Turning Fixed Worship into Spontaneous Spiritual Moments

V’yachalom v’hineh sulam mutzav artza v’roho magi’ah hashamayhma v’hineh malachei Elohim olim v’yordim bo. [Jacob] had a dream, a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. (Gen. 28:12)

Rabbinic commentators ask: What does it mean that angels were going up and down, rather than going down and up?! Shouldn’t it be that they were going down first, coming down from the Heavens?

Rashbam, the 12th century French Torah commentator, suggests that this is how we speak. We say go up and down a ladder, even if the angels in reality, were going down and up. His grandfather, Rashi, though was focused on taking the text literally and how it could mean that angels were ascending first. He concludes that angels actually accompanied Jacob on his journey. They ensured he was safe. Those angels ascended the ladder while the angels of Heaven descended the ladder and entered earth.

But Midrash also suggests that Jacob saw so much more than just a ladder with angels ascending and descending. Genesis Rabbah interprets the ladder to actually be the ramp that one used to enter the Holy Temple, the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem 2000+ years ago. And Midrash adds that the image of the angels going up and down this ladder were actually visions of the Kohanim, the priests, entering the Temple to offer sacrifices to God.

The point this midrash is trying to make is one of connecting the biblical experience and interaction with God to our own fixed practices of worship. Jacob arises from his dream, realizing that God was present, and declares that “God was in this place and I did not know it.” Often, we go through the routine, we say the liturgy of our prayer service without wrestling with God, without finding God in that prayer experience, in that space. We daven, but we don’t pray. Our goal according to midrash, is to have our fixed worship experiences be like our spontaneous prophetic dreams, to see angels among us, to see each other as angels. Our goal is to find God in our sanctuaries, and know it.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

We Should All Strive to be ‘Simple’

Parashat Toldot introduces the twins Jacob and Esau as polar opposites. The text describes Esau as:

Ish Yode’ah Tza’id, Ish Sadeh; a man who knew game, a man of the field (Gen. 25:27)

Jacob was described as the opposite:

Ish Tam, Yoshev Ohalim; a simple man who dwelt in tents (Ibid)

If Esau is the one who loved the outdoors, the Jacob, the polar opposite, would be described as the biblical equivalent of a couch potato. Yet, rabbinic tradition couldn’t be satisfied with that. If we had our choice, wouldn’t we want to be a descendant of the strong and powerful hunter, especially considering how deceptive Jacob seems later on in the Torah portion, based on a basic reading of the text?

Therefore, our rabbis reinterpret what it means that he dwelt in tents. They understand these tents to actually be houses of study — and that Jacob was a Torah scholar. Of course, this interpretation makes little sense from a chronological perspective, since the Israelites wouldn’t receive the Torah for another 450+ years in the biblical narrative. But if we are descendants of Jacob, then let us be descendants of a great Torah scholar. In fact, midrash even describes him as the most focused of all Torah scholars, one who learned from everyone and taught everyone. He did not learn in only one Beit Midrash, house of study. Rather, he learned in many. That is why he was described as Yoshev Ohalim, one who dwelt in many tents.

Such rabbinic reinterpretation doesn’t explain him being called an Ish Tam though. Noah, who was described as a righteous person is also referred to as an Ish Tzaddik Tammim (Gen. 6:9). Some translate this verse to suggest that Noah was blameless in his generation, but I would suggest that like Jacob, he was a simple person. After all, of the four stereotypical children that appear in the Passover Haggadah, the simple one is also called a Tam. This child says very little. Maybe that is also the lesson that we are meant to take away from Jacob — a rabbinic interpretation of someone who says little, but studies much Torah.

Mishnah Avot teaches:

Make Torah study a regular part of your life. Say little and do much (Avot 1:15)

We talk a lot. I have bookshelves full of sacred texts of rabbinic debate, texts of our tradition that emphasize this point, where rabbis are talking at each other, rather than to each other. In our own world, we talk too much as well — we go on social media tirades, with long tweet threads. We sometimes speak just to speak, adding hot air. We talk a lot, and listen very little. And for many of us, even when we listen, we are only patiently waiting for someone to be done speaking, so that we can continue to speak again. Maybe we would all be better off to make Torah study a part of our lives so that we say little and do much. We watch our words and choose our words carefully. Words have impact and do serious damage. We should strive to make these deeds our own. For actions speak much louder than words.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Our Children are no longer Children


“Hey mom i dont know whats going on here at school but i love you and im so thankful for everything youve done for me. i love you so much”

“everyone is saying theres a shooter on campus i dont know whats going on but i love you and sad so much”

These are the text messages that a teenager sent her mother in the middle of our country’s latest school shooting, this time at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California on Thursday, November 14, when a 16-year-old student showed up on his birthday with a handgun and shot five students, two of them fatally, before shooting himself in the head.

