Monthly Archives: July 2014

Mercy and Refuge

I am proud of the morals and ethics the Israel Defense Forces strives to uphold. While Israel, and the Israeli Army, is determined to destroy the Hamas terrorist regime whose sole purpose is the destruction of the State of Israel, it goes out of its way to prevent collateral damage, to prevent the death of innocent civilians. Even with that being the case though, this is impossible in Gaza. It is impossible when there are 1.8 million in such a small radius. It is impossible when Hamas isn’t interested in building an infrastructure. It is impossible when Hamas is more interested in building tunnels to sneak into Israel and enact terror than they are in building bomb shelters to protect their own people. It is impossible when Hamas stores rockets in mosques, hospitals, and schools. This past Friday, the IDF stated that terrorists opened fire, firing mortars and anti-tank missiles from within a United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) School. It resulted in the death of Staff Sgt. Guy Levy. Staff Sgt. Levy was hesitant to shoot into the school for fear of harming innocent civilians.

This came a day after news broke that a UN School what served as a refuge and safe house for some 1,500 men, women, children, and elderly, was hit. Media was quick to judge that it was hit by the IDF.  Israel would not confirm this. Israel suggests that this was actually a result of Hamas misfiring one of their rockets, an errant missile hitting the school. It is unclear at this point who or what caused the strike. What is clear is that 16 people are dead, another 200 wounded. None of them soldiers. None of them terrorists. None of them intended targets. All of them a tragedy.

Last past Shabbat, we finished reading Book of Numbers, reading the final Torah portion in Bamidbar, Parashat Mas’ei. The Torah portion recounts the journey of the Israelites in the desert, as they stand on the banks of the river Jordan, preparing to enter the land of Canaan, preparing to enter the Promised Land. Once the Israelites enter the land, one of their first orders of business is to set up Iray Miklat, Cities of Refuge. Miklat is the modern Hebrew word for bomb shelter, where Israelis have spent way too much of their time over the last few weeks.  When I lived in Jerusalem several years ago, we used our Miklat was a storage closet. I never could’ve imagined needing to use it to stay safe. Now it is refuge for millions.

We are instructed to set up Cities of Refuge in the Torah because our tradition clearly distinguishes between intentional murder and accidental death. It makes the distinction between intentionally striking another with stone, iron, or wood and accidently hurting someone without malice.

Hamas targets civilians. Israel does all it can to avoid civilians. It warns individuals to leave the area; the IDF gives them a head’s up that there are terrorists in the area and urges civilians to evacuate. That is just. Yet, there are few places to evacuate to. The best efforts by the IDF to be ethical in their pursuits doesn’t change the fact though that there are dead children, that there are innocent lives lost. Some say that is the reality of war. Our Torah reminds us that unintentional loss is simply reality of life.

Yet, knowing the realities of war, and the realities of life, we must do all we can to limit the need for such metaphorical Cities of Refuge. We must do all we can to limit such unintentional loss, because the reality is that loss is loss. Families grieve. Bloodied bodies are buried.

During the mournful three week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av on the Jewish calendar, we acknowledge the violence that God witnesses in the Promised Land. In Lamentations, read on the 9th of Av, God reacts to the destruction, to the death, to the violence, that occurs in the Holy Land:

“My eyes fail with tears, my innards burn. . .because the young children and the sucklings swoon in the broad places of the city.” (Lamentations 2:11)

God mourns such loss, be it intentional or unintentional. God cries. And we cry too. Our eyes fill with tears as we hear of lives lost, brave young men and women of the Israel Defense Forces defending our homeland, and innocent Palestinian men, women, and children who are trapped by Hamas’ terrorist regime. We seek symbolic Cities of Refuge as we acknowledge and atone for innocent lives lost in Israel’s fight against terror. And we pray. We pray for an end to the violence. We pray for an end to loss of life. We pray for mercy.

Our blood is the same color – and too much of it has been spilled. May we work to no longer have a need to build symbolic Cities of Refuge. May we build towards a day when there will no longer be such loss of life.

