rabbah interprets the ladder to actually be the ramp that one used to enter the Holy Temple, the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem 2000+ years ago. And Midrash adds that the image of the angels going up and down this ladder were actually visions of the Kohanim, the priests, entering the Temple to offer sacrifices to God.

The point this midrash is trying to make is one of connecting the biblical experience and interaction with God to our own fixed practices of worship. Jacob arises from his dream, realizing that God was present, and declares that “God was in this place and I did not know it.” Often, we go through the routine, we say the liturgy of our prayer service without wrestling with God, without finding God in that prayer experience, in that space. We daven, but we don’t pray. Our goal according to midrash, is to have our fixed worship experiences be like our spontaneous prophetic dreams, to see angels among us, to see each other as angels. Our goal is to find God in our sanctuaries, and know it.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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We Should All Strive to be ‘Simple’

Parashat Toldot introduces the twins Jacob and Esau as polar opposites. The text describes Esau as:

Ish Yode’ah Tza’id, Ish Sadeh; a man who knew game, a man of the field (Gen. 25:27)

Jacob was described as the opposite:

Ish Tam, Yoshev Ohalim; a simple man who dwelt in tents (Ibid)

If Esau is the one who loved the outdoors, the Jacob, the polar opposite, would be described as the biblical equivalent of a couch potato. Yet, rabbinic tradition couldn’t be satisfied with that. If we had our choice, wouldn’t we want to be a descendant of the strong and powerful hunter, especially considering how deceptive Jacob seems later on in the Torah portion, based on a basic reading of the text?

Therefore, our rabbis reinterpret what it means that he dwelt in tents. They understand these tents to actually be houses of study — and that Jacob was a Torah scholar. Of course, this interpretation makes little sense from a chronological perspective, since the Israelites wouldn’t receive the Torah for another 450+ years in the biblical narrative. But if we are descendants of Jacob, then let us be descendants of a great Torah scholar. In fact, midrash even describes him as the most focused of all Torah scholars, one who learned from everyone and taught everyone. He did not learn in only one Beit Midrash, house of study. Rather, he learned in many. That is why he was described as Yoshev Ohalim, one who dwelt in many tents.

Such rabbinic reinterpretation doesn’t explain him being called an Ish Tam though. Noah, who was described as a righteous person is also referred to as an Ish Tzaddik Tammim (Gen. 6:9). Some translate this verse to suggest that Noah was blameless in his generation, but I would suggest that like Jacob, he was a simple person. After all, of the four stereotypical children that appear in the Passover Haggadah, the simple one is also called a Tam. This child says very little. Maybe that is also the lesson that we are meant to take away from Jacob — a rabbinic interpretation of someone who says little, but studies much Torah.

Mishnah Avot teaches:

Make Torah study a regular part of your life. Say little and do much (Avot 1:15)

We talk a lot. I have bookshelves full of sacred texts of rabbinic debate, texts of our tradition that emphasize this point, where rabbis are talking at each other, rather than to each other. In our own world, we talk too much as well — we go on social media tirades, with long tweet threads. We sometimes speak just to speak, adding hot air. We talk a lot, and listen very little. And for many of us, even when we listen, we are only patiently waiting for someone to be done speaking, so that we can continue to speak again. Maybe we would all be better off to make Torah study a part of our lives so that we say little and do much. We watch our words and choose our words carefully. Words have impact and do serious damage. We should strive to make these deeds our own. For actions speak much louder than words.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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Our Children are no longer Children


“Hey mom i dont know whats going on here at school but i love you and im so thankful for everything youve done for me. i love you so much”

“everyone is saying theres a shooter on campus i dont know whats going on but i love you and sad so much”

These are the text messages that a teenager sent her mother in the middle of our country’s latest school shooting, this time at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California on Thursday, November 14, when a 16-year-old student showed up on his birthday with a handgun and shot five students, two of them fatally, before shooting himself in the head.

The school is expected to remain closed until December 2, when it will reopen and students will be expected to go about their lives as if this didn’t happen, as if they aren’t dealing with the very real trauma of surviving a mass shooting, the trauma of such a shooting taking place in their school, a place where they are supposed to be protected and safe. Because this is “business as usual” in America in 2019, when we force our children to grow up and they lose their innocence.

In Parashat Vayeira we read of the disturbing narrative  when Abraham kicks Hagar and Ishmael out of their home. Ignoring the questionable and disturbing actions of our biblical patriarch, I can’t help, but focus on the Hebrew of what happens. Hagar is sent into the wilderness, with her child, her yeled in Hebrew, by her side, with a little bit of bread and a skin of water. They wandered aimlessly until the water was gone and Hagar expected she would die.

Not wanting to watch her child die, the text says: “Al ereh b’mot hayeled,” “don’t let me look at this child dying,” again using the word yeled. But when Hagar began to cry, the Torah tells us “Vayishma Elohim et Kol HaNa’ar,” “God heard the cry of the lad,” using the Hebrew word na’ar instead of yeled. A yeled is a young child, a kid, vulnerable and dependent on a parent, much like Ishmael was in this moment. But a na’ar, is more than a lad, more than an adolescent, or a young adult, or a teenager. A Na’ar is someone who is forced to grow up – someone who was vulnerable before, but empowered at this moment. A na’ar is someone who no longer follows, but instead is ready to lead.