The school is expected to remain closed until December 2, when it will reopen and students will be expected to go about their lives as if this didn’t happen, as if they aren’t dealing with the very real trauma of surviving a mass shooting, the trauma of such a shooting taking place in their school, a place where they are supposed to be protected and safe. Because this is “business as usual” in America in 2019, when we force our children to grow up and they lose their innocence.

In Parashat Vayeira we read of the disturbing narrative  when Abraham kicks Hagar and Ishmael out of their home. Ignoring the questionable and disturbing actions of our biblical patriarch, I can’t help, but focus on the Hebrew of what happens. Hagar is sent into the wilderness, with her child, her yeled in Hebrew, by her side, with a little bit of bread and a skin of water. They wandered aimlessly until the water was gone and Hagar expected she would die.

Not wanting to watch her child die, the text says: “Al ereh b’mot hayeled,” “don’t let me look at this child dying,” again using the word yeled. But when Hagar began to cry, the Torah tells us “Vayishma Elohim et Kol HaNa’ar,” “God heard the cry of the lad,” using the Hebrew word na’ar instead of yeled. A yeled is a young child, a kid, vulnerable and dependent on a parent, much like Ishmael was in this moment. But a na’ar, is more than a lad, more than an adolescent, or a young adult, or a teenager. A Na’ar is someone who is forced to grow up – someone who was vulnerable before, but empowered at this moment. A na’ar is someone who no longer follows, but instead is ready to lead.

We have no more yeledim. We have no more children. In this day and age, our children have grown up too fast. They have been forced to. They have become na’arim. Our children have more lockdown drills in their schools than fire drills. More than 230,000 schoolchildren have been exposed to gun violence in their schools since the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. We have forced our children to grow up way to soon. We have destroyed any age of innocence for them. We have turned yeledim into na’arim long before they should be forced to deal with the hardships and heartache of this world.

Why was it that Hagar cried out, but it was Ishmael’s voice that God heard? And why is it that after hearing Ishmael’s cries, does an angel call out to Hagar in return? Dr. Ellen Frankel teaches that “sometimes it’s our children, speaking from where they are, who teach us how to see what we need to survive… [that] a child’s tears reach the heavens.”

We have failed our children. This most recent school shooting is just another example of that. But the March for our Lives and the movement that the students from Parkland, Florida launched was a sign that our children are now na’arim, that they are empowered, that they will bring about change. And just as God hears Ishmael’s cries and responds to Hagar, God will hear the voices of these na’arim, of these newly empowered young adults and their angelic work will protect us all. The brokenness of this world has turned each yeled into a na’ar, but I pray that, like Ishmael, they are empowered as a result. As Dr. Ellen Frankel said, their tears reach the heavens. May they reach all of us as well – and inspire us to do the necessary work to protect all of us who are wandering, lost in this wilderness.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

We are a People of Sojourners


Lech Lecha m’artzecha, u’mimoladatecha, u’mibeit avicha el Haaretz Asher areika.

And God said to Abram: Go. For your own sake. Not because I am telling you to do so. Not because this is a Divine command. But because you need to do this for yourself. You must be willing to leave your land, your birthplace, your family’s home, to a new land, to a new place, because ultimately you need to go for your own sake.We thinking of this moment, of Abram going on his spiritual journey, as when we people a people of sojourners. But the truth is Abram was fine at this moment. He was simply following God’s command. It was later, once he settled in the promised land, and realized that it wasn’t a place he could stay in, that he left in search of a safe haven. We read in Genesis 12:10:

There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.

