Monthly Archives: March 2012

Standing Up to Hatred and Bigotry

The holiday of Passover is quickly approaching. Jewish families throughout the world spend the weeks leading up to this holiday cleaning our homes, and ridding ourselves of the chametz, the leaven products that we spend most days eating. Parashat Vayikra, which we read this past Shabbat reminds us that we are taught to avoid chametz more than just on the festival of Pesach.

Leviticus 2:4 teaches us that the grain offerings that we offer in the Mishkan, in the tabernacle, should be of choice flour, but should be unleavened cakes as well.  Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century text which many attribute to Rabbi Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona suggests that we avoid chametz because leaven puffs itself up – hence leaven was rejected to imply that haughtiness was rejected. No one should see himself or herself as better or more important than the other. Furthermore, no life, should be placed above another. If we are all made B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, then each life is of equal importance. Each life is equally precious. Each loss, each death, and each murder is also equally tragic, heartbreaking, and sickening.

Sefer HaChinuch has an additional explanation for the prohibition of leavened products in the Mishkan, in the traveling sanctuary in the desert: leavened products take a significant amount of time to rise and that significant amount of time it takes to rise represents idleness, sitting around and refusing to act. The prohibition of such products in the Tabernacle suggests that they aren’t sacred, that idleness isn’t sacred. A refusal and resistance to act, to stand up against hate, murder, and violence isn’t sacred. It is the opposite of sacred! For standing idly by and refusing to change our ways in a society in which night after night, individuals made in God’s image are murdered is a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of God.

Jews around the world mourned this past week as Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his sons Aryeh and Gavriel Sandler, and ten year old Miriam Monsonego were murdered by twenty-four year old terrorist Mohamed Merah when Merah stopped his motorcycle outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish Day School in Toulouse, France and began spraying bullets. The Jewish community mourned, but vowed to not stand idly by and in the end, French police and intelligence found the murderer and pursued justice.

Yet, such violence has occurred in our own backyard and we have remained silent. Four weeks ago, the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, just a short drive from Jacksonville was put under the microscope. The shooter, George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman, claimed under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law that it was self-defense. As many are aware, because the newspapers remind us, Travyon Martin was shot and killed, not carrying a gun, but instead carrying an iced tea and a bag of candy. Mr. Zimmerman claimed that Travyon Martin, a seventeen year old boy, looked suspicious because he was wearing a hoodie.

When a terrorist specifically targets students and teachers of a Jewish communal institution, then we can qualify it as an act of hate. When an armed man shoots an unarmed boy in cold blood, deeming him suspicious because of the hood on his head and the color of his skin, we too must call this hate!

Shaima Al Awadi, a thirty-two year old mother of five children who immigrated to the United States from Iraq in the early 1990’s, was murdered this past week in her San Diego home when she was struck in the head and severely beaten with a tire iron. A letter next to her head read: “Go back to your country, you terrorist.” The reason: Shaima Al Awadi was an observant Muslim woman who wore a hijab. Here too, an innocent woman was murdered because of hate, bigotry, ignorance, and Islamophobia.

I mourn all of these devastating losses and offer comfort and consolation to the Sandler and Monsonego families, the Martin family and the Al-Awadi family. May their memories be for a blessing. I am shocked though by how surprisingly silent the Jewish community has been with regards to each of these murders that have taken place in our own backyard. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed because he was wearing a hoodie. Shaima Al Awadi was beaten to death because she was wearing a hijab. If either of these individuals were wearing a kippah, the Jewish community would understandably be up in arms and take action. So let us not remain silent!

I am reminded of the famous charge given to the Jewish people by Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14). We have an obligation to “be for ourselves” first – to look out and protect ourselves and our communities. It makes sense that the Jewish community was sick to our stomachs following the murderous acts on Toulouse, France. However, Hillel reminds us that we cannot only be for ourselves. We must protect every sacred life, every individual made in God’s image, and stand up to each and every injustice because any injustice directly impacts each of us. We cannot stand idly by while such acts of hate and violence continue in our country. If not now, when?

I pray that we will one day live in a world without hate – a world without racism, Islamophobia, anti-semitism, or bigotry. We cannot sit around and expect that to happen. We must work to end hate. We must combat hate with love. Sometimes staying on the sidelines of life seems like a safer choice, but that does not make it the right choice. After all, Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud teaches us that to save a life is to save the world. It reminds us though that the opposite is also true: to destroy a life is as if we’ve destroyed the world. We’ve stood idly by, content with the leavening process, and stood on the sidelines for too long. Too many worlds have been destroyed. It is up to us, each individual, to rid this world of hate, violence, and murder – to save a life, to save the world.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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Removing Our Masks

I admit that throughout my childhood, I always tried to fit in. In middle school, I was always trying to keep up with the “cool” kids in class. I was listening to the music that they said was cool, watching movies that they claimed were popular, and wearing clothes that were “in.” I am sure that this memory resonates with many of us. Part of the adolescent experience was about trying to fit in. Many of us may not realize it, but as adults, we still too often are stuck doing this. The cool music and movies may be replaced by other material goods, but we are still striving to be someone that society tells us to be. We are conscious of what we say, what we do, and how we look in public because we are concerned with how others will view us. However, if we are only concerned with the perception of another, then we don’t stop to think about how we view ourselves. Are we being true to ourselves or are we simply wearing costumes and hiding who we truly are?

