See The Signs

This past weekend marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. On Kristallnacht, on November 9, 1938, a pogrom against the Jewish community was carried out by the Nazi’s paramilitary forces. By the next day, over a hundred Jews were murdered, and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested or sent to concentration camps. Jewish schools and hospitals were looted. Jewish buildings were demolished. 267 synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed. And over 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged. Store windows were shattered. Torah Scrolls were set on fire. These events seem so far removed from our minds. And yet, they are so close.

Historians look at Kristallnacht as a wake-up call, an alarm that was set off. November 9, 1938. But Kristallnacht was already after the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935 that sought to limit the freedom of Jewish citizens and exclude them from civil society. Historians identify the beginning of the Holocaust as 1941 – that is when Jews were marched into the gas chambers and Nazis put their plan of mass extermination of the Jewish people into play. But 1941 was three years after Kristallnacht, six years after the Nuremberg Laws were passed, and eight years after Hitler’s democratically elected rise to power. I can’t help but ask, after each of these events, why didn’t the Jewish community all leave then, even if some tried to? Why didn’t more people stand up and fight back, even if some tried, most notably the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? Why didn’t the non-Jewish community do more to help the Jews, even if so many risked their own lives to save Jewish lives? Why didn’t other nations intervene sooner?

The Anti-Defamation League said that there was a 57% increase in Anti-Semitism from 2016-2017. We know what that can lead to; we experienced are own modern-day Kristallnact of sorts as we mourned with our brother and sisters in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, two Shabbatot ago. In France, the French Prime Minister’s office announced that Anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 69%. And here, we see laws passed to limit one’s rights based on their identities, be in gender identity, or country of origin, or immigration status. So we are left in the same exact situation. Last week we showed up for Shabbat in solidarity with the Tree of Life Synagogue. What do we do this week? Next week? Next month? After that?

And we must call out not just those who act with such hate, but those who fan the flames of hate; we must call out those who are just as responsible for those evil acts, not just the physically perpetrators of such acts, but also those whose policies were put in place, whose political promises, stoked the flames of this fire.

When we call out hate, it is easy to blame one person. No one is more to blame than those that committed such acts of hate and violence. Yet, there are so many responsible. And those with the biggest megaphones and soapboxes, rightly deserve such blame. But they are not alone in that blame. Those who are behind the scenes, encouraging the actions of those whose voices are heard are just as responsible. And those who remain silent, when such acts of evil don’t directly affect them –  or directly affect us – are to blame as well.

I often would wonder why more wasn’t done following Kristallnacht, why those in position of power who could’ve stopped the eventuality of the Holocaust didn’t stand up to Hitler and the Nazi party. I often wonder why more people didn’t see the signs and become fearfully aware of where they would lead. Let’s open our eyes and see the signs. This isn’t about politics or partisan issues. This isn’t about Republicans or Democrats. This isn’t about Red America or Blue America. This is about what hateful words of people in positions of power, who demonize minority groups, can lead to. The Holocaust happened eight years after Hitler rose to power. Let us all see the scary signs – the rise in hate crimes, in hateful acts, and in hateful rhetoric – and stand up to it now, before it is too late. Because when we say never again, we mean never again. And when we say never again, we don’t just mean never again for the Jewish people; we mean never again will we allow this to happen to anyone.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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I Will Never Hide Who I Am

Following the murder of 11 congregants at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last Shabbat, in what the Anti-Defamation League called the largest mass killing of Jews in US History, I could not find any words to say. There are no words to make sense of such hate. There are no words to calm the fears that so many in the American Jewish Community feel right now. Through 2000 years wandering in exile, we experienced oppression, ostracization, excommunication, and murder because we were Jews. But the Jewish community has experienced more freedom here, more safety here, and more success here than ever before. And it was here, in America, the land of the free, that on last Shabbat, we were murdered for being Jewish. So I couldn’t find any words to say. There were no words from our tradition, no teachings of rabbinic literature, no verses of Torah that made sense of this moment.

Then I was reminded of words from US history, the words of President George Washington. Washington was touring the country following the establishment of this new government, to buy goodwill from Americans who were still trying to figure out what it meant to be American. Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Yisrael — now known as the Touro Synagogue — is the oldest synagogue in this country. That Jewish community from Newport, Rhode Island sent a letter of congratulations to President Washington in advance of his visit there. He famously replied:

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.  

