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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We cannot be Free, until we are all Free

Every year, at our Passover Seders, a ritual meal when we celebrate the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom and our own freedom today, we begin the Maggid portion of our Seders by declaring that “this year we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free.” As a child, I thought this declaration made the Seder an absurd experience. We are either free or not. We cannot celebrate freedom from oppression and still declare that we are not yet free. It was only as an adult that I came to truly understand the power of this text, for this declaration defines the Passover experience. We cannot be free until all celebrate freedom from injustice and oppression. We celebrate the Israelite journey to freedom not as a historical event, but rather as a call to action, a reminder that freedom must not stop with us. 

As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: 

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

All of humanity, all of God’s creations are connected. We do not – and cannot – only care about that which impacts us. We must stand up against all discrimination and injustice. Most importantly, we cannot let our success cause the suffering of another. And we must demand that justice for all.

Dr. King also wrote:

 “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” 

That means knocking at Pharaoh’s door again and again, just as Moses did. That means continuing to declare “let my people go,” in spite of hardened hearts. And that means that each and every time we bang on Pharaoh’s door, it gets louder and louder, for at first just Moses approached Pharaoh, but with each showdown, the number of individuals that accompanied Moses increased and increased. For the power of the people is ultimately always greater than the people in power. Still, Moses understood that the Israelites’ fight for freedom couldn’t come at the expense of others. Rashi explains That the first plague of dam, blood, represented the life force of Egypt. The land was watered by the flooding of the Nile, so it was worshiped by Egyptians. Turning it to blood was not just a blow to their water resources, but to that which they considered to be divine. But Moses was uncomfortable with this reality as well. 

There is a midrash in Shemot Rabbah that teaches us that Moses was uncomfortable with God’s command to smite the river because the act represented pain and suffering. And Moses reminded God that the Nile saved him, as a baby in the basket, the basket did not submerge under the water. Instead the waters protected him. He couldn’t imagine striking that very water. I believe this midrash has an even deeper meaning. Moses is finding the possibility of harming Egyptians for the sake of Israelites’ freedom difficult to accept. Moses is asking: must we bring harm to the innocent bystander? Must we hurt those who were also scared of Pharaoh’s wrath? These are not Pharaoh’s taskmasters or courtiers. These are citizens who were scared silent. Why must they suffer? In fact, by Moses asking this, he is representing God’s own struggle. 

After all, the Torah reminds us:

“See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh” (Ex. 7:1).

God tells Moses to see yourself as a representative of God to Pharaoh. As Moses struggles with harming those who are innocent bystanders, he acknowledges that this isn’t something that God wants either. In fact, Mesechet Megillah tells of when the Israelites crossed the split sea into freedom and says that God’s angels were celebrating. God chastises the angels as the Egyptians are drowning in the sea:

“God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'”

It is clear that God is equally uncomfortable with the suffering of others. As God and Moses teach us through midrash, we cannot celebrate when others are harmed. We cannot celebrate when our freedom is caused by another’s pain and suffering. The freedom of one cannot be caused by the suffering of another. This is our struggle. The Torah also tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they did not leave alone:

“And a mixed multitude went up with them” (Ex. 12:38). 

The Torah reveals that the reason so many left Egypt was because an erev rav, a mixed multitude of individuals, joined with the Israelites. Egyptians who dealt with their own hardships and pain and suffering also set out to leave Egypt and were also freed from Pharaoh’s rule. In the end, it was not just the Israelites who were freed. It was all who suffered from injustice. 

Moses and God agonized over the pain and suffering that others felt because they understood that one cannot be free unless we are all free. One cannot suffer while the other succeeds. That is not true freedom. That is not true justice. May we learn from God’s and Moses’ hesitation. Let Martin Luther King’s legacy snap us out of complacency. As Rev. William Barber reminds us: 

“In recent years, NGOs and government officials have sanitized Dr. King’s legacy, turning his birthday into a call for service. Meanwhile, politicians of all stripes stand up at podiums to honor Dr. King, but then pass vulgar policies that threaten the very soul of our nation.”

