Making Room for all Four Children

We read at our Seder tables that the Torah reflects upon four children: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. The Haggadah tells us that wise child asks about the rites and rituals. The wise child is concerned with how to follow the laws. The supposedly wicked child is in search of meaning, trying to find personal significance and understanding in ritual, asking “what does this mean to you?” The simple child simply asks “what is this?” wanting to know more and to learn more. The fourth child doesn’t ask anything at all.
For centuries, commentators have spent a great deal of time asking what role these four children play in the Haggadah and in the Passover narrative. If the goal of the Seder is to retell – and reenact and re-experience – the exodus from Egypt, then these four children seeFoursons2m out of place. However, the goal of the Seder is much more than that. The goal of Passover is to light a spark within each of us, to appreciate our past and our freedom, and to refuse to stand idly by while others suffer from similar oppression or wait to be free. Introducing the four children during the Passover Seder acknowledges our various relationships with Judaism, with the exodus narrative, and with freedom at different moments in our lives.

At times, we are each the “wise,” the so-called “wicked,” the “simple,” and the “silent.” At times we are interested in rites and rituals; other times we challenge the status quo. There are times when we simply want to learn more and there are times that we refuse to act and don’t do anything at all. We read about these four children because we acknowledge that we encompass them all. We should never just strive to be wise or simple. And it isn’t so bad at times to be defiant or silent. Our challenge is to know how to act and when.

As we celebrate Passover, may we all strive to find meaning in being each of these four children. May we learn about ritual and law, in hopes that these rituals are a meaningful vehicle to help us connect to the Divine. May we challenge authority to search for meaning and understanding, knowing that we cannot find true connection, unless we find true meaning. May we learn that the simplest and most basic of questions are often the most profound. And may we learn to talk less and listen more, taking in the lessons that the world around us has to teach. Chag Sameach!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Still Waiting for Elijah

This past Shabbat, as we read Parashat Metzora, we came to understand that the odd spiritual impurity mentioned in Torah is not just about skin disease or emission or discharge. This impurity can spread to clothing, to walls, and to homes. This is a scriptural reminder that this isn’t really about a skin disease at all! Rather, this is about how we let societal spiritual impurities – how we let injustice – spread. How quickly we let the spiritual impurities all around us spread. The Torah portion doesn’t simply comment on these spiritual impurities. It gives us instructions as to the cleaning ritual that is to take place to rid ourselves, and society, of these impurities.

Coincidentally, at this time of year leading up to Passover, we are supposed to rid ourselves of Chametz. Similarly, we clean our homes and our offices; we even clean our cars! But this symbolic and ritual cleaning is about more than just ridding ourselves of leavened products. We rid ourselves of our ego. We rid ourselves of that which puffs us up. We rid ourselves of societal spiritual impurities. But if we only do so ritually, if we only do so symbolically, then we miss the point entirely.

We recite at the Passover seder table:

Kol Dichfin yeitei v’yeichol, kol ditzrich yeittei v’yifsach . Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in dire straits, come share Passover with us.

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic comments in the New American Haggadah:

Precisely because it is the most fundamental form of charity, this invitation to the hungry seems empty and hypocritical. Why? Because it comes too late. By the time we read this passage, we are seated, our hands are washed, the wine is poured, the table is crowded with fine dishes.. And only now we invite the poor to join us?

If we acknowledge an issue, but don’t do anything about it, what’s the point? If we half-heartedly or hypocritically ritually offer to help those in need, are we then just letting the impurities of society, the injustices of society — those who are hungry, those who are homeless, those who are in dire straits – continue to spread? Are we welcoming those in need to our Passover seders, but not really? Are we making ourselves feel better as if we tried, when we really didn’t?

This past Shabbat, Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath before Passover, we also read a special Haftarah reading. This reading, taken from chapter 3 of the book of Malachi, recalls Elijah the prophet. We even repeat the penultimate verse, making it the last statement of the reading, leaving us with the taste of Elijah’s coming, something that we again ritually and symbolically hope for at our seder tables.

KosEliyahuJudaism teaches that Elijah will announce the coming of the messianic era, and with it, true freedom: freedom from oppression, freedom from injustice, freedom from the shackles of poverty and food insecurity, freedom from the spiritual impurities of society. Recalling Elijah in the haftarah and again in just a few days at our seder tables is our symbolic gesture hoping for an end to the spiritual impurities of injustice that plague us. Using the imagery of Elijah, the Talmud teaches us an important lesson.

