A Living Legacy

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy this weekend. This past Shabbat, we concluded the book of Genesis by reading Parashat Vayechi. Two of the main characters of the book of Genesis, Jacob and Joseph, die. Jacob, our patriarch and our namesake as a people, spends much of the end of the book on his deathbed offering his last words to his children. One would expect words of blessing and love, an ethical will of sorts, from their father, but in many cases, Jacob did anything but bless his sons. He did not to intend punish them or yell at them. Rather, Jacob feared that as a father, as a leader, he wouldn’t be there to guide his children anymore. He wouldn’t be able to teach them right from wrong. It was a hard enough challenge when he was alive. He worried even more about their paths in life when he is gone. He told his oldest, Reuben, that he is unstable as water and shall not excel (Gen. 49:4). He told his sons Simeon and Levi that their weapons are tools of lawlessness and that his soul wouldn’t come into their council (Gen. 49:5-6).These aren’t exactly the blessings you want from your father when he is on his death bed. But there is a deep sense of fear by Jacob that all that he taught his children, the ethics and values that he himself learned as an adult after he changed his ways, would be forgotten. Jacob feared that without his leadership and guidance, his children would not continue on the trajectory that they were on.  

The portion concludes with the death of Jacob’s favored son, Joseph. Unlike his father, Joseph does not offer final blessings. Instead, he simply asked all to make a promise that in the end, when the Children of Israel left Egypt, they wouldn’t leave Joseph behind. Joseph was embalmed and mummified, as was the custom of ancient Egypt, and made his brothers promise that they would literally take his bones with him when they set out for the promised land. Joseph was worried about being left behind, figuratively and literally. Joseph was worried about being forgotten.

The haftarah reading for Parashat Vayechi, finds King David on his deathbed, also sharing last words with his loved ones. Unlike Jacob or Joseph, David is much more blunt with his words. He tells Solomon to “keep charge of God, walk in God’s ways, and follow the ethics, values, and laws of the Lord” (I King 1:3). David expected his son to follow on his path and made sure that he knew it. 

Jacob worried that all he believed in would fall by the wayside without him leading the way, Joseph wanted to live on and continue on life’s journey after he died in hopes that he could continue to impact the world in death just as he did in life, and David made sure to remind his children the importance of walking in his path and in his footsteps. On the day when our nation remembers the life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can’t help but think of Dr. King’s legacy as well. What were the last words he would’ve said, if he was on his deathbed? In a way, we already have that answer. 

Dr. King received daily death threats and knew that any day could be his last. That did not stop him from preaching God’s word and striving to finish building the world that the Almighty set out to create; that did not stop him from working towards a more just society. The last public speech he gave, on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, focused on the thoughts he wanted to leave this world. Legend has it that Dr. King almost didn’t share these words at the Mason Temple to Memphis Sanitation Workers. He was under the weather, but at the crowds urging, he spoke anyway. He got up there and said: 

[I]f I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”… “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy. Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding… And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…

King ended his speech not knowing what would happen in his life, but said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the next day by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel.

He too wished that he could see his work – and the work of justice – come to fruition. He too was hoping to see the world that he dreamed off become a reality. But he knew that whether we was killed that very next day or died in his sleep at the ripe old age of 120, he wouldn’t be able to see the fruits of his labor. But he still made a promise to work at it, to fight for justice, even if he didn’t experience justice. He essentially was explaining the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: one is not obligated to finish the task, but one is not free to ignore it either (Pirkei Avot 2:21). King knew that his dreams wouldn’t be fulfilled in his lifetime. But he believed that his followers would continue the fight. He believed that the nation would make great progress, He believed the the trajectory our nation was on would bend further towards justice. King believed his legacy was not about what he did while he was alive, but what would come of him and his beliefs after he died. A legacy is not about the impact that we have on this world when we are living. A legacy is about the impact we have generations later, long after we left this world. 

As we prepare to honor MLK’s legacy, we are reminded that this federal holiday is not a day of remembrance, but a day of service. This is not a day of reflection, but a day of action. We look at the world around us, the world that we are living in, at this transitional moment in our nation’s history, and wonder, is this a world that MLK would be proud of? We are left wondering how Dr. King would react in such a society and in such a world. Ultimately, legacy does not only live on through memory, stories, textbooks or children’s books, or movies about the civil rights movement. Legacy lives on through action. 

When we bury our loved ones in the Jewish faith, we pray that the souls of the departed are bound up in the bond of our lives. That does not mean that we believe in resurrection. That does not mean that we believe our loved ones communicate with us from the world to come, even if we find comfort in that. What this means is that as long as we live our lives just as they did, they live on. As long as we believe in the same ethics and values that they did and walk the same path, in their footsteps while creating a pathway for ourselves, they live on through us. At this turning point in our nation’s history, may we not forget to act as Dr. King acted, to live as he lived. May we fulfill his promise in his final speech so that all of society finally reaches the promised land. And may we make sure his legacy lives on through all of our actions. May he not only be remembered, but also bound up in the bond of our lives. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Watch Revereend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech here:

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Be The Shamash

The following Chanukah message was shared at the beginning of the festival with the Congregation Beth El community:

The Chanukiyah, the Chanukah Menorah, serves more than just a ritual purpose. We are taught that when we light the Menorah, we should place it in the window for all to see. By doing so, we fulfill the mitzvah of Pirsum HaNes — of publicizing the Chanukah miracle. During the winter solstice, at the darkest point in the year, the flames of the Menorah add light to the darkness.

The Talmud mentions how Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel debated the proper way to light the Menorah. But regardless of their differing perspectives, there was universal agreement that you use a shamash, a helper candle, to light all the other candles. To this day, the shamash is on a different level than all the other candles of the Menorah, emphasizing its significance.

We look around the world and it is easy to be consumed by the darkness of society. But doing so means that we forget the miracles that surround us everyday. On Chanukah, we don’t only celebrate the miraculous military victory of the Maccabees, or even the miracle of oil burning for eight nights. The miracle of Chanukah is to appreciate the miracles in our lives, despite the darkness that we all too often may feel or experience.

When we celebrate the miracles in our lives, no matter how large or small they may be, we also understand our responsibility to be a metaphorical shamash. With each day, the light of the Menorah increases, until all nine candles (including the shamash) burn on the final night of the festival. The use of the shamash reminds us how easy it is to light up the darkness. Just as the light of the shamash spreads to other candles and quickly illuminates the night, we must also be the initial spark to illuminate the darkness, helping to inspire and enlighten others. 

May we appreciate the miracles of old and the miracles in our everyday lives. And may we never stop trying to light up the darkness. Chag Urim Sameach! Wishing you a joyous and inspiring Chanukah!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Statement from the Rabbis of Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation

The following message is being shared with the members of Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation.

Dear Friends,

As you likely know, last week there was an anti-Semitic bias incident at South Orange Middle School. Earlier this week, the four of us attended a meeting with SOMS Principal Lynn Irby, members of the SOMS Administration and Josh Cohen, Director of the New Jersey Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). We were there to share our concern over its handling and to discuss next steps regarding both this event and, if they arise, future bias incidents. We wanted to write to you as the rabbinic leadership of Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation to share the outcome of that meeting and what we hope to see as next steps.

We first want to make the following commitments to you. We are committed to working together to ensure that our congregations and our community remain open, welcoming and safe to each and every resident and community member. Our tradition teaches us to “love our neighbor as ourself.” Those are not simply words to us; they are a charge. We are dedicated, as individuals and as a rabbinic community, to doing everything within our power to ensure we live in a place that reflects this core value.

During our meeting we were able to gain insights into the specific events under discussion. We made clear that we are here to work as partners with the school and the ADL in any manner they request and that we, and the members of the Jewish community with whom we have each spoken, want to work with them and be a part of this process as well. We also made clear that while we were there because this was an anti-Semitic incident, we are committed, as we know, to standing up against all forms of bias and bigotry. While anti-Semitism is bias directed against Jews, we reject bias in all its forms.