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

In Parashat Chaye Sarah, the Torah reading that we read this past Shabbat, our biblical patriarch Abraham prepares to bury his beloved wife and find a burial place for her. In doing so, he refers to himself as a ger toshav. He tells the Hittites: “I am a ger toshav; I am a resident and I am a stranger.” He lived among the Hittites, but didn’t quite feel like he was home. He still felt different. He still felt like an outsider.

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. 

When much of the wave of Jewish immigrants came to this country at the turn of the twentieth century, or prior to or immediately following the Holocaust, or as refugees from the former Soviet Union, long after George Washington wrote these words to the Jewish community of Rhode Island in 1790, they came here – we came herebecause of the promise that this country gives to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance. And that in order to be an American, we must strive to be good citizens.

Last Sunday evening, I stood in downtown South Orange with so many of you at a candlelight vigil mourning those murdered in Squirrel Hill. I did so wearing my tallit, my prayer shawl. Standing among a dozen clergy including many rabbis and cantors, I was alone in wearing a tallit. Because you don’t wear a tallit when it is not a worship service. You certainly don’t wear it at night. In fact, the only time we wear a tallit in the evening is on Kol Nidre, as we begin our Yom Kippur fasts and we experience a spiritual death of sorts. After feeling a sense of communal lose not just another instance of gun violence and not just another mass shooting with a murderer using an AR-15a loss of innocence, a loss of feeling safe and secure in sacred space, I donned this tallit. I intentionally wore a tallit at a time when we typically do not, in public space where we typically do not, as a statement that we will never hide who we are and we will never deny what we believe.

Our people have had to hide all too often throughout our history. There are the Marranos and Conversos of Spain who who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the inquisition and continued to practice Jewish ritual in secret, whose descendants continued to practice certain Jewish rituals, but had no idea that they were Jewish. There are the children of the Kinder Transport, where parents saved their lives by putting them on trains to other parts of Europe and England, saving them from the Nazis; they were raised as Christian to save their lives until the Nazis were defeated. There are those of us who fit into society as much as possible, refusing to stand out because standing out would call attention, standing out would invite further Anti-Semitism and bigotry towards us.

Maybe even in our own communities, we have felt a little bit like a ger toshav at times. But I wore my tallit to declare that I will never be a ger toshav, I will never feel like I do not belong in this country because I am Jewish. I will never be a stranger in my own community. My American identity will be strengthened because of my Jewish identity. And my Jewish identity is strengthened by being American.

There are those of us who came to this country to build a better life and world for our families. There are those of us who are first- and second-generation Americans. I myself am a fourth-generation American. But it doesn’t matter where we were born, or what religion we practice, and it doesn’t matter the language we speak or the color of our skin. Our differences, our uniqueness, makes us Americans because President Washington promised that this is a country that gives to bigotry no sanction. Yet those words from this country’s first president seem so so foreign to the realities of today, where those in power stoke the flames of hate. We will not hide here. But we are fearful when the highest office in the land condones bigotry, rather than promises to give bigotry no sanction.

In our Torah, Abraham is uncertain if he is fully accepted as a resident of Canaan among the Hittites. He refers to himself as a ger toshav because he believes that this is how others see him. No matter how many generations we have lived in a place, we worry, will we always be an outsider. We are worried that we will be stereotyped as cheap with a hooked nose, or referred to as a “globalist” who controls world banking and media empires. We are haunted by chants of White Nationalists declaring “Jews will not replace us” with the flames of their torches in hand illuminating the hate in their eyes. We are scared that our scared spaces will become fortresses, as if this is the only solution to them being safe spaces, because of deranged murderers and words of hate that are espoused that encourage them. 

Abraham ended up being surprised. Bereshit Rabba, the midrash on the book of Genesis, says that the Hitties referred to Abraham as their king, their prince, and their god. But most importantly, Midrash HaGadol suggests that Abraham knew where to bury Sarah because he found all of the Hittites mourning her there, wailing just as he had wailed, crying because her loss was a loss for them as well.

The first calls I received on last Saturday night was from local elected officials, apologizing in advance if they were calling me before Shabbat was over, but wanting to reach out to offer condolences and to see if we were okay. The next calls and texts were from Muslim and Christian clergy colleagues asking what could they do to stand with us. Then there were the hugs and tears shed, and the tightly gripped hands held of neighbors, and the emails and Facebook messages of many who asked if Shabbat services were only open to those of the Jewish faith or if they could join us, to sit with us, to stand with us, at this moment. We are here, a week later, doing exactly what the Tree of Life Synagogue did. Celebrating Shabbat. Praying together as community. Celebrating a Simcha. But we are not alone. And we are not afraid. Because we are not outsiders.