In Sanhedrin 98a, we learn of the encounter between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Elijah. Rabbi Yehoshua meets the prophet and asks when the messianic era of justice and equality will come. Elijah instructs him to ask the Messiah who is waiting at the gates of the city, among the lepers and the infirmed, among the homeless, poor, excluded, and forgotten. This messianic figure tells Rabbi Yehoshua that this messianic era will come today. Yet, when it does not, Rabbi Yehoshua returns to Elijah and asks for an explanation. Elijah the prophet explains by quoting a verse from Psalms:

Today – if only you will listen to God’s voice (Ps. 95:7).

Maybe the possibility of messianic redemption is always upon us, a time for freedom from the spiritual impurities of society, but all too often we do not truly listen – we speak and we recite, we ritually acknowledge that we care about those in need. But then we don’t do anything about it. We do not listen to God’s voice, to the cries of those in need as God’s cries. Rabbi Yehoshua went to the infirm, the poor, and the suffering at the city gates and ignored them to only speak to whom Elijah called the messiah. We say let all who are hungry come and eat at our seders and then expect this symbolic Elijah to swoop in when we really haven’t done our parts to help those in need.

Before we ritually invite Elijah into our homes and our seder tables, we need to do a lot more than simply ritually opening up our homes and our hearts to those in need. Just as we clean our spaces to rid our homes of spiritual impurity, we need to rid society of the injustice and inequality that plague us as well. May this be a Passover in which we strive to free all from the injustices of our society.

Chag Sameach!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing Up on Purim

Purim is a holiday that promotes silliness. With costumes to groggers, loud noises and disguises, it’s easy to ignore the true message of Purim: it is the celebration of a miracle. In fact, we recite the words of Al HaNisim in our liturgy on the festival day — a variation of the same prayer that we say on Chanukah — praising the Divine for the miracle of saving the Jewish people. We celebrate with joy and thanksgiving the miracle of our continued existence.

 

However, I believe the miracle is also about something greater: it is about Esther’s transformation.

 

Apricot-Hamantaschen1At the very beginning of chapter two of Megillat Esther, Esther is referred to a single time as Hadassah, her Jewish name. The name Esther acculturated her, helping her to become Ahashverosh’s new queen. And as queen, she had it made. The text says that she “obtained grace and favor” in the sight of the king; she received unlimited gifts and dined at countless feasts. She was living the good life. When her cousin Mordechai shared with her Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews, she didn’t have to do anything. Although she was born Jewish, she had no fear for her personal safety; nothing was going to happen to Ahashverosh’s most beloved queen.

 

Esther was initially hesitant about standing up to the King. She didn’t feel the impact of Haman’s threat. But then she saw Mordecai tear his clothes and heard that the Jews of Shushan fasted for three days. She witnessed their pain and fear. While she knew that Haman’s plan might not impact her directly, she decided to use her privilege as queen to take a stand for the Jewish community.

 

Esther’s actions reflect those of Moses at the beginning of the book of Exodus. He, too, was a Jew-by-birth, but he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, living a life of wealth, freedom, and prosperity. Pharaoh’s actions towards the Israelite slaves didn’t directly affect Moses. He didn’t have to do anything. Yet, seeing the suffering of the Israelites as they were being beaten by taskmasters, he took a stand. He didn’t have to for his own sake: he had to for the sake of others. Esther and Moses risked their own safety and gave up their comfort in order to save those who were suffering around them.

 

The miracle that we celebrate on Purim isn’t just that the Jews of Shushan were saved. The miracle is also that Esther took a stand to help others. We must live the lessons of Purim. We cannot only step out of our comfort zone to be silly. We must step out of our comfort zone to fight for the well being of others. We cannot only blot out Haman’s name. We must also blot out injustice. And as we celebrate miracles that will then take place, may we celebrate our willingness – and obligation – to take a stand for one another.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Stand Up to Trump: Not for AIPAC, Not for the Jews, but for Something Much Greater

This article was originally published on March 18, 2016 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz-logo

We are leading the movement to protest the Republican frontrunner at AIPAC’s conference because we feel compelled to stand on the other side of a great moral divide, in solidarity with those Trump has routinely denigrated: our Muslim, Mexican, Latino, immigrant, female, disabled and LGBTQI brothers and sisters.

When Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump takes the podium at next week’s AIPAC Policy Conference, we plan on walking out, joined by hundreds of other rabbis and conference participants.