We cannot claim to fight for justice and encourage — or at the very least ignore — racist policies. We cannot only fight for the freedom of some. For as long as injustice continues, we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free. Next year, may Dr. King’s dream finally be realized. And may we stand up to the Pharaoh’s among us until it is. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Mister Joe’s Neighborhood

One of the most powerful experiences of our recent congregational was spending time talking to our bus driver. Mister Joe drove us from Tel Aviv to Caeserea, to Zichron Yaakov, to Haifa, to Rosh Hanikra, to Kfar Blum, to the Golan Heights, to Tiberias, to Jerusalem, to Masada and the Dead Sea, and back to Tel Aviv. Mister Joe’s story resonated with me. It began by asking him his name, knowing that it wasn’t Mister Joe. He explained that he called himself that because it made the American tourists that he always drove around more comfortable. 

His name was Joulwan and he resided in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Mister Joe is an Israeli Arab. He explained to me that his passport was Jordanian, as he lived in East Jerusalem prior to 1967 when it was still under Jordan’s control. As a result, his grandchildren don’t have any passport. He shared with me that he has a home in the West Bank, but it has become an Israeli settlement, thus making it illegal for him to live in that house. 

Mister Joe told me he was not angry with Israel, but with its leaders. He was not supportive of the PA’s leadership because he didn’t think Abbas really wanted peace. He was frustrated with politicians that were only interested in themselves and no one else. He said if Abbas and Netanyahu were not involved, then he and his Israeli Jewish neighbors, who he gets along with well, would be able to solve everything and be fine. But it is the leaders who get involve. It is the leaders who claim they are leading, but actually are just interested in what’s in it for them. 

The book of Exodus begins with a new Pharaoh intimidated and scared by the growing Israelite population and demands that the Hebrew midwives throw Hebrew baby boys into the river, drowning them in the process. The two midwives mentioned, Shifra and Puah, refused. This wasn’t just an act of resistance or civil disobedience. What they were really doing was seeing the humanity in another human being. They weren’t listening to the commands of authoritarians or tyrants. They were listening to God. Through Yirat Shamayim, awe of God and seeing God’s Image in the face of another, they were concerned with the wellbeing of the other. Most rabbinic commentators conclude that these Hebrew midwives were Hebrews themselves; many suggest that they were Moses’ mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam, even if there is no textual basis for such a suggestion. Abarbanel concludes that they must be Egyptians serving as midwives for the Hebrews, seeing God in each baby that was born, regardless of ethnicity or faith.

Mister Joe taught me – at a time when so many government officials make generalizations about those that are different than us – that it is those government officials, those so called leaders, that are the problem. Like the king that rises up and chooses not to know Joseph, they choose to ignore the kinship of their neighbor. But we cannot live in generalizations. It is the narrative of the individual, the Shifras and Puahs and Mister Joes among us, that helps us see the humanity in each other. 

Much of what Mister Joe has experienced is not fair. He should be mad. He should be angry. But he is content. He is happy. And he works to build peace through his relationships with his neighbors. So we must ignore the commands of the new kings that rise up around us and work to find God’s image in each other, Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian, Hebrew Midwife and Israelite. Then, and only then, will we know peace. May it happen Speedily in our time. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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On The Eighth Night of Chanukah

The following message was shared on the final night of Chanukah with the Congregation Beth El community:


Tonight, as we celebrate the final night of Chanukah, we’ll admire the full illumination of the chanukiyah, the Chanukah menorah. Every candle will be lit, every flame will be burning bright. Lighting the menorah to its full brilliance is joyful, even though we know it means that the conclusion of the holiday is near.

The uniqueness of the commandment to kindle the lights of the menorah is the requirement to first light the shamash, the helper candle, and to use that candle to light others. It is an acknowledgement that sometimes we cannot create light on our own. We depend on others to help us see the light; to help us be the light. 

That is the essence of community. The beauty of Beth El is our obligation, responsibility, and opportunity to be the light for one another. We are there as the shamash to help you find light during times of grief and mourning, and we are there to help spread your light during celebration. Our community can also serve as sliver of light in a sometimes dark world, standing up for each other — and with each other — in the face of adversity. 

As powerful as a single candle in the darkness is on that first night of Chanukah, it pales in comparison to the power of the fully lit menorah tonight. The light of a single flame is increased by the other candles of the menorah. So too, our light — our own unique light as individuals — has the power to light up the darkness. But our own light is increased when surrounded by the light of others.

We find that light through learning, and we find that light through witnessing our children learn. We spread that light through prayer, and we find that light through activism. We light up each other as we build community together. 