Unfortunately, we sent out a similar letter to the community last spring following a previous incident at SOMS. We were hopeful that changes would be made and training would take place to prevent further incidents of bias and bigotry. With heavy hearts, we acknowledge that such changes were not yet implemented. However, we know that the school has now been in touch with the ADL’s Education Division and are putting a plan in place. They discussed the most recent incident and past incidents, as well as the school and community climate. The ADL has presented SOMS with its wealth of anti-bias resources and shared the availability of a variety of programmatic options for students and faculty through ADL’s A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute. The ADL also offers a No Place for Hate® program (NPFH) that is designed to create inclusive school communities by promoting unity and respect, and empowering schools to reduce bullying, name-calling, and other expressions of bias. We will be following up in the near future to ensure that the school takes full advantage of these important programs and creates an opportunity for education and awareness for students, training for teachers, and opportunities for parents to be a part of this process as well.

We will, of course, keep you posted.

 

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

Rabbi Daniel Cohen and Rabbi Allie Klein 

Rabbi Mark Cooper 

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Our Jewish Community’s Commitment to Helping Refugees

The following message is being shared with the members of Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation.

Dear Friends,

The Torah (Deuteronomy 10:19) teaches us to welcome the stranger for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. The commandment to welcome the stranger is, in fact, mentioned more often than any other in the entire Torah. After fleeing Egypt our ancestors wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. After the destruction of the Temple in 70CE our people wandered in exile for 2,000 years. After the Shoah many of our families were once again in search of a home. Ours is a history of wandering for, too often, we have been refugees seeking a safe haven from persecution. Now it is our turn to fulfill our obligation to welcome the stranger. 
For this reason, our three congregations, Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation, are joining together in our commitment to resettle refugee families in our community. Our synagogues are partnering with Church World Services to provide the most vulnerable refugees the opportunity to start again in the United States. 

Church World Services was born in 1946 in the aftermath of World War II. Their mission: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the aged, shelter the homeless. Since their inception they have worked with countless faith-based organizations and have helped resettle thousands of refugees from crisis points throughout the world. We are proud that our community will be working hand-in-hand with CWS to ensure that our community is home for these families. 

In the coming weeks, there will be many opportunities to volunteer as we prepare for this/these families to arrive, and once they’ve settled in the area. As a first step, in order to prepare for their arrival, we have set up a fundraising page: https://www.gofundme.com/help-resettle-refugee-families. Please help us fulfill our obligation to welcome the stranger. 

May we all work to build a community and a world that is always welcoming.  

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

Rabbi Daniel Cohen and Rabbi Allie Klein 

Rabbi Mark Cooper 

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Finding the Balance

My children came home from school so excited to tell me everything they learned about Thanksgiving. My daughter who is in kindergarten had to decorate a feather. Every student in her class that would then added to her “class turkey.” My son who is still in preschool was amazed that he could trace his hand and it would look like the shape of a turkey. He was excited to “teach” me that Thanksgiving was about being thankful. In preparation for the holiday, I asked him what he was thankful for and he responded with a list: my house, the playground, my family, and my toys. I am just happy that family made the cut, even if we are seen as less important than the playground in his eyes. The more my children listed all that they are thankful for, the more grateful they became for the blessings in their lives. However, I also realized what a selfish exercise this was.

Giving thanks is an important part of our daily ritual as Jews. We begin each morning with the Birkot HaShachar, the morning blessings, in which we thank God for the everyday miracles of our lives. Even the Amidah prayer, recited three times daily, consists of Hodaot, daily prayers of Thanksgiving. Yet, as my children listed what they were thankful for, I realized that they – like all of us – were only thinking of themselves. I am grateful for the roof over my head, the food on my table, my family and friends, the blessings that benefit me exclusively in my life. We should always be grateful for the blessings in our lives, but I realized that by teaching my children to me thankful, I was also teaching them to exclusively think of themselves. 

This is true for most of us. Our initial instinct is to think of ourselves before we think of others. We care about our own self-interests and ignore the need and concern that others may feel. For this reason, rabbinic commentators and Jewish scholars have historically been perplexed by Abraham, the bible’s first monotheist and the patriarch of the Jewish people. This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Vayera, which begins with Abraham, infirm and recovering from a medical procedure, leaving his tent in the wilderness to greet strangers and invite them into his home:

“…As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, ‘my lords, if it please you, do not go past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves…” (Gen. 18:2-5)

The Torah portion begins with Abraham going out of the way to welcome strangers into his home. Later, as he passes by Sodom and learns of God’s intentions to destroy the entire city because of those who do evil within the city limits, Abraham stands up to God. Arguing to spare the lives of an entire city, strangers who he has no relationship with, Abraham challenges God:

“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?” (Gen. 18:23-24)

Abraham continues to negotiate with God, attempting to convince God to spare the lives of those who have done wrong because of those who are righteous in their midst. Early on in his relationship with the divine, Abraham is willing to stand up to God to fight for the rights of others, even if it doesn’t directly benefit himself.

And for this reason, we are baffled by the final act of the Torah portion. The biblical narrative tells us:

“Some time afterward. God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he answered, “Here I am.’ And God said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.’” (Gen. 22:1-2)

God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son and he agrees. While the rabbinic commentator Rashi suggests that Abraham tried to negotiate with God again, the simple reading of the text suggests that Abraham didn’t flinch. He woke up the next day prepared to kill his son and almost did so, until an angel intervened at the last minute. How is it possible that the patriarch who went out of his way to welcome strangers into his home, who fought with God to spare the lives of strangers, didn’t stand up to save his own son? We are not taught to always walk in the ways of our biblical ancestors. Rather we are taught to learn from their actions. We naturally live lives in which our first inclination is to think of ourselves and no one else. Our understand of the id of our psyche leads us to conclude that this is our animal instinct. Abraham does the complete opposite. But this too is incorrect. By standing up for others but refusing to stand up to save his son, he also fails God’s test. 

Our initial instincts lead us to the most extreme position of only thinking about ourselves and Abraham lives a life on the opposite extreme where he only thinks about others. The lessons of the Torah guide our lives and teach us that we must find the proper balance. We must equally care about ourselves and others. Hillel’s famous teaching reminds us: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” but also, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel teaches these two lessons simultaneously. One cannot only think of oneself and not of others. But one cannot only care about others and neglect his or her own needs. There must be a balance.

Last Thursday, I attended the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never is Now” Summit on Anti-Semitism, Bigotry, and Hate. The ADL was founded over a hundred years ago to combat Anti-Semitism in this country. As the organization evolved, the ADL realized that we have a responsibility to stand up to all forms of bigotry. As its website says, the “ADL fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all.” So, the daylong conference I attended had a session on the rise of Anti-Semitism and Violent Threats to Jewish Life in Europe and a session on Race, Identity, and Racial Justice. We listened to representatives from Twitter and journalists about the concerning use of social media by the Alt-Right to “troll” Jewish users and make online threats to Jewish journalists and we heard from Muslim leaders about the frightening rise of Islamophobia in this country. The promise of “Never Again” by the Jewish community is a promise to stand up to bigotry towards the Jewish community, but also to all forms of bigotry in which any minority is scapegoated. The leadership of the ADL and its CEO Jonathan Greenblatt remind us that our obligation is to protect ourselves and others. If we are not for ourselves, who will be? But if we are only for ourselves, what are we? 

Hillel concludes his famous teaching with the most important question: “If not now, when?” Now is the time because it is always the time to stand up for what is right. Now is the time to stand up to protect ourselves. Now is the time to stand up to protect others. Now is the time to find the balance, to learn from Abraham’s actions, and our own, to stand up for ourselves and others. This Thanksgiving, as we reflect on what we are thankful for, may we not just commit to protecting the blessings in our lives. May we ensure the blessings in the lives of others as well. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky 

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The Journey Continues…

This article was originally published on November 13th, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

Over the past several days, I have felt sadness, anger, and disbelief. I feel lucky to live in a town, and be part of a synagogue, with such shared values. In democracy there is always a winner or a loser. My concern was not eliminating that – that division exists in a two party system. But, we have much work to do to repair a country that is so divided and so broken.

What was hard for me, and continues to be hard for me, is the tone and rhetoric. That is why I stood up time and time again condemning such hate speech. And now a candidate who, yes, ran on change, jobs, and the economy — but also on misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and bigotry — won. A candidate won who seemed to bully all the other candidates during the primaries and general election: calling them names, yelling at them, interrupting them.

It was hardest to share this information with my children – they are still so young. My daughter was so excited to come into the voting booth with us – about the historic nature of this election. I was upset to share the results. We teach our children certain values, at home, in school, at synagogue and in our sacred spaces: about how to treat other people, those like you and those who are different than you, about loving your neighbor instead of hating the other, about respect. And it seems with the results of this election, I fear that electing a candidate whose campaign seemed to reflect the opposite of those values we teach our children condones hate.

I fear for so many – and I fear also as a Jew – what it means when a candidate who was endorsed by the KKK is elected President. There is real fear for many of us that the hateful rhetoric of this campaign will lead to hateful acts. This week, we also observed the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” a pogrom when Nazis torched synagogues and Jewish homes, businesses, and schools, killing over a hundred people. Kristallnacht was a turning point, when hate speech led to hateful acts.

I was also reminded this week of the profound words of George Washington, found in a 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, home of the country’s oldest Jewish house of worship. In it, he pledged that the “government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” I acknowledge my privilege as a white, straight, man and I promise to do my part, as an American, and as a human being, to ensure George Washington’s words ring true – that our government does not sanction bigotry or persecution.

So when I spoke to my children, I reminded them that this election does not change what we believe and the way we act. We must continue to be kind. We must continue to stand up for what is right, and stand up for others. A single election does not change the values we stand for. That is what our text and our tradition teach us. We read at the beginning of Genesis 12 that Abram goes on a journey to “a land that I will show you” – traditionally understood as not knowing where he is going to end up. But Abram’s journey was not a journey into the unknown. It was a journey in which they knew exactly where they were going, because the text tells us that Abram’s father, Terach, also set out on this exact journey. We read in Genesis 11:31:

Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot… and his daughter-in-law Sarai… and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.

So we learn really that Abram was recommitted to continuing the journey his father was already on. Terach set out on his journey, but stopped and settled and never continued. Maybe he was tired; maybe he despaired; maybe he gave up; maybe he was content with simply getting this far.

The disappointment some feel following this election is not just because a candidate won and a candidate lost. It is a fear – fear that the progress this country has made, great progress forward toward justice and equal rights – progress that I believe our tradition celebrates, as well – will stop.

So for those disappointed, I say that the journey continues just as Abram continued Terach’s journey. We will continue on this journey determined to reach a destination of justice and equality. We will come together as a community, as a diverse people, and we will continue the American journey.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Yom Kippur Sermons 5777

For those who missed them, want to read them again, or are interested, here are my Yom Kippur sermons, delivered at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ:

Kol Nidre: Liking and Sharing the Negative Moments in Our Lives

Yom Kippur: I Just Called to Say ‘I Love You’

Please feel free to share your feedback, thoughts, and comments.

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Forgive Yourself

During these days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we spend extra time reflecting on ourselves. We insert additional words into our daily Amidah prayers, asking God to remember the good that we have done in our lives.

But we are supposed to do more than just recite additional words of liturgy. We are taught to spend these days saying sorry. We apologize to those that we have wronged – knowingly and unknowingly – through the past year. We reach out to family members, friends, co-workers, and classmates, and apologize if we have hurt them in anyway. Sometimes, it is easy to know when we have wronged another. Other times though, we hurt someone’s feelings without even realizing it. That is why we reach out to those that we care about to say we’re sorry, whether we know we have hurt them or not.