This protest, which we both helped to organize, is not about party, politics or policies. Rather, it is about our tradition’s insistence that “silence is tantamount to consent” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 37b). We want to send a clear message that we stand against the bigotry and vitriol that has become central to the Trump campaign. We cannot stand idly by and condone such bigotry. We cannot risk sitting through a speech when doing so might give the appearance that we consent to the hateful tenor at the core of his candidacy.
TrumpProtest

Whether we support them or not, we will warmly welcome other candidates who speak to the delegation. We believe that, in a vibrant pluralistic democracy, many viewpoints are valid and have their place in respectful, constructive debate. We appreciate AIPAC’s efforts to make supporting Israel a matter of broad bipartisan consensus. Furthermore, as rabbis, we understand that Jewish tradition can be interpreted in a number of ways, and we humbly acknowledge that no individual or ideology has a monopoly on truth.

 

However, time and again Trump has crossed the line of reasonable disagreement into the realm of hateful invective and violent incitement. His openly xenophobic, Islamophobic and misogynistic remarks, both prior to and during this campaign, are hurtful and beyond the pale of tolerable rhetoric in a decent society. They are especially disturbing when they inform policy proposals like building a wall to prevent Mexican immigration, deporting the roughly 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the country, banning Muslims from entering this country, and registering Muslims in America into a database. His thinly-veiled racial dog-whistling, both in the past and during this campaign, paired with his failure to distance himself from white supremacists and avowed racists, grant harmful legitimacy to the most disgusting and dangerous elements within our country. Even more distressing is his incitement and encouragement of violent behavior among his supporters at rallies, something that is not only immoral, but also contrary to both American and Jewish values.

Our protest is not a criticism of AIPAC. We will, after all, be attending the conference, and both of us have a history of involvement with AIPAC. We respect and support AIPAC’s work securing bipartisan partnership for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, and we especially appreciate this year’s theme, “Come Together.” We also understand why AIPAC invited Trump. As in past years, AIPAC has invited all presidential candidates to speak. We, like they, want to ensure that leaders of both parties, whoever they are, continue to strongly support Israel.

Some have argued that it would not be wise for the Jewish establishment to confront Trump, that the pro-Israel lobby should “keep itself on decent terms with whatever powers govern in Washington.” But the AIPAC conference is more than just a pro-Israel rally. It is also the single-largest annual gathering of the American Jewish community. As such, we feel obligated to send a message to Donald Trump that we believe many of his views, his words, and his actions are anathema to Jewish values and are opposed by many within our community. We feel compelled to stand on the other side of what we feel is a great moral divide. And we feel especially moved to take this opportunity to stand as Jews in solidarity with those who Trump has routinely denigrated: our Muslim, Mexican, Latino, immigrant, female, disabled and differently-abled, and LGBTQI brothers and sisters who have been the targets of Trump’s vitriol and who would be most at risk should Trump get elected.

 

We do not intend to respond to hate with hate. We intend to respond to hate with Torah. We believe that there is no greater way to combat Trump’s dangerous rhetoric than by learning together. For this reason, when we walk out of his speech, we will gather to learn Torah together, uniting in the values of our tradition that we hold dear, values of common decency that Trump has ignored.

In taking this action, we mean only to speak for ourselves, for like-minded individuals who may not be at the conference, and for Jewish values as we understand them. While we have many constituents who will support our efforts next week, we are not protesting on behalf of the institutions we serve. Rather, we are protesting because we believe that, even as rabbis, we have the right and the responsibility in a democracy to voice our conscience to those in power and to those pursuing power, especially when it pertains to important matters like this.

And, while we are not acting on behalf of our communities, we are taking these actions knowing that we do, indeed, represent many American Jews who feel similarly. At the largest annual gathering of American Jews on the eve of an election, where candidates are seeking the support not only of the pro-Israel community broadly speaking, but also of the Jewish community specifically, we feel a special moral obligation to give voice to the many Jews who are appalled at what Trump has unleashed in our country’s politics, and alarmed at what a Trump presidency might look like.

Donald Trump does not speak for us. His hateful tone does not speak for us. So we must take a stand.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky and Rabbi Michael Rose Knopf

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$15 and the Half-Shekel: Lessons from the Torah on a Living Wage

Last week, at the urging of Faith in New Jersey (@FaithinNJ), a faith-based social justice organization (formerly known as PICO-NJ), I – along with other Essex County clergy – was asked to attend Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s press conference at Newark City Hall. As clergy, we stood beside Mayor Baraka and members of 32BJ SEIU as the Mayor declared his support for raising the minimum wage for Port Authority employees to $15 an hour. These employees include those who work at Newark Liberty International Airport, an airport that all in our area – and most throughout the state of Jersey – frequent for air travel. The airport is owned by the city of Newark, but leased to the Port Authority. Since the city owns the land, and the airport is the largest employer in the city of Newark – and likely the entire state – the airport, and the way its employees are treated are representative of the values of Newark and the entire state of New Jersey.