As we watch the candles slowly burn this evening, let us be inspired by the power of the light of a full menorah. Let us remember the power of being unified, of coming together, of being there for one another and knowing that others will be there for us. May the lights of the menorah inspire us to be that light for each other, and may we always find that light in our community.

Chag Urim Sameach!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky 

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We’ve Been Down this Hole Before

You can’t go to the midnight opening showing of Episode VIII without understanding the seven Star Wars movies that have come before it. Similarly, as amazing as the events of Parashat Mikketz are, you can’t truly appreciate them without understanding them in relation to Parashat Vayeshev
In Parashat Vayeshev, Joseph’s brothers, out of jealousy and hatred towards him, throw him into a pit. They literally have a picnic as they debate what his destiny should be. The compromise is selling him into slavery, but his seemingly hopeless future begins in a pit. It is as literal as it is metaphoric. The Torah says:

“And they took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty. There was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24) 

The rabbis believed that no word in the Torah was superfluous. So then why the need to say both? If we know the pit was empty, then why also stipulate that there was no water in it? Rashi tries to clarify and says there were snakes and scorpions in the pit, which of course there’s no justification for, and makes no sense if the Torah already said the pit was empty. I believe that calling the pit empty was a reflection of how Joseph felt at that moment. He felt empty, alone, lost, and by himself, with no one and nothing to guide him. In Mesechet Taanit, the Talmud refers to Torah as water. Our commentators thus suggest that “there was no water in it” means that Joseph was in an empty pit, without Torah. He did not have the ethics and values to guide him and he did not know what to do next. He was stuck in a hole and there was nobody there to help him out.

Yet, after all of that, what happens in Parashat Mikketz is really miraculous. After being abandoned by his brothers, after being framed by Potiphar’s wife, after being forgotten in prison by those that he helped save, Joseph is called upon to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. I believe what he does next is not just out of fear of Pharaoh or a sense of obligation to do what Pharaoh asks. Joseph doesn’t just interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph ends up saving an entire population from famine, from food insecurity. He was in that empty pit – literally – and lost – metaphorically – and he turns around and is able to save everyone. When Pharaoh, and all of Egypt, are lost and similarly in their own empty pit, Joseph knows that experience and is able to help them out. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite shows, The West Wing, which I encourage binge watching on a regular basis. If you watch it enough, you might even forget for a moment about the current realities of our society and government. I’m not sure if this story originates from The West Wing, but even if not, it is retold in a way that only Aaron Sorkin is able to do. In season two, Josh Lyman, Deputy Chief of Staff, is dealing with PTSD, following being shot in an assassination attempt on the President at the end of season one. He is dealing with serious trauma in his life. Leo McGarry, the White House Chief of Staff, who is a recovering addict, and has his own share of dealing with personal trauma, shares this story with his colleague: 

This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

Joseph had been down that hole of hopelessness. When he sees Pharaoh and Egypt stuck in the same hole, he doesn’t take charge and action because he sees an opportunity for his dreams to be fulfilled, for him to rise in power and prominence. He does so because he was in that hole before, empty and devoid of the values to guide us on our path, and he knew what it felt like, so he jumped in to help Egypt out of that hole. 

The essence of Chanukah, of placing the light of our chanukiyot in our windows, is a powerful message. We are actually prohibited from using that light to benefit us. Shabbat candles had a practical purpose. You lit candles as it went dark, and you used that light to light up the room, the dinner table, etc. You can read by the candle light, and when the candles burn out, it is dark and time for bed. But the Talmud stipulates that you can’t use the light of the Chanukah candles for your own benefit. They are solely meant to go in our windows to follow the commandment of pirsum hanes, to publicize the miracle. But more so than that, we place the menorah in our windows to share our light with those who need it most. We light up the darkness that others are feeling. Because we have been there. We have been in that dark place before. That is why we are taught to increase the number of candles each night of Chanukah, to always add more light to the darkness. That is our challenge and that is our goal. That is what Joseph did. He was there. And so he knew what it felt like. And that is our goal too! We have been in this hole before. So when we experience someone else struggling with darkness, we put our menorahs in the window. We jump down the hole with them, because we know the way out.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Ignoring Hate Has Consequences

Many gathered around the Thanksgiving table last week grateful for life’s blessings. Breaking bread with family and friends, we were not only thankful for the turkey and stuff, but especially thankful for those in our lives. However, many of us also concluded the Thanksgiving holiday thankful for “surviving” it. We had much to be thankful for, but we survived the great uncle who always says something racist, or the cousin whose world view is completely different than ours. These meals are often like ticking time bombs waiting for one bigoted comment too many to finally cause someone to explode. We fear these holiday meals because we no longer sit at the table with those we disagree with. We share our tables with those who share our values. We don’t have sacred disagreements. They are emotionally exhausting. So we bite our tongues and hope that that xenophobic relative behaves himself.

This past Shabbat, when reading Parashat Vayishlach, we read of Esau’s reunion with Jacob. Furious and angry over his brother pretending to be him to steal a blessing from their father, Esau seemed determined to harm and hurt his brother only chapters ago. Yet, upon seeing his brother, and his brother’s family, Esau runs to Jacob and embraces him. They hug, kiss, and weep together. The rabbis go out of their way to be critical of Esau, since Judaism sees him as the polar opposite of Jacob and they try to celebrate Jacob as a biblical patriarch. Yet Esau should truly be celebrated. He is a shining example of how to forgive and not hold a grudge. We should all learn from his example. Still, I can’t help but think that Esau failed in some way. Esau hugging and kissing his brother shouldn’t be that remarkable, but it is because he stays in contact with someone who harmed him. When someone says something offensive, we unfriend them. We block them on social media. We think their views are offensive. And maybe they are. But we never tell them.

This past week, as part of the Anti-Defamation League’s Glass Leadership Institute, which I am honored to be a part of, I had the privilege of learning from Jason Sirois, ADL’s director of No Place for Hate. I am proud that we worked to bring the No Place for Hate educational program to South Orange Middle School eighteen months ago. Sirois joked about the all too commonplace “Thanksgiving eye roll,” when a relative says something that is hurtful to you or to someone else — something that is rooted in prejudice or bias — and you just roll your eyes because your family has expected that, well, that’s just how your relative is. And it is easier to ignore than confront.

But that’s how we got here. By ignoring instead of confronting. When the leader of the free world tweets such offensive comments so frequently that we’ve stopped calling them out, we just roll our eyes. When people in positions of power have abused their power to sexually assault others, and for too long we have ignored it and not called it out, causing many to be fearful of coming forward, fearing being doubted, challenged, blamed or shamed. We didn’t call it out because we say we like their movies, of that we appreciate their journalism, or we ignore it because they promised us tax cuts, and as a result, we normalize it. We normalize violent behavior and we normalize bigoted beliefs. When meeting with Jason Sirois of the ADL, he explained that bias leads to prejudice, which leads to discrimination, which leads to violence, which leads to genocide.

So don’t think that ignoring that which is harmful doesn’t have consequences. We must always have room to forgive and believe that people can change. That’s the lesson we learn from Esau. But he still failed because he never called out Jacob for his hurtful actions and words. In fact, even in his initial anger after learning that his brother tricked their father into giving him a blessing, even when he declares that he wants to kills Jacob, the text says Vayomer Esav Belibo, Esau says this in his heart. He keeps his feelings to himself. He never shares his hurt, his heartache, his pain, his anger. He never shares why his is offended.

And then he returns and hugs, kisses, and embraces Jacob. Loving family — no matter what — is important. But if we roll our eyes, and simply ignore that which is hurtful to be said and spread, then we are condoning such hate. The Talmud reminds us that silence is tantamount to consent. It is physically and emotionally exhausting to call out such hate and bigotry all the time. But ignoring it has consequences and leads to that which is far worse.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Don’t Claim to be Righteous When You are Just being Selfish

One of my favorite television shows is The Walking Dead. I am glad I am not alone in this, since it’s one of the most watched dramas on cable. The show tells the story of survival of a group of strangers who have become family, trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. I started watching believing it was a horror series, but despite the amazing make up and special effects, it is much more than that. It focuses on what one is willing to do in order to survive. And there are moments in the story where things seem normal to the viewer. There was the season where Rick and his friends set up a garden and a farm and were again living off the land. There was another moment when they were living in a gated community in modern homes, relying on solar panels to once again have electricity. They were eating freshly cooked meals around dining room tables. They were sleeping in king-sized beds on freshly washed sheets. For a moment, all was well in the world and you forgot the realities of this dystopian future. Then someone got bit by a “walker” and the terrible reality set in again. The characters realized that it was truly impossible to “play house” when the world around them – and the realities of that world – were destroyed.