We have no more yeledim. We have no more children. In this day and age, our children have grown up too fast. They have been forced to. They have become na’arim. Our children have more lockdown drills in their schools than fire drills. More than 230,000 schoolchildren have been exposed to gun violence in their schools since the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. We have forced our children to grow up way to soon. We have destroyed any age of innocence for them. We have turned yeledim into na’arim long before they should be forced to deal with the hardships and heartache of this world.

Why was it that Hagar cried out, but it was Ishmael’s voice that God heard? And why is it that after hearing Ishmael’s cries, does an angel call out to Hagar in return? Dr. Ellen Frankel teaches that “sometimes it’s our children, speaking from where they are, who teach us how to see what we need to survive… [that] a child’s tears reach the heavens.”

We have failed our children. This most recent school shooting is just another example of that. But the March for our Lives and the movement that the students from Parkland, Florida launched was a sign that our children are now na’arim, that they are empowered, that they will bring about change. And just as God hears Ishmael’s cries and responds to Hagar, God will hear the voices of these na’arim, of these newly empowered young adults and their angelic work will protect us all. The brokenness of this world has turned each yeled into a na’ar, but I pray that, like Ishmael, they are empowered as a result. As Dr. Ellen Frankel said, their tears reach the heavens. May they reach all of us as well – and inspire us to do the necessary work to protect all of us who are wandering, lost in this wilderness.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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We are a People of Sojourners


Lech Lecha m’artzecha, u’mimoladatecha, u’mibeit avicha el Haaretz Asher areika.

And God said to Abram: Go. For your own sake. Not because I am telling you to do so. Not because this is a Divine command. But because you need to do this for yourself. You must be willing to leave your land, your birthplace, your family’s home, to a new land, to a new place, because ultimately you need to go for your own sake.We thinking of this moment, of Abram going on his spiritual journey, as when we people a people of sojourners. But the truth is Abram was fine at this moment. He was simply following God’s command. It was later, once he settled in the promised land, and realized that it wasn’t a place he could stay in, that he left in search of a safe haven. We read in Genesis 12:10:

There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.

Conditions get bad. Conditions get rough. And so Abram, even after his divine command to go, never settles. He leaves where he had went to. He leaves where he thought he was supposed to be. He leaves where God commanded him to go. Because his life was in jeopardy. Because his family’s safety and security was in doubt. He did what we would all do.  He leaves and heads down to Egypt because of famine, because his family’s safety and livelihood was at stake. 

Abram went down to Egypt Lagur Sham, to live there. In modern Hebrew, we use Lagur to mean ‘to live.’ But here, it actually means ‘to sojourn.’ For Abram, Lagur was a Ger, a sojourner, a stranger. As Jews, we know all too well what it means to sojourn. And even when we are living in a place, we are still only sojourners, not knowing how long we will be able to stay for. He left the land of Divine promise for another place, not because it is home, but because that is where you’ll survive.

Later, the first mention of the term Hebrew is used. In Genesis 14:13, Avram is referred to as Avram HaIvri, Abram the Hebrew. The term literally means the one who crossed. Abram is the one who crossed bodies of water, the one who crossed boundaries and borders, to go from one nation to the next. And ultimately, we are called Ivrim, Hebrews, for that is who we are as well.

We are the wanders. We are the migrants. We are the Ivrim, those who cross borders. We love the stranger because we were once strangers. So we cannot turn our backs when others are crossing borders as well, searching for a safe haven. Why do we perceive our journey to be worth it, but others not to be? Why do we ignore the calls for help and the cries for justice? Love the stranger. Welcome the stranger. Do not oppress the stranger. For we too wandered, so we too must answer their cries.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Don’t Tell Me My Eyes and Ears are Lying to Me

The taste of propaganda was gut-wrenching. Cameras weren’t allowed in the Otero ICE Detention Camp. And without cameras, no one really sees what the conditions are. Not when it is 45 minutes from a border crossing. Not when it is not accessible by public transportation. Not when it is in the middle of the desert, surrounded by mountains. As a group of clergy, PR representatives from ICE and the facility’s warden agreed to meet with us and give us a tour of the facility. And without a doubt, no matter how they tried to spin it, this was a prison. Civil detention, where asylum seekers and those who’ve entered this country irregularly are detained, is supposed to look different than a criminal correctional facility. But these detainees, these asylum seekers, these souls who sought a safe haven were treated as criminals, were treated as something less than human.

And these should were hungry for human connection and relationship. They were hungry for acknowledgement. In a facility that prevents physical contact with visitors, they are divided be glass windows when meeting with family and lawyers. We tried time and time again to silently communicate love and compassion. With each sacred soul we saw, I gently put my hand to my heart – the unspoken sign acknowledging that I saw them, that they were human. We stared into each other’s eyes. I searched deep into their pupils for hope. But all I saw was the weight of despair on their eyelids, as if the divine spark within them has extinguished.