The Mayor was asked what mathematical formula he used to come up with the number $15. He smiled and responded “the formula we used was the formula of justice.” He added:

No airport worker that works full-time should have to live in poverty and be forced to make the choice between housing, food and health care. I think we need $15 immediately.

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Mayor Baraka, members of 32BJ SEIU, and Essex County clergy

When the minimum wage became a requirement of law as part of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, it was meant to be a sufficient amount so that an individual could provide for his or her family. Minimum wage was meant to be a living wage. In 1968, the minimum wage was at $1.60/hour. In 2013, that wage would be equivalent to $10.71/hour. According to the Economic Policy Institute, if wage increases had kept up with labor productivity, then the minimum wage in 2013 should have been $18.23/hour. Yet, the federal minimum wage remains $7.25/hour. The New Jersey state minimum wage is $8.38/hour. These are hardly a living wage, and hardly what was intended when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed over 75 years ago.

This past Shabbat, we read a special Torah reading as part of the special Shabbat, Shabbat Shekalim. In this Torah reading, we are told:

This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight… (Ex. 30:13)

The Torah commands that each pay a half-shekel as part of a census. Most read the text and conclude that this census was to see how many able-bodied adult males there were to fight, as the Israelites were preparing for the inevitable battles when they entered the Promised Land. However, the half-shekel had even greater significance. The half-shekel was not too much money. It was enough so that everyone could participate. It was an example of everyone being on equal footing, and having the same chance, the same equal opportunity. Obviously the half-shekel meant less to the wealthy than others. Still, it was a symbol of equal opportunity and an equal chance.

We live in a society that is not living up to the promise of this biblical society, in which all are seen as equals and all are given an equal opportunity. No one donated a half-shekel and cried poverty. All were seen as equals. So too, no one should work a forty-hour a week job and not be able to provide food on the table or a home to live in.

I proudly stood with other clergy as Mayor Baraka made his statements in support of increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour. I did so not just as a resident of Essex County. I did so as a person of faith. We must fulfill the biblical promise of this census. We must ensure that all have equal opportunity to succeed in society. That begins with the fight for $15. That begins with the promise to pay individuals a living wage.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Bitter Waters and Bottled Water: Lessons of Flint, Charity, and Justice

This article was originally published on January 31, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

I’ve always been annoyed by the actions of the Israelites after they were freed from Egypt. I’d roll my eyes at their childish and immature behavior. How is it possible that they could complain so quickly after experiencing the miracle of the freedom, so quickly after witnessing the waters part? They complained about not having enough water, about the waters of Marah being too bitter to drink:

They came to Marah, but they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were too bitter (Ex. 15:23).

Too bitter?! I used to scoffed as I read this narrative. Deal with it. Stop complaining. The water is fine. After all, you’re finally free. Drink whatever is put in front of you. But now I get it. You aren’t really free if you don’t have water to drink. You aren’t really free if only bitter water is provided for you. Because that bitterness – that unclean water – still reeks of oppression and discrimination.

I’ve watched the news over the past several weeks in disbelief as Flint, Michigan, an entire city of 100,000 has been drinking toxic and poisonous water. What is scary is that while we were made aware of this by the national media a few weeks ago, the people of Flint have been consuming this lead-poisoned water for over two years. This isn’t a third world country. This is happening in America, where we spend seven dollars on a latte, and yet, government officials try to cut costs by poisoning a city. The wealthy legislators cut costs that only impacted the poor city of Flint, where 41% of the city live below the poverty line, where the majority of residents are black. They did so and claimed that the water was fine to drink, but brought in bottled purified water for all state officials who worked in the city.