Conditions get bad. Conditions get rough. And so Abram, even after his divine command to go, never settles. He leaves where he had went to. He leaves where he thought he was supposed to be. He leaves where God commanded him to go. Because his life was in jeopardy. Because his family’s safety and security was in doubt. He did what we would all do.  He leaves and heads down to Egypt because of famine, because his family’s safety and livelihood was at stake. 

Abram went down to Egypt Lagur Sham, to live there. In modern Hebrew, we use Lagur to mean ‘to live.’ But here, it actually means ‘to sojourn.’ For Abram, Lagur was a Ger, a sojourner, a stranger. As Jews, we know all too well what it means to sojourn. And even when we are living in a place, we are still only sojourners, not knowing how long we will be able to stay for. He left the land of Divine promise for another place, not because it is home, but because that is where you’ll survive.

Later, the first mention of the term Hebrew is used. In Genesis 14:13, Avram is referred to as Avram HaIvri, Abram the Hebrew. The term literally means the one who crossed. Abram is the one who crossed bodies of water, the one who crossed boundaries and borders, to go from one nation to the next. And ultimately, we are called Ivrim, Hebrews, for that is who we are as well.

We are the wanders. We are the migrants. We are the Ivrim, those who cross borders. We love the stranger because we were once strangers. So we cannot turn our backs when others are crossing borders as well, searching for a safe haven. Why do we perceive our journey to be worth it, but others not to be? Why do we ignore the calls for help and the cries for justice? Love the stranger. Welcome the stranger. Do not oppress the stranger. For we too wandered, so we too must answer their cries.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Don’t Tell Me My Eyes and Ears are Lying to Me

The taste of propaganda was gut-wrenching. Cameras weren’t allowed in the Otero ICE Detention Camp. And without cameras, no one really sees what the conditions are. Not when it is 45 minutes from a border crossing. Not when it is not accessible by public transportation. Not when it is in the middle of the desert, surrounded by mountains. As a group of clergy, PR representatives from ICE and the facility’s warden agreed to meet with us and give us a tour of the facility. And without a doubt, no matter how they tried to spin it, this was a prison. Civil detention, where asylum seekers and those who’ve entered this country irregularly are detained, is supposed to look different than a criminal correctional facility. But these detainees, these asylum seekers, these souls who sought a safe haven were treated as criminals, were treated as something less than human.

And these should were hungry for human connection and relationship. They were hungry for acknowledgement. In a facility that prevents physical contact with visitors, they are divided be glass windows when meeting with family and lawyers. We tried time and time again to silently communicate love and compassion. With each sacred soul we saw, I gently put my hand to my heart – the unspoken sign acknowledging that I saw them, that they were human. We stared into each other’s eyes. I searched deep into their pupils for hope. But all I saw was the weight of despair on their eyelids, as if the divine spark within them has extinguished.

And then we approached the wing of the facility labeled “Restrictive Housing Unit.” The propaganda machine told us that solitary confinement wasn’t practiced there. The propaganda machine tried to convince us that some detainees preferred to be alone. But as we walked down the narrow corridor of this narrow-minded policy, an ICE officer shuttered the small slit windows in each door, preventing anyone from peeking in. And as the propaganda machine assured us that the detainees were treated with dignity, a soul in solitary confinement heard us and began banging on the door as we walked by. He wanted to feel heard. He wanted to make sure we had not forgotten about him.

At the end of tour this facility, I bumped into a group of pro-bono lawyers from Catholic Charities. One explained some of the most frequent complaints at the detention camp: the too frequent use of solitary confinement, including as punishment for a group of detainees who participated in a peaceful action, protesting the rotten and moldy food they were being served. The truth that this pro-bono attorney of one of these asylum seekers revealed was contrary to the promises that the propaganda machine kept telling us. Even though we knew they were lies, they kept saying them, and the warden kept smiling as she said them, as if her pleasantries could mask the horrors of the detention camp.

When this ICE camp is in the middle of the desert and no one can see that these sacred souls are treated like criminals, like less than human beings, than it’s easier to believe the propaganda machine — especially when they smile while they spew their lies to justify their discriminatory polices. But don’t tell me I am lying. Don’t tell me my eyes and ears are lying to me.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


Filed under Uncategorized

We are the Flood. But We can Stop the Flood.

There was a video circulating on social media this week about Senator Booker as a presidential candidate being interviewed on The View by Meghan McCain, and her pushing him regarding mandatory gun buy backs. He responded personally that this isn’t a policy issue. That someone was murdered on his block by an assault rifle this past year.

I think for many of us, this also is a personal issue. We worry when our children go to school every day. We worry when we enter our houses of worship. Or shopping malls. Or movie theaters. Or concerts. We live in a society where we have the power to do something, but refuse to. We are scared. We are bullied. Our officials care more about gun lobbyists than they do about saving the lives of their constituents. And when Meghan McCain tried to push Senator Booker, he honestly said: there are areas we agree. We agree on background checks, we agree on gun licenses, but there is an unwillingness to work together on the areas that we agree on. But that is what we must do. We must work together – united instead of divided – to stop this culture that leads to 30,000 victims of gun violence every year in this country.

Parashat Noach begins with us being told:

Vatishachet Haaretz lifnei HaElohim VaTimaleh Haaretz Chamas. The land became corrupt before God and the land was filled with Chamas.

We aren’t really sure what this Chamas is. But whatever it was, it was so great, and so sinful, that it led to God destroying the whole world.

Bereishit Rabba tries to explain what Chamas is. Rabbi Levi first teaches that it is idol worship, which doesn’t make much sense since Abraham doesn’t introduce monotheism until chapters later. Then he tries to suggest that Chamas is sexual immorality, something that the righteous Noah is even guilty of at the conclusion of the Torah portion. He finally concludes that Chamas is Shefichut Damim, is spilling of blood, killing another person.

We are troubled by the initial theology of Torah, a theology that introduces a God that would wipe out all of humanity with a forty day-forty night flood. How can we accept a God who would do such a thing (even if the God that we build a relationship today is based on a very different theology than that of Torah)? Why would God do such a thing? Maybe God was accepting that humanity was doing it to themselves. Humanity was the flood. Blood was raining in the streets like a torrential downpour. And if we were filled with such chamas, then there was no humanity left. We destroyed ourselves. 

And that is the reality we are again currently living in. We are filled with so much chamas, so much shefichut damim, so much murder, so much gun violence, so much bloodshed, in our society, that we don’t need to wait for a mabul, for a flood, to destroy us. For we are destroying ourselves.

Among all the chamas, among all the bloodshed, Noah was saved because he was seen as an Ish Tzadik Tamim, a simple and righteous person. Everyone else was at best, apathetic to the epidemic of violence, and at worst, encouraged and celebrated it. We too, at best, are apathetic. We don’t care unless it hits directly close to home, while accepting that even mass shootings have a shelf life in this 24-hour news cycle. And at worst, we are fighting to sell weapons of war in our streets, without care for background checks or gun licenses. At worst, we are guilty of worshipping these assault rifles as idols. And we are the flood; we are responsible for the shefichut damim. We are responsible for the chamas. We are doing this to ourselves. But Noah, was the Ish Tzadik, the righteous person, willing to take a stand against such an epidemic.

We find this word Chamas again when Job cries out to God about the Chamas all around him. And it is paralleled to lo mishpat, to lawlessness, to a lack of justice. Part of being an Ish Tzadik, part of being a righteous person, is standing up to injustice. It is fighting, simply or fiercely, to end this culture ofshefichut damim, of bloodshed, and to get to a point where we are no longer drowning ourselves in the flood. Instead, we are the lifeboat. We are the ark. We are the Ish Tzadik, the righteous person. We are determined to save each other, and to save society. Then, and only then, will we see the metaphorical rainbow.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

God Created Humanity. And now we have the Power to do Good.

Vayar Elohim Ki Tov. And God saw that it was Good. Veheyi erev vayehi boker. And it was evening. And it was morning.

That is how each day of the creation narrative concludes: And God say it was good; there was evening and there was morning; the first day. And God saw that it was good; there was evening and there was morning; the second day.

But there is something different about the last two days. For each day of creation, it says Yom Echad, the first day. Yom Sheni, the second Day. Yom Shelishi, the third Day, etc. But, once we get to the sixth day, the day that humanity was created, the Hebrew specifies, Yom HaShishi, adding in the prefix of the letter Hey, which means ‘the.’ But doing so also personalizes the noun. This definite article here, and again with Shabbat, referred to as Yom Hashvi’i, the seventh day, signifies that there is something special, something different, about these days.