And then we approached the wing of the facility labeled “Restrictive Housing Unit.” The propaganda machine told us that solitary confinement wasn’t practiced there. The propaganda machine tried to convince us that some detainees preferred to be alone. But as we walked down the narrow corridor of this narrow-minded policy, an ICE officer shuttered the small slit windows in each door, preventing anyone from peeking in. And as the propaganda machine assured us that the detainees were treated with dignity, a soul in solitary confinement heard us and began banging on the door as we walked by. He wanted to feel heard. He wanted to make sure we had not forgotten about him.

At the end of tour this facility, I bumped into a group of pro-bono lawyers from Catholic Charities. One explained some of the most frequent complaints at the detention camp: the too frequent use of solitary confinement, including as punishment for a group of detainees who participated in a peaceful action, protesting the rotten and moldy food they were being served. The truth that this pro-bono attorney of one of these asylum seekers revealed was contrary to the promises that the propaganda machine kept telling us. Even though we knew they were lies, they kept saying them, and the warden kept smiling as she said them, as if her pleasantries could mask the horrors of the detention camp.

When this ICE camp is in the middle of the desert and no one can see that these sacred souls are treated like criminals, like less than human beings, than it’s easier to believe the propaganda machine — especially when they smile while they spew their lies to justify their discriminatory polices. But don’t tell me I am lying. Don’t tell me my eyes and ears are lying to me.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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We are the Flood. But We can Stop the Flood.

There was a video circulating on social media this week about Senator Booker as a presidential candidate being interviewed on The View by Meghan McCain, and her pushing him regarding mandatory gun buy backs. He responded personally that this isn’t a policy issue. That someone was murdered on his block by an assault rifle this past year.

I think for many of us, this also is a personal issue. We worry when our children go to school every day. We worry when we enter our houses of worship. Or shopping malls. Or movie theaters. Or concerts. We live in a society where we have the power to do something, but refuse to. We are scared. We are bullied. Our officials care more about gun lobbyists than they do about saving the lives of their constituents. And when Meghan McCain tried to push Senator Booker, he honestly said: there are areas we agree. We agree on background checks, we agree on gun licenses, but there is an unwillingness to work together on the areas that we agree on. But that is what we must do. We must work together – united instead of divided – to stop this culture that leads to 30,000 victims of gun violence every year in this country.

Parashat Noach begins with us being told:

Vatishachet Haaretz lifnei HaElohim VaTimaleh Haaretz Chamas. The land became corrupt before God and the land was filled with Chamas.

We aren’t really sure what this Chamas is. But whatever it was, it was so great, and so sinful, that it led to God destroying the whole world.

Bereishit Rabba tries to explain what Chamas is. Rabbi Levi first teaches that it is idol worship, which doesn’t make much sense since Abraham doesn’t introduce monotheism until chapters later. Then he tries to suggest that Chamas is sexual immorality, something that the righteous Noah is even guilty of at the conclusion of the Torah portion. He finally concludes that Chamas is Shefichut Damim, is spilling of blood, killing another person.

We are troubled by the initial theology of Torah, a theology that introduces a God that would wipe out all of humanity with a forty day-forty night flood. How can we accept a God who would do such a thing (even if the God that we build a relationship today is based on a very different theology than that of Torah)? Why would God do such a thing? Maybe God was accepting that humanity was doing it to themselves. Humanity was the flood. Blood was raining in the streets like a torrential downpour. And if we were filled with such chamas, then there was no humanity left. We destroyed ourselves. 

And that is the reality we are again currently living in. We are filled with so much chamas, so much shefichut damim, so much murder, so much gun violence, so much bloodshed, in our society, that we don’t need to wait for a mabul, for a flood, to destroy us. For we are destroying ourselves.

Among all the chamas, among all the bloodshed, Noah was saved because he was seen as an Ish Tzadik Tamim, a simple and righteous person. Everyone else was at best, apathetic to the epidemic of violence, and at worst, encouraged and celebrated it. We too, at best, are apathetic. We don’t care unless it hits directly close to home, while accepting that even mass shootings have a shelf life in this 24-hour news cycle. And at worst, we are fighting to sell weapons of war in our streets, without care for background checks or gun licenses. At worst, we are guilty of worshipping these assault rifles as idols. And we are the flood; we are responsible for the shefichut damim. We are responsible for the chamas. We are doing this to ourselves. But Noah, was the Ish Tzadik, the righteous person, willing to take a stand against such an epidemic.

We find this word Chamas again when Job cries out to God about the Chamas all around him. And it is paralleled to lo mishpat, to lawlessness, to a lack of justice. Part of being an Ish Tzadik, part of being a righteous person, is standing up to injustice. It is fighting, simply or fiercely, to end this culture ofshefichut damim, of bloodshed, and to get to a point where we are no longer drowning ourselves in the flood. Instead, we are the lifeboat. We are the ark. We are the Ish Tzadik, the righteous person. We are determined to save each other, and to save society. Then, and only then, will we see the metaphorical rainbow.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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