I received a letter last week from Mayor Ras Baraka, mayor of neighboring city of Newark. Quoting Dr. King, he said, “the time is always right to do what is right.” Mayor Baraka explained that Newark, along with Paterson and Jersey City, will be spending the next two weeks collecting bottles of water to be delivered to residents of Flint. We at Congregation Beth El, like so many other Jewish communities, accept the call to pursue justice and decided that we too would collect bottles of water and we continue to do so. We are committed to donating because we cannot stand idly by. We are committed to donating because we are committed to fulfilling the words of Deuteronomy 15:7, to not closing our hands or our hearts to those in need.

bottled water.pngYet, after announcing that we were going to be collecting bottles of water, I, like many, read Michael Moore’s letter that had gone viral. The famous documentary film maker who is from Flint, Michigan wrote: “Don’t send us bottles of water. Instead, join us in revolt.” Some questioned if we should be collecting bottles of water at all. I understand Moore’s point and I agree with him. He points out that with 100,000 residents in Flint, we’d have to send roughly 200 bottles per day per person to Flint to meet their essential needs for cooking, bathing, washing clothes, doing dishes, and of course, drinking. That is roughly 20 million bottles per day! He also reminds us in his letter that the damage is done. The neurological damage done to the children of this city is irreversible. Stopping to drink the water now won’t change that damage.

20 million bottles of water per day seems impossible – and there are environmental challenges to that many bottles of water. I agree with him that sending bottles of water doesn’t solve all the problem and Michael Moore knows the city a lot better than I do. I agree that sending bottles of water is a short-term fix. But just because something is a short-term fix, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act. Food pantries are also short-term solutions and don’t solve hunger. Yet, we still collect donations. Shelters are a short-term fix and don’t solve homelessness. Yet, we still volunteer. In fact, charity – Tzedakah – is a short term fix. I get all that. But what about the 100,000 residents of Flint who need water until, or if, this problem is resolved? What about the 100,000 residents of Flint who need water until they are evacuated by FEMA? What about the 100,000 people in Flint who, despite the damage that has already been done, still need clean water to drink?

Moore is suggesting that we focus our time on holding the government accountable and making sure those who did this are brought to justice. I agree that we can’t just send water and feel good about ourselves, and then ignore the dire needs of this city. But I refuse to not try to provide clean water – no matter the damage already caused – for a city. We can still revolt and fight for justice while providing water. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. There is a difference between charity and justice. We should not and cannot confuse the two. We cannot only give charity. We must also fight for justice. But we cannot forget the need to do charity while we are fighting for justice. That is the reason that we have two biblical commands: Deuteronomy 15:4, to build a just society, and Deuteronomy 15:7, to help those in need as well strive for justice. We must do both.

The actions of Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, in our biblical narrative are some of the most important actions in the Torah. He is there alongside Moses and the Israelites as they receive the Ten Commandments, representing the Divine law. But juxtaposed to this event is Jethro – an outsider of sorts – who tells Moses that a court system, a justice system, must be set up. We read:

This thing that you are doing is not good. You will wear yourself out, and this people that are with you as well. For this task, this burden, is too heavy for you, and you cannot do it alone (Ex. 18:17-18).

Jethro is doing more than just helping Moses find the proper work-life balance. He is doing more than making sure Moses isn’t micromanaging. He is acknowledging that as the Israelites are receiving law, law is not set in stone. Law does not always equal justice.

Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“…there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… ‘How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”

Just because something is legal, that doesn’t mean it is just. Jethro teaches that we must wrestle with law, struggle with the legal system, and make sure that laws are just for all. That is the justice system that he set up. That is the justice system that we still seek. So yes, Michael Moore, we should revolt. We should pursue justice. We should hold Governor Snyder and the state officials of Michigan accountable for poisoning an entire city. But we have an obligation to give charity, to give Tzedakah, while we fight for Tzedek. We have an obligation to throw that metaphorical branch into the bitter waters to make them sweet. We have an obligation to provide clean, drinkable water, to every resident of this country. And we have an obligation to continue to fight for justice while we do so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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That Which Plagues Us

Last week, I watched the CNN Town Hall conversation with President Obama on gun violence in America. More so than by any executive action that Obama made a reality, and more so than by any statement the President made, I was impacted by the stories of two members of the audience. Their realities were heart-wrenching. For these two individuals gun violence wasn’t about mass shootings in schools or cinemas or office buildings. Gun violence was everyday life.

The first was Father Michael Pfleger, a white, Roman Catholic priest, whose parrish is on the south side of Chicago, where he said he has buried hundreds of congregants, hundreds of victims of gun violence. He reminded the President – and the country – about the dangers that his congregants, so many young black men and women in the inner city of Chicago, face every day, and the reality of inequality that still exists that is the root cause of such violence. The second person was Tre Bosley, a young black teenager from Chicago, who spoke about his brother Terrell who was murdered in Chicago ten years ago at the age of 18 while in a church parking lot. Tre challenged the President to understand what he and his peers face daily, surrounded by gun violence and poverty. He said that he cannot look into the future and imagine what his life will be like. His peers don’t know if they’ll be alive years from now. They live week to week, day to day.