During this three week period of fighting,the lives of an entire generation of Israeli and Palestinian children have been forever changed. Their views of the future are tainted. Their hope in the future is lost. Mine is not. May we teach these children to live. May we teach these children to live together. May we teach these children the importance of peace. And may we never stop working to make that peace a reality.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Inevitability, Yet Impurity, of War

War is never easy. It is easier to ignore what is going on when we can go about our lives on the other side of the world, but when we are in the west and hearts are in the east, war is impossible to ignore. Operation Protective Edge, the IDF’s current operation against Hamas in Gaza, began a ground invasion only days ago, following aerial attacks of Hamas terrorists and rocket launching sites for an extended period of time.

War is not the ideal. Peace is what we always strive for, no matter what. We aren’t just told to love peace. We must pursue it, like the disciples of Aaron, to Ohev Shalom v’Rodef Shalom. Yet, war, even when it causes our stomachs to turn is sometimes necessary and often inevitable. That is the situation that we find ourselves in. A Palestinian people in Gaza, truly being held hostage by Hamas and its terrorist regime that is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel.

The Israeli government has stressed “Israel uses missiles to protect its civilians and Hamas is using civilians to protect its missiles.” That is true. Still, it is clear is that there have been an abundance of civilian casualties. They are inevitable when Hamas shoots rockets out of apartment buildings, school playgrounds, and hospitals. That doesn’t mean that we don’t mourn. That doesn’t mean that our hearts also do not break for the innocent Palestinians that are also caught in the crosshairs of this war with Hamas.

We know that war is inevitable at times. We know that war is sometimes the reality. We find war in last Shabbat’s Torah reading. In Parashat Mattot, the Israelites go to war with the Midyanim, the Midianites, for revenge and retribution. In one of the more challenging parts of our Torah, we find examples of revenge, of civilian casualty, of slaying of children. We are reminded that war changes us. We are reminded that even when war is necessary, we can easily get consumed by the darkness of war. We get consumed by the impurity of war. Fascinatingly, in Numbers 31:19, we read:

Everyone among you and among those who are captive who has slain a person shall purify himself.

This doesn’t just have to do with becoming impure by touching a corpse, makes a clear distinction between touching a corpse and slaying another human being. What the Torah is telling us is that killing another, even in a time of war, is impure. Even when it is necessary, it causes us to be impure. Sometimes, it causes the worse to come out of us. It causes radicals to burn a Palestinian boy alive because terrorists kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teens. It causes children in Sderot, who for years have had recess in their bomb shelter-converted playgrounds, to cheer as they see missiles landing in Gaza from the IDF in the distance.

Eleazar the Priest instructs, like with any spiritual impurity found in the Torah, that those who have slain an individual need to remove themselves from the encampment. We do this to start over. We do this to repurify. Regardless of ethics, morals, values, justice, when we kill another, even when it is justified, we must repurify ourselves.

Maimonides taught that “Great is Peace. The whole Torah was given in order to promote peace.” How do we promote peace when we are consumed by war? We ignite the darkness of war by promoting peace. We stand with Israel, and as Israel continues to defend herself from Hamas, and terrorism, may she do all in her power to defend and protect all innocent civilians, Israelis and Palestinians, whose lives are threatened as a result of the cowardly actions of Hamas. And we strive to purify ourselves. We find light in the darkness of war, in the darkness of reality. At a time of darkness, we search for light. And where there is no light, we create that light. We become that light. Just as we are commanded to be an ohr lagoyim, a light unto the nations, we strive to be that light.  We light that light.


Earlier in the week, I came across the “Prayer of the Mothers,” written by Sheikha Ibtisam Mahameed and Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum, two female faith leaders in Israel, one Muslim, one Jewish, both mothers. They encourage on Friday, a holy day for both faiths, an extra candle to be lit for peace.These women, in bringing light to these dark moments offered the following prayer:

CandleLet us Light Candles for Peace
Two mothers, one plea:
Now, more than ever, during these days of so much crying, on the day that is sacred to both our religions, Friday, Sabbath Eve
Let us light a candle in every home – for peace:
A candle to illuminate our future, face to face,
A candle across borders, beyond fear.
From our family homes and houses of worship
Let us light each other up,
Let these candles be a lighthouse to our spirit
Until we all arrive at the sanctuary of peace.

Let the light purify us from the darkness of war. Let such light shine upon us, to renew ourselves as well. Let the light allow us to see the possibility of peace in the distance, even when it seems impossible. And let the light protect all innocent civilians, Israelis and Palestinians, from the terrorism of Hamas, from the darkness, until that peace is achieved. Amen.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fasting for Peace

I began my first day at Congregation Beth El with a beautiful minyan. Today was a rare Tuesday morning when the Torah was read since today is also a fast day, the 17th of Tammuz. This minor fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem which eventually culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple. Today’s fast day thus also begins the three week mourning period between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, the day in which we mourn the destruction of the Temple.