Abraham was worried that his neighbors viewed him as a ger toshav, but his neighbors reaffirmed for him that was not the case. I am not a ger toshav. I am not a stranger. We are not. And I refuse to respond to hate with fear. I respond with love, with love of community, love of all that it means to be a Jew, love of standing up for those who may be different than I am, and love of others who stand with me who stand with us. 

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. 

That is all the affirmation we nee to stand united against Anti-Semitism and to stand united against hate of any kind. That is all the affirmation we need to be reminded that we are Jews and Americans. That this is our home and we will never hide who we are. None of us shall ever be a ger toshav here. Instead, let our world be just as President Washington promised two centuries ago, learning from the example of our patriarch:

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May it be so. Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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#ShowUpForShabbat

The American Jewish Committee launched the #ShowUpForShabbat campaign following last Shabbat’s massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Jewish Federation of North America, with similar sentiments declared that this Shabbat should Solidarity Shabbat. This Shabbat should be a call for Jew and non-Jew alike to come to synagogue. Regardless of one’s faith, or observance of that faith, or synagogue affiliation, it is an opportunity to stand united against hate, participating in the same act that led to the murder of 11 worshipers last week, the same act that we at Beth El participate in every week.

As I shared on social media earlier this week, I never want to guilt anyone into coming to Shabbat services. I don’t think Jewish guilt should be a reason you ever come to synagogue. With that in mind, I invite you, not because of guilt, but because of pride, to come to synagogue this Shabbat. Show up for Shabbat.

Come to Congregation Beth El or one of our neighboring synagogues in the South Orange-Maplewood area. Or attend services at another synagogue close by in a neighboring town. Or celebrate Shabbat at a synagogue close to where you are or where you’ll be.

We do not respond to hate with fear. We respond to hate with love, with love of community, with love of who we are, with love of all that unites us as well as all that makes us unique. We respond to hate by coming together, for as long as we come together, we shall not fear. Come, not full of guilt, but full of pride. #ShowUpForShabbat

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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Words Matter

There’s a Hasidic story about a man who regretted the hateful words he said and finally wanted to change. He turned to his rabbi and asked how to repent. The rabbi told him to take his pillowcase and bring it into the middle of the forest and tear it open. He did just as the rabbi commanded. As he tore open the fabric, feathers flew everywhere. A gust of wind carried the feathers so far, the man could no longer see them. He returned to his rabbi, having completed the task, and feeling good. “Now go collect all the feathers and put them back in the pillow,” the rabbi said. The man knew that this was an impossible task, and learned the impact of his hateful words.

At the very end of Parashat Vayera, we read of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Chapter 22 of Genesis begins

 V’yehi achar Hadvarim Haeleh, And it came to pass, after these things.

Most assume this is like the scrolling words at the beginning of a Star Wars film. They are meant to fill you in on what happened immediately prior to this narrative. They are meant to link the stories of the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar, and Abraham’s conversations with Abimelech to this commandment to kill his son.

But the Hebrew word Devarim, means more than just “things.” It also means “words” and that is how the classical biblical commentator Rashi reads this verse. After these words were said, this happened. Rashi offers two midrashim, two rabbinic interpretations, to explain what words were said. First he suggests that these were the words of the Adversary, the celestial being that was God’s enemy, meant to challenge God. The Adversary said that Abraham wasn’t “devout enough” and wouldn’t even sacrifice those that he loved if God commanded him to do so, leading to this test by God. Second, Rashi suggests that these were words between brothers Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was giving Isaac a hard time because he was circumcised at only eight days old, while Ishmael went through the pain of being circumcised at thirteen years old. Giving his brother a hard time, Ishmael challenged Isaac to experience pain to show his commitment to God.

No matter the words that were said that led to the binding of Isaac narrative, we are reminded that words matter. Words lead to action. This has been on my mind as bombs were sent to news networks, Democratic party leaders, and financial supporters of Democratic candidates, after the President referred to them as enemies of the state. This was on my mind all last night, following the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and seeing the President speak – and tweet – time and time again using the word “globalist,” a dog whistle Anti-Semitic slur.

The Anti-Defamation League said that this weekend’s mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue was likely the largest mass killing of Jews in US History. They regularly speak of the escalation of hate. They teach that words of bias are at the bottom of the pyramid of hate, but that eventually leads to bias motivated violence. Words matter.