And the statistics support his fears. The Chicago Tribune keeps a running list of how many people were shot in the city. And since January 1st of this year, in seventeen days, 148 people have been shot in Chicago. 148! In two weeks. That is approximately nine shootings a day! In our own backyard, there are similar fears. While there has been a decline in state-wide violence, the opposite is true in Newark. Shootings surged in Newark in 2015, up almost 20% from the prior year. For too many young children this fear is a reality.

Too many young children fear that Hadiya Pendleton’s fate will be their fate. Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl, who was murdered on a playground in Chicago in 2013. She and her friends were walking home from school and it started pouring rain. They took over under the slides and swing sets. She was shot and killed by two men who thought that she and her friends, gathering together, looking for shelter and safety in the rain were a rival gang. A week earlier, she performed at the President’s second inauguration. And then she was murdered by a bullet.

This past Shabbat, we read the most disturbing part of the Exodus narrative. While frogs, cattle disease, lice, and hail, were inconveniences, the tenth and final plague sent an entire nation into mourning.

God said:

Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians and every first born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. (Ex. 11:4-6)

A mournful cry was heard among all of Egypt. What was it about the tenth plague that did it? Why was that the straw that broke the camel’s back? One could argue that Pharaoh deserved to be punished for his actions, as did his taskmasters, courtiers, and government officials. And while they may’ve suffered from grief, they survived. It was the firstborns, their children, so young and innocent, that were killed. Seeing them taken from the world, with their full lives ahead of them is what did it. That is what finally caused Pharaoh to realize something needed to change.

This society, where young boys and girls in inner cities don’t feel safe, and may be shot on a playground is on us. We are experiencing Makat Bechorot, that plague of the death of our innocent children. We must acknowledge the root cause of such violence: the systemic racist reality that still exists in our culture, that we caused with white flight, the creation of urban ghettoes, not to mention a broken windows policy of policing, and a criminal justice system to is harsher on minorities and the impoverished. We could spend years talking about the reality that exists – and the cause of that reality. Regardless of the root cause, we must acknowledge that our hearts remain hardened like Pharaoh’s heart. Or better said, our hearts remain apathetic. Our hearts remain complacent. Our hearts have come to accept this reality.

Dr. King often spoke about the fierce urgency of now. To rid ourselves of our hardened hearts, of our apathetic souls, and change society. Now is the time to end this plague of gun violence that effects so many innocent children.

What I find so troubling about Parashat Bo, is that while all the Egyptians, including the innocent bystanders, suffered and watched the bloodshed, witnessed the angel of death murdering their firstborns, the Israelites were protected. The Israelites were safe.

God said:

When I see the blood on the doorpost I will protect you so that no plague destroy you. (Ex. 12:13)

The Israelites tucked their children in at night and knew that they would wake up the next morning safe and sound. They knew that they their neighbors were suffering, but they were fine. And so it continues. This plague continues. Death. Loss. Too many innocent victims. And we – distant and removed from it all – allow the plague to passover us.

Rabbi Daniel Burg serves as rabbi of Beth Am in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, one of the few synagogues to remain in the city of Baltimore, instead of moving to the suburbs like much of the Jewish community did decades ago. He speaks of two neighborhoods in the city: Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray lived, and Roland Park, the first planned suburb in North America. Beth Am is between these two neighborhoods, these two neighborhoods which are roughly three miles apart. He asked his community if they knew the difference between the life expectancy in Roland Park and Sandtown-Winchester. The answer: fifteen years. Statistically speaking, one who lives in the suburbs of Roland Park with the fine supermarkets and superb schools will live for fifteen more years than those who live in the poverty stricken neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. These two neighborhoods are right down the street from each other, but one is plagued be the angel of death and the other is protected by the sacrifical lamb. The society that we live in allows this plague to pass over some of us and attack others.

But no more. What will it take for us to end this plague? What will it take for us to create and build a safer society for all of God’s children? We must put an end to this plague. We must metaphorically spread the blood of the pascal lamb upon all of our doorposts, so that poverty, injustice, and inequality, and the fear and violence that is often the result, will pass over all of us. May it be so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Star Wars and Jewish Thought Have Same Take on Good Versus Evil

This article was originally published on December 18, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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Star Wars has always been about more than just galactic war, aliens, and planet traveling. It is about the fight of good versus evil. How one uses the Force is equivalent to the rabbinic tradition’s ‘yetzer tov’ and ‘yetzer rah.’