Today was also unique because it was the one day on the calendar in which Jews around the world and Muslims around the world were fasting at the same time. The fast of the 17th of Tammuz fell during the Muslim celebration of Ramadan, which includes sunrise-to-sunset fasts daily throughout the month.

While the fast of Sheva-Assar b’Tammuz and the fasting that takes place on Ramadan are for unique reasons, it is clear that fasting has been a common practice in Judaism and Islam for centuries. Jewish law codes list fasting as a common expression and ritual that shows proper intention before the Divine, in hopes that God will answer one’s requests and petitions. Fasting brings together community. Muslims feel this during Ramadan. Jews feel this on Yom Kippur.

I came across an interesting hashtag on Twitter today, #FastForPeace. At a time when there is too much violence in Israel, when hundreds of rockets rain down on Israel from the Gaza Strip on a daily basis, when there are too many civilians dying in Gaza as Israel attempts to cripple the terrorist efforts of Hamas, we pray for peace. The cease-fire that was proposed by Egypt was accepted by Israel but rejected by Hamas. This has led to more rockets from Hamas and in turn, Netanyahu vows to exert ‘great force’ in Gaza. As the violence continues and our thoughts, minds, and hearts turn east, we fast for peace. We pray for peace.

We pray for a time when we can embrace each other as neighbors, as brothers and sisters, and fulfill the vision of the Psalmist:

How pleasing it will be when we can all sit in unity as brothers (Psalm 133).

FastforPeaceAs I explored this hashtag more, I realized that this was a cause of Jewish and Muslim friends, determined to be defined by that which unites us, not that which divides us. This is a noble effort by peers who believe that the voice of love and peace must be louder than the voice of hate and war.

As the fast enters its last hours and my stomach grumbles, I have found this fast day to be quite meaningful. Truthfully, this fast has not been meaningful for me because I reflected on the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. Rather, it has been meaningful, because it reminded me that even when it seems impossible, we must not give up on peace. We must unite in the belief that peace is possible and in the words of Pirkei Avot, we must not only love peace, we must pursue it.

Let this fast day bring together our communities as one community. As we fast, let us fast for peace. Let our intentions be expressed and our petitions for peace be heard. As our stomachs turn from hunger and our throats remain parched, let us be satiated by a shared vision of peace and harmony. May there be peace in Israel, and in the world, and may we witness it soon.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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How Lovely Are Your Tents

A couple of weeks ago, we read Parashat Balak on Shabbat morning. In doing so, we read the story of the magician Balaam, being sent by the evil king Balak to curse the Israelites. However, as he explained, God ultimately controlled the words that came out of his mouth. On multiple times, Balaam blessed the people of Israel. His most well-known blessing was the following:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael

How Lovely are Your Tents People of Jacob, Your Sanctuaries People of Israel (Numbers 24:5)

According to Rashi, Balaam said these words because he was impressed by the modesty of the people of Israel. No tent entrance in the encampment faced another tent entrance. What made these tents so lovely was that each individual was respecting each other’s privacy. I prefer another explanation. I believe that Balaam blessed the Israelites’ encampment, not because the entrances to the tents were closed, but rather because they were all open. The doors to each home were wide open and all guests were welcomed into each dwelling space. The community was a warm and welcoming one, a true sign that God dwelled among the people.

These words are traditionally said upon entering a sanctuary before prayer, entering a place of worship. We find them at the very beginning of our siddur, our prayer book. What is unique about this is that we do not always say these words when we enter a sanctuary and we do not always need a sanctuary to pray. We can pray anywhere, for we create community anywhere. We say these words regardless of how beautiful our sanctuaries are, regardless of how large the space is, or how exquisite the stain glass windows are. We say these words because we appreciate God’s Divine presence among us. We say these words because we acknowledge how lovely community is – warm and welcoming, vibrant and diverse.

bethel-logoI am excited to serve as rabbi of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey, beginning on July 15th. As I enter this community, this place for prayer and learning, this space for socializing, for building community, for wrestling with the Divine, and wrestling with ourselves, I proudly declare: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are these tents. How beautiful is this sanctuary. I look forward to building on Beth El’s already warm and welcoming culture and working together to build an even more vibrant community. May we all always feel comfortable walking through the wide open doors of this community and may all of our experiences with community cause us to count our blessings.

