Sacred Space is Safe Space

I hated the fifth grade. Each of us have memories and experiences about our childhoods that we wish we could forget. For me, it was the fifth grade. I was in a split class with fifth and sixth graders. It seemed only natural then for the sixth graders to spend all their time picking on the younger fifth graders. I was the only student named Jesse in the entire school which meant I was different. My name was funny and unusual to classmates. For the sixth graders in the room, it was girl’s name. For most of that school year, the sixth graders in the class called me Jessica. “It was just a joke,” they said. “I was just kidding,” they said. Yet, being picked on for most of that year was the reason that I never liked going outside for recess. It was the reason I hated going to school.

Kirk Smalley is a father from Oklahoma. He goes from school to school with his wife Laura to tell students about their son Ty. Ty committed suicide last year – an 11-year-old smiling, freckle-faced child who chose to end his life because he couldn’t put up with being bullied day in and day out. Suicide is the third leading cause of death of adolescents ages 15-24, too often the result of being bullied. Mr. Smalley asks a room full of students to raise their hands if they have ever been bullied. An average of one-third of the students usually raise their hands, for a child is bullied every seven seconds. He asks the students to raise their hands if they have ever bullied another person. In all the schools he has visited and in all the groups he has spoken to, not a single student has raised their hands. We admit being victimized, but won’t take responsibility for our own faults and actions.

Such bullying is far from physical. Bullying is verbal: name calling; bullying is social: spreading rumors and gossip;  and in this day and age, potentially the most harmful, bullying is electronic: cyberbullying – using the internet, cell phones, and social media to harm one another.

Those who are victims of such acts suffer from depression, have increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, tend to do poorly in school, and are more likely to miss school. Furthermore, those who are the bullies, are also likely to be victims themselves – physically or verbally harmed by another: a parent, a sibling, or classmate. One’s own feelings of disappointment translate into picking on another. They don’t feel so low when they can make another feel lesser than them.

This is not a schoolyard problem of teasing or name calling. This is a problem of hate. We are all different, beautifully different, unique in our physical characteristics, and unique in our interests, talents, and skills. We are each made in God’s image, B’tzelem Elohim, and yet no two individuals are the same. We are all different and each difference and distinction is a divine quality, but adolescents – and even adults – just want to fit in and be the same. So children make fun of one another because he looks different, or acts different, or because she doesn’t know the answer, or isn’t good at sports.

Last Shabbat’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayigash, was the culmination of the narrative of Joseph and his brothers. This story may be the earliest biblical example of bullying. Weeks earlier we learned that Joseph was special – the favored child – who perceived himself as better than the others. The dreamer with his head in the clouds, with the ketonet passim, the coat of many colors, Joseph stood out from among his brothers. They despised him for that. We know that some wanted to kill him. We know that Joseph was eventually sold into slavery. Regardless of the outcome, this was a prime example of bullying – the many versus the few. Jacob’s other sons gained up on Joseph.

At the end of the previous parasha, Parashat Mikketz, Joseph’s brothers come groveling before the Egyptian Pharoah and his magistrates. They beg Joseph – who they do not recognize – for food. The famine has impacted them greatly and they are in need. Joseph challenges his brothers by placing a goblet in his brother Benjamin’s sack. After accusing them of left, he decides to make Benjamin a slave – all the other brothers are free to return to Canaan, but Benjamin must stay.

Most interpret this act as a test or a trial – Joseph’s attempt to see if his brothers have changed their ways or if they still won’t hesitate to get rid of their brother to save themselves. This week’s parasha begins with proof that they have changed their ways. Judah, who suggested selling Joseph into slavery only chapters before, is now trying to prove his brother Benjamin’s innocence and begging for his freedom. They may have passed their test, but Joseph failed his test.

Joseph – the previous victim – becomes the bully. Here, the few bully the many. The individual in a position of power picks on the lowly who are desperate for Joseph’s assistance. This narrative is an example of how the victim becomes the bully. This is an endless cycle. The bullied becomes the bully. Hate begets more hate.

Such hate begins at home. We are to blame if our children believe that it is perfectly fine to pick on another person at all, especially if it is because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, physical appearance, or sexual orientation. We are also to blame if we stand idly by and observe this. We are to blame as parents. We are to blame as teachers. I am to blame as a rabbi. We all accept responsibility as a community. No community is immune to such acts of bullying – and I have no doubt that, despite how incredible our various educational arms are at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, there have been instances of bullying in our day school, religious school, and Makom Hebrew High School. Our goal is for the Jacksonville Jewish Center, like all Jewish communal institutions and synagogues, to be a kehillah kedosha, a sacred and holy community. Yet, this cannot be a true sacred space unless it is a safe space.

We may not realize it in our own small community or in our educational programs, but there is a bullying epidemic in this country. Each day an estimated 160,000 students in this country refuse to go to school because they dread the physical and verbal aggression of their peers. Many more attend school in a chronic state of anxiety and depression. It’s reported that 6 out of 10 American youth witness bullying at least once a day.

The Talmud teaches that to embarrass someone and shame them publicly – to bully them – is the moral equivalent to murder. Rashi comments that the face of one who is embarrassed often turns pales and white, as if his blood has been drained and spilled. Thus, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi, teaches that a commitment to end bullying is the moral equivalent to saving a life, Pikuach Nefesh. We would drop everything and do anything we could if it meant saving another. By making such a commitment – a commitment in the classrooms, in our social circles, in all of our programs and activities, and from the bima, we are committing to saving lives, to creating a safe space.

The oft-quoted famous teaching of Hillel from Pirkei Avot speaks volumes:

Im Ain Ani Li, Mi Li? Uch’she’ani L’atzmi, Mah Ani? V’im lo achshav, aimatai? 

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?

If not now, when? Let us all celebrate 2012 by celebrating how truly sacred our community is, by embracing each individuals differences, and in doing so, bringing ourselves closer to God. May we learn from the mistakes of all of Jacob’s sons, to not gang up on another, and not abuse our positions of power.

Eventually, Joseph reunites with his brothers and reveals his true identity to them. Chapter 45 of Breisheit reveals his true emotions. The text reads:

“And he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck, and wept; and Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brethren, and wept upon them; and after that his brethren talked with him” (Gen. 45 12-15).

May our arms be used to hug each other instead of hit each other. May our mouths be used to kiss each other instead of speak ill will and spread rumors about one another. May we always cry – and may our tears, be tears of joy! If not now, when?!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


(excerpt from Sermon delivered at Jacksonville Jewish Center on 12/31/11)


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2 responses to “Sacred Space is Safe Space

  1. Pingback: Are we Proactive or Reactive? | Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

  2. Pingback: Creating a Community of Kindness | A Floor, But No Ceiling

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