HaaretzStarWarsPicMost sci-fi enthusiasts say the most pivotal moment in the iconic Star Wars franchise took place in The Empire Strikes Back when the evil Darth Vader reveals to the young Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker that he is in fact his father. They use this argument to support their claim that Episode V is the best film in the series.

While that may be true, the most important moment for me is the end of Return of the Jedi when Vader prevents the evil Darth Sidious, Emperor Palpatine, from killing his son Luke. At that moment, Vader abandons his commitment to the Dark Side and his status as a Sith Lord, and instead uses the Force for good. He even has his son remove his mask, killing him in the process.

Star Wars has always been about more than just galactic war, aliens, and planet traveling. It is about the fight of good versus evil. The Force within the Star Wars universe represents the talent and ability inside each of us to be good and do good. The Force is each individual’s opportunity and responsibility to stand up for good. The Light Side and the Dark Side, the result of how one uses the Force, is equivalent to the rabbinic tradition’s yetzer tov and yetzer rah, one’s good inclination and one’s evil inclination.

The yetzer rah that haunts us, and leads us down a dark path, is not what we think. We tend to look at those who do wrong as selfish, only thinking about themselves. Similarly, when we look at Anakin Skywalker embracing the Dark Side, we think that jealousy and ego led him to turn evil. Yet, there is a selflessness to that selfishness. Anakin turns to the Dark Side because Palpatine promises that doing so will give him the power to save his wife, Padmé. Midrash teaches that a similar drive pushes someone to do wrong (Genesis Rabbah 9:7). We desire safety, security, health – for ourselves, but also for others. We do not want to accept that some things are out of our control. Trying to control what we cannot control ultimately leads us down the path of wrongdoing. There is not a Sith Lord pushing us to do evil. There is only ourselves and our own desires.

One may think that we begin in a pure state and that our relationship with others and the manner in which we are influenced by society makes us impure. Rabbinic Judaism offers the opposite perspective. Rabbinic tradition teaches that one is born solely with the yetzer rah and only acquires the yetzer tov at age 13 (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 16). That is why one does not become bar mitzvah, and does not become obligated or responsible until that age. If Judaism teaches that we begin with a state of wrongdoing and only learn to do good, then the yetzer tov is not only equivalent to the Force being used for good. It is also symbolic of the hope that is present throughout the films. The first Star Wars film, Episode IV, is even called A New Hope.

That hope is what drives the Jewish people. In fact, that eternal hope is the gift of Judaism. The hope that good will defeat evil, both in this world and within ourselves, is the hope we sing about in the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. That hope is found in the scriptural narrative of our people, the exodus experience following 400 years of slavery and servitude. That hope is prominent in Psalms, as the Psalmist promises “weeping may endure for an evening, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

Similarly, Star Wars embodies hope for a better future. We can easily become disheartened by reading headlines and watching the news. We see evil in the world around us and fear the dark direction that society is heading in. We hear xenophobic and bigoted statements from community leaders and politicians and fear that our society, which prides itself on freedom and democracy, is becoming the evil empire.

Yet, Star Wars is a call to action. It turned a moisture farmer on the forgotten desert planet of Tattoine into a Jedi Knight. It turned the self-centered Han Solo into a hero that cared about others and not just about himself. Yet it demands we drive that change toward a better future by ensuring the yetzer tov within each us, and within society, prevails.

May the Force be with you.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Miracle of Civil Discourse

There was only enough oil to last for one night, and miraculously it lasted for eight whole nights!

This is the Chanukah story we teach our children in school and what is generally accepted as the root of our Chanukah celebration. Yet oil lasting for longer than expected is hardly a miracle, and such a story is hardly a reason to establish in annual festival. Rather, the lighting of the Menorah, and its flames continuing to burn, holds greater significance than we realize.

The Menorah had been lit at one of the darkest moments in Jewish history. The Temple desecrated, and more alarming was that many Jews had assimilated and embraced the cultural trends of the Assyrian-Greeks. The guerrilla warfare of Chanukah and the Maccabean revolt was not Jew vs. Assyrian-Greek. It was Jew vs. Jew. This civil war pitted the Jewish community against itself and put the future of Judaism in serious jeopardy. When the Menorah was lit, and the Temple was rededicated, the light became a symbol of something greater. The light served as a new beginning.

ArguingOur tradition teaches that the Jewish people are an ohr la’goyim, a light unto the world. We believe that we have insight to share, and ethics and values to teach. Yet, I fear that often, we spend too much time in civil war. Disagreement is good. Discussion is healthy. Much “discussion” we find in the Talmud is deemed a Machloket L’Shem Shamayim, a disagreement for the Sake of Heaven. Sometimes, disagreements are holy disagreements.

But recently, the Jewish community has gotten to a point where it seems we can’t even talk to each other. We won’t come to the table with those that we disagree with. We take to social media not to reasonably discuss and debate, but to seemingly belittle others’ opinions, embarrassing them in the process. Our broad Jewish community needs to reframe our conversations and reframe our relationships.

As we light our Chanukiyot this holiday season, let us not only focus on the historic rededication of the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. Let us also rededicate ourselves – to civility, to unity, and to an understanding that despite our deepest of disagreements, we still must strive to be Am Echad Im Lev Echad: one people with one heart.

We cannot be a light unto the world until we are a light unto ourselves. On Chanukah we are taught not only to say Chag Sameach, meaning “happy holiday,” but also to say Chag Urim Sameach, meaning “may you have a happy and light-filled holiday.” At this darkest time of the year, when the shortened days mean the sky is dark when we awake and dark when we return home, may our paths be illuminated by the light of the original Menorah, and our own individual menorahs that we light. May we rededicate ourselves to civility, to our ability to come together as community. May we embrace each other and respect each other, regardless of our opinions. If we can do that, then that would be a true miracle!

This blog post was originally published in the Winter 2015-2016 edition of the Congregation Beth El Bulletin. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fulfilling God’s Promise of Protection

Just a few weeks ago, as we read Parashat Vayetze, I couldn’t help but feel that the words of Torah were speaking directly to what is going on in the world around us. The Torah portion begins with Vayetze –  and he left –  telling the story of Jacob on the run, fleeing, concerned about his own safety and security. The narrative even concludes with Jacob on the run again, fleeing once more, even if the imminent danger is unclear. The parasha focuses on our patriarch Jacob wandering without a place to call home, without a place where he is welcomed in.

These words hit close to home as our country and society continues to grapple with welcoming in Syrian refugees. Welcoming in the most vulnerable is a key element of who we are as Jews – and should be a key element of who we are as human beings. We do not abandon the most vulnerable. We promise to be with them when they need us most.

When a wandering Jacob sees God’s divine messengers in his dream, angels ascending and descending staircases, Jacob is comforted by hearing God’s promise:

Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go… (Gen. 28:15).

Our obligation, as we strive to walk in God’s ways, and also be God’s messengers, is to be there for those who need us most. We cannot turn our backs on them. I read a disturbing poll in the Washington Post recently. The poll stated that over two-thirds of Americans, more than 67%, believe that we should try to keep refugees out of this country. Those numbers are disturbing in their own right. However, chills ran down my spine as I realized that this poll wasn’t taken in December 2015 and wasn’t referring to the millions of Syrian refugees who are desperately seeking asylum. Rather, this poll was taken in July 1938, and was referring to refugees from Germany and Austria fleeing the Nazis.

Poll

This poll was referring to many of our ancestors being turned away as they sought freedom and safety in this country. What worries me is our refusal, both then and now, to fulfill God’s promise to be “with you” and “protect you wherever you go.”

Refugees are fleeing from terror, not perpetrators of terror. I understand the fear of ISIS – a real threat in the world, but we cannot turn our backs on millions of refugees. We cannot turn our backs, in the same way that so many turn their backs on our ancestors trying to come to this country decades ago. We cannot ignore the stranger. We must love the stranger. We must embrace the stranger. For we were once strangers.

I am deeply troubled by the recent news that many governors, including Governor Christie of New Jersey, have publicly stated that they wouldn’t welcome refugees into their states. I decided to write Governor Christie and urge him, based on the teachings of so many faith traditions, to reconsider his positions. Rabbis began to sign on to this letter, and before I knew it, over 100 members of the clergy, all residents of New Jersey, from many faith traditions and religious backgrounds, signed on to the letter as well.

While we await a response from the Governor, I – and my community – continues to commit to doing our part to welcome in the stranger. I refuse to ignore the most vulnerable. May we uphold God’s promise of protection to those who need it most.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

The full text of the letter can be found here:

LetterToGovChristieAboutSyrianRefugees

LetterToGovChristieAboutSyrianRefugees2

 

LetterToGovChristieAboutSyrianRefugees3

LetterToGovChristieAboutSyrianRefugees4

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