Mah Tovu!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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The Importance of Hashtag Activism

The following article was originally published on June 30, 2014, by Haaretz. It was written before the devastating news that our brothers Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali had been found murdered. It was written before the equally troubling news of the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Still, I believe that the #BringBackOurBoys campaign achieved something: it united us as a people, a people that regularly disagrees with each other. Let us be assured that they did not die in vain. Let us remain united as a community to end terrorism, hatred, violence, and bigotry. Let us remain united so that young boys and girls, regardless of faith or ethnicity, do not feel scared to go for a walk. Let us remain united in our commitment for peace. May the memories of Eyal, Naftali, Gilad, and Mohammed, be for a blessing and unite us and inspire us to do more and work harder to bring peace to this world.

 The full article can be found on their website here.

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#BringBackOurBoys matters not because it can solve anything, but because it raises awareness and ultimately unites us as a people. 

I vividly remember as a child, tying yellow ribbons around the tree on my family’s front yard. During the Gulf War of the early 1900s, as a sign of pride and patriotism, Americans were encouraged to tie yellow ribbons to trees to “support our troops.” Ten years ago, the yellow ribbon appeared again, as American troops invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, to “bring our troops home.” At that time, the yellow ribbon image was appearing on bumper stickers and car magnets instead of trees. The ribbon was never about action. The ribbon did not cause political leaders to withdraw troops and bring an end to the military action. What ribbons did, though, was unite a nation and a people. Yellow ribbons raised awareness. For similar reasons, we wear ribbons on our labels to raise awareness for a cause or fight to end an illness or disease.

Yet, we live in a virtual world. We live in a world centered on Internet connectivity over personal relationships. Facebook is more central to our relationships than face-to-face interactions. We communicate through texting and posting; we share news via tweets. Case in point: you are currently reading this Haaretz article on your computer screen, tablet or smartphone, instead of in print. In the world of social media and social networks, hashtags have taken the place of yellow ribbons. The hashtag unites us. The hashtag raises awareness. The hashtag identifies us with a particular issue or cause.

BringBackOurBoysAs World Jewry is by now well aware, Israeli teenagers Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel were kidnapped on June 12 by Hamas operatives while returning home from the Gush Etzion Yeshiva where they study. Following the viral success of #BringBackOurGirls that was launched two months ago when over 200 Nigerian girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists, the #BringBackOurBoys campaign was launched to raise awareness of the kidnapping of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. The Israel Defense Forces Twitter feed helped spread the hashtag and political leaders in Israel, the United States, and throughout the world have joined in, tweeting the hashtag. The analytics website hashtags.org has confirmed that #BringBackOurBoys has gone viral.

Some in the Jewish community are concerned that such a hashtag is meaningless. Others have been bashed for using it to push their own agendas. I, however, see the hashtag as unifying. As a look at my Twitter feed, I see a diverse spectrum of members of the Jewish community acknowledging on social media that their thoughts and prayers are that Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel will return home safely – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist; religious and secular; progressive liberals and right-wing traditionalists; supporters of AIPAC, supporters of J-Street and those who support neither. Regardless of one’s views on peace, on settlement construction, on Israel giving up land, on Abbas’ or Netanyahu’s true willingness and desire to work toward peace, the Jewish community is unified in hashtag activism. The Jewish community is unified in its commitment to #BringBackOurBoys.

It is true that, like yellow ribbons, hashtags do not solve anything. Hashtags do not lead to military operations. Hashtags do not lead to world leaders putting pressure on Hamas, or the Palestinian Authority for that matter. Hashtags do not lead to saving our boys. Hashtags do not lead to action. However, as a more important first step, hashtags raise awareness and ultimately unite us as a people. #BringBackOurBoys reminds us that despite our disagreements and differences, our hopes and prayers are the same. We are ultimately still “am echad im lev echad,” one people with one heart.

Let us embrace our disagreements because disagreement is a part of rabbinic tradition. More importantly though, that us unite and raise awareness. Let us remember that regardless of one’s observance or political beliefs, we each deserve to live our lives without fear. We each deserve to live in safety. May we continue to raise awareness, and may awareness lead to action.

 – Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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