On the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, coinciding this year with March 7th and 8th, we celebrate the festival of Purim. Purim celebrates the Jewish people of Shushan being saved from the evil Haman’s attempt to murder the Jewish community. We honor the heroism of Mordecai and Esther (and revel in Haman’s demise) with food, drinks, and costumes. Some suggest that we wear costumes and masks to recreate the various banquets and masquerades found in Megillat Esther. Additionally, we wear costumes because Esther hides her true identity in our narrative. In order to be queen, she hides her Jewish identity. After all, while her Hebrew name mentioned at the beginning of the Megillah is Hadassah, we all know her as her masked identity: Esther. On Purim, it seems that we acknowledge the masks that each of us wear and the parts of ourselves that we keep hidden. 

Masks hide our identities and allow us to be someone completely different, but we do not put on masks on Purim so that we can be someone other than ourselves. Rather, we do so to symbolically acknowledge that there are parts of ourselves that we keep hidden. We all try to “fit in.” Even Esther, who eventually stood up to Haman, changed her name because she too, wanted to be like everyone else. If God wanted us all to fit in and conform, then we would all be exactly the same. We would look the same, have the same talents and skills, and share the same beliefs and thoughts. We are different. We are unique. We are all – in our differences – B’Tzelem Elohim, made in God’s image.

Thus, we do not wear masks on the 14th of Adar so that we can pretend to be someone else. We do so to experience removing these masks on the 15th of Adar. We hide our identities on Purim and pretend to be someone that we are not. On the 15th of Adar however, we remove those masks. We celebrate our differences. We celebrate our uniqueness. We do not try to be someone that others want us to be or expect us to be. Instead, we embrace the opportunities that exist when we are able to be our true selves. May we all dress up and celebrate this Purim! May the message of Purim give us courage to remove the masks that we each wear every day and celebrate our individuality!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

(This blog post also appears in the March 2012 edition of Jacksonville Jewish Center’s CenterPieces Magazine)

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Women’s History Month, Purim, and the Long Road Ahead

Believe it or not, it was only 25 years ago that Congress declared March as Women’s History Month in perpetuity. By then, 14 states had already declared this to be so and a Presidential Proclamation made the week of March 8th National Women?s History Week six years earlier. By 1987, Congress understood the importance of dedicating this month to the achievements of great heroines in our history: women who have fought for advancement, freedom, and equality. It is certainly appropriate then that the festival of Purim, celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, coincides this year with the month of March.

On Purim, we celebrate the narrative of Megillat Esther in which Esther saves the Jewish people of Shushan by thwarting Haman’s attempt in murder the Jews. Each year, with food and drink, costumes and silliness, we rejoice in this miracle. We do not simply celebrate the miracles of God, but also the heroics of female leaders who stood up for themselves and for community.

The well-known female leader is Esther who initially hid that she was Jewish in order to become queen. She eventually risked her own safety — realizing the great responsibility that she had — by approaching King Ahasuerus, although she was not summoned, admitting she was a Jew, and fighting for the safety and security of her people. Esther is the first example we have in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, of a female protagonist in a secular position of leadership. She used her beauty, charm, and most importantly, political power and resources to save the people of Israel, revealing herself as a proud Jew and a woman of action!

The other — albeit it less known, but just as important — female leader in our Purim story is Queen Vashti. Vashti is the queen that was exiled, setting the stage for Esther to become queen and save her people. At the beginning of the narrative, Vashti is summoned by her drunk husband so that he can “display her beauty” for his guests at his all-male banquet. Her refusal to just follow the order of her husband led to her exile, but it?s also the reason that she is celebrated by many as a feminist icon. Vashti stood up for her own rights as an individual, while Esther stood up for her people. Both female icons of our scriptural core are rightfully recognized during this Women’s History Month.

Over the past couple of months, the news coming out of Israel with regards to women’s rights has been quite disturbing. While I fully respect one’s personal religious observance and interpretation of halakha, Jewish Law, there is no place in the Jewish community for such misogyny and baseless hatred that have taken place in the Ultra-Orthodox community of Beit Shemesh. This misogyny boiled over when, at the end of December, an eight-year-old girl was spat at and verbally abused for being “insufficiently” modest. At the conclusion of January, a woman was attempting to hang posters and haredi men surrounded her car, slashed her tires, stole her keys, and threw stones at her.  Such actions cannot and should not be tolerated anywhere, especially in a sacred place guided by the ethics and morals of our tradition.

As we celebrate the heroics of Vashti and Esther, let us be reminded of the many women in the Jewish community that still fight for equality. On this Purim, we recognize the bravery of those women in Beit Shemesh who are taking a stand against misogyny and fighting for their rights. During March, we remember the achievements of women throughout our history, but let us not forget that we still have a long way to go in the fight for equality. I look forward to the day when we can rejoice in the celebration of God’s greatest miracle: safety, freedom, and equality for all.

(Also published as part of the “Rabbinically Speaking” column in the March 2012 edition of the Jacksonville Jewish News)

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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