Monthly Archives: January 2014

Make Me a Sanctuary

I spent many summers prior to entering Rabbinical School and becoming a rabbi on the road, traveling with fifty teenagers on a cross-country bus tour for six and a half weeks as part of the USY on Wheels summer program. Joshua Ull recently wrote a wonderful article for CJ Voices about the powerful experience of USY on Wheels. To me, as a staff member and educator, the beauty of USY on Wheels was that it was a travelling community. No matter where we went, we prayed together, learned together, socialized together, and grew together as a family. Even though I haven’t staff USY on Wheels in many years, a true highlight for me as rabbi at the Jacksonville Jewish Center is our annual visit for the USY on Wheels East bus. We love hosting participants at our congregation when they travel to Florida’s First Coast.

USYonWheelsOn such a summer program, we offered the teenagers a plethora of unique and different prayer experiences and prayer environments. When the USYers would be hosted for home hospitality visits, they would pray with the synagogue community and were introduced to different congregations across North America. Shabbat was spent at hotels where each bus would create its own prayer space, turning a conference meeting room into a makom kodesh, a sacred space and sanctuary. We davened Shacharit, the morning service, at the Grand Canyon during sunrise and davenned Mincha, the afternoon service, while overlooking the majestic beauty of creation at Niagara Falls. Still, of all my summers staffing and leading USY on Wheels busses, the most powerful davening experience took place at a truck stop.

Yes, a truck stop. While taking a break from an early morning long drive (in which we departed when it was still pitch black outside) to refill the tank, reload on snacks, eat breakfast, and use the restrooms, we found a space in the parking lot and began draping ourselves in tallitot and wrapping tefillin. The initial concerns of some USYers about praying in such a public domain that they had expressed earlier in the summer had quickly faded. They took turns leading services, davening loudly, full of ruach. In a weird way, that parking lot had become more of a makom kodesh than any other place where we had prayed that summer. There was no sanctuary, no ark, and no pews to help us identify it as sacred space. There was no crater, waterfall, lake, sunrise, or sunset to help us appreciate God’s creations. There were only busses and eighteen-wheelers, gas pumps, a convenience store, and bathrooms. And community. And God. Our community of fifty USYers and five staff members turned that parking lot and that truck stop into our sanctuary.

This Shabbat, we read Parashat Terumah in which the Israelites are given the initial instructions regarding how to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness. The Israelites were commanded to bring gifts, if their hearts desired, of gold, silver, and copper, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, linen, ram and dolphin skins, and acacia wood. God’s command found in Exodus 25:8 is a simple and powerful one:

V’asu Li Mikdash, v’shachanti B’tocham.

Make for Me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell among you.

The beauty of the Mishkan compared to the Beit Mikdash, the Holy Temple that once stood in Jerusalem, is that the Tabernacle was temporary. The Mishkan moved with the Israelites. While the Torah portion may focus on the gifts and materials needed to make such a sanctuary, the most important aspect of that sanctuary was the people – the community. Wherever they traveled and wandered in the desert, they built their sanctuary.

As we celebrate the beauty of our sanctuaries this Shabbat, let us remember the most important part of those sanctuaries: us. More so than buildings, more so than nature, it is the people within that space who turn that space into a sacred space, who help all recognize that God is present, and was always present. So let us truly celebrate community, for it is community that turns our spaces into sacred spaces. It is coming together as community that allows God to fulfill God’s promise of “shachanti b’tocham”, that God will dwell among us. This allows us to find God in our synagogue buildings, in nature, and yes, even at truck stops.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Are We Able to Forgive?

When one is wronged and when one is harmed, the natural response is to retaliate. We want others to experience the pain, the heartache, and the suffering that we have experienced. We find such retaliation in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim.

Referring to the consequences of a physical fight, Exodus 21:23-24 clarifies for us the classic Ayin Tachat Ayin, Eye for an Eye, case:

But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. 

The text seems pretty straight forward. Thankfully, scripture is not black and white. Our understanding of text is not set in stone. We wrestle with it. We interpret it, and then we interpret it again. Judaism is a faith that attempts to understand the meaning of the Torah and how it applies to our lives. Judaism is a rabbinic religion, not a Torah religion, and the rabbis never seemed comfortable with such a straight forward understanding of the verse.

As Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (11th century, France), explained:

[Eye for an Eye means] If he blinded someone’s eye, he must pay him the value of the eye, as determined by how much his value in the slave market is lessened by the loss of an eye. The same applies to all the other organs mentioned. As our Sages explain in Chapter 8 of Tractate Bava Kamma, his own eye or any other organ is not removed. 

The rabbis understand this verse in the Torah to mean financial retribution for the loss of a body part or limb. It certainly did not mean harming those who harmed us. What good comes from the perpetual cycle of violence? What good comes from harming another? Does it really make you feel better inside? Hurting another does not make your own injury go away. It does not heal you. It only hurts another. It is easy to get revenge. It is expected of us; that is the animal instinct within each of us. But we strive for more. The rabbis, in their explanation and interpretation of this verse, believed that the Torah — and thus God — charged us to be better than that. God charges us to overcome our animal instinct. We should not get revenge. We should not hurt others, just because they hurt us. We should be financially compensated for our losses, but we should forgive. Hurting is easy. Forgiving is hard. Yet, that is what our holy scripture asks of us.

After all, as Gandhi once taught, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” May we be bigger than those who bully us. May we be stronger than those who hurt us. May we have the true strength to walk away, to not harm others, and to forgive those who have hurt us. As it says in Proverbs 16:32 “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty.”

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Pope and the Rabbi

Every year, at the conclusion of the calendar year, Time Magazine comes out with their Person of the Year cover. The cover story focuses on the most influential individual in the news over the past twelve months. During the last fifteen years, Time Magazine Person of the Year award winners have included US Presidents Obama and Bush, world leaders like Vladimir Putin, and social innovators like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. The list of nominees of this past year’s Person of the Year cover story included Edward Snowden, who announced to the world that the NSA spies on us, Edith Windsor, whose case before the Supreme Court led to the end of the Defense of Marriage Act and a recognition by the high court of the rights of same-sex married couples, Bashar Assad, the tyrant who has murdered tens of thousands of those who challenge his authority in Syria, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who pushed for the government shut down last fall. All of these nominees are worthy of the cover, but who ended up on the Time Magazine cover? Pope Francis.

According to Time Magazine, Pope Francis was the most influential newsmaker over the last 12 months. As noted in the magazine’s article, instead of worrying about sexual ethics or fighting over lines of authority, the Pope has elevated the healing mission of the Catholic Church, using the church as a comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world. Pope Francis’ predecessors were professors of theology, but Pope Francis is the pope of the people, serving as a janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician, and school teacher before becoming a man of the cloth.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Yitro, the Torah portion in which the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments. While we may tend to focus on the legalistic core of the Torah portion, we refer to as Yitro, meaning Jethro, the high priest of Midyan, the chief cleric of the Midianites. In fact, the Torah portion begins with Yitro’s embrace of Moshe, the leader of the Israelites, making Yitro’s impact all the more noteworthy. Moses, reunites with his family after leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, into freedom. His wife Tzipporah and their two sons, stayed behind as he journeyed back into Egypt in order to lead the Israelites out of slavery. Following the miracles, and the splitting of the sea, following the singing and dancing and praising God with timbrel in hand, Moses is reunited with his family. Yet, before Moses even reunites with his wife and kids, he runs right past them and greets his father in law.

But this singular embrace was not a son-in-law hugging his father-in-law. Rather, it was two religious leaders embracing each other. This was an embrace of the leader of the Israelites embracing Yitro, Kohen Midyan, the High Priest of Midian. They went into the tent and shared stories of faith and of God’s glory. Jethro’s impact continues as he instructs Moses to set up a court system, ensuring justice in the process, making sure everyone’s voices are heard.

Every year, during Martin Luther King weekend, we in the Jewish community are reminded ofDR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth the powerful impact of interfaith dialogue and building relationships, based on a shared commitment between faith-based communities and faith leaders. The image of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., may both of their memories be for a blessing, marching arm-in-arm is engrained in our communal memories. It’s a reminder of the importance of our shared paths as humanity, regardless of our faith and beliefs. It is a reminder that we need to come together, despite our differences, to learn about those differences. Doing so, allows us to grow as individuals. To know the other is to truly know one’s self. Heschel understood King’s tasks as his own, based on a shared ideology, theology, and scripture.

On Florida’s First Coast, Martin Luther King Jr. was barred from entering Jacksonville and instead went south to speak in St. Augustine. Upon his arrest for speaking at the Monson motel, King reached out to his rabbinic colleagues for help. Rabbis gathered and united in support of King, and their shared mission towards justice. The end result: the largest mass arrest of rabbis in US history. A more important result: faith-based leaders coming together for the sake of one another.

Many suggest that religion is the root of all evil, that religion and differences in religious beliefs, are what causes violence and war. The reality is that ignorance is the root of all evil. Ignorance, a misunderstanding of another’s beliefs, or a refusal to acknowledge that there are those that believe differently from us, is the root of all evil.

Coming together though, learning from one another and embracing each other – and our differences – is the key to peace. After all, the Psalmist challenges us: Hineh Mah Tov Umah Nayim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad. How wonderful would it be if we all were willing to see each other as brothers and sisters, as one, despite our differences in belief, in practice, in ritual.

Moses understood thisthis when he embraced Yitro, the High Priest of Midian, before embracing anyone else. He knew this because he was a Hebrew living among Egyptians, growing up in Egyptian culture, living in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace. His Judaism was strengthened by learning from those around him who are different.

Pope Francis and Rabbi SkorkaLike the relationship between Yitro and Moshe, the Time Magazine cover means great things for  understanding and embracing the other. Never before has a Pope had such a positive and personal relationship with representatives of other faiths, especially those in the Jewish community. Long before he was Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio served as Cardinal and Archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, going out of his way to pastor to the most needy. Rabbi Abraham Skorka serves the Jewish community of Buenos Aires and actually serves as rector of Seminario Rabbinico Latinoamericano, the Latin American Rabbinical School affiliated with the Conservative Movement and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Apparently, their friendship began with Bergoglio ribbed the Rabbi about their rival soccer teams.

But their friendships grew. They began meeting and having regular inter-religious dialogue, that culminated in the book On Heaven and Earth, a conversation about their views. Their friendship is so strong that Rabbi Skorka actually has spent evenings in the Vatican visiting the Pope, and the Pope has hosted him and his family for Shabbat dinner, kashering the kitchen in the Vatican to accommodate him. They plan on visiting Israel together later this year.

Such a public expression of their friendship is more than a statement about their friendship. It is setting an example, for Catholics, for Jews, and for all people of faith to embrace each other and learn from each other, for the betterment of society and the world. A rabbi having Shabbos dinner at the Vatican is the equivalent of Exodus 18:7:

Vayetzeh Moshe Likrat Chotno va’yishtachu va’yishak lo

It’s the equivalent to Moses running out to greet Jethro, bowing before him and kissing him; a public display of acceptance, of appreciation, of friendship.

Jacksonville is set comfortably in the Bible Belt, in a community where there are more churches than gas stations. We are a part of a cohesive and warm Jewish community, yet I fear that sometimes, we do not reach out to “the other” and thus, the other doesn’t reach out to us in return. We have an opportunity in the Jewish community in Jacksonville, and in all faith-based communities, to embrace the other, to be like Moshe and Yitro. We have an opportunity to work together, based on our shared beliefs, faith, and values. We have an opportunity to learn together, grow together, and work together to create a more just society. That is what Moshe and Yitro did creating a judicial system. That is what Heschel and King did, marching together and fighting for the Civil Rights for all. That is what Rabbi Skorka and Pope Francis do, learning, conversing, and breaking bread together. That is what we must do. So let us seek out those Midianite Priests around us and welcome them into our tents. May we emulate Moses and Jethro’s shared knowledge, mutual respect, and friendship. And may we be better people as a result.

 – Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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