Monthly Archives: November 2011

So Much to be Thankful for!

Growing up, I was taught that Thanksgiving was a Jewish holiday. It was a fact! While our family Thanksgiving meals are remembered for the preference of my Bubbe’s brisket over a Turkey, we were still sure to always add ritual. My grandfather — my Pop-Pop — always made sure that there was a challah to say the motzi over, even though it was just a regular Thursday on the Hebrew calendar. Most importantly though, in addition to sharing what we were thankful for, we always recited the Shehechiyanu blessing, the blessing which thanks God for sustaining us and allowing us to reach this day and this moment. To this day, my family makes sure that the turkey is not sliced until we say the Shehechiyanu!

There truly is so much for us to be thankful for and nothing reminded me of that more than the day before Thanksgiving, when I went with the Middle School students of our Martin J. Gottlieb Day School to help deliver food to those in need. Students — along with staff, alumni, and parents — worked with dozens of other volunteers at the MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation to sort, bag, pack, load, and deliver food to Jacksonville residents.

We delivered 61 turkeys, 75 bags of groceries, and 31 gift cards to those in need! Kol Hakavod – a special thanks – to Edith Horovitz, our Middle School Vice Principal, for arranging this and all of our weekly Mitzvah programs that are an essential reminder to our students that Judaism is not just about learning. It is about action!

We are obviously so grateful for all that we have, but sometimes we focus too much on what we are missing. We complain because our peers and co-workers have what is new and “in” while we are still stuck using last year’s outdated model.

Not only did we bring thanksgiving cheer to families — and more importantly, food to hungry children — but we were also reminded that we need to stop complaining about what we lack and instead be thankful for what we have. Students were surprised when one house we delivered food to did not have a working phone number to call to let them know that we were on our way to deliver groceries. Another did not have kitchen counters for us to put the bags of food on. The kitchen was an empty room with an oven. Yet, these families who have so little were so grateful. This one act of hesed, of kindness, brought a smile to their faces. In one instance, a student said “Happy Thanksgiving” as we left a family’s residence. The family members responded, “it will be now!”

The ride back toward our community and our homes was silent. Reflecting on the great mitzvah we just participated in, experiencing values in action, was a great reminder of how thankful I am for the food on my table and the roof over my head, for my loving family and friends, and such a warm and supportive community.

Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, teaches: “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion” (4:1). We all left feeling like the richest people in the world, being so thankful and grateful for what we have, and knowing that it is our responsibility to care for others as well.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Shehechiyanu, v’Kiyamanu, v’Higiyanu lazman haZeh.

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who gave us life, sustained us, and gave us to the opportunity to reach — and appreciate — this moment.

May we all take a moment to forget about what is missing in our lives and truly be thankful for all that we have.

Happy Thanksgiving!

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Importance of Saying “I Love You”

I grew up saying “I love you” a lot! I was taught to never hang up the phone with a loved one without saying those words. Even when it is a thirty second conversation, even when we are stressed, even when there is a disagreement, a conversation always ends with those words. Ending phone calls with “I love you” have been second nature, so much so that sometimes I go on auto-pilot and will even end a phone call with a telemarketer with such sentiments!

Some worry that saying “I love you” so often and frequently lessens the meaning of those words. While it may be true that the feeling one gets when hearing those words from a significant other for the first time or from a young child being tucked in at night is different than a rushed “I love you” before one hangs up the phone,  that does not mean that those words are not genuine. Saying those words is so important! I was taught to end conversations with loved ones by telling them that I love them because I did not know when the next time was that I would see them or speak to them again, or – God forbid – if I ever would again. What if this was the last conversation? What if this was the last time we spoke? What are the last words that I would want to say? The answer is simple: I love you.

We don’t always need to say these words, but it is important that we express these sentiments. We show that we love someone and care about that person with hugs and kisses, conversations, laughter and smiles. The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, was notorious for giving hugs. He would hug complete strangers because he felt it was important to let everyone know that they were loved. A story is told that he was giving a concert for a group of prisoners. Following the concert, he went up to the group of inmates and gave everyone one of them a hug. One of the inmates, a large man with huge muscles and tattoos on his biceps, reacted to the hug. For a moment, Rabbi Carlebach was worried that the man was angry that he hugged him, but then he thanked Reb Shlomo. “You know,” he said, “Maybe if I was hugged more and loved more as a child, I wouldn’t be in here today.” Every moment is the perfect moment to say “I love you.”