In that vein, I want to apologize to you if I have done anything during this past year to hurt you. If I did, I truly apologize.

Forgive

We first ask for forgiveness from others, and then we ask for forgiveness from God. We repent during these days leading up to Yom Kippur so that we can beginning the most serious of days apologizing to God. We go into the day of fasting, a day filled with admitting our mistakes and transgressions, knowing that God will forgive us. We wear white on Yom Kippur because it is a symbol of a new beginning. We believe that we will be sealed for a new start and clean slate in the year to come.

Lastly, and most important, we need to forgive ourselves. We are our own biggest critics. We are often harder on ourselves than others are. We continue to feel the pain of our wrongdoings long after we have turned a new page. The most important step in this process of renewal is being able to forgive ourselves. Yes, we must admit our mistakes, but just as we did during the Tashlikh ritual, we must let go of what we’ve done in order to truly begin again. May we have the courage to ask ourselves for forgiveness and may we have the strength to finally forgive ourselves.

Wishing you a meaningful conclusion to these days of reflection!

Gmar Chatima Tova!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Rosh Hashanah Sermons 5777

For those who missed them, want to read them again, or are interested, here are my Rosh Hashanah sermons, delivered at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ:

Rosh Hashanah Day One: Writing Your Own Words

Rosh Hashanah Day Two: Responding to Hate: Building a World with Love

Please feel free to share your feedback, thoughts, and comments.

Wishing you a meaningful time for reflection during these days of awe!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Finding Purpose in the Shofar Blasts

While we look forward to the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that announce the new year, we’ve actually been blowing shofar at Beth El since September 4. We are instructed to blow the shofar every weekday morning during the Hebrew month of Elul — a whole month prior to the actual Jewish new year. We blow the shofar to remind us that the new year is upon us, and to encourage us to use these weeks for spiritual reflection. In some ways, the shofar blasts that we will hear in the coming days on Rosh Hashanah is a culmination of that period of self-examination. In fact, we are taught that our responsibility is not to blow the shofar, but to hear the blasts, so much so that the person who blows the shofar must also make sure to listen. And each blast, from the beginning of Elul until Rosh Hashanah day, is meant to help prepare us spiritually.

big-shofarTekiah! Tekiah is our wake up call. A single blast meant to remind us that we are here and present, created in God’s image with the power to create, to love, and to build. Tekiah is a call to grab our attention, a reminder that we too often get consumed with the thoughts of others and don’t focus on ourselves enough. Tekiah reminds us to not compare ourselves to others and instead focus on becoming the best version of ourselves in the year ahead.

Shevarim! Shevarim is three short blasts. The rabbis compare these blasts to the whimpering of a child. We cry to acknowledge our own broken hearts. We cry to acknowledge the brokenness inside us all. While Tekiah allows us to celebrate the divine spark within us, Shevarim reminds us that life’s journey is bumpy. In order to do a true accounting of the soul, we must accept what we have done right and what we have done wrong. We must celebrate the progress we’ve made since this time last year, but also speak of our mistakes.

T’ruah! T’ruah, nine short staccato notes, reminds us of the brokenness in the world, because when we make a new year’s resolution we think about ourselves and others. T’ruah represents wailing and tears. But when we begin Rosh Hashanah, we turn those tears of sorrow into tears of joy.

Ultimately, the shofar is a symbol of liberation, announcing a new year, announcing our new selves. It reminds us never to be apathetic or complacent. It reminds us that we are each holy, and we should never see ourselves as anything less than that. May the shofar blasts awaken us to a new year full of health, happiness, peace, and love, and may this new year be filled with new beginnings for us all.

Join us on both days of Rosh Hashanah for our Shofar service, which will take place in the Sanctuary at approximately 11:00am.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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