These days signify the uniqueness of the creation of humanity, but also an understanding of our responsibility, as humanity, to be God’s partners and take responsibility for this world — to finish completing this broken and incomplete world that God set out to create. And Shabbat celebrates our relationship with God, and our promise to be God’s partners. At first there was only darkness in the world. But God creates light and then separates out the light from the darkness. The definite Hey reminds us to be the light in the darkness, to be the light unto the world. 

The Babylonian Talmud, in Shabbat 88a, suggests the same idea but in different words. It clarifies that the Torah says Yom HaShishi because it is referring to a specific sixth day. The Talmud suggests that it refers to the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, when tradition teaches revelation happened at Sinai, when the Torah, scripture, was revealed. Rabbinic tradition concludes that after humanity was created, the Torah needed to be given in order from humanity to have purpose, to do what is good and what is right, to strive to make the world a better place.

We need ethics and values to guide us. We are lost without a guide to tell us what is right. But we are also lost without leaders who strive to do what is right. The world is broken when corrupt and crude leaders and their cronies ignore the same values given to all of humanity, which tells us to love the stranger, to love our neighbor, and to care for the most vulnerable. And we are lost when we stop standing up for what is right and stop realizing our responsibility in not only living our lives based on those values, but being God’s messengers — not just God’s partners — and sharing those values with the world.

Upon completing each day’s work, God said it was good. But on the sixth day:

v’et kol asher asah v’hineh tov me’od. And God did all of this and it was tov me’od, very good.

That is our ability. That is our responsibility. That is our obligation. And that is our burden. We have the ability to create a world that is much better than the one that currently exists. We have the ability to create a more just society upholding Torah and its values. But only if we are guided by ethics and values that inspire us to stand up for what is right.

Mishnah Avot explains that there is a whole list of things that God created at the conclusion of the sixth day, right at dusk, as the sun set, before Shabbat began – listing the miraculous unexplainable parts of Torah. This also serves as a rabbinic reminder that creation wasn’t complete once humanity was created. Rather, once humanity was created, we were then given the responsibility to complete this world, to finish building it. The question then that we must ask ourselves is what will we build? Will we sit on our hands, and let a society be built around us that seems antithetical to the same Torah given on the sixth day of Sivan during revelation? Or will we build a world that mirrors the Utopian idealism of the Garden of Eden – one based on peace and equality? It is our task to finish creating the world. Now let’s get to work!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Using the Extraordinary to Find God in the Ordinary

The Sfat Emet explains why Sukkot falls right after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He wonders why such a long and joyous holiday follows the Days of Awe and Season of Repentance. But practically speaking, I believe he is also acknowledging what many of us feel this time of year: it is difficult to fully appreciate the joy of Sukkot when we are exhausted following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But the Sfat Emet, the former Gerer Rebbe who lived during the second half of the 19th century, explains that following the High Holidays there are many Baalei Teshuvah who don’t have a place for themselves.

This is a play on words here as the chasidic world using the term Baal Teshuvah to describe one who wasn’t previously observant to their religious standards and now is, but it literally means the person who has repented, appropriate following the Day of Atonement and Season of Repentance. Secondly, the Hebrew word Makom means ‘place,’ but is also a name for God, suggesting that God is in all and every place. He concludes that previously, they were lost, and had no ‘place,’ meaning they did not find God in their lives. But now, as Baalei Teshuvah, following repentance, they are found, they find meaning and purpose again, and appreciate God’s blessings all around them. The sukkah is their ‘place’ then to find God and help them do that.

He then makes a connection between the sukkah and the four species (lulav and etrog) and tzitzit and tefillin. The sukkah is like a tallit, or any garment with fringes on its four corners. Those tzitzit, fringes are supposed to remind us of God’s Presence all around us and the tallit, the prayer shawl, like the sukkah, is meant to serve as a reminder of God’s protection. He then connects the four species with the four scrolls that you find with the boxes of tefillin. We are taught that we wrap tefillin so that when we feel it and see it on us, it is a siman, a sign, of God’s Presence in our lives.