This week’s Torah portion, Hayyei  Sarah,  begins with the death of Sarah. Last week’s parasha concluded with Abraham almost sacrificing his son, Isaac. The narrative timeline suggests that the last time Sarah spoke to Abraham or Isaac was prior to the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Some in our tradition suggest that Sarah died of heartache. She saw her husband taking her only son away to sacrificing him in the name of God and she could not imagine a life without him. We do not read about how Sarah died, simply that she died. The narrative suggests that she did not die in Abraham’s presence, but instead while he was away on his journey.

Abraham and Isaac left and while they were gone, Sarah – Abraham’s beloved wife and Isaac’s mother – died. I wonder what their last words were to each other before they left. Did they have a fight or disagreement? Did Sarah beg Abraham not to do it? Was their goodbye filled with tears or shouting? Or was Sarah unaware of God’s “test” and Abraham left with a simple “See you later.” I sure hope they said “I love you” before they left.

Take a moment and give her children a hug. Give your husband or wife a kiss. Call your parents. Tell them that you love them, because you can never say “I love you” enough times!

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky


Filed under Uncategorized

Children can teach us so much!

We always think that we have so much to teach future generations. Parents, teachers, clergy, and adults in general assume that we know so much and that children have a lot to learn from us. After all, we have life experiences that we can share with them as they begin their own personal journeys. Yet, experiencing life and sharing those experiences isn’t always a positive. With all that we have experienced, it is hard for us to be objective. We have all experienced joy, but we have also experienced pain, heartache, and loss. Those experiences cloud our vision. We hold grudges. We make assumptions. We don’t give someone the benefit of the doubt.

Our children on the other hand have not dealt with such experiences. Their youth and innocence allows them to keep an open mind and truly be objective. They don’t make assumptions on an individual because of his family, ethnicity, or religious beliefs. They don’t assume that just because one did something or said something in the past, one’s future is already decided. All young children are concerned with is playing with their friends, and being openminded allows them to make friends with anyone. 

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Vayera. In this Torah portion, Sarah casts out Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son, and Hagar, Ishmael’s mother. Genesis 21:9 reveals that Sarah saw Ishmael playing. The Hebrew word for playing is this verse is metzahek, the same root as the name Yitzhak, or Isaac. It is widely assumed that Sarah saw Ishmael playing with Isaac. In the next verse, Sarah casts them out, announcing that Hagar and Ishmael must leave because her son, Isaac, must be Abraham’s heir. Sarah ultimately casts out Ishmael and Hagar out of jealously.

The rabbis are so uncomfortable with this action and the fact that the p’shat, the literal meaning of the text, does not give any such reason for Sarah to send Hagar and Ishmael away that they attempt to offer their own explanations. Using examples of this word found elsewhere in biblical literature, our commentators suggest that Ishmael was not “playing” with Isaac. Some say he was encouraging him to participate in idol worship. Others suggest that he was trying to kill Isaac. There are those that even suggest that Ishmael was sexually assaulting Isaac. Regardless of the explanation, it is clear that our commentators are uncomfortable with Sarah’s actions, with her pain, heartache, and jealously, that they need to “rewrite” the text. I am not concerned with their interpretations. I am interested in the literal meaning of the text: Ishmael and Isaac were playing together.

Sarah was jealous of Hagar, and I would imagine that Hagar was jealous of Sarah. These women did not like each other and fought for Abraham’s love and attention. Yet, their sons enjoyed each other’s companionship. Isaac and Ishmael, the fathers of two great nations that have spent thousands of years fighting, were playing with each other! We may think that peace between these two nations is impossible, but Genesis 21:9 is a reminder of how easily peace can be achieved. Despite the past, despite loss, pain, heartache, and even hatred towards another, we are reminded that these two nations are siblings. Instead of fighting with our brothers and sisters, we should just simply sit down as Isaac and Ishmael did and play together.

Ultimately, adults may not be the ones to achieve peace. We have made up our minds already. Unfortunately, it is not as easy for us to “play” together. Yet our children are the future. I pray that they, in their innocence, will be able to sit down and play together, just as Isaac and Ishmael did. They can certainly teach us something about how to live our lives. After all, while ever teacher has something to teach his students, every student also has something to teach his teacher.

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized