The Answer to Fighting Anti-Semitism is not Aliyah

This article was originally published on February 19, 2015, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

The Jewish community is still reeling from the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. While there have been scary examples of hate and anti-Semitism towards the Jewish community for years, the hostage crisis and murder of four Jews at the Hypercacher Kosher Supermarket in East Paris on January 9th, 2015, by terrorists awakened the rest of World Jewry to the challenges that the French Jewish community, and much of European Jewry face regularly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to France following the Hypercacher Kosher Supermarket terrorist attack – which occurred only days after the Charlie Hebdo attack – and reminded French Jews that Israel is their home, encouraging them to emigrate from France to Israel if they want to live safely as Jews. The desecration of a Jewish cemetery in France only days ago has only made Netanyahu’s calls for Aliyah that much louder. As it is, seven thousand French Jews made Aliyah in 2014, more than double that of the previous year.

Like a terrible case of Déjà vu, we heard of the tragic terrorist attack at a Copenhagen synagogue on February 14th which left one dead and two wounded – and following an attack at a free speech event at a nearby café earlier in the day. Just as was the case in France, Prime Minister Netanyahu called for Jews of Denmark to make Aliyah to Israel, even discussing with Cabinet members a $46 million plan to encourage mass Aliyah of European Jewry.

French President Hollande disagrees with Netanyahu’s calls for Jews to leave France, saying that he would not allow Jews to “believe that [they] no longer have a place in Europe. Jews have their place in Europe and, in particular, in France.” Similarly, Danish Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt said “the Jewish community has been in this country for centuries. They belong in Denmark, they are a part of the Danish community and we wouldn’t be the same without the Jewish community in Denmark.” Of course talk is cheap. They can make such public statements, but those statements are meaningless if such anti-Semitic terrorist attacks continue. Still, I agree with them, that Europe has failed, and the European Jewish community has failed, if there they leave and immigrate to Israel.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Israel. I support and believe in the state of Israel. I am a Zionist and I believe in the modern-day miracle, a realization of our thousands year old goal to live Jewishly, under Jewish sovereignty, in the Promised land. I am grateful that Jews everywhere in the world can make Aliyah, can move to Israel, and can live in a place where they can be Jewish, speak Hebrew, and observe Jewish law how they see fit. Additionally, I appreciate that there is a safe haven of sorts for World Jewry, a place where Jews who fear their safety can live safely.

That being said, I think we have failed as a people, and as society, if all Jews leave their homes and move to Israel. While there are those who ideologically promote mass Aliyah of all Jews to bring about Messianic redemption, that is not what this is about. This type of Aliyah is about leaving where you are because it is not safe to be a Jew there. We have failed as a people – especially given the horrific events of the twentieth century — if our solution to anti-Semitism anywhere is to make Aliyah.

As an American Jew and as an American rabbi, I admit that my Jewish identity and American identity are intertwined. While it may be scandalous for a rabbi to say, although I am a Zionist, I never envision making Aliyah. I do not dream of living in Israel one day. I love Israel and love visiting Israel, but my Jewish identity is strengthened through my experiences as an American, living in American society. Furthermore, my beliefs regarding policy and legislation in America is influenced by the ethics and values of my faith that I hold to be true. My dream is to be a Jew living in America, just as I am now. My dream is that every Jew is free to be themselves, as they are, where they live.

The answer is not to leave. The answer most certainly is not to make mass Aliyah as Netanyahu promotes. Rather, the answer is for us – Jews in America, Jews in Israel, and Jews throughout the world – to stand up in solidarity with the Jewish communities of Paris, Copenhagen, and all of Europe. The answer is that we must refuse to be silent. We cannot ignore such anti-Semitism. We cannot pretend that it does not exist. Leaving Europe does just that. We must stand up to it. We must make sure that like-minded Christians, Catholics, and Muslims, those who refuse to be consumed by hatred and bigotry, stand up to such anti-Semitism as well.

Judaism existed, and in many cases thrived, for almost two thousand years in the diaspora. We must support Israel, but cannot give up on the need and importance of the diaspora Jewish community. We must not run. We must not flee. Rather, we must stand united against terrorism, against hate, and against anti-Semitism.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Power of Jewish Youth Groups

USYJRAI just returned home from an exhilarating – and of course exhausting – couple of days with our South Orange USY chapter in Philadelphia. Over thirty teens from our USY chapter traveled to Philadelphia to spend Shabbat together with students at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, tour the campus, and then visit highlights of the Jewish aspects of the city, including the Liberty Bell, Congregation Mikveh Israel – the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in the country, and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

More importantly than touring though, our teens spent Sunday and Monday volunteering. Through service learning opportunities with organizations like Jewish Relief Agency, Repair the World, and the Boys & Girls Club of America, these teens came to understand the challenges of food insecurity, hunger, and poverty in the city of Philadelphia as well as throughout the country.

The beauty of youth groups like United Synagogue Youth (USY), is that they emphasize experiential education. We didn’t CleaningBGCAjust study the concepts of justice and law through a Jewish lens. We worked towards justice, understanding that we must also work to change laws that are unjust, that take advantage of society’s most vulnerable. USY is more than just a social experience, although there was plenty of hanging out and having fun! USY inspires the next generation of leaders in the American Jewish community. This trip helped them understand the importance of rolling up our sleeves to make this world a better place. USY helps to teach our children that they must take responsibility for the world around them, for those around them.

In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, we find in Exodus 23:6:

You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.

USYtefillah

More specifically, we must not take advantage of those who depend on us for justice. Thus, we must also realize the blessings that we have in our lives and instead of taking those blessings for granted, we must make it our priority to bring blessings to others. Through the social action and social justice work of our USYers this past weekend, they did just that. I was just happy to be there to witness the impact that our teens are already making in this world. They are thoughtful, they are committed, and they are inspiring. The American Jewish community, and society, is in good hands.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Promise of Peace in the Promised Land

Last year, before I even arrived to begin my tenure as rabbi at Congregation Beth El, the congregation spent the year reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, a ground-breaking book by the Haaretz writer, which tells of both the triumph and tragedy of the reality of the modern state of Israel.

I recently had the privilege of having lunch with Mr. Shavit. AIPAC organized a lunch with Ari Shavit and a handful of liberal progressive community rabbis. He shared his thoughts on the terrible events that took place in Israel and in Gaza this summer. He also shared how in some ways, his views have changed since his book was published.

One thing he said that truly stands out to me is that we cannot focus on a real peace, but instead must focus on a realistic peace. A real peace is focused on drawn out negotiations and a peace process, facilitated by a third party that both sides argue is subjective. A real peace is continuously stalled by the politics involved in the peace process.

Mr. Shavit insisted that we should instead search for a realistic peace. A realistic peace does not focus on land or land swaps, but instead focuses on land use. A realistic peace  emphasizes shared water resources, shared irrigation technology, shared vegetation and growing techniques, as well as shared energy technology and opportunities. A realistic peace comes from a shared commitment to the land.

MyPromisedLandWe recently celebrated the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. In recent years, the holiday has evolved from a Jewish Arbor Day to a Jewish Earth Day, the Jewish community’s ecological holiday, a day that helps us refocus on the land. Except Tu B’Shevat is more than that. This holiday does not just emphasis reconnecting  with the land and understanding its sanctity. Tu B’Shevat is specific to the land of Israel. Tu B’Shevat is specific to cultivating the land, planting the land, and celebrating the land.

If Ari Shavit suggests that cultivating the land and sharing the resources of the land is what we must do to reach a realistic peace, then Tu B’Shevat’s message is ultimately a message of peace. Sharing land is a shared responsibility. Sharing land is a shared opportunity. No matter religion, no matter faith, we have a shared belief in God as Creator — and a shared responsibility to take care of the land and treat it properly. Doing so — together — will lead to the peace that we seek.

Upon seeing the natural beauties of this world, we traditionally recite the following blessing:

Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam Oseh Maaseh Breisheit. 

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who continuously makes the wonders of creation.

We say this blessing when we see waterfalls and sunsets, snowstorms and canyons. We say this blessing as a reminder that the land, the land that we use and depend on, helps us to appreciate God’s presence around us. May appreciation of that land, the land of Israel, and a shared use of the resources of that land, lead us to praising God for the greatest of all miracles: peace.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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I Am Planting For My Children

We get all dressed up for Rosh Hashanah. We buy new suits and dresses, often wear white, and invite family and friends into our homes for festive meals. Similarly, Passover – which is referred to in the Torah as a new year – is given just as much attention. We gather for the seder, we retell and re-imagine the exodus experience, and celebrate the arrival of Spring. Yet, we often ignore or overlook one of the most important “New Year” celebrations on the Hebrew calendar: Tu B’Shevat.

The lack of celebration may be because we don’t have a special service on Tu B’Shevat. The mystical Tu B’Shevat seder has not caught on in the same way as the Passover seder. More likely, Tu B’Shevat gets ignored because it arrives in the dead of winter. It’s hard for us living in New Jersey to think about planting trees and sustaining the earth as we bundle up, even if trees will soon begin to bud in the holy land. Although it will never likely equal Rosh Hashanah and Passover in celebration, both can be more meaningful if we understand the need for Tu B’Shevat.

Sun-treeIt is through our relationship with the earth, through sunrises and sunsets, through glistening dew and budding flowers, that we truly see God as work as Creator. It is through our experiences in nature that we understand and appreciate the Divine presence all around us, and witness everyday miracles. And it’s through the ecological message of Tu B’Shevat – replanting, regrowing, and recommitting to the earth – that we ensure a better future for our children and grandchildren, and for generations to come. A well-known Talmudic story found in Tractate Taanit 23a tells of Choni, who sees a man planting a carob tree. He asks the man, “How long will it take for the tree to bear fruit?” The man responded, “seventy years.” Choni challenges the man, unable to understand why he would plant such a tree if he knew that he would no longer be alive seventy years from now to eat of its fruits. The man profoundly responded, “I found a fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”

How we treat the earth is a representation of what world we want to leave for generations to come. Therefore, our congregation’s celebration of Tu B’Shevat will not only focus on planting trees in Israel, but also on opportunities to plant trees and community gardens. On Tu B’Shevat, we pledge not only to plant more, but also to reuse and recycle more, and to waste less.

We are reminded that this land was once Eden, a utopia of plants and trees, fresh water and healthy animals. Let Tu B’Shevat serve as our catalyst to recommit to the land, to ourselves, and to God. We were provided with a fruitful world because our ancestors planted for us. May we continue to plant for our children.

This blog post originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of the “Beth El Bulletin.” You can read it, and other articles from the rest of the Bulletin here

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Letting Martin Luther King’s Legacy Snap us out of Complacency

This article was originally published on January 19, 2015 on the American observance of Martin Luther King Day, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz

Why the Jewish community must be reawakened to praying with our feet, and recommit to participating in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. 

Martin Luther King Day recognizes the life, legacy, and work of the fallen leader of the civil rights movement, but it is hardly a celebration. In 1994, President Clinton signed federal legislation into law, turning this day into a National Martin Luther King Day of Service. This initiative invites Americans to get inspired by the ideals, ethics and values that Dr. King embodied and volunteer their time to help others, making this world just a little bit better.

However, we are selling King’s legacy short if we settle for a once-a-year volunteer opportunity or a community service project as a way to honor him. King was not just about helping those in need. He was about creating lasting change, inspiring legislative reform, through peaceful protest and non-violent action.

Such action is highlighted in the film “Selma,” which tells the story of King leading a peaceful march for voting rights from Selma, Alabama, to the statehouse in Montgomery. Hanging on the wall in my office is a picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marching arm-in-arm with King during that march. Heschel reflected about his experience that day with a now well-known phrase: “I felt my feet were praying.” I look at this picture every day as I sit at my desk. It is a reminder of the Jewish imperative to work toward justice. But it also serves as a reminder that we all too often become complacent.

MLK DayKing famously said that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at time of challenge and controversy.” The deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, at the hands of white police officers, and the subsequent grand jury decisions not to indict these officers, serve as chilling reminders that systemic racism is still a scary reality. Those of us who live a life of privilege can’t take our advantages for granted or allow them to lull us into complacency. We need to get off of our metaphorical butts. We cannot ignore the injustice that our brothers and sisters deal with every day. We need to draw inspiration from King, and Heschel, and learn again to pray with our feet.

Rabbi Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot 2:6 that in a place where there are no good and righteous people, we must strive to be those righteous individuals. All the more so, when so many others are silent and apathetic, we must strive to be righteous and act toward justice. We are commanded in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” The Torah acknowledges that while justice is an ideal, it does not come easily. We are not commanded to sit around and wait for justice to happen. We are not commanded to talk about justice and expect society will be different. We are commanded to pursue justice, to chase after it.

Let us not settle for a day of remembrance. Let us not settle for a day of community service. Let our observance of Martin Luther King Day be a day filled with dialogue, spirited debate and ultimately, action. Let King’s peaceful protests remind us that we have the ability to bring about change. Let King’s words be a call to action, decades after he said them. As Jews, let us not stand idly by. As we celebrate the life King, may we also remember to live the principles of the Torah, and not just study them. In doing so, may we stand alongside those who suffer injustices because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Let us pursue justice by praying with our feet.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Refusing to Be a Bystander

The greatest threat to humanity is not violence, hate, or terror. The greatest threat to humanity is apathy, complacency, and silence. When we witness such terror and refuse to do anything about it, refuse to say anything about it, refuse to take a stand, then we let hate win.

Fear is what keeps us silent. We fear such hate, but are too often ignore hate as long as  such hate is not projected towards us. We fear that if we get too involved, if we are vocal, if we take a stand, then such hate will be projected towards us. Such a view ignores that humanity is interconnected. That is why, in spite of such hate, violence, and terror that we have witnessed in Paris over the past week and we found comfort in coming together and refusing to be a bystander.

WorldLeadersatUnityMarchYesterday, we witnessed a historic unity march against extremism take place in Paris with more than forty world leaders present. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas marched alongside France’s President Hollande, along with millions of citizens. Millions more took to social media showing unity through hashtag activism. Such a show of support at a time of mourning, such a show of unity at a time of sorrow, is our universal statement, declaring that we refuse to stand idly by when one is killed because of what he says, looks like, believes in, or whom he loves. Standing up in such a manner is doing exactly what Moses did.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Shemot, the Torah portion of Shemot, the beginning of the book of Exodus. This familiar story retold yearly at Passover seders, tells the life of Moses, a Hebrew baby adopted by the Pharaoh daughter, before seeing injustice before him which ultimately leads to him standing up, and fleeing Egypt as a result. We learn in Exodus chapter 2 of Moses growing up and going out to see the burden of the Israelites, of his brethren. Upon seeing an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, we read in Exodus 2:12:

And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.

At first read, we understand that Moses looked all around and wanted to make sure that no one was looking. Once he saw that no one was around, he took a stand, smiting the Egyptian taskmaster. However, such a reading is incorrect. How is it possible that no man was around? In the very next verse, Moses approaches two Israelites that are arguing. They respond in fear that he will assault one of them as he did the Egyptian taskmaster. Clearly, someone must’ve seen what he did. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that this taskmaster and slave were alone in the middle of the desert. A more likely account is that they were surrounded by thousands, other slaves and other taskmasters, other examples of injustice. Why then does the text say that when Moses looked around, there was no man?

We learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, 2:6, the teaching of Rabbi Hillel:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

I don’t like translating this teaching in this way. Such a translation is based on gender stereotypes and is outdated. However, if we replace the word “man” with the Yiddish word for “man” than it makes a lot more sense. Mensch. Mensch is the word we often use to mean a good person and righteous individual. However, its literal translation is “man.” Let us than retranslate this teaching:

In a place where there is no mensch, be a mensch.

Hundreds of thousands of people gather on the Place de la Republique to attend the solidarity march (Rassemblement Republicain) in the streets of ParisIn a place where there is no one willing to take a stand and put a stop to injustice, hate, violence, and terror, all the more so, you must, all the more so, we must. Thus, Moses saw many surrounding him and witnessing this taskmaster beat a slave just as he did. All continued to be bystanders. All continued to ignore hate, violence, terror, and injustice. Moses took a stand in unity, refusing to be a bystander.

Millions in France and across the world did the same yesterday. We must refuse to be bystanders and let our lives be dictated by hate and fear. We must come together in unity, and just as Moses did, take a stand.

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Response to the Tragic News in France

The news coming out of France the past couple of days is tragic, scary, and heartbreaking. First, the news of a terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in which 12 people were murdered, including a police officer. Today only added to our communal heartache  as reportedly 4 hostages and the gunman have been killed after a terrorist took hostages in a Kosher supermarket in Paris. Why was Charlie Hedbo targeted? Because it represented freedom of expression, regardless of how satirical or offensive that expression was at times. Why was this supermarket targeted? Because the store’s patrons were Jews. We pray for a Shabbat Shalom — truly a Shabbat of peace, which we all greatly need. We find that peace in friends, in family, in coming together as community.

Apparently, French police called rabbis minutes before Shabbat started and asked them to cancel Shabbat services at their synagogues for security reasons. I cannot imagine receiving such a call. I cannot imagine living in a place where welcoming in Shabbat, where holding services, was a security risk.

May we take this Shabbat and come together as community. May we come together for all those who cannot, for those whom were murdered and will never again experience a Shabbat of peace, for those whose synagogues have been closed this Shabbat for security reasons and cannot come together, and for all of us who deeply need community, who deeply need to wrestle with God, and who deeply need each other’s shoulders to lean on at such a dark moment. May tomorrow bring light and may that ray of sunshine light up the darkness that we face, the darkness that exists. May that light put an end to hate, an end to fear, and be an expression of unity, of love, of peace.

May all humanity realize that we have not come into being to hate or to destroy. We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.

May we love each other a little bit more this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Instead of Spin, Celebrate Inclusion

This article was originally published on January 4, 2015, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

The conversation is still unfolding about the vote by the International Officers and Regional Presidents at the recent USY International Convention in Atlanta, passing an amendment that changed the language of expected standards for these youth leaders.

Most of the articles, as well as statements by USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly, explain this amendment as a change in language, from “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating” to “The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”

Many of the statements offer the explanation that this is simply about language:  not a change in policy, but just a change in rhetoric, from a “thou shall not” command to a more positive statement on relationships. Much of the spin suggests that there is a difference between “welcoming” and “condoning.” But we miss an important lesson when we suggest that the message is the same, and only the wording is different.

The fact is that the message is not the same — and that is a good thing.

This new language celebrates the inclusive movement that we strive to create, and our youth are leading the way. USYers have embraced a position that will lead our institutions to become more inclusive, as these youth leaders assume leadership of the synagogues and Jewish institutions they will inherit. We do not need to spin this amendment that USYers passed. Instead, we should strive to learn from their example.

Those concerned with the amendment claim that while we can be welcoming, there is a danger in being too welcoming. In fact, “welcoming” has become a hackneyed adjective among Jewish institutions. It is easy to say you are welcoming. But, welcoming isn’t about what you say. Welcoming is about what you do. USYers chose to be inclusive of all, regardless of the faith of a parent or significant other, demonstrating welcoming through action.

Statistics show that Jews in America marry later than other ethnic groups, which raises questions about the true impact of high school dating on future marriage choices. The faith of a partner or spouse is not a rejection of one’s own faith. The faith (or lack thereof) of a spouse or partner (or teenage boyfriend or girlfriend) does not speak to one’s own Jewish commitment, the commitment to raising his or her children as Jewish, or building a Jewish home. The reason someone marries a person of another faith is for the same reason we all get married: love. We should celebrate that love and a family’s commitment to building a Jewish home.

The fear about this amendment is misplaced: who our USYers date,or marry will not determine their future Jewish identity. USY does give our teens the tools they need to build Jewish lives as adults. However, how we welcome, educate, and help them find their place in the community will impact how many of them actually stay connected to Judaism. By insisting on inclusion and creating more welcoming communities, we have the opportunity to embrace the diverse Jewish families that walk through our doors. We can celebrate each of them, regardless of the faith of a spouse or parent. because every Jewish family looks different.

As a former USY International President and rabbi in the Conservative movement, I am proud that USY is leading the way in doing the same.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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New Year’s Resolutions Aren’t Just About Us

My family and I celebrated New Year’s Eve at South Orange/Maplewood’s First Night celebration and we had a blast! What stood out to me though was the table in the lobby of Columbia High School, encouraging those who passed by to write down their New Year’s resolutions for 2015. One would be selected at random and win an iPad. In hopes of winning a new iPad, I submitted 16 different New Year’s resolutions, none of which were to win an iPad.

As I looked through all the resolutions displayed in the lobby, I found them troubling. We shouldn’t have to wait until we turn the page on the calendar for us to start anew. After all, our liturgy allows us to start fresh every morning. We don’t need a New Year’s Day — on any calendar — for us to do that.

HappyNewYearWhat was troubling though was not the time of year in which we made these resolutions; it was the resolutions themselves. They were self-centered, including mine! We make resolutions focused on ourselves: to lose weight, to exercise more, to work harder, to study more, to lie less, to spend more time with family. These aren’t bad resolutions. These are the type of resolutions we should all strive to make, opportunities that set us on course to be a better version of ourselves. But if we are to truly make New Year’s resolutions, then we need to think of resolutions that have an impact on others.

Our resolutions for the year ahead must focus on our communities and our neighbors, they must focus on those that we too often neglect or don’t think about enough. They must focus on the challenges of our country and the challenges on the other side of the world. We may choose to ignore these challenges because they seem impossible to tackle, impossible for a simple resolution to make a difference. Yet, such a thought process has led us to ignoring what we truly need to address, those issues which need to be a part of our 2015: justice, poverty, equality, and peace.

Our resolutions must not focus on our own lives, but rather how do we want to leave this world for generations to come. So join me in my New Year’s resolution for 2015, striving to make this world a better place, not just for all of us, but for our children and their children as well.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Be Like Esau

A week and a half ago, I ended Shabbat as I always do, by checking the news and seeing what has happened in the world over the past twenty-four hours. It was then that I read about the arson attack at the Hand-in-Hand school in Jerusalem. A preschool classroom in this school, a school overseen be Arab and Jewish principals, a school where hundreds of Arab and Jewish students learn together from Pre-Kindergarten until 12th grade, was engulfed in flames, likely set on fire by Jewish extremists in a so called “price tag” attack. In addition to the arson attack, graffiti has regularly been found on the walls, which read: Death to Arabs, and You can’t coexist with cancer. Such attacks are nationalistically motivated hate crimes, and this was likely in response to the many terrorist attacks that have occurred throughout the past several weeks, most notably the butchering of worshippers in a synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof.

Yet, even more notably, was the response of the students. On Sunday, the day after the attack, Arab and Jewish students gathered in the park across from the school. Supporting the school’s motto of “We refuse to be enemies,” one student said: “This is a bad thing, but it shows us how important this school – and the idea behind it – is”. “We want to prove that Arabs and Jews can live together in Israel,” he said. “We are all human and need to respect each other.” No retaliation. Only love.

I am reminded of this summer when Eyal, Naftali, and Gil’ad were kidnapped as they hitchhiked home from their West Bank Yeshiva and were brutally murdered and burned to a crisp. Rachel Fraenkel, the mourning mother of Naftali Fraenkel, made a public statement when hearing of the revenge killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir by Jewish extremists. “Even in the abyss of mourning,” she said, “it is difficult to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jersualem.” She denounced such a revenge killing and even visited Abu Khdeir’s mother to offer condolences.

To mourn the loss of a child. To mourn the destruction of a school. And still, to dream of a better future, and to not hold a grudge. To not want revenge and only to want peace. That is powerful. That is what we all strive for and who we strive to be. We cannot resort to “price tag” racist retaliation. We cannot resort to the belief that you harmed me so I must harm you. We are better than that. We must be better than that.

Last Shabbat, we read Parashat Vayishlach. In this Torah portion, we find Jacob journeying to reunite with his brother Esau. Jacob attempts to buy forgiveness, as we see in Gen. 32:6:

I have acquired cattle, donkeys, sheep, servants, and I send this message to you in hopes of gaining your favor.

Jacob hoped that if he gave Esau enough gifts, all would be forgotten – the lopsided birthright for soup exchange and the stolen blessing from their father. When Jacob heard instead that Esau was coming to meet him, he was fearful that Esau would attack him.

Finally, after sending his family ahead, after wrestling with an angel, he saw Esau coming towards him, accompanied by 400 men. Jacob was scared. And Esau came running towards him, but not to attack. As we read in Genesis 33:4:

And Esau ran to greet him and embraced him, hugged him, fell on his neck, and kissed him and wept.

In a way, as if Esau was letting go as well, letting go of the grief, letting go of the grudge, he leaned on his brother Jacob, fell on his neck, and just began wailing. He was emotionally exhausted from hating him, from being so angry with him and realizing that this got him nowhere. Esau let it go. And not only was Jacob better off as a result. Esau was better off as well.

We focus on Jacob and Esau and how our tradition made Jacob the hero and Esau the scapegoat. Yet, I want to take it one step further. We can’t just say that Esau was innocent and got a bad rap. We must actually strive to be like Esau. We must be more like Esau. As difficult as repentance is, it’s easy to ask for forgiveness once we realize that we have done wrong. It is much harder to have been wronged and victimized and still be willing to forgive.

We must be brave and courageous enough to let it go and forgive. We must always be willing to hug and embrace someone and move on. May we be strong enough to forgive. May we be strong enough to be like Esau.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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