It is easy for me to connect to God when sitting in a sukkah, being outdoors, feeling the breeze, and looking up to see the stars through the s’chach. It is much more difficult to expect that fringes of a garment or leather straps can remind you of God’s Presence. But that is our goal: to find God everywhere, in everything, in the everyday. Following the High Holidays, we use the ritual objects of sukkah and lulav and etrog to help us connect to God. They though should be a catalyst to help us not be dependent on temporary booths or tree branches to see God. We should be able to find God in this makom, in this place, and in all places. We use the extraordinary of this festival to find God in hopes that when we transition back to the ordinary, back to the everyday, we find God in that makom as well.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Kol Nidre 5780: Children are Our Rainbow

Growing up, my family had an odd obsession: we would collect Noah’s arks. Anything that was Noah’s Ark related found in catalogues or at antique sales would end up in our home. To this day, the countertops of my parents’ kitchen covered with rainbow arches above miniature models of wooden boats, surrounded by parading animals, lined up two-by-two. I loved the story so much, I named my son after the biblical character. For my family, the story of Noah and his ark, was one about building a future, and a promise from God, a rainbow in the sky that we still see after every thunderstorm turns to sunshine, and a dove, complete with olive branch in beak, representing the possibility of peace.

This biblical narrative though is a troublesome one. Noah is called an Ish Tzadik Tamim haya b’dorotav, a righteous and simple person for his generation, the only person who God deems worth saving among a wicked generation. And so, he builds a lifesaving ark for himself and his family, and all animals that God created to ensure repopulation of the earth. But when God announces the imminent destruction of all humanity, Noah doesn’t flinch. He has a lifeboat – literally. He is safe. Throughout Torah, Abraham goes toe-to-toe with God in an attempt to save the innocent of Sodom and Gamora, cities where he did not reside. Moses stands up to God to defend the same Israelites that he spends most of his tenure as leader being critical of. But for Noah, he is only concerned with his own family and never thinks about the impact of his ambivalence or the world that he is left to live in after it was destroyed.

Approximately two million students from over 250 countries participated in a global climate school strike on Friday, September 20, ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit that took place days later. Coordinated by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, the strike was meant to gain attention to the issue, but also to make sure that young people on this planet, the ones whom we are leaving the earth to in this state, have a seat at the table and are part of the conversation. And the reality that we are leaving them is a scary one: hotter, drier weather in the Middle East has dried up the Tigris-Euphrates river basin; about 40% of the 10 million people who live in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta live below sea level, forcing the country’s President to announce that they will actually be moving the capital to higher ground; Miami and other coastal towns may not exist decades from now; droughts in California have caused water shortages and wildfires.

On this day where we admit our transgressions, my teacher and dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School, Rabbi Daniel Nevins writes: We were created amidst a clean and pure world, but now it is headed for destruction in our hands. Not on our own merits do we beseech You, Lord our God, for we have sinned, we have wasted, we have destroyed:  For the sin of filling the sea and land with filth and garbage;  For the sin of destroying forever species which in Your great mercy were saved from the flood;  And for the sin of laying bare the forests and habitats from which all creatures receive life.” Forgive us, Pardon us, Grant us Atonement.

I have a confession to make: I am not a very green person. Far from it actually. I use paper plates a lot because I hate doing the dishes. I often forget to separate out the recycling. When it was time to lease a new car, I went with the gas guzzling SUV instead of hybrid or electric models, because I was more interested in a third row with lots of leg room, not my carbon footprint. It’s not that I don’t care about protecting the planet. It’s more that I am unsure me doing anything can truly make a difference. Everything I’ve read suggests that we have passed the point of no return. After the forty-day-and-forty-night flood, there will be no rainbow in the sky.

Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University explains that a switch from plastic straws to paper straws alone won’t save the planet. He writes that, “focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption  heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall.”

On Yom Kippur, we pour our hearts out to God, not just admitting our mistakes, but we are meant to experience a spiritual death of sorts. And we make confessions as a community. Ashamnu. Bagadnu. Al Chet Shechatanu Lefanecha. Each statement is in the plural. We have sinned. We have transgressed. We have let this happen. We, together, have caused our communal death; we have brought this upon ourselves.