Psalm 120 says that words are like sharp arrows, like smoldering coals. Midrash explains that they are like arrows because an individual can stand in one place and his words can still harm another, no matter how far away. And they are like coals because even when the outer parts of the coal have turned to ash, the inner embers still burn. Our words do damage long after we have even forgotten what words we’ve said.

And some time after these words, a terrible action happened.

Abraham acted, without even realizing how terrible his action was. Some argue that he failed the test by participating in such an act of violence. He was so focused on the act that he couldn’t even hear an angel of God calling out to him telling him to stop. That angel of God had to intervene. Midrash even says that the angel grabbed his hand and had him slaughter a ram caught in the thickets to prevent him from harming his son. Words did not cause his action, but they led to his action.

Let us think before we speak. Lest, like arrows or coals, our words cause serious harm to one another.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Make Room on Your Ark

Noah was a righteous man, simple in his generation. Noah walked with God. Rabbinic tradition has debated these opening words of Parashat Noach for centuries. What does it mean that “Noah was righteous, in his generation?” Was he righteous, or only compared to those around him who were even worse? Was Noah graded on a bell curve? Alternatively, would he have been even more righteous, if he was among those who were righteous.

Not only was Noah instructed to build an ark to protect himself and his family from the expected flood.  He was commanded to include every type of animal on that ark. The Torah tells us fourteen of every pure animal and two of every impure animal should be included. He made room for even the impure animals on his ark, but when it came to humanity, when it came to people, it was just Noah and his family. And Noah did as God said. He built that ship with gopher wood. He invited all those animals unto the ark. Then, the flood came:

All the fountains of the great deep burst apart and all the floodgates of the sky broke open (Gen. 7:11).

But the flood didn’t happen overnight. Commentators suggest that God gave a 120-year warning, prior to the flood’s arrival. Many interpret the words of Genesis 6:3, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years,” to be God’s way of warning society that God will wipe out humanity in 120 years if people are unwilling to change.

The Torah tells us that Noah was 600-years-old when the flood came. He had 120 years to build the ark, but he also had 120 years to change society, and to change God’s mind. He did neither. He just focused on the blueprints and dimensions. He just focused on making sure there was enough room for his family. He wasn’t concerned with saving anyone, but himself. He wasn’t concerned with protecting any family, but his own.

TNoahsArkhus, Noah wasn’t that righteous after all. He failed because while God walked with him, he refused to walk with anyone else – he walked alone. The Kabbalistic text of the Zohar refers to the flood as the Flood of Noah, for it was Noah’s inaction that brought about this flood. A true test of righteousness is the stance one takes, the metaphorical arks one builds – and whether or not one builds an ark for just themselves, or if there is room on that ark for others. Are we only righteous when something directly impacts us? That is not righteous at all. It is selfish. True righteousness comes when we care for the most vulnerable, when we are a voice for the silent, when we raise up the downtrodden, and when we use whatever privilege we have to protect those most in need. True righteousness comes when we make room for everyone on the ark.

For forty days and forty nights, as the floods washed away all of humanity, Noah sat alone, only with his guilt.

When the flood subsided, God promised to never destroy the earth again. But God also cast a rainbow in the sky. Zot Ot haBrit, God said. This is a sign of the covenant between us. The diversity of the colors of the rainbow, all different hues, shows the diversity of all made in God’s divine image. This sign in the sky was a reminder to Noah. One cannot only thing about themselves. One cannot only think of a single color. We are all intertwined. And thus, we must all be there for each other. We, humanity united, is that sign of the covenant. All of us – made in God’s divine image. Will you make sure there is enough room on the ark of everyone in need?

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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#IBelieveHer

Ecclesiastes said “there is never anything new under the sun.” It sure seemed like that this week. As we read from the book of Ecclesiastes during the festival of Sukkot, the entire traumatic week seemed to be history repeating itself. Over twenty-five years after Anita Hill spoke about being a victim of sexual harassment at the hands of Clarence Thomas at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Christine Blasey Ford was courageous enough to retell – and relive – being sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court nomination hearing. A generation later, and there is nothing new under the sun.

I repeat the words of Ecclesiastes with shame, anger, and heartbreak. Because I am ashamed of a society that denigrates and demeans women and treats them as less than, as objects, a patriarchal society that dates back to the Torah, our sacred text that we must wrestle with because at its best it doesn’t even give woman a name and at its worst, it permits sexual assault. And the more that we read from it, without distancing ourselves from the horrible societal norms that it has enabled, we become complacent.