I thought of my love for this pop culture phenomenon when reading Parashat Noach, this past week’s Torah portion, which tells the story of Noah building an ark to survive the deadly flood of forty days and forty nights. The Torah portion begins with the explanation that Noah was a righteous and simple person in his generation. Much inked has been spilled exploring what this means, debating how righteous Noah was exactly. Was he especially righteous because he didn’t give in to the peer pressure of doing wrong just as those around him did? Was he judged on a bell curve, only seen as righteous compared to those around him, but not compared to other righteous individuals in past or future generations? This is a question that without a doubt Noah asks of himself following the consequential flood.

The rarely taught in Hebrew School post-flood narrative shows the dark acceptance of a dystopian reality, much like the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Noah exits the ark and immediately plants a vineyard. A verse later, the Torah tells us that he gets drunk and reveals his nakedness, and that his own child exposes his nakedness. Clearly, Noah is so inebriated, that he is unable to control his actions, or those of others. This was not a spontaneous decision to drink in excess. Anyone who has ever made their own wine knows that it takes time to till the soil, plant the vineyard, wait for the vines to grow, wait for them to bear fruit, wait for the grapes to ferment, wait for the wine to age in a dark area, and then eventually drink it. This is a months – if not years – long process. Noah knew exactly what he was doing, and this was his first action once he exited the ark. He did not declare how blessed he was to be saved. He did not thank God for the opportunity to repopulate the earth. Instead, he saw a world of doom and destruction, a world where he and his family were all that was left of humanity, and couldn’t live in this world without being intoxicated. If he did, then he would see the dismay and devastation; if he did, then he would realize that it was his fault.

One of the reasons that biblical commentator Rashi suggests that Noah would not be viewed as righteous compared to Abraham is because when Abraham hears that God is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, he stands up to God and fights to save the masses. He acknowledges the wrong doing of some, but fights for all – including the strangers that he doesn’t know. Noah is told by God to build an ark because a flood will annihilate the world and Noah doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t question, debate, or argue with God. He just builds the ark, relieved that he and his family will be spared. Only after the flood does he realize that this world is impossible to live in alone. He has survivor’s guilt, not just because he survived and others did not, but because he had the ability and opportunity to help others and chose to remain silent.

How often are we only concerned with how something directly impacts us? How often do we ignore the suffering if we are not harmed, or worse benefit because of that suffering? How often do we forget the teaching of our Mishnah, that if we only look at for ourselves, then who are we?

If we are not concerned with the millions that may lose healthcare as a result of cheaper monthly premiums for us, then we are not so righteous? If we are okay with ignoring the many programs that will be cut that help those who need it most in this country, just so we pay less in taxes, then we are not so righteous. If we ignore the pain and heartache of others for our own gain, then we are not so righteous. It took Noah until the world was completely wiped out to realize that he was wrong. He didn’t realize that his seemingly righteous actions were quite selfish until it was too late. Let us not make the same mistake. Let us not ignore the rights of others and try to justify it through religious conviction. Let us not threaten he most vulnerable among us and claim to still walk in God’s ways. Let us not be complacent with hurting others for our own gain and advancement. Let us not claim to be righteous when we spend so much of our time being selfish. Let’s begin by caring about others before we care for ourselves. Otherwise, we will end up regretting our actions or inactions, our decisions, and our votes, but it will be too late.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Yom Kippur Sermons

Shana Tova! I continue to be on a spiritual high for a meaningful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I hope you feel a sense of hope as well as we begin the new year.

For those who are interested, here are the sermons I shared with the Congregation Beth El community during Yom Kippur 5778. The first – delivered on Kol Nidre – deals with teh struggle of loneliness and is inspired by the musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.” The second delivered on Yom Kippur day prior to the Yizkor service, forces us to question how we will be remembered when we leave this world.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Kol Nidre 5778: You Will Be Found

Yom Kippur 5778: Who Will Mourn For You?

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Rosh Hashanah Sermons

Shana Tova! For those who are interested, here are the sermons I shared with the Congregation Beth El community during Rosh Hashanah 5778. The first deals with my own personal struggle as a parent having a child in the hospital and understanding our liturgy so that we don’t necessarily change our fates, but change our perspectives. The second deals with the rise of hate and anti-Semitism in this country and ponders what our responsibility as Jews and as humanity is to fight back against such hate.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Rosh Hashanah Day One 5778: Accepting Our Fate

Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5778: When Awe Becomes Fear 

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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