After all, when God gives responsibility of the utopian Eden to Adam and Eve, first God blesses them, and then says to them: be fruitful and multiply and fill the land. Then, v’chiv’shu’ha, and subdue it, Urdu bigdat Hayam, uv’of hashamayim, u’v’chol chaya haromeset al ha’aretz, and have dominion over the fish, and birds, and all mammals that roam the earth. Sforno, the Italian Rabbi and Biblical commentary of the 16th century explains that v’chiv’shu’ha is not a directive to conquer earth with muscular power, but to subdue it by means of humanity’s superior intellect. He understands Torah to mean that we must use our intelligence to protect earth. Our own intelligence, and courage, is what will save us.

Greta Thunberg first gained notoriety in August 2018 when she would stand outside the Swedish Parliament, then alone, holding up a sign that said “School Strike for Climate,” but through social media, her movement grew, launching a Fridays for the Future campaign, as well as this global school strike that some of our own children participated in just a couple of weeks ago. At her speech to the United Nations, she chastised world leaders:

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

But what gave Greta Thunberg hope that we can change was convincing her family to become vegan, convincing them to no longer travel by airplane. She realized that she could make a difference. She could change. She could save the world. We all can.

Al Gore, who has arguably become more influential and famous as an environmental hero than he ever was as Vice President, writes that he still has hope for the future. He says his hope “stems largely from the recent, unprecedented groundswell of youth activism that has raised public consciousness to new levels and is pushing political leaders to develop bold and ambitious ideas to confront this challenge. Harking back to the great social movements in history — youth activists are taking the lead.”

Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, of blessed memory, tells a story of a young child who cries out to God and declares that the world is such a mess. The child challenges God: Why don’t you send someone to change the world? God responds, I did send someone. I sent you. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubuvitcher Rebbe, taught: “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs to repair.” It is our job now to repair the world. God sent us.

The theology of Yom and the concept of ‘who shall live and who shall die,’ is hardly believable for us. That is partially because we live in a world where we expect something and get it right away. That is because we fully expect to go to sleep tonight and wake up again in the morning. We care about the here and now, and we fully expect to be in the here and now. We don’t know about the future, but we don’t seem to be worried because that won’t affect us.

We learn in Taanit 23a of the Babylonian Talmud about a man walking along the road who comes across Honi the Circle Maker planting a Carob Tree. He looks at Honi and asks him: “how long will it take for the tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” Honi replies. “Seventy years?!?” The man cannot believe it. “You will not be alive in seventy years. Why would you plant a tree whose fruit you never get to eat,” the man scoffs. Honi quietly and confidently responded, “when I came into this world, there were carob trees ripe for the picking. Just as my parents planted for me, I will plant for my children.”

It is easy for us to not care about the future of the planet because we know it won’t affect us. We don’t have to worry about buying real estate on some space colony on Mars. We don’t have to worry about continents being submerged by water or animals becoming extinct. Not in our lifetime. But if that is how we view the future, then we are understanding the true message of Yom Kippur incorrectly. It’s not about the next day or the next year. It’s not about making it to the end of Neilah. It’s not about 5780. It is about what we want our legacies to be. What impact do we want to have in this world? Are we only concerned with us being written and sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come? Or do we want to make sure there is a Book of Life to be written into?

In our liturgy this evening, in our machzorim, we do not only that we have transgressed. We also ask God v’tein b’libeinu la’azov derech resha, to inspire our hearts to abandon this terrible path. Saying sorry isn’t enough. We need to be inspired to change. We need to be willing to change. We need to understand that what we as individuals strive to change may not be enough. But we ask God to inspire in our hearts to make a collective and communal change.  We admit our mistakes collectively. If we are going to save our planet, we must do so collectively as well.

Greta Thunberg concluded her UN speech with this promise: “We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.” Change is coming. And change must be coming here.

We have sinned. We have transgressed. I acknowledge that we have talked the talk on the bimah but not always walked the walk. We waste. We use paper and plastic. We leave lights on and don’t use energy efficient bulbs. We aren’t relying on renewable energy. That is about to change. In the year 5780, our newly constituted Beth El Green Team, will be working to make our sacred space and holy community one that understands and appreciates the importance the holy ground and sacred space of this planet, that when we make a promise of Tikkun Olam, to repair the world, we literally understand our need to save HaOlam, planet Earth.