I reached out to a colleague this week because I didn’t know what to say. Watching C-SPAN in horror and anger, through tears of disappointment and rage, I asked my friend, what Torah am I supposed to teach to shed light on the horrific realities of society, and this confirmation hearing that focuses a microscope on those realities. My colleague is someone who has spent much of her career counseling and pastoring to survivors of sexual assault and violence. I knew she would have the answer. And she simply told me, the most important Torah you can teach at this moment is also the simplistic: that you believe her.

I believer her. I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. And to all those who are survivors of sexual violence and assault, I believe you. I am here. And I believe you. I see you. If this week has been a trigger for you, and forced you to relive that trauma, I am sorry. But most of all, I am sorry that this confirmation hearing has highlighted that men of privilege are still give the benefit of the doubt while survivors are too often challenged, tormented, or ignored. This past week, we failed our most basic test of humanity.

I believe her. And I believe you. But those words are not enough. And I am sorry that they are not said enough.

This has been a difficult week to celebrate Sukkot, a holiday in which we are supposed to be joyous. In fact, it is referred to as Zman Simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing. The Torah even commands us — obligates us — to be joyful on this holiday:

“Celebrate Sukkot for seven days, after you have gathered the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress. Be joyful on your festival” (Deut. 16:13-14).

V’Samachta b’chagecha. We are commanded to be joyful. Sukkot is my favorite holiday, but I’ve felt little joy this week. And in some ways the festival of Sukkot reminds us of the darkness in the world around and gives us hope that joy will come. Tractate Sukkah in the Babylonian Talmud differentiates between he shade provided by the walls of the sukkah and the shade provided by the s’chach, the roof covering. While it doesn’t give an explanation as to why, it is explicit that in order to be a kosher sukkah, the s’chach must provide that shade. But there is meaning behind all ritual. The shade of the walls are permanent. That darkness remains. The s’chach provide shade, but we must be able to see the sky. It still allows a light bit of light to shine through. This week has felt dark, and we yearn for a little bit of light to shine through the s’chach. Or as the psalmist wrote: “we may cry throughout the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

Hoping for joy though is not enough. Waiting for that light to light up the darkness does not help me feel joyful at this moment, during this holiday when we are required to do so. But on sukkot we are almost reminded of the fragility of each of us. We intentionally chose a dwelling place that does not protect us from the elements all around us. The sukkah itself is fragile to remind us that if we aren’t there to protect each other, if we aren’t there to be there for each other, then it’s so easy for the swirling winds around us to damage us, to knock us down.

The truth is, the joy the Torah refers to, the joy we must have on Sukkot, isn’t unadulterated joy. Even though the Talmud tells us that there is no joy without meat and wine, the joy in this context isn’t about food, or wealth, or material success.

Deuteronomy 16:14 continues, not just that we should rejoice on our holiday, but, we should rejoice with our children and servants, but also with the Levite and the Ger, the Yatom, and the Almana, the Stranger, the Orphan, and the Widow, those who the Torah deemed, and biblical society saw as, most vulnerable. These were those who were forgotten, ignored, tormented, and not believed when they sought out help. And the Torah tells us that in order to experience joy, we must bring them into our sukkot. We must provide a safe haven, no matter how fragile or unstable that safe haven feels at times, for those who need it most. We provide symbolic shelter, a metaphoric sukkah, for those who need us most. We remind our loved ones, family members, friends, community members, and colleagues, that we are there for them, that we love them, and that they are not alone.

What most troubled be about this week’s hearings is that somehow, sexual assault becoming a partisan issue – that if one political party supported the brave statements of a survivor, the other was forced to cast doubt on those statements. This is shameful, but not surprising when the elected leader of this country is a serial sexual predator. But nothing about standing with survivors of sexual assault and violence should be partisan — or political. Our most basic human values should drive us to say to each other “I believe you.” Let us do that. Let us tell those around us that we believe them and stand with them. Then, only then, can we truly understand what it means to rejoice in this festival, because we will lean on each other, stand up for each other, and end the patriarchy that rewards predators. This is nothing new under the sun. And thus, we have a long way to go before we change the complacency upon too many in society. But standing with survivors is the least we can do.

I believe her.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Bound Up and Becoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Less is More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Isaac explained that Jacob took his blessing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Society Needs to Do Some Serious Cheshbon HaNefesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing Up for the Angels Among Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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