RainbowInTheSkyThe power of the rainbow at the conclusion of Noah’s Flood was not just the promise and covenant that it represented. The rainbow represents the opportunity and ability to rebuild. It was a reminder that no matter what pain and destruction, metaphorical or literal, that we have caused and that we experienced. We can rebuild this world anew. No matter what the last year was, this year will be better, as long as we put in the work to make it so. Our past doesn’t need to dictate our future. The rainbow is our future. We do not see where it ends. If we put in the work, our potential to save this world is limitless. And our children will lead us. The prophet Isaiah promised (54:13) that children shall be disciples of God and how great will the peace of your children be, v’rav shalom baniyich. Midrash suggests that rather than reading this verse as baniyich, your children, we should read it as boniyech, your builders. Our children will follow God’s path, even if we don’t, and will build a world of Shalom. But Shalom here is not peace. Shalom comes from shalem, meaning whole. The Prophet Isaiah is revealing to us is that it is our children who will fix our past mistakes and transgressions. They will lead us. They are our rainbow. They are our dove with an olive branch. May we plant for them so that there is still a world left for them to repair. May we save the world for them. May they save the world for us. And may our entire planet be inscribed in the Book of Life.  Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What if we don’t make it?

Last week, 24 hours before Rosh Hashanah, before we entered the new year and the Gates of Heaven, the Gates of redemption, opened, we focused on Moses’ words, noticing as we prepared to enter the covenant — both the covenant that Moses focuses on with the Israelites and the covenant that we re-enter with God each and every year — we did so Atem Nitzavem Hayom, standing still.

This past Shabbat, Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Return, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is all about transition. We are in a state of limbo. We have been written, but not yet sealed, in the Book of Life. Additionally, our Torah reading focuses on the transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua.

Moses says: “I can no longer be active. Moreover, God said to me ‘You shall not go across the Jordan” (Deut. 31:2). Moses then calls to Joshua and tells him “be strong and resolute” (Deut. 31:7). Chazak v’amatz. These words literally mean be strong and courageous. Midrash HaGadol says that when Moses tells Joshua “Chazak v’Amatz,” what he actually means is be strong in Torah, and to have courage means that one shall not fear, for God is with you.

Soon after, God says to Moses “The time is drawing near for you to die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting” (Deut. 31:14). Midrash explains that when a divine voice called out to Moses and told him that this was his last day on earth, he went from the Levite camp to the Israelite camp and spoke to each person personally. He left nothing unsaid, no word left unspoken.

A week ago, we had been standing still, and now, although we have moved forward, we are stuck in this in-between. We have been written, but not yet sealed. And what if we don’t make it? What if we too don’t get to cross the Jordan? I am not suggesting or wishing that any of us choose to live our lives believing we won’t be alive tomorrow. To do so would make life totally unbearable. But what I am suggesting is that we take for granted that we will be here. We are already placing our bagel orders for break-fast.

But what if we don’t make it? Moses had the opportunity to know ahead of time. The truth is, he knew well in advance. He first got word in Sefer Bamidbar, in Parashat Chukat, after he struck that rock. But he didn’t accept it. He suppressed his fears and anxiety. Only now, once he heard a bat kol, a Heavenly Voice, call out to him did he accept this was reality. And Midrash explains that he didn’t hold anything back. He said what he needed to say.

And let that be a lesson to us all. On Yom HaDin, on Yom Kippur, on Judgement Day, we stand before the Almighty Judge, asking for compassion and forgiveness in the name of Justice. But we do not know what the sentence will be. We do not know if we will cross the Jordan. So let us make sure that we leave no word unsaid. Say what is on our minds, what we’ve been wanted to say for years, to our friends, family, and loved ones. Make sure they know how we feel and what we think.

When Moses tells Joshua, Chazak v’Amatz, maybe he isn’t really talking to Joshua at all. He is projecting. He is talking to himself. He is telling himself to stay strong, to not fear, as he goes on this unknown path. May those be words of inspiration for all of us during this days of repentance. May we all be strong and courageous as we face the unknown. We don’t know what the end result will be, but let us make sure that we leave no word left unsaid.

G’mar Chatima Tova.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized